The case of these prisoners is scarcely excelled in brutal atrocity by any of those by which it is preceded.
The prisoners were tried at the Lent Assizes at Stafford on the 16th of March 1840, on an indictment which charged them with the wilful murder of Christina Collins, on the 17th of June 1839, at the parish of Rugeley, in the same county.
On the part of the prosecution a great number of witnesses were called, from whose evidence the circumstances appeared as follows: --
The deceased, Christina Collins, wife of Robert Collins, was by business a dress-maker, and had resided for some time at Liverpool, supporting her husband, who found it difficult to obtain employment there, by her needlework. Her husband being very anxious himself to obtain work for their mutual support, resolved upon a journey to London. He accordingly left Liverpool, and arriving in London was so fortunate as presently to meet with a situation according to his wishes. Upon this he wrote a letter to his wife at Liverpool, inclosing her a sovereign to assist her upon her journey, that being all the money he could command, and requesting that she would immediately come to him in London. She left Liverpool, and having little money beyond the sovereign received from her husband, took her passage by one of Messrs. Pickford and Co.'s fly-boats, as being the cheapest conveyance to London. The three prisoners, with a boy named Musson, had the care of the boat, Owen being the captain. Deceased entered the boat at Preston Brook. It was proved that the boat arrived at Stoke-upon-Trent, in Staffordshire, at noon on Sunday the 16th of June, and left that place again about four o'clock the same afternoon, the deceased being then on board. The boat proceeded thence to Stone, where it arrived about eight the same evening. At Stone the deceased complained to a check clerk of the canal company that the prisoners were becoming inflamed with liquor, and said, that she was afraid of going on in the boat with them. The deceased, however, went on with the boat from Stone, having got out there and walked by the towing-path side some distance. About dusk they were met by another boat, when some gross language in reference to the deceased was used by one of the prisoners, and a short time afterwards they were again met, and the prisoners used expressions in reference to their intentions as to the deceased of too disgusting a nature for publication. About twelve o'clock on Sunday night the boat arrived at a place called Hoo-mill-lock. By the side of the lock was a house occupied by the lock-keeper and his wife. They were both awoke at midnight by loud cries of distress, and immediately opened their bed-room window, when they perceived the boat in question in the lock. The deceased was in the boat, and upon the prisoners being asked who she was, they replied that she was a passenger, and that her husband was in the boat with her. Proceeding a little farther, they came to a place called Colwich-lock, and after they quitted that place the deceased was not seen alive. The body of the deceased was found in the canal at a part of the canal known as Brindley's bank, between Colwich-lock and Rugeley, and about three miles from the former place. The prisoner Owen appeared in great alarm when seen by a woman early on Monday morning. He stated that a passenger was lost and must have drowned herself, and he believed that she must be deranged, for that she had constantly been calling out, "Collins, Collins, oh, my Collins!" The arrival of the boat at Fazeley at six o'clock on Monday morning was proved, when, in consequence of suspicions against the prisoners, they were taken into custody and examined. Before any questions were asked them about the deceased, they had abused her with oaths and foul language, saying, that if she had chosen to drown herself they could not help it. The cabin of the boat was searched, and in it were found the bonnet and shoes of the deceased, the bonnet being very much crushed.
The remaining evidence against the prisoners consisted of a declaration made by Owen, on his apprehension by Harrison, the headborough of Fazeley, to whom, in answer to an observation that the deceased had been found in a very shallow part of the canal, he intimated that she was dead before she reached the canal; and a similar confession, attended with a detail of other circumstances, which he made to a fellow prisoner named Orgill, while in custody in Stafford jail.
The prisoners, it appeared, had been tried at the summer assizes at Stafford in the year 1839 for the rape upon Mrs. Collins, a bill of indictment for the murder having then been also preferred and found. The prosecution for the rape rested upon evidence similar to that which we have just detailed, added to the testimony of two surgeons, who swore that the capital offence of violation had been committed, apparently with great barbarity; but the jury deemed the proofs adduced insufficient to warrant them in pronouncing a verdict of conviction. Upon the indictment for the murder being then proposed to be proceeded with by the learned judge, an application was made on the part of the prosecution for the postponement of that trial until the next assizes, on an affidavit, which stated that there were grounds for believing, that further evidence of a very important character might then be produced. This evidence was the testimony of a man named Joseph Orgill, who had been just before convicted of bigamy, and sentenced to eighteen months' imprisonment, and who had received from Owen a narrative of the circumstances attending the commission of the crime upon the deceased woman. The application was immediately acceded to; and upon representations at the Home Office, a free pardon had been granted to Orgill to enable him to become a competent witness upon this investigation.
Orgill was now called, and he stated that he was a prisoner in Stafford jail at the same time with the prisoners. On Sunday, the 21st of July, he attended the Jail Chapel in company with them, and slept with the prisoner Owen at night. After witness and prisoner Owen were in bed they talked of the crimes with which they stood charged, when Owen told witness he knew he should be hung, from the lesson taken from the Old Testament read in the chapel in the morning, which was concerning the hanging of Saul's sons. Owen then made a statement to witness, speaking of the charge for which he and the others were in custody, informing him that they (the prisoners) had some whiskey on board the boat, which they stole and drank; that they then used the woman roughly, and she got out and walked on the towing-path. The greater part of the rest of the statement is unfit for publication; but it amounted to an admission, that the capital offence charged in the former indictment had been committed upon the unfortunate woman by all three of the prisoners, and that her struggles to escape were so great that, in their belief, she died, and they then threw her overboard.
The supposition of the prisoner as to the cause of death, however, was now clearly contradicted by a surgeon, who stated that there could be no doubt that the deceased had come to her death by drowning.
On behalf of the prisoners every effort was made by the counsel who were employed by them to negative the circumstances of suspicion proved against them, but in vain, and a verdict of "Guilty" was returned by the jury after mature deliberation.
Mr. Baron Gurney, before whom the prisoners were tried, immediately passed upon them the sentence of death, pointing out to them the awful situation in which they were placed by the dreadful crimes of which there could be no doubt they had been guilty, and warning them that no prospect of mercy in this world could be held out to them.
For a considerable time after their conviction, neither of the wretched convicts exhibited the slightest degree of compunction or regret for their past offences. They persisted in making repeated declarations of their innocence; and so far did they carry their asseverations that a respite was granted from the day first named for their execution, to the 18th of April, in order that full inquiries might be made at the Home-office into the circumstances attending their guilt.
This investigation tended but to confirm the impression of the justice of the conviction and sentence on the two prisoners, Owen and Thomas, (alias Dobell); but some facts which were elicited induced the grant of a further respite in the case of Ellis.
On the day before execution, Thomas became in some degree softened, and he and Ellis, who was not aware of the distinction drawn in his favour, made some disclosures as to the mode of life of persons of their class, of the most frightful description. The scenes which they described as of daily occurrence amongst the boatmen were dreadful. Thieving was said to be an accomplishment reckoned highly valuable; and men who possessed the greatest powers of pilfering the cargoes, by reason of their adroitness, were described to be invariably selected by the captains of the barges as best fitted to undertake the employment tendered to them. Ale, spirit, or other liquids, were abstracted from the casks by means of syphon pumps, which were in common use in the boats; and drunkenness being the common and necessary consequence, the boatmen were stated to be prepared for the perpetration of offences of the very worst description.
On the morning of the execution the three prisoners were again visited by the chaplain, when they appeared much more firm than they had before been, and perfectly ready to meet their execution. They all asserted that they knew nothing of the manner in which their murdered victim met her death, as they were all intoxicated at the time.
The drop had been erected at an early hour in the morning in front of the county prison. About twelve o'clock the three culprits were summoned from their cells to the chapel of the prison, in order to partake of the sacrament. Owen and Thomas were supplied with prayer-books, which they held with an unwavering hand, and repeated the responses in an audible voice. Ellis, not being able to read, had no book. The chaplain went through the service in a manner the most impressive and affecting, though his utterance occasionally was almost overpowered by the strength of his emotions. At its conclusion Owen and Thomas were conducted to the press-room. Ellis remained, and was then informed by the governor, for the first time, that Her Majesty had been pleased to respite his execution. The governor communicated this information in a most feeling manner, and Ellis received it in a very proper spirit: he wept much, and appeared thankful for the mercy extended to him. At his own request he was conducted to the press-room to take leave of Owen and Thomas. The governor accompanied him, and made known to the other two that a further respite had been received for Ellis, and that he would not be executed with them. On this communication being made, it was difficult to ascertain which of the men felt the most acutely. Ellis burst into tears, and taking each of his former associates by the hands, kissed them most affectionately, and exclaimed repeatedly, "God bless you, dear boys! "This conduct of his appeared to overcome the feelings of both the men, particularly Owen, who wept bitterly.
The period of execution was now announced by the solemn sound of the prison bell. Soon afterwards the mournful procession moved from the press-room to the lodge of the county prison. The men walked with a firm step, and ascended the steps of the drop without assistance. The executioner immediately placed the ropes round their necks, shook hands with them, and as the chaplain pronounced the words, "In the midst of life we are in death," the fatal bolt was drawn, and the wretched men ceased to live.
The concourse of persons who witnessed the execution was almost unprecedentedly great. It was supposed that there were nearly ten thousand persons present. Every spot, remote and near, from which a view of the drop could be obtained, was occupied -- walls, trees, roofs of houses, &c., being fixed upon by many as convenient places from which to view the scene. The three thoroughfares approaching the jail were densely crowded as far as the sight could reach, and the neighbouring gardens were filled with people. No peculiar feeling was displayed when the men made their appearance on the drop; though when it fell the females, who were very numerous, gave partial vent to their emotions.
The punishment of the prisoner Ellis was subsequently commuted to transportation for life.