O power of guilt: How conscience can upbraid!
It forces us not only to reveal,
But to repeat what we would most conceal.
This is another instance of the wonderful workings of Providence, in the conscience of a murderer; impelling him to discover his own crime, and to resign himself into the hands of justice.
Joseph Brown was indicted for the wilful murder of Elizabeth Fletcher, at Hensal, near Ferrybridge, by administering poison to her in the month of October, 1804.
Robert Challenger, the first witness examined, lived at Hensal in October 1804, and was a near neighbour of Elizabeth Fletcher at the time of her death; saw her the night before she died, on Sunday, the 21st October when she appeared in good health. Witness was in her house about eight or nine in the evening, and saw the prisoner, Joseph Brown and Joseph Hazlegrove, at supper; at that period they lodged there; recollects Hazlegrove fetching a quart of ale, which he mixed with a quantity of sugar, and then gave it to the deceased, desiring her to drink heartily of it, having previously put the mug to his own mouth to drink; but witness could not say whether he actually drank of it or not. The deceased drank of it freely, and gave it to her sister, who also partook of it. Brown poured some ale unsweetened into a mug, saying he did not like it sweetened, and the whole of the sweetened ale was taken by the deceased and her sister; prisoner and Hazlegrove went to bed about a quarter of an hour after the ale was drank, and the witness returned home about nine in the evening. About eleven o'clock in the morning of the next day, saw Elizabeth Fletcher; she was then dead, and her sister was in a deep sleep, in which she continued till six o'clock in the evening, when she awoke, and took a little refreshment.
Mrs. Longbottom, finding the windows of the deceased closed at a much later hour in the morning than was usual, went, at the desire of Mrs. Hemsworth, into the house; the door was shut, but not fastened. On going into the house, she found the deceased and her sister apparently in a dying state: the sister lay helpless on the floor, and the deceased was extended on the bed. Witness thought at first she was dead; but, on moving her a little, she perceived she was alive, and perceived a quantity of froth at her mouth. Witness remained with her until she died, which was about a quarter before eleven o'clock. The deceased never spoke; she was motionless, and her eyes were closed, though she moved her eye-lids. The witness had seen the deceased on Sunday, the day before her death, and she then appeared to be in a good state of health. Witness said Sarah Fletcher was upon the floor; witness assisted to remove her into a chair; she opened her eyes, but did not speak; it was six o'clock in the evening before she spoke. Elizabeth Fletcher was about 55 years of age.
Rebecca Harrison lived next door to the deceased at the time of her death; went into her house about ten o'clock in the morning on the day she died, and was there also at eight o'clock the preceding evening before supper, and she was then in a good state of health; did not see the prisoner there in the morning; found the deceased lying on the bed; she appeared strongly convulsed, and froth came out of her mouth. Sarah Fletcher was subject to convulsion fits, but the deceased enjoyed a good state of health.
Thomas Wheates, constable, knew Elizabeth Fletcher; went to her house the day she died; she was lying upon the bed in a convulsed state; he went to the overseer to get medical assistance, but was informed she was dead before it was procured. Went to Mr. Marshall, of Selby, who was Coroner, was examined before him, but no medical person was procured to examine the body; Brown and Hazlegrove had left their lodgings. Saw the deceased and her sister; when the latter awoke, he asked what had been the matter with her; to which she replied, she did not know; fell asleep again immediately.
Sarah Fletcher being in a state of approaching idiotcy, 4s. per week was paid by the parish towards her maintenance. The deceased was a very endeavouring and industrious woman.
Thomas Thorp lives at Knottingley at present, but in October 1804, lived with Mr. Durham, of Hensal, and was then acquainted with the prisoner, who at that time lodged with the deceased. The prisoner, a short time before E. Fletcher's death, told him he had some thoughts of marrying her, for she had a good bit of money. Witness asked him how much; to which he replied, 50l.; it would be a good thing, and set him aforehand. The prisoner said the conversation was false; it could not be true, he said, because he was at that time married, and therefore could not talk of marrying another person. The witness stated, that both Brown and Hazlegrove had represented themselves as single men. The prisoner again repeated his denial of this.
Rebecca Fletcher, sister of the deceased, went to her house on the 22d of October; found her sister Elizabeth dead, and her sister Sarah asleep. Said, that about three weeks before, her sister shewed her box to her; she had then in her box three guinea notes and two pieces of gold; but, on examining the box after her decease, found the lock had been broken open, and the money taken away; the other contents of the box appeared much rumbled. The box was kept in the room where the prisoner and his companion slept. Prisoner asked the wit ness if she had not before stated that she had found a five-shilling piece in the box; to which she replied, she had not. Her sister Elizabeth, the deceased, had a good state of health for many years, and during that period had not been subject to any kind of fits.
John Carr stated, that the prisoners had been employed to swingle flax, they were to do it by the job, and absconded on the morning of the 22d of October before they had done the quantity they had agreed to do. Both of them had represented themselves as unmarried men.
Mr. William Perkin, surgeon and druggist, of Snaith, stated, that the prisoner came to his shop on the 18th or 19th of October for some laudanum; the witness asked him his name and the use he intended it for. The prisoner said his name was Joseph Fletcher, and that he lived at Hensal, and that the laudanum was for the use of his father, who lived at Cawood, and who was troubled with pain, and could obtain no rest at night. On this representation, the witness let him have six-penny worth, which was rather more than an ounce. Witness never saw the prisoner again until he was examined before the Magistrate on suspicion of having poisoned the deceased, which was about ten days after; but he was perfectly sure as to the identity of the prisoner, and that the prisoner had represented his name as being Joseph Fletcher. The quantity of laudanum bought by the prisoner was sufficient to produce the effect described by the preceding witnesses in a person who had not been in the habit of using laudanum, and to produce death; and that the symptoms described by the witnesses were such as were likely to result from the administration of laudanum; and, from these symptoms, he had no doubt but the deceased died of the poison of laudanum.
Mr. Sewell stated, that he was a Solicitor at the Isle of Wight; that the prisoner was brought by a serjeant of the depot to the office of the Magistrates at his own desire; that no threat, promise, or inducement of any kind, was held out to him to make confession; that he took it down in writing at the time, and when it was fairly written out, it was read over to him distinctly, who said he understood it all, and it was all true. The reason assigned by the prisoner for making this confession was the extreme anguish of mind he suffered from his reflections, which rendered life absolutely insupportable. The confession was dated Isle of Wight, 3d of August, 1808. This confession stated that he had been acquainted with Joseph Hazlegrove upwards of six years; that in the month of October 1804, himself and Joseph Hazlegrove lodged with Mrs. Fletcher, of Hensal, near Ferrybridge, and there formed the design of poisoning her, in order to possess themselves of some property they supposed her to possess; that for this purpose he procured sixpenny worth of laudanum of a Mr. Perkins, of Snaith, which he gave to Hazlegrove, who mixed it with some beer along with some sugar, and gave it to Elizabeth Fletcher and her sister; the former died in consequence of it, and early the following morning they broke open her box, and took out one guinea and a half; that they were afterwards apprehended and examined before a Magistrate, who not considering the evidence sufficiently strong against them, ordered them to be discharged. The confession recited also the commission of various other crimes, particularly that of the murder of Calvert, the Selby carrier; but the Judge would not permit that part of it to be read.
The prisoner being called upon for his defence, referred to a paper which had been delivered to the Judge at his lodgings, but His Lordship said he could take no notice of any papers delivered to him out of Court; but if the prisoner wished it to be read as his defence, he would give it to him, which the prisoner assenting to, it was read by the clerk of the Court. This paper stated, that about seven years ago, he commenced an intimate acquaintance with Joseph Hazlegrove, which had continued unbroken to the present moment; and that in the early part of their friendship a lady of high rank and fortune became enamoured with his friend, and that many interesting meetings took place between them; and as he was employed by his friend to carry messages to the lady, and contrive interviews between them, this gave an air of secrecy and mystery to their conduct, which people represented much to their disadvantage, and insinuated that it was for dishonest purposes that they had their nightly meetings; and to such a pitch of malignity and superstition did their malice arrive, that there was not a murder committed within ten miles which was not attributed to them. This narrative then proceeded to a review of the different prosecutions which had been commenced against them, all of which originated, as he represented, in malice; and that, in consequence of the evidence of a vile man, they were convicted of a burglary; but that the judge was much dissatisfied with the verdict, and their sentence was changed from death to being sent on board the Hulks, and subsequently they were permitted to enter his Majesty's service, where their sufferings were so extreme, in consequence of the odium which even then followed them, that he determined, by a false confession, either to have an opportunity of vindicating their characters in a Court of Justice, or of perishing in the attempt; and he knew that no confession which did not include the death of Calvert, would satisfy the gentlemen of Yorkshire; and, as to the death of Elizabeth Fletcher, it was occasioned by a fit, to which she had been subject. This written paper concluded with protesting their entire innocence of the various crimes of which they had been accused, and concluded with a prayer for his enemies and persecutors.
The judge then asked the prisoner if he wished any witnesses to be examined to substantiate his defence, to which the prisoner replied in the negative. His Lordship then proceeded to sum up the evidence, and the jury, without retiring, immediately returned a verdict of Guilty.
His Lordship then proceeded to pass sentence of death upon the prisoner, whom he addressed in the following terms: "Joseph Brown, I am again called upon, in the painful exercise of my duty, to pass sentence upon a person found guilty of one of the greatest offences against society—the crime of deliberate murder. You stand an awful and striking example of the justice of Providence of that punishment, which, sooner or later, never fails to overtake the guilty. You have been compelled by the agonies of remorse, and the upbraidings and tortures of a guilty mind, to furnish that evidence against yourself which was wanting to establish the proof of your guilt, and to supply that link in the chain of evidence which appeared to be imperfect. I trust, that every one who hears of your fate will bear in mind, that a time will arrive, probably in this world, most certainly in another, when guilt will meet with its due punishment. In your unhappy case, that period is already come when you must receive the reward of your crimes. Impelled by the hope of possessing the treasure which you supposed your unfortunate victim had saved from her hard earnings, you deliberately formed the design of destroying her; for this purpose you purchased a deadly drug, which you procured to be mingled in the cup, which you offered to her under the guise of friendship. When the potion had taken effect, you plundered her of her property, though it was much less than your guilty cupidity had suggested. Your crime appeared likely to be perpetrated, as to this world, with impunity; more than four years had elapsed since its perpetration, and the remembrance of it began to fade from the recollection of every one, but the guilty author of the deed; and it seemed probable, that nothing more would have been heard of it, if the consciousness of your crime, more poignant and destructive than the poisoned bowl, had not compelled you to disclose the horrid secret. Chequered as your life has been with crimes, I cannot indulge the hope that anything that I can say will have any lasting effect upon you; but I conjure you to spend the few remaining hours you have to live, in earnest prayer and supplication to heaven for mercy; and may your unhappy fate convince others, that though their crimes may be committed in the darkness of the night, they will hereafter be proclaimed at noon day." His Lordship then passed scntence of death upon the prisoner in the usual form, which sentence was carried into execution on Monday the 20th of March 1809.