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1863

THE KILLING OF BETSY BROWN . . . Horror comes to Whittlesey (3)

Artists impression

SO FAR – Cambridge, 1863. Whittlesey man John Green has been convicted at the Cambridge Winter Assizes of murdering Elizabeth ‘Betsy’ Brown on the night of 11th/12th March, in the maltings behind the George and Star inn.

There was to be a final chapter in this horror story. While waiting for his rendezvous with Hangman Calcraft, Green asked to be allowed to make a full confession. It is highly unlikely that he was literate, so his solicitor, a Mr J. W. Wilders took his dictation, in the presence of the prison governor. It was grim stuff.

“Smedley and I locked up the malting on the night of the 11th March, about eight o’clock, and went together to the George and Star public-house, and I went into the store-room with Samuel Boyce to remove some forms up into the dancing room. At the time Boyce was taking the forms out of the store-room I drew a bucket full of gin from a puncheon in the same store-room. I then hid the pail of gin in corner behind some wood in the George and Star yard. I then went into the tap-room, where I saw Smedley, and told him what I had got.

Smedley and I then went together and took it to the malting and the malting door. I carried it, and he unlocked the door leading to the malting. When we got into the furnace room Smedley kept watch while I poured the gin into a stone jug covered by a whicker basket. We then sat down and drank a little, and then returned to the George and Star. Smedley said, “We won’t lock this (meaning the kiln door), as we may return again.: But we will lock the big gates.’

Smedley and I returned to the dancing room at the George and Star, and remained there until twelve o’clock, and I did not see Smedley afterwards. I then went down stairs into the tap-room and had some beer, and also some conversation with Elizabeth Brown and Ann MacDonald. About one o’clock in the morning the deceased, Mac Donald, and myself, went outside the George and Star door and had some conversation.

Elizabeth Brown said to me, “Can we get into the malting ?” and I said, “Yes, I have got a bottle of gin there,” and she replied, “Then let’s go.” She asked MacDonald to go with us, saying, “we shall have plenty to drink,’ and she said “No, one woman with one man is plenty;” and we  then left MacDonald and went round Mr. Waddelow’s by the Church wall, through the little gate into the George and Star yard which adjoins the malting premises, and got on to the cow crib over the wall on to the kilderkin into the malting yard in the manner described at my trial, and went into the kiln through the door which Smedley and I had left unlocked.

William-calcraftShe (Brown) was at that time smoking a long pipe, and when we got into the furnace room, I drew a quart pitcher full of gin out of the bottle, and sat down on the settle and drank most of it, if not all of it, both of us smoking. We had sat down for half hour, when I wanted to have connection with her, but she would not. I pulled her off the settle. She kicked and knocked about, and got hold of my hair, and I tried and tried as long as I could to have connection with her, and when she would not, I hit her on the body with my fists, and she fell on the floor. I then kicked her on the body more than once. She did not scream out. I then felt so bad that I did not know what to do, as I felt I had killed her. I stooped down and got hold of her and shook her, and I found that she was really dead. I then drank hearty of some gin.

There were some sacks lying on the settle which I took off and put round her, and set fire to them,  putting a shovel full of hot cinders on the sacks. I sat down on a block against the furnace and watched the burning. After I had watched the burning for about an hour, I got up and drank some more gin and stirred up the burning sacks. I then sat down again and went off to sleep, I expect. When I woke and got up from the block, I was so stifled with the smoke that I did not know where to go, and at last I found the door in the coke place leading into the yard, and got out and over the wall and went running home.”

John Green was hanged at 9.00 am on Saturday 2nd January, 1864. The hangman was William Calcraft (above left)

Execution

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THE KILLING OF BETSY BROWN . . . Horror comes to Whittlesey (2)

Part 2 header

SO FAR – March 1863. The remains of the body of Elizabeth ‘Betsy’ Brown have been found in the furnace room of Thomas Whyles’ maltings in Whittlesey. A young man named John Green has been arrested on suspicion of her murder.

The customary sequence of events in these sad affairs began. First, the coroner’s inquest. It was here – and the subsequent verbatim accounts in the newspapers – that the true horror of what had happened to Betsy Brown became known to the citizens of Whittlesey and thousands more across the region.

The first medical man on the scene at Whyles’ maltings had been a man called Robert Crisp, a surgeon. This was his testimony, and it is not for the faint-hearted.

Testimony 1

The police, who had been holding John Green in custody since his arrest on the morning of 12th March also testified that his clothes bore the smell of smoke, and a small patch of his hair was singed by coming into contact with extreme heat. The coroner’s jury took little time in finding Green guilty of murder, which he denied, insisting that he had gone home and was in bed by midnight. He was remanded in custody, and sent for trial at the next Assizes in Cambridge.

By the time of Betsy Brown’s murder County Assize courts were held three times a year, and named Spring, Summer and Winter. These were serious affairs for serious misdemeanours, which were anything from theft of valuable items up to murder. They were presided over by circuit judges who were senior members of the legal profession. Normally, John Green would have been tried at the Summer Assizes, as the preliminary court hearings came just too late for the Spring Assizes, but another complication to to the case meant a delay.

This complication was the police’s concern that John Green’s friend, William Smedley (Wyles’ head maltster) was involved in the death of Betsy Brown. As a key holder to the premises, he certainly conspired to make the premises available to Green for what he, Green, hoped would be a night of passion with Betsy Brown. But was he involved more deeply? In the event Smedley was also arrested, and it wasn’t until 18th December that the pair came to stand trial.

Screen Shot 2022-06-15 at 20.14.00The presiding judge was Sir Samuel Martin QC (1801-1883), Anglo-Irish Baron of the Exchequer (left). The first thing he did was to dismiss all charges against William Smedley. He said:

“Gentlemen, the two prisoners are charged upon an indictment — one (Green) with having of malice aforethought murdered Elizabeth Brown ; the other (Smedley) with having harboured the said Green, knowing him to have committed the murder. Now as to Smedley, there is no evidence against him worthy of your consideration. This is a question of law to be decided by the judge, and I at once tell you you must acquit the man. And further, I feel bound to say there was no pretence for ever putting the man upon his trial. It is the first time in my experience a man has been put upon his trial in this way with another charged with murder. Having this strong opinion, I feel bound to express it, and I repeat he ought not to have been put upon his trial here.”

Smedley was free to go, but John Green was not so fortunate. The jury took a mere ten minutes to find him guilty. The newspapers of the day had  a great sense of drama and theatre when reporting such things, and this what one reporter wrote:

Judgment

IN PART THREE
A confession, and the full horror is revealed

THE KILLING OF BETSY BROWN . . . Horror comes to Whittlesey (1)

Artists impression

In 1863 The George and Star inn was, as it is today, the biggest in Whittlesey. It changed its name by dropping the Star several years after the events described in this story. Behind the inn was a maltings owned by Thomas Whyles, described in the 1861 census as ‘Corn merchant and miller.’ His house was in Church Street. Two other town residents acted out their parts in this drama. Elizabeth Brown was known as ‘Betsy’. The newspapers gave her age as 36, but the 1861 census gives us two Elizabeth Browns, one aged 24 living in Scaldgate, and another aged 39 in Private Road. You can take your pick as to which was ‘our’ Betsy Brown. Both were described as labourers, but  if truth be told, the Betsy who features in this story supplemented her income by being, as my grandmother used to say, ‘no better than she ought to be’. She was described as ‘a tall dark woman with coarse features, high cheek bones and black hair : she had led an abandoned life for some time.’

Just a few streets away,  in what was known then as Inham’s End, 24 year-old John Green – who worked for Thomas Whyles –  lived with his wife Martha and daughters Mary and Harriet. He was described thus in a newspaper report. “He is a married man with three children; is 25 years of age, rather tall, with dark hair and pale face, has no whiskers, and is of slight but muscular build.”

John Green 1861

On the evening of Wednesday 11th March, John Green was drinking in the tap room of the George and Star, along with – amongst others – a man called Smedley, who was head maltster for Thomas Whyles – and Betsy Brown. Smedley was to play – literally – a key role in this affair, as he had a key to the maltings, and John Green, as the night’s drinking intensified was paying court to Betsy Brown and, aware of her reputation, needed somewhere private to take her, should she go along with his plans.

At some point in the evening, Betsy Brown’s mother, perhaps having some kind of premonition or sixth sense that her daughter was in danger, arrived at the inn and tried to persuade Betsy to come , home, but she refused. About half past midnight, Green, Betsy Brown and a woman called Ann MacDonald left the inn, and Green said, pointing to the maltings, “Come along, we shall have some beer.” MacDonald, well aware of what Green’s intentions were, replied, ““No, one woman with one man is plenty;”

At this point, it is necessary to explain briefly what happened in a maltings. The process of malting grain for beer and whisky making involves three main steps. The first is soaking the barley – also known as steeping – to awaken the dormant grain. Next, the grain is allowed to germinate and sprout. Finally, heating or kilning the barley produces its final color and flavor. The kiln was used to produce hot air which would be passed under the bed of grain so that it dried out evenly. In Whyle’ maltings the place where the kiln stood was referred to as the furnace room.

At about six o’clock on the morning of Thursday 12th March, John Green was seen by a man called Robert Cunnington, Green was heading towards his home. When Smedley arrived at work a little later, he entered the furnace room to be greeted by a horrific sight. Against a door was a body with the head resting against the door. The door was burning, and there was smoke issuing from the lap and chest of the body. Smedley’s first reaction was to get water and pour it on the body, but it was too little too late. Other workers – including Cunnington – arrived. The body was removed to the pump room, and Smedley expressed a fear that the body was that of his “silly mate” Green, but Cunnington informed him that he had recently seen Green, alive and well, heading for his home.

The Police were fetched and immediate enquiries revealed that if the body was not that of John Green, it must be that of Betsy Brown. The  body was only recognized by keys found in the pocket of the what remained of the dress, and a ring of buffalo-horn worn by her. Remarkably, John Green turned up for work as usual that morning, and after a cap similar to the one he generally wore was found near the spot where Betsy Brown’s body body was discovered, he was arrested. Superintendent Smith later gave this account:

Headline 1

I went into the pump-room shortly after seven o’clock on the morning of the 12th, the finding of tinder of burnt sacks, part of woman’s crinoline petticoat, from which I drew a piece of cane, and the state in which I found the window. About a quarter to eight I went with Mr. Whyle to the top floor, where Green was turning the kiln. Mr. Whyle told him to halt for a minute. Green looked towards us, and turned very pale and confused.

I said to him, “What time did you leave the malting last night ?’ and he replied ” Sir, sir, about half-past eight, sir.” I asked him what time he went home, and he replied, ” I went into the George and Star, and had a pint of beer with my mate, and was at home and in bed by eleven o’clock.“, I said, Did you see anything of Elizabeth Brown last night ?” and he paused, and said “I did see her in the George and Star tap-room, but never saw her afterwards.”

I took the prisoner into custody shortly before nine o’clock. He was then working a cistern below. I put my hand on his shoulder and said, “John Green, I apprehend you on suspicion of having caused the death of one Elizabeth Brown, found burning the kiln-house of this malting.” Prisoner shrunk down, and said ” Oh, pray don’t, pray don’t.” I assisted him over the wall, and took him to the police station. His whole frame trembled as he walked along. At that time I observed a piece of skin had been recently knocked off the ridge of his nose. Green said, “I did not know it was there.” There was also a small scratch on the bottom lip. I searched him, and from his trousers pocket took a canvas purse, now produced, which had then a very strong smell of burning.”

IN PART TWO
The full horror is revealed to the Coroner
A confession
An appointment with Mr Calcraft

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