Tuesday, 28 June 2011

A cannibal on the prowl- the gruesome case of Sam Thorley Leek 1777

The proverb "Coming to Leek out of the noise" was still popular enough in the early 20th century. I wonder if anyone still uses it? It is a saying which has a history and a history that could be not more gruesome. Most people in the early 21st century will have heard of the fictional exploits of Hannibal Lecter- the creation of the writer Thomas Harris whose terrifying desire to eat human flesh has gripped modern audiences. Well, Leek played its part in a real case of cannibalism which dates from the end of the 18th century and it’s from this case that the saying sprang. The basic details are outlined in the diary of the Rev Jonathan Wilson, Master of Congleton Grammar School and Vicar of Biddulph which was published in 1876 in the Leek Times to mark the 100th anniversary of this most shocking murder

Saturday 23rd November 1776While at dinner heard of a most abominable murder a woman cut into a score of pieces in Prester Fields BrookSunday 24th November 1776The murderer detected and lodged in the town hallMonday 25th November 1776Sam Thorley the murderer sent to ChesterThursday 11th April 1777
At school after dinner the boys are given leave to go and see Sam Thorley drawn on the gibbet

Gibbeting a body after a hanging was a fate reserved for the most heinous of crimes. The body would hang in a metal cage for a long time. The idea being that the horror of the image would act as a deterrent, warning people that they would suffer the same end if they acted criminally. In order to preserve the body pitch was used which could be a very successful preservative. There was a case in Warwickshire where the body of a man hanged in 1766 was still on display 60 years later
How Sam Thorley came to deserve this fate I will now tell.

Samuel Thorley was not an intelligent man and was described by his contemporaries as "half thick". He was born in Astbury in the 1720s and up to the events of late 1776 lead a quiet, unremarkable life. He worked as a labourer on local farms and carried on his life honestly. He jobbed about in the slaughter houses of Congleton carrying out the butchering of livestock, a skill that was to have terrible consequences. He was also employed to dig graves at Astbury.

On Wednesday 20th November 1776 Thorley came across Ann Smith a well known tramping ballad singer who had come to sing at the Lammas Fair in Congleton the following Friday.

Three days later her body was found dismembered by boys in a ravine where the footpath crosses a brook called the Howty. The sight was made more terrible as early snow had fallen and the whiteness contrasted with the bloody remains of the woman.

Later on that Wednesday Thorley was seen with a blood stained apron which seemed to be full of pork. A witness named Hannah Oakes is approached by Thorley and is asked to boil up the "pork" for his supper. He ate some and fell sick and she is told to feed the rest of the meat to the dogs. She acted otherwise and keeps it back when she heard of the disappearance and murder of Ann Smith. She gave the meat to a constable who gives it to a local doctor name Reade who on examining the meat pronounced it to be human flesh

Thorley’s blood stained appearance at first excited no suspicion on account of his employment as a butcher. He later became excited when he heard people talk about the discovery of the body and makes the statement to Hannah that will live on many years after his death

"Folks will be laying this job onto him and he would go to Leek out of the noise".
He went to Leek on the Sunday and was quickly caught by the constable and bought back to Congleton to be imprisoned prior to the trial at Chester

The proverb has been said to owes its rise and popularity due to the self incriminating remark of Thorley
What led to the horrible fate of Ann Smith?

Thorley admitted all at the trial and gave an account of the fateful encounter. Smith met him in a local wood and asked him to borrow a knife to cut up bread and cheese which she was carrying for her dinner. When she finished she ran off laughing and waving the knife at him as she ran. He followed her to the brook took the knife from her and in a rage cut her throat and then began to butcher her. Thorley was always reckoned to be dangerous if provoked, today we would say that he had anger management problems.

There were sufficient doubts about his intelligence at the trial to set a test to see whether he was sufficiently compos mentis to stand trial. Thorley was set to count a score of nails and having succeeded in the task was thought to be a sufficiently component candidate for the gallows

He was hanged at Broughton near Chester from the old fashioned method of driving a cart from under Thorley leaving him to strangle slowly. It was not until the middle of the next century that the scientific method of hanging using a weight/ height ratio devised by executioner William Marwood was employed which caused death to be instantaneous.
But this story has one final grim twist. The grotesque horror of the case was compounded by the wagoner who carried the body back to be gibbeted at Congleton got drunk and lost the body when it fell out of the cart on his way through the Delamere Forest. After a prolonged search the body was found and conveyed to Congleton where the Rev Wilson young charges witnessed the educative experience of seeing Thorley strung up one more time.