Purnell, Emily

Purnell, Emily             1889 November 16th            Devizes


Chopped to Death

Revolting Details

Early on Saturday morning a frightful tragedy was enacted at Avon Terrace, Devizes, by which a poor woman lost her life in a shockingly brutal manner. Avon Terrace is a long row of small houses on the upper bank of the Kennett and Avon Canal, and in one of them lives a man named Edward Hampton, whose sister had been at the Union Workhouse, and had been there seduced by the porter, Benjamin Purnell, an army pensioner, who, as the result, had to marry her and give up his post. A most unhappy life followed, for Purnell has never done anything towards his wife’s support, being away from her the greater portion of his time, and only paying periodical visits. A few months ago, however, he returned to Devizes, and did a day’s work occasionally at stone breaking. The man Hampton was induced to allow him to live with his wife at his house, and here for months past they have led a cat and dog life.

Mrs Purnell was of a rather irritating disposition and quarrels had been so frequent that the neighbours took little notice of them. On Saturday morning, at six o’clock, Hampton and his son got up as usual and went to work, leaving Purnell and his wife and some children in the house. There had been a quarrel overnight about some flannel petticoats which the woman had bought for herself with some money given her by her husband to buy something for the little girl. Purnell had found this out, and threatened to tear the petticoats to pieces when he could get at them. A few minutes after six o’clock he got up and went downstairs to carry out his threat of tearing up the petticoats. Mrs Purnell followed him and when downstairs, the man, irritated, it is supposed, by what the woman said, struck her a violent blow with his fist. He then opened the back door and pushed her out. Just by the door, unfortunately, there was a large chopper or hatchet, used for cleaving wood and breaking coal. Seizing hold of this Purnell smashed the woman’s skull, felling her to the ground.

He followed up this brutal attack by other blows, then put down the hatchet and walked away. The woman’s screams attracted the attention of a neighbour, who went to the spot. Here a horrible sight met her gaze. The poor woman, clothed only in her chemise, was lying near the back door in a pool of blood, with a small benzoline lamp under her right arm, the chopper thrown down beside her, and also the flannel petticoat torn to shreds. Blood was still oozing from her temple, and she appeared in a dying condition. The woman’s nephew was sent for the doctor, and on the way he met Purnell, who had coolly walked up to the borough police station to give himself up. There was no one there, however, at that early hour, so he was retracing his steps and going to the central police station on the Bath road with a similar object. On the way, however, he was met by the Deputy Chief Constable (Mr Baldwin), who had been hastily fetched, and who took him into custody.

Meanwhile Dr Cowie arrived on the scene of the murder, and by his directions a stretcher was procured and the woman taken to the Cottage Hospital. Here four doctors were summoned, and an examination of the victim revealed the fact that there were no less than six fractures of the skull, either one of which would be almost sufficient to cause death, as the brain was protruding. A consultation was held, and the medical men decided that they could do nothing to relieve the compression of the brain, owing to the serious nature of the wounds. The poor woman, however, was still living, and lingered all day. Another consultation was held at two o’clock, and everything done that skill could devise. She lingered in great agony till five o’clock Sunday morning, when she succumbed.

Her assailant, meanwhile, in custody at the central police station, was taking the matter very coolly, and ate his breakfast with apparent relish, not expressing the least compunction for the horrible deed which he had perpetrated. At the time of his arrest he was wearing a new pair of white cord trousers, and down the front of these were spots of blood. The axe, a most formidable looking weapon, with blood and hair upon it, was taken possession of by the police, and also the remains of the flannel petticoat, about which the fatal quarrel had taken place.

The Inquest

The inquest was held on Tuesday at the Cottage Hospital by Mr Coroner Sylvester, Mr T E Holme was chosen foreman of the fifteen jury who were empanelled. The body, which was lying in the mortuary at the rear of the hospital, presented a shocking appearance so far as the head was concerned, there being several fractures of the skull.

The Coroner having briefly opened the court by detailing the circumstances of the case, he called the first witness,

Edward Hampton, brother of the deceased woman, for whom she had been acting as housekeeper. He deposed that the deceased had been married about nine years, during which she had not lived regularly with her husband. He had left her after they had been married six weeks, pregnant, and did not return for five and half years. He had not done much towards the support of his wife and child, only giving her about 1s 6d a week. They had living together at his house since last May. Purnell was in the habit of getting drunk occasionally. Witness had never heard any quarrelling between the two when he was at home, but his sister had told him that her husband ill-treated her at times. He left home on Saturday morning at six o’clock, leaving Purnell and his wife in bed. They had a light, but witness had no conversation with them.

Obed Hampton, 16 years of age, nephew of deceased, deposed that on Saturday morning, a few minutes after six, he heard Purnell go downstairs. He was followed by his wife, who said, “Give me my petticoat.” Purnell replied, “Go on, or I’ll split your skull open.” Witness heard blows, and went downstairs, where he saw his uncle in the front room, taking his clothes out of a drawer. Witness asked him where deceased was but accused made no reply. Witness then went to the back yard to seek her. He found her lying about five yards from the back door, with only her chemise on. Witness spoke to her, but she did not answer. Witness called Mr Hillier, a neighbour, and told him his aunt was murdered. The quarrel was about some money deceased had spent on clothes for herself and child. The accused and deceased were frequently wrangling about something or other, but he had never seen his aunt use any violence towards her husband.

Charles Hampton, aged 13, another nephew, deposed that he had seen deceased assaulted violently by her husband during the last four months, he striking and kicking her after she was down. He was sober on these occasions. On Saturday he heard his aunt follow prisoner downstairs. He then detailed the conversation given by the previous witness, and said he heard sounds of five or six blows. Witness followed his brother, and saw his aunt lying outside the back door. Witness went for the police, and saw Purnell at the bottom of the terrace, on the canal bridge. When he saw witness he ran away. He had never heard his aunt threaten to do violence to his uncle.

William Hillier, painter’s labourer, living next door to Hampton, deposed to hearing Purnell say last summer that he would like to break his wife’s neck. He was sober at the time. He had never seen Purnell drunk. On Saturday he was called at five minutes past six to deceased woman, who was lying about 19 feet from her back door. There was a quantity of blood on the ground, and deceased appeared to be dead. There was also a hatchet with blood on it and some pieces of a flannel petticoat, about three yards from the body.

Kate Hillier, wife of the previous witness, deposed to frequent quarrels between accused and his wife which seemed generally to be about their child. Witness heard Purnell, some three months ago, threaten his wife, and say that if he ever touched her again he would never leave her alive. All day Friday they were quarrelling, but she did not know that any violence occurred at the time.

Dr John Cowie, practising at Devizes, deposed that on Saturday at half-past six, he was called to 21, Avon Terrace, to see the deceased woman, whom he found on the ground behind the house. She was very pale and quite insensible. There was a large pool of blood on the ground, and he saw several contused wounds on her head. He had her removed to the Cottage Hospital, where he examined her more minutely and found she had received eight wounds on her head. One at least must have been inflicted by a sharp cutting instrument, and was four-and-a-half inches long. There were several other wounds on the head, the brain being bruised and lacerated in several places. Witness was of the opinion that the first blow must have been administered with great violence by the sharp edge of the axe, and the others by the back. This would have been sufficient to have caused death. Deceased remained unconscious until ten minutes to five next morning, when she died. There were no other injuries on the body besides the ones he had described.

William Baldwin, Deputy-chief Constable of Wilts, and Superintendent of Police at Devizes, deposed that on Saturday morning last he went to Avon Terrace, where he found deceased as before described. He also found the axe, which he produced, and which had blood and hair on it. He apprehended prisoner a few minutes afterwards, and having cautioned him he replied, “All right, sir, I shall not give you any trouble, I was coming to give myself up.” Prisoner was wearing a pair of new cord trousers, which witness produced, and which was splashed with blood. At six o’clock the same evening, the woman being still alive at that time, witness charged prisoner with attempted wife-murder. He replied, “I beat my wife I know.” On the following morning at nine o’clock, witness visited prisoner in his cell and told him his wife was dead, and that he would be charged with killing her. He replied, “Dead, sir! Is she indeed.” He made no other remark.

PC Selman corroborated, and produced the pieces of flannel petticoat which had been found near the body of deceased, and which appeared to have been violently torn into pieces. He also produced a small lamp with splashes of blood on it, which was under the woman’s right arm.

The Coroner summed up at some length, remarking upon the fact that the police had seen fit not to have the accused present at the inquiry. He (the Coroner) had no power to compel then to produce him, as he had been remanded by the magistrates, but in cases of this sort, where a serious charge was likely to be made against a person, he always felt that the person ought to be present. However, as the police declined to produce him he had no power to compel then to do so.

The jury, after a very brief deliberation, found a verdict of “Wilful Murder” against Benjamin Purnell, and he was formally committed on the coroner’s warrant to take his trial on the capital charge at the ensuing assize, at Devizes, on the 30th instant.

Prisoner Before the Magistrates

At the Devizes Borough Police Court on Monday, before Messrs E B Anstie, G Simpson, , and J F Humby (ex-Mayor), the man Benjamin Purnell, who is in custody on the charge of murdering his wife Emily, on the previous Saturday, was brought up on the capital charge. There was a large crowd outside the court curious to catch a glimpse of the accused, but a force of police effectually guarded him, and hurried him from and to the vehicle.

The evidence was only that of Superintendent Baldwin, and is as already given, with the minor detail that accused was met by witness by the Artichoke Inn.

This being sufficient evidence to justify a remand, he was remanded. He preserved a stolid demeanour throughout the examination, merely saying “I reserve my defence,” when charged.

Assizes Case 1889 November 23rd

At the Assizes on Thursday the prisoner was found guilty and sentenced to death.


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