JOHN AMY BIRD BELL
A Fourteen-year-old Criminal, who murdered another Boy for the sake of Nine Shillings, and was executed on 1st August, 1831
THIS malefactor, at the time of his execution, was only fourteen years of age. He was indicted at the Maidstone Assizes on Friday, the 29th of July, 1831, for the wilful murder of Richard F. Taylor, a boy aged only thirteen years, in a wood in the parish of Chatham.
From the evidence it appeared that Taylor was the son of a poor man, a tallow-chandler, who lived at Stroud. On Friday, the 4th of March, the little fellow, who was described as having been possessed of peculiar intelligence and an amiable disposition, was dispatched to Aylesford to receive a sum of nine shillings, the amount of a weekly parish allowance to his father. He was dressed at the time in a "southwester," with a belcher handkerchief round his neck, blue jacket and waistcoat, brown trousers, and shoes and stockings; and his father, at his request, lent him a knife, with which he expressed his intention to cut a bow and arrow on his way home. The boy arrived safely at Aylesford, when Mr Cutbath, the relieving officer of the parish, gave him the usual amount of nine shillings. The boy had previously been instructed by his father as to the mode of carrying the money, and the little fellow had shown him how completely and how securely he could conceal it, by putting it into a little bag, which he could carry in the palm of his hand inside a mitten which he wore; and on this occasion he was observed to place the silver in the customary manner in his hand. He usually reached home at about three o'clock, but this afternoon he did not return. As night advanced his father became alarmed at his absence; and the next morning he determined to go himself to Aylesford, for the purpose of making inquiries for him. The fact of his having received the money was ascertained; but all search for him proved unavailing, and his parents were left in a most painful state of doubt as to the cause of his sudden disappearance.
It was not until the 11th of May that the real facts of the murder of the unhappy boy were discovered. On that day a man named Izzard was passing through a bypath in a wood situated at a distance of about two miles from Rochester, and about thirty rods from the highroad, when he found the body of the boy lying in a ditch. The mitten was cut from his left hand, and his clothes were disarranged, as if there had been a scuffle. Although the body was so much decomposed as to prevent his being able to discover by what means death had been produced, the remains of blood upon the shirt, coat and neckerchief left no doubt of the dreadful death which the boy had suffered. He had died of a wound which had been inflicted in his throat with a sharp-pointed instrument, the mark of which was still visible, and which could not have been inflicted by the deceased himself.
A diligent search was immediately instituted, for the purpose of endeavouring to find the instrument with which this terrible murder had been committed, and in a short time a common white horn-handled knife was found, corroded with rust, which had every appearance of being the weapon that had been used by the murderer. The discovery of this weapon afforded some clue to the parties implicated in the transaction, and a man named Bell, and his two sons, John Amy Bird Bell and James Bell, respectively of the ages of fourteen and eleven years, were taken into custody. These persons lived in the poorhouse adjoining the spot where the murder was committed; and the information obtained by the constable, by which the knife which had been found was discovered to have belonged to the boy John Bell, afforded conclusive testimony of one at least of them having been concerned in the foul deed.
An investigation into the circumstances of the murder took place before the magistrates at Rochester, the result of which was that convincing proof was obtained of the implication of the two boys. During this inquiry it became necessary that the body of the deceased should be exhumed -- -it had been buried immediately after it had been discovered and the coroner's jury had sat -- in order that the person of the boy might be searched -- an operation which had been previously most unaccountably omitted. When this examination was made, the two younger prisoners were taken to the graveyard for the purpose of observing the effect of the proceeding upon them. The elder boy, John, maintained throughout a sullen silence; but his brother James, on being desired to enter the grave and search the pockets of the clothes of the deceased, which had been buried on his person, cheerfully complied, and brought forth the knife which the father of the unhappy lad had lent him on his setting out for Aylesford. This was the only article found upon him, and robbery, therefore, it was at once seen, had been the object of his murderer.
The prisoners after this underwent another examination before the magistrates; and upon their being again remanded, the younger boy confessed that he and his brother had committed the murder -- that his brother had waylaid the deceased in the wood, while he had remained at its outskirts to keep watch. Upon this the evidence of the younger boy was accepted. The father having been discharged from custody, although strong suspicion had been felt of his having been an accessory after the commission of the crime the prisoner, John Amy Bird Bell, was committed for trial The statement of the younger boy exhibited a remarkable degree of depravity in the conduct of his brother and himself. He said that they had long contemplated the murder of their wretched victim, as they had learned from him the errand upon which he so frequently travelled from Stroud to Aylesford and back; but various circumstances had prevented the completion of their design until the 4th of March, when it was carried out by John, who afterwards gave him one shilling and sixpence as his share of the proceeds of the transaction.
On the way to Maidstone the prisoner acknowledged the truth of his brother's statement, and pointed out a pond where he had washed the blood of his victim off his hands on his way home after the murder. He also pointed to the opening which led to the spot where the murder was committed, and said to the officer: "That's where I killed the poor boy." Then he added: "He is better off than I am now: do not you think he is, sir?" -- an observation to which the constable assented.
At the trial the prisoner exhibited the utmost indifference to his fate, and appeared to entertain no fear for the consequences of his guilt. He maintained his firmness throughout a most feeling address of the learned judge, in which he was sentenced to death, but exhibited some emotion when he was informed that a part of the sentence was that his body should be given over to the surgeons to be dissected.
At half-past eleven o'clock on Monday morning the wretched malefactor ceased to exist, and his body was given to the surgeons of Rochester for dissection.