Thriller Thursday ~ The Coroner’s Inquest

A Coroners Inquest

Previous Installments of this Series:

~ Accident or Murder

~The Vanishing

~Dear John

~The Fate of Rhoda

The suspect, John Carter, arrested–housed at Faringdon Gaol– and the body found, a coroner’s Inquest was held in the Schoolhouse at Watchfield.  In Constable Charles Sparkes’ own words the horror of the scene unfolds:

I got an iron bar and with it I probed the floor of an outbuilding adjoining the house of the husband used as a stable–it was covered with litter.  I tested it all over until I came to one corner where there was a large wheelbarrow stood on its end and propped up against the wall in a corner.  I moved the wheelbarrow and found a tub which I also removed.  I then grubbed the floor and at about the third time I put the bar down I found I was on something.  As I pulled the bar out I smelt a deathly smell.  I at once called to Sgt. Benning who was in an adjoining shed and he brought a four grained fork with him but the earth was shallow and I knelt down and pulled the earth off with my hands.  I then found the body of the deceased with only a chemise on her body, there were only about three inches of earth covering the body.  Sgt. Benning and I then took the body out of the hole and placed i where the jury have seen it.  This morning I examined the hole and found it to be about two feet square and about 18 inches deep.  The body of the deceased was doubled up when we found it and being a small person it took up very little room.  I searched the house but saw no traces of blood and there were no marks of a struggle having taken place.  When I found the body it presented the same appearance as it does now, except that it has become more discoloured.  I saw a black mark round the throttle of the neck of the deceased about four or five inches in length and about three quarters of an inch wide, it appeared to be larger on the left side of the neck than on the right…

From the Coroner’s Report

John’s brother James testifies at the inquest explaining that the had met John in a field as he was returning from a milk run to Shrivenham Station.  John had confessed to his brother that he “did kill his wife”.  He claimed she had died directly after he had hit her and knocked her down.  He then proceeded to drag her into the blacksmith shop to be buried.  He had requested that James return to Watchfield to determine what the gossip might be about his wife Rhoda.  James had instead gone to the police.

James Carter

The testimony of several neighbours recounted the events of the days surrounding Rhoda’s murder but it was the testimony of Faringdon surgeon Coniston Spackman, ordered by the coroner to make a superficial examination of the body, which detailed the truly heinous violence Rhoda had endured and her corpse had been submitted to:

I found the whole of the body was very much discoloured particularly the head and face and the right side of the body–the hair of the head was very nearly off–it was hanging loose, the features were so much discoloured and swollen that they were almost beyond recognition.  On examining the throat I found three distinct marks, one on the right corresponding to the impression of a thumb and two on the left corresponding to the impression of two fingers.  I also found the thyroid cartilage discoloured, it was quite moveable,there was no fracture of the skull but the nose was broken.  The appearance of the head and face would lead to the supposition that it had been beaten severely or trodden upon.  I should say after death.  I found the skin of the whole body was easily removeable–that I attribute to decomposition but it might have been by scorching and there was a distinct smell as though the body had been scorched.  From all the appearances of the body, I am of the opinion that death was caused by strangulation.  The hair of the deceased smelt of fire.  I cannot give any opinion as to the time which has elapsed since the death but I should say about a week…

From The Coroner’s Report

Watchfield School where the inquest took place

Watchfield School where the inquest took place

The inquest results were clear and there was little question John Carter would be stand trial for the murder of his third wife Rhoda Ann!

…that the cause of her death was that she was strangled and killed by her husband John Carter on or about the twenty first of July in the year aforesaid at Watchfield aforesaid and so do further say that he said John Carter did feloniously, wilfully and of malice aforethought murder the said Rhoda Ann Carter

Black Sheep Sunday: My Darkest Black Sheep Revealed!

Thomas in Fegan Party

Thomas Carter–Home Child

If you recall yesterday I wrote of my Great-Grandfather, Thomas Carter, and the research which led to the discovery that he had been a British Home Child.  Benevolent and religious organizations sent over 100 000 British children to Canada between 1869 and 1930–though the movement began even earlier in the 1830s and did not end until 1939.  The reasons were often less than altruistic however!  Britain felt over-taxed by impoverished, less than desirable individuals and there was money to be saved and even to be made by shipping children off to be indentured to farmers in the British Commonwealth.

Children like my Great-Grandfather were sent in groups to a new, foreign land equipped with the promise of a new and better life and a trunk containing: 2 cloth suits, 2 sets of undergarments, 3 caps, 2 pair of boots, 3 pair of socks, 3 handkerchiefs, a jersey, and an overcoat.  Many were orphans but many were not, and some were sent without even the consent of their parents. I wanted to know the circumstances behind Thomas’ emigration!  It was the pursuit of this information which led me to this, my most morbid but thrilling revelation….My Darkest Black Sheep!

“A horrible murder has just been discovered at Watchfield village, in West Berks, near Swindon.  A cowman’s wife, named Rhoda Carter, had been missed for several days, and inquiries failed to show her whereabouts. Her husband’s cottage was searched, but without result.  Communications made to the police by the man’s brother, however, led to a second search being made, when the woman’s body was found buried in a corner of an old washhouse.  The Head and knees had been squeezed together, and the body was pressed into a hole two feet square.  The limbs appeared as if scorched, and persons had noticed a large fire in Carter’s cottage on the night of the woman’s disappearance.  Carter was arrested, and last night a coronor’s jury returned a verdict of “Willful murder” against him…” an excerpt from The London Times

The crime pictured at the top of this Police Illustrated News cover 5 Aug 1893

The crime pictured at the top of this Police Illustrated News cover 5 Aug 1893

One horrific newspaper article after another revealed that Thomas’ father, my 2nd Great Grandfather, John Carter, had murdered his third wife Rhoda Titcombe.  At first glance I was in denial!  Oops, I must have climbed someone else’s more sinister and albeit more thrilling family tree!  As my research progressed I soon realized with heart pumping clarity that indeed my family of dull British farm labourers had now become a family embroiled in the unspeakable–murder!

Murder Victim--Rhoda Ann Titcombe

Murder Victim–Rhoda Ann Titcombe

I had followed the family through the English census records.  John had been married three times.  His first wife, my biological 2nd Great-Grandmother, Elizabeth Thatcher had died from a fall down stone steps in their cottage.  There had been a coroner’s inquiry and it had been deemed accidental. She had been pregnant and unwell and had lost her balance or had a fainting spell.  Her daughter and a neighbour had been present but John–her husband–had been out working so my fear that he had also killed her was quickly dispelled. His second wife however, Elizabeth Alder– with whom he had another son John Nelson–had mysteriously disappeared.  She was thought to have left him for another man….but had she?

What to do next?  How to follow this historic trail of serial marriage and possibly serial murder?  The lucky aspect, if you can call it lucky, of finding someone infamous in your family tree is the knowledge that further records must exist!  News worthy as John Carter’s story was, knowing the date of the crime allowed me to search the newspapers on The British Newspaper Archive –I purchased a short term subscription.  Article after article helped me to piece together the appalling and pertinent details of the crime, the coroner’s inquest, and the trial.  I collected the names of the police investigators, the witnesses (including my great-grandpa,Thomas), the coroner, and the locations involved.  This was crucial in leading me to the records I would need! I googled all the names.  Which helped with background information.

I discovered John had been placed in Reading Gaol through newspaper reports. The trail led me to the Berkshire Records Office who most excitedly housed the records of the coroner of Berkshire, Mr. Jotcham.  The staff of the Berkshire Records Office were phenomenal and provided me with copies of the coroner’s reports for all three of John’s wives. But just as exciting, I happened across an article about the history of mugshots in England and discovered that Reading Gaol prisoners had mugshots taken during the 1890s when my 2nd Great-Grandfather had been arrested.  These were also housed at the BRO and my luck persisted as a long lost cousin was able to unearth a mugshot of John Carter on a visit to the BRO.  I now had a photo of my family’s Black Sheep!  Admittedly looking into his eyes brought up a wealth of tumultuous emotions!

The Mugshot of John Carter

The Mugshot of John Carter

The verdict of the the coroner’s inquest was that Rhoda had been strangled by her husband. John Carter, her body after death partially burned in an attempt to hide the evidence.  John Carter was found guilty of willful and malicious murder and sentenced to be hanged by the neck until he be dead.  John was hanged by the British Chief executioner James Billington on 3 Dec 1893 at Reading Gaol. Prior to his execution he opened an entirely new can-of-worms by confessing to the murder of his disappeared second wife Elizabeth Alder.

But what of the children, in particular my Great-Grandfather Thomas? 

Thomas Carter had the most daunting task for a young boy. At the age of 7 or 8 Thomas testified in the trial against his father:

“Thomas Carter, the prisoner’s son, said that when in bed on the Thursday night he heard something go “knock, knock, knock” on the floor of his father’s bed room. The noise lasted 20 minutes.  He heard his stepmother call out, “Lord have mercy on us.” He then heard another knocking noise on the stairs and all down the stairs.  It was a heavier sound than any one would make walking down the stairs.  The next morning his father told him not to go in the washhouse.  When he came home to tea, however, the prisoner sent him for some coal, and then lighted the fire in the washhouse. On Friday he did not see his stepmother, and his father told him she had gone to see her sister, and to say she was not at home if anyone inquired after her…” another excerpt from the London Times

Thomas, my great-grandpa, Testifies in Court at the age of 8.

Thomas, my great-grandpa, Testifies in Court at the age of 8.

I know now that after this trial Thomas was sent to the Farringdon workhouse as was his younger brother William.  Two years later their married older sister would rescue them from the workhouse and register them with Fegan’s Home for Boys.  According to Fegan records, an account by a local historian named Digsby, and passenger lists the boys were then sent to Canada as indentured servants, “Home Children” to start a new life abroad.  Thomas’ half-brother, the son of John Carter and his second wife Elizabeth Alder, John Nelson Carter, followed in another Fegan Home emigration party of 1900.

I am not entirely satisfied that I have milked the research to its exhaustion.  I would like to request further Reading Gaol files from the National British Archives.  I also wish to pursue the fates of William and John Nelson further, and flesh out their stories.  I am most eager to understand the motives and personality of John Carter, however genealogical research can only provide a framework which human imagination and emotional knowledge often must fill!
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