By Cassie Watson; posted 7 June 2018.
It is rare to come across a clear confession of guilt made by the alleged perpetrator in a murder case. According to J.M. Beattie, eighteenth-century judges actively discouraged confessions and “virtually every prisoner charged with a felony insisted on taking his trial.” This is understandable, given the automatic death sentence that would follow a guilty plea. The problem of prisoners who insisted on pleading guilty was also recognised in the nineteenth century, but in murder cases this situation almost never arose. A basic search of the online Proceedings of the Old Bailey 1674–1913 reveals fourteen murder trials in which the defendant pleaded guilty and was sentenced to death. The first, in 1718, was Mary Price, who killed a child (not her own) to get revenge on the father; the last, in 1874, was James Godwin, a wife-killer. In Georgian Wales (1730–1830) six individuals pleaded guilty to murder and were sentenced to death, from Evan Hugh Jones and his wife Margaret who in 1734–35 robbed and killed two travelling pedlars, to Robert Williams a mariner who murdered his captain in 1761, apparently for money.
Thus, in sharp contrast to the murder defendants who, however guilty they may have been, publicly asserted their innocence and hoped for acquittal, a tiny minority went to trial determined to plead guilty, in the certain expectation of a capital sentence. Others confessed, often several times, immediately after the killing and then did so again before a coroner or magistrate, making acquittal exceedingly unlikely even if they subsequently decided to plead not guilty. As torture had not been used, suicide was not the primary goal, and no inducements were offered nor threats made to extract a confession, yet execution was the inevitable outcome, what prompted these killers to confess?
Guilty pleas and public confessions seem to have been driven by three broad motives: 1) having been caught more or less red-handed, there was little point in lying; 2) a desire to assuage one’s own guilty conscience; 3) grim resignation to one’s fate, knowing that the inevitable had finally occurred. A fourth option is associated with women accused of infanticide in the nineteenth century: they could confess to the lesser offence of concealment of birth in the hope that the murder charge might not be pursued.
Of course no case in which a perpetrator confessed was ever quite this straightforward, and most exhibited elements of more than one underlying cause, but the following examples are indicative of the sorts of reasons that seem to have prompted full and free confessions of guilt.
In August 1735 Evan Hugh Jones of Llanfair Caereinion in Montgomeryshire, his wife Margaret and their two sons John and Evan were tried for the murders of two travelling, or ‘Scotch’, pedlars, John Barclay and John Rea, who had both been selling cloth. The family kept an alehouse, which explains why the two travellers sought overnight accommodation with them, Barclay in June 1734 and Rea in January 1735. Having got away with robbing and killing their first victim, the Jones couple’s luck ran out with the second: Margaret’s sale of stolen cloth, together with strong neighbourhood suspicion about the disappearance of the second traveller after Margaret was seen wearing a petticoat made from fabric he had been selling, and the efforts made by Rea’s brother to instigate a search for him, prompted an extensive investigation by magistrates in two counties. By late March 1735 the net had begun to close and Jones and his wife tried to flee: the latter saw a crowd advancing on her house and took to her heels, but was eventually arrested in Worcester; her husband was taken further south, having stolen a horse in Radnorshire. Both were soon to make lengthy confessions, as did their elder son.
The confession of Evan Hugh Jones is dated 31 March 1735:
And further this examinant says that what he had related concerning his wife’s concern for the murder of the said John the scotchman is all false and that instead thereof she first persuaded him to commit that horrible fact, and advised him to send his two sons out of the way lest they should make any discovery thereof, and that she gave the said John the scotchman one blow with the said axe or hatchet after he was down and that this was done by his advice lest she should discover it…
His son John was examined and confessed on the same day, admitting he had suspected that his parents had murdered Rea but did not ask many questions. Margaret confessed a week later, on 7 April, having been caught with some of the stolen goods in her possession. Like her husband, she seems to have tried to deflect blame from their sons:
That then her said husband carried out the said corpse, and laid it upon his horse, which she held by the bridle the while. That her said two sons were sitting by the fireside, and observing what they were doing, asked them what they had in the bag. That she bid them mind their own business, asking them what was it to them…
There is nothing in writing from the younger son, Evan. So what prompted the other three members of his family to confess? His parents seem to have tried to brazen it out until presented with the evidence of other witnesses: on 3 April Margaret told a Worcester JP that “she doth not know of any murther committed in her country”, but had changed her story four days later when she was, one would assume, questioned on the basis of depositions taken on 26 and 31 March, all of which incriminated her. The family was in effect caught red-handed with the murdered men’s goods, as Margaret had made shirts for her husband and elder son from the stolen cloth. But as the sons were accessories after the fact of the murders it is possible that their parents confessed, and pleaded guilty in court, to try to save them: a newspaper reported four death sentences but not four executions; there are no indictments for the sons in the National Library of Wales database; and accounts of the executions do not specify that four people were hanged. With the actual killers condemned, perhaps their sons escaped the gallows?
In other Welsh cases of the mid-eighteenth century, the motives for confession were more prosaic. In 1740 Hugh Bedward – apparently a career criminal – was an accessory to the murder and robbery of two shipwrecked sailors. He confessed and blamed his accomplice John Roberts, but then changed his mind:
Bedward freely sign’d a Confession before the Justice of Peace, and on Oath charged Roberts with the Murder of both the Mariners; but afterwards refus’d to give Evidence, and disown’d what he had sworn. Roberts being convicted of the Murder, Bedward was tried the next Day, and likewise convicted. It is said, that Bedward had been a Speaker among, and Roberts a Follower of, the Methodists. But it is very well known that they had by the Persuasion of one of the Methodists (a Sect that swarms in this Neighbourhood) enter’d into an Engagement not to make any Confession at all.
Bedward probably confessed in a failed attempt to turn King’s evidence, but the barbed newspaper report about his Methodism offers an interesting alternative explanation.
Finally, in 1757 Edward Morgan confessed to the triple murder of his great uncle’s family:
… by the noise the old man was got out of the bed and his wife stood at his back, then examinant went up to the old man who threw a chair at him, then he struck the old man down with the spit, then the lad ran away out of the house. By which time the daughter was come downstairs and he turned either to the daughter or to the old woman which he can’t well tell, but he stabbed her with the spit in the breast or stomach by which stab he killed her; and then he turned to the old man and killed him with a blow from the spit having killed the wife and daughter first, and left their bodies on the ground.
His motive was money and the crime was premeditated, but he had pondered the “wicked intention” for some time before putting his plan into motion in the dead of night. He clearly felt guilty; but he could be identified by the lone survivor, an apprentice lad who was wounded but managed to escape in the dark. Morgan fits both the ‘bang to rights’ and the guilty conscience motive for confession.
The Guilty Conscience
It is likely that a good proportion of the confessions were made because the perpetrator wished to relieve themself of a moral and spiritual burden, but few said so in as many words. Mary Price seems to have realised the enormity of her crime quite quickly, but probably the Ordinary of Newgate had something to do with her decision to confess:
But for all this, the Devil at last got such Power over her, as to prompt her to the doing of that her self, which some time before appear’d so horrid to her: for, on the 3d of July last, she took away the Life of that poor Child, by strangling her with a Leather Girdle; not reflecting then upon the Enormity of such a Crime; but now considering it (upon her being shewn what a Crime that was) she seem’d to be very sensible that she deserv’d (and therefore said she was willing) to die for it.
In 1834 two men were acquitted of murder and their narrow escape prompted the real killer, Edwin Jeffery, to confess first to the local constable and then a JP: “He felt uncomfortable when the men were tried at Gloucester at the last assizes and knew he might be there instead of them. He said he got very tired and if he hadn’t been apprehended he’d have soon let it out of his own accord.” His resolve to remain quiet had evidently been weakening and it is possible that he made a series of statements designed to draw attention because he felt so guilty.
Damn the Consequences
From the lovelorn to the enraged or the simply resigned, men who murdered their wives or lovers fill this category. The jealousy-inspired murder of Martha Ray by James Hackman in April 1779 is a well-known example of the ‘madness of love’ motive: although Hackman did not plead guilty he initially planned to, and in open court admitted he had “no wish to avoid the punishment which the laws of my country appoint for my crime.” A very similar case occurred at Merthyr Tydfil in 1787 when William Owen stabbed Mary Harris in the neck because she would not renew their courtship. He immediately confessed and “was found guilty principally upon his own confession, which was, (upon being asked whether he had abused her more than by this unlucky blow) ‘I did not touch her any more than that unhappy blow: I loved her in my heart, and am willing to die for her sake’”.
Some wife-killers operated more clearly on the other side of the ‘love-hate divide’, a striking example being Robert Upton, 61, from Milton-under-Wychwood in Oxfordshire. In 1888 he walked home from work as usual, telling a fellow workman and neighbour “there will be a rum job presently” as he entered his front door. Within about half an hour his wife was dead, battered to death with an iron bar in full view of the neighbours who had desperately tried to pull him off her. PC George King arrested and cautioned Upton and then took him to Chipping Norton; en route he explained himself:
On the way the prisoner said to me “She has been no b—y wife to me for years”. I said “Don’t swear so Upton this is a very serious matter”. He said “Well it’s done and done with and I meant to do it”. And added “I shall go to the gallows like a prince”.
When examined before a magistrate and asked if he had anything to say he again acknowledged his guilt, an element of satisfaction mixed with resignation: “No sir, I have done the deed and I must put up with the consequences. It was her doings that it happened.” Like many other wife-killers of the late Victorian period, Upton was duly convicted and sentenced to death; no effort was made to obtain a commutation. His trial attracted little media interest (it is not clear what his wife’s alleged misdeeds were) but his execution drew shocked attention: the executioner bungled the drop and Upton nearly lost his head in what must truly have been a “horrible spectacle” for the officials present.
Confession to a Lesser Offence
The largest proportion of female murder defendants were those accused of infanticide, a crime that after 1803 offered prosecutors two options for gaining a conviction: suspects against whom murder could not be proved could instead be convicted of concealing the birth of their illegitimate child. Subsequent amendments of the law in 1828 and 1861 did not change the essential nature of the crime of concealment, which was that proof of concealing the birth and the infant’s body were paramount, not proof of whether the child had been born alive or dead. The now well documented leniency offered to women who killed their own infants can therefore be considered in relation to the voluntary confessions made by women suspected of killing their newborn: if they confessed to concealing the birth they might be charged with, but would most probably not be convicted of, murder.
Take for example the case of Mary Elizabeth White, 21, who immediately confessed that the body of a child found in a well was her infant, telling a police inspector:
I had the child on the 4th of this month; it was about 11 o’clock at night. It is a girl. When I was sufficiently recovered I got up, partly dressed myself, and tied the child up in a piece of white cloth, and went out near to the well where I stood a few minutes, and considered what I should do, and immediately threw the child down the well. I don’t know whether the child was alive or not.
In fact, the child was alive: two doctors testified that she died from “being tied up very tightly in a thick cloth and being thrown down the well and the shock of the cold water.” At her trial in June 1889 White was charged with murder (on indictment) and manslaughter (on the coroner’s inquisition), but pleaded guilty to concealment of birth. Counsel for the prosecution accepted this plea on the grounds that there was insufficient evidence to support the “graver charge, and … taking into consideration, at the same time, that the prisoner had pleaded guilty to a very serious offence.” The judge agreed and sentenced her to one month with hard labour.
Lawyers, judges and juries, faced with a choice between murder and concealment of birth, generally picked the less contentious option, to which many young women pleaded guilty in the reasonable certainty they would receive a light sentence, probably much lighter than the maximum two-year prison term allowed by the statutes.
For murder suspects, then, depending on circumstances, confession could be a way of unburdening their soul, presenting / justifying their perspective, acknowledging / accepting their predicament, or simply a means of heading off the worst that the law could do.
Main image: William Hogarth, Four stages of cruelty – Cruelty in perfection, 3rd in series of four engravings (1751) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Source: The National Archives, TNA ASSI 6/21, Regina v. Robert Upton, Oxfordshire, committal depositions, 30 May 1888. Reproduced by permission.
 J.M. Beattie, Crime and the Courts in England 1660-1800 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), 336.
 David Bentley, English Criminal Justice in the Nineteenth Century (London: The Hambledon Press, 1998), 138.
 The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674-1913, ref. t17180709-36 and OA17180806.
 The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674-1913, ref. t18740504-356. See also North London News, 9 May 1874, 7.
 Compiled from the online Crime and Punishment Database, National Library of Wales (hereafter NLW). For Williams see GS 4/619/2 (Glamorgan).
 English common law rejected the use of interrogatory torture as a judicial expedient in the investigation of ordinary felony, but it was employed in some few dozen sixteenth- and seventeenth-century cases, mainly those of a political, religious or occult nature. See James Heath, Torture and English Law: An Administrative and Legal History from the Plantagenets to the Stuarts (Westport, CN: Greenwood Press, 1982); John H. Langbein, Torture and the Law of Proof: Europe and England in the Ancien Régime, new edn (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2006); Gregory Durston, Witchcraft and Witch Trials: A History of English Witchcraft and its Legal Perspectives, 1542 to 1736 (Chichester: Barry Rose Law Publishers, 2000), 286-291.
 The phenomenon known as suicidal murder, whereby an individual deliberately committed murder in order to be executed (so as to avoid the sin of self-murder), was especially associated with Lutheran Europe in the eighteenth century. See Arne Jansson, “Suicidal murders in Stockholm”, in From Sin to Insanity: Suicide in Early Modern Europe, ed. Jeffrey R. Watt (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004), 81-99; Tyge Krogh, A Lutheran Plague: Murdering to Die in the Eighteenth Century (Leiden: Brill, 2012).
 Bentley, English Criminal Justice, 221-229.
 NLW GS 4/178/4 (Montgomeryshire). See also Bryn Ellis, “Horrendous murders at Wtra Wen near Llanfair Caereinion”, Montgomeryshire Collections 92 (2004): 69-77 (p. 74).
 NLW GS 4/178/4.
 Stamford Mercury, 21 Aug 1735, 2.
 Ellis, “Horrendous murders”, 76; http://www.capitalpunishmentuk.org/montgom.html [accessed 3 June 2018].
 Newcastle Courant, 7 May 1743, 2. The confession is in NLW GS 4/271/3 (Caernarfonshire).
 NLW GS 4/617/4 (Glamorgan).
 The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674-1913, ref. OA17180806.
 The National Archives (hereafter TNA), ASSI 6/2, Edwin Jeffery (Gloucestershire); Gloucestershire Chronicle, 18 April 1835, 2. At Jeffery’s trial the judge refused to accept his guilty plea.
 John Brewer, A Sentimental Murder: Love and Madness in the Eighteenth Century (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005).
 The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674-1913, ref. t17790404-3.
 NLW GS 4/626/5 (Glamorgan).
 Hereford Journal, 26 April 1787, 3.
 TNA ASSI 6/21, Robert Upton (Oxfordshire).
 Martin J. Wiener, Men of Blood: Violence, Manliness, and Criminal Justice in Victorian England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004). Wiener does not discuss Upton but shows that the criminal justice system punished husbands’ violence to ‘bad wives’ increasingly harshly during the course of the nineteenth century.
 Lancashire Evening Post, 17 July 1888, 3.
 Anne-Marie Kilday, A History of Infanticide in Britain c. 1600 to the Present (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 113-118.
 TNA ASSI 6/22, Mary Elizabeth White (Berkshire).
 Berkshire Chronicle, 22 June 1889, 8.
 Kilday, A History of Infanticide in Britain, 131-136.