These unhappy men were labourers, and were born and brought up in the neighbourhood of the spot, where they committed the inhuman and premeditated murder, for which their lives were eventually taken away by the executioner.
They were tried at Bodmin, in Cornwall, on the 30th of March, 1840, before Mr. Justice Coltman, on an indictment, which charged them with the wilful murder of Mr. Nevill Norway, a timber merchant, residing at Wadebridge, in the same county, on the 8th of the preceding month of February. [Editor's Note: He was the great-grandfather of the novelist Nevil Shute.]
The case excited the greatest interest in the remote district in which it occurred, as well from the high estimation in which the unfortunate deceased gentleman was held, as from the circumstance of his murder having been effected by two brothers; each of whom, since their apprehension, had sought to fix the guilt of the transaction on the other. At an early hour in the morning on which the trial was appointed to take place, every corner of the Court-house was crowded with persons, many of whom had travelled a considerable distance, in the hope of obtaining a glimpse of the culprits.
At nine o'clock in the morning the learned judge entered the court, and the prisoners were then immediately placed at the bar. They betrayed little agitation at the awful position in which they were placed, and surveyed the assembled multitude with great coolness and self-possession. Up to the time of their trial, they had been kept apart in the jail in which they had been confined; and they now observed each other with evident mutual dislike and mistrust.
The circumstances of the case, as they were proved on the trial, were as follows:--
Mr. Norway was a highly respectable timber and general merchant, residing at Wadebridge, about nine miles from Bodmin. In the course of his business he was in the habit of visiting the different markets in the neighbourhood, and on the 8th of February, he attended the market at Bodmin. About four o'clock that afternoon he had his purse in his hand, and was in the act of paying some money, when the prisoner, William Lightfoot, walked close by him, and must have seen what he was doing. Shortly before ten in the evening, he left Bodmin on his grey horse, accompanied by another person, who, however, left him, after they had proceeded about three miles on the road, and Mr. Norway was observed to pursue his course towards Wadebridge. A farmer of the neighbourhood was shortly afterwards going to the same village, and when about two miles from it he saw a grey horse on the road, saddled, but without a rider. He tried at first to overtake it, but the horse struck into a gallop, and he gave up the race; but his curiosity was excited, and upon meeting some men on the road, and making inquiry, they told him they thought it was Mr. Norway's horse. This induced him to call at Mr. Norway's house, and he found the horse standing at the stable gate. The servants were called out, and spots of blood were found upon the saddle. A doctor was immediately summoned, and two of the servants sallied forth on the Bodmin road, in quest of their master. It may be remarked that this road was extremely lonely, and very hilly; and altogether presenting a most favourable place for the commission of any atrocious act. The servants pursued the course of the road, and having got about two miles, one of them perceived something shining in a small stream of water, or rivulet, on the right hand side. This led to a further examination, and it proved to be the body of their unfortunate master, lying on his back in the stream, with his feet towards the road, quite dead.
The body was directly placed on the horse, and conveyed home, and Mr. Tickle, the surgeon, proceeded to examine it. He found that the deceased had received injuries about the face and head, produced apparently by heavy and repeated blows from some blunt instrument, which had undoubtedly been the cause of death. A wound was discovered on the chin, into which it appeared as if some gunpowder had been carried in its infliction; and the bones of the nose, the forehead, the left side of the head, and the back of the head, were fractured in a most frightful manner; severe lacerations of the flesh having been caused by the blows with which the injuries had been dealt. An immediate examination of the spot where the body of Mr. Norway was found, took place, and on the left hand side of the road a pool of blood was discovered, from which, to the rivulet opposite, there was distinctly visible a track, as if produced by some heavy body being dragged from one to the other. Around this spot were marks of footsteps, as if, in the language of one of the witnesses who was examined, there had been "a scramble" there; and at the rivulet there were also indications of a man having been there recently before. In the course of the subsequent search in the vicinity of this spot, it became obvious that two persons had been engaged in the murder, and that they had remained, as if on watch for their intended victim, pacing backwards and forwards, in an orchard attached to an uninhabited cottage close by. The hat of the deceased was picked up immediately near the spot where the murderers' footsteps were distinguishable, and at a distance of about a foot and a half or two feet from the pool of blood, was picked up the hammer of a pistol, which appeared to have been newly broken off. Other appearances were observed, which gave clear indications that a terrible struggle had taken place; but at this time no circumstances transpired, which could in the slightest degree tend to cast suspicion upon any one.
Upon the pockets of the clothes of the deceased being examined, it became obvious that robbery had been the object of the attack upon him. His purse and money, and a tablet and bunch of keys, were found to have been carried off; and all efforts to find any of the missing articles in the neighbourhood of the scene of the murder proved ineffectual.
Every exertion was now made to discover the perpetrators of this diabolical crime, and large rewards were offered for evidence which should tend to point them out. Jackson, a constable attached to the London police, was sent for; and through his exertions, facts were elicited which distinctly showed that the prisoners were the men who were the real offenders. A man named Harris, a shoe-maker, was first brought forward, who recollected having seen the prisoners on the night of the murder, in the immediate vicinity of the brook where the body was found; and a man named Ayres, who lived next door to James Lightfoot, having suggested that every man, who was out late that night, should be made to account for his time, stated that he recollected having heard his neighbour, the prisoner, enter his house at a late hour; and having communicated something to his wife, which, although the partition between their houses was very thin, he could not hear, she and her child began to cry. This led to an examination of the prisoner's house, on the 14th of February, and a pistol was found, without a lock, concealed in a hole in a beam, running across the ceiling. The prisoner attempted to account for the pistol being broken, by saying, that he had done it in killing a cat; but his manner being suspicious, he was taken into custody.
He was directly carried before a magistrate, by whom he was remanded until the 19th of the same month; and on the 17th his brother William was also secured, in consequence of a conversation which he had had on the 14th, with a man named Vercoe, upon the subject of the murder; in which he had suggested that Ayres was the cause of his brother's apprehension, and that if his brother were punished, he must be so too, for that "they were both in it." He was also examined before a magistrate, and he directly made the following confession:--
"I went to Bodmin last Saturday week, the 8th instant, and in returning I met my brother James, just up at the head of Dunmeer Hill. It was just come dim like. My brother had been to Egloshayle Burlawn, to buy potatoes. Something had been said about meeting; but I was not certain about that. My brother was not in Bodmin on that day. Mr. Vercoe overtook us between Mount Charles turnpike-gate, at the top of Dunmeer Hill, and a place called Lane End. We came on the turnpike-road all the way till we came to the house near the spot where the murder was committed. We did not go into the house, but hid ourselves in a field. We did not see Mr. Abbott's waggon. My brother knocked Mr. Norway down. He snapped a pistol at him twice and it did not go off. Then he knocked him down with the pistol. I was there along with him. He was struck whilst on horseback. It was on the turnpike-road between Pencarrow Mill and the directing-post towards Wadebridge; and it was last Saturday week. I cannot say at what time of the night it was. We left the body in the water, on the left side of the road coming to Wadebridge. We took something. It was money, in a purse; but I do not know how much. It was a brownish purse. There were some papers, which my brother took and pitched away in a field, on the left hand side of the road behind the house. They were pitched away at the head of the field into some browse or furze. The purse was hid away by me in my garden; and afterwards I threw it over Pendavey-bridge: the lower side of the bridge. My brother drew the body across the road to the watering. I threw away the purse last Friday. The contents of it were not examined before it was thrown away. We did not know who it was before we stopped him. When my brother snapped the pistol at Mr. Norway, Mr. Norway said 'I know what you are about, I see you.' We went home across the fields. We were not disturbed by any one. It was not above three or four minutes before we left him. The pistol belonged to my brother; I don't know whether it was broken; I never saw it afterwards; and I do not know what became of it. I never advised my brother to burn it; and I don't know whether it was soiled with blood. I did not see any blood on my brother's clothes; we returned together from the spot, crossing the river at Pendavey-bridge, and crossed Treraren fields over Treraren ground, across a field or two to Burlawn village. My brother then went to his house, and I went to my own house. I think it was handy about eleven o'clock; but I cannot tell more than what I think about the time. I saw my brother again on the Sunday morning. He came up to my house. There was nobody there, I believe, but my own family. He said, 'Dear me, Mr. Norway's killed.' I did not make any reply. I went to bed as soon as I came home on the Saturday night."
The prisoner upon this was remanded to Bodmin Jail, where his brother was already confined; and, on his way to that place, he pointed out a furze-bush in which the tablets and keys of the deceased gentleman were found concealed.
On the 19th the prisoner James Lightfoot was carried back from Bodmin to Wadebridge for re-examination, and upon this point the evidence of Jackson, the policeman, was taken at the trial, to prove a confession made by the prisoner, corresponding in effect with that which had been made by his brother, though he strove to fix on him the guilt of the commencement of the murderous attack.
The evidence of this witness was corroborated by that of another constable, who was in the same chaise with them; and the turnkey of Bodmin Jail also swore, that very shortly after William Lightfoot had been in prison, he said to him that his mind had been so much troubled that he had told Mr. Molesworth the whole truth. That he and his brother had met by appointment, and were determined to have some money; that when Mr. Norway came up, James snapped his pistol at him twice; that he (William) then gave him a blow with a stick; that he fell off his horse, and that James struck him with his pistol.
Other evidence was produced, the effect of which was to corroborate the statements of the two prisoners; but, when called upon for their defence, the wretched men declared themselves innocent of the offence imputed to them.
The learned judge having then summed up the evidence, the jury returned a verdict of "Guilty."
Mr. Justice Coltman passed the awful sentence of death in the most feeling terms.
The prisoners exhibited no agitation or want of firmness during the address of the learned judge, and, at its conclusion, were directly conducted from the bar to the interior of the jail.
Up to this time, as we have already stated, the miserable brothers had been allowed no opportunity for communication, and the discrepancy between their stories exhibits distinctly enough the object of each to screen himself, and to secure the conviction of the other. The double confession, however, prevented the attainment of their desires, and they both fell just victims to their crimes. After the passing of the sentence on them, they were carried to the same cell, and were now, for the first time, allowed to approach each other. They had scarcely met before, in the most hardened manner, they commenced mutually vituperative attacks, and even proceeded to blows. The immediate interference of the jailors prevented a continuance of this disgraceful scene, and the wretched convicts were once again removed to separate apartments.
For several days the unhappy culprits exhibited the most callous indifference to their situation.
On the 7th of April they had a farewell interview with their families. It was of the most distressing description. After the departure of their wives and children, they appeared to be conscious of the awful situation in which they were placed; they became communicative, and listened more attentively to the exhortations of the Rev. F. Kendall and the Rev. W. Molesworth, whose parishioners they were. Great hopes are indulged that the unhappy men were actuated by sincere feelings of repentance.
On Sunday morning, the 12th of April, they attended the chapel belonging to the jail, when an appropriate sermon was preached by the chaplain, from Acts xvi. v. 25 --"And at midnight Paul and Silas prayed and sang praises unto God; and the prisoners heard them;" and, in the afternoon, the Rev. F. Cole, of St. Feock, delivered an impressive sermon, from Romans vi. v. 23 --"The wages of sin is death;" to which the prisoners paid the deepest attention. After the service they returned to their cells, ate and drank heartily what was given them, retired to bed at the usual hour, and slept soundly all night.
Monday, the 13th of April, had been fixed upon as the day of execution; and on that morning, shortly before eleven, Mr. Smith, the under-sheriff, proceeded to the cells, when portions of Scripture were read by the Rev. Mr. Kendall, and the sacrament was administered to the prisoners by the Rev. W. Molesworth. During the whole of this trying scene the brothers evinced the greatest fortitude. They were then conducted across the yard to the place of execution, preceded by the clergyman, reading the burial service --"I am the resurrection and the life," &c. The unhappy men were ghastly pale, but were perfectly collected, walked with a firm step, and ascended the ladder without the slightest assistance. Before being placed on the drop, they shook hands with the persons around them, and thanked the clergymen and others for their kindness and attention. They each then requested the conveyance of some last communication to their families, and, in a few moments, the drop fell.
Upwards of ten thousand persons had assembled to witness the dreadful end of the unhappy wretches, and but little commiseration was exhibited for their fate.
It is highly creditable to the inhabitants of Cornwall to state, that no less a sum than 3500l. was collected between the time at which the murder was committed and that of the execution, for the use of the destitute widow and family of the murdered man.
The execution took place at Bodmin, on Monday, the 13th April, 1840; the prisoner, William Lightfoot, being thirty-six years of age, while his brother, James, had only attained his twenty-third year.