The Execution of John Knatchbull 1844


The public Execution John Knatchbull certainly drew a crowd, some estimates run to 10,000. It’s not every day you get to see the son of British landed gentry swing from the gallows. Perhaps it the nature of the crime that got the crowd along (the murder of a female storekeeper) or was it the fact that it was at new venue that twigged the publics interest.

Knatchbull, son of Sir Edward Knatchbull of Kent eighth Baronet, on the day before he was to be married he murdered and attempted to rob a storekeeper to pay for the wedding dress. He was promptly apprehended.  Knatchbull was hung at the newly opened Darlinghurst Gaol by hangman Alexander Green.

In a strange twist of fate Robert Lowe Knatchbull’s legal counsel adopted the two Jamieson Children.

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THE CRIME

Sydney Morning Herald

19/1/1844

 INQUESTS.

Yesterday, an inquest was held at M ‘Kenzie’s  public house, the corner of Clarence Street and Margaret place, on the body of Ellen Jamieson, who expired between seven and eight o’clock the same morning. After the Court had been opened, the following Jury was ¡empanelled,  Alfred Sandeman, Esq. foreman ; James Harden, Henry Vaughan, Clement Peate, John Hayes, Charles Sweedie, Michael Brignell, William Clark, James Briars, John White, John Larkin Drew, William Robertson, John Walsh, and Charles Williams.

The Coroner having briefly addressed the Jury on the nature of the case they were about to investigate, and remind them that they were to be guided entirely by the evidence, directed them to view the body.

After viewing the body, the Jury returned to their room, when the first witness called was John Shalless, builder, Margaret place who deposed : I recollect the night; I had been very unwell all the day and about 10 p.m. had taken some medicine and was about to go to bed; Mrs. Shalless took the keys out of the room doors, and on enquiring the reason, was informed it was as a precaution as the boy had stated there was a suspicious looking man lurking about; on looking out of the door I saw the prisoner standing on the bank opposite the door; I told Mrs. Shalless he was in my opinion after no good, and I would watch him; I then went out to the verandah, and saw him walking up and down ; he occasionally stood still but always moved when any one passed; observed to my wife that the deceased seemed to have a good run of business about twenty minutes to twelve I saw her at the door, and saw the prisoner go up and say something to her, when she went in and he followed and pushed the door about the parts close, so that I could not see him; I then  saw deceased round the counter with something like a pot or measure in her hand, a woman then entered and came out again ; after which a man went in and the prisoner came out, and began walking up and down as before; he sat down on the curb-stone near her house and I saw him pelt off a white dog belonging to deceased.

The people who had been in the shop having come out, she came in the door again, and was in the act of wiping his hands, when the prisoner again went up and spoke to her, and followed her in, pushing the door to as before ; I remarked to Mrs.Shalless, ” there is that fellow gone in again to that old woman’s shop, I hope he does not mean to rob her ;” soon after I saw the door slammed to, and heard a noise of something falling as it were on the floor ; I told my wife I feared he was murdering her ; ran over and found the door locked, and heard some stroke given as of someone breaking a cocoanut with a hammer; I heard no further noise after this ; on looking up I saw the light moved up stairs, and saw the prisoner at the window ; he drew aside the blind and looked out I gave an alarm to the old watchman, that that there was a man in the house who had murdered the woman, and was up stairs rifling the house, and asked him to give me assistance but he declined doing so, saying, ” Well, what is that to me ;” he stood by all the rest of the time, but I did not see him render any assistance ; I then ran up to this house, got assistance, and saw the light put out up-stairs ; we agreed to break open the back door, at the same time keeping a watch in front. After an entrance had been effected, by the back door, the prisoner was found standing inside behind the front door, when he was secured; on entering, I found the deceased lying insensible, covered with blood, which was flowing profusely from some wounds in her head. There was no other person in the shop but prisoner and deceased, there were two children in bed up stairs.

Cross-examined by the prisoner: I have put a paragraph in the newspapers, but merely to correct an error connected with this case, in which I was called a boat-builder instead of a builder ; I have spoken to several persons about the matter you are here for, but I have not prejudiced any one.

Re-examined by the Jury : The watchman I referred to was a private watchman ; I don’t know what became of him ; there was no cry of murder.

Richard C. Smithurst deposed : I was passing down Margaret- place about twelve o’clock, when hearing an alarm given that there was a man murdering Mrs. Jamieson, I ran home, got a stick, and returned; an axe was obtained from this house, with which the watchman broke in one of the panels of the back-door ; I then saw the prisoner’s trousers through it, put in my stick, hooked his leg, but be lifted it, I lost my hold, he then left that place ; we forced open the back door and found Mrs. Jamieson lying bleeding and insensible ; a light was obtained, and the prisoner was found standing behind the front door; on being secured, he called out twice, “O! don’t strike me.” The police came in, handcuffed the prisoner, and took him away; on going up stairs, I found no one in the house but the two children of the deceased, who were in bed crying ; a doctor was sent for ; when I left, having searched the house for the weapon which had inflicted the wound, but only found a stick.

Alfred Jaques, grocer, Barrack lane, deposed : being alarmed by a cry of murder, about midnight, I repaired to the premises occupied by deceased, accompanied by the watchman, we went to the side door which we struck with our sticks, demanding who was within, but got no answer; the watchman, Mr. M’Kenzie, and myself, forced an entrance by the door leading into the yard. After the first stroke I heard a groan, and also the step of a man’s foot, it being too heavy for that of a woman. I passed through to the back of the front door, where I found the prisoner standing ; on seizing him, he made no resistance, but asked me twice not to strike him. On lifting up Mrs, Jamieson, I saw her skull was fractured, and a part of the brain protruding; I afterwards picked up a portion of her skull; l and others searched about an hour for the instrument which had inflicted the wound, but found nothing likely to have inflicted it. About two hours after I saw a tomahawk handed down stairs with fresh marks of blood on it, also, some hairs adhering to it ; the blood was quite fresh and damp on it; the tomahawk-now produced is the one I saw ; there are the marks of the blood on its side and on the handle; but the hairs are gone, they were on the edge of it. My wife found the tomahawk under the bed of the deceased between the battens and the mattress.

Mrs. Jaques, wife of Alfred Jaques, de-posed : About two hours after Mrs. Jamieson had been removed up stairs, while searching for the instrument which had inflicted the wounds, it occurred to me to look under the bed, when, on looking at the foot of it, and lifting up the mattress, I found the tomahawk produced, one side of which was splashed with blood. I was next door neighbour but one to deceased.  

Charles Hollowell, of Clarence lane: The prisoner had lodged with me for about five weeks up to the night of his apprehension; this tomahawk is my property; it has been mine for seven years ; it lay in my back-yard, to which the prisoner had access; hearing the alarm of murder, I went to the house of the deceased, and was there when it was found; I knew it immediately; when I last saw it in my yard, it had no marks of blood such as those now on it ; it had not been used for months; when the prisoner last left my house it was about seven o clock on the morning of the day when Mrs. Jamieson was murdered ; he was introduced to me by a Mrs. Craig, to whom he was to be married, as a free man ; he told me he was owner of thee Harriot coaster, and said he was merely waiting till he got the vessel sold to pay me for his five weeks lodging; while he lodged with me his conduct was always regular; Mr. Lewis, of the Harriot, has since told me that the prisoner was a ticket of-leave holder, employed by him. Elizabeth Evans : Had lived next door to  deceased ; her Christian name was Ellen; I have seen deceased wearing a pocket similar to the one produced: I will not swear positively that it is the one she wore in front under her apron, but it is like what she used to wear.        

Mrs. Jaques recalled : When Mrs. Jamieson was undressed I observed that her clothes were torn on one side where the pocket had been snatched from.

Mrs. Elizabeth Brown, residing in Kent-street: Went into the shop of the deceased about twenty minutes to twelve ; on entering  I saw the prisoner behind the door; he was  getting some vinegar ; I said to her “You have got a man behind the door;” she re-plied by a sort of laugh; the prisoner was that man; he got the vinegar, bade her and me good night, and went away; I used to mangle and mend for the deceased; this is her pocket; I know it by the mending on this corner; I knew deceased used to have money; he has frequently changed notes for me; I have been one of those who attended on the deceased; I saw her expire at half-past seven this morning, and had been with her previously at half-past five; the body viewed by the Jury is that of Mrs. Jamieson.

Bryan Norton, constable NO. 11 of the A division, orderly to Mr. Miles: I was called on by the landlord, and told of the prisoner being in the house murdering the woman and robbing the house; I informed Mr. Miles, on whose duty I then was, who ordered me back, when on entering by the back door, the prisoner was given up to me, and I lodged him in the station-house; I asked him what made him ill-use the woman so, when he said he had done no such thing; on being searched  at the station-house by Inspector Molloy, I saw this pocket taken from his pocket, it contained ten shillings and eighteen sixpences; this other bag fell from the inside of the prisoner’s trousers; it contained money.  

Inspector Molloy: This pocket was take  from the prisoner’s trousers pocket, containing ten shillings and eighteen sixpences;  after searching his pockets, on pulling off his trousers this bag dropped from them, containing £4 2s. 8d. in silver, and under his trousers were found six £1 notes and a £5note, and loose in his pocket twenty-one shillings in silver, making in all £17 2s. 8d.

I also found on him three bills of exchange, filed up, for £50 each, directed to Sir Edward Knatchball, with three blank bills; the blanks were signed John Knatchbull, and also directed to Sir Edward Knatchbull; there was a pass signed T. Ryan, for fourteen days, dated January 3rd, 1844; I also found this paper with figures on it. (The prisoner here stated that it was a copy of a memorandum of some bills which the per-son named in it was going to cash for him, the prisoner, on his brother. On examining the prisoner’s trousers, I found them spotted with blood on both legs in several places; there were also some stains  on the uppers of his boots, apparently blood, but they turned black by the next morning; twelve o’clock is the hour for relieving the constables on duty, but on that night for the first time they were relieved at nine o’clock.  

The medical evidence of Mr. Surgeon Jones was read as follows : I was requested to see Mrs. Jamieson on Sunday morning between twelve and one o’clock ; she was in a sitting posture on the floor, which was covered with blood; upon examination I found several severe fractures of the skull, from one of which the brain was escaping ; I have to-day examined the body of the de-ceased, and found the fractures very numerous, crossing and re-crossing each other, with depression of the bones ; her death is to be ascribed entirely to the injuries inflicted upon the head ; the injuries which I discovered on the head of the deceased could be inflicted by the tomahawk produced.

The prisoner being called on for his defence, stated that he had particularly to request of the Jury not to be led away by anything they had heard out of doors ; as a Jury of free-born Englishmen he trusted they would give him a fair trial, of which it was the right of everyone circumstanced as he was to demand at their hands : for if they were guided by anything that they had heard, or which they had read in the newspapers about him, he would not be receiving that justice he had a right to expect at their hands.

The case being closed, one of the Jurors enquired if there had been no person for assistance to the female watch-house, as he had heard application had been made there, and the person who went for it was threatened to be locked up.

The Coroner did not see that it was competent for the present Court to enquire into the conduct of the keeper of the female watch-house, who was there in charge of prisoners, in the character of gaoler. If any complaint was preferred by the person aggrieved to the head of the Police, he had no doubt every justice would be done.

The acting Chief Constable informed the Court that the matter had been enquired into before the Chief Commissioner, when it appeared that the keeper of the female watch-house had strict orders not to leave it on any occasion,-but that in the present instance some one had called and said there was a man striking a woman in a shop which he was going to rob ; when the watch-house keeper told him to stop for minute and he would be with him, but the person went away before the keeper of the watch house was ready to leave.

The Coroner briefly summed up, and paid a high compliment to Mr. Shalless for the praiseworthy manner in which he had acted throughout the whole transaction. The Jury, after a minute’s consultation, returned a verdict of ” wilful murder” against the prisoner, John Knatchbull, who was committed to take his trial.

The Jury, through their foreman, tendered their thanks to the Coroner for the manner in

which the whole of the case had been brought before them.

After the warrant for the prisoner’s committal had been made out, the Acting Chief Constable informed the Coroner that the Chief Commissioner of Police, fearing that the crowd about the place would lay violent hands on the prisoner for the purpose of showing their detestation of his conduct, had sent a hackney-coach to convey him to gaol.

 The Coroner said he could not assent to any such arrangement, as there were circumstances in the previous history of the prisoner which might lead some persons to suppose that he was favoured on their account, from what he could judge of the public feeling on the subject, if there had been no constables to remove him, the people themselves would escort him to gaol. He then directed him to be removed through the street in custody of two or more constables, like any other prisoner. A second message on the same subject was afterwards communicated to the Coroner, who still expressed his dissent from giving him a coach conveyance, but ultimately left the matter in the hands of the police. A few minutes after a coach drove up, and the prisoner hurried into it amidst the hootings, hissings, and cheerings of several hundred men, women, and children. The inquiry, which lasted for nearly five hours, appeared to excite intense interest. Among those who visited the Jury-room during the trial, were several military and naval officers, magistrates of the colony, and a considerable number of private gentlemen and there were four or five hundred people waiting outside to hear the result. It is said the prisoner will be tried during the present Criminal Sessions.

The prisoner appears to be about 56 years of age, large featured for his size, particularly in the upper part of the brow: he is under the medium size, but apparently very muscular. The deceased was about 30 years of age: she has left two orphan children.

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OPINION PIECE

Sydney Morning Herald

2/2/1844

KNATCHBULL’S CASE.

Now that the case of this wretched man has been entirely removed from the jurisdiction of the judicial tribunals, we think it our duty to mention that there has been for some days a very strong idea afloat that some undue influence is being excited to spare his life.

We are quite convinced that there is no foundation for such a report, but it has been industriously circulated. From the day the murder was committed to the present time, we have never for a moment supposed it possible that Knatchbull’s life could be spared;  in fact, to commute his sentence would be to declare that punishment by death shall be abolished : for it will be impossible that a more atrocious offence, or one more satisfactorily proved, can be committed.

THE HANGING

Sydney Morning Herald

14/1/1844

EXECUTION OF KNATCHBULL.

THE above-named individual terminated his career, begun with honour and with every prospect of earthly advancement and happiness, in infamy on the scaffold yesterday morning. The circumstances connected with the fearful crime for which he suffered, are too well known to the public to need repetition, nor does it accord at all with our inclination to revert to them. His trial, the verdict of the Jury, his condemnation, and the sub-sequent proceedings taken by parties who thought they would be doing an act of humanity to save even his life, have also been recorded ; but justice has now been done.

Even after the sentence of death had been passed upon him, after the Executive Council had determined that no mercy could be ex-tended to him, and after the decision of the Judges upon the points raised in his favour, he still hoped that he should be allowed to live; and although his conduct was becoming the position to which he had brought himself, he did not confess his crime, or despair of his life being spared. When, however, Mr. Keck communicated to him, that he had received the official instructions for his execution, he gave up hope, and applied himself to preparation for another world. In this he was assisted by the Chaplain and various per-sons, whose efforts on his behalf, and influence on himself, produced, if appearances may be believed, the most satisfactory results. To some of these, it is said, that his admissions of past crimes have been unreserved. But the public here have only now to do with that which has brought him to an end. On Sunday last, the Rev. Mr. Elder preached before him the” condemned sermon,” and this appears to have had a most extraordinary effect upon him. Immediately on being conducted to his cell he wrote to Mr Keck in the following terms :-

” Condemned Cell,

” Woolloomooloo Gaol,

” 10th February, 1844

“In the presence of Almighty God, Amen. I am guilty of the horrid deed for which I am to suffer death ; and may the Lord have mercy on my soul. Amen. “

“JOHN KNATCHBULL”

This, we believe, is the only formal confession which he has made as to his last crime, although he has left behind him a variety of notes, letters, &c, which may afford information as to other matters to the authorities, whose duty it is to look to the security of the public. His last hours were passed in prayer:

abundance of religious assistance was afforded him, and, as before said, to all appearance    not in vain. After having seen those friends who had of late attended him, for the last time, in his cell, he was brought out from that cell to the scaffold, which had been erected outside the gaol wall.

On either side of him were the Rev. Mr. Elder and the Rev. Mr. Sharp; and following him the Rev. Dr. Ross and other religious friends who had attended him in his last days. He walked steadily, apparently insensible to all around him, and engaged in ejaculatory prayer.

At the foot of the scaffold he knelt with the clergymen, and prayers were offered up. He ascended the steep ladder without failing; and to the last moment- after all the fatal arrangements had been completed and after the clergymen had left him his ejaculations were still heard by those in the immediate neighbourhood. The drop fell and the struggle was but brief – death being probably hastened by height of the drop. The body was taken down after the usual lapse of time and removed to within the walls of the gaol.

A vast concourse of people had assembled at an early hour. Women and children, we regret to state, formed no small proportion of the numbers. The Mounted Police and a guard of foot were in attendance. We are glad to say, however, that no ebullition of emotion took place; all was tranquil and good order, and throughout the solemnity of the scene was preserved from the slightest interruption.    

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