By Haydn Brown.
“On the morning of the 20th November, 1848, the City of Norwich was aroused from its usual state of general calmness and tranquillity by a rumour that terrific deeds of blood had been committed in the vicinity; and many were the shapes which the tale of horror took in travelling from mouth to mouth. But, however distorted, it was unfortunately true”……………
The Background to the Tragedy:
James Blomfield Rush was a farmer with inflated pretensions of being a country squire, but he held a very long record of suspect dealings and financial problems. He always seemed to be trying to crawl through legal loopholes to dispose of his debts and badly arranged financial commitments. He also fell foul of suits brought against him for seduction and bastardy – by more than one woman. He met his match in Isaac Jermy though – formerly Preston if you remember! He was the Recorder of Norwich and a member of the Norwich Union Board who knew the law, finance and was not backward in using both to his advantage.
The mortgage for Rush’s Potash Farm was due to be settled on the 30th November 1848, but Rush had no way of paying it. Two evenings prior to this deadline Rush, disguised with a mask, wig and whiskers, walked the short distance from his farm to Stanfield Hall and hid in the bushes until IsaacJermy Snr. stepped out after dinner for his spot air and possibly a smoke. Rush immediately came forward and shot him at point blank range before striding into the Hall where he shot dead Isaac’s son; a further round hit Mrs Sophia Jermy’s upper arm, while a second wounded Eliza Chestney in the groin and thigh as they attempted to flee. The murderer then went out through a side door. After medical examination by a doctor it was thought that Eliza had suffered a compound fracture of her bone. The wound to Mrs Jermy’s arm resulted in an amputation. Despite wearing a disguise, the size and gait of Rush was recognised by the staff of Stanfield Hall and he was quickly arrested the following morning after police had surrounded Potash Farm.
The Trial of James Blomfield Rush:
The circumstances surrounding the murders at Stanfield hall and the subsequent trial of the accused, James Blomfield Rush was an occasion which had all the hallmarks of a classical Victorian melodrama. The story had a large country mansion as the backdrop and plenty of blood; a villain who was cast perfectly with the right physical appearance of hard looks, bad behaviour, brusque manners, dubious morals and sinister scheming. If that was not enough then it had a riveting plot, all wrapped in a readymade story. This was the answer to a writer’s dream. No wonder the lurid details of the murders helped sell millions of copies of local and national newspapers, their column pages and supplements given over to the case. Queen Victoria was rumoured to have taken an interest, along with the great Victorian author, Charles Dickens who visited the scene and recorded his impression that the Hall “had a murderous look that seemed to invite such a crime”.
Everything was exposed at Rush’s trial which opened on Thursday morning, 29 March 1849 at the Norfolk Assizes before Judge Baron Rolfe. Every available seat was taken and no one was allowed to enter without a ticket of admission. On the opening of the doors, shortly after 8 0’Clock, there was a rush for the seats and the Court was quickly filled “in every part by gentlemen and ladies of the highest respectability, including several noblemen” Precisely at 9 o’clock, Judge Baron Rolf entered, there was an immediate solemn silence and the prisoner James Blomfierld Rush was called. Every eye was directed towards the Box when Rush entered, dressed in black and, apparently, in good health. He was informed of the indictment charging him with the murders of Isaac Jermy, Esq and his son, to which he pleaded NOT GUILTY!
Rush had previously turned down offers of a legal representation, opting, quite arrogantly, to conduct his own defence which, because of his own incompetence, belligerence and blatant intimidation of the prosecution witnesses, was to simply hastened his downfall. he was to present his defence over fourteen hours of rambling without making any impression in his favour. His address was full of repetitions and the witnesses that he called, one way or another, damned him; he also damned himself, not least when he was to ask one witness, a Maria Blanchflower who had passed within feet of him on the night, “Did you pass me quickly”! – a very unfortunate slip of tongue in open court and was to do his defence no good..
But that was to come later for the Prosecution were the first to present its case, calling on several witnesses, the first of which set the tone for Rush’s ultimate conviction. Thomas Jermy aged 67, then a gardening labourer living in south London was simply asked: “Can you write?” and he answered even more briefly “No Sir”. From his reply it was obvious that he could not have signed the Notes, dropped by Rush at the time of the murders, allegedly claiming the Stanfield Hall Estate by Larner and Jermy:
It was established that Rush was behind this deception with the intention of casting suspision for the murders on to Larner and Jermy, who could not possibly have committed them since at the time of the crime both were in London.
Other witnesses followed, including the injured victim Eliza Chestney and the principal witness, Emily Sandford. Both of whom were to be cross examined by Rush, again with a mixture of charm, religious fervour, rudeness and intimidation. Finally, his Lordship, in the most patient of manners simply requested the Jury to give the words of the accused “the degree of weight they deserved”. Then, having been told to consider their verdict, the Jury retired. After barely 6 minutes, they returned to deliver the verdict – GUILTY!
The Judge then put on the black cap and to a profoundly silent Court he sentence Rush to death, his penultimate words being:
“It remains only that I pronounce the awful sentence of the law upon you; and it is, that you be taken back to the place from which you came, and from thence to the place of execution and that you be there hanged by the neck until you are dead, and that after death your body be buried within the precincts of the gaol and may the Almighty have mercy on your soul”
Finally adding a few exceptionally severe words:
“It is a matter of perfect indifference to society at large what your conduct maybe during the few days remaining to you”, being as you are “an object of unmitigated abhorrence to everyone”
Rush remained still for a brief moment after the Judge had finished, but when the gaoler touched to remove him Rush smiled in a slightly demonic manner and uttered what sounded like a few joking words. His escort, whilst not responding to the prisoner, took great precautions to see that there was no communication between him and anyone in the Court as they left. The Judge then retired and the Court was quickly cleared.
For the several days between the trial and the time of execution, Rush was confined to his cell still imagining that he could persuade those around him that he was innocent. Several members of the clergy attempted to bring him to his senses and to see the awful and unhappy position he was in, but with no success. One person expressed the hope that Rush would at least realise the old aphorism that the man who begins by deceiving others often ends by deceiving himself; but Rush continued to adopt airs and graces and offer phrases of a deeply religious man, but no one was fooled.
On the morning of his execution, Rush asked for some hot water to wash himself and a clean shirt in which to be buried. The solemnest of his cell as he passed his final hours was in stark contrast to the hive of activity already in evidence outside in the streets of Norwich where thousands of pedestrians were beginning to gather, mingling with the trades people that were there to sell their wares. One reporter observed:
“ If such be the usual state of the city on an ordinary market day, one may form some slight conception of what was likely to take place when, in addition to the attraction of the Market, there was to be witnessed the execution of so atrocious a criminal as James Blomfield Rush” – and then on observing the mass of people assembling said “the Cry was, still they come!”
The universal theme of conversation since early that morning was noisily about Rush and the Stanfield Murders. Then from about 10 o’clock the sounds of the bustle and hum of preparation for business ceased, to be replaced by anxious expectation of everyone, whether selling or buying. Perhaps more offensive to some was the conduct of a handful of ‘ballad-mongers’ who continuously bawled out doggerel rhymes of the person to be hanged later while a large black flag floated over the entrance to the Castle and a large section of those nearest gazed upon the gibbet perched over the bridge spanning the dry moat and from which Rush would hang.
Between 11 and 12 o’clock the bell of St Peters Mancroft tolled the death knell for the criminal; at some moment within this hour Rush was escorted from his cell to the turnkey’s ‘receiving-room’ to be pinioned; there he met with William Calcraft, executioner, of whom he asked Mr Penson, the Governor “Is this the man that is to do the business?” The affirmative reply pre-empted Calcraft’s task of pinioning Rush who, at that moment, shrugged his shoulders saying “ This don’t go easy” then “not too tight”.
Just after 12 noon with the preliminaries completed, a procession formed and made its way to the scaffold with the Chaplain leading. The distance between the Castle door and the gallows was about sixty yards, along which the Chaplain read aloud.
“ I am the resurrection ……………… blessed be the name of the Lord”.
Rush, on the other hand, presented an assumed dejected pose of someone who had ‘avenged a great injury’ and was satisfied with what he had done. He then raised his pinioned hands to his face and violently trembled before removing his hands from his face and, turning his eyes to heaven, assumed the attitude of prayer. When both he and the Chaplain had finished the ritual, Rush beckoned to the Governor of the Castle to his side and the following brief conversation took place:
Rush: “Mr Penson, I have a last request to make to you; it is, that the bolt be withdrawn while the Chaplain is reading the Benediction – “The Grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Ghost be with us all evermore”.
Mr Penson: “I will immediately communicate your wish to the Chaplain and I have no doubt it will be attended to”.
However, the Governor was economical with the truth for the general impression of the officials there in the ‘receiving room’ was that they feared that Rush intended to carry out ‘some vain and fruitless feat’, as indicated by both his behaviour overnight, during the early hours and, particularly, his last request for the drop to happened when certain words of the Chaplains were spoken. Mr Penson, fearing that something was afoot, intended to give Calcraft the signal in advance of any chosen words – and whilst it was not his intention, the moment chosen by Penson would come as quite a shock to Rush! – if indeed he ever had plans for a final grand performance in front of the authorities and public.
Rush, accompanied by the officials and the executioner ascended the gallows which had been erected over the bridge that spanned the Castle’s dry moat. An observer’s comment was that the structure was “a clumsy and inconvenient structure, as badly arranged and as unsightly in appearance as anyone could conceive. It seemed to be the work of a most unskilful designer”. Rush, for his part, looked ghastly pale as if conscience or fear had at last done its work. For a few moments he looked at the huge crowd then, seemingly recollecting that it had been arranged that he should suffer death with his back to the people, he turned around. One eye witness recorded:
“The poor creature looked for an instant on the vast mass of spectators, whose earnest gaze was upon him and on every movement he made, and then turned himself round and face the castle – his back being towards the populace.”
Rush then shook hands with the Governor just before William Calcraft, the hangman, placed him under the beam on which he was to hang and then began placing the noose around his neck. Even at this moment Rush could not resist being theatrical, saying to Calcraft:
“For God’s sake, give me rope enough. Don’t be in a hurry; take your time” Then, moving his head about, Rush added,”! Put the knot a little higher up – don’t hurry”.
This done, the white hood was drawn over Rush’s head and the Chaplain proceeded with the prayers. It was at this point that the Governor’s intentions became clear with his signal to Calcraft to ‘pull the trigger’. Before the Chaplain arrived at the words “The Grace of our Lord ………………..etc the Executioner had withdrawn the bolt, the platform had fallen and Rush was at the bottom of his one-way descent; a descent that was with such force that his body had shaken the whole gallows and the snap of the rope under extreme tension had been audible to everyone. Rush’s body remained perfectly still for about two minutes before there was a short convulsive struggle – then all was completely over. Rush’s death was greeted with loud applause then, at one o’clock he was cut down, removed to the prison on a wheeled litter and during the afternoon, his head was shaved and a cast was taken for phrenological study. Later, the remains of James Blomfield Rush was buried, as decreed by the Judge, in the precincts of Norwich Prison; the timing was 8 o’clock in the evening in a deep grave next to the remains of Yarman who was executed some three years earlier for the Yarmouth murders.
In the end Rush’s wax image was ‘taken from life’ at Norwich by Madame Tussauds and placed on display in her Chamber of Horrors in London for over 120 years.
The Executioner, William Calcraft, lodged in Hay Hill, Norwich
Emily Sandford emigrated to Australia – paid for by public subscription – and married a German merchant two years later and moved, with her husband, to Berlin.
Stanfield Hall was finally sold out of the Jermy family in 1920.
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