Who murdered a Farmer at Caversham, and was arrested at Church. Executed in March, 1723
THIS inhuman wretch was born at Reading, in Berks. His father was a wool-comber, and had the character of an honest man, but was blamed for not restraining him enough in his youth, for he discovered his evil inclinations as soon as he was capable of action, by pilfering and cheating his companions on every occasion.
Jacob was brought up to his father's trade, but work was not at all agreeable to him. He chose much rather to be in the street, or at the head of any party in robbing orchards, hen-roosts, etc. —- crimes which are commonly the forerunners of greater villainies. By these methods our young wool-comber came to be looked upon as a vagabond while he was yet a boy and under the tuition of his father. When he came to be about twenty years of age nothing would serve his turn but matrimony. So he looked out for one who might be suitable. At last he got acquainted with one Elizabeth Grey, with whom he soon struck up a match. The woman had no bad character before, but had been employed in chair-work by a great many people in the town. Nor was she ever charged with anything after this, but only the concealing of his crimes too long; which might admit of some excuse, considering that she was his wife. His reputation daily grew worse and worse a long time before the unhappy accident that brought him to his end.
There was one Mr Blagrave, a farmer, who lived in Oxfordshire, about two miles from Reading (the River Thames, which divides Berkshire and Oxfordshire, running just by the said town), a man of plentiful fortune and a generous soul, beloved by all both on account of his justice and his open free deportment on every occasion. It was this gentleman's misfortune one Saturday, which is the market-day, to bring a large quantity of corn to Reading and sell it together, receiving about sixty pounds in payment. Saunders, by some means or other, got intelligence of this affair; and knowing that Mr Blagrave commonly stayed pretty late in town to drink with his friends, the devil put it into his head to dog him the remaining part of the day. Mr Blagrave, in the evening, went to the sign of the Catherine Wheel, as usual, and stayed there till he was a little in liquor, though not so much but he remembered his charge of money, and gave it to the landlady. Jacob knew nothing of this last particular, though he was now in the house; so that when he observed Mr Blagrave's condition he resolved to follow him over the fields and take the opportunity of murdering him, for the sake of his money.
Mr Blagrave saw the villain come in and sit down in the public-house; upon which he asked him, with his usual good nature, how he did, ordering the people of the house at the same time to bring him liquor, and paying for what he drank.
About eleven at night Mr Blagrave left the house, with intent to go home. He crossed the meadows to Caversham, which is about a mile, and went through the village very safely, without suspecting in the least that he was pursued. Jacob kept all the way within hearing of the unhappy gentleman. When he came to Caversham he took a large rugged club out of a baker's wood-stack, having before no weapon, wherewith to perpetrate the horrid deed. As soon as they had got through the village the villain mended his pace till he came up to Mr Blagrave's heels, whose security in himself still hindered him from taking any notice of a man behind him. At last, when they were within less than a mile of Mr Blagrave's habitation, Saunders stepped up, just as he was crossing a stile, struck him on the head with his faggot-stick, and laid him flat on the ground, still continuing to beat him in a most barbarous manner, till he thought him quite dead. Yet, even then, he was afraid to search his pockets till he had pulled off his own garters and bound him hand and foot. So unmanly and suspicious is the nature of cruelty. How the monster was disappointed when, upon examination, he found only a shilling and some halfpence instead of sixty or seventy pounds! Yet there was no remedy; all he could do was to abuse the poor bruised, mangled and, as he thought, dead body a little more; which he did by beating it again with his club and stamping upon it with his feet. After he had done all this he went home to bed, not speaking a word of the affair to his wife, who, nevertheless, observed him to be more uneasy than ordinary.
Mr Blagrave, however, was not quite dead, though he lay without either sense or motion till he was found in the morning, by some who knew him, and carried home to his house, where surgeons were sent for immediately. These gave their opinion that it was impossible for him to recover, though he might probably live some days, as his constitution was very strong. It happened as they said, though all the time he continued he was never able to give any account of his misfortune sufficient to fix the murder upon any particular person. Yet as it had been observed that Jacob Saunders was at the ale-house while Mr Blagrave was there, and that he went out much about the same time with him, these circumstances, together with his bad character, created a suspicion of him. This grew so strong that, before Sunday in the afternoon, some persons in the town made it their business to find him out and observe his motions, when they saw him, contrary to his custom, go to church, and look more heavy and dull than usual, though he had always a downward countenance, almost sufficient to have informed people what he was, and bade them beware of him.
While he was at church these persons went to the Mayor, and told him of their suspicions, together with what they had observed and heard; desiring he might be apprehended and examined. The Mayor accordingly granted his warrant, and the officers were sent with it to the church door, where they seized him as he came out, and committed him to the compter. In the meantime another warrant was granted to take up his wife, in order to their being examined separately; and she was put into another room of the same prison, so that they could not converse together. The Mayor and some of his brethren went that same evening to the compter. When Jacob was examined he strongly denied the fact, but seemed very much confused. His wife confessed what time he came home, and the disorder he was in; and when the garters with which Mr Blagrave's hands had been bound were shown her, she owned that she believed they were her husband's garters. They were both ordered to be kept for further examination.
Before next day Jacob found means to get out of the prison, but went no farther than his father's, where he was found, hidden in an obscure garret, to which he had conveyed himself without his father's knowledge. Upon fresh examination he confessed the fact, and told where he had thrown the club with which he performed it. They found the stick at the place he directed them to; whereupon he was committed to the county jail. Understanding that when two or three are concerned in any felony or murder, he that impeaches the rest saves his own life, it came into his head to fix this bloody deed upon two other men whose characters were not sufficient to secure them from being suspected. Accordingly he made affidavit before a justice, who came to see him, against these two persons, who were thereupon seized, and sent immediately to prison. They lay in jail almost the whole of a very cold winter for a fact of which they were entirely innocent, merely through the unparalleled wickedness of Saunders, which prompted him to stick at nothing.
At Reading Assizes, the March following, these men were set at liberty, and Jacob, within two days after, was carried to Oxford, under a strong guard, the fatal club being all the way borne before him. He was sentenced to be hanged in chains at the spot where the shocking deed was perpetrated. However, as this place was near the village of Caversham, the inhabitants prevailed to have it done on a heath about four miles higher in Oxfordshire, called Gallows-Tree Common, from a tree in it, one arm of which grows into another tree, and forms the likeness of a gallows. Here a gibbet was erected. On Monday, about the middle of March, 1723, the wretch was brought to his execution. He was turned off without any pity, and immediately after he was dead he was hung up in irons.