Black Sheep Sunday ~ The curse on a Condemned Man’s Children!

All Saints Church in Goosey, Berkshire, England. Where Clara was born.  Copyright owned by Dennis Jackson.

All Saints Church in Goosey, Berkshire, England. Where Clara was born. Copyright owned by Dennis Jackson.

I occasionally contemplate how the sins of the father can effect his children.  Is a man of sin, condemned to death, the only legacy of his offspring?  Are they forever cursed by his wrongs in life?  Perhaps not.  Children should not have to pay for the crimes of their parents.  They are responsible for their own actions, their own mistakes and not those of others. However, like a chain reaction, one event, one experience can set others in motion and although no one should be held responsible for the evils of their parents perhaps in the eyes of society it taints a person.  A blemish one cannot hide for which one is not at fault!

My great grandfather and his siblings had to contend with this stain on their characters, born of their father’s crimes and his subsequent hanging. Though I had already learned of the fate of my great grandfather and is younger siblings I knew little of the effects on some of his older sisters.  It was the tale I finally discovered of his sister Clara Ann which was to be most disheartening.

Clara was the daughter of John Carter and his first wife Elizabeth Ann Thatcher.  Clara had been 12 when her mother died. Always awful to lose a mother, being an adolescent was probably that much more difficult.  She was still at home when John remarried to Elizabeth Ann Alder and when she mysteriously disappeared. In 1892, at age 16 she married Henry Breakspear, ten years her senior.  This was before her father had married, murdered, and been tried for the killing of Rhoda Ann Titcombe, his third wife.

Perhaps the fate of Clara had already been sewn up.  Perhaps the poor choices and the harsh personality of her father lead to Clara’s choice in a husband who seems was also aggressive, and possibly weak minded, and lost in his own right.

Prior to his marriage Henry Breakspear had also had at least one run in with the law.  A newspaper article details a case in which Henry was charged with having assaulted a young boy he was employed with labouring on a farm.  He had struck this 15 year old boy and kicked him according to evidence given.  Henry claimed he had lost his temper because of the boy’s sauciness and admitted to having assaulted him but not kicked him.  The beating was allegedly severe and Henry was described as possibly half-witted.  It appears Henry may have had a temper similar to that of Clara’s father!

The newspaper article.

The newspaper article.

Clara’s father John was hanged in 1893 after having been convicted of killing his third wife Rhoda.  Clara had in various trials and inquests given testimony along with her siblings evidencing her fear of her father’s violent and brutal temper. Clara and Henry had a son, Edward John, in 1894 (I have yet to discover whether there were any others).  It was possible that in Clara’s mind John’s execution, and now the birth of a child, would bring closure to all tragedy in her life but this was a far cry from the truth!

As though deja vu, 5 years later Clara’s would have to revisit tragic circumstances when Henry, in a state of unsound mind commits suicide by hanging and, Llewellyn Jotcham, the same coroner who investigated her father, now investigated her husband’s death.  I sometimes wish Clara had left a diary.  That I could peer into the depths of her soul and understand exactly what life with her husband had been but these are the frustrations of genealogy; These are the blanks we must fill with our own imaginings and emotions.

Death Record for Henry Breakspear 1898

Death Record for Henry Breakspear 1898

When we feel we have born all burdens in life that we can, life pierces us yet again with arrows!  In 1914 World War I breaks out and England sends it’s brave and naive young men off to fight for king and country.  Clara’s son Edward is now 20 and off he ventures to France and Belgium as a member of the 1st battalion, Somerset Light Infantry.  Just as Clara has been cursed by tragedy in the past, she is now met with the sad end of her son’s life in its prime! Killed in action 7 Jul 1915, Edward was awarded the Victory medal and star his name appears on the Ploegsteert memorial,
Comines-Warneton, Hainaut, Belgium.

Ploegsteert Memorial, Belgium

Ploegsteert Memorial, Belgium

I know little nothing yet of what became of Clara after all these horrors in her life.  I’d like to think she remarried, found some sort of peace.  Hopefully further investigation into her life will lead to findings as these!

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

Thriller Thursday ~ The Fate of Rhoda

Rhoda Ann Carter (Nee Titcombe)

Rhoda Ann Carter (Nee Titcombe)

Previous posts for this serial:
~ Accident or Murder?

~ The Vanishing

~ Dear John

The community of Watchfield was fraught in suspicion and both relations and neighbours were concerned by the mysterious disappearance of Rhoda Ann Carter (formerly Rhoda Ann Titcombe).  The answers to questions of Rhoda’s whereabouts and the events of the past few days, provided by her husband John Carter were unfathomably bizarre and certifiably untrue. Police Constable Charles Sparkes, of Shrivenham, was called to seek satisfaction in this case!

That Saturday evening, Constable Sparkes called on John Carter to inquire after Rhoda.  John insisted that his wife had left for her sister’s home in Eastleach Friday morning.  He explained that he and Rhoda had argued the evening before.  She had planned to fetch her sister and bring her back to stay with them during her confinement.  “I had told her, you won’t.  I married you to look after my children.  I says to her if you go you stop there; don’t you come back here again!”, Carter claimed. Constable Sparkes had known Rhoda for many years and knew her to be short-tempered, perhaps this explanation bore a resemblance to the truth.  When asked if Carter expected his wife to return, he replied that she was expected to return by carrier on Tuesday.

Map of the Watchfield  area showing East Leach

Map of the Watchfield area showing East Leach

Rhoda’s mother, still concerned, accompanied Cst. Sparkes into the Carter cottage and indicated that her daughter’s belongings were all accounted for beyond one set of clothing.  Rhoda had left with nothing but the clothes on her back!  Cst. Sparkes felt the need to investigate further as Rhoda’s mother accused Carter of “doing her daughter in”!

A trip to East leach revealed that Rhoda’s sister Jane Weatley and her husband David had not been visited by Rhoda. Carter’s story, an obvious concoction, while Sparkes was away, Carter bolted. Found in a meadow outside Watchfield, Carter is arrested.   It was thanks to John Carter’s brother James that the police were able to track him.  James, on a milk run, had encountered his brother John. and upon inquiring what he had been up to was told, “I did kill my wife and bury her in the blacksmith shop.” This statement from James and his direction made John’s arrest possible but it was the gruesome evidence, later discovered by Cst. Sparkes and Sergeant Benning from Uffington, which would soon seal the fate of John Carter and resolve the mystery of Rhoda Ann Carter’s disappearance…the body buried under the out building used as a stable!  This evidence would be detailed at the coroner’s inquest!

John Carter's arrest.

John Carter’s arrest.

The case continued next Thursday!
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Thriller Thursday ~ Second Installment ~ The Vanishing

Sketch of John Carter from the Illustrated Police News.

Sketch of John Carter from the Illustrated Police News.

Wish to catch up on previous Posts about my Great-Great Grandfather John Carter?

~Black Sheep Sunday ~ My Darkest Black Sheep

~Thriller Thursday ~ Murder in the Family

~Thriller Thursday ~ First Installment ~ Accident or Murder?

Nothing truly prepares you for that horrific genealogical find!  That discovery which at first seems a wrong turn, a climb out on the limb of someone else’s tree.  Then the heart halting reality sinks deep into your bones and your blood chills as every element of your research forms proof that you indeed are related to someone …well…far less than savoury!  But I digress, I must not rush my tale for although I learned of this story completely out of sequence I’d like you to follow the events as they happened rather than as my research unfolded and revealed them to me.

I take you back to John Carter, my Great-Great Grandfather, whose wife, of 16 years, Elizabeth Thatcher has tragically died after a fall down their cottage steps, her head bashed against the stone floor below.  An accident as ruled by Mr. Jotcham, the coroner!

John Carter was a cowman–a farm labourer but one highly valued for his skills, which included those of a blacksmith.  He worked and lived on Broad Leaze Farm near Shrivenham. The character of John Carter is said to have been “bad”!

…but he seems to have generally found employment, as he was what was known as a “handy man.” When he married his first wife, whose maiden name was Thatcher, he was groom and gardener to a gentleman, but got into trouble over some fowls.  He was greatly addicted to drink, and used his wife so badly that he was repeatedly remonstrated with and summoned.

the King and Queen Pub

The King and Queen Public House at which Elizabeth Ann Alder was a servant in 1887

John frequented the local public house, the “King & Queen” in Longcot.  Perhaps drowning his sorrows, perhaps celebrating his new found freedom–though I doubt being left alone with six children could be considered free–John met 18 year old bar maid Elizabeth Ann Alder.  Not two months after his first wife had perished, a now pregnant Elizabeth Alder moved in.with him at Broad Leaze farm cottages and they were soon married 19 Oct 1887.

St. Andrew's Church Shrivenham.  Where John Carter and Elizabeth Ann Alder married in 1887.

St. Andrew’s Church Shrivenham. Where John Carter and Elizabeth Ann Alder married in 1887.

A neighbour, Mrs. Cordelia Enestone, commented:

…he treated her very cruelly, beating her in a terrible manner, and she used to run to me for protection.  Once one of Mr. Carter’s little boys refused to wash his hands before dinner, and she gave him a tap, and for that Carter beat her unmercifully.

Elizabeth gave birth to a son John Nelson Carter in 1888.  One September Saturday of 1889 Mrs. Enestone stopped to visit with Elizabeth who stood outside her door polishing her husband’s boots.  Excited Elizabeth explained that she and John had plans to attend the Faringdon bazaar if he made it home in time.  They did not attend the bazaar and the events of that night ended in the vanishing of John’s young wife!

Broadleaze Farm Cottages, Shrivenham.

Broadleaze Farm Cottages, Shrivenham.

John’s 10 year old daughter Martha, disturbed by the din of what sounded like a falling chair and table in the night was baffled by her step-mother’s disappearance asking her father where she had gone.

Observant Mrs. Enestone, remembered much later that:

…about nine that night she heard Mrs. Carter give one terrible shriek.  She had often heard her screaming fearfully, but this was quite different; it was one piercing shriek, and then all was quiet, and she never saw her again.

When asked about the disappearance of his wife in the weeks to come John responded:

She’s gone off with a chap from Stanford, they live in Swindon, she took my last 24 shillings and my only solace is the baby boy she has deserted.

He had contacted Elizabeth’s family to let them know she had run away and could not be found!

Had Elizabeth truly run off?  Run off with a “chap from Stanford”…deserted her year old son? The possible revelation next Thursday… 
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Thriller Thursday ~ First Installment ~ Accident or Murder?

The Mugshot of John Carter

The Mugshot of John Carter

I have written about my 2nd Great-Grandfather, John Carter, and his crimes in previous posts but I thought perhaps a regular Thriller Thursday series detailing the case of his murderous deeds and my research might be most comprehensive and hopefully provide a suspenseful intrigue to tantalize the curious minds of readers! This is the first installment though I have written previously:

Black Sheep Sunday ~ My Darkest Black Sheep Revealed

Thriller Thursday ~ Murder in The Family

Now, shall I begin at the beginning of the story or at the beginning of my research?  Two very different commencement points! Perhaps it makes the most sense on a genealogy blog to focus on research.  If you remember from my Darkest Black Sheep article I discovered through a passenger list that my Great Grandfather, Thomas Carter, had been a British Home Child sent to Canada with a Fegan’s Home emigration party in 1898.  I was determined to trace Thomas’ family in England.  It was early days in my online genealogy career and I struggled especially with a name so common as Carter.  Luckily, I was able to narrow down the British hometown as it had been indicated in Thomas’ WWI file.  But it wasn’t until I started correspondence with a woman named Marjorie Kohli, the author of “The Golden Bridge: Young Immigrants to Canada 1833-1939”, that I was presented with the pieces I needed to finish the frame of this puzzle.

Marj found a family in the England Census, a possible match: John and Elizabeth Carter living Worton Hamlet, Cassington, Oxfordshire. John is an Agricultural labourer born in Watchfield, Berkshire and Elizabeth in Loncot, Berkshire. The children are Annie 1872; Clara 1873; Martha 1879. In the 1891 census they are in Maidenhead, Berkshire and the family now contains Thomas 1882; William 1885 and Nelson 1888.

It seemed a bit of a long shot but I decided to explore this family further.  A thorough google search which was a ridiculous needle and a haystack sort of venture remarkable produced “the needle”.  An obscure mention of a John Carter, Victorian murderer from Watchfield made my heart raise to my throat but I knew this is impossible!  No one finds their run of the mill farm labouring Great-Grandfather is a wife killer!  I set out to learn more about this particular John Carter and quickly disprove this outrageous lead.

Fortunate or unfortunate–depending on your frame of mind I suppose–each new piece to this research puzzle only proved the validity of my find!  A full picture began to develop as I scoured newspaper articles online, British Newspaper Archives was a fabulous source of information.  I collected every name in these articles, the police involved, the witnesses,and  the coroner’s name.  It was this meticulous searching and the mystery of three dead wives which led me to the coroner’s reports housed at the Berkshire Records Office.  Mr. Llewellyn Jotcham, the local coroner first met my 2nd Great-Grandfather in the year 1887 when his first wife–my biological 2nd Great-Grandmother, Elizabeth Thatcher–died from a fall down the stairs.  She was “in the family way and was expecting her confinement any day…She had been in a weak state of health…” according to her husband, John Carter in his statement during the inquest.  John had left for work and that was the last time he saw her alive.

stairs

Her daughter Annie also testified during the inquest describing her mother’s fainting spell and her fall down the stairs to the stone floor below.

I went to her and found she was fainting–she said oh dear–I tried to assist her–to hold her up–she had her hands on the stairs about her–all at once she fell backwards on me and we both fell together to the bottom of the stairs–she fell on the back of her head and on the stones of the room–she did not say anything but only moved her head one time–she did not appear to be sensible–I ran for Mrs. Giffon a neighbour who was working in the hay field–she came with me.

When we got back we found that she had been placed straight on the stones.  Mrs Inmans who lives next door was there and I suppose she did it–My mother was dead..

Mr. Jotcham concluded this was an accidental death and to my relief, after reading the reports I truly believe it was….this time!

But my 2nd Great-Grandfather was to meet with Mr. Jotcham again years later with a very different outcome!

Tune in next Thriller Thursday for a new installment…most thrilling of all!
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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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