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1857: Murder of John Starkins

by janet on 22 June 2014 · 0 comments

The Grisly Murder of John Starkins
Janet Woodall
This article appeared in the March 2013 issue of the Walkern Journal

Last year, Eleanor Waldock and I came across some surprising notices pasted into the inside back cover of the baptism, marriage & burial registers from St Mary?s church. Two of the notes refer to Great Solar Eclipse which occurred on 15th March 1858, an interesting event in itself, but the third note entitled ?Stanzas on the death of John Starkins (aged 25)? was rather puzzling until a spot of detective work revealed the story of a grisly murder that took place near Norton Green on 30th October 1857…

The Hertfordshire Mercury & Reformer takes up the story:

A most horrible murder was committed at Stevenage, in this county, between six and seven o?clock on the evening of Friday week. The murdered man is a Police-constable of the name of Starkins, a native of St Albans, who for many years was in the employment of the Earl of Verulam, but who a few months since entered the police-force, and was stationed at Stevenage, where he displayed so much intelligence and activity in the performance of his duties, as to give promise of becoming a very efficient officer.

John Starkins had been directed by his superintendent to watch near the spot where his body was subsequently found, in consequence of a series of thefts. He was to report back at six o?clock, and when he failed to appear, officers were sent to look for him. Searching continued until the following Monday, when a body was discovered in a pond in a remote field at a short distance from the ?Six Hills?.

Starkins had been strangled with his own neckerchief, and his throat cut so violently that his head was nearly severed from his body.

The ground nearby indicated that a fierce struggle had taken place, and spilt grain on the ground suggested that Starkins had challenged someone to reveal the content of their basket, and that the grain was spilt during the ensuing struggle. There had been suspected thefts from local farms and the police were directed to search the dinner-baskets of farm labourers returning from work.

Suspicion immediately fell on Jeremiah Carpenter, a 35 year old farm labourer married with five children, bearing ?a powerful physique and a determined character?. The newspapers reported that Starkins was told particularly to watch Carpenter who had long been suspected of stealing corn from his master. Carpenter had also been heard to say on many occasions that no policeman would ever search him.

Carpenter?s route home from work was through the secluded field where the policeman?s body was found, and both men were seen in the vicinity at around the same time. Carpenter was late returning home that day, and unusually, entered his cottage by the back door. It was observed that his clothes were dishevelled, so much so that he when he re-emerged from his cottage, he had changed from his usual smockfrock and ?wide-awake? hat into his Sunday clothes.

Carpenter was taken into custody vigorously denying his guilt. He stated that he was late home because he?d taken a circuitous route, and that he had sustained a bad injury to his leg, not through a struggle with Starkins, but while attempting to split a log in his garden.

Jeremiah Carpenter?s trial for murder began at the Hertfordshire Assizes in March 1858. It was heard that the accused?s smock, boots, basket and pocket-knife bore marks of blood. Carpenter?s employer identified the spilt grain found near Starkin?s body as the same mix of red wheat and barley as that stolen from his farm. The same grain mix was found in Carpenter?s basket.

Damningly, the prosecution stated that a police officer overheard Carpenter confessing his guilt to another prisoner. The Hangman?s noose seemed inevitable?

In his defence, witnesses maintained that blood on Carpenters clothing was the result of regular nosebleeds, that Carpenter had been found in his garden having fallen among some logs thereby accounting for his bad leg, and that the blood on the knife was from slaughtering a pig.

PC Quint, who said he had overheard Carpenter confess his crime, was then examined: when pressed to reveal the name of the prisoner to whom Carpenter had confessed, PC Quint said he didn?t know his name, and fainted!

The trial was adjourned until the next day? Quint was again examined: there were three other possible witnesses to the confession, but none could back up the policeman?s version

The defence also showed that, contrary to newspaper reports, Starkins had not been told by his superintendent to watch Carpenter, and that nothing pointed to Carpenter being anything other than honest and well-conducted.

In summing up, the Judge told the jury that apart from the alleged confession (which was uncorroborated) all of the evidence was circumstantial, and it was up to the jury to decide whether it was enough to find Carpenter guilty but that ?they must leave altogether out of sight the consequences of their verdict?.

After deliberating for half-an-hour, the Jury returned into court. The Foreman stated ?We all think there is great ground of suspicion, but not direct evidence enough to warrant us in finding the prisoner guilty. We therefore return a verdict of NOT GUILTY?

I can?t help thinking that Jeremiah Carpenter had been very fortunate? A newspaper commentary at the time, whilst not blaming the Jury at all for their reluctance to convict, called the case ?as strong an argument as ever clothed in words against Capital Punishment?, pointing out that whilst ?the woodstealer and the pickpocket are shut up in prison? a murder suspect may go at large ?shriven by juries who believe him to be guilty?.

Jeremiah Carpenter and his family remained at the same cottage at Six Hills until his death, aged 80, in 1900. He didn?t get into any further trouble?

There is no doubt that this was a sensational case, but why was the note on the death of John Starkins pasted into the back of Walkern?s church register? The Stevenage magistrates responsible for committing Carpenter to trial included Walkern?s Rector, Rev John Harding, and I imagine he didn?t want the shocking murder of a young man, doing his duty, to be forgotten.

He hasn?t been forgotten: Hertfordshire Constabulary has established a ?Roll of Honour? to commemorate all police and civilian officers who have died in the line of duty since the establishment of the Constabulary in 1841. John Starkins is the first name on that list.

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