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Cumbria Murders

Cumbria Murders

by Paul Heslop, Hunter Davies
Cumbria Murders brings together numerous murderous tales that shocked not only the county but also made headlines throughout the country. They include the cases of Wai Sheung Siu Miao, strangled while on honeymoon in 1928; William Armstrong, shot by the Revd Joseph Smith in 1851; Ann Sewell, stabbed to death by farmhand George Cass in 1860; and the murder of Jack West


Cumbria Murders brings together numerous murderous tales that shocked not only the county but also made headlines throughout the country. They include the cases of Wai Sheung Siu Miao, strangled while on honeymoon in 1928; William Armstrong, shot by the Revd Joseph Smith in 1851; Ann Sewell, stabbed to death by farmhand George Cass in 1860; and the murder of Jack West at his home near Workington in 1964, whose killers were the last two men to be lawfully hanged in England. Paul Heslop was a policeman for over thirty years, mostly as a detective. His experience and understanding of the criminal justice system give authority to his unbiased assessment and analysis of the cases in this book. His carefully researched, well-illustrated and enthralling text will appeal to anyone interested in the shady side of Cumbria’s history, and should give much food for thought.

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The History Press
Publication date:
Sutton True Crime History
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Barnes & Noble
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2 MB
Age Range:
12 Years

Read an Excerpt

Cumbria Murders

By Paul Heslop

The History Press

Copyright © 2012 Paul Heslop
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7524-8417-4



Lanercost, 1834

Wilful murder is taking away the life of a fellow creature by malice aforethought. You have to consider whether the violence used rose from an unfeeling disposition and a heart regardless of mercy ...

These words, spoken by Judge Baron Parke at the Cumberland Spring Assizes of 1835, could have been drafted with John Pearson in mind. Forty-seven-year-old Pearson was charged with murdering his wife, Jane, in the most brutal circumstances. This was a wicked crime, perpetrated on an innocent woman whose prolonged and agonising death was sufficient to melt the hardest of hearts.

Pearson was born near Haltwhistle, and had been a serial poacher with 'dog and gun' for thirty years, during which he had suffered imprisonment and fines. He admitted that at the age of 18 he had fallen into the 'evil habit of drinking, the mother of many evils'. He had been a gamekeeper, but through drinking and womanising was dismissed. He had married, then joined the army but sought discharge, which was granted after three years. His wife died, leaving five children, four of whom were 'doing for themselves', the other living with a friend. He ended up living and working as a mole catcher at Denton, near Brampton, and married Jane, aged 42. Two months later he murdered her.

The Pearsons lived at Randylands, an isolated house situated alongside the line of Hadrian's Wall, a mile north of Abbey Bridge, near Lanercost Priory. They had lived there for only eleven days when they went for a drink on the evening of Tuesday 14 October 1834, at the Abbey Bridge Inn. Dinah Hodgson, the licensee, recalled their visit. They arrived at about 6 p.m. and left around 8 p.m. John wore a hat, while Jane carried a reticule basket; a small bag made of net with a drawstring. Pearson would later say that he gave Jane his hat to carry also. He drank spirits; she drank no alcohol at all. He was tipsy when they left to walk home; he carrying some coals upon his shoulder, she a bottle loaned to her by Mrs Hodgson containing rum so that John could continue drinking at home. Taking the rum home was Jane's idea. It was an unwise decision.

Randylands had another tenant, a woman named Rachael Whitehead. She was married, but her husband was away. There were no ceilings in the building, just internal walls, which meant that conversations in adjoining rooms could easily be overheard. When the Pearsons arrived home from the inn that evening, Mrs Whitehead heard their voices before they even reached the house. They were quarrelling. 'He was abusing her very sore and for many things, including of being a whore'. She heard them enter the building and go to their room, where the quarrelling continued.

Then the beating started. As Mrs Whitehead lay in her bed, she could not help but overhear John 'striking and licking' his wife. She told the jury: 'They were very heavy strokes. I heard them more than once, but I cannot say how many times. I was not keeping count. It went on till between 11 and 12. I was awake all the night. I did not take my clothes off. It wasn't very likely I could strip when there was such work carrying on in the other room. Jane called out "murder". That was all I heard her say during the night.'

The next morning Pearson returned to the inn, where he asked Dinah Hodgson for a pint of ale, producing the now empty bottle that had contained the rum. Mrs Hodgson obliged, unaware that Pearson's wife had by then sustained such terrible injuries that she was dying. While Pearson was out, Mrs Whitehead heard Jane call out for a cup of tea. She duly took a cup to her and Jane drank it. She then asked for water, which was also delivered. Mrs Whitehead noted that Jane was lying in bed, naked, and that there was a 'vast deal' of blood about the bed and on her person, including her face. It was the last time she saw Jane alive.

Just after 9 a.m., when Pearson returned home, he showed Mrs Whitehead his wife's gown, telling her she had been in 'idle company' and that she had behaved very badly to him the night before. Later she heard him say to Jane, 'As soon as I have finished then I will finish her,' meaning Mrs Whitehead, who stated that from the time he returned from the inn until 11 a.m. 'he was going on as the night before – striking her.' She told the jury that he had asked Jane 'if she knew the man she was with,' but she made no answer. He said it was 'some person who had followed her out, saw her tipsy and had used her ill.'

Mrs Whitehead left the house around 11 a.m. and chanced upon a neighbour, Sarah Thirlwell, just ten yards from her door. On hearing Mrs Whitehead's account, Thirlwell went up the path to Randylands and looked through the kitchen window in the part of the building occupied by the Pearsons. Inside, she saw a man standing by a bed with a long stick in his hand. His arm was stretched 'full length'. She could not see if anyone was on the bed, nor did she see the man's face. She watched him for three minutes and described him as 'middle sized', wearing a black hat and light jacket. Thirlwell did not know Pearson, but at the subsequent coroner's inquest she saw that Pearson had the 'same appearance' as the man she had seen.

Around the same time, a pedlar named James Barrett happened along. He was walking to Hayton Gate, just east of Randylands. At 100 yards away, he saw a man 'step away' and walk from the house. He identified him as John Pearson, whom he did not know but recognised later at the inquest. As he passed Randylands, Barrett saw 'a person lying before the door'. She was 'quite in a naked state, without clothing at all', he said. He knew her to be Jane Pearson. As he watched, she got up and went inside the house.

Ann Thompson lived at Hayton Gate. After meeting Barrett, she went to Randylands where she found Jane Pearson dead on the bed at about 1 p.m. Pearson said his wife was done, and went outside. Thompson said nothing to him but awaited the arrival of neighbours. When Pearson returned, she asked him 'what had put all the blood on his hands?'. 'It made no matter about that,' was his reply. There was a long stick, like a rake shank, lying in the kitchen. 'It was all blood and hair and sand,' Mrs Thompson told the jury. She also noticed blood in the passage, and 'a great quantity of blood sprinkled on the wall at the bed head where the body was'. She also noticed 'chairs and other things standing disorderly', and that Pearson was 'a little intoxicated' and 'drank from a little bottle'.

Joseph Holmes, a farmer, went to Randylands between about 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. that day. He saw the deceased woman through the window, lying on the bed. He went inside and searched for Pearson but was unable to find him. He then saw Pearson walking along the opposite side of the hedge, whistling and singing, and drinking from a bottle. Meanwhile, those present agreed to lay the body out. Holmes examined the deceased's arms, and different parts of her body. He told the jury, 'I can't describe so horrid it was. I mean by that the body was very much injured. I was shown a large wound on the back of the ahouse was bloody all over. There was hair and blood lying outside the door.'

John Pearson led Holmes to 'a piece of ground' where he said a man had ill-used his wife. It was in the field where the house stood. He said Hugh Hewer knew the man, and that Rachel Whitehead 'knew all about it'. Holmes went to Brampton and brought Constable Robert Sloan to the scene. Pearson was arrested and his clothes and other articles seized. The judge asked Holmes about the place indicated by Pearson, where he said his wife had been ill-used. 'There was an impression on the grass as if some person had been lying there,' said Holmes.

George Gill, a surgeon, carried out the post-mortem examination on Jane Pearson. He found the body 'almost literally covered with contusions and scratches'. There was a wound to the forehead and a contused wound on the back of the head, with a separation of the scalp on each side. This was the cause of death. A stick, like the one produced – about 5ft long and 11/2in thick – would have caused it. By the appearance of scratches from hip to head, he considered that Jane Pearson had been dragged along the floor. She could have got up and walked after receiving the fatal blow. Her clothes, the pillow and other articles were produced. There was 'a general expression of horror in the court at the sight of the shocking evidences of the horrid deed'.

Hugh Hewer testified at the behest of Pearson, who had called on him to support his defence. He agreed he had seen Pearson in a field south of Randylands at about 9 p.m. on the evening of 14 October. Hewer, accompanied by his son, had been walking from Garthside to Banks, taking them in a west to east direction. Opposite Randylands he discovered Jane's basket and a man's hat, about seventy yards from the house. Hewer called out, 'Has anybody lost anything?' to which Pearson replied, 'Yes, but stop till I come to you.' Pearson rushed through the hedge and fell over. 'He was very drunk,' claimed Hewer. Pearson then asked 'Where are they?' meaning the basket and hat. Hewer said he would fetch them, and did so. Pearson put the hat on and Hewer handed him the basket. Pearson said the next time he met Hewer in a public house he would 'treat him with a glass' for his kindness.

It was Pearson's turn to have his say. Not on oath, as in those days an accused had no right to testify in his or her defence. Instead, in response to being asked by his Lordship if he had any observations to make, he claimed that when he and Jane had left the inn they were both tipsy, and as he had some coals to carry he gave her his hat, which she carried, along with her basket. He reached home first, but was unable to get into the house because she had the key. After waiting some time in expectation of her joining him, and afraid that someone might 'have taken advantage of her situation to illuse her', he went back in search of her and found her a short distance from the house in company with a man who was holding the basket in his hand. Hence, he implied, the impressions in the grass, and his hat and Jane's basket being found seventy yards away by Hewer.

Pearson went on to claim that he was in such a state of intoxication that all recollection of anything that might have occurred afterwards escaped him. The next morning, when he found himself in bed with his wife, he immediately got up and left the house to find who had ill-used her the previous night. He then went to the Abbey Bridge Inn, had a drink and then returned home to sit in the kitchen. Noticing his wife was silent, he went up to the bed, placed his hand upon her neck and was surprised to find she was dead. He kissed her and left the house. That was all he knew about the matter, he said, adding that how his wife had come by her death he could not tell but it was not he who had been the cause of it.

This was Pearson's defence against the testimonies of witnesses, especially Rachel Whitehead who had heard the beatings within the four walls of Randylands. The judge instructed the jury to consider whether, on the evidence, John Pearson was the man who had inflicted the violence by which 'the unfortunate woman was deprived of life'. She could not have inflicted the violence upon herself. Explaining manslaughter, the judge told the jury that they must be prepared to make allowance for a man who thought himself aggrieved: corporal punishment might have been an excuse if provocation had been offered, in this case a man who had found his wife in the act of adultery and in a sudden transport of passion had punished her by death.

But there was no proof of infidelity by Jane Pearson, and the treatment she had received by her husband went far beyond 'reasonable', even if his suspicions, if any, had been justified. The jury were told to consider the extraordinary length of time Jane Pearson had suffered, and the instrument by which the violence was inflicted. Pearson had been drunk, although he had considerably recovered by morning when more violence was used. But drunkenness is no excuse for murder, and the jury returned after only fifteen minutes to declare a 'guilty' verdict.

Baron Parke put on the black cap. He told Pearson, 'You have taken the life of your unfortunate wife by means so cruel and brutal as have seldom before been detailed in a court of justice. None can feel pity for your fate. The law says a speedy and incongruous death must be awarded to you, and it is my painful duty to tell you that there is no hope for you on this side of the grave. It remains for me to pass upon you the awful sentence of the law, which is that you be taken hence to the prison whence you came, and from thence on Friday next be carried to the place of execution and there be hanged by the neck until you are dead, and that your body be then buried within the walls of the prison. And may the Lord have mercy on your soul.'

The Execution

John Pearson had lost the battle, but he had not yet lost the war. On being taken to prison, as the Revd Wilkinson prayed for his soul, Pearson, praying with him, began shaking and 'contorting his body in several ways'. At night he would cry out that his cell was crowded with spirits. He said that he 'durst not sleep alone'. It was a failed attempt to instil the belief that he was insane.

There were rumours that Pearson had murdered his first wife. He claimed she had died of consumption. Given his violent conduct towards his second wife, Jane, who could know what he had done, or what he was capable of? He did admit, in a written confession, that his habits had been 'dissolute and depraved'. He owed it all, he said, to 'pride, Sabbath-breaking and intoxication'. Of the murder he wrote the following: 'Being in a state of intoxication, I remember ill-using my wife, but not with the intent to take away her life; although through passion, jealousy and being influenced with drink, I might have influenced on her the wound that caused her death'.

On the morning of his execution, 13 March 1835, Pearson attended a religious service, after which he declared himself 'too full to speak'. Just before noon his arms were pinioned. As twelve o'clock struck he was taken from his cell, saying, 'Christ is my prop – Christ is my prop.' At the scaffold, on top of the wall facing English Street, he trembled as the executioner made the 'last arrangements'. When the cap was pulled over his face he begged for it to be removed so that he could see, but was told this could not be done. Then he was gone, his life taken by the state. It was reported that an 'immense number' of people witnessed the execution.

The Verdict

That John Pearson was in control of his actions throughout the entire period he beat his wife may be in doubt: he was drunk on spirits, at least throughout the night, less so in the morning when the beating continued. That he killed his wife cannot be in doubt, and his account of another man 'ill-using' her was a story contrived to save his skin.

The events of that night were heard loud and clear by Rachel Whitehead, who lay alone and fully clothed in her bed, just feet away. She was a victim too. What she must have gone through that long night and into the morning can only be imagined: pity for the poor soul being subjected to prolonged torture; and fear for her own safety, a fear justified when she heard Jane Pearson call out 'murder', and later heard her husband declare, 'As soon as I have finished I will finish her'. There was no telephone to call for help, no neighbour's door to knock on for rescue. She remained in her room, too afraid to flee into the darkness where she might encounter the raging monster.

As for Jane Pearson: she was thrashed mercilessly, time after time, hour after hour. Not with a bludgeon, which might have finished her quickly, but a stick, guaranteed to inflict pain, until, with one blow to the back of her head, she was doomed. Her suffering was prolonged and unimaginable. It is interesting to note that the judge said that 'corporal punishment to some extent might have been an excuse when provocation had been offered'. Thankfully, beating one's wife is one Victorian 'value' that has been confined to history.

After committing murder, Pearson sought to blame another man whom, he said, ill-used his wife when he (Pearson) was too drunk to remember. He strove to be acquitted in court, and when that failed he pretended to be insane. Anything but face the consequences of his wickedness. His end, when it came, was swift and clean. It was more than he deserved.


Excerpted from Cumbria Murders by Paul Heslop. Copyright © 2012 Paul Heslop. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Paul Heslop was a police officer for thirty years. He is now a full-time author and journalist: his previous five books include three true crime titles and two volumes of autobiography.

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