Friday, April 08, 2011

The Murder at the White Horse Inn, Chelmsford, 1654.

My blog here has been a stranded whale since before Christmas. Last term precluded any extras: teaching, marking and being admissions tutor took up all my time.

Still, I hope to start picking things back up a little, and my post today gives an example of laudable persistence. Prior to a pre-Easter trip into Suffolk, I have been looking at a few Suffolk-related witchcraft pamphlets, and also happened on A True relation of a horrid murder committed upon the person of Thomas Kidderminster, of Tupsley in the county of Hereford, Gent., at the White-Horse Inn in Chelmsford, in the county of Essex, in the month of April, 1654.

This pamphlet was not published until 1688, and it relates events that began in 1654, but came to light only in 1662-3. Quite why the pamphlet appears so late is a mystery, a mystery deepened by the condition of the EEBO copy, which does look like an editor or censor’s hand has gone through it, marking passages for deletion.

Thomas Kidderminster was a man who first lost all his inheritance, and then was brutally killed for the fortune he had managed to make through his own exertions. His father, who had re-married, died when Thomas was 11: Thomas’ step-mother then re-married, and proceeded to divest her first husband’s son and heir of his estate.

Kidderminster gave up on all this, and set out to make his own way: he became a steward to the Bishop of Ely, came to own land, and lent money too. Boosted by this, he married, and, spotting a bad debtor in the making up (Sir Miles Sandys, who had speculated ruinously on reclaiming fenlands) in Ely, decided that he wanted to relocate his resources elsewhere, and that he would pull out of all his Ely properties, and reclaim what debts he could from Sir Miles.

After making his local transactions, Kidderminster changed £600 of silver for gold in Cambridge. He then faced a trip to London, and, considering the main route more likely to be dangerous, opted to take what is described in the text as the by-road through Chelmsford. As he had on other occasions, he stopped at the White Horse Inn in Chelmsford (which is still there). This was at some date in April 1654. He never arrived back in London, where his pregnant wife was awaiting his return.

Mistress Anne Kidderminster gave birth in August 1654. She made inquiries about her husband, but was hardly placed to retrace his likely journey and ask around (though it is clear that there would have been plenty of local gossip if she had inquired in Chelmsford). Her husband was variously reported to be in Amsterdam, Cork, and Jamaica. She found means to have inquiry made in all these places. Nothing was to be heard of him. Obliged to fend for herself, Anne Kidderminster became a wet nurse in Gloucestershire.

What had become of her husband remained a mystery. Then, one day in 1662 or 1663, her sister was reading ‘the then News-Pamphlet’ in her company, and suddenly made the dramatic announcement ‘ Sister, here is news of your Husband’.

What had happened was that the White Horse had changed owners at the death of the Innkeeper, who had been a man called Sewell. The new owner had decided to replace a fence between his ground and his neighbours with a clay wall. During the necessary digging, what was initially taken to be a brown bowl was unearthed: this was quickly identified as a skull, with an ominous hole in its left side, and the rest of the skeleton was soon found. The body had been crammed into the grave, bent double. At a local inquest, where the surviving Mrs Sewell had been inconclusively questioned, Sir Orlando Bridgeman had decided that the only way forward, to find the identity of the victim, was to place an account in the ‘Publick Diurnal’. It was this account Mistress Kidderminster’s sister had read. The account in the newspaper apparently suggested that the victim might have been buried ten years ago.

It was put to Anne Kidderminster by her friends that she might give up her quest: but she apparently had visions of her late husband, ‘in the habit he usually wore, looking very sternly upon her; but one night, as she lay in Bed, her Husband appear’d to her in a White Sheet, with Streaks of Blood upon it’ . So she set off towards Chelmsford with a male companion. En route, they were benighted at Rumford, some 15 miles short, but there she met a Mary Mattocks, wife of a sawyer, who was there on the merest chance: she had forgotten to purchase a piece of chalk, without which her sawyer husband could not work. On this trip back to Rumford, she met Anne Kidderminster, who asked her about Chelmsford, and than about the White Horse. Mary Mattocks has plenty to say (we learn later that she had overheard the chief witness to the events describe them to her aunt): that the present Innkeeper there is a good man, but the previous one, Sewell, ought to have been hanged, ‘for there was certainly a gentleman Murder’d in the House.’. The hostler at the inn she also accuses of involvement, and he actually now lives in Rumford. But a messenger sent to him says too much, and he refuses to come to meet Mistress Kidderminster.

She is sent on to Chelmsford by her eager informant, with the suggestion that she stay with her aunt, a Mistress Shute, at the sign of the Cock: but on arrival, Mistress Shute has since died of the plague, so Mistress Kidderminster goes to the White Horse Inn, and talks to the new innkeeper, Master Turner. Turner has a good reputation, but his Inn doesn’t: for business reasons, he is keen to have this case of the unknown murder victim cleared up. He suggests that they leave the back way, and go straight to the widow Sewell’s. This they do, and the widow is at first vociferous about Turner causing trouble for her, but learning who Anne Kidderminster is, will say no more.

Mistress Kidderminster stays the night at the White Horse, in the room adjacent to the one where her husband had been murdered. She is so frightened at this prospect that she has the maid sleep in the same bed with her. Unsurprisingly, Anne alone hears ‘a great Noise in the next Room, which went out into the Gallery, where something seem’d to fall with that violence, that she thought the Room shook, and afterwards came to her Chamber-door, and lifted up the Latch’. All the landlord can say is that it has been ‘such things had been often heard before’.

In his efforts to clear the reputation of his Inn, Turner had had the local JP’s issue an arrest warrant against Sewell and his wife. Sewell died suddenly after this warrant was issued, after a spell of walking about ‘like a man who had been craz’d in his understanding’, during which he had very nearly confessed everything to an old civil war comrade (from the parliamentary army), who had warned him against saying any more, for if he said more than he had, he would be obliged to denounce him. The local word was that Sewell had been poisoned by his wife to silence him permanently.

Mistress Kidderminster now shifted her inquiries to the former hostler, and man with the splendid fenland name of Moses Drayne: when she gets to Rumford, he is pointed out to her as he stands in a glover’s shop, and she follows him to the One Bell Inn. There she confronted him about the man who left his horse behind at the White Horse Inn. Was it her husband? She speaks of the victim’s clothes, which seem to correspond, but Kidderminster’s grey satin cap did not correspond to a cap Drayne says was black. She says that her husband’s cap was black. Drayne’s face (well, why fight a cliché?) drains of colour, and he falls silent, nor will he meet her eyes. But he tells her to go to the village of Kilden, and ask for Mary Kendall, who had been a servant in the Inn ‘at the time of the Gentleman’s being there’. A warrant for Drayne’s arrest, at Mary Mattock’s evidence is issued, but forgotten about.

Mistress Kidderminster does two things: she finds out her late husband’s manservant in Ely, to have confirmation of the clothes he was wearing at the time of his journey. She then finds Mary Kendall, who has already been questioned by Justices who have bound her over: Kendall refuses to say anything. Kendall later jumps bail, and is only rediscovered by the merest chance: the coroner on the Chelmsford case is out riding near the house of Kendall’s brother, when a carrier delivers a letter from her. This enables her to be traced to the Walnut Tree in Mile-End Green. Mary is taken to Newgate, where her fellow prisoners assure her that her flight will convict her. She decides to tell all she knows.

At this point, the second plague victim in this narrative: the widow Sewell dies. But the arrest warrant on Drayne is remembered and finally carried out. In prison, he says enigmatically that ‘he fears nothing but the dyer’. Mary Kendall’s story when she tells it is dramatic, and completely true, if likely to be a bit self-serving. She was maidservant at the White Horse, and saw Kidderminster in his room, talked to him, folded him a sleeping cap from a napkin. In her presence, he (foolish man) entrusted his cloak bag with £600 in gold in it to his landlord.

She was sent by her mistress to sleep with the younger children, ‘that being not her usual Lodging’, and locked in there. Between one and two in the morning, she heard ‘a great fall of something, that it shook the Room where she lay’. When she got up the next morning, her master, mistress, and the hostler were in front of the fire drinking. Neither they nor the Sewell’s two daughters (Betty and Priss) seemed to have been to bed. She is told that the gentleman had left, leaving her a groat as a tip, but her suggestion that she should then go and tidy the room is turned down: the room, she is told, has already been set to rights. This room then stayed locked for eight to nine weeks. Eventually there came a day when her master sent her to fetch him his cloak. In his wardrobe were garments she recognised at the gentleman’s, and the cloak bag. Mary Kendall said that, taking the incriminating clothes downstairs with her, she had directly challenged her mistress, had been bloodily attacked by her, until finally her master had told her to be quiet. Quite obviously she took £20 from her master as hush money (but Kendall subsequently denied having received any money at all). Moses Drayne the hostler, Kendall asserts, took £60 from the £600 and the victim’s clothes, which he sent to a dyer in Mousam to be dyed black. The dyer had asked him why he is doing this, as the clothes were of a ‘better colour’ as they were, but Drayne asserted that he does not like the grey. The sudden prosperity of both the Sewells and Moses Drayne is recollected in detail.

Mary Mattocks in her evidence confirms Kendall’s: three women met while drying washing in the church yard, and she heard Kendall tell the whole story to her aunt Shute. This was shortly after the beating she had received from the Innkeeper’s wife. Mattocks testifies that she heard Kendall tell her aunt Shute about how her master had pulled his wife and the struggling Kendall apart, and gave the latter £20 hush money. Shute advised Kendall to give the money back, for the £20 might hang her in twenty year’s time. But clearly this was a large enough sum to purchase some kind of silence.

Brought to court, Drayne was challenged to pick up the early modern ‘Exhibit A’, Kidderminster’s battered skull: he trembles so much he can scarcely do it. A further tale is told of a boy servant at the fatal inn: Sewell had him tied to a bed post and was whipping him mercilessly when Kendall entered the room. The boy cried at this point that ‘It was well for him she came, or else his Master would have murder’s him, as they did the Gentleman, when he blooded him into the Hogs-Pail’. The boy also said ‘He had heard that the Gentleman was knock’d on the side of the Haed with a Pole-ax, and afterwards his Throat was cut by his Mistriss, with the help of her Daughter Betty’. This boy is not in court: somehow the Sewells had shipped him off to Barbados for spreading his story round town. But Mistress Kidderminster, directed by the coroner, finds the Merchant in Billingsgate to whom the boy was sold (sold? – that’s what it says).

Neighbours are brought into court, who claim they heard cries during the night of the murder, but were fobbed off by the Sewells when they went round in the morning to inquire if all was well. The local washerwoman had been asked (it is also reported), if, after the night of the murder, she had cleaned any linen from the Inn which was ‘more bloody than ordinary’ (I suppose that blood stains from preparing meat are implied. The boy’s words imply that Kidderminster’s blood was drained from his body in the same way that a pig has its throat cut and is hanged up to bleed. This could have been very messy, if done indoors). The washerwoman denied this vehemently, asserting that she had not seen any such thing, and saying that ‘she might rot alive’ if this story was in any way untrue. The generally factual narrative veers once more towards a more 16th century sort of story of how providence, though not always seen, works out its mysterious course: ‘and so it hapned; for a little time after her Bowels began to rot away, and she became detestably loathsome till she died’.

A local farmer testifies that he had stopped at the Inn after selling barley. He had £20 on his person: he put furniture against the door of his room: and heard Sewell and Drayne come and try the door in the middle of the night…

Drayne is sentenced to death for his part in the murder. In the usual bundling together of cases in a seventeenth century court, a woman sentenced to death for having two husbands (so it says) challenges the hostler to tell the truth, and save Kendall, who has been imprisoned ‘during pleasure’: he confirms that her story was true, and that she had no part in the murder. But then his wife appears and shuts him up: he is subsequently silent even at the gallows. The two daughters of Sewell, who have both Kendall’s evidence and Drayne’s partial confession against them, were also arrested and tried, but the Grand Jury decided that there is not enough evidence to convict them.

After her success in Chelmsford, the widow Kidderminster remarried, and tried to recover her husband’s inheritance in Herefordshire on behalf of their daughter. . Here, she was less fortunate, even though between the years 1670 and 1680, she had ‘three ejectments brought at Common law, and three Bills exhibited in the High Court of Chancery’ against the surviving son of the usurping couple: he asserts that the property had been justly purchased.

The 1688 pamphlet is interesting for its date: why then, and not before? I suppose Mistress Kidderminster did her best to recover the Herefordshire properties, failed, and then found a sympathetic ear, and told her whole story. More remarkable still is the way the EEBO copy seems to have been in the hands of an editor or censor. This reader crosses out whole passages. The first encounter between Mistress Kidderminster and Mary Mattocks is crossed out, and the account of the widow hearing the bumps in the night when she stays at the White Horse. Also, he firmly deletes from the text the names of the various JP’s and Judges that the narrative mentions, as though a proper regard for the legal profession keeps the personal names of the chief officers of the law out of mere pamphlets. Conversely, a Christian name is written in, and then there are an intriguing looking set of annotations which disappear into the crease of the physical book, and so cannot possibly be read on the page image off the microfilm.

What do we learn from all this? The toughness of 17th century women, their ramshackle legal processes, that boys could be sold, that women dried washing in churchyards, what the price of silence was (and how limited a silence could be so purchased).


NP said...

Welcome back! What a great post - I am mystified, like you, by the crossings out. Having looked it up on EEBO it's strange that some passages have been excised entirely, while some have very specific clauses of a sentence removed. I wonder if the Huntington (where the EEBO copy is from) knows how it came into their hands? According to the ESTC there are also copies in 5 other libraries which might be worth a look.

DrRoy said...

Thanks for the comment, it's encouraging when one could so easily just slip away entirely ... The interventions in the text are indeed baffling. The 'editor' seems to cross out some vivid passages that, removed, would make the pamphlet less likely to sell. He (one assumes 'he') certainly removes names of JP's and Judges. I just cannot make sense of the annotation, even when downloaded as a pdf and blown up to 200%. I had a colleague who knew a lot about the censorship of Marvell's prose works, I might ask him if this is the kind of contemporary work on a text he has seen before. RB.