Guilt of Murder disclosed by a Prisoner's Ignorance of Spelling, 1823
ON Tuesday night, the 8th of April, 1823, Mrs Elizabeth Richards, a widow of seventy-five years of age, was murdered at Clapham. The unfortunate lady had resided for thirty years in the same house. She kept no servant, and had no inmate but an elderly lady, named Bell. The latter was in the habit of going out in the evening to attend a place of religious worship. A little after eight o'clock on the evening in question a neighbour woman called to see Mrs Richards, and found her dead; she was lying on her back in the parlour, with an apron stuffed into her mouth. The pockets of the deceased had been violently torn from her side, and her watch and some money taken, as well as several articles of wearing apparel. The villains, however, had missed the principal object of their attack, for a large sum of money which was concealed in an upper room had escaped their search. A paper parcel was found in the hall, on which was written, "Mrs Bell, hat Mrs Richards, Clapham."
The sensation produced by this unprovoked murder was so great that a public meeting was called a day or two after at Clapham, and a reward of two hundred guineas offered for the discovery of the murderers. The active officers of Union Hall police office in the course of a week apprehended a suspicious character, Philip Stoffel, nephew to Mrs Richards, a ruffianly-looking fellow of about twenty years of age. When brought to the police office he denied all knowledge of the crime with which he was accused; but on being requested to write "Mrs Bell, at Mrs Richards," he wrote the word "hat" for "at", in a hand precisely similar to that in which the superscription on the parcel found after the murder was written. Seeing himself detected, he exclaimed: "It is of no use -- I was at the murder!" He then, unsolicited, gave a full account of the whole transaction, and acknowledged who were with him at the time. Previously, however, to this confession, another of the gang, named Thomas Scott, a rat-catcher, was in custody, and had been admitted King's evidence. In his confession, which gave a minute account of the whole transaction, he stated that the robbery was planned by Stoffel, who called in the aid of himself, Keppel and one Pritchard, but that the murder was the act of Keppel alone, Stoffel particularly desiring that they would not hurt his aunt.
In consequence of the information obtained by Scott's confession, the officers went in pursuit of Keppel and Pritchard. After having travelled from Gravesend to Portsmouth, they succeeded in apprehending Keppel, who was disguised in a smock-frock, etc. Pritchard escaped the pursuit of justice, as he was never apprehended. Keppel denied all knowledge of the murder, and behaved in the most hardened manner. Stoffel had every expectation of being admitted King's evidence, but he was not so fortunate, and he was arraigned along with Keppel at the Croydon Assizes, on the 25th of July, for the murder of Mrs Richards.
Having been declared guilty by the jury, the learned judge (Mr Serjeant Onslow) put on the black cap, and passed the awful sentence of the law upon the prisoners. Keppel, whose conduct throughout the whole transaction had been most thoughtless and hardened, then directly addressed the Court in the most abominable language. He told the judge that he was a -- old rogue, and damned him and his laws together; and was prevented from continuing his abuse only by being forcibly removed from the dock.
The unhappy wretches continued, up to the day of their execution, which took place at Horsemonger Lane jail on the 28th of July, 1823, to exhibit the utmost levity of demeanour; but were at length brought to a just sense of their condition on the morning of their death, and were turned off, professedly lamenting their past misspent life.