STEPHEN STILWELL, a publican at the Three Jolly Gardeners, at Mortlake, was tried for the murder of his wife, September 28, 1802, at the Surrey assizes held at Kingston, before Mr. Justice Heath, Thursday, March 24, 1803. Mr. Nolan, who appeared as counsel for the prosecution, stated, that the prisoner at the bar stood indicted for a crime, which must be the offspring of a most abandoned and cruel disposition. He had for some time lived as a gardener in the family of a gentleman at Mortlake; and the woman, whom he had murdered, also lived as servant in that family; he therefore had every opportunity of being acquainted with her temper and manners previous to his taking her for his wife. They were married from that place, and took a public-house at Mortlake. It would not be regular for him to detail the various instances of cruelty which he had exercised towards his wife, except as connected with the present charge; but he should prove that he frequently declared he would murder her.
On the 28th, he quarrelled with his wife, and turned her from the kitchen to the bar, telling her that was her place, and added, "It was no matter, for she had but a few days to live." On the 27th, in the evening, they were seen together, by two lodgers in the house, sitting in the bar, and apparently in amity; but the next morning he perpetrated the horrid crime. It would also appear that he had attempted another mode of death, for a loaded pistol was found lying by her, the lock of which was down, as though the trigger had been drawn, and it had missed fire. The learned counsel dwelt upon the aggravated circumstances of this crime, in which the foul crime of murder was rendered more heinous, by being against a wife whom he had solemnly sworn at God's altar to cherish and protect.
John Ward deposed as follows: "I am a baker, and live near Stilwell's house. On the 28th of September, 1802, about five o'clock, I got up to work. I was disturbed with a noise, and I went to the gate. I heard a noise in Stilwell's room. I heard his voice. He was saying, "Come, get up, your time is expired." I stood a little time, and heard a scream. Mrs. S. said, "My dear Stilwell, don't murder me." When I heard that, I went to an opposite window where I knew a soldier lay, and called him up. In about ten minutes I saw the prisoner come out of doors at the front door; but, before I saw him, I heard a stamping on the floor of the prisoner's room. Soon after I saw the prisoner run out of the front door. He ran away, and I followed him. In about a minute I came up. Knight, a man I had called on passing by, first laid hold of him. His hands and clothes were sprinkled with blond. We bound him with a cord, and I left him in custody of Benjamin Knight. On cross-examination the witness said, that when he heard the stamping, he also heard the prisoner exclaiming, "that he had gained his liberty;" and when he came out, he said, "D-n that house, set it on fire," (meaning his own house.)
Benjamin Knight deposed—"I was called by the last witness; I was going by the house, and listened at the window. I heard two of three groans, and heard the prisoner saying, that 'he had gained his liberty.' I then went into the yard; and, as there was a table under the window, I got upon it, in order to look in at the window; and then I heard a person quit the room, and run downstairs. I immediately went round, and saw Stilwell come out of the front door; his clothes were all bloody. I and another man went upstairs, and saw the deceased on the ground. The floor was over my shoes in blood, near the deceased's head. I immediately ran down, and pursued the prisoner. Mr. Ward came to my assistance, and we overtook him. He struck me several times: when we found him, he appeared collected. He asked me to slack the cords, and not to hurt him."
Charles Barwood said, "he was a carpenter, and lodged at the prisoner's house. On the 28th of September, in the morning, he heard a noise in the prisoner's room: the witness slept in a room not far from the prisoner's room. He heard the noise of a person apparently singing. He then heard Mrs. Stilwell screaming out, "Oh, Stilwell, dear Stilwell!" then he heard a loud knocking, and the prisoner singing, "You have given me such liberty." He dressed himself, came down, and was going out at the back-door. "I saw," said he, "Stilwell at the foot of the stairs, but I did not observe his dress at that time. As I went round the house, I saw him come out of the front door; his face was bloody, and he said, "d—n, do you set fire to that house." I went upstairs with Benjamin Knight. Mrs. S. was lying on the floor, with her head all beat to pieces. A pistol was lying near. I saw the prisoner and his wife about eight or nine o'clock the preceding evening in the bar together, and they seemed very comfortable."
William Bardolph lodged in Stilwell's house, and slept with the last witness; he heard the noise on the morning of the 28th. It came from Stilwell's room: he heard him singing, and presently after the woman screaming out. Stilwell was singing, "I have gained my sweet liberty." We went down, and Stilwell came down swearing after us. We went out (said the witness) at the back door: he went out at the front door, and said, "Set the house on fire." He accompanied the last witness to the room, and described the state of the deceased as the last witness had done.
John Davis, a surgeon at Mortlake, stated that he was sent for in consequence of the murder of the deceased. He examined the body, and found she had been killed by several violent blows which she had received; a great portion of her brains had been forced out on the right side of her head. He found a pistol, the handle of which was broke, and covered with blood and brains—(here the prisoner fainted away.) It was produced in court.
Elizabeth Carter, servant of the prisoner, had lived with him three weeks on the day of the murder: he appeared always sensible, but frequently said he would murder her. The prisoner, in his defence, only said, that he did not know what he did; his mind was very much distressed by her aggravating temper.
Mr. Serjeant Best, for the defence, called one witness of the name of Brown. He stated, that the week before the murder, he was with Stilwell in his garden. He did not then seem to know what he was about: he cut down his French beans, and pruned away all his rose trees. Brown asked him to go and have a pint of porter with him; but Stilwell said, he would not drink, and he never wished to go into his own house again, for they all made him miserable.
Mr. Justice Heath said, the only question for the jury was, whether they could possibly infer insanity; for that was the defence insinuated by the last witness. It appeared to him, that the prisoner had worked himself up to a frenzy of passion, so as not to know what he was about; but that was not insanity. Men must restrain the turbulence of their passions, or answer the consequences. It seemed that the galling yoke which had wrought him to the commission of this desperate deed, was the unhappiness of domestic circumstances; but that was not insanity. Insanity was a bodily disease, and did not originate in ill temper and passion. If, therefore, they found that the fact arose from a criminal indulgence of the passions, they must find him guilty. The jury, without any hesitation, returned a verdict of guilty.
The greater part of the trial the prisoner was perfectly calm; but just as the verdict was given, he became dreadfully agitated, and could scarcely be supported. The learned judge, observing that the prisoner was not in a condition to profit by admonition from his agitation, immediately passed sentence.
At nine o'clock he came on the scaffold, preceded by the under-sheriff and the gaoler. As soon as he came up, and saw the fatal beam, he fell on his knees in a state of the utmost agony. The executioner immediately proceeded to do his duty, in affixing the halter round his neck. On being addressed by Mr. Winkworth, the chaplain, he seemed to resume his fortitude, and prayed for near a quarter of an hour. At the departure of the clergyman, the cap was pulled over his eyes; when he fervently exclaimed, "Lord be merciful to me, a sinner;" which he continued repeating till the fall of the drop put an end to his existence. He had previously taken the sacrament in the chapel, and conducted himself in the most penitent manner possible, acknowledging the crime for which he suffered, and hoping that his death would be a warning to others not to give way to their passions. After hanging the usual time, his body was cut down, and delivered to the surgeons for dissection.