Byline: MIKE LOCKLEY
HANDSOME Josiah Lilly probably felt the rope round his neck when a burly sergeant banged on his door. The evidence was damning. The body of Lilly's sweetheart, Harriet Wright, had been discovered in a nearby cut, with Lilly's hat floating nearby.
A sodden note found in her pocket, asking the pretty 23-yearold for cash, had been penned by him.
What's more, on the fateful night - May 7, 1840 - the couple had been seen publicly squabbling over a bonnet and shawl quick-tempered Harriet had accused her boyfriend of stealing. And in the days before the killing, Lilly had confided to a friend: "I will hang for her before the week is out."
Lilly was also a man of tainted character. He had endured numerous stints at the House of Correction, a workhouse for vagrants and beggars, and faced trial over the theft of Harriet's clothes - a trial scuppered when she refused to take the witness box.
His 'inconsistent recollections' of what took place on that evening in May only added to the weight of opinion that this was an open and shut case. He first told police he last saw Harriet at 9.30pm, later remembering it was actually 11pm.
Yet at Warwick Summer Assizes, the 17-year-old was cleared of murder, the jury swayed by eyewitness accounts of the couple walking happily together on the night in question. Much was also made of Lilly's anguish when told of his girlfriend's violent death.
In fact, there was even doubt over whether Harriet had been killed at all.
One thing became apparent soon after the body was dragged from murky canal waters near Walmer's Lane Bridge, Birmingham.
Harriet had been involved in an altercation. Tell-tale bruising on her wrists were consistent with the victim being grasped by strong hands.
Yet Lilly, described by journalists of the day as 'of prepossessing appearance, with red hair, a fair complexion and intelligent face', played the suicide card.
When shaken awake by Sergeant Brough only hours after the grisly discovery, he gasped: "Good God, is she dead?" He told Inspector Edmonds at the local nick: "I did not do it, but I am as bad as if I had done so, because I knew she intended to do it."