Serial Killers in 17th-Century England

By Capp, Bernard | History Today, March 1996 | Go to article overview

Serial Killers in 17th-Century England


Capp, Bernard, History Today


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At one level the conviction of Rosemary West has drawn a line under the grim story of life and death in Cromwell Street, Gloucester. At another, the issue remains wide open. How, we wonder, can apparently ordinary people commit such deeds? Are there really `natural born killers', or should we look for answers in terms of the alienation of late twentieth-century society? Surely, we feel, such things could never have happened in earlier times?

But of course they did. Human nature changes very slowly and we can find cases in some ways parallel as far back as the seventeenth century, and no doubt beyond. By an extraordinary coincidence, one even featured another Gloucester couple running a cheap lodging house. The Bloody Innkeeper (1675) described how the remains of seven men and women had been dug up in the backyard of an alehouse at Pultoe, near Gloucester. It was a lonely spot and only a few patrons stayed overnight, mainly commercial travellers. It flourished nonetheless, and after a few years the respectable couple who ran it, an old Cromwellian soldier and his Scottish wife, were able to move to a larger house in Gloucester itself. Only then did their secret emerge. A blacksmith moved into their former premises, and digging up the yard to lay foundations for his smithy he stumbled upon seven bodies, still fully clothed and in varying stages of decomposition. One victim had a rusty knife still embedded in his chest. The pamphlet was written before the couple came to trial and the sequel remains unknown. But the bloody innkeeper and his wife were by no means unique.

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Multiple murders and serial killings were probably no rarer in seventeenth-century England than today, though most homicides were of course far less sensational. As today, most originated in domestic tensions and quarrels in alehouses and taverns. Deliberate, premeditated killings were rare and mass murder was unlikely to escape detection. Suspicions were quickly aroused in 1619 when five inmates of Bablake Hospital, Coventry, suddenly died and three others fell gravely ill. All were found to have been poisoned with ratsbane. With eight victims in a small residential almshouse the finger of suspicion soon pointed to another inmate, one John Johnson, who had remained unaffected. Johnson himself died suddenly soon after being questioned, but rumours continued to circulate; his corpse was exhumed and viewed, reburied and then exhumed a second time and opened, to reveal that he too had died of poison - this time self-administered. As a suicide, he was reburied in the highway with a stake driven through the body `according to law'. Johnson's motive for killing, it was concluded, was an ambition to be the senior almsman in the Hospital.

A still more gruesome case was also quickly detected. In 1671 Thomas Lancaster of Hawkshead, near Windermere, murdered his wife, her father, her three sisters, her aunt, a cousin and a young servant, all by arsenic. For good measure he poisoned some of the neighbours too, to divert attention from himself. It was, a local magistrate remarked, `the most horrid act that hath ever been heard of in this country.' The motive was greed. As part of the marriage settlement, Lancaster's father-in-law had made over his estate in return for some cash payments to members of the family; at a stroke Lancaster had disposed of his financial obligations. The aunt was included for a bribe of [pound]24 from the heir to her estate, which shows the killer did not act entirely alone. He was convicted at Lancaster Assizes in April 1672, and was hanged in chains with an order that the body be left to rot on the gibbet.

Murder on such an epic scale could hardly be missed. A more subtle killer, however, knew that poison offered a reasonable chance that foul play would not even be suspected. In the seventeenth century there were no death certificates and a coroner's inquest was held only when there were very strong grounds for suspicion. …

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