THE WRETCHED
STEVENS

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OLD GAOL HOLDS MURDERER OF LOCAL GIRL BEFORE HIS 1864 EXECUTION IN AYLESBURY

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J Morrison, Printer, Aylesbury, 1864; sourced from Harvard Library

Frustrated in love, William John Stevens murdered Buckingham girl Annie Leeson on Nelson Street by slashing her throat with a razor.

 

Immediately after the February 1864 murder, Stevens attempted to commit suicide. But he was captured and his life saved. He recuperated in Buckingham Old Gaol for several months. Stevens went on to earn the dubious honour of being the last man to be hanged outside Aylesbury Gaol.

 

Stevens was a 24 year old Buckingham man who had returned to his hometown after a spell in London that had ‘not improved his morals’. Known as Bill, he was a short tailor who worked for the draper Mrs Sarah Ladd, who also owned The Buckingham Advertiser.

 

Bill dressed nattily, yet Buckingham lasses did not regard him as a prize catch. Bill lived with his father in Nelson Street. Their immediate neighbour was Mrs Elizabeth Leeson, a laundress and a member of the Wesleyans. Mrs Leeson had two daughters. The younger was Anne (or Annie) who was a pretty 18 year old.

 

During the week Annie was a servant of Mr James Uff, a single man who ran a grocery and butcher’s shop in what is now the Spa shop further along Nelson Street.

 

Annie was a playful and lively girl. Bill Stevens misread her intentions. 

 

He sent Annie two expensive Valentines in February, 1864. Bill told his fellow tailors of his passion for Annie; they relayed back to him that she treated his attachment as more of a joke than a serious affair as she didn’t reciprocate his feelings. Stevens raged with jealousy at the sight of Annie giggling and gossiping with his colleagues. Stevens bought a razor and told his workmates of his intention to cut, threaten or ‘do for’ Annie.  We don’t know what Stevens said at home but his moodiness caused his father to confiscate and lock up the weapon. Sadly, Bill recovered it.

 

What happened next was described graphically in the County Assizes later in the year. 

 

The case started with a moment of levity as a thirteen year old witness, Robert Woolhead, was being cross-examined. Counsel was checking that Robert understood the gravity of speaking under oath, so he asked Robert “and suppose you did tell a lie, what would be done to you?” The boy replied: “I should be put in gaol, sir.” The Judge intervened and asked Counsel to establish what the boy thought would happen after his death. Counsel tried again: “some day you will die and, if you tell lies here - what will happen to you?”

 

“I shall go to gaol, again.” Replied the boy. 

 

The boy Robert reported that some time after 5pm on Saturday 24th February, 1864 he was proceeding out of town along Nelson Street when he saw Annie Stevens collecting water from a pump opposite the churchyard. He followed her - well, she was pretty, he said - and she left the water pail outside her mother’s house. A little later, she came out, picked up her bucket of water and headed towards Mr Uff’s. Stevens ran after her from the house next door. Woolhead was at the end of Norton Place when Stevens caught up with Annie outside the house on the corner of Tingewick Rd. He went on to describe how Stevens put his arm around Annie’s neck and drew something around her throat and she yelled, “Murder!” Stevens ran back to Norton Place and Annie stumbled across the road towards her employer’s shop.

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Mr Uff took up the story: “I was in my shop that evening when she presented herself to me at the counter with outstretched arms and her throat cut most dreadfully. She did not say anything ... Her throat had hardly begun bleeding ... I ran round the counter, caught her, and took her into the back room, and held her there until she expired.”

Cross-examined, James Uff added, “I know the prisoner. I had heard that he was very fond of the deceased … I have never seen him with her further than their being at the door together.”

Elizabeth, Annie’s sister, was next on the stand. “Three or four minutes after she [her sister] had left, I heard a noise in the passage, as if someone had fallen down. I thought the prisoner had got hold of my sister, and I immediately went out and found William John Stevens lying on the stones …

 

He was bleeding very much and appeared nearly dead.

 

My sister and the prisoner kept company together. He said he as very fond of her, and I believe from his manner in saying so that such was the case.”

 

PC Humphrey Ray of Buckingham Borough Police produced a razor in Court that had been  given to him by “the prisoner’s mother on the 27th February 1864. The razor was covered in blood, and  was snatched by Mrs Stevens as the prisoner was lying in the  [Norton] passage with his throat cut ... I was employed to watch him. I have heard him say many times over ‘My dear Annie, how could I do it; how could I do it?’”

Witness Finch said to Stevens, in front of PC Ray, “Bill, where did you do it?” Stevens had replied, “Against Mrs Spicer’s. [Mrs Spicer lived in the corner house, then a shop, between Nelson Street and Tingewick Rd]. I spoke as civil to her as a man could speak, and she wouldn’t speak to me, but swung about, and then I done it.” 

Mr. Robert Death [later De’Ath!] surgeon, said, “I am practising at Buckingham. [His practice was in West Street where his son Dr. George De’Ath was to build Hamilton House] On the evening of the 27th Feb. I saw the body of Ann Leeson, and also the prisoner at the bar. I first saw the prisoner. He was lying in a pool of blood… he had a long wound in his throat. (The prisoner was nearly at death’s door.) I attended him and he recovered under my direction … I saw the body of the deceased, Ann Leeson, at Mr Uff’s house. I found a cut in her throat … it extended from one ear to the other and severed all the muscles and major vessels. I consider that was the cause of death.”

The Judge, in refusing a plea of manslaughter, counselled, “… the evidence would not justify the jury in reducing the crime to one of manslaughter. It would be dreadful if it did so – that because a woman refused a man who was not acceptable to her she should be punished by death.”

After an absence of only 15 minutes, the Grand Jury containing many local gentry returned with a verdict: “Guilty.”

 

The Judge assumed his black cap and passed sentence of death for wilful murder ‘in an impressive manner”. We are told that the prisoner was removed to the cells ‘apparently less affected than many who were present in Court’.

Stevens was initially too weak to be moved from his father’s house. Throughout his incarceration, Stevens was reluctant to eat or to drink Later, he became a prisoner in Buckingham’s [Old] Gaol for several months and was attended in his cell night and day by two nurses and two police officers, lest he be tempted, again, to resort to suicide.

 

Apparently, Stevens showed little or no remorse and he refused to see his mother whom he blamed for all that had happened to him. During his family’s farewell visit, Stevens physically attacked his mother and the warders had to separate them and escort her from the Old Gaol.

 

The wretched Stevens was the last person to be hanged outside Aylesbury Gaol. The scaffold was built high above the main entrance, and on Friday, August 5th 1864 a crowd of some three thousand people, mainly women and young girls, gathered on a bright, sunlit morning. Stevens, who had earlier joined in loudly in his own funeral service, averted his gaze from the onlookers and muttered “God Help Me,” and went quietly to his fate supervised by the expert hangman, Calcraft. 

 

The behaviour of the crowd differed greatly from the ribaldry and jesting that accompanied most city executions. 

 

The people of Aylesbury Vale were quiet and reverent; one eye witness said that “the scene was of a very solemn character”. Later, Stevens’ body was cut down and buried within the grounds of the Gaol.  

Stevens’ appalling crime of passion happened nearly 150 years ago but the affair rumbles on in that part of Prebend End that is the University of Buckingham. Stevens, we are told, discussed his fate whilst in Buckingham Gaol and said that he greatly feared being hanged and buried in lime in Aylesbury Gaol. He cursed his slow recovery under the great Dr De’Ath; he’d have preferred to die a suicide in Norton Place and thence to live with his Annie in heaven. Poor dreamer. 

Some University dons believe that Annie, or the spirit of Annie, remains imprisoned in her mother’s house. 

 

Buckingham University uses the house (28 Nelson Street) as temporary lodgings for visiting lecturers. Visitors report hearing footsteps, sensing movement, feeling a female presence, and an unsettled feeling that they are never alone in the house. The house, especially the ground floor, is so oppressive that many people cannot remain in it for long.

 

Whether one believes in ghosts, there’s no doubt that the ghastly crime of the wretched Stevens continues to haunt this old part of Buckingham.