Thursday, 20 April 2017

The horrible murders, attempted suicides and frighful execution of William Bousfield

The 1856 Death Register for Quarter 2 (April to June) unusually records the demise of no less than 8 Bousfields, a surname one would have thought was reasonably rare.  The strong showing for such an uncommon surname was triggered by no less than 5 unnatural deaths in a single family; in the early hours of Sunday 3rd February Sarah Bousfield and her three children, Anne (6 years old), Eliza (4 years) and John William (a mere baby of 8 months) were murdered at their home, 4 Portland Street, in St James, Westminster. Later that morning their father William confessed to the killings. He was hung for his crimes on March 31st in front of Newgate prison, by the notoriously incompetent public hangman William Calcraft, in one his most famously bungled executions. Retribution was swift enough in the mid nineteenth century for a murderer and his victims to be recorded side by side in the death register.   

The Quarter 2 Death Register entry for Bousfield records the murder of William's family as well as his execution 

The Berkshire Chronicle of Saturday 9th February carried a full account of the murder of Sarah Bousfield and her children and the apprehension of the murderer. As the newspaper made clear, it did not require Sherlock Holmes to solve the horrific murder as “on Sunday morning, shortly after seven o'clock, a man, who is described by the police as being about 34 years of age, 5 feet 8 inches in height, and of repulsive aspect, presented himself at Bow-street Station, with a particular request that he might see the inspector on duty.” His request was made to Police Constable Alfred Fudge, badge number 68F, by whom he “was at once introduced to Inspector Dodd, to whom he stated, with the most perfect calmness and composure, that he had murdered his wife. He said that he had that morning killed her by stabbing her in the neck with a chisel, and that in consequence of that act he was now desirous of delivering himself into the hands of Justice. There was nothing in the man’s demeanour to induce the inspector to suspect that he was labouring under a delusion of any kind, and he determined therefore that he would take down his statement and then proceed to the locality mentioned in it for the purpose of inquiring into its truth….” After taking Bousfield’s statement Inspector Dodd and a couple of Constables made their way to Portland Street (now gone, but once a side street off Oxford Street, between Berwick Street and Soho Square). It took a long time of loud knocking to rouse anyone inside the house. Someone, probably a servant, eventually allowed them in and called the householder, Mr John James, Sarah Bousfield’s father, father-in-law to the murderer and, of course, grandfather to the slaughtered children. Mr James found Inspector Dodd on the stairwell with a bull’s eye lantern in one hand and a sheaf of papers in the other. Dodd told him to come down at once as “'we have got the man who lives in the parlour; he looks very suspicious, as he is covered all over in blood.” John James opened the parlour door by putting his finger through a hole and pulling back the bolt. Inside the room his daughter lay on the bed with her throat cut, quite dead and cold already, along with the bodies of her two youngest children. On a separate bedstead lay the corpse of six year old Anne.  Almost immediately Mr James Hathaway the police surgeon arrived to examine the four bodies. The Morning Chronicle of 6th February gives an account of the inquest into the murders and details Mr Hathaway’s findings:

I found the deceased woman quite dead, with an incision in her neck from three to four inches in length. It was a clean cut wound. I found three incisions on the right arm, and four on the left, evidently to open the veins, but very little blood had flowed from them. There were two children on the bed quite dead. I then turned to a press bedstead in the room, and saw another child lying on it quite dead, with two incisions on the right side of the neck. Eliza Bousfield had two incisions on the right side of the neck. John William Bousfield, the infant, had two incisions on the right side of the neck and one on the lower part of the left ear. The bodies were quite cold, and I am of the opinion that they had been dead some hours. I made a post mortem examination of the body of Mrs. Bousfield. I found a punctured wound on the left cheek, and penetrating through the cheek. On the lower lip there was a lacerated wound.  I then came to the wound in the neck which was a clean incised wound about four inches in length dividing the skin integuments and all the soft parts. The carotid artery was nearly divided. There was also a small would above the larger one about an inch in length. On the front of the left shoulder was a clean cut would about an inch long. There was a cut through the nightdress corresponding with the wound. On the left elbow were two other punctures, and, also one at the back of the bend of the elbow. They were all superficial. On examining the right arm about two inches above the bend of the elbow inside there was another punctured wound, also superficial. There were no marks of wounds on the hands. The heart and other viscera were healthy. The cause of death was the division of the carotid artery.

Sarah Bousfield no doubt often sold newspapers with lurid headlines from the shop at 4 Portland Place,
never realising that she would be the subject of some of the most sensational stories of the 1850's
Dr Hathaway’s conclusion was that the perpetrator had, bizarrely, initially tried to bleed his victims to death, using a sharpened chisel to open veins on their arms and only when this did not work did he finish them off by slitting their throats with a razor. Both the chisel and the razor were recovered from the room. At the inquest neither the coroner nor the jury could understand how healthy adults or children could be killed by bleeding from the veins in the arms, surely they would put up a struggle or at the very least cry out? One of the jurors asked if there was any sign of chloroform having being used. Dr Hathaway eventually had to admit that he could not tell if the wounds of the arms of the victims had been made pre or post mortem. The modus operandi of the murderer was not the only puzzle, the motive for the killings was just as perplexing; “every one who is acquainted with the family is at a loss to account for the motive which prompted the brutal murder, as there was no poverty, and the murderer never evinced the slightest indication of mental aberration,” as one newspaper put it.  The man most likely to be able to shed light on the matter was John James and he was the first called to provide evidence at the inquest held just two days after the murders in the board room of St Ann’s workhouse Poland Street. The first grim business of the day was for the jury to view the bodies of the four victims. Once this was over the inquest proper convened. So strong was the public interest in the case that a temporary barrier had to be erected across the boardroom to keep the press of onlookers back from the jury and witnesses. The Coroner, Mr St Clair Bedford, called for John James who was led into the court in an ‘extremely agitated’ state. He was so distressed that the coroner called for a chair and allowed him to give his evidence sitting down. He told the coroner that his daughter “and her husband lived on very good terms” with their three young children in the parlour of 4 Portland Street where he occupied some upstairs rooms and lodgers occupied various other rooms. His daughter ran a shop, selling newspapers and tobacco,  from the front parlour and his son in law occupied himself occasionally as a supernumerary in the theatre earning a shilling or eighteen pence a night. Out of paternal solicitude Mr James, a carpenter and joiner, supplemented his daughter’s income as Bousfield’s wages in the theatre and her profits from the shop were not enough to keep the family. This dependence on her father caused tension between the couple “when she had two children she wished  him  to get work, and when the third child was born she begged him daily and hourly to get something to do, and be independent of me,” James told the inquest.  Nothing unusual had occurred on the Saturday night, James had popped downstairs to see his daughter at about 10.30pm and found Bousfield  “standing with his back to the fire. I said to him ‘Is Sarah in or out?’ and he answered ‘She has just gone out’. She came home at half-past eleven o'clock, with the boy, who had a new hat on, of which he appeared very proud.  I talked to her for some time and that was the last I saw of my daughter.”  One of the lodgers, Mary Ann Bennett, had a different story to tell the inquest about the relationship between the couple; she told the inquest that “Bousfield and his wife sometimes had words which was because he was out of employment.” She also told the court that the couple had not slept together since the birth of the baby eight months before and said “I have heard he was jealous and I have heard Bousfield say many times he did not like the young men who came to the shop. He also said he thought his wife was too free with them. .. She was a very pleasant woman in the shop, and many persons would come into the shop if she was there, but not if he was...He was not jealous of one particular young man.”   The jury’s verdict was wilful murder against William Bousfield.

Bousfield went on trial at the Old Bailey on March 6th. It was a swift affair in front of Mr Justice Wightman.  The newspaper coverage of the trial was perfunctory, partly because no exciting new details of the crime emerged and partly because the attention of the papers were occupied by a new and more fascinating murderer, Dr William Palmer of Rugeley, the Prince of Poisoners.  Bousfield  pleaded not guilty and according to the Yorkshire Gazette “appeared completely bowed down with grief, and being accommodated with a chair, buried his face in his hands, and remained in that  position during the entire trial.” The defence were keen to cross examine PC Verres who had watched over Bousfield after his arrest and who confirmed that the prisoner had thrown “himself forward to hit his head against the wall, and when pulled him back, said,  ‘Kill me at once.’ He then said, ‘Send for a doctor- send a doctor to my poor wife’ and afterwards said, ‘put me in a cell.’” Out of this poor evidence Bousfield’s counsel tried to construct a defence of insanity. The jury were not swayed, taking just a few minutes to reach a verdict of guilty to the charge of murder. Justice Wightman “then passed sentence of death in a most impressive manner, holding out no hope of mercy. The prisoner, on hearing the sentence, nearly sunk to the ground, and had to be assisted by two of the turnkeys from the dock.”
 Ironically 31st March was the date set for Bousfield’s execution; as it was also the day after the signing of the treaty of Paris which put an end to the Crimean War the London mob were out in force and in a jubilant mood engaging in impromptu celebrations. For the mob there was no better way to commemorate peace than by attending an execution and 5000 people got up early and walked to Newgate to the accompaniment of church bells tolling for the peace to make sure they had a good view of the 8.00am execution. Under the headline ‘Attempted Suicide and Frightful Execution of Bousfield’ the Examiner for Saturday 5th April carries a commendably well written and harrowingly detailed account of the events of that day (which I quote in full):

On Monday morning, in the midst of the public rejoicings for the announcement of peace, William Bousfield, who was convicted of the murder of his wife and three children at Soho, was executed in front of the Old Bailey. The scene was most horrifying – the unfortunate man was literally dragged to the scaffold, and struggled for his life with the executioner with the desperate energy of despair. Since his conviction the wretched man persevered in maintaining a sullen and morose appearance, pretending at times no recollection of the murder and that the whole was a dream to him; and, although repeatedly spoken to by the Rev. Mr Davis on the subject of his crime, who (says the reporter of the execution) to awaken some latent feeling of remorse and penitence in him, pictured the horrible scene that must have been present to him on the night of the murder, when he must have sat for hours with his lifeless and bleeding victims around him, before he gave himself up, all that could be got from him was, "Pray don't talk about it; it is a horrid dream." He moreover feigned that he committed the murders without the slightest knowledge of the atrocities of which he was guilty, but his previous profligate career, combined with a feeling of jealousy which he unjustly entertained in reference to his wife, lead to the conclusion that his conduct at the close of his life was hypocritical and deceitful.

On Saturday afternoon, after the culprit took his final leave of his two sisters, he continued to exhibit the same sullen demeanour he had exhibited throughout, and when visited by the sheriffs, and told he must prepare to undergo his sentence, made no reply. About four o'clock he was sitting on the end of his bed-stead, facing the fire, but at some distance off, watched closely by the turnkeys, who had been in constant attendance upon him; at the time he appeared dejected and lost, but suddenly he started up, rushed forward, and threw himself forward on the fire, his entire face being beyond the upper bar of the stove. His neckerchief catching fire assisted materially in burning him severely in the lower part of the face and neck. A turnkey seeing the movement, immediately pulled him from off the fire, and with assistance of other officers he was secured, and Mr Gibson, the prison surgeon, was sent for. He ascertained that the injuries Bousfield had thus inflicted upon himself were not of a dangerous character, although causing the face to be much swollen and burnt; remedies were immediately applied to reduce the wounds- lotions being constantly applied; but from that time the wretched man refused to speak or receive any food, exhibiting an utter prostration and helplessness, the only nourishment that he could be induced to swallow being some milk, and on Monday morning a glass of wine. All attempts to induce him to listen to religious instruction ceased, and during the whole of Sunday he exhibited the same state of helplessness. In that state he remained the entire night, watched by several turnkeys, and frequently visited by Mr Weather head. His appearance is described by the sheriffs and those in attendance upon him as truly hideous, the lower part of the face being swollen and burnt to a fearful extent. To reduce the swelling, the attendants, under the direction of Mr Gibson, constantly bathed the wounds with cold lotions, a piece of linen being placed round the lower part of the face.
Outside Newgate on execution day
At half-past seven the sheriffs, Messrs Kennedy and Rose, with their undersheriffs, arrived at the prison, and at a quarter to eight, accompanied by the governor and the Rev. Mr Davis, the ordinary, proceeded to the prisoner's cell. On entering the cell the wretched murderer was seen sitting on a chair supported by two men, in an entire state of prostration and apparently dying, the attendants from time to time wiping the froth that kept constantly oozing from his mouth, but not a sound or word escaped him. At a few minutes before eight o'clock Calcraft was introduced into the cell, and proceeded to pinion the arms of the prisoner. At this time he appeared so exhausted that Mr Sheriff Kennedy called upon Mr Gibson, the surgeon, to examine the state of the prisoner, who reported that his pulse was in a very low state. Restoratives were in consequence administered, but with no apparent effect, and the fatal moment having arrived, the sheriffs gave the signal for the procession moving towards the scaffold. The officers, who had up to this time supported the body of the wretched man on the chair, endeavoured to raise and induce him to stand on his legs, but without success, such was his apparent, but, as it subsequently turned out, assumed, utter helplessness that, but for being supported, he would have sunk in a mass to the ground; and it became evident that to get him to the scaffold he must be carried. One of the turnkeys took hold of his legs, and another carried him by the armpits, and in that listless state, nearly doubled up, he was carried to the foot of the scaffold, the sheriffs and undersheriffs heading the dismal procession, the Rev. Mr Davis, the ordinary reading the burial service, the prison bell tolling during the time. The signal of the approaching scene was caught up by the mob outside, amounting to some four or five thousand persons of the usual grade to be seen at executions.
On the procession arriving at the door, formerly known as the debtors' door, from which the steps are erected leading to the scaffold, a difficulty arose as to the manner in which the wretched man could be carried on to the scaffold and placed under the beam while the executioner was adjusting and fixing the fatal rope. A high-backed office chair was obtained from the office of the governor, upon which the wretched man was placed, up to the last moment exhibiting the same helplessness he had done throughout and in that state he was carried on to the scaffold by four of the officers belonging to the prison, and placed under the drop. Calcraft the executioner, who exhibited an unusual nervousness and terror, lost not an instant in putting on the cap, and adjusting the fatal noose and as soon as he had secured the rope to the chain, suspended by the beam, he ran down the steps, and, without any signal, withdrew the fatal bolt, the chair dropped from under the wretched man and the became suspended, but scarcely two seconds had elapsed before he exhibited a convulsive strength and power to the utter astonishment of all who had seen his apparent utter prostration for previous forty-eight hours. His shoulders and arms were raised upwards, his legs being thrown in various directions to obtain a footing in which he soon succeeded, by placing his right foot on the right edge of the scaffold, and by an extraordinary effort succeeded in placing his left foot close to it, and kept that position until one of the turnkeys went on to the scaffold and pushed down the legs, Calcraft, in apparent terror, running from under the scaffold. The sheriffs and other officials attempted to stop him, but he persisted in getting away, insisting the man was dead. His struggles at this moment became most fearful, and the crowd kept on yelling and hooting. In a few seconds more, for the second time the wretched man succeeded in placing both feet on the left side of the scaffold. The sheriffs, and particularly Mr Alderman Rose, became so horrified and indignant that they insisted on Calcraft being compelled to return and put an end to the fearful scene. The Rev. Mr Davis succeeded in allaying Calcraft’s terrors, and he went under and pulled the leg down and hung to them a short time; but on his letting go of them the wretched man for the third time succeeded in getting to his feet on to the edge of the scaffold; when on their being removed be dropt for the fourth time, and after a severe struggle, which had lasted upwards of ten minutes, he ceased to exist. 
William Calcraft - the man who couldn't hang

During the whole of this horrible scene the tumult and yelling amongst the crowd were terrific. The body having hung the usual time, at nine o'clock it was cut down by Calcraft, who was received with groans and hisses. The features in death were truly horrible. To account in some manner for the extraordinary conduct of Calcraft it appears that on Saturday he received an anonymous letter advising him to go to the Horse Guards and get a helmet to wear on the occasion, as the Kent street roughs were determined to shoot him, to put an end to any more executions.-A Court of Aldermen was held on Tuesday, at which it was ordered that a statement made by Alderman and Sheriff Kennedy, confirming the above-described horrible details, should be referred to the Gaol Committee, for them to inquire into the circumstances and report to the Court.   


  1. Thank you for this detailed acoount of events. I am tracing my family history and although not directly related (thank goodness) I shall no doubt find a link to this family.

    1. Glad to be of use. William Bousfield had no direct descendants of course because he murdered his entire family.