I have been researching and retelling the stories of historic murders for a long time now, and the overwhelming majority of these cases involve a man murdering a woman. There is rarely what one might call a motive, in the sense that the killer planned his act with the intent to gain an advantage. Occasionally, as with the Spalding Poisoner, the man plans the killing because he has another lover, but all too often, as is the case here, the murder is an act of rage, jealousy, with the sub-text of “If I can’t have you, then no-one will.”
The life of Sarah Ann Smith seems to be punctuated with misfortunes. Thomas Hardy, in Tess of the D’Urbervilles memorably imagined that our lives were manipulated by some unseen hand, moving us around like chess pieces for their own amusement.
“.. and the President of the Immortals (in Aeschylean phrase) had ended his sport with Tess.“
The 1881 census has 9 year-old Sarah Ann Smith living in Greetwell Gate, Lincoln, with her parents John and Ann, and her two brothers. In 1891 she was working as a domestic servant in a house on what was then called Asylum Road. The census that year was taken on 5th April, and in the summer of that year Sarah married Henry Healey Fletcher. Seven years later, on 17th February 1898 their son, Harold Fletcher was born. Sarah’s joy was to be short lived, because with twelve months both baby Harold and husband Henry would be dead. Henry Fletcher, an ironstone miner, hanged himself when rumours began to circulate that Sarah was having an affair with their lodger.
As in the case of Tess, the President of the Immortals had one last cruel joke to play on Sarah. She met and was wooed by a young bricklayer called Leonard Patchett, and in January 1900 they married in St Andrew’s church in Lincoln (picture below). Demolished in 1968, it was one of many Gothic revival churches designed by the celebrated Louth architect James Fowler.
Leonard Pratchett was what used to be called ‘a wrong ‘un’. He was handy with his fists, especially with women, as his criminal record shows.
It wasn’t long before Sarah became fed up with Leonard’s casual brutality, and left him. There followed a sequence of uneasy reconciliations – and the birth of a daughter – Rachel Cecilia. The early summer of 1903 saw Sarah working as a housekeeper for a man named John King, a former military man who now worked as an insurance agent. He lived at 36 Spencer Street, Lincoln. Leonard, meanwhile was working in Gainsborough.
Towards the end of May, Leonard Pratchett took a train to Lincoln, with the intention of patching up his troubled marriage to Sarah. He sought her out at John King’s house, and on the evening of Tuesday 26th May, he asked her to walk with him to the station, from where he was going to catch the train back to Gainsborough. Earlier that evening, Sarah had been out when Patchett came looking for her, and he got into a conversation with a Mrs Emma Iremonger, next door neighbour to John King. It seems that Mrs Iremonger was looking after Rachel, who was a couple of months short of her second birthday. The exchange was reported in the press sometime later:
John King later testified that he was uneasy about Sarah going off with her husband that evening, and asked her not to go, but she declined to take his advice. He waited up until 11.00pm that night, and when she still hadn’t returned by morning he contacted the police. Wednesday and Thursday passed without any sighting of Sarah Patchett.
The next events in this tale unfold in a part of Lincoln that is completely unrecognisable today, and it is only by looking at maps side by side that we can get some sense of the landscape in 1903. What is now Boultham Park Road was, in 1903, a private carriage road leading to Boultham Hall, and on either side there were open fields. North of the drain in 1903 was the Wellington Iron Foundry, where some of the first WW1 tanks were built. One of the employees at the foundry was a young man called Arthur Froggatt. They worked long shifts in those days, starting early and finishing late. The men were allowed a break for breakfast around 8.00 am, and on the morning of Friday 29th May, Arthur had walked across the footbridge over the drain to breath some fresh air after the intense heat and fumes of the foundry. He had only walked a little way down the carriage drive, when he saw something untoward. Again this is from a newspaper report taken down verbatim at a court hearing:
IN PART TWO
A revealing letter
Trial and execution