It was half-past eight on the evening of 20th October 1807 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)