This unfortunate case produced a deep sensation throughout the metropolis, and for a considerable space of time tended, in a very material degree, to prevent persons attached to the exercise of rowing on the river Thames from pursuing their favourite sport. The circumstances of the death of the deceased are singular, and deserve to be related.
It appears, that Mr. William Wilkinson was the managing clerk to Messrs. Williams, Jacob, and Co., merchants, of Hare-court, Aldersgate-street, and at the time of his death had reached his twenty-fifth year. He was fond of the sports of the river, and frequently enjoyed the exercise of rowing, either alone or in company with a friend. On the evening of Tuesday the 17th of July, accompanied by a Mr. Smales, a stationer, of No.36, Aldersgate-street, he proceeded to the yard of Mr. Hodges, near Blackfriars-bridge, and there hired a boat for the purpose of proceeding up the river. They had reached Vauxhall-bridge, when through the falling shades of night they saw two boats advancing upon them, and as they supposed dogging or following them. They did not immediately take any notice of the circumstance, but pulling on through the bridge they reached a spot near to the lock or opening of the Grosvenor Canal. They found that the boats were still in their vicinity, and were drawing nearer to them; and Mr. Wilkinson remarked, that he did not like their appearance. At this moment Mr. Smales drew his watch from his pocket to see what time it was, and he found that it was ten o'clock. Mr, Wilkinson suggested that they could pull on for ten minutes longer, and then return with the tide and take a glass of ale at the Spread Eagle tavern, a much frequented waterside house. While this conversation was going on, one of the boats which had been chasing them passed, and they had just taken their sculls in their hands to resume their progress, and had pulled a few strokes, when they found that they had come in contact with the boat. Mr. Wilkinson exclaimed, "We are foul of a boat here, let us shove her off," and proceeded to clear the funny in which he was from the other boat; but he found that his efforts were unavailing, and that, notwithstanding his exertions, the boat came alongside. There were two persons in it, and one of them, whose appearance was remarkable from his wearing a blue and white nightcap, made a snatch at the coats of Mr. Wilkinson and Mr. Smales, which were lying at the feet of the former in the funny. He was successful in reaching them and drawing them into his own boat, which was a light skiff, and he and his companion then directly shoved off and rowed away with all speed. Mr. Smales raised his scull and endeavoured to strike the leading offender in this impudent robbery; and at the same moment, Mr. Wilkinson sprung from his own boat and seized the gunwale of the receding skiff. The second boat at this moment was observed to be rowed away with great speed, and Mr, Smales' attention was directed to his friend, who, holding the antagonist boat, was immersed in the river. He saw that his hands were pushed away from their hold by the same man who had before been active in the robbery, and then the same man and his companion struck him repeatedly and violently over the head and hands with their sculls. Mr. Smales cried "Murder," at perceiving the imminent danger in which his friend was placed, and exerted himself to save him by throwing to him two of the sculls in his boat. His efforts were, however, futile, and he saw Mr. Wilkinson sink, apparently overpowered by the blows which he had received. The boat in which their assailants were now rowed away as quickly as possible, and the waiter and jack-in-the-water at the Spread Eagle, alarmed by the outcry, put off to the assistance of Mr. Smales. He acquainted them with what had passed, and urged them to endeavour to save his friend, but they were unable to render any effectual aid, and were compelled to give up their search after a useless attempt to recover the body of Mr. Wilkinson. Fresh assistance from the shore was procured, and drags were employed, but to no purpose.
Mr. Smales, on his proceeding on shore, at once gave information of what had occurred to two friends whom he accidentally met at the Spread Eagle, and accompanied by them he secured the co-operation of Mitchell, a surveyor of the Thames Police, in endeavouring to secure the originators of the attack upon him and his friend, and the death of the latter.
In the course of the ensuing morning, the skiff which had been used by their assailants was found at Nine Elms, Vauxhall (on the opposite shore to that on which the Spread Eagle is situated), and it was discovered to belong to Mr. Moore, a boat-owner, from whose yard it had been clandestinely taken on the previous night by two men named Kennedy and Brown. Mitchell was perfectly acquainted with the persons and the character of these individuals, and he hesitated not to believe that they were the men who had been guilty of this outrage. Proceeding in search of them he soon succeeded in apprehending them, together with three of their companions, named Kitley, Lyon, and Flack, who, like them, were of notoriously bad character, and were well known as river thieves. Evidence was not long wanting to connect Kennedy and Brown with the transaction. Independently of the knowledge of their having possessed themselves of Mr. Moore's boat, on the Tuesday evening, at about the time when Mr. Smales and Mr. Wilkinson must have been passing the yard where it was lying, and where, a moment before, they had been in conversation with an apprentice of Mr. Moore, named Shearing; it was ascertained that they had been seen walking together from Nine Elms towards Lambeth Butts, at about half past ten o'clock, on the night in question, and that on their arrival at a beer-shop, which they frequented there, their demeanour was confused, and entirely different from its usual character. On the following morning they were seen at the same house, in company with the other prisoners, Flack and Kitley, and they all appeared to be intently occupied in the destruction of some letters or papers, which had been produced by Kennedy. They had remained thus employed some time, when all but Kennedy went away. Isbester, a Thames Police officer, shortly afterwards made his appearance in search of them, but Kennedy seemed to be instinctively aware of his approach, and speedily vanished. Bean, the landlord, presently discovered that he was hidden in an adjoining empty house, and having driven him out he was immediately secured. The other prisoners were taken into custody in the course of the same day.
It was not until Thursday morning that the remains of Mr. Wilkinson were recovered from the river. They were then washed ashore opposite the very spot where they had sunk. They presented in themselves sufficient evidence of the violence which the unfortunate gentleman had suffered. The nose was broken, and the head, face, and hands, were severely bruised. At an inquest held on the body on the next evening, Friday the 20th of July, Mr. Davis, a surgeon, was examined, who had inspected the body of the deceased. He declared, that the injuries of themselves would have been sufficient to cause death, but he suggested that in all probability they had created insensibility, and that the deceased, having sunk, had been suffocated by drowning. The facts which have been already detailed were proved in evidence before the jury, and a verdict of "Wilful Murder" against Brown and Kennedy was returned; the latter being recognised by Mr. Smales as the man with the night-cap, who had been most active in the attack. The other prisoners were declared to be insufficiently connected with the affair to admit of their being included in the verdict which had been given; but the further investigation of the case was directed to be carried on by Captain Richbell, the magistrate at the Thames Police Office.
The subsequent inquiries of the police-officer tended to confirm the suspicions which were entertained with reference to Brown and Kennedy. The papers, the destruction of which it had been shown Kennedy was anxious to procure, had been only partially burned; and some fragments of them which were secured, were proved to bear the handwriting of the deceased. The coats too of Mr. Smales and Mr. Wilkinson were afterwards discovered at the lodgings occupied by the two prisoners. The ends of justice, it was considered, rendered it fit that Kitley and Flack should be examined as witnesses, and their testimony afforded conclusive proof of the premeditated guilt of their late companions of the crime of robbery; but they asserted their belief that in determining to commit that offence, they had no intention to cause the death of the persons whom they attacked.
The prisoners Brown and Kennedy said that the statement of these new witnesses was quite true, and they admitted that they had put off in the boat from Mr. Moore's yard, intending to rob Mr. Wilkinson, but they affirmed that although on that gentleman's jumping to their boat, they had pushed his hands off to prevent his any longer clinging to the gunwale, they had struck him no blows with their oars, but that the wounds which he had been found to have received, had been caused first by his falling, when he jumped with his face on their boat's stern; and secondly, by the ill-directed attempts of Mr. Smales to throw to him the sculls, with which he might assist himself, in keeping his head above water.
The prisoners were then committed for trial; Lyons, against whom there appeared to be no evidence, being discharged, and the other men, Kitley and Flack, being bound over to give evidence.
The further and final investigation of the case, before Mr. Justice Patteson and a jury, took place at the Old Bailey, on Friday the 7th of September. The evidence having then been gone through, the prisoners put in a written statement, reiterating the defence which they had made before the magistrate. A verdict of "Guilty "followed, and sentence of death was immediately passed on the prisoners by the Recorder, and their execution was directed to take place on the following Monday.
In the course of the trial, however, circumstances had arisen which induced a belief on the minds of the jury, that there might be some doubts whether the intention of the prisoners might not have been that which they had pointed out, and whether in fact the blows received by the deceased might not have been unintentionally dealt by the hand of his friend, Mr. Smales. The evidence which was adduced, compelled them to return a verdict of "guilty," but immediately after the trial a petition was prepared and signed by them, in which they prayed that some further inquiry might take place, with a view to the commutation of the punishment, to which the prisoners had been sentenced. The learned judge was equally uncertain with them, whether, in truth, Mr. Smales might not unconsciously have struck Mr. Wilkinson, while he was in the water, and whether the prisoners' account of the transaction might not be true; and these doubts being increased by the production of an affidavit, which was placed in the hands of the sheriff, that the deceased was intoxicated at the time of the occurrence, (although this statement was contradicted by Mr. Smales), sufficient grounds were deemed to be made out for a respite being granted. While, however, this measure of leniency was accorded, it was distinctly intimated, that it was only under the peculiar circumstances of the case, that the Privy Council had taken upon itself to recommend the exercise of the royal prerogative of mercy. The crime of murder had no doubt been proved, but the remarkable nature of the transaction rendered it advisable that, while justice was impartially administered, its dictates should not be obeyed with harshness. The respite was communicated to the wretched convicts, on Sunday the 9th of September, when they expressed themselves deeply grateful for the lenient view which had been taken of their case. During their imprisonment they had conducted themselves in a manner to show their sincere penitence for the crimes which had marked their previous lives. They admitted their participation in many robberies on the river, and on its banks, for which they had frequently been apprehended, and acknowledged the wickedness of their career.
Their punishment was eventually commuted to transportation, to which they had. confessed themselves liable.