THOMAS ATHOE, THE ELDER, AND THOMAS ATHOE, THE YOUNGER
Executed for murder
THIS murder was attended with shocking barbarity; and, when we have to relate that it was committed by father and son, the relation becomes additionally painful. A solitary murder is sufficiently detestable; but when it is proved that a parent advises, aids, and abets his child in the horrid purpose, we are shocked at the extent of human depravity.
The elder Athoe was a native of Carew, in Pembrokeshire, where he rented above a hundred pounds per annum, and had lived in such a respectable way, that in the year 1721 he was chosen mayor of Tenby, and his son a bailiff of the same corporation; though they did not live in this place, but at Mannerbeer, two miles distant from it.
George Merchant (of whose murder they were convicted) and his brother Thomas were nephews, by the mother's side, to the elder Athoe, their father having married his sister.
On the 23d of November, 1722, a fair was held at Tenby, where the Athoes went to sell cattle, and there met with George Merchant and his brother Thomas. A quarrel arose between the younger Athoe and George Merchant, on an old grudge, respecting their right to part of an estate; when a battle ensued, in which George had the advantage, and beat young Athoe. The elder Athoe, taking the advice of an attorney on what had passed, would have persuaded him to bring an action; to which he replied, 'No, no, we won't take the law; but we'll pay them in their own coin.'
Late in the evening, after the fair was ended, the Merchants left the town; but the Athoes, going to the inn, inquired of the ostler which way they went. He gave them the best information in his power, on which they immediately mounted, and followed them. The brothers stopped on the road, at a place called Holloway's Water, to let their horses drink. In the mean time they heard the footsteps of other horses behind them, and, turning about, saw two men riding at a small distance. It was too dark for them to know the parties, but they presently heard the voice of old Athoe.
Knowing that he had sworn revenge, and dreading the consequence that would probably ensue, they endeavoured to conceal themselves behind a bridge, but they were discovered by the splashing of their horses' feet in the water. The Athoes riding up with large sticks, the younger said to George Merchant, 'I owe thee a pass, and now thou shalt have it;' and immediately knocked him off his horse.
In the interim, old Athoe attacked Thomas Merchant, and beat him likewise from his horse, calling out, at the same time, 'Kill the dogs! kill the dogs!' The brothers begged hard for their lives, but they pleaded to those who had no idea of pity. The elder Athoe seized Thomas Merchant in the tenderest part, and squeezed him in so violent a manner that human nature could not long have sustained the pain; while the younger Athoe treated George Merchant in a similar way, and carried his revenge to such a length that it is not possible to relate the horrid deed with decency. When he had completed his execrable purpose, be called out to his father, saying, 'Now I have done George Merchant's business.'
A great effusion of blood was the consequence of this barbarity; but his savage revenge was not yet glutted: seizing George Merchant by the nose with his teeth, he bit it off, and then strangled him, by tying a handkerchief tight round his neck.
This done, the murderers quitted the spot; but some persons coming by took the Merchants to an adjacent house, and sent for a surgeon, who dressed the wound of Thomas, but found that George was dead. The surgeon declared that the blows be had received were sufficient to have killed six or seven men; for he had two bruises on his breast, three large ones on his head, and twenty-two on his back.
The elder Athoe was taken into custody on the following day, but the son had fled to Ireland: however, those who had been concerned in favouring his escape wore glad to use their endeavours to get him back again. The murder was committed in Pembrokeshire, but the prisoners were removed by a writ of Habeas Corpus to Hereford, and, on the 19th March, 1723, they were indicted for the murder.
On the trial, the principal evidence against them was the surviving brother, who was even then so weak as to be indulged to sit down while he gave his evidence; but the jury, though satisfied of the commission of the murder, entertained a doubt whether the prisoners could be legally tried in any county but that in which the crime was committed; on which they brought in a special verdict: whereupon the case was referred to the determination of the twelve judges; and the prisoners, being brought up to London, were committed to the King's Bench prison, where they remained till the 22d of June, 1723, and were then taken to the Court of King's Bench, in Westminster Hall; when, a motion being made by counsel in arrest of judgment, the Court directed that an act of the 33d of Henry VIII. should be read, in which is a clause, ordaining that 'All murders and robberies committed in, on, or about the borders of Wales, shall be triable in any county of England where the criminal shall be taken; and that the Court of King's Bench shall have power to move, by writ of Habeas Corpus, any prisoner confined in Wales to the next county of England, to be tried.'
In consequence hereof, the Court proceeded to give judgment, and the prisoners were remanded to the King's Bench prison.
Between this and the time of their execution they were visited by Mr. Dyche, the chaplain of the prison, and by several other divines. They continued to flatter themselves with the hope of life till the warrant came down for their execution, and endeavoured to extenuate the crime by a variety of frivolous pretences, respecting disputes between them and the deceased.
On the 28th of June they received the sacrament with great devotion, and did the same again on the morning of their execution. Their behaviour at the place of death is thus recorded by the minister who attended them: 'On Friday, the 5th of July, 1723, about eleven o'clock in the morning, they were conveyed in a cart to the place of execution. When they came to the fatal tree, they behaved themselves in a very decent manner, embracing each other with the utmost tenderness and affection; and, indeed, the son's hiding his face, bedewed with tears, in his father's bosom,, was, notwithstanding the barbarous action they had committed, a very moving spectacle. They begged of all good people to take warning by their ignominious death; and were turned off, crying, "Lord, have mercy upon us! Christ, have mercy upon us!" The bodies were brought from the place of execution in two hearses to the Falcon inn, in Southwark, in order to be buried in St. George's church-yard.'
They suffered at a place called St. Thomas's Watering, a little below Kent Street, in Surrey, the father being fifty-eight years old, and the son within one day of twenty-four, at the time of their deaths.
We shall seldom hear of a murder so barbarous, so deliberate, so unprovoked, as this in question. Little, surely, need be said to deter any of our readers from the slightest idea of being guilty of a crime of so atrocious a nature; nor need we add any thing to our former remark on so heinous an offence as that of imbruing our hands in the blood of our fellow-creatures. Be it sufficient to remark that there is a just God who judgeth the earth, and that all our most secret actions are open to his sight. From his view our most careful precautions cannot screen, nor can the darkness of night cover us. Let us then learn so to conduct ourselves as not to blush to stand in the presence of our God. Happy the man who, fortified by religious considerations, can arrive at this degree of Christian perfection!