Tried for murder at Hertford Assizes and acquitted, 16th of July, 1699
THE prisoners being severally arraigned, and pleading not guilty, it was demanded if they would join in their challenges, or challenge separately. To which Mr Cowper answered, if they should challenge separately, there must be so many separate trials; and therefore, to prevent the trouble of the Court, they were content there should be but one challenge for all. Then the panel was called over, and there being so many challenged for the King and the prisoners that there was not a full jury on the principal panel, Mr Cowper moved that the counsel for the King might show their cause of challenge, now the panel was gone through: to which Mr Jones, counsel for the King, answered that it never was put upon the King's Counsel to show cause; and insisting upon it, though the judge was of another opinion, Mr Cowper gave it up, and others were added to the principal panel, till twelve were sworn.
Then the Clerk of the Arraigns read the indictment to the prisoners, which set forth:
That Spencer Cowper, late of the parish of St John's, in the town of Hertford, in the county of Hertford, Esq.; John Marson, late of the parish and county aforesaid, gent.; Ellis Stevens and William Rogers, of the said parish and county, gents., not having the fear of God before their eyes, etc., did, on the 13th day of March, in the eleventh year of the King, at the parish of St John's aforesaid, make an assault upon Sarah Stout, spinster, and a certain rope about the neck of the said Sarah Stout did fix and bind, and the neck and throat of the said Sarah did hold, squeeze and grip, and thereby the said Sarah Stout did choke and strangle, of which choking and strangling she instantly died; and so the said Spencer Cowper, John Marson, Ellis Stevens and William Rogers did kill and murder her; and the said Sarah Stout being so choked and strangled, they the said Spencer Cowper, etc., in order to conceal the said murder, did afterwards throw her into a certain river, called the Priory river, against the King's peace, etc.
Mr Jones afterwards opened the indictment and the evidence in the following manner: —-
" May it please your Lordship, and you gentlemen that are sworn, I am of counsel for the King in this cause, and it is upon an indictment by which the gentlemen at the bar stand accused for one of the foulest and most wicked crimes almost that any age can remember. I believe in your county you never knew a fact of this nature; for here is a young gentlewoman of this county murdered and strangled in the night-time. The thing was done in the dark, therefore the evidence cannot be so plain as otherwise might be. After she was strangled and murdered she was carried and thrown into a river to stifle the fact and to make it be supposed she had murdered herself; so that it may indeed be called a double murder, a murder accompanied with all the circumstances of wickedness and villainy that I can remember in all my practice, or ever read of.
This fact being committed in the night-time, it was carried on very secretly. We have here in a manner two trials, one to acquit the party that is dead, and to satisfy the world and vindicate her reputation that she did not murder herself, but was murdered by other hands. For my part, I shall never, as counsel in the case of blood, aggravate; I will not improve or enlarge the evidence at all: it shall be only my business to set the fact as it is, and to give the evidence, and state it as it stands here in my instructions. My Lord, in order to lead to the fact, it will be necessary to inform you that upon Monday, the 13th of March, the first day of the last assizes here, Mr Cowper, one of the gentlemen at the bar, came to this town, and alighted at Mr Barefoot's house, and stayed there some time, I suppose to dry himself, the weather being dirty, but sent his horse to Mrs Stout's, the mother of this gentlewoman. Some time after he came thither himself and dined there, and stayed till four in the afternoon; and when he went away he told them he would come and lodge there that night, and sup. According to his word he came there, and had the supper he desired. After supper, Sarah Stout, the young gentlewoman, and he, sat together till near eleven o'clock. At eleven o'clock there were orders given to warm his bed, openly, in his hearing. The maid of the house, gentlemen, upon this, went upstairs to warm his bed, expecting the gentleman would have come up and followed her before she had done; but it seems, while she was warming the bed, she heard the door clap together; and that door is such that it makes a great noise at the clapping of it to, so that any person in the house may be sensible of another's going out. The maid, upon this, was concerned, and wondered at the meaning of it, as he promised to sleep there that night. She came down, but there was neither Mr Cowper nor Sarah Stout; so that we suppose they must have gone out together. After this the maid and mother came into the room, and, neither the young gentlewoman nor Mr Cowper returning, they sat up all night in the house, expecting the young gentlewoman would return. The next morning the first news of this lady was that she lay floating and swimming in the water by the mill dam. Upon that there were several persons called; for it was a wonder how this should come to pass. When her body came to be viewed, it was very much wondered at; for, in the first place, it is contrary to nature that any persons that drown themselves should float upon the water. We have sufficient evidence that it is a thing that never was. If persons go alive into the water, then they sink; if dead, then they float: that made some more curious to look into this matter. At first it was thought that such an accident might happen, though they could not imagine any cause for this woman to do so, who had so great prosperity, had so good an estate and had no occasion to do an action upon herself so wicked and so barbarous; nor can they learn she had any reason to induce her to such a thing. Upon viewing the body it did appear there had been violence used to the woman: there was a crease round her neck, and she was bruised about her ear, so that it seemed as if she had been strangled, either by hands or a rope. Gentlemen, upon the examination it was wondered how this matter came about; it was dark and obscure. The coroner at that time, nor these people, had no evidence given but the ordinary evidence, and it passed in a day.
We must call our witnesses to this fact, that of necessity you must conclude she was strangled, and did not drown herself. If we give you as strong a proof as can be upon the nature of the fact that she was strangled, then the second matter under your inquiry will be to know who or what persons should be the men that did the fact. Truly, gentlemen, as to the persons at the bar, the evidence of the fact will be very short, and will be to this purpose. Mr Cowper was the last man, unfortunately, in her company; I could wish he had not been so with all my heart. Here happens to be three gentlemen, Mr Marson, Mr Rogers and Mr Stevens. As to these three men, my Lord, I do not hear of any business they had here, unless it was to do this matter to serve some interest or friend that sent them upon this message; for, my Lord, these persons, Mr Stevens, Mr Rogers and Mr Marson, came to town here on the 13th of March last, the assize day. My Lord, when they came to town they went to a house and took lodging at one Gurrey's, having hired a room with a large bed in it; and afterwards they went to the Glove and Dolphin, and then, about eight o'clock, one Marson came to them there. They stayed there, my Lord, from eight o'clock till eleven, as they say. At eleven these three gentlemen came all in to their lodging together at this Gurrey's. My Lord, when they came in, it was very remarkable, just as if there had been a sort of fate in it, for, my Lord, they called for fire, and the fire was made them; and while the people of the house were going about they observed and heard these gentlemen talk of Sarah Stout: that happened to be their discourse. One said to the other: "Marson, she was an old sweetheart of yours." "Aye," said he, "but she cast me off; but I reckon by this time a friend of mine has done her business." Another piece of discourse was: "I believe a friend of mine is even with her by this time." They had a bundle of linen with them, but what it was is not known; and one takes the bundle and throws it upon the bed "Well," said he, "her business is done. Mrs Sarah Stout's courting days are over"; and they sent for wine, my Lord. So, after they had drunk of the wine, they talked, and one pulled out a great deal of money. Said one to the other: "What money have you spent to-day?" Said the other: "Thou hast had forty or fifty pounds for thy share." Said the other: "I will spend all the money I have, for joy the business is done."
My Lord, this discourse happened to be among them, which made people of the house consider and bethink themselves, when the next day they heard of Sarah Stout's being found in the river."
After witnesses for the Crown had been called, Mr Cowper spoke in his own defence, saying: "It is utterly impossible I could be concerned in this fact, if I had had all the motives and provocations in the world to have done it. The maid, Sarah Walker, who is the single witness, I take it, that says anything in the least relating to me, said but now the clock had struck eleven before she carried up the coals, and about a quarter of an hour after, while she was warming the bed, she heard the door clap, and some time after she came down and found that I and her mistress were gone. Now, in point of time, I shall prove it utterly impossible I could be guilty of the fact I am accused of, being seen to come into the Glove Inn as the clock struck eleven, and staying there more than a quarter of an hour was, after several things done at my lodging, in bed before twelve o'clock, and went no more out that night, as I shall prove."
After Mr Cowper the other prisoners entered upon their defence, which was that they did not murder Sarah Stout, and knew nothing whatever about her death. Medical witnesses were called, and several of the dead woman's friends testified to her being of a melancholy disposition. The jury, withdrawing for about half-an-hour, returned with their verdict that neither Mr Cowper nor any one of the other three prisoners was guilty; and thereupon they were all discharged.