Our readers will be astonished when they learn that this wretched malefactor, at the time of his execution, had attained the age of fourteen years only; but the circumstances of the bloody tragedy in which he was the chief actor show him to have been fully deserving the fate which befel him
He was indicted at the Maidstone assizes on Friday, the 29th of July, 1831, for the wilful murder of Richard F. Taylor, a boy aged only thirteen years, in a wood in the parish of Chatham.
Few cases had ever produced a greater degree of interest in the county of Kent than that of this wretched culprit, and his still more unfortunate victim.
From the evidence it appeared that Taylor was the son of a poor man of the same name, a tallow-chandler, living at Stroud. On Friday, March the 4th, the little fellow, who was described as having possessed peculiar intelligence and an amiable disposition, was despatched to Aylesford to receive a sum of 9s., the amount of a weekly parish allowance to his father. He was dressed at the time in a "south-wester," with a belcher handkerchief round his neck, blue jacket and waistcoat, brown trousers, and shoes and stockings; and his father, at his request, lent him a knife, with which he expressed his intention to cut a bow and arrow on his way home. The boy arrived safely at Aylesford, when Mr. Cutbath, the relieving officer of the parish, gave him the usual amount of 9s. The boy had before been instructed by his father as to the mode of carrying the money, and the little fellow had shown him how completely and how securely he could conceal it, by putting it into a little bag, which he could carry in the palm of his hand inside a mitten which he wore; and on this occasion he was observed to place the silver in the customary manner in his hand. He usually reached home at about three o'clock, but on this afternoon he did not return. As night advanced his father became alarmed at his absence; and on the next morning he determined to go himself to Aylesford, for the purpose of making inquiries for him. The fact of his having received the money was ascertained; but all search for him proved unavailing, and his parents were left in a most painful state of doubt as to the cause of his sudden disappearance.
Several weeks passed without any circumstance being disclosed at all calculated to calm their apprehensions; and it was not until the 11th of May that the real fact of the murder of the unhappy boy was discovered. On that day a man named Izzard was passing through a bye-path in a wood situated at a distance of about two miles from Rochester, and about thirty rods from the high road,-- a spot which lay in the road from Stroud to Aylesford,-- when he found the body of the boy lying in a ditch. The mitten was cut from his left hand, and his clothes were disarranged as if in a scuffle; and although the body was so much decomposed as to prevent his being able to discover by what means his death had been produced, the remains of blood upon his shirt, coat, and neckerchief left no doubt of the dreadful death which he had suffered.
Information of the discovery was at once conveyed to the parents of the boy, who lost no time in proceeding to the spot; and a surgical examination of the body took place on the ensuing day. Mr. Seaton, a surgeon, conducted this inquiry; and the result was an expression of his undoubted opinion that the deceased had died of a wound which had been inflicted in his throat with a sharp-pointed instrument, the mark of which was still visible, notwithstanding the extreme decomposition of the surrounding flesh, which could not have been inflicted by the deceased himself, unless by the exercise of extraordinary determination and nerve.
A diligent search was immediately instituted for the purpose of endeavouring to find the instrument with which this terrible murder had been committed, and in a short time a common white horn-handled knife was found, corroded with rust, which had every appearance of being the weapon which had been used by the murderer. The discovery of this weapon afforded some clue to the parties implicated in the transaction; and a man named Bell, and his two sons, John Amy Bird Bell, and James Bell, respectively of the ages of fourteen and eleven years, were taken into custody. These persons lived in the poor-house, nearly adjoining the spot where the murder was committed; and the information obtained by the constable, by which the knife which had been found was discovered to have belonged to the boy John Bell, afforded conclusive testimony of one at least of them having been concerned in the foul deed.
An investigation into the circumstances of the murder took place before the magistrates at Rochester, the result of which was, that convincing proof was obtained of the implication of the two boys. During this inquiry it became necessary that the body of the deceased should be exhumed, for it had been buried immediately after it had been discovered and the coroner's jury had sat, in order that the person of the boy might be searched-- an operation which had been previously most unaccountably omitted. At the time of this examination being made, the two younger prisoners were taken to the grave-yard, for the purpose of observing the effect of the proceeding upon them. The elder boy, John, maintained throughout a sullen silence; but his brother James, on being desired to enter the grave and search the pockets of the clothes of the deceased, which had been buried on his person, cheerfully complied, and brought forth the knife which the father of the unhappy lad had lent him on his setting out for Aylesford. This was the only article found upon him, and robbery, therefore, it was at once seen, had been the object of his murderer.
The prisoners after this underwent another examination before the magistrates; and upon their being again remanded, the younger boy confessed that he and his brother had committed the murder -- that his brother had waylaid the deceased in the wood, while he had remained at its outskirts to keep watch. Upon this the evidence of the younger boy was accepted; and the father having been discharged from custody, although strong suspicion had been excited of his having been an accessory after the commission of the crime, the prisoner, John Amy Bird Bell, was committed for trial. The statement of the younger boy exhibited a remarkable degree of depravity in the conduct of his brother and himself. He said that they had long contemplated the murder of their wretched victim, having learned from him the errand upon which he so frequently travelled from Stroud to Aylesford and back; but various circumstances had prevented the completion of their design until the 4th of March, when it was carried out by John, who afterwards gave him 1s. 6d. as his share of the proceeds of the transaction.
On the way to Maidstone, the prisoner acknowledged the truth of his brother's statement, and pointed out a pond where he had washed his hands of the blood of his victim on his way home after the murder. He also pointed to the opening leading to the spot where the murder was committed, and saying to the officer, "That's where I killed the poor boy," added, "He is better off than I am now; do not you think he is, sir?" an observation to which the constable assented. He afterwards proceeded to describe more minutely the circumstances attending the murder. He said that he had met the deceased on his way home, and had entered into conversation with him. He induced him to enter the wood; and having taken him through a great many windings, at last sat down and declared that he had lost himself. The poor boy also sat down and began to cry, declaring that he did not know his way out; upon which he threw himself upon him and stabbed him in the throat. He had some difficulty in finding the money, but at last discovered it in his left hand, from whence he took it. He said that it consisted of three half-crowns, a shilling, and a sixpence, and that he had given the two latter coins to his brother. He added, that he wished that his brother should see him executed, for he knew he should be hanged, as it might prove a warning to him.
At the trial the prisoner exhibited the utmost indifference to his fate, and appeared to entertain no fear for the consequences of his guilt. He maintained his firmness throughout a most feeling address of the learned judge, in which he was sentenced to death, but exhibited some emotion upon his being informed that a part of the sentence was, that his body should be given over to the surgeons to be dissected.
The hardihood which he had displayed hitherto, however, deserted him when he entered his cell, and then he wept bitterly. When his mother visited him on Sunday afternoon, he accused her of being the cause of bringing him to his "present scrape." On Sunday evening, after the condemned sermon had been preached by the reverend chaplain, he made a full confession of his guilt. His statement did not materially differ from that which was given on the trial; but he added some particulars of the conduct of his victim before he murdered him, which make the blood run cold. He said that when he sprang upon Taylor with the knife in his hand, the poor boy, aware of his murderous intention, fell upon his knees before him, offered him all the money he had, his knife, his cap, and whatever else he liked -- said he would love him during the whole of his life, and never tell what had happened to any human being, if he would spare him. This pathetic appeal was lost on the murderer, and, without making any answer to it, he struck the knife into his throat.
At half-past eleven o'clock on Monday morning, the solemn peals of the prison-bell announced the preparations for the execution. After the operation of pinioning had been completed, the culprit, attended by the chaplain, walked steadily to the platform. When he appeared there, he gazed steadily around him; but his eye did not quail, nor was his cheek blanched. After the rope was adjusted round his neck, he exclaimed in a firm and loud tone of voice, "Lord have mercy upon us. Pray, good Lord, have mercy upon us. Lord, have mercy upon us. All the people before me, take warning by me!" Having been asked if he had anything further to say, he repeated the same words, and added, "Lord have mercy upon my poor soul." At the appointed signal, the bolt was withdrawn, and in a minute or two the wretched malefactor ceased to exist. The remainder of his sentence was also carried out, his body being given to the surgeons of Rochester for dissection.
There were not fewer than eight thousand persons present at his execution.