Sunday, June 17, 2012

A Late Confession

In the year 1764, the chaplain of Northampton Jail wrote of a very strange event that happened to him following the executions of four local men who had been convicted of murder in Guilsborough, England.

The four men were John Croxford, Richard Butlin, Benjamin Deacon, and Thomas Seamark. They had decided to rob a peddler - but the man (known as "Scottie") fought back, whereupon he was brutally murdered. His body was cut to pieces and, over the course of three days, burned in an oven. The bones, of course, would not burn, and were buried.

Unfortunately for the men, Mrs. Seamark and her ten-year-old son both witnessed the murder. Some time later, the local schoolmaster heard the boy threaten a schoolmate to "serve you as my daddy served Scottie." The truth came out; the woman and her son both testified in court (Mrs. Seamark relating that the murderers had threatened to kill her if she breathed a word of what she knew).

On August 4, 1764, the four men were hanged, all the while stating that they knew nothing of the murder, and were entirely innocent. After the executions, the chaplain issued a pamphlet; the following text is excerpted from the pamphlet.

“I shall now proceed without further let or impediment to a plain and conscientious account of the ghost or apparition which was the occasion of my troubling the world with this narrative; unless I first observe that the behaviour of the prisoners, one of whom is the subject of these pages, lately tried, condemned and executed at Northampton, for the murder of a person unknown, upon the evidence of Ann Seamark and her son, about nine or ten years old, was such as astonished every beholder....

"Clear and conclusive as the evidence was against them, no arguments ... were able to reach their hardened hearts and prevail for an open and unreserved confession of their guilt. Even at the gallows, in their last addresses to the people, they insisted on their innocence in the strongest terms imaginable; wishing the heaviest penalties an offended God could inflict might be their portion in the next world, if they were guilty of the murder that was laid to their charge and for which they were about to suffer.

“Thus did they divide the sentiments of the crowd that many were brought over to a full persuasion of their innocence, while others were left halting between two opinions and severely agitated with conflicting doubts.

"... on August 12, 1764, being the Sabbath, I returned as usual into my study, the door of which is secured by a lock with a spring-bolt, and sat down to my accustomed evening devotion ... I was on a sudden surprised with the perfect form and appearance of a man, who stood erect at a small distance from my right side.

"Conscious that the door was locked and that there was no other means by which my visitor could have entered, I was considerably surprised — surprise turning into abject terror — when, glancing with irresistible fascination at the man, I perceived in him something indefinably but most unmistakably Unnatural.

“Feeling sure that I was in the actual presence of an apparition, I contrived, by an almost super-human effort, I admit, to sum up sufficient courage to speak — my voice seeming dry and unrecognisable.

“I addressed it in the power and spirit of the Gospel; inquiring on what errand it was sent; what was intended by such an application, and what services could be expected from a person of so little note and mean abilities as myself.

“I must here state that although the spectre had inspired me with so much awe, I did not associate it with anything evil.

"Every second tended to strengthen my composure, and when it spoke in a voice rather more hollow and intense, perhaps, than that of a human being, my fears were instantly dissipated. I was now able to take a close stock of it, and observed that in features, general appearance, and clothes it closely resembled any ordinary labouring man; it was in expression and colouring, only it differed — its eyes were lurid, its cheeks livid.

“Raising one extremely white and emaciated hand, it desired me to compose myself, saying that as it was now strictly limited by a Superior Power, and could do no one act but by the permission of God, I had no reason to be afraid, abrupt as was its appearance, and that if I would endeavour to overcome the visible perturbation I was in, it would proceed in the business of its errand.

“At this announcement my heart fluttered with an excitement I found difficult to control.  ... Eagerly promising to compose myself, and lost to all else save the fascinating presence of my guest, I settled down to listen to anything the phantasm might have to say.

"The room, I must here state, was lighted by a single, though rather powerful, double-wick oil lamp, which I had always deemed sufficient to illuminate the whole apartment, but which now — and I could not help noticing the phenomenon — did not extend its rays beyond the cadaverous face of my intruder, upon which the full force of its light seemed concentrated.

“Commencing in clear and solemn tones, the phantasm stated that it was one of the unhappy prisoners executed at Northampton on the 4th of August, 1764.

“A cold chill ran down my back at this announcement, which was intensified when I recognised for the first time that the figure confronting me bore a startling likeness to one of the prisoners it had been my unhappy lot to address prior to his execution ... it was indeed the ghost of one of those diabolical miscreants that stood before me, and, despite the fact that I was brought up in the strict Protestant faith, I inadvertently crossed myself.

"’It had been,' so it proclaimed, 'the principal and ringleader of the gang, most of whom it had corrupted, debauched and seduced to that deplorable method of life, and it was particularly appointed by Providence to undeceive the world and remove those doubts which the solemn protestations of their innocence to the very hour of death had raised in the minds of all who heard them.'

"At this juncture, excitement overcoming fear and aversion, I hazarded to inquire of the phantasm its name.”

“Its reply, delivered in the same slow, measured, almost mechanical tones (as if it were only the mouth-organ of some other and unseen agency) was to the effect that its name was John Croxford; that it had express directions to come to me — directions it could not disobey; it furthermore explained the reason the murderers had so persistently insisted on their innocence, lay in the fact, that, while the blood of their victim was still warm, they entered into a sacramental obligation, which they sealed by dipping their fingers in the blood of the deceased and licking the same, by which they bound themselves under the penalty of eternal damnation never to betray the fact themselves nor to confess, if condemned to die for it on the evidence of others, and that they were further encouraged to such measures, since, as Seamark himself was a confederate in the murder, they concluded the evidence of his wife would not be admitted; that as the child was so young, they presumed no judge or jury would pay the least regard to his depositions; that as Butlin had but lately entered into a confederacy with them, and no robberies could be readily proved against him, they thought it would appear impossible for one of his age to begin a career of wickedness with murder (it being observed in a proverb that no man is abandoned all at once); that if they could invalidate the evidence on behalf of Butlin it must be of equal advantage to them all; that though disappointed of this view in court and condemned to die upon the above evidence, they were still infatuated with the same notion even at the gallows, and expected a reprieve for Butlin when the halter was about his neck, and consequently, if such a reprieve had been granted, as the evidence was as full and decisive against Butlin as against them, the sentence for the murder must have been withdrawn from all, their execution deferred, and perhaps transportation only their final punishment,”

"In the pause that followed its last speech, more to hear myself speak than anything else (I could not endure the silence of this thing), I asked if the evidence of the woman and child was clear, punctual and particular; to which it replied, 'It was as circumstantial, distinct and methodical as possible; varying not in the least from truth in any one particular of consequence, unless in the omission of their horrid sacrament which she might possibly neither observe nor know.”'

I then asked why they had behaved with such impropriety, impudence and clamour upon their trial; to which it replied, ”that they had been somewhat elevated with liquor, privately conveyed to them, and that by effrontery and a seemingly undaunted behaviour they hoped to intimidate the WOMAN, throw her into confusion, perplex her depositions, thereby rendering the evidence precarious and inconclusive, or at least give the court some favourable presumptions of their innocence.

I next inquired whether they knew the name of the person murdered, whence he came, and what reasons they had for committing so horrid a barbarity.

To which the phantasm answered, ”that the man was a perfect stranger to them all, that the murder was committed more out of wantonness and the force of long-contracted habits of wickedness than necessity, as they were at that time in no want of money; that they first found occasion to quarrel with the pedlar ... that the man, being stout and undaunted, resented their ill-usage, and in his own defence proceeded to blows; that two only — Deacon and Croxford — were at first concerned, but finding him resolute, they had called up Seamark and Butlin ... that they then all seized the pedlar, notwithstanding which he struggled with great violence to the very last against their united efforts; nor did they think it safe to trifle any longer with a man who gave such proofs of uncommon strength; that with much difficulty they dragged him down to Seamark's yard and there committed the murder as represented in court.”

"I next asked if there was any licence in his bags or pockets, that they might discover his name or place of abode.

"It replied, 'No! that the paper left behind in its (Croxford's) writing was of a piece with the rest of their conduct in this affair, a hardened untruth, abounding with reflections as false, as scandalous and wicked, suggested by the Father of Lies, who had gradually brought them from one step of iniquity to another, beginning first in the violation of morality, to the place of purgatory in which they now were,'

"It further declared (a statement that interested me greatly), 'That though their bodies were unaffected with pain, their souls were in darkness, under all the dreadful apprehensions of remaining there for eternity, far beyond what the liveliest imagination while influenced by the weight and grossness of matter, can conceive; that their doom had been not a little aggravated by their final impenitence, impiety and profaneness in adjuring God by the most horrid imprecations to attest the truth of a palpable and notorious falsehood, and by wishing that their own portion in Eternity might be determined in consequence thereof. Language,' the apparition said, was too weak to describe and mortality incapable of conceiving a ten-thousandth part of their anguish and despair even at present, and happy would it be for succeeding ages if Posterity could be induced to profit by their misfortunes and be influenced by this account to avoid the punishment of the Earth-bound.'

"All this the phantasm delivered with such increased distinction and perspicuity, with such an emphasis and tone of voice, as plainly evinced the truth of what it spoke and claimed my closest attention and regard; and as it seemed to hint that I was singled out to acquaint the world with these particulars I told it that the present age was one of incredulity and agnosticism, that few gave credit to fables of this kind, that the world would conclude me either a madman or impostor or brand me with the odious imputations of superstition and enthusiasm, that, therefore, true credentials would be necessary, not only to preserve my own character, but also to procure respect and credit to my relations.

"To this the phantasm instantly responded that what I observed was perfectly right and requisite to authenticate the truth of this affair ... therefore, in order to encourage my perseverance in supporting the truth of this appearance and embolden me to publish a minute detail of it, it would direct me to such a criterion as would put the reality of it beyond all dispute; and it accordingly told me that in such a spot, describing it as minutely as possible, in the parish of Guilsborough, was deposited a gold ring which belonged to the pedlar whom they murdered, and moreover in the inside was engraved this singular motto:


"'That on perusing it,' the apparition continued, 'it (Croxford) had been smitten with grave apprehensions, and, thinking the words ominous, had buried the ring, hoping thus to elude the sentence denounced at random against the unlawful possessor of it ... that if I found not every particular in regard to this ring exactly as it related it to me, then I might conclude there was not a single syllable of truth in the whole, and consequently no obligation lay upon me to take any further concerns in the affair.'

"Engaged in this interesting and all-absorbing conversation, I suddenly became aware it was very late — the silence throughout the house for the first time appalled me, and I was about to make a movement towards the door to make sure all was safe without, when the light from the lamp once again became normal. With a startled glance I looked for the phantasm — it was gone; nor was there any other means by which it could have taken its departure save by dematerialisation.

"Bitterly disappointed, my fears being now entirely removed, at so abrupt a disappearance, I sat down very calmly ... and was induced to conclude from the coherence and punctuality of the account that it was impossible it should be fiction or imposture. I laid particular stress upon the circumstance of the ring, the singularity of its motto, and the minute description of the spot where it was deposited.

"I considered, moreover, from the tests I had made by shutting my eyes and pressing the balls with my forefinger, that I had been perfectly awake, had had the full use both of my senses and reason, and was as capable of knowing the figure and voice of a man as the size and print of the book I was reading at the time the ghost made its appearance.

"In short, firmly persuaded of the truth of what I had heard and seen, I resolved on the morrow to search for the ring, and thereby clear it up beyond all possibility of doubt.

"Accordingly on Monday morning early, between four and five o'clock, I set out alone, making directly to the spot the phantasm had described; found the ring without the least difficulty or delay; examined the motto and date of it, which corresponded exactly with his account of it, and fully convinced me of my obligation to communicate to the world the particulars of the whole.

"With this resolution, immediately on my return I sat down and drew up the whole conversation as near as I could recollect, neither omitting nor adding any circumstance of consequence in the manner you now see it, and trusting it will prove of use to the public for whose benefit it seems intended.”

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