The case of these diabolical criminals, as it was proved at the trial, which took place at Shrewsbury on the 2nd of August 1828, before Mr. Justice Gazelee, scarcely finds a parallel in the whole series which we present to our readers. It exhibits the dreadful features, of a mother and father-in-law combining to procure the commission of murder, to save their son from justice; and that son, the object of their solicitude, procuring the conviction of those by whose means he had been before saved from an ignominious end, for the offence to which they had made themselves parties on his behalf, to relieve himself from the due reward of further crime committed by himself.
It appeared that, in the neighbourhood of Market Drayton, on the borders of Shropshire and Staffordshire, there existed a dreadfully depraved set of people; and that a gang, to the amount, it was said, of from forty to sixty, was confederated for general purposes of plunder. The nucleus of this gang consisted of several persons, closely knit by ties of relationship, of connexion, and of neighbourhood, as well as of guilt; while the general depravity of the district enabled them, as occasion required, to add to their numbers, to almost any extent. One of these persons, by name Thomas Ellson, was in 1827 taken up for stealing potatoes; and, whilst in jail upon that charge, an accusation of sheep-stealing was brought against him. The chief evidence upon which this latter charge, a capital one, depended, was that of a man who had occasionally joined in the proceedings of the gang, named James Harrison. It became, therefore, the object of the friends of Ellson to get this man out of the way. First, they determined to poison him; and Ellson's father-in-law, John Cox, went to an apothecary's shop to buy arsenic for that purpose. The boy in the shop refused to sell it to him, unless some one else were by, which, as there was no one else in the house, could not then be the case; and Cox, probably not liking such formal proceedings, retired.
The next step was one of the most extraordinary in the whole case. Ann Harris, Ellson's mother, who had married a second husband of the name of Harris, went to a woman living in Drayton, whom she knew, and asked her if her husband were not going to Newcastle. The woman answered that he was. "I wish then," said Harris, "that he would buy me an ounce of arsenic." "What do you want it for?" "I want it to poison that damned scoundrel, James Harrison."-- The woman upon this remonstrated -- assured her it was a very wicked thing to poison James Harrison,-- and, after some conversation, old Ann Harris went away, promising that she would not carry out her expressed intention.
Poison having failed, it was determined to have recourse to more direct means; and Ann Harris and old Cox subscribed fifty shillings apiece, to hire Cox's two sons, and a young fellow of the name of Pugh, to put Harrison to death! Harrison lodged in the house of Pugh's father, and, it was said, occupied the same bed with Pugh himself. On the night of the murder, Pugh, to use his own expression, "'ticed" Harrison out of the house, to go and steal some bacon. At a spot previously agreed upon, they met the two younger Coxes; and proceeding to a remote place, Pugh seized Harrison by the throat, while John Cox, the younger, took hold of his legs, and throwing him down, they strangled him. Meanwhile, Robert Cox was digging the grave!
The wretched man thus disposed of, everything remained perfectly quiet and unsuspected. It was generally supposed that he had gone out of the way to avoid giving evidence on Ellson's trial; though it seems very extraordinary that, after the latter had been acquitted, the non-return of Harrison excited no suspicion. No supposition of his death, however, appeared to have arisen, and the murder was discovered only by the means of Ellson himself. As soon as this fellow came out of jail, the Coxes, Pugh, and his mother, at various times, sometimes when several of them were together, and sometimes separately, told him all that had taken place, vaunting to him how they had saved him. The very night of his release, old Cox, one of his sons, and Pugh, bragged to him, that "if it had not been for them, he would not be there,"-- and the next day, when he was at his mother's, Robert Cox came thither, and said to her with oaths and abuse, "If thee doesn't give me more money, I will fetch him, and rear him up against thy door!"-- alluding to the murdered man!
Nothing, however, transpired till towards the end of June 1828, when Ellson was taken up for stealing fowls, and then, in order to save himself from the punishment attending this offence (at the most seven years' transportation), he told all that the guilty persons had told him; and on his evidence they were apprehended.
Such are the facts of this revolting case; but we must describe some of the peculiarities of the trial itself.
The five prisoners were placed at the bar: old Ann Harris stood first;-- she seemed what would ordinarily be called a smart old woman -- her features were small and regularly formed, and her countenance was remarkable only for a pair of exceedingly keen and sparkling black eyes, the expression of which, however, was certainly in no degree indicative of ferocity. Old Cox stood next to her, and his countenance presented a most unpleasing, almost revolting, aspect. It was easy to believe the current story that he was at the head of the gang at Drayton -- the very patriarch of all the thieves and scoundrels in that part of the country. He had, undoubtedly, brought his sons up to robbery as to a trade, and he had now hired them to commit murder! The two sons were next to him, and were not remarkable in their aspect. Pugh was last -- and he was an ill-looking fellow enough, though not strikingly so.
As the trial proceeded, one of its peculiarities soon became apparent. This was that a vast proportion of the witnesses were of the closest kindred to the accused. And what was more horrid, was the fact of the father of the murdered man being called to speak to the identity of the body, which, having lain in the earth nearly a year, was so totally decomposed as to be recognizable only by the clothes; but to this the father added that "the colour of the hair was that of his son!"
It shocked all present greatly, when the father and mother of Pugh were called to speak to some minute facts with regard to the night on which Harrison was murdered, with reference to his leaving their house, where he lodged. The chief evidence was what the prisoners themselves had told to Ellson; but he being a person of execrable character, it was necessary to support his testimony by every corroborative circumstance that could be proved. Accordingly, in the early part of the trial, these wretched old people were brought forward to give testimony to facts bearing against their son's life: they were but very slight, but, as far as they went, they were confirmatory of the main story; and it is difficult to say whether the extreme coolness and composure with which the parents gave their evidence were not still more dreadful than if they had been violently affected.
Besides Ellson himself, there were also his wife, who was the daughter of one and the sister of two of the prisoners, and his sister, who was the daughter of another, called as witnesses! These young women also gave their evidence without strong emotion, although they certainly seemed far more impressed with the position in which they stood than the other witnesses named.
Ellson was calm, decided, and firm, to a degree which gave rise to unmingled disgust in every one who heard him. It will be recollected that the crime had been committed to save him -- Pugh certainly committed the murder for hire; and the Coxes, perhaps, might have had some interests of their own mixed up with his;-- but, even as regarded these last, the first object had been his escape; and his mother undoubtedly had dyed her hands in blood, solely to save her child.
The witness was a fine, well-looking fellow of about five-and –twenty -- and, undoubtedly, until the severe cross-examination he underwent caused a struggle -- though a perfectly successful one -- to keep down his temper, his countenance was rather agreeable than otherwise. His story was clear, consecutive, and, no doubt, true. Each individual concerned in the transaction had, immediately on his release from jail, very naturally told to him, for whose sake it had been committed, all the circumstances regarding the murder. Pugh appears to have been the most detailed in his account, and to have rather bragged that it was he who "'ticed un out o' feyther's house, to steal some bacon,"-- and that it was he who had "gripped un by the throat." In some instances, the Coxes were present during these recitals, and at others they spoke of the subject to Ellson themselves. While this part of the evidence was going forward, the strongest horror was excited against the perpetrators of the crime -- so treacherous as it was in its concoction, and so coldly cruel in the manner in which it was carried into effect. Moreover, the idea that Pugh certainly altogether, and the two young Coxes in great part, had committed this murder for hire was a circumstance of a character so new, and so awfully depraved, that the story carried the auditory along with it, and they forgot altogether the scoundrel who was telling it. But when he came to speak of his own mother, what must have been their sensations! Her guilt, dreadful as it was, almost disappeared; the thought could be only of the unnatural and ungrateful villain, who, to save himself from a light and temporary punishment, was thus giving to the gallows the mother who had born him, for a crime caused by her extravagant affection for him. He repeated twice or three times, in answer to the questions of the examining counsel, who felt it necessary to make the matter quite clear, that his mother had told him that she and old Cox had given fifty shillings a piece to have Harrison murdered. He said this as calmly as any other person would narrate any indifferent fact -- and his mother's eyes were on his face all the time!
Mr. Charles Phillips cross-examined the witness at great length, very severely, and very skilfully: he drew from him that he had been in jail repeatedly, almost constantly, for theft of all kinds and descriptions; and he drove him into attempts to shuffle, very nearly approaching to prevarication, on several minor points, not connected with the case. But, regarding the case itself, he was not shaken at all; and although the universal sensation in the court must have been that of loathing and disgust for the mercenary cold-bloodedness of the proceedings to which he had had recourse, no serious doubt could for one moment be entertained that he was telling the truth.
The jury under these circumstances were compelled to return a verdict, consigning the wretched prisoners to a violent death.
The extreme sentence of the law was immediately passed upon the convicts, and their execution was appointed to take place on the following Monday, the 4th of the same month.
On the next day, a reprieve was granted in the case of Robert Cox, one of the sons, upon grounds which do not appear to have been well understood at the time, and he was transported for life. A respite for a week was also granted in the case of the elder Cox, and Ann Harris, who had been convicted only as accessories before the fact; but the awful punishment of death was left to be carried out in its due course upon Pugh, and John Cox the younger. The former, after his trial, declared his sense of the justice of his sentence, and that he regarded the termination of his career as a happy one, for that he constantly saw Harrison by his side; while the latter, with cold-blooded firmness, urged him to keep up his spirits, for that "he could die but once."
The execution had been appointed to take place at mid-day; and at a few minutes before twelve o'clock all the convicts, together with Ellson, were drawn up in the inner yard of the jail. Pugh and Cox were then pinioned; and while Ann Harris, old Cox, and his son Robert, were reconducted to the jail, Ellson was carried to a spot from which he must witness the conclusion of this dreadful scene. The authority by which this course was adopted, may well be doubted, for the miserable wretch was undoubtedly entitled to his discharge, as the indictment against him had been withdrawn; but it is probable that it was thought that the example afforded by such a proceeding might tend in some degree to check the thirst for crime, which appeared to exist in that district of the county.
The miserable convicts were directly afterwards led to the scaffold, dreadfully agitated, and uttering ejaculations imploring mercy for their sins; and all being in readiness, the drop fell, and they were launched into eternity.
The sentence of the wretched mother of Ellson, and of old Cox, was subsequently changed for that of transportation; and with this bare recitation of its facts, we shall close the scene upon this frightful case.