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Murder at Wood Burcote, 1873


Mr John Cox Newitt was a farmer of 72 years of age, who lived at Wood Burcote, a hamlet on the outskirts of Towcester. Born in Bradden about 1802, he was married with 8 children, and three grandchildren. His household consisting of himself, his wife, one of his 6 sons and a maid servant named Harriet Stevens.


Thomas Chamberlain who was a shoemaker by trade, lived at and kept the Lordsfield toll gate in Whittlebury, about a mile and a half from Mr Newitt’s farm. He was well-known to the deceased and his household, for he was in the habit of bringing parcels to Newitt’s house which were left at the toll gate.


On Sunday evening, Mr Newitt and his wife usually remained at home, while young Newitt and the servant went to church. But on the Sunday evening in question, Mrs Newitt and her son went to church, leaving the old man and the maid servant in the house. It appeared from the evidence that on this evening the maid servant was sitting at the table writing a letter and the old man was reading his Bible in the parlour, when the girl hear the front door opened and steps along the passage. She jumped up and turned to the kitchen door leading into the passage, when a man came in with a weapon over his right shoulder and attacked her by seizing her with his left hand and striking her on the shoulder with the weapon which he carried in his right. The blow fell on her chignon, which probably saved her life. The girl was face to face with the man and had good opportunity for observing him, and she swore most positively and without doubt or hesitation that Thomas Chamberlain was the man. 


The girl screamed out and John Newitt at once came to her assistance, upon which the man left the girl and attacked Newitt, who in the first onset seems to have pushed his assailant down; but the latter got up again instantly and felled old Newitt to the ground, his head striking the fender.  This is the last which the girl saw; she ran out of the house screaming “Murder”, and went to the nearest cottages for assistance. The first to arrive was a labourer named Richard Darby, who worked for Newitt and he found his master lying on his back in the kitchen in a pool of blood, quite dead.


The police went to the Chamberlain’s house and in the house, hanging on a chair, they found a pair of trousers and a waistcoat with many wet spots of blood upon them, and a shirt the left wristband of which was saturated with fresh blood; the coat too, which he had on was spotted with wet blood in many places, and in the pocket was found a silk handkerchief perfectly drenched with blood. Thomas Chamberlain’s hat, too, had blood on it, both inside and out, and two grey hairs upon it corresponding in colour and appearance with the grey hairs of the murdered man. Chamberlain’s fingers were badly cut on the upper side, and he accounted for this by saying he had cut his finger at supper. The clothes upon which the blood marks were found were identified by the servant girl as similar to those which Chamberlain wore when he came into the kitchen. Spots of blood were found upon the road for some distance from the old man’s house towards the Toll Lodge. For some days no weapon could be discovered with which the murder could have been committed, but subsequently a pool close to the Chamberlains’ house was dragged, and in it was found a heavy cutlass, which a general dealer had sold to Thomas Chamberlain some time before and now identified as the same weapon, and spots of blood were traced from his house on the road leading towards this pond.


As nothing had been stolen from the house, the motive for the crime remains a mystery to this day. The defence at the trial was of mistaken identity, the blood being accounted for by the cut fingers.


It took the jury at Thomas Chamberlain’s trial just 10 minutes to find him guilty, upon which he was sentenced to death.


The Judge, addressing Harriet Stevens, said he had seen certain threatening letters which had been sent to her, and that they seemed to be written by the same person, probably the prisoner’s wife, who might be excused for doing what she could for her husband, and that it was Harriet’s duty to forgive the unfortunate woman. He then complimented her, not only on the way she had given her evidence, but on the bravery she had shown under very trying circumstances.


Thomas Chamberlain was executed on the 30 Mar 1874 within the precincts of the Northampton county gaol. The Times for 31 Mar 1874 said that he never alluded to the subject of the murder, though he conversed freely with his gaolers. He paid little attention to the ministrations of the prison chaplain, and told a Baptist minister, who had obtained an interview with him, that he need not trouble himself to call again. Subsequently, at the last interview with his wife and children and a brother, he said it would take a great many parsons to change him. His conduct shortly before the execution and on the scaffold was in keeping with his whole previous demeanour. While being pinioned he smiled, and flippantly remarked that he was being strapped tightly. On arriving at the scaffold he ran up the steps and placed himself on the drop, and then smiled again and nodded familiarly to the warders. His death was almost instantaneous.


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