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The Murder of PC Benjamin Snow
Crime trends, it seems, come and go. Where today we have thefts of mobile phones and car crime, in Victorian England the police had to contend with poaching. In those days, the privileged gentry owned vast acres of land, and occupied themselves by hunting and shooting, whilst the working class and peasants were forced to keep away and feed families as best they could.
Not surprisingly, there were those who would trespass to shoot and snare and otherwise purloin the small animals and birds of the landed estates, whose owners employed gamekeepers to protect their stocks, and relied on the village policeman to enforce the law. What emerges from the crime of poaching is that poachers and gamekeepers were often armed; the lone policeman would not be. Alone and without any means of assistance, this could prove fatal to village bobbies, as it did for Police Constable Benjamin Snow in the small Hertfordshire village of Benington, in 1871.
In such small, rural communities in those days, it was quite normal for policeman and poacher to be acquainted, a kind of ‘cold war’ existing between them: the policeman knew who the poachers were, but policeman and poacher alike each knew the latter had to be caught in the act to be taken to court. At Benington, PC Snow knew John Chapman, who lived at a nearby village, was a poacher. What’s more, for six years there had been an arrest warrant out for Chapman; the warrant was held by Inspector Reynolds at Stevenage. But Chapman, a will-o’-the-wisp character, had moved to Wood Green, London, and had remained at large.
There’s nothing to compare with a conscientious copper keeping his ear to the ground, and on Tuesday, 10th January, PC Snow got wind that Chapman was back in the area. The officer enlisted the help of two other policemen to search the area for Chapman, and arranged to meet them later that morning. They would make enquiries with farmers, search barns and scour the land for their quarry. PC Snow lived with his wife and three children in the police house at Benington, and just before setting off to rendezvous with his colleagues he told his wife of his plans to arrest Chapman. One can imagine her simple message of ‘take care of yourself’ as he left, and he would have done well to heed her advice, for unaccountably he went without taking his truncheon.
Meanwhile, as witnesses would later testify, Chapman was seen approaching the village. He spoke in surly tones to a local man, and met up with a local lad, James Gilbey, who was described as ‘intelligent and respectably attired.’ Gilbey, it seems, was a decent young man who may have heard of Chapman’s dubious reputation, and might have been impressed to meet up with him that day, especially as Chapman was carrying a gun.
Chapman and Gilbey walked together awhile, when Chapman told him to wait until he went off to meet someone. Gilbey would later testify that after a few minutes he heard a shot being fired, and when Chapman reappeared he had fresh blood on his hands. The shot was also heard by Constable Snow, who encountered a local man, Mr William Beadle. ‘Did you see a man and boy go down there?’ asked the officer, meaning a narrow lane. Beadle had indeed seen Chapman and Gilbey, but only replied that he did not know them. PC Snow told him he would go and look, and set off down the lane.
The constable’s approach was seen by Gilbey, who remarked to Chapman, ‘There’s Mr Snow the policeman coming.’ Gilbey himself then hurried away, passing the approaching constable in the lane. Gilbey, turning, saw the officer grappling with Chapman, then turned again and ran off as fast as he could go. And then, for the second time that morning, the sound of a gun being fired was heard in the village.
When William Beadle saw PC Snow again a few minutes later the officer was holding his handkerchief to his head. ‘I am shot,’ said PC Snow, as he made his way home. A roadman noticed the constable was now dishevelled and covered in mud. When Mrs Snow saw her husband arrive home and washed the blood from his wound, she asked him what had happened. ‘I don’t know dear’ said the officer who could only add ‘Enemy got the gun and run away.’
Not surprisingly PC Snow was in agony. His wife put him to bed and sent for Dr Hodges of Watton who attended that night. Whether such delay contributed to the subsequent death of Benjamin Snow isn’t known, but these days it seems incredible that such a serious injury could not have been dealt with earlier; alas, there were no telephones and ambulances then to facilitate rapid medical treatment. At any rate the doctor ‘did what he could’, and left PC Snow in his bed, where he died of a gunshot wound to the head.
Again, in days of poor communication, nothing was done until the following morning, when Inspector Reynolds, at Stevenage, ‘on hearing an officer had been attacked’, went out to Benington where he belatedly discovered PC Snow had been murdered. Insp Reyonds made local enquires, and located the scene of the crime, where it was clear there had been a struggle. The weather now took a hand in the investigation, for snow which had fallen the day before had frozen over and now there were two sets of footprints, one PC Snow’s, the other his killer’s. The latter showed the impressions made by studded boots, which had obviously been repaired with odd nails and would match one distinctive pair.
The inspector also concluded PC Snow’s killer was ‘splay footed’, judging by the positions of his footprints in the snow, and that as he had left the scene he (the killer) had broken into a run, as the footprints were further apart. Unfortunately it was not possible to take impressions of the footprints, but Inspector Reynolds, with a ready-made suspect – John Chapman – was able to initiate enquiries to track him down.
PC Snow’s body lay at his home, and on the following Friday the inquest into his death was opened at the Bell public house, Benington, nearby. The inquest was adjourned, pending a post mortem. Meanwhile, that very day, Sergeant Turner of the Metropolitan Police went to John Chapman’s Wood Green address, where he arrested Chapman for murder. He also seized Chapman’s boots, and a dead duck. Chapman said, ‘I was at Benington. I have nothing further to say.’
Inspector Reynolds, noting that Chapman was splay-footed, charged him with killing PC Snow. Chapman replied, ‘ I did not kill him.’ Further falls of snow made it impossible to compare Chapman’s boots with the impressions at the scene. Nevertheless, Chapman was held in the cells at Hertford Shire Hall, and he later attended the inquest into PC Snow’s death, this time at the school hall, Benington. It was recorded that Chapman was ‘dejected and care-worn and run down by fatigue and exhaustion, and wandered about certain haunts in the country in search of game.’ Chapman was 37, married with five children, no wonder, one might think, that he went in search of game. The duck seized at his home had been shot at Benington moments before he allegedly shot PC Snow. It was to feed his family.
Confronted with witnesses’ testimony at the inquest, Chapman, repeatedly declared, ‘It was not me. It was not me.’ The coroner’s jury recorded a verdict of ‘wilful murder’ against Chapman, who was sent for trial. Ironically, proceedings at the inquest were interrupted by the funeral of PC Snow. He was interred in the churchyard at St Peter’s Church, Benington, the funeral being attended by the Chief Constable and over 40 police officers.
At the trial, it seems to have been quickly accepted that John Chapman did indeed kill Constable Snow, but Chapman, now with the benefit of legal representation, maintained that the officer had acted unlawfully by trying to arrest him without being in possession of the arrest warrant. A technical breach of the law in the opinion of his defence barrister; a technical nonsense in the opinion of the writer, for can it be that every time a police officer arrests someone on an arrest warrant, the officer must have it in his pocket?
Justice Hannen, supporting the argument, said: ‘if a person is arrested by a person not legally authorised to do so, there was provocation to resist.’ He said that Chapman was not justified in taking life, but if he ‘resisted illegal violence even to death he was guilty of manslaughter’. So, PC Snow’s actions were illegal because he didn’t have the warrant. The jury, guided by this foolish judge, recorded a manslaughter verdict and Chapman was sentenced to 15 years penal servitude instead of death, which would have been the sentence had he been found guilty of murder.
It seems PC Snow’s widow married his replacement, PC Brooks, as village bobby. Inspector Reynolds went on to be Deputy Chief Constable, retiring from the force in 1911.