The murder of police-officer William VAUGHAN at Birkenhead, 1856

Liverpool Mercury, Dec 27th 1856

Dreadful murder of a police-officer at Birkenhead

On Tuesday morning the township of Birkenhead was thrown into a state of great excitement in consequence of the fearful murder, at an early hour of one of the small band of police officers who have the protection of that wide-spread district, and who, in the exercise of his duty fell victim to the use of the knife, a practise which of late has prevailed to an alarming extent amongst ruffians of every description.

The name of the deceased was William VAUGHAN, No 8, a native of Ireland, aged 25, a quiet unassuming young man, who stood 6ft 1inch, his murderer, Thomas SMITH aged 21, also an Irishman, who had been once tried at the sessions, and who had for years been connected with a gang of disorderly and disreputable characters who infest Birkenhead.

It appears that shortly before 1am on Tuesday SMITH and a companion named Michael BREEN, aged 20, an Irishman, called at the public house of Mrs SOFTLEY in Chester St, knocked at the door, and in a loud, boisterous manner demanded to be admitted to have some drink. Mrs SOFTLEY refused to open her house at such an unreasonable hour, when the men proceeded to violence and broke one of the panels of the door. The landlady immediately despatched a messenger by the back door in search of the police, information first reached police-officer VAUGHAN, on duty at Hamilton Square, who hurried into Chester St and confronted the BREEN and SMITH.

Police-officer No 5, WHITEHEAD, whose beat was in Chester St and at Woodside Ferry, having also heard of the disturbance reached the house of Mrs SOFTLEY soon after 2am, when VAUGHAN told him the two men to whom he was speaking had been breaking in the panels of the public house door. By this time SMITH and BREEN managed to get out of Chester St into Bridge St, when WHITEHEAD suggested to VAUGHAN they should follow the disturbers and get their names. This was done in answer to WHITHEAD, SMITH said, "We know best, this is quite enough". WHITEHEAD told the men unless they gave their names they would have to go to the bridewell, they still refused to tell who they were, VAUGHAN seized SMITH by the collar, WHITEHEAD got hold of BREEN to take them to the bridewell. The officers had not proceeded many yards with the prisoners when WHITEHEAD saw a scuffle taking place between VAUGHAN and SMITH. PC. VAUGHAN was attempting to keep SMITH at an arms length, while the latter was striking him with some sort of instrument. After receiving a few thrusts from his prisoner VAUGHAN shouted, "He is using a knife to me" The murderer had stabbed the unfortunate officer to the heart and then made his escape.

Police-officer WHITEHEAD at that moment saw officer CLARKE coming towards them from Hamilton Square and shouted, "Stop him, he has stabbed VAUGHAN!" CLARKE saw the murderer coming towards him with the knife in his hand and instantly raised his stick, and with one blow felled him to the ground. In the fall the deadly instrument closed in the hand of SMITH, which received a severe gash between the thumb and forefinger. Police-officer CLARKE then took him to the bridewell.

Perceiving that VAUGHAN was dangerously wounded police-officer WHITHEAD let go of his prisoner and went to render the dying man assistance. VAUGHAN walked a few paces and then said, "WHITHEAD I'm dying, I'm done" these were the last words the poor fellow uttered. Finding his strength failing the dying officer tried to loosen his belt and overcoat, but in the effort fell upon his knees on the ground. Officer WHITEHEAD caught him by the arm, and sustained him until some men who were passing rendered assistance. The poor fellow was then removed in a shandry to the police station, where he was immediately attended by Mr JENNETTE police surgeon, but surgical or medical aid was to no avail, the wound had penetrated too deep, and the young officer expired in about three quarters of an hour after receiving the deadly thrust.

The body was exposed in the police station during yesterday. The blade of the knife had penetrated the heart immediately below the left breast. The instrument by which the fatal deed was effected was afterwards found by police-officer WHITEHEAD in a pool of blood near where the melancholy event had occurred. It was a large pocket knife, with a blade 3 inches in length, with an exceedingly sharp point, as if intended for murderous work.

So great was the excitement in the township on Tuesday that hundreds congregated around the police station where the body was lying. Several of the members of the lighting and watching committee, including Mr T. B. GOLBORNE, chairman, Mr RAE and Mr BAILIFF, were early in attendance at the police office.

The deceased was a single man, but, had sole support of an aged mother and a sister. The sister viewed the body of her brother in the forenoon, when a most heart rendering scene took place. It has been suggested that a subscription should be made for the aged parent and sister, who have been deprived of their means of support by the melancholy occurrence. The deceased joined the police force in October 1853, and was much respected for his uniform good conduct. It is said that his father was a member of the Irish constabulary, and that he, too, like his son was killed whilst in the exercise of his public duty.

The man BREEN surrendered himself to the police immediately after VAUGHAN was carried to the station, both prisoners were brought up before J. S. JACKSON Esq, the case was remanded until after the holding of an inquest.

The coroner H. CHURTON Esq and a respectable jury held an inquest upon the body on Tuesday in the Town-hall. Amongst those present were Mr T. B. GOLBORNE, chairman of the lighting and watch committee, Mr A. WAIN, law clerk to the commissioners, Mr J. TOWNSEND, clerk to the magistrates, Captain REED, and the Rev M'CARTHY and Rev P. VERNON etc. The gentlemen of the jury were Messers S. BALLIFF [foreman, Thomas KENNING, H. S. BRISTOW, H. ROBINSON, Matthew M'NERNEY, James M'WHIRTER, George BARNETT, Robert BROMLEY, EVANS, Richard HARGREAVES, R. GRAY, T. H. GALLOWAY, Thomas BROWN, J. E. THOMAS, James TAYLOR and Ralph SMITH.

Witnesses called

Jane SOFTLEY wife of William SOFTLEY, who kept a public house in Chester St, who gave evidence [as above] the person she requested to get the officers, was Patrick FOX one of three men who were in the house at the time.

The prisoners were brought into court, and a more villainous-looking couple were scarcely ever in a court of justice, SMITH the murderer is a stout, tall, young man with low forehead and a repulsive look. He was dressed in a blue cloth coat and Guernsey cloth shirt and had a strong Irish accent, he appeared to affect as if partly in liquor. BREEN is about the same height as SMITH, and looks equally as repulsive as the murderer.

Patrick FOX, a groom, gave evidence as to witnessing the disturbance and going to get the officer VAUGHAN, he also stated that the prisoners were drunk. as did Joseph LAWSON, cab driver, who was also in the house at the time. He saw VAUGHAN coming up, but did not see the fatal deed. He afterwards assisted in removing the deceased to the police station.

Police-officer WHITEHEAD, No 5, stated he was at the Woodside Ferry about 2am, and was told by Henry CUNNINGHAM a cab driver that there was a disturbance at the public house of Mrs SOFTLEY. He was on his way up to the disturbance when he met the prisoner BREEN at the corner of the public house of Mr HALLIDAY at the end of Bridge St and said to VAUGHAN, "What has been the row here?" He informed him that the prisoners had been kicking the door of the house of Mrs SOFTLEY and broken one of the panels. He asked VAUGHAN did he know them and he told him, he did, but did not know their names. After describing the stabbing and running for the surgeon and reporting the incident to Inspector THOMPSON etc [as above] witness then got a lantern and went to the place where the scuffle was and found a knife [here the officer produced the deadly instrument] and a thrill of horror spread through the court. The prisoner SMITH hung down his head, and large drops of sweat poured down his forehead and cheeks, showing that he laboured under great mental agony. The knife which was open had blood upon the blade and witness noticed blood on the right hand of SMITH after he was taken to the bridewell. The witness here produced the clothing of the deceased, the overcoat and waistcoat had several cuts in them, one of the cuts had perforated the inner clothing. The poor fellows shirts were saturated in blood. The audience were horror stricken, and the murderer as the bloody garments were passed around the court, heaved deep sighs, the perspiration flowing freely down his cheeks. The was a large fresh cut between the right fore finger and thumb of SMITH when he was taken to the bridewell. The prisoners were under the influence of drink, but not drunk.

Police-officer CLARKE, No 16, deposed to his attention being called by Officer WHITEHEAD, shouting, "Stop him, stop him, he has killed VAUGHAN" Witness met the prisoner in Bridge St, SMITH cried "Look out you --------, " witness then struck him on the head and knocked him down, and he was taken to the bridewell.

Mr Matthew JENNETTE, surgeon to the Birkenhead police, deposed to being called to see the deceased at 2.20am, the officer was then in a dying state. He found a wound on the left side about an inch long under the nipple, there was considerable external haemorrhage. He performed a post mortem examination and found a wound an inch and a half long in the oblique direction, wounding the pericardium of the apex of the heart, with a vast quantity of blood internally. The wound to the heart was the cause of death, the knife produced would cause such a wound.

[Here great sensation was caused in court by the agonising cries of the sister of the deceased, who was trying to make her way amongst the crowd of people]

This being the whole of the evidence.

The Coroner asked SMITH if he wished to make a statement, before he did so it would be necessary for him to caution him as to what he might say.

SMITH asked if Mrs HILTON or her daughter of the Conway Arms were in court, [no answer to the request] SMITH then went on to say that he and his companions had about 6 glasses of whiskey in the house of Mrs CONWAY on Monday night and a quantity of ale at the north end.

Coroner, "Unfortunately even if it were proved to the jury that you had taken too much drink, it is not extenuating circumstances in your case, for the law does not recognise drunkenness, it will not matter to the jury if you were drunk or sober"

The prisoner then made a statement to the effect that he and his companion called at the house of Mrs SOFTLEY, at 1.30am, seeing a light they knocked at the door, but Mrs SOFTLEY refused to admit them. He answered "You have cabmen in why not let us in as well as them?" He shoved the door but Mrs SOFTLEY closed it again on him. When the police were sent for he went to hide at the back wall of the house, but had no brick in his hand as stated by one of the witnesses. He knocked at the door a second time when police-officer VAUGHAN came up and said, "What are you kicking up this row for?" Mrs SOFTLRY then put her head out of the window and charged him to the bridewell. She afterwards said if he would pay the damage she would let us go. VAUGHAN said, "Go home" and we were going home when the officer came over and wanted to know my address, and I would not tell him. So I went into Albion St, when the deceased came up and hit me four or five times very violently on the back. I then turned round and said, "Mr VAUGHAN, do not ill-use me like that, if you want me to go to the bridewell I will go without that" He then got his hand twisted in my throat and was striking me on the back and shoulders, I had no other way of defending myself. I did not do it with the intention of committing murder.

The Coroner addressed the jury saying the facts were plain and transparent it would not be necessary to recapitulate the evidence. No provocation was given by the deceased to SMITH, under the circumstances the jury could not do otherwise than hold him responsible for the murder of the officer.

The jury retired and within a few minutes returned with a verdict of "Wilful murder" against Thomas SMITH.

The prisoner on hearing the verdict became deathly pale, the perspiration flowed rapidly down his face.

The prisoner was brought up at the Birkenhead police court on Wednesday, Mr J. S. JACKSON took his seat on the bench and was joined by Sir Edward CUST and Mr J. W. HARDEN, the judge of the county court. Patrick BREEN the companion of the prisoner was also brought in custody. The whole of the evidence was taken by Mr W. DREW, assistant clerk to the magistrates. The court was crowded during the inquiry which lasted about 4 hours. The prisoner assumed a more hardened appearance than when he was before the coroner and asked the witnesses questions in an impertinent manner. After the whole of the evidence was taken SMITH was committed to take his trial at the Chester Assizes to be held in March next, for the wilful murder of William VAUGHAN. His companion BREEN was discharged.

The body of the deceased was removed from the police station to the house of his mother in Market-buildings on Tuesday night, the coffin being carried by a number of the police force. The interment will take place tomorrow [Saturday] at St Mary's Church, when the whole of the police at Birkenhead and the constabulary of the adjoining districts will follow the remains of the deceased to their final resting place.

Subscriptions are being raised on behalf of the aged mother and sister of the deceased, the former of whom is quite infirm, and the latter lame. Subscriptions will be received by Mr Superintendent BIRNIE at the police office, Captain REED, manager of the Woodside Ferry. The coroner's jury after the inquest on Tuesday contributed the shilling to which each was entitled towards the relief of the bereaved mother and sister of the deceased.

At the Chester Assizes held in March 1857 Thomas SMITH was charged with the manslaughter of William VAUGHAN, Crown court Friday, sentences passed, Thomas SMITH labourer, convicted of manslaughter, was sentenced to be transported beyond the seas for 14 years. Prisoner, thanked his Lordship, and walked away with a firm step.


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