Butler, Mark

Butler, Mark     1895 April 19th Devizes


A Son Charged with Parricide

Considerable excitement was occasioned at Devizes on Easter Sunday evening by the report that an old man, some 70 years of age, had been brutally murdered in the back yard adjoining his house, at Woodbridge, Potterne. This was intensified when it was known that his youngest son James had been arrested on suspicion of having caused his father’s death.

The facts are briefly these : The old man, whose name is Mark Butler, had been living at Woodbridge Farm, Potterne, for some years. Not long since his wife died suddenly on the road to Swindon Market, since then the old man had been living with his daughter. There are two sons and other daughters living away from home. Miss MacFarlane, National schoolmistress, lodged at the farm, and on Sunday evening about six o’clock Mr T Cole, of Devizes, jeweller, called at the farm, as was his custom, to take Miss MacFarlane. Miss Butler left the farm to go to church, and the old man was left alone. It was arranged between him and Miss MacFarlane that should he go out he should leave the key in the usual place, but he thought he should not go out. On returning to the farm about eight o’clock Mr Cole found the door locked, and the key was not where it was promised to be placed. Whilst talking about this, their attention was attracted by a dog, and Mr Cole went to see what was the matter.

He was horrified to find Mr Butler lying on some straw rubbish in the yard, near the fowl house, with his head battered in, and a gardening tool, known as a half-moon edge-trimmer, still in a wound in his head. It was so firmly fixed in the wound that it required some effort to dislodge it. Miss MacFarlane pluckily set to work and procured some stimulant, and stayed with the old man, whilst Mr Cole ran to the Organ public house where his son James lived.

James returned with him and other assistance was procured. Dr Mackay was soon on the spot, also Capt Sterve, RN, chief-constable of Wilts, and Mr A B Fisher, county magistrate, with a view to taking a deposition, if possible. Whilst lying on the sofa in the kitchen, whither he had been removed, the old man made some incoherent statement, and shortly afterwards Mr Deputy Chief Constable Baldwin charged the son James with unlawfully wounding his father. At a quarter to twelve the old man died, and the son was charged with wilful murder. He had made no reply to the first charge, but on the subsequent and more grave charge, he made a statement, which, however, was not of an incriminatory nature. He was removed to the central police station at Devizes.

Subsequent inquiries show that deceased must have been first stunned by a heavy broom, and afterwards struck with the hedge-trimmer. There are two large pools of blood in the yard – one where the poor man was evidently struck, blood being spattered all about, and a large pool of congealed blood shows where he must have laid some time. Some half-dozen yards away is another pool, where he was found lying, showing that he had crawled some distance after being left for dead. The son James (who, it is stated, has not been on very friendly terms with his father) was seen to go to the house shortly after six o’clock in the evening, and was also met in a field apparently returning home by a short cut.


On Tuesday, Mr Coroner Sylvester held an inquest at Woodbridge House, Potterne, touching the death of Mark Butler, aged 70, market gardener and haulier, who was murdered on Sunday evening. Mr J R G Graskin, JP, was foreman of the jury. Mr T C Hopkins, solicitor, watched the case on behalf of the accused, James Butler, son of deceased ; and the Rev Canon Inman, vicar of the parish, was also present. He preserved a calm demeanour through out the lengthened proceedings, and never evinced the slightest emotion whilst all the ghastly details were brought out. He frequently prompted his solicitor.

After the jury had viewed the body, which presented a shocking spectacle, and the sense of tragedy, the following evidence was taken,

Miss Agnes Annie Butler, who has been living at home as housekeeper to her father, said deceased was 69 years of age last March. He was in a very good state of health, both physically and mentally. He was home all day on Sunday, and took his meals as usual. His son Noah came and had tea with them, as did also his wife. Mr Cole, of Devizes, came in the evening. Witness left the house and went to her sister-in-law to church leaving her father at home. When she returned, soon after eight, she found him lying on the sofa in the kitchen. Her brother Jim was there and was holding him. Jim had come to the house before witness went to church, saying he was come for his best coat to wear in church. Witness left him in the passage. He was quite sober. There had been no unpleasantness.

Mr Thomas Cole, jeweller, of Devizes, deposed to going to Woodbridge house on Sunday evening at quarter-past six to call for Miss MacFarlane, who lodged there. He spoke to Mr Mark Butler. He saw James Butler go into the yard. On returning from their walk about eight o’clock they found the back door locked, and failing to find the key in the usual place they were about to go for another walk when the dog attracted their attention to a dark-looking object on the ground. Witness went to see what it was and saw something move. He found that it was Mark Butler, lying flat on his stomach, with his head towards the door. Witness saw a handle moving about, and found that the other end of the tool was embedded in deceased. He had to use considerable force to dislodge it. He then ran to the Organ beerhouse, where James Butler lived, and told him to come at once, as something very serious had happened. He also sent for a doctor and the constable. James did not at first seem to realise what was told him, but he afterwards ran towards the farm and got there before witness. When witness got back to where the old man was lying, James and a man named Few were trying to raise deceased from the ground. Fresh assistance arrived, and they carried him into the house.

Miss Margaret May McFarlane, assistant mistress at Potterne School, corroborated Mr Cole’s evidence as to finding of deceased in the yard.

Frank Few gave evidence as to the carrying of the old man into the house.

PC Davis deposed to seeing Miss Butler and her sister-in-law going into Potterne Church about half past six on Sunday evening, and 12 minutes later he met James Butler coming from the direction of Woodbridge House and spoke to him. (The distance from the spot where the murder was committed to where prisoner lived is 12½ chains.) Witness produced the half-moon edge cutter covered with blood, also a broom, the head saturated with blood and the handle broken into four pieces. These he found in the yard, all within a space of three yards. After the occurrence he asked prisoner if he had seen any suspicious-looking strangers in the neighbourhood, and he replied that he had not. He could not understand anything that the old man said whilst lying on the sofa in the kitchen, except “James” and “Noah,” his two son’s names.

Deputy Chief Constable Baldwin deposed to the arrest of prisoner at his father’s house on Sunday evening. He first charged him with unlawfully wounding his father with intent. He made no reply. The old man died at quarter to twelve, and witness then charged prisoner with wilful murder. He replied, “About a quarter or 20 minutes past six I came to my father’s house. I saw my sister. I asked her for my black jacket. I said, “I am going to church.” She said it was hung up in the passage. I took it and put it on. The waistcoat was rather shabby, and I said to my sister “I shan’t go to church now.” She saw the waistcoat and said it didn’t look very well. I came into the house. Father went out in front of me. There was a cock-turkey near the fowl-house, knocking the eggs about. Father went and put them up together. I took him some straw for the nest, and said, “I must get off now,” and came away. That is the last I saw of him till I was sent for.” After James Butler had had his supper in the kitchen, witness took him into Devizes and took away his present clothing (produced). There were spots of blood on the trousers, on the wristbands, and on one of the boots. The spots on the trousers appeared to have been smeared. (The medical man examined them and agreed with witness).

Dr H J Mackay gave details of the injuries received by deceased. These were of a shocking nature, and in the opinion of witness were all struck by a person standing in the same position, and from behind. They could not possibly have been self-inflicted. They might have been caused, three of them, with the turf cutter, and one with the broom or some other blunt instrument. Deceased said, whilst witness was present, that he did not know who caused the injury, and again, in reply to a question, that he could not tell. The cause of death was hemorrhage from the wounds, contributed to by injury to the brain and shock.

After a clear summing up by the Coroner, the jury returned a verdict of “Wilful murder against some person or persons unknown.” They gave their fee to the Devizes Cottage Hospital.

Late in the day, prisoner was brought before the county magistrates, and remanded for a week.

County Magistrates hearing 1895 May 10th

At the Town Hall, Devizes, a four-days hearing of a charge of wilful murder was held against James Butler before the Magistrates Messrs Stancomb jnr, A Grant Meek, and E Bushe.

The core of this fourth day’s evidence was the police constable PC Davis, whose testimony was as follows,

I am a police constable, stationed at Potterne. On Easter Sunday, the 14th of last month, I was on duty at Potterne, and heard the church bells ringing for evening service. I saw Miss Butler and Mrs Noah Butler go into church about three minutes after half-past six. I stayed in the churchyard about three or four minutes, and then went slowly in the direction of Riley. I arrived at the top of the steps as near as possible at 42 minutes past six. When I got into the field I saw the prisoner, James Butler, in the lower part of the field, about 120 or 130 yards from Woodbridge. Prisoner came along the path towards me, and I spoke to him as we passed each other. He was walking at about his usual pace, and I noticed nothing unusual in his appearance. About half-past nine in the evening I was fetched to Woodbridge, and went immediately. I found Mark Butler lying on the kitchen sofa with some terrible injuries about the head. I examined the yard and found two large pools of blood, etc.. .”

In cross-examination witness said that James Butler was under his observation all the time at Woodbridge, and was quite positive about the time he met accused at Riley. Prisoner could easily have turned into the allotments, where he had some holding, if he had wished to avoid witness.

Dr Mackay was recalled, and stated that in his opinion, provided the weapons were close to hand, the four blows he had described might have been inflicted in 15 seconds.

There was then some argument over holding the prisoner on remand for a further week, in order to hear depositions from Supt Baldwin, who it transpired, would have no new evidence to bring.

The Bench then said they came to the conclusion that there was not enough evidence before them to justify them in committing accused to trial, and he would therefore be discharged. The accused was warmly greeted by his relations on being set at liberty, and quickly left the court with them.


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