THE SIBSEY MURDER . . . A brutal killing in 1859 (2)

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SO FAR: March 1859. An elderly Sibsey farm labourer, William Stevenson, has been found dead in a ditch, his head destroyed by repeated blows from a blunt object. Three local men have been arrested on suspicion of his murder. One has been released without charge, but William Pickett and Henry Carey have been accused of the murder.

Their motive for killing William Stevenson? He was hardly a rich man, but on his return from Boston market he had a few shillings in his pocket and, incredible though it may seem, it was for these pieces of silver that he was repeatedly battered about the head and thrown in a ditch to die.

The sequence of events when people were suspected of murder back in the day was that there would be a coroner’s inquest where the cause of death would be established and – assuming there were suspects identified – a jury would, provided they were convinced that there was a case to answer, send the case on to magistrates. The magistrates court would normally be a repeat version, but with the case focusing on the suspect(s) rather than the victim. The final element in the trilogy was the Assize Court. This would be held four times a year, and almost always in the county town, and presided over by a senior judge. This arrangement meant that key witnesses for both prosecution and defence had to give their evidence three times, the only difference being that in the Assize Court the cross examination by barristers would be more incisive.

So it was that Carey and Pickett, having been in custody since late March finally had their day in court in late July, in front of Mr Justice Williams at Lincoln Assizes. By this time, Pickett had decided his best defence was to claim that he had been a reluctant partner in the fatal enterprise, and he feared Carey’s violence more than he feared justice. Given no other choice, Pickett was reduced to making a counter claim against his associate, but neither the judge nor the jury were convinced. Readers of The Lincolnshire Chronicle of the morning of 29th July were informed:

“Long before the Judge took his seat on the bench this morning, the Court was crowded to excess. Every avenue by which it was hoped that access to it could be gained was also besieged by an anxious crowd. The bench, as yesterday, was filled with ladies, and a hoarse murmur pervaded the court, as of parties expectant of some great exhibition. His Lordship took his seat on the bench precisely at half-past nine o’clock. The prisoners, on their appearance in the dock, presented the same appearance as on the previous day, save that their countenances seemed more anxious and worn. His lordship at once summed up. The pith of his lordship’s address to the jury was, that there could be no doubt,from the confession of both prisoners that they were present on the dreadful occasion, and, therefore, all the evidence given was superfluous. Each prisoner accused the other of striking the blow by which William Stevenson met his death.”

“The learned counsel for Picket bad endeavoured to show that Pickett was merely an accessory after the fact, and he, therefore, went into the evidence against prisoner. He pointed out that Pickett had given two different accounts of the place where he spent the night of the murder. Before proceeding to read Pickett’s statement, his lordship explained the law with respect to such confessions. The jury might believe all or any part of it they pleased. They should also read that part of the evidence which tended to show that the deed was done more than one person. With regard to Pickett’s confession, his lordship remarked that had that prisoner been a mere innocent stander-by while Stevenson was knocked down, he might have interfered, and there would have been two to one. He put it to the jury whether they could believe that he was reduced by terror to the state of inaction he describes. Tbe jury, amid the breathless silence of the crowded court, returned a verdict of GUILTY of WILFUL MURDER against both the prisoners, and the learned Judge, having assumed the black cap, proceeded to pass upon them the sentence of DEATH. The prisoners, who heard their doom with little emotion, were then removed. This concluded the criminal business of the Assizes, and the court rose.”

The hanging of Carey and Pickett on the morning of 5th August 1859, conducted by William Askern and the Horncastle cobbler William Marwood was the the last public hanging at Lincoln.


The names of Carey and Pickett remain inscribed in the judicial records while their victim, William Stevenson, was interred in the churchyard of St Margaret’s Sibsey, a few days after his brutal murder.

Criminal record

Criminals executed at Lincoln were interred with little ceremony in a tiny walled garden in the Lucy Tower. I am grateful for Alan Robinson for allowing me to use his photograph of the the last resting place of Henry Carey and William Pickett.


As a mundane comment on the price of justice, the Stamford Mercury of 21st October 1859 reported:


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Lincolnshire Murders

THE SIBSEY MURDER . . . A brutal killing in 1859 (1)

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In 1859 The Lincolnshire village of Sibsey, just north of Boston, had a population of around 1400. The Sibsey Trader mill had yet to be built, but the railway had arrived in 1848. The 1851 census recorded the names of William Pickett, aged about 13, living with his parents and 9 siblings at Cherry Corner, Sibsey Northlands; Henry Carey, aged 18, lodging with Potter family at Sibsey Fenside, and someone who newspapers later described as ‘a notoriously bad character’, and William Stevenson, aged 57, an agricultural labourer. On the evening of Tuesday 16th March 1859, the lives of these men were to collide, with violent and fatal results for all three.

On the Tuesday morning, Stevenson had left home to go to market, and returned in the evening. He went to *The Ship inn in Sibsey Northlands which, as the name suggests, is a small settlement to the north of Sibsey. Stevenson’s home was in Stickney Westhouses, about a mile away from the pub and, after a convivial evening of drinking and smoking, he left The Ship at about 10.30 pm to walk the mile or so to his home. Westhouses is more or less a single track road these days and, on a winter’s night would still be bleak and forbidding. But this was a warm August night, and Stevenson, no doubt warmed from within by an evening drinking, would have had little fear of being out on his own on a lonely country road. He never reached his home.

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*It is not clear if The Ship was a different pub from The Boat which is marked on old OS maps. The Ship was destroyed by fire in the late 1960s, and was owned by the Soulby, Son & Winch brewery.


Beside Westhouses Road ran a small drain, described in later court reports as ‘a sewer’. At a coroner’s inquest on Friday 19th August a local woman, Sarah Semper, testified:


What followed the grim discovery was recorded at the subsequent Coroner’s Inquest.

A messenger was despatched for Dr. Moss, of Stickney, and Dr. Smith, of Sibsey, and another to the police, with information of the occurrence. The deceased’s son then commenced inquiries as to where his father had spent the previous evening, and on ascertaining that he had been at the Ship, proceeded there, and on going into the tap-room about seven o’clock in the morning, saw Carey and Pickett sitting there drinking beer; they had been there about hour: he sat opposite them for a minute or two and noticed spots of blood on their boots; he made no remark, but went and gave information of his suspicions to Sergeant Jones, who apprehended Sands ( a young man who was subsequently absolved from any blame) at half-past ten at his father’s house in bed; Pickett about half-past one, and Carey a little later in the the Ship. Sands stated that he slept in his father’s hovel, and on it being inspected it was ascertained that some one had slept there.

“Pickett stated that he slept in his father’s stable, and Carey came to him at five o’clock in the morning, and they afterward, went to the Ship together. From the evidence of Sergeant Jones, and from inspection of the locality, it appears that the deceased had only gone a short distance after he left the public-house, when some person, crossed the road (which is a silt one, showing footmarks) from the opposite side to that where he was walking, and overtook him, and struck him a violent blow on the head, which felled him to the ground.”

A struggle then ensued, and having been ultimately overpowered, after his pockets were emptied,  the deceased was dragged to the side of the road, and thrown into a deep ditch: out of this he appeared to have scrambled, and got up the bank, and through the hedge, leaving traces of blood upon the bank and hedge, and got into an adjoining field. The murderers seeing their victim recovering, and doubtless fearing that he might identify them if he got away, crossed over the ditch by bridge a little higher up, and overtook the deceased in the field, where with hedge stakes they finished their bloody work, literally battering his skull and dashing out his brains, the ground about showing the following morning strong evidence of the murderous attack, patches of blood, pieces of skull and hair lying about They then carried the murdered man short distance and threw him over a hedge into the ditch where he was found.”


Trial, retribution, and a job for the Horncastle cobbler

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