In the autumn of 1805, a week before the Battle of Trafalgar, newspapers across England picked up the news of a shocking murder that had taken place in Stockton-on-Tees. The victim was a woman from Hutton Rudby.
This version, from the Leeds Intelligencer of Monday 14 October, tells the tale:
On Tuesday night a shocking murder was committed, at Stockton-upon-Tees, upon a young woman of the name of Barker, who had gone from Hutton Rudby, near Stokesley, where she resided, to sell some Cleveland cloth for a manufacturer and neighbour of the name of Webster.
She retired to rest between nine and ten o’clock, and at midnight the inhuman wretches where she lodged, and to whom she was no stranger, nearly severed her head from her body with a case knife, and soon after twelve were seen attempting to remove the body, in order to throw it into the river.
The man, his wife and daughter, were all immediately secured.A young woman murdered in her sleep, the victim of a dreadful conspiracy by the family whom she had trusted?
A week later, the story turned out to be rather different.
Leeds Intelligencer, Monday 21 October 1805:
On Saturday se’ennight, was committed to the gaol at Durham, Thomas Wilson, journeyman smith, of Stockton-upon-Tees, charged upon the inquest of Joseph Frank, coroner, and a respectable jury, with the wilful murder of Margaret Barker, of Hutton Rudby, spinster, as mentioned in our last; the circumstances of this horrid transaction, as appeared upon evidence before the jury, (which sat seven hours) were as follows:-
The deceased a respectable woman about 45 years of age, had for several years subsisted herself and her aged parents, by travelling in the adjacent country with housewife cloth, principally the property of Mr Stainthorp, of that place; she left her home on the Wednesday morning, and came to Stockton upon her business, and that evening slept at a respectable public-house; but, unfortunately for herself, went on the following evening to the house of Wilson, (where she at times had been used to stay.)
From the evidence of his wife and her daughter, the prisoner about half past twelve o’clock arose from his bed and went upstairs to a chamber where the deceased, the wife’s daughter and her infant child slept; the deceased laid upon the side of the bed nearest to the door, whom he immediately attacked with a razor, and cut her in the cheek, afterward in the throat from ear to ear, and in other parts of the neck; soon afterwards a cry of murder was heard by the neighbours, some of whom being aroused, came to the fatal spot and stumbled over the body of the deceased at the foot of the stairs near to the street door; upon the arrival of the town’s officers and others, the murderer attempted to defend himself on the top of the staircase with the bloody razor and a mould-rake; with the latter, he struck one of the party a violent blow upon the arm and the head, who returned it with a short constable’s staff, and he directly surrendered; of course, he was secured in a place of confinement.
The body of the deceased was interred on the following Sunday at Hutton Rudby.
From circumstances which have transpired, it would seem to warrant conjecture, that the aim of the murderer was not directed to the deceased, but to his wife and her daughter; the latter had lain in about four or five months before of a child, of whom he was the reputed father, and being again said, or suspected to be pregnant, it is supposed that remorse of conscience induced him to get rid of the object of his lust, by perpetrating a more gross and sanguinary crime.So Margaret Barker was a woman of 45 who supported her aged parents and who found herself in the wrong place at the wrong time - killed by mistake by a man who seems to have gone mad in the night.
William Orton was very nearly hanged for forgery in 1821, and so we might expect to find that Thomas Wilson would suffer the death penalty. But a brief notice in one of the Newcastle papers the following summer shows that this was not the case.
Newcastle Courant, Saturday 9 August 1806:
At Durham assizes, Thomas Wilson, late of Stockton, blacksmith, was found guilty of the murder of Margaret Barker, at Stockton aforesaid, and received sentence of death. He was left for execution, but was respited after the judges left Durham.So far, I have not been able to find out what happened to him.