What do two drunken miners, blackmail, a charred body, and a warlock have in common? Believe it or not, they were all part of a very strange murder in West Bromwich in the English Midlands.
On 25 June 1871 in the early hours of the morning, engine driver Isaac Blockridge saw smoke coming from one of the windows at the Hall End Pits. These were very small homes, little more than huts or hovels, inhabited by poverty-stricken colliers who worked in the nearby coal mines. Blockridge knew one of the miners who lived here; Joseph Marshall, known as Lame Joe. He quickly hurried inside to investigate but recoiled at the noxious stench of burning meat. Coughing and waving the acrid smoke away from his face, he saw something he would never forget. A body was lying in front of the fireplace, so badly burnt that only the head was left intact, but this was enough for Blockridge to realise that it was Lame Joe.
Choking back nausea and fright, he ran to call the police. When they arrived, they found that Lame Joe had been hit in the head three times with a blunt instrument, hard enough to smash the skull. A blood-stained rake nearby looked likely as the murder weapon. The story of what happened soon became clear, although the reasons for it would never be definitively proven.
The night before, Lame Joe had been seen drinking with fellow miner John Higginson, who was for some reason known as ‘Black Jack’. They had often been seen together but were not always on friendly terms. Last night, they had been heard screaming at each other and almost getting into a fist fight while drinking at the Nag’s Head tavern. Black Jack’s landlady said that after the drunken man had arrived home around 11:00 p.m. he had fallen asleep by the fire. But by 3:00 a.m. he had woken up again and went out, cryptically saying that he wanted to pick some mushrooms. After an hour or so, he returned looking dishevelled and anguished, stating that he hadn’t found any mushrooms. Three witnesses had seen him go to the Hall End hovels and noticed that when he came out, there was a smell of burning.
Black Jack was urged to have a look at the corpse in the morning, but he said he did not want to see it. You or I would consider this perfectly normal that he had no wish to view a blackened corpse before breakfast, but in those days, people flocked to murder scenes with ghoulish interest, often looking for a small item to take away as a souvenir like a lock of hair or a brick from a wall. Shortly after this, he was arrested. He seemed confused and did not admit to the murder. The defence did their best and said that Lame Joe had provoked a fight and Black Jack had struck him without meaning to kill him, despite the fact there had clearly been three blows to Lame Joe’s skull. Black Jack escaped the noose, but was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to penal servitude for life.
Nobody ever knew why he did it, but there was talk in the town. Lame Joe had a reputation for being sly, probably because he was cross-eyed, and in those days, people were unfortunately quick to ridicule or mistrust anyone who looked different from themselves. Black Jack was superstitious and it has been suggested that Lame Joe had threatened to put the Evil Eye on him. With this threat hanging over him, Black Jack was effectively blackmailed into giving Lame Joe money and paying for his ale during their frequent trips to the Nag’s Head tavern. The story goes that Black Jack got sick of the blackmail and consulted a local warlock known as the Sedgley Wizard, who advised him that the only way to avoid being cursed was to kill Joe and burn his body.
I wonder if Black Jack thought it was worth it, to get rid of the Evil Eye but at the cost of spending his life behind bars…
- Bondeson, Jan; “Victorian Murders”, 2017, Amberley Publishing