Trial of Abraham Reed for Murder

(Extract from a Report of the Somerset Assizes)

North Devon Journal Herald, 3rd September 1829 (page 2)

Transcribed by

Angela Bavidge

[The murder occurred in Withypool, on the Devon/Somerset border, but several of witnesses are from North Molton, including John and Henry Wescombe (Westcott) - see note below.]

On Friday morning the Lord Chief Justice took his seat in the Crown Court when Abraham Reed was placed at the bar for the wilful murder of Mary Reed, (his wife), on Monday the 6th July last at Withypool, on the borders of Exmoor, in this county.

Mr Earl and Mr Bere conducted the case for the prosecution and Mr Moody for the defendant.

The first witness called was John Kingdon. - Lives at Northmolton, seven miles from Withypool; knew the prisoner at the bar; witness is a member of a Benefit Society at Northmolton; prisoner became a member of that society two years ago, paid his subscription for him, has not got the printed rules of the society, there is a written list of the members, and it contains the prisoner's name; made payments for the prisoner to the Clerk of the Club two years before the 22nd June last, on that day prisoner paid witness 8s 6d in part of the money he had advanced, which was 13s 6d; he left 5s unpaid; prisoner said, in three or four weeks he would pay the remainder; he came to my house between six and seven on the morning of the 19th June and paid it; saw him again on the morning of the 7th July, it was between six and seven o'clock, he came on a grey horse or mare, and said his wife was dead; he said she had not been dead long, and produced a ticket from the Minister of the parish for the money for the funeral of his wife; told him he must go to Mr Pasmore, the Clerk of the Society, for it; he went to him and received 3L: I met him in the street afterwards and he told me so; he requested me to receive the remainder for him the next club night, and he would come over the Saturday following for it.

Cross examined. The money was for widowers to bury their wives, he would have received it had he not paid the whole of his subscription; the Society is a respectable one; the prisoner is of good character, and the witness never heard anything to the contrary; knew nothing against his character for humanity.

Catherine Burgess sworn. My husband keeps a shop at Northmolton; a little before seven o'clock on the morning of the 29th June, the prisoner knocked on the door of our house, and I asked him what he wanted; he asked if we sold arsenic or mercury; I said no; he then asked me if I sold Spanish flies; I said I never sold any poison whatever. He then asked me if he could get it any where in the town. I said I did not expect he could, but perhaps he might at Mr Wescombe's [Westcott's] who sold drugs; he said if he could not get it there, he should have to go to South Molton and he proceeded from our house up the street towards Mr Wescombe's [Westcott's]; saw the prisoner again about ten in the forenoon, on a grey horse on his road home.

Cross examined. Never saw the prisoner before 29th June, but I am sure he is the man; had not been in the Court before; endeavoured to get in yesterday, but could not get further than the stairs; we sell common drugs, told him we did not sell poison, prisoner did not say what for what use he wanted it, and as we had not got it, I did not ask him.

Henry Wescombe [Westcott]. My father is a tailor, and sells groceries and drugs; on the 29th June, the prisoner came to the kitchen door, about 7 o'clock in the morning; the door had been opened; he asked if we sold arsenic; I said I believed we did; I asked him to come in and sit down; he did so, and I went upstairs to my father; left the prisoner in the kitchen; on my father's coming down stairs the prisoner asked him for some arsenic; father went into the grocery shop and wrapped some up in a paper, wrote the word "poison" upon it, and gave it to the prisoner, who paid the money to witness's father. On his cross-examination, he said he did not know the prisoner before.

John Wescombe [Westcott], the father of the last witness, said he kept a shop at Northmolton; on the morning aforesaid, his son came up stairs to him and he went down into the kitchen where he saw the prisoner, who asked him for six penny-worth of arsenic; asked him what he wanted it for; to the best of my remembrance he said to destroy rats; went into the shop put 3 ounces into some paper, wrote poison on it, and gave it to the prisoner; I told him to be sure and take care of it. I took some of it from a canister where I kept it and delivered it to Mr Pasmore.

Cross examined. - The time I let Mr Pasmore have it was the week before this; have not brought any of it with me, but there is some in the canister now. I was before the Coroner's Inquest and saw the prisoner there; there was no person present at the time the prisoner received the arsenic but myself and son; common people are in the habit of purchasing it for killing rats. [His Lordship desired this witness to be more cautious in selling such poisonous drugs]

Robert Toleman - Lives at Northmolton; on the 19th June he was going to Exmoor for a load of turf; on the way to Withypool the prisoner overtook him, and said he had been to Northmolton to pay Kingdon the money he left unpaid for his club; Kingdon or Wescombe he said, the man is known by both names; it might be about 7 or 8 o'clock when the prisoner overtook him, near a quarter of a mile from Northmolton on the road to Withypool. Prisoner said, he had paid to seven or eight burials that year, and wondered how much he should have if his wife was to die. I am in the same club as prisoner; I told him £6 or £7; he did not make any answer to that, but wanted to know if there was any place where he could get service. I told him I did not know. The prisoner said I must go on faster as I want to go to farmer Toleman's to sheer.

Cross-examined. - I never saw the prisoner but once before; he is no acquaintance of mine; the conversation occurred as we went along the road; in the direction of Withypool; it was not eight o'clock, and I am quite sure the prisoner is the man.

Richard Hole. - A farmer, and lives at Kington Farm, in the parish of Withypool; knows the prisoner, he has worked for me; saw him on the 28th June, and asked him to come the next day to mix earth and lime for dressing turnips, he said he would. On Monday morning, the 29th June, I got up early and saw the prisoner's tools. Between nine and ten o'clock I saw him coming towards me from Northmolton. I asked him where he had been that morning; he said he came from Northmolton, which is near six miles from my house, and about an hour and a quarter's walk. On Tuesday the 7th July, the prisoner came to my house between five and six in the morning; I was not got up, I heard him ask my mother to lend him a horse to ride into Northmolton for the club money to bury his wife. I came down stairs and saw him; I let him have the horse, it was a grey one; saw him coming back again that day between 11 and 12 on the horse. I was sheering sheep that day.

Cross-examined. The prisoner was a poor person and therefore could not get credit; had often employed him, had never heard any harm of him; never heard of his being unkind or cruel.

Mrs. John Hole, the mother of the last witness, deposed that on Saturday, the 4th July, the prisoner asked her if she would spare him half a pint of cream the next morning; she said she would; he came the following morning between nine and ten, and brought a cup which he put on the table; I took it up and weighed ¼lb of scalded cream, put it in the cup and placed it on the table; prisoner took it away; before I put the cream in the cup I observed it was quite clean; he did not partake of any of the cream whilst in my house; I took it from my dairy, and there was some left which was used by myself and family, but neither of us were ill in consequence of eating it; there were ten persons in all who partook of it. We had wort [wortleberry] pie that day. The prisoner had some bread and cheese, and, after staying a quarter of an hour, went away.

Cross-examined. - Her three servants partook of the cream, and they with her family always sat at the same table; it was her rule if she gave to one to give to all, and she divided the cream between them; had never heard anything against the prisoner - he was a sober man and behaved himself well.

Ann Quick, the wife of James Quick, said - that a little after Lady-day the prisoner and his wife came to reside in a tenement adjoining theirs; there is a passage which parts the two houses, but it is all under the same roof. In front of the houses is a courtlage, surrounded by a hedge and a mud pond at the lower corner of the house, which the prisoner occupied. In this courtlage some pigs and fowls were kept. Mary Reed was in my house several times on the Saturday previous to her death; she did not complain of any illness; did not see her on Sunday till 10 o'clock. I was sitting by my fire & heard ill words passing in the prisoner's house. I heard some shards fall, as if a basin or jug had been broken; the prisoner and his wife did not live happily together. About half an hour afterwards the prisoner called and said "Ann, Ann," and I went in; I saw the prisoner and his wife; she was sitting in a chair by the fire, and her husband was supporting her; she appeared to be in a fit. I asked what was the matter; the prisoner said he thought she had a fit, as she often had fits in the night; she continued in this way about 10 minutes and then desired to have some tea; her husband took the kettle, filled it, and put it on the fire; she had a cup of tea and appeared better in the afternoon; about five the prisoner and his wife walked across the court, a quarter of an hour after, the prisoner called me again, he said "Ann, Ann;" I went into their house; the door was open; the deceased said "I'm poisoned" twice; I said send for a doctor, when she said I shall be dead before he comes; the prisoner was there at the time. She said she had eaten some cream and that there was arsenic in it, and further said "you do not know what I know." I asked the prisoner where he had got it; he said from Kington. I also asked him if his wife had eaten it all, he replied no, and on my wishing to see what was left he said that upon her eating it she said there was poison in it, as she always did when he brought her anything, and that he got in a passion and snatched the cup from out of her hand, threw the contents away and dashed the cup against the wall. I asked the prisoner if he had eaten any of it, he said no. I carried some worts [wortleberries] there; I brought this home for her, and she is so respecting every thing I bring into the house; and says it is either poisoned or dirty; I have a mind to swear I will never bring home anything again." When the deceased said, you do not know what I know, I said, do not tell me, tell somebody else. I wished to send my boy for the prisoner's mother; he said he would go himself for the doctor. The deceased was vomiting whilst I was in the house; remarked there was no meat brought from the deceased; prisoner said she had done that before; the prisoner carried the evacuations out of doors and threw it away. I went into the room a little before nine and sat down by the bed side; her husband was there; I asked her how she was, she replied that she was in great pain in her stomach, she urged and brought up a little water. I asked her if she thought she could sleep, she said water was what she wanted, and she had some. Staid half an hour there and said should fetch her mother; her husband said he would next morning by break of day. The deceased said, "Come Abraham, come into bed." I then rose up and went away. On Monday morning I went to see her, she said she was very bad with a pain in her stomach, and wished me to go for Mr Boyce to bleed her. I did go, and on my return home, I saw the prisoner who said Mary is gone. I said, to be sure she is not, come back with me; we went in & saw the deceased with her face towards us; she was quite dead. I told him he should either go to Mr Boyce or Mr Collins. I had two pigs in the court; there was no sign of their being ill on the Monday, but on Tuesday one of them would not eat and shortly afterwards died. Three fowls also died, one Monday, one Tuesday, one Wednesday; they also were kept in the court.

On this witness's cross-examination, she said the prisoner did not attempt to escape, but lodged in the house for a week or more after the decease of his wife.

The husband of the last witness was examined, who confirmed her testimony with additional circumstantial evidence.

Mr Collins and Mr Stoddart, two surgeons, were also examined as to the contents of the stomach of the deceased.

Other witnesses were examined, which brought the charge so close to the prisoner, that the Jury, after a short consultation, returned a verdict of Guilty.

His Lordship then (in a very solemn and impressive manner) proceeded to pronounce the awful sentence the law on the prisoner, which was, that he be taken from thence to the place from whence he came, from thence to the place of execution there to be hung by the neck till he was dead, and afterwards, his body to be delivered up for dissection.

Note by the transcriber

The John and Henry Wescombe in this newspaper report are John and Henry Westcott.

baptised 12 October 1739 North Molton
buried 18 Feb. 1793 North Molton
married 17th Aug. 1764 North Molton
JOAN PASSMORE bapt. 4th April 1744 North Molton , buried 5 Apr. 1827
Joan's parents - Jonathan and Melior Passmore

baptised 25 Jan. 1781 North Molton
buried 24 Aug 1846 N. Molton
married 27 November 1803 ELIZABETH FRAYNE

1841 Census for North Molton John is Tailor age 60
his wife Elizabeth age 62 living at Poltimore Square
Their son HENRY is with them, age 30

1851 Elizabeth widow age 72 shown as retired grocer, North Molton

John Westcott baptised 25 January 1781, was the brother of William Westcott, baptised 23 Nov. 1773 at North Molton, died 15 May 1863, Hilltown, Bishops Nympton, buried 22 May, North Molton married 3 April 1811, North Molton, Susanna Tapp baptised 14th February 1788, South Molton, died 24th November buried 1 December 1857, North Molton. Lived at Pitt Farm