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SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME . . . Between the covers

This is a strange one, and no mistake. Not the book itself, which is perfectly readable, but the title. Mainly because the one thing it isn’t is Robert B Parker’s. It’s Ace Atkins, re-imagining the world of the tough wise-cracking Boston PI, Spenser. I suppose it must be some legal stipulation from the estate of Spenser’s creator (1932-2010), but it certainly makes for an unwieldy title. I was a huge fan of the forty canonical Spenser novels and, also, the equally readable Jesse Stone and Sunny Randall books, but let’s remember that Spenser was himself something of a reinvention of Philip Marlowe: a few decades later, for sure, more up for a fist fight, but still with a good line in wise-cracks and sarcastic put-downs. Unlike Marlowe, however, Spenser had a reliable repertory company of helpers, notably his alluring psychologist girlfriend Susan and the implacable and intimidating Hawk.

So, to the novel. The characters are all present and correct including (regrettably, as far as I am concerned) the latest manifestation of the dog Pearl. Pearl and her little ways used to irritate me in the original books but, to be fair, Spenser simply wouldn’t be Spenser without the doggy love, so Ace Atkins gets a reluctant star for authenticity. Spenser is asked to investigate a sex crime. Not his normal bread and butter, but a very much under-age friend of a friend has been used and abused by someone much richer and infinitely more powerful. Peter Steiner and Poppy Palmer are disgustingly rich – and have disgusting moral values. To put it bluntly, Peter likes under-age girls, and Poppy likes that he likes them, and gets her kicks from sucking them into their decadent whirlpool.

The Steiners are also well-connected. Politicians great and small, financiers, socialites, fund-raisers – mostly anyone who is anyone in Boston and further afield – all tip their hats to the Steiners. Neither does it hurt that the Steiners’ clout enables them to hire serious muscle from the criminal underworld and, as most of the child rape is conducted on a private island somewhere in the vicinity of the Bahamas, neither the Boston Police Department nor the FBI can do anything to intervene.

Spenser is, if nothing else, an extremely moral man, and the plight of the youngsters stirs him to put his hands into the hornets’ nest. He has important allies in the shape of two other long-standing members of Spenser Inc. – tough and honest cup Quirk, and the voluptuous campaigning lawyer, Rita Fiore. Despite their authority, however, neither Quirk nor Fiore can lay a glove on the Steiners while they are despoiling young lives on their Caribbean hideaway.

Clearly, in real life, things work differently. Or maybe they don’t? Much closer to home we have witnessed the appalling abuse of thousands of young girls across English towns and cities, while those in authority, like the Jew and the Levite in the parable, passed by on the other side. Maybe they weren’t swayed by money directly, but their livelihoods in social services, the police and local government would have been under threat if they had done or said “the wrong thing”. Back to the fiction, Ace Atkins sets up a terrific finale here, with Spenser and Hawk travelling to an island close to the Steiners’ lair. Not only do they face a small army of minders and gunmen, but a man known as Ruger who, a few books ago, bested Spenser and left him for dead.

Spenser’s crusade is flawed, however, because someone he counts on is working for the bad guys, and the plans to liberate the youngsters goes pear shaped. Just when you think that this is finally “it” for Spenser and Hawk, something totally unexpected happens and a certain amount of rough justice is meted out. The scandal of powerful men – not just the rich and privileged, but men with social status in their communities – abusing young children seems to be a growth area. Ace Atkins has written a scathing account of one such atrocity in America. Someone needs to have the balls to write one set in Britain. Someone To Watch Over Me is published by Oldcastle Books and is out now.

ON MY SHELF . . . April 2021

The book deliveries have been pretty healthy lately so, helped by a few successful fishing expeditions on Netgalley, my TBR pile is looking good.

DOWN IN THE COUNTRY by James Bowring
Book Guild Publishing 28th April

When a couple return to their home in rural England from their holiday in Italy (remember when we could do that?) their welcome home present is a dead body – a woman,strangled – in their garden. The local senior police officer has been badly injured in an accident, and Acting Inspector Beauregard is the man who has to step up and investigate the murder. Unfortunately, Beauregard is soon overwhelmed by the case. Help is at hand, however. A nearby luxury hotel is run by a former policeman, ex Detective Inspector Clive Walsingham. Walsingham is finding the relative sanity, safety and security of civilian life something of a bind, and he leaps at the chance to help Beauregard solve the  crime. The dead woman, however, had “something of a past”, and was connected to a notoriously crooked local businessman. When the case is further complicated by the disappearance of the daughter of a local aristocrat, Walsingham has to use every ounce of his experience to bring the case to a close.

PATHFINDERS by Cecil Lewis
Imperial War Museum 20th May

Lewis was one of the band of brothers who served with distinction in both world wars. He joined the Royal Flying Corps in 1915, after lying about his age and learned to fly at Brooklands. In 1916, he flew with No. 3 Squadron and was awarded the MC for his actions during the Battle of the Somme. Flying over the battlefield on 1st July 1916 to report on British troop movements, he witnessed the blowing of the mines at La Boiselle. He later described the early morning scene in his book “Sagittarius Rising”. Pathfinders focuses on just one night in 1942, when each member of the crew of a Wellington bomber prepares for a raid in his own way, with his own hopes and fears.

SUMMON UP THE BLOOD by RN Morris
Severn House 22nd April

I have become a firm fan of RN Morris’s likeably eccentric London copper, Detective Silas Quinn. Click this link to read my reviews of a couple of earlier novels in the series. We are, as before, in that fateful year 1914, but it is March; the events  of June in far-off Serbia were still months away, and that last long Edwardian summer of innocence was yet to begin, but in London, however, there is a bizarre precursor of the ensuing bloodshed – except there is no blood. A killer is claiming victims in the dark alleys and byways of the city – and each corpse is found to have been completely exsanguinated. Quinn, considered something of an oddball by most of his colleagues, is in charge of Scotland Yard’s Special Crimes Department, and if ever there were a case that called for Quinn’s peculiar skill-set, it is this one.

BLACKSTOKE by Rob Parker
Red Dog Press out now

Parker is a gifted writer who injects energy and vitality into every paragraph he writes. He has an ongoing series of action thrillers (see below), but he obviously enjoys exploring the darker divisions between the world we inhabit and the nameless beings of the supernatural world. Blackstoke is a high-end housing development, but the land on which it has been built has a history all of its own, and is not a happy one. As the eager new owners move into their luxury homes, ancient and bloodstained memories, thought to be safely buried, begin to stir, and a nightmare becomes a reality for terrified families.

THE WATCHMAN by Rob Parker
Lume Books 24th June

Ben Bracken is an ex-special forces operative who has done jail time for a crime he didn’t commit, has escaped from prison, and has lived a precarious life of aliases, assumed identities – and forever looking over his shoulder. Like all the best action heroes who try to avoid trouble, it usually finds him. The previous Ben Bracken books (click here for reviews of a couple) have been firmly rooted on home soil, but now Ben – newly settled down to family life –  decides to do a favour for an old military chum, and this takes him across the Atlantic to New York, where all he has to do is to collect an envelope from someone in Central Park. Big mistake, Mr Bracken. Pursued by the FBI, the CIA – not to mention The Mob – Ben’s little overseas jolly turns into a fight for survival.

SWORD OF BONE by Anthony Rhodes
Imperial War Museum 20th May

The author served in the British Army during World War II and was involved with retreat of the British Army from Dunkirk. Sword of Bone is his account of the evacuation, in a style that reminded reviewers of Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy in its account of the minutiae of military life. After being promoted to captain he lectured in Canada and the United States, where he met and married a niece of Gustav Mahler. The marriage was short-lived and led to a nervous breakdown. He was invalided out of the Army in 1945. Dunkirk is a potent word, and is often evoked to conjure up images of pluck, resolution and indomitable spirit, but it was also a significant military defeat, with the BEF out manoeuvred by the German army.

FALSE TRUTH by CD Steele
Book Guild Publishing 28th April

CD Steele’s debut thriller introduces us to former MI6 agent – and now private investigator – Joe Wilde. As he investigated the disappearance of a young and promising football star, his path crosses that of DI Carl Whatmore of the Met Police. As is ever the case when PIs and regular coppers meet, sparks fly, at least initially. The young footballer – Liam Devlin – seemed to have led a blameless life, but with the help of old MI6 buddy Mark Thompson, Wilde turns over a few stones, and what they see scuttling about spells problems for the investigators, the police – and Devlin’s worried mother Sally.

THE HERETIC’S MARK . . . Between the covers

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SW Perry’s Elizabethan medical man Nicholas Shelby
returns in the latest of the ‘Mark’ series. We’ve had The Angel’s, The Serpent’s and The Saracen’s, (click to read reviews) and now we have another journey through the complex religious politics of the 16th century with The Heretic’s Mark. Nicholas has married his fiery Anglo-Italian lady Bianca née Merton. Her London South-Bank pub – The Magpie – has been destroyed by fire, but is being rebuilt. The newly-weds have a pressing problem, however. An innocent Jewish doctor has been executed for trying to poison the Queen, and Sir Fulke Vaesy, an embittered rival of Nicholas, has attempted to link him to the conspiracy. Fortunately, Nicholas has the ear of the Queen’s spymaster Robert Cecil, but he is advised to make himself scarce while the furore dies down.

Nicholas and Bianca decide to undertake a journey, posing as Catholic pilgrims, along the the Francigena, a route from France into Italy, its path worn by the feet of the devout. Along the way they are accompanied by a strange young woman – Hella – who they met in the Low Countries. She is a member of the Beguines – nothing to do with the dance, but a lay order, similar to Nuns. Hella is both disturbed and disturbing, as well as being sexually attractive. While Nicholas and Bianca are foot-slogging across the alps, back in London all is far from well. Rosa Monkton –  Bianca’s maid – and her husband Ned have been given oversight of the reconstruction of The Magpie, but Ned has become obsessed with trying to find out who has put Nicholas in harm’s way.

Nicholas and Bianca have arrived in the city of Padua, along with the enigmatic Hella. Padua is Bianca’s former home, and they become involved with a scheme – spearheaded by Bianca’s cousin Bruno and his friend Galileo (yes, the very same) – to build a huge and complex system of globes, rings and cogs which will predict the movements of the planets. Bianca has become (as they used to say) “with child”, but has been told by Hella – much given to doom-laden prophecies – that the child will be stillborn and, thereafter, Bianca will be unable to bear children.

Much of the action of this book takes place in Padua, but occasionally darts back to London to report on the travails of Ned and Rose Monkton. As Bruno and his acquaintances work feverishly at their great *armillary sphere, Nicholas becomes uncomfortable aware that Hella is determined to prise him away from Bianca, and her motives, as well as the obvious sexual one, are deeply sinister. No-one realises just how sinister, however, until a mysterious man in grey – who has been dogging Nicholas and Bianca’s footsteps on their journey across Europe – is unmasked.

This is seriously good historical crime fiction. SW Perry has done – as ever – an impressive piece of history homework, but that doesn’t matter, because great narrative drive, believable characters and an almost tangible sense of time and place make this a compelling read. The Heretic’s Mark is published by Corvus and is out now.

*An armillary sphere (variations are known as spherical astrolabe, armilla, or armil) is a model of objects in the sky (on the celestial sphere), consisting of a spherical framework of rings, centred on Earth or the Sun, that represent lines of celestial longitude and latitude and other astronomically important features, such as the ecliptic. As such, it differs from a celestial globe, which is a smooth sphere whose principal purpose is to map the constellations. It was invented separately in ancient Greece and ancient China, with later use in the Islamic world and Medieval Europe.

BENEATH BLACKWATER RIVER . . . Between the covers

She looked alive, her hair drifting freely in the water, her red lips gently parted, as if to let her final breath escape. A small locket floated by her face, attached to her neck with a silver chain…”She looked alive, her hair drifting freely in the water, her red lips gently parted, as if to let her final breath escape. A small locket floated by her face, attached to her neck with a silver chain…

There are times when a book’s plot is so complex that it doesn’t hurt to pause at the half way mark and ask. “what do we know?” Beneath Blackwater River is the latest novel from American novelist Leslie Wolfe (above), and is one such book. Firstly, the author herself. Her website says, “She creates unforgettable, brilliant, strong women heroes who deliver fast-paced, satisfying suspense, backed up by extensive background research in technology and psychology.” The central figure in this book is former FBI profiler Kay Sharp. She is now working as a relatively junior detective in a California sheriff’s department. Thus far in the book, we have, in no particular order:

  • A young woman is found dead, her throat recently slashed, beneath the waters of a mountain river.
  • She is initially mis-identified by investigating officers.
  • One identity was that of a girl from a very poor home; the other girl comes from a rich family.
  • In another part of the country, a teenage runaway is abducted by a mysterious man, known only as Triple-Dollar-Sign.
  • Detective Kay Sharp is sheltering, in the home she shares with her brother, the battered wife of a fellow officer.
  • The abusive officer is in the pay of an as-yet-unidentified person – with money.

Leslie Wolfe has, then, set several hares running, to use the venerable English metaphor. The rogue cop – Herb Scott – is a truly nasty piece of work, and seems to have half the Sheriff’s Department under his thumb, as when his wife, Nicole, has reported her many beatings as a crime, nothing ever happens. The mis-identification of the murdered girl is a seemingly unsolvable mystery. Were there ever two girls, or are they one and the same? Does the conundrum stem from a complex inheritance issue involving the wealthy Caldwell family? The Caldwells are magnificently disfunctional, riven with bitterness and jealousy, and to spice matters up even more, there is the deadly whiff of incest in the air.

Meanwhile, the runaway teenagerKirsten – has fallen into the hands of a psychopath who seems to have loved and lost a beautiful girl at some stage in the past; now, he seeks out young women who resemble his lost love; when, inevitably, they don’t match up to his distorted memories, they are done away with. At the half way stage I was scratching my head to think how could Leslie Wolfe ever tie up the apparently unconnected story lines, but she does it with all the flourish of a stage magician dazzling the audience with a seemingly impossible sleight of hand. Readers who love a fast-moving melodrama will not be disappointed here.

Beneath Blackwater River is published by Bookouture, and will be available as a Kindle and an audiobook on 23rd April which, as I’m sure you’re aware, is both St George’s Day and the birthday of William Shakespeare.

DEATH IN DARK WATER . . . The murder of Ann Chapman (2)

SO FAR – Saturday 16th April, 1870. Thomas Chapman and his wife Ann have gone out for a walk together, leaving heir children at home in Linen Street Warwick, with Ann’s parents. Neither would ever return to that back-to-back terraced house.

Thomas Chapman’s father lived in Friar’s Court, Warwick. At 1.00 am on the morning of 17th April, he was awakened by a loud banging on his front door. Opening it, he was astonished to see his son, bedraggled, and apparently soaked to the skin. He said to his father:
“I have killed Ann, and now I have come home to die with you.”
Thinking his son to be either drunk or muddled, the elder Chapman made his son take off his clothes and sent him upstairs to lie down. After a few hours, however, Thomas Chapman convinced his father that he had,indeed, killed Ann,and the air set off together to the police station. PC Satchwell later gave this statement to the magistrates.

Confession

Taking Chapman seriously now, a party of constables took drags – large iron rakes on the end of ropes – and set off for Leam Bridge. They noted that there were signs of a struggle on the canal towpath, and they set about the melancholy business of searching for Ann Chapman. After about twenty minutes they found her, and brought her up out of the water. She was taken back to Warwick on a cart, covered in blankets, and Thomas Chapman was charged with her murder.

As was usual with these matters, a Magistrate’s hearing and a Coroner’s inquest were quickly convened. At the inquest, Mr Bullock, a surgeon reported what he had found.

Inquest

Chapman’s confession was graphic, and told of how his grievances against Ann’s behaviour with other men had been festering for some time:

“Last night I went home about six o’clock, and gave my money to her mother. We lived with her. I stayed at home till went out with my wife. I told her we would go to Leamington and look round there. We started a little after nine o’clock. We called at Page’s near the chapel and had a pint of ale. That is all I had all the night. We looked in the shop windows, and went on to Emscote cut bridge. I said, “Come on this way”. She said she did not like to the water side. She was all of a tremble. I said, “What makes you tremble? What have you to tremble for – I said if she would come along there we could get out the Leam Bridge on the Old Road.

We were talking as we were going along the cut side. I said I was sure the last child was not mine. She said none of the children were mine. She said. “No, you scamp, none of them are yours.” She said, “I have deceived you a good while.” When got under the Leam Bridge I pushed her into the water, and as she was going in she laid hold of me and pulled me into the water, I could not get away from her for a long while. She kept fast hold of me. She had liked to have drowned me. I got away from her and got out of the water, and lay down on the grass. I could not walk I was wet. The water was up my chin. I could not touch the bottom.

I threw my old jacket into the water. I got on the Old Road. man passed me against lawyer Heath’s. I made up my mind to drown her before went out of the house. I went my father’s house about one o’clock, changed clothes and lay down on the bed. I have been away from home three months together. When I last came home she held the last child up and said, “Here’s pattern for you; do you think you could get such a one as this ?”

By the time Chapman’s case eventually came to Warwick Assizes, it had clearly dawned on him that it was likely he was going to be hanged, and it was reported that he had been busy trying to convince the authorities that he was insane. What appears to be play-acting cut no ice with the doctors, and they testified that he was perfectly sane, both then and at the time of Ann’s death. Remarkably, the jury – all male, remember – were sufficiently sympathetic with Chapman’s bruised ego that they found him guilty of the lesser charge of manslaughter, and he was sentenced to life. What became of him, I don’t know. In those days life meant life, and so it may well be that he died in prison.

What became of the Chapman children is another mystery. The 1871 census has Francis and Mary Dodson – Anna’s parents – living at 12 Union Building, both on ‘Parish Relief’. This had nothing to do with church parishes, but was a form of benefit based on what we now call local government wards. In practice, it was patchy, and depended on the ability of a particular parish to levy rates, and then distribute a portion to the needy.

To me, it is absolutely clear that Thomas Chapman murdered his wife. He pushed her into the murky depths of the Warwick and Napton Canal with one purpose, and one purpose only – to pay her out for her infidelity and taunts about the parentage of her children. His bizarre attempts to convince the authorities that he was insane suggest that he knew he was facing the hangman’s noose. Why judge and jury deemed his crime manslaughter baffles me. What became of him, and whether he survived the Victorian prison system, I cannot say. What I do know is that the dark and gloomy spot where the canal passes under Myton Road is forever tainted by the struggles of a young woman pushed down into the unforgiving depths by an angry and violent man.

Thanks again to Simon Dunne and Steve Bap for the photographs

 

bridge-combined

DEATH IN DARK WATER . . . The murder of Ann Chapman (1)

I have always had an irrational – but very real – fear of canals. Rivers are something else altogether. They flow, sometimes with great energy and beauty, and they are older than mankind itself. Towns and cities throughout history have based themselves around rivers, and celebrated them. Canals, on the other hand, seem to skulk out of sight and out of mind, hidden from view, especially in built up areas. As an angler, I never took to canal fishing, unlike countless other Midlanders.

I am an old Leamington lad and can still remember working barges chugging along the Warwick and Napton Canal where it runs parallel to Myton Road. The bargees seemed to come from the same stock as the old-time Romany gypsies who would occasionally knock on our door in Victoria Street, selling this and that. Their faces were weathered by exposure to the elements, and they certainly lived a harder life than we did. My discomfort about canals probably is due to the fact that they are often dark and dispiriting places where generations of unfortunates have seen fit to end their lives.

This story begins in Warwick in 1870. Thomas Chapman, his wife Ann and their young children lived with Ann’s parents – the Dodsons – in Union Buildings. Linen Street, Warwick. The website British History Online says:

“South of Marble House, dwellings in Linen Street were built between 1820 and 1825, now replaced. By 1851 these included 24 back-to-back houses known as Union Buildings which are still (1966) standing.”

I suspect that the houses outlined on this early 20th century map (below) may well be Union Buildings. Warwick experts will no doubt set me right on this.

Thomas Chapman was not a skilled man, and he had a seasonal job, during winter months, working for a gas company in Primrose Hill, Birmingham. In the warmer months he took work where he could get it nearer to home, and newspaper reports say that at the time of this affair, he was working for a Mr Cundall in Leamington. The only Cundall in the 1871 Leamington census was a man with a grocers’ shop in Regent Street, but this is of no matter. At this point, it is relevant to mention that Chapman had a nagging fear that his wife had been unfaithful to him during the winter months when he was working in Birmingham. Jokes at his expense and behind-the-hand comments made in various pubs had done little to reassure him.

Ann Chapman was 27 years old, and already had given birth six times. Three children still lived and the elder of these was born before she married Chapman. It is Saturday 16th April and Thomas Chapman, after finishing his work in Leamington for the week, has walked home to Warwick, after having a couple of pints in the pub where his employer paid out his men. Chapman gives the remainder of his wage to his mother in law, Mary Dodson, and sits down to what seems to have been a peaceable dinner. Afterwards, he plays with the children for a while, and then suggests to Ann that they step out for the evening. After a drink in a pub in Smith Street, They walk on to  Emscote, where Chapman suggests they follow the canal towpath in direction of Leamington.

In later testimony Chapman revealed that Ann did not like walking by the canal bank, as it made her “all of a tremble.” He evidently calmed her fears, and they carried on their walk. The route they took is, as best as I can reconstruct it, from modern GPS systems, a two mile walk – maybe a tidy hike to us in  our car-dominated era – but nothing at all to most people in 1870. What happened when they reached what was known to locals as Leam Bridge, but Bridge 44 to the Warwick & Napton Canal Company, was to horrify the neighbourhood for weeks to come.

Many thanks to both Simon Dunne and Steve Bap
who saved me a 200 mile round trip by taking photographs of Bridge 44.

SECRET MISCHIEF . . . Between the covers

A new Cragg and Fidelis mystery from Robin Blake is always an event, so thank you, Severn House, for the review copy. For those  who have yet to meet this pair of 18th century investigators, here’s a quick heads-up. We are in the mid 1700s, in Lancashire, and King George II has not long since led his army in the field to defeat the dastardly French at The Battle of Dettingen. Titus Cragg is the County Coronor, and lives with his wife and son in Preston. His friend Luke Fidelis is a local doctor who is much admired by his patients, but viewed as highly suspect by some of the older medical fraternity in the area. This is the seventh in the series, and you can read my reviews of of a couple of the earlier novels here.

As ever, murder is the word, and a series of deaths in and around the town of Omskirk are linked to an archaic form of business plan for raising money, known as a Tontine. The investment plan was named after Neapolitan banker Lorenzo de Tonti and, to put it simply, was a pot of money where a number of people contributed an equal sum. The money would either be invested, with interest paid to the members, or used to fund capital projects. As time went on, and investors died, the fund became the property of the remaining members, until the last man (or woman) standing hit the jackpot.

Sounds like a good excuse to bump off a few people? Doesn’t it just! The first victim is, comically enough, a prize porker called Geoffrey. When Cragg is called to examine the corpse he thinks his time is being wasted, but when the late pig’s owner – one of the Tontine members – is shot dead a few days later, Cragg realises that the pig took a bullet aimed at his owner, and the shooter came back to finish the job.

One by one the Tontine signatories come to sticky ends: one is, apparently, hit by the sail of a windmill; another is found dead on Crosby beach, apparently drowned, but Luke Fidelis conducts a post mortem and finds that the dead man’s body has been dumped on the seashore. Things become even more complex when a reformed ‘lady of the night’, now a maid, is accused of pushing the poor woman into the path of the windmill sail. Cragg is convinced she is innocent, but faces an uphill struggle against a corrupt judge.

Not the least of the charms of these books is the description of Luke Fidelis as a medical man who questions existing – and faulty – medical procedures. There is a melancholy moment when he examines the young daughter of one of Cragg’s relatives, and finds that she is suffering from Consumption and is terminally ill. ‘Consumption’ is, obviously, archaic, but so descriptive of a disease that did, until relatively recent times, almost literally consume its victims.

Titus Cragg gets to the bottom of the mystery eventually, of course, even the investigation has his ship sailing dangerously close to members of his own extended family. Off at a slight tangent, I do love books with a map as part of the frontispiece. What was good enough for the Macmillan editions of Thomas Hardy’s novels is plenty good enough for Robin Blake, too. Another left-field thought: the Cragg and Fidelis tales occupy the same geography as the excellent Henry Christie novels by Nick Oldham (click to read reviews) – just a few centuries earlier.

Secret Mischief is addictive, superbly evocative of its period and, most importantly, a bloody good crime story. Also – and I can’t remember a novel doing so in a long time – it features a cricket match as part of the plot! It is published by Severn House and is available now.

 

A CHAPTER OF HORRORS . . . A tragedy from 1890 (3)

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SO FAR – George Hay, a gentleman farmer from South Reston, has taken a shotgun and killed his brother-in-law, and left his young wife Louisa horrifically injured, and clinging to life by a thread. He is in police custody in nearby Alford. It is 25th May, 1890.

There were no backlogs of court cases in rural Lincolnshire back in the 1890s. Later on the Saturday after his appalling crimes had been discovered, George Hay was before the magistrate in Alford, charged with murder and attempted murder. He had tried to injure himself while in custody, and had been strapped to a chair to prevent such an occurrence. He was, of course, remanded in custody to await trial at Lincoln Assizes in July.

The other integral part of the justice system in the case of violent death is the Coroner’s Inquest. This was convened in South Reston on Monday 26th May and was presided over by Mr Frederick Sharpley. What was going to be a melancholy affair anyway was made more dramatic by the announcement that Louisa Hay had died. Not only that, but she had died while giving birth.

I have called this story A Chapter of Horrors, with good reason. The very thought of that poor woman – just 22 years old – having suffered horrific injuries but  then having to go through the trauma of childbirth just hours afterwards is truly appalling. She was buried in South Reston Graveyard on 28th May. The church of St Edith has long since been demolished.It is pictured below. (photo courtesy of Louth Museum)

The Hay family has a corner of the graveyard (below), and members of the family were interred as recently as the 1960s, but the gravestones are terribly weathered. I could not locate Louisa’s grave, but we can assume that she lies among her family. One can only hope that she found more peace in heaven than she did on that terrible night in May 1890.

It seems that George Hay had suspected Louisa of having an affair with a young man from a nearby village. This seems to be another of his delusions, because the young man, named Banks – and members of his family – appeared at Lincoln Assizes in July 1980 to testify that there was nothing between the pair. At the Assizes trial he was, obviously, found guilty of a double murder, but there was no doubt in the minds of the judge and the jury that George Hay was insane. He was sentenced to be detained “at Her Majesty’s pleasure.” There was to be one final, brutal twist to this terrible saga. On Thursday 14th August 1890, the Hull Daily Mail reported:

A CHAPTER OF HORRORS . . . A tragedy from 1890 (2)

SO FAR – South Reston, May 1890. George Hay lives at The Grange with his wife, two young chidren, and his brother-in-law. Half a mile or so to the north-east is South Reston Hall (below), where George’s parents and siblings live. In the early hours of Saturday 24th May, George has turned up at the Hall, soaked to the skin and covered in mud. He confesses that he has tried to commit suicide in a little river in nearby Withern. He is put to bed, but then requests that someone should go to his home to see how his family are. The Grange sat near the junction of Willoughby Lane and Scrub Lane. The house presently on the site is called Prosperity Farm. Locals may be able to confirm if it is the same house. I suspect it is, but much altered. (see the image at the foot of the page)

Hall today

George Hay’s mother and his sister Lizzie had a servant put a pony between the shafts of their trap, and set off to drive the mile and a half to The Grange. They stopped in the Grange yard, and Lizzie went to the door of the house. She tried to open the door, but found resistance. When she peered through the gap she was horrified to see a woman on her knees, with bloody hands placed against the door. Lizzie’s first reaction was to tell her mother to come no closer. Seeing some men – farm labourers – standing nearby, she summoned them and asked them to force the door open. Two of the men, John Crow and John Cross did as they were told, but recoiled in horror at what lay in front of them. The woman on her knees, still alive, was Louisa Hay, George’s wife. Lizzie Hay, in an understandable state of shock, ordered the men to go into the house but they wouldn’t. Still unaware of the full horror that lay beyond the back door of The Grange, Lizzie and her mother got back on the trap, determined to go and fetch medical help from the nearest doctor.

Just a few hundred yards down the road, however, Lizzie Hay had a change of heart. She said:
“Mother, I have made a mistake.I ought to have gone into the house with those men.”
She turned the trap round and made back for the yard of The Grange, where she stepped down from the trap once more. Along with the two men, and a Mrs Scupham who had arrived on the scene, she pushed her way into the house. Louisa Hay had moved away from the door, and was sitting against the wall with one hand clasped around her knee. The state Louisa was in almost defied words, but at a subsequent court hearing, Dr William Prawford Palmer, of Withern, described what he saw:

wounds

It was later discovered that the poor woman had been crawling about on the floor of her kitchen, horribly wounded and in excruciating pain – but unable to cry out, due to her wounds – since nine-thirty the previous evening. Not only that, but she had been keeping company with a corpse – that of her brother Thomas. The farm men and Lizzie Hay lifted Louisa onto the sofa, but then they saw, slumped at the feet of a chair, the body of Thomas Hay. His injuries were equally horrific as those of his sister, but at least death had claimed him quickly. Part of his skull had been blown away, shotgun pellets were found in other parts of his body, and it seemed as though he had been sitting in the chair taking off his boots when the shots were fired.

This is a tale from the depths of hell, but it was to get worse. Unbelievably, upstairs and above the carnage, the two children of Louisa and George Hay were discovered – thankfully unharmed and seemingly oblivious of the nightmare that had just occurred. They were packed off to stay with relations near Brigg.

The police were called from Alford, and George Hay was arrested and taken into custody. The doctors desperately tried to save Louisa Hay, and when George Hay was brought before magistrates the next day, she was still clinging to life.

 

IN PART THREE – TRIAL, RETRIBUTION – AND THREE MORE DEATHS

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