We've delved into the annals of Hertfordshire's past and come up with some truly grisly stories. This is part 1 of 3 exploring true crimes in Hertfordshire.

Murder and mutilation, 1602

In early 1602, a gang of thieves stormed into a family’s home in Essex and murdered husband and wife Anthony and Elizabeth James. After ransacking the house, the thieves kidnapped the couple’s two young children, also named Anthony and Elizabeth.

They fled to Hatfield, where they stopped for the night at an inn run by Agnes Dell. Also spending time at the inn that night were local labourer Nicholas Deacon and tailor Henry Whilpley.

The thieves, unsure of what to do with the children, offered Agnes a share of their stolen goods if she would give them advice.

Agnes promptly told the thieves that the boy should be killed and the girl should have her tongue cut out.

The thieves left Elizabeth with Agnes while they took Anthony to the yard outside the inn. They stuffed cow dung in his mouth and slit his throat.

Agnes’s son, George, led the thieves to a pond a mile out of town, where they disposed of Anthony’s body by throwing it into the water.

Back at the inn, Agnes forced open Elizabeth’s mouth and cut out her tongue with a knife. The girl was then abandoned in the hollow stump of a tree.

Anthony’s body was discovered three weeks later by a group of men hunting near the pond. His coat was exhibited throughout the town to see if anyone recognised it, and Deacon and Whilpley stepped forward to testify that they had seen the boy at the Dells’ inn.

Over the next four years, Dell and her son were brought before the assizes several times on suspicion of knowing more than they had admitted about the murdered boy, but there was not enough evidence for a trial.

However, one person remained who knew the truth of what had happened. Despite her mutilation, Elizabeth still lived.

After having her tongue cut out, she had spent the next few years travelling from place to place, begging for food, until she found herself back in Hatfield. Upon recognising the Dells’ inn, she began screaming. The noise attracted a crowd and only became louder when Dell and her son appeared on the scene.

Whilpley, the tailor, was among the crowd and recognised Elizabeth as having been with the boy at the Dells’ inn before he was murdered.

Elizabeth was brought before the local justices, but could not speak to give evidence and the Dells denied having ever seen her before.

There was nothing the local justices could do, so Elizabeth was taken into the care of the parish. She lived with a couple and their children, and it seemed that the Dells were going to get away with their terrible crimes.

Then, a miracle happened.

One day, Elizabeth was playing with another child. They heard a cock crow and the other girl mimicked, ‘cock-a-doodle-doo’. And then, to her disbelief, Elizabeth did the same.

The girl ran home to spread the news and Elizabeth was once again brought before the local justices, where she was able to explain everything that had happened.

Elizabeth’s tale satisfied authorities enough for them to bring the Dells to trial. Both Agnes and George were found guilty of murder and sentenced to be hanged, and they were put to death on August 4, 1606.

Ordeal by touch, 1628

At Great Berkhamsted in 1628, Joan Norkott was found murdered in her bedroom. Her throat had been cut and her neck was broken.

There were two separate pools of blood on the floor and the knife used to slit her throat was found sticking in the floor some distance from the bed.

The night she died, no one entered her house except her mother-in-law, Mary, her sister-in-law, Agnes, and Agnes’s husband, John. Joan’s husband, Arthur, was absent on the night of the murder.

At the coroner’s inquest the jury heard depositions from Mary, Agnes and John. Astonishingly, the jury returned a verdict of suicide.

The public had doubts about this verdict and rumours soon began to circulate. They claimed that it would have been impossible for Joan to have killed herself in such a manner. She could have broken her own neck or cut her own throat, but she could not have done both before laying herself down in bed.

Pressured by the public, the jury expressed doubts about their initial verdict and requested that Joan’s body be exhumed and examined.

The evidence presented after the re-examination was enough to convince the jury to change their minds. Mary, Agnes and John were subsequently tried for murder at the Hertford Assizes.

They were found not guilty.

However, Joan’s young son was adamant that justice had not been done. He brought an appeal against his father, Arthur (supposedly absent on the night of Joan’s death), Mary, Agnes and John. The four were once again brought before a jury.

30 days after Joan’s death, the defendants were required to each touch the dead body. This was known as the ordeal by touching. In all cases of murder where proof was inconclusive, the relations of the deceased had the power to compel the suspected persons to touch the body. This was based on the idea that the murder victim would give some kind of sign when touched by the murderer.

A report states that, upon being touched, Joan’s face began to perspire until drops of sweat ran down her face. Her brow changed to ‘a lively and fresh colour’ and she opened one of her eyes and shut it again three times. She also thrust out her ring finger three times, and the finger dropped blood onto the floor.

It is impossible to establish how much of this is true but the report was convincing enough for the jury, who found Mary, Agnes and Arthur guilty of murder. John was acquitted.

Mary and Arthur were hanged, but Agnes was spared because she was pregnant.

Watford Observer:

Rumours and gossip, 1699

In 1699, Spencer Cowper, a young barrister and member of a prominent Whig family, arrived in Hertford for the Spring Assizes.

Cowper visited the Stout family, having stayed with them once before, and ate dinner with them. The Stouts’ daughter, Sarah, appeared to think – or perhaps hoped – that Cowper was staying with them again as she instructed her maid to ready a bed for him.

The maid left Cowper and Sarah alone together downstairs while she went to prepare the bedroom. At 10.45pm, she heard the front door open and close, and she came downstairs to find Cowper and Sarah both gone.

The maid and Sarah’s mother stayed up all night, waiting for Sarah to return, but she never did.

At 6am the following day, mill owner James Berry saw the body of a woman floating in the Priory River. Her eyes were wide open and her teeth were clenched.

The body was identified as Sarah Stout.

She was removed from the water and taken to a nearby barn, where local surgeon John Dimsdale examined her. He found swelling on her neck and bruises between her breasts and near her collarbone.

Cowper, as the last to see Sarah alive, was called in for questioning. However, the jury returned a verdict of suicide.

This did not stop rumours circulating. Many thought that Cowper had killed Sarah and that the marks found on her throat were the result of strangulation. Gossip also spread that Sarah was pregnant with Cowper’s child at the time of her death.

At the behest of her family, Sarah’s body was exhumed weeks later to dispel the pregnancy rumours.

Doctors found that she was not pregnant, but they also found no water in her intestines, stomach, lungs or diaphragm. This led them to conclude that she had not drowned after all but was already dead when she went into the river.

This only added fuel to the rumour that she had been murdered.

Cowper was summoned again and questioned, and eventually stood trial for Sarah’s murder at the Hertford Summer Assizes.

Cowper claimed there was no evidence against him: ‘I did not in the least imagine that so little, so trivial an evidence as here is, could possibly have affected me to so great a degree, as to bring me to this place to answer for the worst fact that the worst of men can be guilty of.’

Cowper’s defence relied on the fact that he could not have been at the river at the time of Sarah’s death. He entered the Glove and Dolphin inn 15 minutes after leaving the Stouts’ house, whereas it would have taken him 30 minutes to get from the house to the Priory River and then walk to the inn.

Cowper presented evidence to show that Sarah had suffered from depression at the time of her death, calling many witnesses to describe her increasing melancholy.

He also produced two letters, apparently reluctantly, to prove that Sarah had been in love with him. Sarah’s family neither confirmed nor denied that it was Sarah’s handwriting on the letters.

The portrait of a melancholy, lovesick girl was enough to convince the jury after just 30 minutes’ debate.

Cowper was found not guilty.

He went on to become an MP in 1705, but the old scandal remained with his family for decades.

Notorious Hertfordshire highwayman, 1782

On December 28, 1782, a group of men sat drinking in the Old Maidenhead Inn in Hertford. Among them was Walter Clibbon, a pieman plying his wares, and brothers Robert and Benjamin Whittenbury. They had been discussing the violent spate of robberies by an unknown highwayman who had been roaming the countryside nearby and wondered how the thief always seemed to know where his victims kept their money.

Robert Whittenbury was telling his elder brother Benjamin about the large sum of £200 he had made at the farmers’ market that morning. The other men admonished him for speaking so loudly about the money; didn’t he know there was a dangerous highwayman terrorising the area?

Soon after, the brothers left the inn and began to make their way home. Robert sent his son, William, ahead with the cart. It began to grow dark.

As William approached the village of Tewin, three men with blackened faces rushed out of the woodland, one armed with a gun, the others with sticks.

They forced William to stop and searched both him and the cart. Finding nothing of value, they thrashed the horse and disappeared back into the woods.

William hurried back along the path to warn his father and uncle, who would shortly be passing by the same spot.

He rode to nearby Queen Hoo Hall, the home of his uncle, and called upon his cousins and their farm servant, George North, for help. The cousins armed themselves with sticks, North picked up his flintlock gun, and with a dog at their side they rushed to the spot where William had been accosted.

On the way, they met Benjamin, who had just parted from his brother.

Together they all ran up the hill to find Robert being viciously attacked by the robbers. He was alive, but his skull had been fractured.

One of the robbers wrestled Benjamin to the ground and pressed a knife to his throat. Hearing Benjamin’s cry for help, North fired at the robber, and the thief fell dead to the ground.

The remaining robbers ran away; one escaped and another was captured.

Later that night, the Whittenburys returned with lanterns to where the robber had been shot.

The dead man was Walter Clibbon, the friendly pieman who had been gossiping with them that very afternoon in the tavern. Now they knew how the notorious Hertfordshire highwayman had been gaining his information about his victims: he listened to their conversations in the tavern where he worked.

The two accomplices were his sons.

The next day, a rope was fastened to the feet of Clibbon’s corpse and it was dragged around Bulls Green for hours, such was the relief at the death of the highwayman.

North was tried for murder but was acquitted.

The gun he used to kill Clibbon now resides in Hertford Museum and a post inscribed with Clibbon’s name marks the spot where the highwayman was shot.