JOHN SMITH, alias WILLIAM SAPWELL
Executed for the Murder of a Policeman
THE cold-blooded and atrocious murder of which this man was convicted, showed him to merit most fully the awful punishment which befell him.
The object of the dreadful crime of which he was guilty, was a constable of the G division of the Metropolitan Police Force, then only recently established in London and its vicinity. In laying before our readers the circumstances of the case, it will not perhaps be considered out of place if we shortly recite the manner in which that most admirable body was first called into existence and operation.
The necessity of some improvement in the police of the metropolis had long been felt, and the utter inadequacy of the few Bow Street patrols hitherto employed to guard the streets of London by day, and of the watchmen, upon whom the same duty devolved by night, had for a considerable time attracted the attention of the public and of parliament. Committees of the House of Commons sat for the purpose of receiving evidence upon the subject, and a vast number of suggestions were thrown out upon the proper measures which should be taken with a view to obviate the existing difficulty. Statements were published in many of the newspapers, in which the faults of the system were pointed out and partial remedies suggested, but it was universally felt that no amendment of the plan then in operation could be sufficient to secure the object in view, and that a general and complete alteration and reorganization of the whole police of the metropolis was requisite. A plan of this description was long and ably advocated in a weekly journal of large sale (Bell's Life in London), the Editor of which had turned a great portion of his attention to a subject so nearly connected with the most minute interests of the community. A series of articles appeared in that newspaper, upon which there can be no doubt that the new police system, now so deservedly popular for its competency and for its admirable effects in securing our common safety, was founded. In the session of parliament of the year 1829 Mr Peel, at that time Secretary of State for the Home Department, introduced a bill to the House of Commons, founded upon principles directly in consonance with those supported in the journal in question -- principles which were eventually adopted with the almost unanimous consent of the legislature. The general scheme which was put forth as being most desirable, was that of making a police throughout England, the centre and focus of which was to be fixed in London. The great towns throughout the kingdom would act as corresponding agents for the diffusion of that intelligence, the rapid and regular transmission of which was properly looked upon as so important to the success of any system of this description. In London, again, a smaller focus was to be formed under a board of commissioners, who would have daily communication with every division of the metropolis in which the police should be established, as well as with those country districts to which we have already alluded.
The minor details of the measure were to be carried out by the marking out of divisions, to be governed by superintendents, inspectors, serjeants, and privates in their various grades, constant communication being kept up throughout the metropolis, by day as well as by night, between each division. The advantages to be derived from a scheme so comprehensive in its details, and so complete in its organization, must be at once obvious to the mind of every person, and it is needless to point out to our readers the vast variety of instances in which its effects would be attended with the very best results. It was felt, however, by Mr Peel, that so large and general a measure could not be carried into operation with immediate success, and that much delay must take place before a universal scheme of rural police could effectually be established. He was yet convinced of the great utility which would be produced even from its partial adoption, and he lost no time in proposing a bill in parliament, which should have for its object the immediate appointment of a body of men capable of performing all the police duties of the metropolis. The proposition was at once assented to by both houses of the legislature, and on Tuesday the 29th September 1829, the 'new policemen' first entered upon their duties. Their dress, their supposed military character, and the extreme jealousy with which all classes of Englishmen view anything which may be supposed to derogate from their rights and privileges, long conspired to make this most useful force in the highest degree unpopular. Epithets of the most odious character were heaped upon them, attacks both abusive and violent were levelled at them from all quarters, and a few instances of irregularity amongst their numbers were eagerly seized hold of, as arguments to be employed against the general body. But at length, the increased safety obtained for the community, the quiet and orderly manner of the men themselves, as well as the improvement in the general conduct of the lower classes, obtained for them a reputation of the very highest description. The system which, first, was confined to the limits of the metropolis, has been joyfully extended to all large towns and to manufacturing neighbourhoods, and so anxious have even the most remote rural districts become for this new safeguard for their property and their lives, that almost every month sees the adoption of the plan in some new quarter. The improvement of the morals of the lower orders is no less than that which has taken place in their manners, and many of the crimes by which society was formerly so frequently disgraced, have now happily disappeared from the dreadful catalogue which the life of degraded man presents.
There can be no doubt that the offence of which we are about to enter into a description was in some degree attributable to that feeling of hatred for the police which was so peculiarly exemplified among the lower orders of the people. Long, the unfortunate object of the attack of this determined murderer, was a police-constable, No 43 of the G division, and occupied a beat in Gray's Inn Lane. On the night of Monday the 16th of August 1830, he was engaged in the performance of his duty when, at about half- past twelve o'clock, he observed three men of suspicious appearance lurking about the vicinity. Entertaining an apprehension of their intention to commit a burglary, he communicated his opinions to a brother constable on the adjoining beat, and it was determined that the men should be watched. They remained within Long's district of duty, and he followed them as far as the burial-ground of St Andrew's parish, which is situated at the back of Mecklenburgh Square. Here they stopped and remained in conversation for some time, and Long, believing this to be a favourable opportunity for convincing them of his intention to prevent the success of any marauding schemes which they might have in view, warned them to retire. The words had scarcely escaped the lips of the unfortunate man, ere he was violently seized by the arm by two of the party, while the third stabbed him to the heart. So desperate was the wound, that the murderer was unable to withdraw the weapon with which it was inflicted; but in his effort to do so, he pulled away the handle, and then all three ran off. This diabolical act was witnessed by more than one person, and several individuals instantly rushed to the spot. Long had fallen to the ground, with an exclamation that he was 'a dead man', and upon his head being raised upon the knee of one of the witnesses, he immediately expired. In the meantime, Newton, the constable to whom the unfortunate man had communicated his suspicions, had followed the assassins, and Smith was secured by him, having run a considerable distance and being in a state of the greatest agitation and alarm. Two other persons were also taken into custody, but it turned out that they were unconnected with the dreadful occurrence, and they were set at liberty. The truth of the suspicions of the constable was amply exhibited by the discovery of a number of housebreaking implements near the spot, which it was evident the thieves had intended to employ, but had thrown away in their flight. The handle of the knife was also discovered lying in the road at about one hundred yards from the spot where the murder was committed.
Several examinations of the prisoner subsequently took place before the magistrates at Hatton Garden, and witnesses were called who swore positively that his was the hand by which the wound was given which had caused the death of the deceased. During his imprisonment, he continued firm in his denial of participation in the murder, and maintained a sullen silence as to his occupation in life as well as his connexions. He appeared to associate with none of his fellow-prisoners.
His trial took place at the Old Bailey sessions, on Friday the 17th of September, when it turned out that his name was Sapwell and that he was a baker by trade. He still protested his innocence, but the evidence of the witnesses being of the most conclusive description, a verdict of guilty was returned, and he was sentenced to be executed on the following Monday.
On the day after his conviction he was visited by his wife and his six children, to whom, as well as to the officers of the jail, he continued loud in his declarations of his having been wrongfully convicted. He asserted that he had been to the Bedford Tea Gardens at Camden Town on the night of the murder, and that on his way home he heard a cry of 'Stop thief', and had joined in the pursuit of four men whom he saw running away, when he was himself taken into custody. He was exhorted by the Rev Mr Cotton, the ordinary of the prison, to whose humane advice he paid some attention; but he declined to receive the sacrament. In the course of the following day (Sunday) he also received a visit from the Sheriff (Ward), to whom he made no secret of his having intended to commit suicide if an opportunity had occurred, and with whom he argued against the sinfulness of such a mode of terminating his life, he instanced the cases of Sir Samuel Romilly, Mr Whitbread, and other distinguished individuals, who he said were perfectly justified in depriving themselves of existence when it became irksome to them.
On the morning of his execution (the 20th of September 1830), he entered freely into conversation with Sheriff Ward, and with new asseverations that he was not guilty of the crime for which he was about to suffer, declared, in an imaginary dialogue with the Almighty, that on his arrival at the gates of heaven, he should be unable to account for his standing there, and that the Almighty would give him admission; protesting, however, that he ought not to have been sent there so soon. He appeared sensible of his situation, and requested that the proceedings on the scaffold might occupy as little time as possible. He was turned off at the usual hour, and his remains were given to the directors of St George's Hospital for dissection.
The wretched man occupied the greater part of Saturday and Sunday, previous to his death, in drawing up statements of the manner in which he was by mistake drawn into the situation in which he stood, which amounted simply to a repetition of the story he had related to his family. He appears to have been very illiterate, his letters being both ill-spelt and ill-written, and he expressed none of those fears usually exhibited by persons in his situation.
Long, the constable, appears to have been a man of excellent character, having for a considerable time occupied a situation as watchman before he entered the police. He left a wife and several children, for whom a liberal public subscription was afterwards raised.