By Haydn Brown.
Saturday, 18 July 1807 in Attleborough’s White Horse public house on London Road, next to a track named Whitehorse Lane. Inside, it was no different from any other Saturday; the regulars occupied their chosen places and the air was again thick with tobacco smoke. Samuel Alden had a pint in his hand; this was probably not his first of the day, and would certainly not be his last – or so he and his colleagues must have anticipated. Samuel’s wife, Martha, was with him and might have thought otherwise. The time was around about mid-morning, shortly after the pub had opened its doors for the day.
Samuel’s neighbour, Edmund Draper, walked in and joined the couple as any good neighbour would do. Martha, clearly preoccupied with other thoughts, chose that moment to leave; her excuse was to say that she was going home with her child. We will never know the true reason; was she was allowing her husband space to chat ‘man to man’, did she feel uncomfortable in her neighbour’s company; or had there been an icy atmosphere between husband and wife that morning? Subsequent events may well suggest that the latter applied!
The fact of the matter was that as soon as Martha had stepped outside the two men moved away from the bar and sat more comfortably to continue both their drinking and conversation; that went on until almost mid-day. Then they both departed, but not before Draper had taken the opportunity to briefly chat with the wife of the publican; he then accompanied Samuel Alden to his house before moving on in the direction of Thetford to his own home, seeing no one else on the road as he went.
Draper was clearly quite sober, having been in the White Horse for only a short spell; however, Alden was rather ‘fresh’, for his walking showed signs of a slight stagger along the way. Despite the hampered pace of the two mens’ journey they, surprisingly perhaps. managed to catch-up with Martha; the circumstances of her delay seems not to have be broached and the trio arrived at the Alden’s cottage as one. That was the last time Draper saw his drinking companion and his wife, accompanied by their seven-year-old son, together. He was to say later, after the news had broken, that at no time in his presence had ill words passed between Samuel and Martha.
On the following morning of Sunday, 19 July 1807, a Charles Hill, also of Attleborough, rose very early; it would have been between 2.00 and 3.00 am – very early indeed. He was going to see his daughter who worked at Shelfanger Hall, some ten miles away; so, such an early start was necessary. It was somewhat wet that morning and he decided to take the turnpike road in the direction of Thetford. On the way he also had to pass the Alden’s cottage, which was barely a quarter of a mile from his own home. As he approached, he saw that the door of the cottage was open; Martha was standing within a few yards of it, apparently doing nothing in particular – or so he thought. She did, as it happened, say to traveller from Attleborough that she “could not think what smart young man it was who was coming down the common”; to which Hill replied: “Martha, what the devil are you up to at this time of the morning?”
Her excuse, if that’s what it was, was to say that she had been down to the pit in her garden for some water; her garden was not attached to the cottage but on the opposite side of the road. Beyond this, Martha did appear to ramble along the lines that she had not been long home from Attleborough where she had been at the White Horse with her husband and Edmund Draper; they all came home together during the day – but her husband had gone back again! Martha then said that her husband had a brother who was going to Essex, and that he swore that he would go with his brother. Hill thought this strange in light of the fact that Samuel Alden had contracted himself to harvest with Mr Parson that year – to which Martha agreed, adding “If he go to Essex, he won’t come back to harvest… I know he will never come back, and if he has got a job, he never will settle to it”! In hindsight, was she looking for an alibi for what would, inevitably, emerge as his sudden and unexpected disappearance? It was a question for the future; something that was absent from Hill’s mind as he continued on his way, and Martha went indoors.
The rest of that day of the 19th must have dragged for Martha; then, as it began to close and evening approached, matters took an even stranger twist. Mary Orvice, a friend of Martha, found the latter on her doorstep; this in itself was not entirely unexpected for both visited each other’s cottages quite frequently. What was totally unexpected was that an agitated Martha asked Mary to return with her to her cottage; Martha did not give a reason why, but waited until both women were inside a closed front door of Martha’s cottage.
“I have killed my husband” said Martha as she led Mary into the main bedroom; she showed Mary the body of Samuel lying on the bed, quite, quite dead! The deceased was still clothed in a shirt and slop, although both heavily stained with blood from horrible wounds to his face – and it was said later that the victim’s head had almost been severed from the body. Clearly, the weapon had been what one could only describe as ‘substantial and lethal’; it was lying on the floor beside the bed. Mary could not help noticing it – along with the blood that stained it. Whether or not it was the shock of her seeing a blood-stained body and weapon, but Mary Orvice was about to plunged herself into deep water so to speak!
Martha produced a common corn sack, and asked Mary to hold it open whilst she prised her husband’s corpse into it; she then dragged the laden sack from the bedroom, through the passage and kitchen and out of the house; fortunately, Samuel Alden had been a small statured man and light in weight. Mary Orvice followed, with both women crossing the road outside the cottage and walking through Martha’s garden to the far side – to a surrounding ditch. There the sack, with its contents, were left, but not before Martha had thrown some mould over it. Mary then left Martha with the excuse that she had an errand to make in Larling; but that was a good seven miles away and the evening was drawing in!
It is not known if Martha slept well that night, or what she did the following day, but that evening, being Monday 20 July and between nine and ten o’clock, Mary was again at Martha’s cottage. She saw Martha removed the sack, in which the body of her husband was held and, once again, dragged it to a water-filled pit on the common which lay beside a place called Wright’s Plantation; Mary tailed behind. On arrival at the pit, Martha emptied the contents of the sack into it and left, ensuring that she took the sack with her.
On Tuesday morning, the 21st, Mary again went to the Martha’s cottage and assisted in cleaning those parts of the bedroom where to assault took place. Firstly, the top coverings and sheets were removed for washing. Then, taking warm water Mary washed and scraped the wall next the bed, followed by the cleaning of the floor. Whilst all this was going on, Martha repeatedly bade Mary to be sure “not to say a word about the matter; for, if she did, she (now an assessory) would certainly be hanged.” However, such was Mary’s confused state upon having help her friend, that she did mention the story to her father that same evening after returning home.
From that moment, matters came to a head. Word got back to the authorities during the following morning, Wednesday the 22 July, – a body had been found! Edward Rush came on to the scene and was ordered by the Constable of Attleborough Parish, to search Martha Alden’s cottage. In a dark corner of one of the rooms he found a bill-hook, on which there appeared to be the remnants of blood on its handle and blade; it would appear that the bill-hook had been washed.
At the Norfolk Assizes, held in Norwich, at the Shirehall in late July 1807, and before Sir Nash Grose when Martha Alden was:
“capitally indicted for the wilful murder of her husband, Samuel Alden, of Attleborough, Norfolk when every circumstance of this attrocious act was corroborated”.
Judge Grose outlined the case by stating that while the man was asleep in bed his wife, with a bill-hook, inflicted terrible wounds on his head, face, and throat. With the assistance of a girl, named Mary Orvice, the prisoner then, on the 19th inst. deposited the body in a dry ditch in the garden; on the 20th, they carried it in a corn sack to the common and “shot” it into a water-filled pit, where it was subsequently discovered. Martha Alden was to offer little or no defence against the charge.
Witness, Edmund Draper was called and confirmed his meeting with victim in the White Horse and their return home, repeating that he was perfectly sober at the time, whilst the deceased was not. Draper also said that he had stayed at the Alden’s for less than three minutes, during which time he noticed that there was a larger fire than usual, for that time of the year, burning in the hearth. He also confirmed that the deceased was in perfectly good health, and that no ill words had passed between the deceased and the prisoner whilst in his presence. Draper also described the Alden’s cottage as having a kitchen and bedroom on the same ground floor and separated from each other by a small, narrow passage.
Witness Sarah Leeder, widow, of Attleborough, followed to state that on Monday night, 20 July, the prisoner came to her house to borrow a spade; the reason: “a neighbour’s sow had broken into her garden and rooted up her potatoes, and she needed to make good.” This witness then went on to describe that on the following evening of Tuesday the 21st, at about eleven o’clock, she went to the common to look for some ducks she had missed. She found them in a small pit which was alongside another larger size pit next to Wright’s Plantation. In this greater pit, or pond, she saw something lying which attracted her attention; she went to the edge of the pond and touched it with a stick, upon which it sank and rose again. The place was shaded from the moon’s glow and she could not make out what it was; so, went home for the night. However, the next morning, Wednesday the 22nd, the witness returned once more to the pit and again touched the substance with a stick, which still lay almost covered with water. It was then that she saw “the two hands of a man appear…… with the arms of a shirt stained with blood.”
A later newspaper report stated that:
“She [the witness] instantly concluded that a murdered man had been thrown in there, and called to a lad to go and acquaint the neighbourhood with the circumstances, and went back in great alarm to her own house. In a quarter of an hour she returned again to the pond, and found that in her absence the body had been taken out. She then knew it to be the body of Samuel Alden. His face was dreadfully chopped, and his head cut very nearly off. The body was put into a cart and carried to the house of the deceased. The witness afterwards went to look for her spade, and found it standing by the side of a hole, which she described as looking like a grave, dug in the ditch which surrounded Alden’s garden. She further stated that this hole was open, not very deep, and that she saw blood lying near it.”
Witness, Edward Rush, told the court that on Wednesday morning of the 22nd July, and by order of the Constable of Attleborough Parish, he searched the prisoner’s residence. In a dark chamber he found a bill-hook, which on examination appeared to have blood on its handle, and also on the blade, but looked as if it had been washed. He also confirmed the statement of a preceding witness as to the state of the bedroom in the house of the deceased, and described its dimensions to be about seven feet by ten.
Mary Orvice followed as the principal witness. She stated that she had been acquainted with the prisoner for some time, and had frequently been at her house. She described her visits to the prisoner’s cottage on and following Sunday the 19th. She stated that the prisoner slept that night at the father’s father’s house. The witness then confirmed that the prisoner bade her to be sure not to say a word about the matter; for, if she did, she (the witness) would certainly be hanged. Upon being questioned to that effect by the Judge, this witness also confirmed that she had told the story to her father on the Tuesday night, but to nobody else.
The learned Judge, Justice Grose, then summed up the evidence in the usual full and able manner expected from judges. However, on the subject of Mary Orvice’s testimony, he remarked that it certainly came under great suspicion as being that of an accessory to the attempted concealment of the murder. Viewing it in that light, and taking it separately later, he received the situation with extreme caution. He further stated that “if it should be found, in most material facts, to agree with and corroborate the successive statements of the other witnesses whose declarations did not labour under those disadvantages, the Jury were then to give it due weight and avail themselves of the information which it threw on the transaction.”
With regard to the principal case, the jury consulted for a very short time before finding Martha Alden GUILTY! The learned judge then proceeded to pass upon her the awful sentence of the law; which was, that on Friday she should be drawn on a hurdle to the place of execution, there to be hanged by the neck till she was dead – and her body afterwards to be dissected. It was at this point that Martha fully confessed her crime for which she was to suffer. She had indeed attacked her husband, who was comatose after his visit to the White Horse in Attleborough, because he had threatened to beat her during an earlier argument. She also acknowledged and pleaded that her friend, Mary Orvice, had no concern whatever in the murder, but only assisted, at her request, in putting the body of her husband into the sack.
On Friday, 31st of July 1807, at twelve o’clock, Mary Alden, such an unhappy woman, was drawn on a hurdle and executed on Castle Hill in Norwich for the murder of her husband at their cottage near Attleborough and:
“in the presence of an immense concourse of spectators she behaved at the fatal tree with the decency becoming of her awful situation.”
In the aftermath of her execution, Martha Alden’s cottage was destroyed by neighbours.