Executed 9th of July, 1832, for setting fire to his Shop in Oxford Street, and causing the Death of Three People
ON Monday morning, the 28th of May, 1832, a fire broke out in the lower part of the house, No. 398 Oxford Street, in the occupation of Mr Jonathan Smithers, a tobacconist, which was attended with very serious consequences. At about six o'clock the police ascertained the existence of a conflagration in the lower part of the house, by the sudden issue of a large quantity of smoke and flame from the shop and house doors, and from the fanlight over the latter, and proceeded immediately to the spot, where they found Mr Smithers endeavouring to make his escape into the street by means of the area, which communicated with the kitchen. All his efforts to gain the footway, and those of the people to force the railings of the area, however, proved unavailing, and Mr Smithers was at length compelled to retire through the kitchen. He made his way up the stairs, which were on fire, and succeeded in reaching the shop, from which he rushed into the street, much burned about his face and hands, and with his clothes on fire in many places. The sudden admission of air to the house through the shop door tended to increase the fury of the flames; and before any alarm could be conveyed to the inmates, who were asleep within, nearly the whole of the lower part of the premises was on fire. Mr Smithers was immediately conveyed to the Middlesex Hospital, in order that the wounds which he had received might be dressed; and almost before he had quitted the spot the lodgers and other remaining occupants of the house had been made acquainted with their dangerous situation. Their first impulse was to escape by the stairs; but this they found to be utterly impracticable; and the scene which soon presented itself to the bystanders in the street was of the most heart-rending description. At almost every window were to be seen persons, male and female, bewailing their dreadful situation, and imploring aid with uplifted hands. The servant-girl at the third-floor window made signs that she would throw herself into the street, but was entreated to endeavour to descend to a lower floor before she made so hazardous an attempt to save her life. The cries which were addressed to her prevailed, and she soon appeared at the sccond-floor front room, having experienced considerable difficulty in making her way down the staircase. Several men then ranged themselves under the window to catch her in her descent; and the girl, exerting her courage, presently found strength of mind to throw herself out, and alighted safely in the arms of one of those below. The man was knocked down and considerably hurt, but the girl walked away comparatively uninjured.
But the worst part is yet to be related. The second floor of the house was occupied by an elderly lady, named Twamley, and her family, consisting of two daughters, Eliza and Caroline, an orphan boy about eleven years of age, named Farengo, the nephew of the young ladies, and a Miss Thomasin, their niece. When this family became sensible of their danger, all hopes of their escape by the staircase had vanished, and they ran from window to window in a state of mind which bordered on distraction. Miss Eliza Twamley held the boy in her arms, and appeared more alarmed for his safety than her own. Terror-stricken, she remained at the window, unable to adopt any decisive course, until at length the flames caught what clothes she had on. The boy seized hold of the window, but was precipitated to the ground on his head; his aunt at the same moment appeared to be suffocated by the smoke, and fell back immediately under the window, a prey to the flames. Mrs Twamley, who it appears was seventy years of age, was in the last stage of chronic asthma, and unable to get out of bed. Her daughter Caroline heroically endeavoured to save her from the impending danger; she seized her in her arms, with strength increased by the frightful nature of her position, raised her from the bed, and bore her through the window to some leads at the rear of the house, from which she hoped to be able to escape, or at which she thought they might remain until the flames should be extinguished. Her position was seen by some of the neighbours who lived at the back, and they called to her to beware of an abyss which lay in her path, and which separated the leads of Smithers's house from others at the rear of some other premises, and that they would rescue her from her perilous situation. A ladder was procured, and raised against the place where she stood; but before efficient aid could be rendered her, overcome by fright, she dropped to the leads below, with her mother in her arms. The distance which they fell was from twelve to fourteen feet, and both ladies were materially injured. Mrs Twamley was immediately conveyed to a place of safety, where medical aid was procured; but death put an end to her sufferings after a period of two hours. Miss Twamley also received such medical assistance as her injuries required.
On the following day, Tuesday, a coroner's inquest was held on the body of Miss Eliza Twamley; and in the course of the inquiry disclosures were made which tended to show that the house had been wilfully set on fire, and that Mr Smithers was the person to whom suspicion of guilt of this diabolical act attached. About ten days previous to the fire he had purchased two sackfuls of shavings, and these had been deposited in a vaulted cellar at the back of the house, with a quantity of old baskets and boxes, and other rubbish of the same description. On the day after the fire a minute examination of the premises was made by Mr Abrahams, a surveyor. He ascertained that the conflagration had originated at the bottom of the kitchen stairs, where the remains of burned shavings were distinctly perceptible. In the back vaults, adjoining the kitchen, there were even stronger proofs. A species of devil, formed of gunpowder pressed into a card, was found communicated by a train to a heap of shavings at one end and to a mass of easily ignitable rubbish at the other. Fire had been communicated to the shavings, which were placed upon a wooden shelf or dresser; but in consequence of the interposition of a piece of greased paper, which had been placed among them apparently with a view to increasing the volume of flame, but which, instead, had had the effect of extinguishing it altogether, the train of powder had not ignited, and the whole remained, affording distinct evidence of the act of incendiarism.
A verdict of wilful murder was returned by the coroner's jury, in the case of Miss Twamley, against Mr Smithers. At an inquest held on the body of Mrs Twamley a verdict was returned that she had died from fright; but the boy Farengo subsequently also died from the injuries which he had received, and in this case also a verdict of wilful murder was returned. On Tuesday, the 12th of June, Smithers was removed to Newgate, to await his trial upon the charge for which he was already in custody, from Middlesex Hospital, where he had been confined by the injuries which he had received,
On Friday, the 6th of July, he was put upon his trial upon an indictment which charged him with the murder of Miss Eliza Twamley, and of the boy, Charles Richard Napoleon Farengo. After a lengthy inquiry a verdict of guilty was returned at two o'clock in the morning. Sentence of death was immediately pronounced upon the wretched man, and he was ordered for execution on the following Monday.
Smithers had carried on business for a considerable period in the shop in Oxford Street. He was insured for nearly seven hundred pounds, which may in some degree have accounted for his being guilty of the diabolical crime of which he was convicted. Miss Twamley, the victim of his foul machinations, had been a dancer at Covent Garden Theatre, and was a fine young woman. Her nephew, who was also killed, was the son of a deceased married sister. The prosecution of Smithers was carried on at the expense of the parish of St Ann, Westminster. His execution took place on Monday, the 9th of July, 1832.