This remarkable murder was committed on the 3rd of January, 1831, although the strong arm of the law did not reach its guilty perpetrators until August 1834. The case is worthy of note, not only from the length of time which intervened between the murder, and the time when the murderers were discovered, but also from a remarkable dispute having arisen with regard to the execution of the criminals, and the consequent delay of the sentence passed upon them.
The murder, as we have stated, occurred at the beginning of the year 1831, a period when there was much discontent exhibited by the labouring population of England, engaged in agricultural and in manufacturing pursuits. At Ashton, and many other places in the neighbourhood of Manchester, which were thickly inhabited by cotton-spinners, and other persons employed in the various factories of that district, the feeling of distaste towards the masters was almost universal; and "unions "were formed amongst the men, who were bound by the terms of the compact into which they entered, to work only at certain prices for their labour, which they desired to dictate to their masters, and to hold commune with no man who presumed to labour for smaller wages than those they chose to accept. Although there can be no doubt that in this case the murder which was committed by Moseley, Garside, and their companions, arose out of the prevailing system of combination amongst the workmen, it would be hard from such a fact to draw an inference, condemnatory of the whole system, and of all parties to it. Mr. Thomas Ashton, the victim of the murder, was the younger son of a master cotton-spinner at Hyde. It is remarkable that at this place little discontent was shown by the workmen, who were employed at the usual wages; but the master-spinners of Ashton justified their refusal to raise the wages of their men, upon this circumstance; and as this was known to have excited dissatisfaction among the workmen at the latter place, little doubts were entertained that they were the persons to whom the diabolical act would be traced.
The circumstances attending the murder were these:-- Mr. Ashton had taken tea at his father's house at an early hour on the evening in question, and had gone to visit a newly-erected factory, about a third of a mile distant. He quitted the factory at half-past six o'clock, and his murdered remains were found on the road leading towards his father's house at eight o'clock. He had been killed by a shot through the heart; and the appearance of the body showed that the assassin must have stood close to him at the time of the murder. On his left side in front was one large wound, evidently produced by the discharge of slugs from a pistol, which had entered his body so immediately after their quitting the muzzle of the weapon as not to have had time to separate, as would have been the case had they been discharged at him from a distance. In his back were two wounds, a small distance asunder, which showed that the slugs had diverged in the body of the murdered man, and had thus passed out at his back. This event excited universal astonishment at Hyde, as well from the amiability of character of the unfortunate deceased, as from the absence of all apparent cause for the sanguinary deed; and rewards from the friends of Mr. Ashton, and from the government, amounting to 2000l. were immediately offered for the apprehension of the murderers, and for the evidence of any accomplice who had not actually fired the fatal shot.
Officers were despatched in all directions to endeavour to secure the offenders, but years passed ere the real authors of the diabolical crime were discovered. William Moseley, a convict in Chester jail, in the month of April 1834, disclosed the leading circumstances of the murder; and Garside and Joseph Moseley, the brother of the prisoner, its leading perpetrators, were shortly afterwards apprehended at Oldham.
On Thursday, August the 7th 1834, the prisoners were put upon their trial at the Chester assizes. William Moseley was the principal witness, but his evidence was corroborated in many important particulars. He stated that the murder had been committed at the instance of a man named Samuel Scholfield, a unionist, who gave as a reason for it, the unjust measure of wages paid by Mr. Ashton. The subject was broached by this person to them all; and for the trifling sum of ten pounds, they undertook to carry out the diabolical plot. In pursuance of the agreement, they all met near the mill belonging to Mr. Ashton, called the Woodley Mill; and stationing themselves in a quiet position, they awaited the coming of their victim. Shortly before seven o'clock, his approach was observed; and Garside rising and advancing to him, shot him dead before he had time to litter a word, or to offer the smallest resistance to the cowardly attack made upon him. The three murderers instantly ran off, without waiting to remove the body from the middle of the road where it lay; and as we have already said, at eight o'clock it was discovered. The price of the murder was paid on the same night, the three murderers and Scholfield going on their knees, and swearing to each other, that "they wished God would strike them dead if they ever told." The oath was strictly obeyed until William Moseley, being imprisoned in Chester jail for some other crime, disclosed all he knew of the transaction. The witness was subjected to a severe cross-examination, in which he admitted that his reputation was stained by a long list of the blackest crimes. His testimony, however, received so great confirmation from the statements of other witnesses, that a verdict of "Guilty "was returned against both prisoners, and they were ordered for execution on the morning of the following Saturday.
A difficulty, however, now arose upon the subject of the proper officer, by whom this sentence was to be carried into execution. The sheriff of the County Palatine, and the sheriff of the city of Chester, each refused to perform this painful duty, upon the ground that the other was the officer to whose lot it fell. The wretched prisoners remained up to Saturday morning in suspense as to the period of their execution; and on that day Mr. Justice Parke granted a respite until the 18th of the same month, in order that the difficulty might be settled.
This delay, the cause of which was intimated to the convicts, enabled the proper officers to hold communications with them upon the subject of the offence of which they had been convicted. Both admitted their participation in the murder, but denied that Scholfield was at all implicated in the affair. Garside declared that if an offer which he had made to become a witness had been accepted, the whole truth would have been arrived at; but, as it was, they had got nothing but a parcel of lies, and he should say "note" (nothing).
On the day after the trial, William Moseley was carried to Stockport, and there, upon the information which he had given, Scholfield was taken into custody. He, however, denied the truth of the assertions which had been made of his guilt, but he was detained in custody.
On Saturday the 16th of August, the prisoners were further respited until the 18th of September; and from that date they were again respited until the commencement of Michaelmas Term, in the following November, should enable the Court of King's Bench to determine the question in dispute between the sheriffs.
On Thursday the 6th of November, the Attorney-General moved for a certiorari, to bring the conviction into that court, and also for writs of habeas corpus, to bring up the persons of the prisoners, with a view to the question being discussed. The learned gentleman explained the objections made by the two sheriffs. Previously to the passing of the Statute 11 Geo. IV., all complaints in the County Palatine of Chester were tried by the Chief Justice of Chester, and rules of court were made for the execution of such prisoners as were condemned to death, which orders were carried into effect by the sheriff of the city of Chester. By the act in question, the court by which this authority was exercised, was abolished, and in its stead assizes, under commissions of oyer and terminer, were ordered to be held in Chester, as in other counties. By the sixteenth section, however, it was provided, "that nothing therein contained should affect the duties or obligations to be performed by the magistrates and citizens of Chester." In the present case, the sheriff of the city of Chester refused to execute the sentence on the prisoners, alleging that his jurisdiction in such respects extended only to the Palatine Court, which had been abolished, and that if there was any such obligation, it rested on the mayor and citizens, and not upon the sheriff. Under these circumstances, the learned judge had felt it to be his duty to respite the prisoners from time to time, and indictments had been preferred against both sheriffs, which, however, had been ignored. Ex officio informations would be filed against them by him (the Attorney-General) for their neglect of their duty; but as much time must elapse before the questions involved in those informations could be legally discussed, he was compelled to come to the court, with a view to the carrying into effect the sentence of the law upon the prisoners, an object which was of the highest importance. It would be in the power of the court to order the prisoners to be executed by either of the disputing sheriffs; by the sheriffs of Middlesex, or Surrey; or by their own marshal. Several cases were then cited, in which the court had interfered with regard to the execution of offenders, and the writs were granted.
On Tuesday the 11th of November, and Thursday the 13th, the prisoners were brought before the Court of King's Bench. Mr. Dunn, on behalf of Garside, contended that the court could not award sentence against that prisoner, because he had made a statement to the authorities of Cheshire with regard to the circumstances of the murder, which, by the proclamation which had been issued, offering a reward of 2000l. and a pardon, to any accomplice of the actual murderer, entitled him to be liberated. This fact having been pleaded by the learned gentleman, on behalf of his client, in obedience to the direction of the court, the Attorney-General was heard on the other side. He contended that the jury had distinctly found that Garside had fired the fatal shot; and that even taking the statement of the prisoner to be correct, he was not therefore entitled to his pardon.
Lord Denman held this good ground of demurrer to the plea, and execution having been prayed, the court awarded that it should be done by the marshal, assisted by the sheriff of Surrey.
The prisoners were then conveyed to the King's Bench prison, to await their death. A petition was prepared by Mr. Dunn, on behalf of Garside, setting forth the same facts which were urged by the learned gentleman in court, but it was declared to be of no avail; and on Tuesday the 25th of November, the wretched convicts expiated their foul offence on the top of Horsemonger-lane jail.
Garside had, during the latter portion of his imprisonment, striven to shift the guilt of firing the pistol upon the witness, Joseph Moseley, and it was not until the very moment of his being turned off, that he retracted this allegation. His conduct, as well as that of his fellow prisoner, during the whole period of their confinement, had been remarkable for its extreme coolness; and on the morning of their execution, their demeanour was in no way altered.
At nine o'clock in the morning the prisoners mounted the scaffold, Garside being first, and they were immediately turned off; Garside's last words being, "All the statements that I have made at different times since my conviction are false."
At the Assizes for the County of Chester, held in the month of April, 1835,a bill of indictment was preferred against Scholfield, but it was ignored; and he was, in consequence, set at liberty.