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By Stephen Wade
The History PressCopyright © 2012 Stephen Wade
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TOM OTTER GIBBETED
The surname Otter was very common across Lincolnshire up to the 1840s. In 1846, for instance, John Otter was Lord of the Manor in Kirton and there was a large family of that name in the area, and it is still common around Lincoln. But Otter is a name in the annals of Lincolnshire crime with a special and haunting resonance, as this story shows.
The village of Saxilby, a small, isolated place in the early nineteenth century, was difficult to find if you left the main roads. It is situated between Lincoln and Gainsborough, close to Doddington Hall, a stately home. At the time of this murder it was in the heart of the farmland below the long ridge running from the north of the county down to the south of Lincoln to the River Witham. Even today the string of villages dotted along the rich green land between north Nottinghamshire and Lindsey are often hardly noticed by travellers if they miss the main roads. There is a steep incline in parts from the Burton road north of Lincoln, and this continues all the way north to Kirton.
With this in mind, it is not difficult to see how a dangerous man like Otter might think he could brutally murder his new wife and hide her body in a lonely place. But he was wrong.
The story begins with a setting almost comparable to that of one of Thomas Hardy's tragic novels, and the rural context is very much of that world of masters and men, poor servants, tough labourers and relentless, confident authority. Otter, or Temporal as he was also known, was one of that class of casual labourers who inhabit the darker areas of employment history, in an era when hired labour often came from the hiring fairs, where men would count on their appearance as well as their track record to secure a new post. We might now refer to Otter as marginalised. He appears to have worked in order to secure enough money for drink, and only thought about more work when it was exhausted. In this case, the focus of the story is the Sun Inn in Saxilby, where he sometimes did his drinking.
The killer was one of the so-called bankers, a wild breed of men who did the toughest work in the maintenance of the irrigation systems in the fields, and when there were urgent problems as the result of silting. Bankers were notoriously rough characters, and memoirs written late in the nineteenth century relate tales of the lawlessness of this occupation.
Otter/Temporal's family came from Treswell, near Retford. His father, Thomas, married Ann Temporal on 30 July 1775. Ann was forty-five, unusually late for marriage at that time. It was a 'shotgun wedding' it seems, as Ann gave birth to a daughter just a few weeks after the marriage. Tom Otter, the future murderer, was the third child in the family, being born when his mother was fifty-one, in 1782. The boy was only sixteen when his father died, and he was brought up by an uncle. He seems to have had a nasty personality and a very cruel streak, as some accounts testify to his cutting animals for pleasure.
By 1805 Otter had gained a reputation as a wandering scoundrel; he most likely had more than one love affair in progress at any time, but on this occasion one Mary Kirkham was with child by him and he would be coerced into marrying her. It was most important for pregnant women to marry at this time. There was a high incidence of suicide and infanticide. 'Shamed' young women were regularly reported as suicide cases in such journals as the Gentleman's Magazine, as in this report from 1806: 'Elizabeth Trout, a young woman, of Little Sheffield, who in a fit of despair, drowned herself in a pond, which being frozen over, she broke a hole in the ice, just to admit her head, which she put into the water, while the whole of her body remained quite dry....' Again, only twenty years later, in Louth, a young woman who had been 'seduced' by a 'local religious gentleman' killed her child and was found out. She killed herself in Lincoln Castle while awaiting trial.
Tom Temporal, however, already had a wife and child in Southwell. He used a false name in this new bigamous marriage, his mother's maiden name. Given the small communities involved here, and the state of communications at the time, it seems unlikely that anyone back home in Nottinghamshire would have found out about the unlawful union in this tiny village, off the beaten track, and it was well away from Lincoln itself, where there might have been a slight possibility of his being recognised by travellers.
The marriage took place at South Hykeham, only a few miles from Saxilby. Two local officers, called Shuttleworth, stood beside the groom during the swift and perfunctory service. Otter was taken there by the constables with the charge of bastardy on him, in a cart to be sure he actually arrived. It is useful at this point to recall that in the late eighteenth century illegitimacy was regulated, where possible, by bastardy bonds. A pregnant single woman was perceived as an offence against her local community. Overseers and churchwardens needed to know how the child would be supported and educated, of course. A girl who said nothing about the father when standing before magistrates for this summary offence would be taken to a house of correction. But when the father was identified, a bastardy bond was made, demanding his payment of £40 over a set period, to pay for everything from the midwife's fees to general maintenance. These factors explain why Otter was taken in hand in Hykeham on this occasion.
In the register there are simply marks made by both people. The newly-weds then set off for Lincoln, where Otter was labouring in the old swan-pool. He had first met Mary in the city while he was banking at the pool. It was 6 p.m. by the time they reached Saxilby.
It was not uncommon for young men like Otter to be marched to the altar, but he resented it deeply and the rancorous emotion gnawed at him, insisting on some kind of wild vengeance. Otter wasted no time in planning his wife's death and finding a suitable place for it. He took her for a walk from the Sun Inn in Saxilby to a place called Drinsey Nook. Unluckily for him, another labourer also took a walk that way, possibly as a 'peeping Tom', but also to continue a journey towards the village of Harby. This was John Dunkerly, and he made a long and detailed statement about what he saw, though only after the trial had taken place. The couple walked to a quiet spot, and then, as Dunkerly reported, Otter said to Mary, 'Sit down, you can rest here.' He then he walked into the undergrowth and took a hedge-stake. According to Dunkerly, 'The moon shined on his face at the time and his eyes frightened me, there was such a fiery look in them, like a cat's eyes in the dark. And I heard him say to himself, "That'll finish my ... wedding!" Then he climbed down to where she was sitting with her head hanging down, and he swung the hedge-stake with both hands and hit her a clout on the head.'
Two other men had witnessed Mary and Otter walk to the Nook. Dunkerly had also walked past them. They knew him, as he worked on local land, and they said to him, 'You'll have company, John.'
It appears that Dunkerly was very close, though well camouflaged as he watched events unfold. His account of the murder and the body is convincing; it is also graphic in detail. He noted that Mary's body was 'all a-quiver like' before she became rigid. He described the second blow as like hitting a turnip. He said that he passed out, and that when he came round 'the hedge-stake Otter had murdered her with lay close beside me'.
Dunkerly suffered a serious trauma from witnessing such a terrible crime. He recounts how he touched the stake and got blood on his hands and smock and then he wandered aimlessly around the area for days: 'I wandered about, I don't know how long, working on the roads and getting a job as how I could ... I come back to Doddington on the twentieth of March.'
There are some difficulties with the dating of events in this case. The Otter marriage took place on 3 November 1805. The arrest must have taken place after the body was found, and that was apparently before Dunkerly surfaced. The date of Otter's trial was technically on 8 March 1808, as that was the set date for the circuit judges to attend the Lincoln and City Assize, according to the records, but other sources give the 12th as the date.
Mary's body was found by Thomas Bowker and Daniel Fletcher, and the inquest was set in motion, while Dunkerly wandered away, most disturbed and apprehensive. He was away for a long time and only reappears in the story much later, well after the key events in the process of arrest and trial. Reading between the lines of his story, he was naturally very afraid of being accused of the murder; he had had Mary Kirkham's blood on him for the rest of the day in question, and he must have needed to find a way to wash his smock without being questioned. Obviously there were no subtleties of forensic enquiry then, but he must have panicked.
On the day of the murder he had walked a long way to the Sun Inn, then drunk for some considerable time, no doubt talking about Lord Nelson and Trafalgar, the big news of only two weeks before. Then he had to walk a long way, north of Drinsey Nook towards the village of Harby, a walk of several miles.
The body was found and Otter arrested, and an inquest held. The incidents that accompanied the arrest and inquest are disturbing and unpleasant. For instance, one account, written fifty years ago, notes that he was arrested in the inn, and that this was fitting: 'Its sign was the sun, and it was in the sunshine he was caught. He was sitting by the window, in a shaft of winter sunlight, and the sunlight fell upon a portion of his coat and threw up a multicoloured sheen ... and this sheen was so marked that it held the eye of a rural constable who had had enough experience of farmyards to recognise that sheen.'
Also, when Kirkham's body was brought to the inn for the inquest, it was reported that blood spilled from the body on to the wooden planks of the cart and dripped from underneath it. Naturally there would have been no blood in liquid form to spill at that point. Nevertheless, it gave rise to legends about the Otter case. In 1930 Thomas Burke, in his book The English Inn, wrote about this stage of the case as if events happened that defied the nature of human biology, and it is in his text that the business of the hedge-stake being kept at the Sun Inn takes its popular form. The stake became the focus of local ghost stories after that. In a book written just four years earlier, in 1926, Highways and Byways in Lincolnshire by Frederick Griggs, there is no mention of Tom Otter in the pages concerning Saxilby.
The inquest came to the conclusion that Mary's killer was easy to locate: the verdict was 'wilful murder against her husband Thomas Temporel'. Poor pregnant Mary was taken for burial at St Botolph's Church in Saxilby, where the vicar, Thomas Rees, said the last words over the grave at the north-east corner of the churchyard.
Of all the early, pre-Victorian murder cases in Lincolnshire, this is the one with the most explicable mythology; instances of servant girls killing their mistresses or poachers shooting gamekeepers are quite common, but there is nothing to rival this case where a man brazenly defied the law and took a life to sort out a legal problem that was weighing heavily on him.
There was a trial and Otter/Temporal was sentenced to hang; this was carried out on 14 March. Baron Sir Robert Graham presided, a man with a massively impressive reputation, as he had been the judge at the trial of the Norfolk man, John Bellingham, who had murdered the Prime Minister Spencer Perceval. There was no real defence, although there was no definite witness (no Dunkerly in sight) and the evidence, gathered from an array of locals, was circumstantial. Nevertheless the jury took only a few minutes to find Tom guilty.
At that time the Cobb Hall tower of Lincoln Castle was the place of execution; it is still there today, dominating the corner of the cathedral car park. The case seems to have been considered so repulsive that something more than a mere execution was required; Otter would have to become a part of the legal mechanism of threat and horror – a standard method at the time, when homicide was so common, of instilling fear into the general populace. Despite the fact that the judge had ordered medical dissection after the culprit's death, he changed his mind and brought in a gibbeting order. This old custom was still very much in use in various parts of the world. In 1783 John Hector St John Crevecoeur described an incident in the Southern states of the USA, writing, 'a Negro who has murdered someone ... has been suspended in a cage and left to be picked to death by birds of prey, his eyes have been picked out and he is dying from thirst'. This barbaric symbolic warning to malefactors had until recently still been in existence as a permanent fixture much closer to home: in Halifax, the gibbet had fallen into disuse only thirty years before Tom Otter's time. Otter's body was put in a cage that was suspended from a high beam at Saxilby. His remains must have survived there for some time.
It is recorded that the cart with Tom's body in it collapsed as it rattled over the bridge at Saxilby and bystanders were hurt. The crowd following the cart to the gibbet was so excited and frantic that some people were injured in the crush – the Otter myth was being fed. Everything connected to the gibbet would become the stuff of folklore. The Saxilby gibbet stayed there until around 1850 when there was a massive storm. Parts of this terrible object may still be seen by visitors to Doddington Hall, mangled lumps of metal indicative of the awful sight passers-by must have seen in the quiet lane. Fifty years ago Judge Basil Neild wrote about the case in his memoirs, which are always associated with the Otter murder:
Ten tongues in one head.
Nine living and one dead.
One flew forth to fetch some bread
To feed the living in the dead.
The anonymous local poet had also played his part in generating the legend of Tom Otter, a vicious man who chose the wrong time to do that horrendous thing to Mary, to take her life away; he had no idea that the local 'good scout' was just a few yards away, perhaps expecting a voyeuristic thrill but instead suffering a deeply traumatic experience.
In this way began the legend of this case. So powerful and widespread has this been over two centuries that it is not an easy task for the historian to divide the historical facts from the myth. John Dunkerly's statement later on only muddied the waters even further, as his statement begins with reliable data but wanders into the realms of ghost fiction. We are not even sure that Dunkerly was really his name, for some accounts call him Dunberley. The distortions of time and the chronicles of heritage-fuelled tales have veneered the actual historical records with a layer of falsification and old wives' tales. Fortunately for historians of crime, there is enough firm narrative evidence to be sure of the motivations involved, and also of the outcome of the legal process.CHAPTER 2
MP MURDERED BY UNKNOWN HANDS
This is a tale that many may find more interesting in its speculation than in any certain historical documentation, but it provides a perfect example of that variety of 'suspicious death' for which tantalising evidence of murder exists.
A decade before the Great Reform Act of 1832 began the long process of electoral reform towards the secret ballot (not in existence until 1872) England was beset by problems of local power and corruption. The 'pocket' and 'rotten' boroughs, in which a handful of electors returned MPs to Parliament, were becoming a national scandal. The whole business was one in which factions were created and all kinds of underhand methods were used to secure support from the men of property who had a vote and therefore could be wooed and won by the aspiring politicians. In most cases landed, wealthy local families ran the show. But there was always opposition, which was sometimes from outside, when a stranger would arrive with cash in his pockets to compete with the local power base. A glance at the collection of election posters and leaflets in Lincoln Central Library is enough to confirm the opinion that hustings acrimony and satire were often more vicious than harmless.
In 1800 a chronicle of local events noted that on 9 April, Colonel Sibthorp, MP for Lincoln, invited the inhabitants of the city to dine with him at Canwick. The short description is a masterly piece of 'spin' for a man who had some reason for needing to be seen doing beneficent things in his own 'patch'. But something went slightly wrong, and this was a hint of things to come. The writer goes on to outline the evening: 'A more sumptuous entertainment was never prepared, ample provision for two thousand persons; the gala was so happily preconcerted that every guest would have been entertained but for the licentious conduct of an illiterate rabble which, to the subversion of all comfort, abused the hospitality.'
Excerpted from Lincolnshire Murders by Stephen Wade. Copyright © 2012 Stephen Wade. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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