Mr Holmes the Killer

13 was unquestionably an unlucky number for young John Wilkins. He was 13 years old when he was murdered, and it happened on Friday 13th March 1869. John had recently left school and got a job working on a farm in the quiet North Somerset village of Winscombe, 15 miles southwest of Bristol. His role was as a sort of living scarecrow, and he was paid to frighten birds away from farmer Henry Hancock’s newly sown cornfield, a low-paid job often given to young lads which was, by the standard of the times, less unpleasant and dangerous than many alternative careers. Had he known that he would meet a gruesome end on the farm, he might have decided to take a job in a factory instead.

On that Friday morning while John was busy scaring away crows, a tall young man wearing a blue coat suddenly sprung up behind him as if from nowhere, like a ghastly Jack-in-the-Box, and struck the young boy over the head with a heavy stick. While John lay bleeding in the cornfield, the man took out a large pocket-knife and began sawing at his flesh, nearly severing his head from his body. Leaving the corpse of the 13-year-old in a copious pool of blood, the killer threw his weapons into a stream and washed the blood off his hands, before calmly walking to a nearby village called Banwell, where he knocked on the door of the local Police Sergeant to give himself up. The Sergeant was out on duty, but his housekeeper Mrs. Roynon was at home and invited the man inside, apparently undaunted by his appearance and the fact that his clothes were splattered with blood.

The murder of John Wilkins, IPN 21 March 1868

Over an incongruously civilised cup of tea, the young man introduced himself as Mr Alexander Holmes, son of ex-military man Colonel Holmes. They had previously lived in a manor house near the town of Bridgwater, but the Colonel had moved to Ireland three years ago. He had not taken his son with him, as Alexander was mentally unwell and suffered from fits. His father had considered putting him in an asylum but settled for leaving him in the care of local farmer Edwin Godfrey, who looked after Alexander as well as he was able, for the sum of seven shillings a week.

Alexander confessed that he had escaped from Godfrey’s farm early that morning and went wandering up and down the country roads specifically looking for someone to murder. He had been tempted to attack several people he passed, but when he saw John Wilkins in the field scaring crows, he knew that he had found his victim. Mrs Roynon observed that Alexander spoke with an air of superiority, but despite this and his matter-of-fact explanations, he openly displayed signs of remorse and wept as he related his tale, saying that he wished his father had put him in an asylum after all, as it might have prevented his violent act. The only thing that surprised him was that he had only killed one person. He said, ‘I felt I must kill someone, and it is a great wonder to me how it is I have not killed more.’

Finally, the Constable arrived home and put an end to the conversation, which was no doubt a relief to the housekeeper. Holmes was taken into custody and gave a formal statement, explaining where he had left the body. Police officers found Wilkins’ remains exactly where he said they would be, and we can only imagine how terrible it must have been to see the body of a bludgeoned and nearly decapitated boy in what had been, up to now, a peaceful, rural village where offences were usually no more serious than the theft of farm equipment.

The horror of the events didn’t stop people coming to view the murder scene, however. Local people visited farmer Hancock’s field to marvel at the exact spot where John Wilkins had lost his life, which had been marked with a stake driven into the soil and adorned with tree branches, one of which had a leaflet pinned to it from a Bible Tract Society which read ‘Come to Jesus’. It appeared that tragic young Wilkins had already done so, well before his time. His killer, however, was unlikely to be admitted through the pearly gates when he shuffled off the mortal coil – which police hoped would be sooner rather than later, and preferably at the end of a rope.

The inquest was held on 16th March at the Woodborough Inn, presided over by the coroner for North Somerset, Mr Craddock. The facts were unarguable, and the jury returned a verdict of wilful murder against Alexander Holmes. Holmes was sent to stand trial at the Taunton Assizes but was acquitted on the grounds of insanity and was remanded to Broadmoor where he remained for the rest of his life, dying 49 years later in January 1917. Somewhat unfairly, Farmer Godfrey was prosecuted for harbouring a ‘dangerous lunatic’ without a licence and was deemed responsible for Alexander’s actions. Unfortunately, the records don’t show what happened to him as a result. Presumably, Colonel Holmes, sitting safely in Ireland, was not held accountable in any part for the actions of the son he left behind in Somerset.