Manslaughter of Elizabeth Haggar

Essex STandard 1876


Manslaughter at Saffron Walden.


Rhoda Taylor, 52, and Annie Wisken, 24, married women, on bail were indicted for feloniously killing and slaying Elizabeth Haggar, in the Borough of Saffron Walden, on the 24th August. Prisoners were also indicted for murder, but the Grand Jury threw out that part of the Bill. They were, however, arraigned for murder upon the Coroner's inquisition ; and to all counts they pleaded Not Guilty.

Mr. COWIE (Recorder of Maldon) and Mr. AVORY appeared for the prosecution ; prisoners were defended by Mr. NAYLOR.

At the outset, Mr. COWIE put it to the learned Baron, whether, under the circumstances of the Grand Jury having ignored the indictment for murder, he should proceed against the prisoners on that charge under the Coroner's Inquisition.

His Lordship said this was hardly a question for him to answer; but his impression, on reading the depositions, certainly was that the offence was one of manslaughter, the offence for which they were committed by the Magistrates.

Mr. COWIE intimated that after this expression of opinion from his Lordship, following upon the decision of the Grand Jury after hearing the witnesses, he should not proceed upon the indictment for murder, but upon that for manslaughter. He then proceeded to give a succinct account of the unfortunate occurrence which now called for their attentive consideration. He said that the prisoner Taylor was the wife of Nathan Taylor, a beerhouse-keeper at Saffron Walden, but, as at the time of this occurrence (August 24th) her husband was not resident in the town, she was managing the business by herself. Annie Wisken was daughter of the other prisoner, and the wife of James Wisken, a brickmaker also of Saffron Walden, and working in the neighbourhood. About the time in question, the prisoner Wisken was assisting her mother (Taylor) in the management of the beerhouse — the Black Horse — which was situated on the north side of Castle Street, and her husband was employed as “ganger" in a brickfield ; among the men working in his gang being Robert Haggar, the son of the deceased. It had been the custom of these brickmakers to send one of their number to Saffron Walden daily for the purpose of fetching beer from the Black Horse, but on the 23rd August, in consequence of something said to Robert Haggar by James Wisken, husband of the younger prisoner, Haggar, instead of fetching the beer from the Black Horse, fetched it from another house in the same street — the Red Lion. This seems to have come to the knowledge of the prisoners, and to have created some feelings of irritation, for on the following day (the 24th), when Robert Haggar came to fetch the beer again from the Red Lion, he was evidently watched by Wisken. This was about ten o'clock in the morning, and Robert Haggar appeared to have gone into the Red Lion and given his order for beer, and, having left a stone bottle for it, he went home to his mother's (the deceased's) house, which was situated in Museum Court — close by the Red Lion. After having some conversation with his mother, Haggar returned to the Red Lion to fetch his beer, and before he came out, carrying the bottle, the prisoner Wisken was seen by several persons to cross the road from the Black Horse with some missiles — brickbats and stones — in her hands, and she was heard to say that she would break the bottle if Haggar brought it out. Wisken seated herself on a door-step on the pathway, by which Haggar would have to pass on his way to the brickfield. At the same time that Wisken was seen to cross the road, and heard to say she would break the bottle, the other prisoner (Taylor), who was against the Black Horse, was heard to say, “If you can't break the bottle, break the ———head,” or words to that effect. When at length Robert Haggar came out of the Red Lion with the bottle of beer, Wisken threw some stones at him, attempted to break the bottle, and seized him by the hair of his head. A scuffle ensued, which was witnessed by several people, and, among others, the deceased, Elizabeth Haggar, who was standing at the end of Museum Court, and who, observing what was going on, went to her son's assistance and took the bottle from him, and carried it in the direction of the brickfield. After a time, Wisken left Robert Haggar alone, but she immediately went after his mother, came up with her, knocked her cap off, and seized her by the hair of the head. This being perceived by several witnesses, Mrs. Haggar being in that position, seized from behind by Wisken, a neighbour came up and took the bottle from her and deposited it in a place of safety. But, while deceased was fettered in this way by Wisken holding her by the hair, the prisoner Taylor came across from the Black Horse to where the parties were. Before leaving her house, she was cautioned not to go near, but she replied that she would, and went accordingly ; and, by some means or other, she got possession of one of the stones (a large one) which Wisken had had in her hand. At all events, she had a stone, and it would be shown that while Wisken was holding deceased by the hair she called to her mother to "hit her up." The poor woman (deceased) was in a sort of stooping position at the time, and Wisken, seeing her mother approaching, urged her to "hit her up," upon which, Taylor struck deceased a severe blow in the chest with the stone, and afterwards struck her several times in the neck and under the ear with her fist. The witnesses for the prosecution would agree that no violence was offered by deceased to Wisken — indeed, she had no opportunity of doing so— and that almost immediately after the blows were administered the deceased fell forward. One witness would say that deceased seemed to advance one or two steps, and she then fell into the arms of a person standing by and died almost instantaneously. The doctor, who was called in at the time, and who subsequently made a post-mortem examination of the body, would be called as a witness ; and it would be for the Jury, after hearing all the witnesses, to say whether or not they found the prisoners guilty of the offence charged against them.

A number of witnesses were called in support of this Statement, and they were severally cross-examined by Mr. NAYLOR, who endeavoured to show that there was a general scrimmage, that deceased came up to Mrs. Wisken in an excited state and herself commenced the affray, blows being given on both sides ; and that she had frequently been in the habit of fainting from excitement, and was in a delicate state of health.

Mr. NAYLOR asked his Lordship whether he thought there was any evidence against the prisoner Wisken in regard to the death of the deceased?

HIS LORDSHIP said that evidence had been given to the effect that she urged the other prisoner to the attack, and the question must be left to the Jury.

Mr. COWIE then summed up for the prosecution, contending that there was a substantial conformity in the evidence that the attack on the deceased was commenced without reasonable provocation, and that the case against both prisoners was fully proved.

Mr. NAYLOR, for the defence, argued that the evidence was conflicting, and not safe to be relied upon in a case of this serious description. The whole desire of Mrs. Wisken, in the first instance, was to break the bottle of beer. This was not a crime, and it told against the presumption of manslaughter in her case. It was quite clear that there was a somewhat prolonged struggle, and, seeing that there were no marks of violence on the deceased it was probable that this struggle aroused great mental excitement, to which she appeared to be peculiarly liable and that death was thus produced by the shock. It was, indeed, alleged that on being informed that the poor woman Haggar was dead, the prisoner Taylor exclaimed, "And a good job too." But that was the expression of an excited moment only, and could not be taken either as an expression of joy, or as showing the previous intent of the prisoners. It was just as probable, too, that death was the result of a blow upon the epigastrum when the women were being separated, and it would be unjust, therefore, to make the prisoners responsible. All the evidence for the prosecution was loose and vague. The prisoner Wisken was not shown to have struck a blow at the deceased with a stone, and the blow struck by Taylor was so slight as not to produce even a bruise upon the breast. He could not see, therefore, how the Jury could come to the conclusion that the prosecution had made out their case, and be submitted that it was their fair and right and just duty to acquit the prisoners at the bar.

His Lordship, in summing up, said the proper course had evidently been pursued in this case, for the violence appeared to have been done in the heat of blood, and not with malice afore-thought. That violence, however, could not be considered as lawful, for the prisoners could not be said to have been fairly acting in self-defence. The difficulty in the case was the absence of apparent direct connection between the violence and the death, but the prosecution contended that the death immediately supervened upon the violence, and was the result of it. There was undoubtedly some contradiction, and possibly exaggeration, in the evidence, and it was not safe to give too much importance to the words alleged to have been used, the better plan being to look at the probabilities of the case and at what was actually done. The only question for the jury was — was the death caused by the violence of the prisoners, or by the excitement occasioned to the deceased herself.

The Jury retired to consider their verdict.

On their return, in a quarter of an hour, they announced that they had found both prisoners Guilty of manslaughter.

The prisoners were then asked whether they had anything to say why sentence should not be passed upon them?

Mrs. Taylor said the witnesses had sworn that she had a stone in her hands, but the truth was that she never had. All that she did was to go across the street, and take Mrs. Haggar's hands out of her daughter's hair, and the witnesses had sworn that she had a stone because they had a spite against her.

Mrs. Wisken also said that she did not strike the deceased with a stone. It was taken from her by Robert Haggar, and be knew it.

His LORDSHIP. Well, as regards the punishment which you must receive, I must deal with that entirely myself, because I do not know that I cannot properly ask the Jury what particular view they take of every particular of this case. All I know is that they have come to the conclusion that you did strike that woman, and that the effect of that stroke was to cause the shock which ended in her death. Now it was all done in a public street and in the presence of a crowd of people. l am satisfied in my own mind that you did not intend to inflict any serious injury upon her, and I cannot say that it is made out to my satisfaction that any instrument or stone was used whatever, or that you made use of any of those expressions as if you rejoiced in the consequences of what you had done. If I did — if I thought an instrument had been used or that you had conducted yourself in that way — the punishment would have been a different one. But it is the case of persons giving way to angry feeling, using violence, and making a public street the scene of shameful disorder, and it resulted in death. Now life having been sacrificed, although unintentionally, even under all the circumstances I have mentioned, and which I have considered as favourably as I can for you, the sentence must still be a severe one. The sentence upon you, and each of you, is that you be imprisoned and kept to hard labour for 12 calendar months.