Mr Sergeant Atcherley and a sentence of death

The jury retired, and soon after ten o’clock came into Court and pronounced a verdict of Guilty.  Mr. Sergeant Atcherley then passed sentence of death on the prisoner, who heard it with perfect calmness, and merely said, ‘My Lord, I am as innocent of the crime as you are.’ – Cork Examiner, 9 Aug 1844. [1]

David Francis Atcherley [], Sergeant at Law – hence Mr Sergeant (or Serjeant) Atcherley – presided over many court cases during his legal career. Among the last of those cases was one which concluded on 3 August 1844 Stafford. The charge of which the accused was found guilty was that of Murder.

The victim was Ann Griffiths, live-in housekeeper to a Mr Crowther of Wednesbury in Staffordshire. Crowther was reputed to be a wealthy man, who described himself as being “above the frowns of the world.” On Saturdays Mr Crowther would leave his home at about ten o’clock to pay the men who worked at his pits. Mr Crowther also employed a servant who, on Wednesdays and Saturdays, would take “slack” to his master’s works. From December 1841 until September 1842 that servant had been a man by the name of William Beard.

The morning of Saturday 16 March 1843, some five or six months after Beard’s employment with Crowther had ended and with another man employed in his place, began like any other Saturday. Mr Crowther’s servant left the house at about ten past nine to draw slack to the colliery. At about 9:30, Crowther himself left to go to his pits, leaving his housekeeper alone in the house. Three quarters of an hour later however, at around 10:15 a maltster living nearby heard a scream from his neighbour’s house, followed by another some 30 seconds later.

Strangely, the maltster “seemed to have thought that there was nothing in the screams which called for particular attention, and he took no further notice of the matter at the time.” Shortly afterwards, a man employed by Mr Crowther’s butcher called at the house but he found the yard and kitchen doors shut fast and received no response when he rang the hall bell, even after hearing a door slam inside. He returned around midday but again was unable to rouse anyone.

Mr Crowther returned to his home at about 1:45pm. When the doorbell was not answered he went round to the back of the house where he was able to gain access through a glass door which was half open. He found that the fire in the dining room was out, while the fire in the kitchen was very low; the doors to the kitchen, pantry and cellar were all wide open; and upstairs in the room occupied by his housekeeper he was surprised to see that her bed was unmade. Going back down into the kitchen and from there into the brewhouse he finally discovered Ann Griffith’s body. To quote from the Cork Examiner:

The unfortunate woman lay on the floor, which was covered with blood, and which appeared to have been trampled all about the brew-house. Her hair was very much dishevelled, and had blood upon it, and a bloody knife lay at a very short distance from the body. At least ten wounds had been inflicted on her head with a hammer, which was usually kept in the brew-house, and there were other circumstances which led to the conclusion that she had offered some resistance to the savage, whoever it was, who perpetrated this dreadful deed. The yard door was locked, and there was blood upon the bolt; blood was also sprinkled upon the brickwork adjoining the door-frame, and there were marks of a man’s bloody hand upon a shovel near the water-tub, and upon the handle of one of the pumps in the yard, as if the murderer had sought for means to efface the crimson evidences of his guilt. In Mr. Crowther’s bed-room up stairs some trunks had been removed and opened ; a small fruit pie, which had been left in the pantry, in the morning was eaten, and about three pounds of a neck of mutton, which was cooked, had been taken away. It was discovered, also, on the following day, that a pair of trousers and a waistcoat which Mr. Crowther usually wore on Sundays had been removed.

Crowther’s former servant, William Beard, seems to have been the only suspect. He had been seen on the day of the murder, at around 11 o’clock, walking towards a building in which the stolen trousers and waistcoat were found the following Friday. Nearby a footprint was found which matched Beard’s right boot (his boots had been taken from him when he was arrested the day after the murder). Matching footprints had also been found leading from the glass door which Mr Crowther had found open, leading down the gravel path and across a ploughed field; further prints, less distinct, led along a road to a nearby canal.

These footprints were the strongest part of the evidence against Beard, who was seen, from 11:00 onwards, at various points between the canal and the Board public house situated about a quarter of mile from Mr Crowther’s house. He was found at the Board at 12:30pm, by someone who knew him, smoking his pipe in the kitchen. The prosecution suggested that having made a long detour from the scene of the murder to avoid detection, Beard had then deliberately returned to the vicinity in order to lull suspicion. Yet he would have had blood on his jacket, shirt, trousers and boots, those items of clothing being in that condition when he was arrested the next day.

In his defence, Beard called witnesses who explained the presence of blood on his clothing by saying that he suffered from nose bleeds and had also, on the Monday prior to the murder, helped with hanging up a freshly slaughtered pig. It was alleged that the prosecution had not shown that the blood stains on his clothing were fresh. Although there was evidence linking Beard with the crime scene, it seemed that he had very little money on the Saturday in question, was of good character and had even, during his employment with Mr Crowther, foiled an attempt to rob his master’s house.

Sergeant Atcherley “left it to the Jury to say, among other points, whether it was probable that a person who knew that he had just been guilty of such a crime as murder, would have incurred the risk of exposing his clothes to the observation of the company in a public-house.” In summing up the evidence, the “Learned Judge … told the jury that in order to convict the prisoner it was not enough that his conduct was liable to be viewed with strong suspicion, but the facts must be such as to exclude from their minds all reasonable doubt of his guilt. It had always been said by judges, and he hoped always would be said, that it was better that nine guilty men should escape, than that one innocent man should suffer.”

Clearly, the jury in this case were swayed by the evidence of the prosecution and unconvinced by the doubts raised by Beard’s defence. The London Standard of 5 August 1844 [2] reported the conclusion of the trial as follows:

The jury returned a verdict of Guilty.

Thereupon, his Lordship, having assumed the black cap, sentenced the prisoner to be hanged.

The prisoner, who remained quite unmoved during the delivery of the sentence, exclaimed in a very determined tone, ‘My lord, I have been found guilty, but I am as innocent as a child!’ On leaving the bar he struck his hand forcibly on the railing, and added, ‘I am as innocent as a child, if I was to die this moment.’

The prisoner was then removed by the officers of the gaol.

I suspect (and a suspicion is all it can be) that the Learned Judge in this case was not of the view that guilt had been proven beyond reasonable doubt. The verdict was not his to give however, and William Beard was hanged at Stafford on 17 August 1844. [3] Ironically, the man who sent Beard to the gallows survived him by less than a year. David Francis Atcherley passed away, at the age of 62, on 6 July 1845. [4]


[1] Cork Examiner, 9 Aug 1844, page 4.
[2] The Standard (London), 5 Aug 1844.
[3] William Palmer website: Stafford hangings.
[4] The Gentleman’s Magazine, Vol XXIV, June to December 1845, pages 537-538.