9 January 1824 – John Thurtell

John ThurtellThe Elstree murderer John Thurtell made social history when he was tried for his crime in 1823.

Public outcry

The case captured the public’s imagination and the newspapers voraciously covered all the events. So worried was Mr Justice Park presiding about the public interest and the role of the media that he was shrewdly prompted to say: ‘if these statements of evidence before trial which corrupt the purity of the administration of justice in its source are not checked, I tremble for the fate of our country.’

Only money

Thurtell had killed solicitor William Weare following a game of cards in which he accused his opponent of cheating. He is said to have lost £300, which in real terms today amounts to a small fortune. So Thurtell wouldn’t let it rest.

The son of a former mayor of Norwich, Thurtell lured Weare by blagging that there was another bout of gambling scheduled in Radlett, Hertfordshire. Instead he confronted Weare, drew his pistol and tried shooting him in the face. But the pistol misfired and only grazed Weare’s cheek. So Thurtell brazenly drew a penknife and slit his throat. And just to make doubly sure, he also shoved the shotgun into Weare’s head so hard that part of his brain became lodged inside the barrel.

Thurtell’s previous dealings with Weare led the law straight to his door and he and a mate, Joseph Hunt, were caught and accused of the crime. And so began the sensational trial that captured the public’s interest.

Trial by fury

Another reason why this trial was historic is because it was the last trial to be conducted under 16th century rules. So the two accused weren’t allowed to have a solicitor. Instead Thurtell and Hunt had to conduct their own defence, in the form of summations at the end of the trial. They weren’t even allowed to question prosecution witnesses.

Naturally given such a skewed trial, the outraged jury took just 20 minutes to find both of the accused guilty. Hunt was deported to Australia, while Thurtell got the gallows.

He was executed by James Foxen just after midday on 9 January 1824, in Hertford, aged 29. And in the final twist, just minutes before his hanging, Thurtell actually confessed his guilt to the chaplain.

Thurtell’s infamous story has been immortalised in wax – you can check him out at Madame Tussauds.

Also on this day

1824 – Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywaters

1900 – Louise Masset

2004 – Raymond Dale Rowsey

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