Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Premeditated Murder in South East England's Medway Towns by Janet Cameron

River Medway, Copyright Janet Cameron

A cold-blooded crime of patricide occurred in a small village in Medway in the early 1800s. Resourceful Rev. Jordan was determined to find the murderer.

Sometimes, in spite of every effort, certain crimes of the past remain unsolved although sometimes police and neighbours had a pretty good idea of who might be responsible. Here’s a horrible crime from the Medway area of South-East England, for which no one was ever convicted.

This murder was never solved by traditional methods, although a feisty Reverend did his best to put matters right after the investigations of the professionals had failed. The murder happened in Hoo St. Werburgh right under the Rev. Richard Jordan’s nose, on Sunday 11 December, 1808. A parishioner, William White, was shot dead while sitting at his living room fire at Cockham Farm. William White, who died instantly, was the owner-occupier of the farm.

A Premeditated Murder

It was clearly a carefully premeditated plan, since, during the hours of darkness, the murderer had set up a hurdle as a gun-rest in the garden of the farmhouse, so that he was able to shoot straight through the scullery window. It was thought the murderer was a man with local knowledge, since he knew William White would be sitting right there on his own. By choosing the Sunday evening, the murderer ensured that no domestic servants would be around to bear witness against him. Also, he positioned his gun on the hurdle exactly at 8.00pm, so that the sound of gunfire was obliterated by the customary volley of shots from the convict prison hulks lying nearby on the River Medway.

After the deed, the murderer disappeared into the darkness with the murder weapon, to hide it in a barn where it was found some time later. William’s corpse was discovered within a matter of minutes by his children. It must have been heartbreaking to see them crying over their dead father.

The Chief Murder Suspect

George White, the eldest son who, it was claimed, had designs on the farm, was suspected, especially as he’d been heard threatening his father. However, the 24 year-old explained to the Bow Street Runners that he had an alibi and couldn’t possibly have done it. He had been in Hoo Village between 7.45pm and 8.15pm, which was at least a mile from the farmhouse. Apparently everyone believed him, and the Bow Street Runners who had hurried to Hoo to make their investigations, admitted defeat and decided not to pursue their questioning. An open verdict was recorded by the Rochester coroner.

But Rev. Jordan wasn’t going to let it go and, convinced that George White was the murderer, determined to break the unmarried, eldest son’s alibi. On the 26 January, Jordan preached a fiery sermon and then he placed a book in the vestry and demanded each male parishioner enter his name and a statement of where he was at 8.00pm on 11 December – and this entry was to be witnessed by another person. Then Jordan presented a broadsheet requesting information about any strangers in the area at the time. The next item on the agenda was questioning the villagers and this began on March 9. Jordan was thorough.

The Suspect Makes a Public Statement

On March 26, Jordan told George White to call a vestry meeting in order to clear himself of suspicion for the murder of his father. On Easter Monday, 3 April, after a dinner for forty at the Bells Inn followed by a meeting to settle Parish accounts, Jordan insisted on George White making a public statement. He quickly proved that George had left the farmhouse at 6.50pm to walk to Hoo but he did not turn back to fetch a handkerchief from his bedroom as he claimed. Instead, he’d gone into the garden and set the scene for murder. If he’d had had a handkerchief at the time of his father’s death, he would have wiped his eyes with that instead of with the back of his hand.

Rev. Jordan was also able to prove George had not bought a bag of nuts at the village shop at 7.45pm because the vicar had found a witness who saw him cracking and eating them at 7.40pm. Also, George claimed to be standing at the Bells pub when the hulks’ guns were fired, but in fact, that had taken place fifteen minutes earlier.
Further, he had not arrived at the vicarage until 8.20 and, as the vicar’s housekeeper claimed, his breathing was laboured when he got to the vicarage door. George had had ample time to carry out the murder of his father and then double back to the village.

The Murderer who Got Away

But George White never went to trial. Knowing he was beaten, he emigrated to Australia, saving himself from arrest but also losing his inheritance.

Adapted from Medway Murder and Crime, Janet Cameron, Tempus Publishing, 2008.
Originally published on Suite 101, 16 December, 2010.

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