The scene of the mysterious death of Mr. Thomas Price was Manchester, where he carried on an extensive business, as a fustian manufacturer; the accused James Evans being in his employment, as warehouseman.
It would appear that on Friday, the 3rd February 1826, at about noon-time, the attention of some persons passing through Marsden-square, Manchester, was attracted to the premises occupied by Mr. Price, in consequence of its being discovered that smoke was issuing in considerable quantities from the window of a room on the first floor, occupied as a counting-house. The greater part of the men employed on the premises were at this time absent, it being their dinner hour; but the alarm being spread some assistance was obtained, and several persons, having procured admittance to the house, attempted to force their way to the point at which the fire was burning. Their efforts were rendered for a considerable time unavailing, in consequence of the density of the smoke; but the windows on the stairs having been opened, the air became gradually cleared, and at length the door of the counting-house was reached. Upon it being pushed open, it was found that a number of pieces of fustian had fallen against it inside, and then through the dense clouds of vapour, in which the apartment was enveloped, the indistinct outline of burning goods was perceived. It was some time before any person could venture to explore the room, but the engines having arrived, any fire that existed was extinguished, and the vapour was by degrees dispelled. By this time, a report had become prevalent that Mr. Price had perished in the flames, and several persons, in consequence, now proceeded to ascertain how far it was justified. They had not searched long, before they found that the suggestion of the death of Mr. Price was well founded; although there was reason to believe, that it had been caused by other means than those of burning or suffocation. The removal of a half-consumed piece of fustian exposed the body of the unfortunate gentleman to view, his clothes being burnt, and his person blackened and scorched. He was quite dead, his head resting upon a piece of fustian, and his left arm being raised as if to ward off a blow. On his body being removed, appearances were perceived which induced a belief that he had been murdered, and that his premises had been set on fire to conceal the bloody deed. It was found that he had received a dreadful fracture on the left side of the skull, through which the brain protruded; and in the immediate vicinity of the spot where he lay, several small portions of the brain were observable, as if they had flown from his head, on his receiving the blow, by which injury was inflicted. A most minute examination of the room took place, but all search for the weapon with which the wound was given proved ineffectual. A supposition was raised that the deceased might have put an end to his existence by shooting himself, and that the wadding might have set fire to the goods, but the impossibility of such a circumstance became apparent. Mr. Price was a man of cheerful disposition, and unlikely therefore to commit suicide; besides which no pistol was found, and the wound was discovered to be of a nature which could not have been caused by a shot. The only remaining solution of the mystery therefore was, that which had been first suggested, that the unfortunate man had been murdered, however improbable it might appear that such a deed would be committed at noonday, in a building, in which there must have been other persons at the time, and which was situated in one of the most crowded places of public business.
At the coroner's inquest, which was held on the next day on the body of the deceased gentleman, Mr. Gresswell, a surgeon, gave evidence as to the cause of death of the deceased. He stated that there were two severe wounds on the head, one on the left side, and one on the right side, and that they appeared to have been given with some blunt instrument. This gentleman was of opinion, that it was possible that the wounds might have been produced by a blow from one of the axes carried by the firemen, on their proceeding to search the room, and that they might have been given as well after as before death; but Mr. Jordan, another medical man, was of a contrary opinion, and thought that they had been given before death, and that a hammer was the instrument with which they had been inflicted. The other evidence which was adduced, and by which it was sought to implicate Evans, was that he was last seen with the deceased, at about one o'clock; and that at the time of the fire being discovered he exhibited the utmost apathy. It was proved also, that the deceased had purchased a hammer, a day or two before his death, which could not now be found; and that on the collar, neck-handkerchief, and shirt of the prisoner marks of blood were found, for the existence of which he did not attempt to account. A coat belonging to him, which was found in the counting-house, was also discovered to be similarly stained; and it was besides proved, that no axes were used by the firemen, on their being called to Mr. Price's premises, a fact which negatived the suggestion thrown out by Mr. Gresswell, and upon this evidence the jury returned a verdict of wilful murder against James Evans.
The prisoner was firm in his protestations of innocence, but he was immediately committed for trial to Lancaster Castle. The case subsequently excited a great degree of interest and the most anxious curiosity was exhibited by the public to procure admittance to the court during the trial. The trial came on at the ensuing assizes at Lancaster, held in the month of March, when a verdict of Not Guilty was returned, and the prisoner was discharged out of custody.
The prisoner appears to have been respectably connected in Manchester, but we are unable to give any minute history of his life. The real circumstances attending the death of Mr. Price have since continued, and doubtless ever will remain, a mystery.