Stranger Than Fiction
Past Arthur Conan Doyle and Murder in England’s “Smiling and Beautiful Countryside”
By Dean Jobb
“James Harrison.” The courtroom fell silent after the name was called. With the prosecution’s star witness a no-show, the charge against Tom Ellson—sheep-stealing, a capital offence in 1827—was dropped. Freed after three months in jail awaiting trial, the twenty-four-year-old headed home to the village of Market-Drayton and stopped at the Star public house to celebrate. His father-in-law, John Cox, and brothers-in-law Robert and John joined him for pints. “If it had not been for me and Joe Pugh,” Robert boasted to the man who had faced the gallows just hours before, “you would not have been here now.”
Ellson needed no explanation. Harrison, he knew, had been murdered to prevent him from testifying. John Cox and Ellson’s fifty-year-old mother, Ann Harris, he soon learned, had scraped together five pounds to recruit Cox’s sons and their friend, Joseph Pugh, to kill Harrison and bury his body in a farmer’s field.
The murder-for-hire almost succeeded. Harrison, it was thought, had gone into hiding or had left the area to avoid testifying. When he did not return, there were whispers that he had been murdered to ensure his silence. His fate remained a mystery until the following year, when Ellson was arrested on a new charge of stealing chickens—and named Harrison’s killers. And he agreed to testify against his saviors—even his own mother—in exchange for his freedom.
HORRIBLE MURDER IN SHROPSHIRE, screamed a headline in the Manchester Guardian when it broke the news in the summer of 1828. Another newspaper termed it “as atrocious a murder of a fellow-creature as was ever recorded.” Decades later, Arthur Conan Doyle was also struck by the callousness of Harrison’s executioners. “The spectacle of three smock-frocked English yokels selling themselves at thirty-three shillings and fourpence a head to murder a man against whom they had no personal grudge,” he observed, “is one which is happily unique in the annals of crime.”
As shocking as what happened, in Conan Doyle’s opinion, was where it happened. Market-Drayton, near the border between the counties of Shropshire and Staffordshire, was nestled in “as fair a stretch of rustic England as could be found in the length and breadth of the land,” he noted, a region dotted with “pretty country villages, and sleepy market towns which have altered little during the last hundred years.” A traveler passing through would have been “deeply impressed by the Arcadian simplicity of the peasants,” he added, and “would have smiled incredulously had he been informed that neither in the dens of Whitechapel nor in the slums of Birmingham was morality so lax or human life so cheap as in the fair region which he was admiring.”
“The Bravoes of Market-Drayton,” Conan Doyle’s account of the case, published in the magazine Chambers’s Journal in 1889, was one of a handful of true crime stories the creator of Sherlock Holmes tackled in his long writing career (“bravoes” were hired assassins who terrorized northern Italy in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries). And the shocking tale of murder and betrayal would soon inspire one of Holmes’s most famous observations, about the prevalence of crime even in the pastoral surroundings of England’s “smiling and beautiful countryside.”
Ellson and Harrison were part of a gang of as many as sixty thieves operating in the Market-Drayton area. “A dreadfully depraved set of people,” noted the Newgate Calendar, the chronicle of English villainy, “confederated for general purposes of plunder.” They raided local farms and stole livestock, meat, potatoes—anything they could find. John Cox, a sixty-year-old bully with a “most unpleasing, almost revolting” face, was the suspected leader of the gang. Bonds of family and marriage were enough to keep most of his underlings in line. Why Harrison decided to betray Ellson was never made clear; perhaps the twenty-one-year-old was desperate to break free from the gang and escape a life of crime.
Ellson—his friends called him Shooler—was not sure where Harrison was buried. The authorities dug up a large section of a field in search of his body, without success. Then Pugh admitted his role in the murder. He said he needed “to ease his mind,” and hoped a confession might save him from the gallows. On the eve of Ellson’s trial, Pugh admitted, he persuaded Harrison, who boarded at his father’s house, to join him on a foray to steal some bacon. They met up with the Cox brothers at a secluded spot, where Robert Cox was digging a hole. Harrison never suspected it was his grave. Pugh tackled Harrison and held him down as John Cox, the gang leader’s namesake, strangled him. “Oh Lord, spare my life,” Harrison gasped as he died, “and I promise never to hurt Shooler.”
Pugh pinpointed the location of the grave. When the remains were unearthed, Harrison’s parents identified his clothes and tufts of brown hair still clinging to his skull. Pugh also revealed that the elder John Cox and Ann Harris had paid them to kill Harrison.
The Cox brothers and Pugh stood trial for murder in Shrewsbury in August 1828. Harris and John Cox were indicted as accessories. Pugh’s confession alone was enough to convict all five, but the star witness was Ellson. A thief with no gratitude, let alone honor, he readily exposed the plot that had saved his neck a year earlier, knowing his words could send his mother and friends to the gallows. “I certainly expect,” he acknowledged, “that the evidence I am giving now will save me from being convicted of fowl-stealing”—a relatively minor offence, punishable by deportation, not death. “No more repulsive spectacle has ever been witnessed in an English court of justice,” Conan Doyle asserted in his account of the case, “than this cold-blooded villain calmly swearing away the life of the woman who bore him . . . to save himself from a temporary inconvenience.”
Other witnesses offered further damning evidence. The elder Cox had tried to buy arsenic before Harrison’s murder, claiming he needed it to cure a dog of mange; the druggist, who “never knew it used for that purpose,” refused the request. Harris made no attempt to hide her murderous intentions, telling a relative she needed poison to deal with “that rogue, Harrison, who was as big a rogue as any one of the lot.” After the murder, Harris became the target of blackmail. Robert Cox hounded her for more money and threatened to dig up Harrison and dump his body “against thy door” if she refused. He backed down when she paid him a paltry two shillings more.
After “a very brief consultation,” one newspaper reported, the jury found all five guilty. The presiding judge, outraged by a murder committed “solely to defeat the ends of justice,” sentenced each defendant to death. Cox’s son John and Pugh were executed days later. Harris, whose execution was delayed until mid August, admitted her role in plotting the murder but insisted she had not been the instigator. “Old Cox,” she claimed, “concocted the whole plan.” A crowd of five thousand assembled to watch when she became the first woman hanged in Shropshire in twenty-five years. Robert Cox, who had stood by as the murder was committed, was granted a reprieve. John Cox, convicted as an accessory, was also spared. Both were ordered to be transported to Australia for the rest of their lives.
“The air of the Shropshire downs was the sweeter for the dispersal of the precious band,” Conan Doyle noted in his article. “This salutary example brought it home to the rustics that the law was still a power in the land, and that, looking upon it as a mere commercial transaction, the trade of the bravo was not one which could flourish upon English soil.”
It’s not clear when and how Conan Doyle discovered the sordid story of James Harrison’s murder. Jack Tracy, who edited a collection of the author’s accounts of real-life crimes, suspected he heard about it while working as a medical assistant in Shropshire in the summer of 1878.
Why he chose to write about the case a decade later remains a mystery. By that time, he was preoccupied with Sherlock Holmes. In August 1889, the month that “The Bravoes of Market-Drayton” was published, Conan Doyle joined Oscar Wilde for a dinner at London’s Langham Hotel hosted by editor Joseph Stoddart. Stoddart commissioned each of them to write a story for his American publication, Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine. Conan Doyle’s contribution, The Sign of the Four, was the second outing for Holmes, who had debuted two years earlier in A Study in Scarlet.
The notion of the quaint English village as a hotbed of murder—so familiar today in the Miss Marple and Father Brown mysteries and as the bodies pile up in each episode of television’s Midsomer Murders—seems to have struck a chord with Conan Doyle. A few years later, in a story published in the Strand Magazine in June 1892, he called on Holmes to explain how evil could lurk in such a serene setting as Market-Drayton.
“The lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside,” Holmes assured Dr. Watson as their train whisked them from the capital to the rural scene of the latest mystery they had been asked to solve, in “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches.”
In towns and cities, “the whole machinery of justice is ever so close that a word of complaint can set it going, and there is but a step between the crime and the dock.” Holmes continued. “But look at these lonely houses, each in its own fields, filled for the most part with poor ignorant folk who know little of the law. Think of the deeds of hellish cruelty, the hidden wickedness which may go on, year in, year out, in such places, and none the wiser.”
Deeds of hellish cruelty, Conan Doyle was no doubt thinking as he wrote those words, like the execution-style murder of James Harrison.