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The Hanging of Thomas Simmons
Thomas Simmons, it seems, was a simple man, slow-witted and sometimes clownish, with a permanent smile that belied a ferocious and sometimes violent temper. Nor did he enjoy a privileged childhood, for his father, a shoemaker, was so skilled that the shoes he made lasted so well that demand for replacements was low, so that he had to turn his hand to the plough to make an honest penny.
This, in the early 19th century, was hardly likely to provide a comfortable or even secure living, and when Mr Simmons Senior died his dullard son might have been uncared for, except that at the age of twelve Thomas was taken under the wing of a Quaker, Mr John Boreham, at his Hoddesdon home, along with his wife and four daughters.
For seven years Thomas Simmons remained in the Boreham household, during which he proved himself to be an abusive teenager, and was prone to steal. By his late teens he was involved in a sexual relationship with the Boreham’s maidservant, Elizabeth Harris, who was older that Simmons but was more than a willing party to their liaison. Marriage was mentioned, but Mrs Borham forbade it, firstly by refusing to give Simmons, still under 21, consent, and she would not permit her maidservant to marry.
Whether it was right that someone had such power in those days is open to conjecture, but Mrs Boreham may have been wise to prevent the marriage, for Simmons’ abusive manner often extended to Miss Harris, and to others in the Boreham household, too. There were violent quarrels, during which he beat Elizabeth, and at least once threatened her with a knife. It seems it never occurred to Simmons that in time Elizabeth Harris had no desire to marry him, and no wonder. One can only suppose she did not say so to keep the peace, and ensure her ongoing personal safety.
The situation could not prevail, and at 19, Thomas Simmons was ejected from the Boreham home out for persistent abuse towards Miss Harris, who was by now in mortal fear of him, and persistent theft. Simmons, now barred from the house, was no longer an immediate threat to Elizabeth who, not surprisingly, would have nothing more to do with him. He found work at Hoddesdon brewery, but before he was twenty he would hang for murder.
The circumstances on the fateful night, at the Boreham household, were gruesome. In fact, two people were killed by Simmons, although he stood trial and was sentenced for the murder of only one. That these tragic events happened at all were down to the kindly Mr Boreham who had taken Simmons under his wing years before, and the course of events that developed over the years thereafter.
On the evening of Tuesday, 20th October, 1807, the now-elderly and frail Mr Boreham and his wife entertained their four daughters at the family home. These were Mrs Esther Warner, the eldest, by now married with two children (a third had died in infancy), Anne, Elizabeth and Sarah. Also present was family friend Mrs Hummerstone, landlady at the Black Lion pub in the town (now the Salisbury Arms), and their maidservant, Elizabeth Harris.
One can picture the scene in those Georgian days: the proud parents and their four daughters, and their friend, seated at table, remarking, perhaps, about how swiftly the nights were drawing in and Christmas not that far off. Miss Harris, of course, would be waiting on, busying herself between scullery and parlour, fussing and striving to serve her employers’ needs.
It was about 8.30 and Elizabeth was just outside the scullery when Thomas Simmons appeared in the stoneyard, outside the house. Elizabeth at once went inside and closed the door. He demanded she open it, which she refused, and this might have been a common enough occurrence. But this time there followed the sequence of events resulting in the bloody deaths of two innocent people and injuries to others, culminating in the arrest, imprisonment and hanging of Thomas Simmons.
Simmons was in an aggressive mood, it was obvious. He and Elizabeth exchanged words through the lattice window, he demanding admittance and ‘swearing violently’, she refusing to comply. She said they had company, and told him to go away. Suddenly, he thrust his hand, holding a knife, through the lattice, but Elizabeth avoided his aim. The shouting and the noise at the window was heard by those inside and Mrs Hummerstone, used to dealing with rowdy customers at the Black Lion, hurried out to the yard and told Simmons to scram. Instead, he struck her on the head and knocked off her bonnet.
Mrs Hummerstone ran inside, pursued by Simmons. Elizabeth would later testify that she heard ‘a shriek of murder’, as Mrs Hummerstone reached the room where the Boreham family were seated. Here, as she ran to tell the gathered family of Simmons’ presence, he caught her and stabbed her in the jugular with his knife. He then pulled the knife forward and ripped her throat wide open. Mrs Hummerstone fell stone dead.
Simmons returned to the scullery, evidently intent on making Elizabeth his next victim. But she shut herself inside, screaming ‘murder’. Simmons then ran to the living room, and Elizabeth followed. There she saw Esther Warner lying on the floor under the window. She had still been seated at table when Simmons stabbed her repeatedly in the neck and in the breast. She died then and there, covered in blood.
The three remaining sisters, Anne, Elizabeth and Sarah, ran to safety upstairs as Mr Boreham, wielding a poker, confronted Simmons. But the old man’s feeble resistance was no match for his crazed attacker and he was thrust aside as Simmons now took hold of Elizabeth and threw her on to the lifeless body of Mrs Warner. He stabbed her in the throat, and tried to do so again, but this time she raised her hand in defence, suffering cuts to her arm and hand as she seized the knife from his grasp. He ran off then, whereupon Elizabeth discovered old Mrs Boreham, too old to flee, had been stabbed in the throat, though not fatally. The dreadful sequence of events culminated with Elizabeth, injured and bloodied, running outside screaming ‘murder’ at the top of her voice.
Simmons, covered in the blood of his victims, promptly disappeared. But he could not, surely, get far in 19th century Britain once the hue and cry went up. Meanwhile, the scene of carnage was attended by Dr James who certified the deaths of Mrs Hummerstone and Esther Warner, and tended to the wounds of the injured.
It did not take long to find Simmons, who was discovered hiding under straw in a cow-crib a hundred or so yards away. The search party was made up of large groups of men, and he must have been terrified to hear them searching ever-nearer to where he lay, perhaps fearing death himself if captured. Death it would be, but not at the hands of the searchers, who seized him and took him to the Bell public house where he was bound and handcuffed until the next morning. It is said he was beaten at various intervals through the night, but what is certain is he almost died through the tightness of the cords that bound him. In fact, Mr Fairfax, who next morning cut him free, saved his life.
On 4th March, 1808, Thomas Simmons stood trial for murder of Mrs Hummerstone at the Shire Hall, Hertford. The murder of Esther Warner was not proceeded with, as her Quaker family decided to ‘turn the other cheek’. It is doubtful that much would have been made of this; there was more than enough evidence to convict Simmons of one murder, and you can only hang someone once.
The coroner, Benjamin Rook, told the court that the prisoner had ‘acknowledged the murder’, and the constable who had arrested him said the same. Asked if had anything to say to this, Simmons replied, simply, ‘No’. The judge, Justice Heath, then told the jury the case against Simmons was so clear he wouldn’t bother addressing them with any of his own observations. It didn’t take long to return a verdict of ‘guilty’, whereupon Simmons was sentenced to death and his body to be anatomised.
Three days later Thomas Simmons was taken from Hertford gaol and hanged. A public holiday was declared especially for the occasion, and with ‘meat pies and sweetmeats’ on sale it was not surprising therefore that the crowd was large, numbering hundreds. An extract from a broadsheet of the time read ‘Thus died a wretch after committing the foulest murders that were almost ever heard of, without one thought of mercy, with a complete indifference to the awful situation and without expressing contrition for so enormous an offence’.
Of those who survived the ferocious attack by Simmons, Mrs Boreman, whilst she survived, never regained good health. Elizabeth Harris, the maidservant, ‘shook with a palsy’ until her death in 1848 (over forty years later nevertheless). John Warner, Esther’s bereaved husband, married her sister, Sarah. They had eleven children in a marriage lasting 40 years.