The guilt of this young man was established with irresistible certainty, and other circumstances which transpired after his execution leave no doubt of his having perpetrated the crime for which he suffered. Yet, untainted with either sedition or infidelity, which are often forced to account for moral phenomena, independent of their influence, Lightfoot solemnly protested his innocence with his last breath, and surrendered his life on the scaffold with a coolness and fortitude that would be celebrated in a martyr.
This malefactor's case shows that a man conscious of a deadly crime can die with all the appearance of innocence, apparently pious, and seemingly impressed with the truth of Christianity, which excludes the liar and the impenitent from the joys of Heaven. We cannot find, even in the full view of dissolution, a refutation or confirmation of any system of opinions, so contradictory are the operations of the human mind.
James Lightfoot was one of nineteen children by the same parents, thirteen of whom were living at the time of his execution. His father, who had been accidentally killed in 1816, was a poor man, and his children had all to earn their bread by laborious industry, and were generally employed as servants by farmers in Cumberland, in which county they all resided.
James, in 1820, lived with a farmer, named Leach, at Cumwhitton, and had got married about twelve months before, his age not being quite twenty-one. In the neighbourhood of Cumwhitton lived a tailor, named Maxwell, who, with his son, Thomas Maxwell, an amiable youth of eighteen, worked for all the people in the place. Thomas and Lightfoot were inseparable companions, whenever leisure permitted their being together; yet this youth, generally beloved and esteemed by all who knew him, was treacherously assassinated by Lightfoot, for no other discoverable motive but that of robbing him of fifteen shillings, four of which he had himself paid him a few minutes before.
Country tailors generally go from house to house to work, and are frequently obliged to give servants and poor people credit until such time as they can get money. The 20th of May, in Cumberland, is the day for hiring and paying servants their wages; and this too is the time when country tradesmen expect to get their money. On the eve of this day, in 1820, Thomas Maxwell, being going his annual round to his customers, called at Mr. Leach's, where he was kindly received, as indeed he was everywhere. Having smoked a pipe, he went to the barn where Lightfoot was threshing, to give him a smoke. While in the barn Lightfoot asked his master for four shillings, which be gave to Maxwell, being that sum in his debt. After a little time the youth took his departure, signifying his intention to cross a ford, which was situated a few hundred yards tress Mr. Leach's house, His way lay through a plantation, and here it was that he was murdered.
Immediately after his departure, Lightfoot entered the kitchen, sad took out a loaded gun, although he had been repeatedly told not so touch it. Shortly after, a report of a gun was heard in the plantation through which Maxwell had to pass, and Lightfoot, who had been missed from the barn, was seen running towards the house in a crunching manner, as if he wished not to be seen. His master had entered the house before him, and, though angry at seeing the gun in his hand, he forbore to speak, as Lightfoot was to leave his service the next day.
The father of the murdered youth, alarmed for his son's absence, was inquiring next morning for him; and apprehensive, as the river was much swoln, that he might have been drowned, he had it dragged for the body. Notwithstanding all the poor man's exertions and anxiety, the deceased was not found for a week, so secluded was the place where the mangled remains had been deposited. Suspicion immediately fell upon Lightfoot, and when taken into custody his exclamation betrayed his guilt; for when the constable arrested him his first words were -- 'What! me murder Tom Maxwell on Friday!' The reply of the officer was pointed --'You know the day better than I do.' When taken before the coroner he said to the father of the deceased, 'Do yon think I would murder your son for fifteen shillings?' Fifteen shillings was the exact sum the poor boy had about him; for before he left his father's house his sister saw him put eleven shillings into his parse, which, with the four received from Lightfoot, made the fifteen shillings. The purse was found empty, lying beside the mangled remains of the unfortunate boy.
On the 16th of August, 1820, Lightfoot was brought to trial at Carlisle, and was found Guilty, after a protracted inquiry into his case. The evidence against him was conclusive, though circumstantial; and the learned judge (Bayley) concurred in the verdict of the jury, though in his charge he had mentioned every thing that bore in favour of the prisoner, saying that a verdict of acquittal would not establish the innocence of the accused, but imply that the evidence was not sufficient to convict him.
Lightfoot, on being removed from the bar, declared that he was a murdered man, being perfectly innocent of the charge imputed to him. An idea that the denial of his guilt would diminish the disgrace brought upon his family was probably the motive of his obstinate protestations of innocence. His mother visited him the day before execution, and indirectly encouraged him to deny his crime, by saying, 'You are innocent, James; keep up a good heart.' Yet this woman was well aware of his guilt; for the Sunday after the murder had been committed, and before any one had been accused, she was heard to exclaim, in a fainting fit, 'My son has murdered a man!' Lightfoot's wife brought forth her first child about the time he perpetrated the murder, and so shocked was the poor women on hearing the charge against her husband, that she had not recovered at the time when he was ignominiously launched into eternity.