“The Horrid and Inhuman Murderer” Thomas Simmons by Angelo & Rowlandson, 1807

It was half-past eight on the evening of 20th October and Sarah Harris, a maid in the employment of George Boreham of Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire, was attending to her duties in the kitchen of Boreham’s farmhouse.  Sarah was busier than usual that evening as her master and his wife were entertaining. Mr and Mrs Boreham had been joined at dinner by their four adult daughters, Esther, Anne, Elizabeth and Sarah and Mrs Hummerstone, a family friend who ran the Black Lion Inn in the town.

George and Anne Boreham were upstairs while Mrs Boreham, Mrs Hummerstone, Esther, Elizabeth and Sarah retired to the parlour. The distant hum of the ladies conversation may have been perceptible to Sarah Harris as she set about her work at the rear of the building. Gradually though, another noise began to filter into the room from outside. It was the sound of a man’s voice, raised in anger, cursing and swearing, as he made his way into the small courtyard that backed onto the farmhouse. Sarah Harris knew the owner of that voice well and her heart may have sunk to hear it. It belonged to Thomas Simmons, her former lover and an employee of the Borehams who had recently been fired for violent misconduct.

Simmons was twenty years old with aquiline features, a sallow complexion and a curly thatch of dark brown hair. He had worked for the Borehams for the past three years but proved himself to be a thoroughly indolent and untrustworthy a servant who possessed a violent temper. When not arguing with his fellow servants, he spent a good deal of his time idling about the farmhouse in an effort to woo Sarah Harris, with whom he had become infatuated. Harris was described as being many years older than her would-be suitor and was perhaps initially flattered by the attention. There was even talk of marriage but the relationship quickly broke down as it became clear that Simmons could not control his temper. Several weeks earlier, Simmons had severely beat Harris after an argument, threatening that he would kill her. The incident prompted the Borehams to dismiss the troublesome young man from their service and Sarah used the sacking as an excuse to break off the relationship, informing him that Mrs Boreham had told her that she could not expect to keep her own station if she chose to marry so disreputable a man.  Simmons had sworn revenge on both Sarah Harris and the Boreham family. It was a threat which he now appeared to be about to carry out.

As Harris looked though the kitchen window into the darkness of the yard beyond, Simmons pallid features gladly became discernible through the gloom. On seeing her, he swore loudly, pointed to the nearby kitchen door and demand to be admitted. Sarah opened the window and advised him to leave quietly, warning that there was company in the house. Simmons snarled back that he did not give a damn about the company and that he would “do them all” if necessary and with that he lunged through the window and struck the maid. Terrified, Harris fled, calling for help as she ran to hide in the adjoining wash-house. Meanwhile Simmons began banging at the kitchen door in an effort to gain access to the farm. Hearing the noise, Mrs Hummerstone sallied forth from the parlour, perhaps reasoning that her experience of dealing with drunken disputes in the town’s pub meant that she was best equipped to confront the Borehams’ quarrelsome former employee. She flung open the doorway and demanded that Simmons leave immediately. He made no response but reached into his pocket, drew out a knife and drove into Mrs Hummerstone’s neck with such force that her bonnet was knocked from her head. Simmons then drew the blade across her throat, opening up a huge gash that left him drenched in blood. With the way ahead now clear, he ran into the house, leaving the unfortunately Mrs Hummerstone to stagger a short distance into the yard, vainly searching for help before she expired in a heap on the ground.

Simmons charged into the parlour with a roar and launched himself upon Esther, stabbing her repeatedly in the chest and neck and killing her instantly. As Elizabeth and Sarah ran screaming from the room, the attacker turned his knife on their elderly mother, wounding her in the neck before flinging her on top of her daughter’s body.  Returning once more to the kitchen, Simmons resumed his search for Sarah Harris. On discovering the maid he chased her back into the hallway, knocking down Mr Boreham who, despite his infirmity, had managed to hobble downstairs with the intention of confronting the intruder with a poker. Simmons wrestled Harris to the ground and the pair fought for a several moments. Sarah managed to fend off numerous blows aimed at her neck and face and suffered deep cuts to her hands and arms in the process. Eventually she broke free and ran out into the street crying “murder!” as loudly as she could. Simmons took to his heels and fled.

Several of the townspeople ran towards the cries. They later recalled passing Mrs Hummerstone’s body lying in the yard, discovering the unconscious form of Mr Boreham in the hallway and the scene of carnage that awaited them in the parlour. Thankfully one of those in attendance was the local surgeon, who quickly realised that Mrs Boreham’s wound was not fatal and was able to provide medical assistance to the surviving members of the family. With the alarm now raised, the men of Hoddesdon began to search for Simmons in earnest. He was eventually discovered hiding under some hay in a nearby cow shed and dragged to the Bell public-house. It was here that the constable found him the next morning. He had been badly beaten by his captors and was tied to a post with such force that it was feared that he might succeeded in cheating the hangman of his prize.

The trial took place at the Hertford Assizes the following spring. Simmons admitted his guilt, stating that although he never intended to harm Mrs Hummerstone, he had entered the farm with the intention of killing Sarah Harris and members of the Boreham family. The defendant was asked if he had anything to say before the verdict was delivered but he simply “answered, in a careless tone – No!” He was found guilty and sentenced to be hung and his body anatomised.

And there the story ends; save for an odd supernatural footnote in what is an otherwise all too human tale of murder and misery. Shortly after his arrest, Simmons told a constable that he had been startled by a flapping sound while he was fighting with Sarah Harris. While in jail the prisoner, who claimed to be in a great deal of distress, called for a priest and explained that “he heard a kind of fluttering noise behind him, and on looking back, saw a brown figure, with wings extended, which frightened him so much, that he let the maid take knife out of his hand, and crawled out of the back door on his hands and knees, and the figure followed him to the garden gate.” Perhaps the story was conceived in effort to excuse his cowardly flight from the scene of the crime? Or perhaps it indicated that Simmons had suffered a complete mental breakdown? In either case, it cut little ice with the authorities and did not prevent him being sent to his death a few months later.

News of the murders spread rapidly throughout the country and a number of engraved likenesses of Simmons were produced in London. Some of these were bound into sixpenny pamphlets recounting the facts of the case, while others appear to have been sold in their own right. The fencing master and amateur artist Henry Angelo, whose memoirs suggest a partiality for lurid tales of murder, travelled up Hertford Goal to sketch Simmons in the exercise yard. Angelo’s drawing was engraved and published by his friend Thomas Rowlandson, whose publication line appears at the foot of the print along with two lines of text providing some information about the sitter. Although the likeness strays close to caricature, it captures the thoroughly mundane aspect of Simmons appearance. This in itself was problematic for some contemporary commentators, who simply refused to believe that so horrible crime could be committed by someone of so unassuming a disposition. It was this adherence to the principles of physiognomy that moved one pamphleteer to complain that many of the engravings of Simmons that had so far been published in London had failed to capture “his long hatchet face, and cadaverous aspect” with sufficient vigour.

Quotes & References

Anon. Horrid Murder. The trial of Thomas Simmons… (London, 1807)

Anon. Inhuman murder, at Hoddeson. The trial of Thomas Simmons (London, 1808)

William Holland, The Corsican Dissected, 1803

The eighteenth-century saw a surge of interest in medical science. Private anatomical schools opened up around the country, catering for audiences in which medical students rubbed shoulders with gentleman scholars whose interests reflected the Enlightenment fascination with all aspects of the natural sciences. One of the first private schools of anatomy to open its doors in London was that founded by the Scottish expatriate Dr William Hunter in 1768. Hunter introduced the new ‘Parisian’ method of teaching anatomy, encouraging students to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty cutting up bodies, rather than relying on theoretical knowledge gleaned from books. Hunter’s teaching methods proved to be popular but the unintended consequence of this was that it led to a shortage of dead bodies for dissection. 

The anatomists initially contented themselves with the regular crop of fresh corpses that could be harvested from the gallows. But eventually even the brutal standards of eighteenth-century justice failed to produce a satisfactory supply of cadavers and the anatomical schools were  forced to turn to the black market in an effort to keep meat on the table. Gangs of body snatchers were hired to exhume corpses and smuggle them in via the back door. Inevitably, some of these criminals decided to shortcut the process by killing people in order to sell their corpses for dissection. The revelation of the deeds committed by Burke and Hare in Edinburgh and John Bishop and Thomas Williams in London, eventually jolted a complacent government into action. Under the terms of the Anatomy Act of 1832, medical schools were allowed to dissect bodies which remained unclaimed from prisons, workhouses and mental hospitals. Even this proved controversial, as in many cases these bodies were unclaimed because the deceased’s family was too poor for pay for a burial. The Act was therefore seized upon by radical agitators as yet another example of the injustices that were heaped upon the poor by an indifferent ruling class.

William Holland did not live to see the political disputes of the 1830s but it’s possible that he may have found himself in agreement with the agitators of this later era. He had held radical views of his own in his day and had even been jailed for distributing the works of Thomas Paine in defiance of government censorship. Chastened but not wholly deterred, Holland would go on to produce numerous scurrilous prints which vociferously attacked the reactionary policies enacted by the Tory administration of William Pitt the Younger during the 1790s. By the time this print was published in October 1803, he seems to moderated his views still further, or at least realised that after 10 years of bloody warfare against revolutionary France his customers were no longer interested in prints trumpeting the benefits of Liberté, égalité, fraternité. Like other English radicals of the period, Holland’s views on the conflict may have changed as it became clear that Bonaparte had little interest in the idealistic democratic values of 1789 and sought merely to place himself at the head of an aggressively expansionist French empire. In May 1803, the Peace of Amiens finally collapsed and war resumed. French forces began massing on the Channel coast and Britain was gripped by an invasion fever which, amongst other things, found expression in the consumption of satirical prints that spat patriotic defiance at the soon-to-be Emperor and his minions.

This print was one of a number of caricatures of Napoleon that Holland published in 1803. Most of these were patriotic in nature but in a handful of cases it appears as though Holland could not resist taking a sly jab at his old enemy Pitt, whom he still saw fit to rank alongside Bonaparte and the Devil amongst the “plagues of Europe“. The First Consul of France is shown as a ‘visible man’ – an anatomical chart in which the skin is peeled back to reveal the layers of tissue, bone and organs beneath. Each part of his anatomy is labelled with text which reveals something of his insidious character e.g. “Eyes of deep design”, “a heart as black as jet” etc. etc. The image appears to have been based on an caricature of Pitt that Holland published in 1797, which may in turn have been copied from even earlier designs by William Dent (HERE and HERE). The plate isn’t signed but it bears Holland’s characteristic script and may well have been designed, if not engraved entirely, by the publisher himself.

The Candle is England, Anon., Oil on Canvas, c.1700

Protestantism was absolutely central to the way in which eighteenth-century Englishmen thought about themselves and the world around them. The popular perception of history since the reformation was dominated by the narrative that England was an embattled bastion of the true faith, assailed by Catholic enemies from without and at constant risk of being undermined by the agents of anti-Christ who were thought to lurk within. This powerful sense of Protestant exceptionalism was propelled by a virulent print culture which emerged in the early seventeenth-century and was fanned by the experiences of civil war, restoration and revolution. By the turn of the century, the streets of London and other English cities were awash with cheap publications that revelled in the nation’s status as the new Jerusalem and the home of God’s elect. A calendar of historical events published in London in 1700 listed the defeat of the Spanish Armada and the Glorious Revolution of 1688 alongside the creation of the world and the birth of Christ in its canon of red letter days in human history (Colley, Britons… p.21.) God, the people of England were repeatedly told, took a particular interest in the fate of Englishmen.

Similar views were expressed in the engraved images of the period. These ranged from cheap woodcuts depicting lurid images of the massacre of Protestant settlers in Ireland to high-end copperplate engravings celebrating the anniversary of England’s delivery from the Gunpowder Plot. One such print shows the theological leaders of the Protestant faith gathered around a table on which a lone candle burns. Opposite them sit the representatives of Catholicism – usually, the Pope, a friar, a cardinal and Satan – who together attempt to blow out the flame and plunge the world into darkness and damnation. The image is thought to have originated with the Dutch engraver Cornelis Danckertsz the Younger (1561-1634) and may have appeared in Amsterdam before being taken up by various London publishers around 1640. The earliest attributable English version was published by Thomas Jenner (fl.1618 – d.1673). In this version the text next to the candle reads is a direct translation of the Dutch original and reads: “The candle is lighted, we cannot blow out.” Interestingly, by the time this image was painted around 70 years later, the inscription had been changed to the more explicitly nationalistic, “The Candle is England”, suggesting that the fate of the English nation and the Protestant faith were now regarded as being inextricably intertwined.

The painting itself is oil on canvas, measuring 60.9 x 77.3cm and it has been tentatively dated to c.1700. My guess would be that it probably dates closer to 1710 and that its creation coincided with the upsurge in aggressive High Church sentiment that accompanied the Sacheverell riots of that year. The identity of the artist is unknown but it seems reasonable to assume they were an amateur who copied the image from an engraving (a similar contemporary example of such paintings can be found HERE), although I’ve been unable to identify which print they may have been working from. The painting was previously the property of the Scottish preacher and philanthropist Rev. Thomas Guthrie (1803 – 1873) and from there descended through three successive generation of the Verney family before being sold by Sir Edmund Verney in November 2019. The painting popped back up at auction a few weeks ago and fetched a respectable hammer price of £3,000.

George Bickham the Elder, Trade Card Medley, c.1705

A short post to share an image of an interesting auction find – A trompe-l’œil medley print advertising the skills of the engraver George Bickham the Elder (1683/84-1758). Although chiefly remembered as an engraver of ‘serious’ subjects such as portraiture and calligraphy, Bickham also turned his hand to political and social satire during the early years of the eighteenth-century and appears to have exhibited a particular fondness for medley prints. Medleys were engravings designed to look as though a series of separate prints had been casually arranged on a table or other flat surface. They worked on a number of levels; as crude optical illusion, as an advertisement for the multifaceted skills of the engraver and as satire. Bickham’s The Whig’s Medley (1711) for example, attacks the writer Daniel Defoe by arranging a mock frontispiece to one of his works alongside images of the regicide Oliver Cromwell, a “deformed head in the pillory” and the knaves from a deck of playing cards. This image may also have a satirical subtext but if that is the case then I must admit that it’s largely lost on me – although the representation of a woodcut illustrated squib entitled The Scotch Wedding is presumably a reference to the Act of Union between England and Scotland which was under negotiation at the time this print is likely to have been published?

The date of publication can be estimated from the address which appears on the mock trade card panel at the bottom of the plate, as George Bickham is thought to have lived in Hoop Alley, Old Street, around 1705. The British Museum owns two other versions of the same print. The first is identical to this one but carries the publication line of Cluer Dicey (c.1713-1775) in place of those of Henry Overton’s (1676-1751). The second was published by Overton but has been modified to include an additional playing card in the bottom right hand corner which obscures Bickham’s address (presumably because he no longer lived there). This suggests that either Bickham engraved multiple plates, or that the same plate was passed back and forth between the two publishers over a period of time.


New book: C.J. Grant’s Political Drama: Radicalism and Graphic Satire in the Age of Reform

You might have noticed that things have been rather quiet around here for the last year or two? There are a lot of reasons for this: I have a family and a job like many of you, but I’ve also been spending most of my spare time writing a book about the caricaturist C.J. Grant and I’m very pleased to announce that it’s now finished.

C.J. Grant’s Political Drama: Radicalism and Graphic Satire in the Age of Reform provides a detailed look at Grant’s life and his most significant work as a satirist – the substantial series of wood-engraved radical political satires that was published under the collective title of The Political Drama. For those of you who don’t know Grant, he was a caricaturist who briefly dominated the lower end of the market for humorous imagery in London during the latter half of the 1830s. His popularity was such that by 1838 the author William Makepeace Thackeray felt moved to complain that his “rude wood-cuts” adorned every cheap newspaper that one encountered on the streets of London. “…[A]lmost all [are] from the hand of the same artist”, Thackeray harrumphed, “Grant, by name. They are outrageous caricatures; squinting eyes, wooden legs, and pimpled noses, forming the chief points of fun.’ If the impression these images conveyed was to be believed…one would imagine that the aristocracy of the country were the most ignorant and ill-educated part of its population – the House of Lords an absolute assembly of ninnies – the Universities only seminaries where folly and vice are taught.’

The Political Drama set the tone of many of the prints that Grant was to produce during the latter part of his career and was to cement his longstanding association with the Radical movement and its demands for democratic reform. The image of late-Hanoverian England that leaps from the pages of The Political Drama is one of a society defined by its iniquities. In which the self-proclaimed elite shamelessly feather their nests at the expense of the public purse while the poor are left to fester in abject squalor. It is a world where politicians are corrupt, the king is a hen-pecked old fool, the Church is debased and the forces of law and order exist solely to protect the privileges of the powerful. Even John Bull, so often the doughty hero-figure of contemporary caricature, is a times vilified as a dupe and a dullard, the deserving victim of his own docility and excessive deference. This story is told in a series of visually impactful wood-engravings which borrow heavily from chapbooks and the lurid street literature of the day.

And yet The Political Drama, like much of Grant’s work, remains largely forgotten today. Complete editions of the series are rare and difficult to access, and images of most of the individual prints cannot be found online. C.J. Grant’s Political Drama: Radicalism and Graphic Satire in the Age of Reform aims to rectify this situation by providing a fully illustrated guide to The Political Drama as well as an overview of Grant’s life and career. The book includes a foreword by Professor Brian Maidment and images of each of the prints in the series, accompanied by an explanation of the individuals and events being satirised. By including photographs of all of the 131 prints in the series, it is my hope that the book will appeal to those with a general interest in eighteenth and early nineteenth-century caricature, as well as those with a particular interest in Grant or the politics of his era.

Thanks are owed both to the trustees of the Working Class Movement Library and Professor Brian Maidment for helping me with my work.

C.J. Grant’s Political Drama: Radicalism and Graphic Satire in the Age of Reform by Mathew Crowther is available to purchase now from Amazon.