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EPISODE TWO HUNDRED AND TWENTY-EIGHT:
In the early hours of Sunday 3rd of February 1856, William Bousfield, a part-time tobacconist and wannabe actor mercilessly murdered his wife and three children as they slept. But what could have driven this quiet little dreamer to slaughter his family?
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SOURCES: This case was researched using some of the sources below.
UNEDITED TRANSCRIPT OF THE EPISODE
Welcome to Murder Mile.
Today I’m standing on D’Arblay Street in Soho, W1; one road north of the second killing by the Blackout Ripper, one street west of the porn robbery by the randy Canadian sailor, a few doors from the racist attack on Brian Robinson, and the same street as the gentle garroter - coming soon to Murder Mile.
At 4 D’Arblay Street on the ground-floor of a four-storey Georgian terrace currently stands Crème, a cookie shop. Only these are not those nasty British biscuits-like splats which are as flat as roadkill, as hard as tarmac and blessed with one flavour – sickly sweet. These are big fat gooey cookies, thick like muffins and soft like pillows, which melt-in-the-mouth and make you wish that diets didn’t exist. Yum.
Being popular, you’ll often see long lines of eager-eyes keen to peep into through this curved window to drool over the gorgeous treats created within. And yet, it’s hard to stomach the fact that such an abhorrent brutal crime could have been committed where such sumptuous cookies are lovingly baked.
Back in 1856, this was a prosperous tobacconist shop ran by mother-of-three, Sarah Bousfield. She worked long hours to support her three children, and many said, also her husband William, a pointless little man who dreamed of fame rather than fulfilling his responsibility as a father and as a husband.
But what could have driven this quiet little dreamer to slaughter his entire family?
My name is Michael, I am your tour guide, and this is Murder Mile.
Episode 228: William Bousfield and the Price of Fame.
Everyone has a plan of what they wish their life to be, some achieve it, others don’t; some seek fame and fortune, others want routine and stability; and whereas some will fight to the death to ensure the safety of their loved ones, others will do the unthinkable when their dream drifts out of reach.
Sarah was born in Westminster in 1827, the only child of John & Ann Jones. From her father, being a carpenter from South Wales who ran a successful joinery and purchased several properties earning an income as the landlord, he instilled in her a solid work ethic. From her mother, a native of Chelsea, she inherited a sense of love and – described as pleasant, friendly and affectionate, as well as an industrious girl – she had a devotion to her family which would never be split apart, except by tragedy.
Sarah had brains and business-sense in an era when a woman’s place was solely as a mother, a wife, or (if she was a widow or a spinster) to earn a meagre pittance doing menial work. But as the perfect harmony of both parents, alone she could have done well. But with a big part of her life’s dream to marry and have children, that part of her dream required a man, whose name was William Bousfield.
How and where they met is unknown. But having impressed both Sarah and her parents, he must have played the part of a loyal lover and a future breadwinner well, as they all liked him and loved him.
Whether it was all an act or a role he was willing to play for a time, again is unknown. But for the first few years of their marriage, William would perform the part of a husband and father as best he could.
As a native of Marylebone, William’s upbringing is mostly unrecorded as although raised with two sisters, he didn’t seem to be the epitome of loyal loving son, but a boy who exasperated his parents.
Described as “being of a repulsive aspect”, he seemed taller than his 5-foot 8-inch frame suggested as his body was as thin as a witch’s broom and his pale face had the hollowed-out features of a ghost. And as a quiet and sullen man who was often lost in his thoughts, his conversations were punctuated by a blowing wind or the puff of his pipe, rather than words which unravelled the workings of his mind.
Since his school years, his baffled parents had attempted to get this idle boy into a profession, first as an errand boy for a tradesman called Mortimer on The Strand (although he liked to lie that he was in fact a carpenter, when he wasn’t), and later as an office boy at a solicitor’s rising to the role of a clerk.
But raised in the shadow of the blossoming West End theatres, as William yawned over spreadsheets, it wasn’t a desk-job he yearned for, but to tread the boards. As far back as he could recall, William had wanted to be an actor, to take his curtain call and to savour the sound as an adoring crowd applauds.
Only his dream was not to be.
Dubbed by his furious father as a “silly little hobby”, acting was not seen an honest career for a decent man by civilised society, but on the same level as whoring oneself on the street for a few coins. So, with William’s hopes of being a stage prancer or (God forbid) a singer at his parent’s discretion, fearing that their neighbours would ask ‘what’s wrong with the boy’, his dreams were royally stamped out.
William’s life would be thus; to be born, to marry, to have children, and to die…
…but with that little seed of a dream still alive, big problems had begun.
In the winter of 1849, William Bousfield married Sarah Jones, becoming Mr & Mrs Bousfield. With one of Sarah’s dreams fulfilled and their first child conceived on their wedding night, this was the wake-up call which should have jolted William from his daze and made him the man his family would deserve.
But having married without his father’s permission, with his parents disowned as an argument ensued, there was no-one left to force him to endure a dull job and to hold back his dreams… or so he thought.
On the 16th of December 1849, Anne Eleanor Bousfield was born; as a healthy girl, unlike many others she was raised in a loving family home by a doting mother and adored by her grandparents John & Anne. But from her own father William? Sometimes he held and fed her, but little more than that.
A neighbour stated: “he was fond of his children, but not excessively so”. And with the same said of his love of his wife, in the places where William failed as a husband, Sarah’s father had to step in.
Described by another neighbour as “a good man, who always showed his daughter the most marked kindness and supplied her with everything they required”, Sarah and her children would never suffer any hunger or poverty, even though John would state “William has not earned a day’s wage in years”.
William’s work ethic was non-existent, as although he had briefly trained as a French polisher, like many of life’s dreamers, he had his business-cards made up, but had no intention of doing the job.
Unable to pay the rent or even a few basic bills, John, Sarah’s father purchased the family a ground-floor flat at 4 D’Arblay Street in Soho, and wisely moved himself and his wife into the flat above.
As a small practical lodging, it had two purposes. In the back parlour, next to a cast-iron fire for cooking and heating, and a warm horsehair bed where William, Sarah and Anne would sleep, they had a place to live, but also, out front, a thriving business. Having purchased a tobacconist which sold tobacco, pipes and papers as expected, but also the essentials like logs and kindling – with their brood soon to be followed by Eliza in January 1852, and John in July 1855 - it was hoped that given a shop of his own, William could provide his family with an income and become a good father and a loving husband.
It was hoped…
…but hope is a cruel word. Having neglected his business as much as his role as a breadwinner, being “a worthless idle fellow” as his own wife would call him, Sarah & William had frequent fights, and with William unable to provide much (if anything) for this family, although she was a busy mother to three children all under the age of six and with one still suckling at her breast, Sarah ran the tobacconists.
From dawn till dusk, she bathed the kids, she made the meals, she sewed their clothes, and having opened the shop – often with her little one’s at her feet when her mother couldn’t babysit - she served the customers, she purchased the goods, she made the money, and she got the babies ready for bed.
Her days were long and exhausting, and with their marriage decaying as William’s nights were spent in a fruitless search for the wrong kind of work, Sarah & William had begun to sleep in separate beds.
In a last attempt to get William into a job, around the same time, Sarah’s father had purchased him a set of workman’s tools, including a chisel. Made of iron with a wooden handle and an unblemished cutting edge sharp enough to sever the hardest grain, it was a chisel William would only use once…
…to end the life of his wife.
At this point, it would be expected that William’s descent into multiple murder would be preceded by a spiral of drink, depression and rage. Only, with no history of insanity, William was not a violent drunk or a drug addict, but a sullen man who was fixated on one thing - his dream of becoming an actor.
During the first part of the winter of 1855 – a winter so cold it was dubbed ‘the great frost’ - William was working on a paltry wage of five shillings-a-week at The Princesses’ Theatre at 150 Oxford Street.
That year, he performed in a pantomime, only – as neither a gifted actor nor (being quite taciturn) too quiet to project his voice - his name was not on the poster. Billed as ‘a young man’, William was little more than a background artiste, whose silent performance was there to add colour to each scene. He had no lines except for what he mimed, and he had no purpose except as a dash of window dressing.
By January, with the newly rebuilt Royal Opera House in Covent Garden opening, William got work as a silent set-filler for ‘Professor Anderson’ the infamous magician billed as ‘the Wizard of the North’.
As a polite young man, he didn’t chat with his fellow thespians. As a boy, he didn’t fraternise with any of the dancers. And as an actor, he wasn’t the best; as with his performance described as “lacking energy”, he found it difficult to even smoke authentically on set, even though he smoked at home.
With a show every evening, plus a matinee every Wednesday and Saturday, although busy but earning a pittance, the only time he saw his wife and children was in bed, or in the tobacconist’s shop, where – as a charming young woman, who was bright, chatty and knew that the best way to keep her mostly male customers coming back was to engage them in a bit of banter - he didn’t like the role she played.
Taught by her father who was a shrewd businessman, Sarah knew how to be polite and professional, she knew how to be friendly without being too familiar, and she knew how to be a little flirtatious as a striking young woman, but as a loyal mother dedicated to her three children, that’s all it ever was.
It was only through his simmering jealousy that William was ever seen to be working in the shop, to act as a barrier between the wife he claimed to love and the customers he had learned to loathe. And yet, his suspicion was all in his mind, as Mrs Bennett, the second-floor lodger would state “several times he told me she was too free with her customers, he did not like the young fellows coming into the shop on that count”, when in truth “it was they who would rather be served by her, than by him”.
With a mix of his laziness and her (perceived) infidelity, over the last few months of their marriage, they argued a lot, but it never got physical, and being unhappy together, Mr & Mrs Bousfield went through the motions - a successful tobacconist and a failed actor living apart in the same house.
And yet, just a few weeks into the show’s theatrical run…
…William brought the curtain down upon all of their lives.
Saturday 2nd of February 1856 was an unremarkable day, as the only bitterness in the air was the biting wind as the great frost lingered on, and with snow under foot, all manner of feet precariously walked.
At breakfast, they argued as they often did, but it was nothing out of the ordinary. And being Saturday, between his matinee performance and the evening show, William made his moody presence known in the shop, as a slew of young tradesmen came in to buy tobacco and to attempt to flirt with his wife.
At 7:30pm, a witness heard them quarrelling over Sarah being ‘improper’, “I had not the slightest idea it was anything more serious than usual”, he said, and having made up, they went about their jobs.
If those few bickering words had been the spark which ignited his rage and left four innocents dead, then his actions that followed and his performance at the theatre would have been off, only it wasn’t. He played his role, he fetched some milk, and through the snow he walked home to 4 D’Arblay Street.
At 10:30pm, John saw William in the back parlour. With Sarah having gone out to get butter, 6-year-old Anne asleep in their bed and 4-year-old Eliza snuggled-up beside her, as William bounced their restless 8-month-old son John on his knee, he was said to be “calm and cheerful”. Thirty minutes later, Sarah returned, she was laughing and chatting, and having shut up the shop, they both went to bed.
That night would be the first night that they had all shared a bed together in months, and according to the other lodgers in the house, “they bickered a little, but there was nothing odd in his manner”.
With not a sound heard, no-one in that house (not the lodgers nor her parents) had any idea about the horrors which had occurred, and with six hours unaccounted for, the truth may never be known.
(Night sounds, church bell, wind…
…then footsteps in snow).
As the dawn chorus broke and the church bell struck seven, with an odd calmness, William walked the ten-minute walk from his home to Bow Street police station. Described as sober yet distressed, when PC Fudge asked why he was here, William simply said “to give myself up. I have murdered my wife”.
Pleading for the PC to kill him and to ease his pain, although an inch-long wound had been slit across his neck and a second was still flowing freely from a slash to his left wrist, not all of the blood was his.
Across his aghast face, down his gulping throat, over his once white shirt and with a thick red goo dried into crusts on his shivering hands, he wasn’t delusional when he gave them his address, just distraught.
Accompanied by PC Fudge, as the carriage carrying Inspector Dodd drove into D’Arblay Street, he was shocked to see this road so quiet, as still silently sleeping, a crowd hadn’t been roused by the murder.
With the door locked, Inspector Dodd knocked, waking what he thought was a first-floor lodger. “Who are you? What is this racket about?”, as unaware that the Welshman was the victim’s father, Inspector Dodd bluntly stated “Police! A murder had been committed in the back parlour”, startling him awake.
Unbolting the parlour door, along the shop’s stone floor lay spots of dried blood as a line of handprints daubed the walls with red smears. In his agony, John called out “Sarah?! Sarah?!”, but he got no reply.
With the candles dead and the shutters drawn, the room was dark. With the fire out and a howling wind, it was deathly cold. And with no life heard, in the bed lay a silent lump under a woollen sheet.
Touching his daughter’s pale and bloodied face, his fingers knew that she was dead, long dead, as not a breath rose from her body nor steam from the deep long wound which had ripped open her neck.
James Hadaway, a surgeon from Berwick Street examined her in situ: “it had divided the skin and all of the soft parts down to the fourth and fifth vertebrae and splitting the carotid artery”. Inflicted using a razor, this initial wound had occurred as she slept, only her other wounds were more hateful.
“It appeared there had been an intention to bleed the woman to death… with three cuts to the left elbow which had bifurcated the artery and two to the right, these were made to open the veins”, but with her heart found empty of blood, instead he stabbed her in the face, as if to deface her in death.
For John, aside from the tragedy of losing his child was the irony that she had been murdered with the tool he had brought William to help him find work – as on the pillow, lay the chisel, drenched in blood.
With the bedsheets disheveled and her blood spattered up the walls, what concerned the Inspector was why she had no defensive wounds upon her. In the minutes she had lived, she had fought for her life; only with her nails intact, no fingers broken and no slashes to her hands, why did she not fight back? It was only when he had moved her slowly stiffening body that he realised the reason why.
As a good mother, a loving woman and her children’s sole protector, as William’s razor slit a four-inch-long wound across her throat and her bloodied airways gasped and gagged for an ounce of oxygen, her only thought was to protect her babies. And although she had shielded them as-best-she-could; Anne aged six, Eliza aged four and John who was only eight months old, all had their throats slit.
With their bodies removed to the St James’ workhouse, back at Bow Street, William was arrested for the murder of his entire family. Confined to the Middlesex House of Detention, he gave no reason for his crimes, instead he repeatedly struck his head against the mantlepiece and cried “kill me, kill me”.
With the inquest held at St James’ workhouse, so feverish were the locals to see justice, that the board room was full, the street was crammed with crowds, and the Police had officers guarding the house.
Giving evidence, John could barely speak as his tears choked his voice, and with the jury having stood in stoney silence as in the freezing morgue the four bloodied bodies were splayed out before them, after a short deliberation, they returned a verdict of murder, and William was committed for trial.
Paid for by a deluge of public donations, with Poland Street impassable, a series of black horse-drawn carriages lined up at the back of the workhouse morgue on Dufour’s Place. Weeping and furious, as the crowds jostled nearer, suddenly a hushed silence descended over the people, as through the door, four coffins emerged in ever decreasing sizes – with one so small, a single pallbearer held it in his arms.
Sarah, Anne, Eliza and John were all buried in a single grave in West Brompton Cemetery.
His trial at the Old Bailey was a mere formality, as declared sane, his guilt was evident. And described as “a most dreadful character”, although there was an absence of motive, he was sentenced to death.
Throughout he was said to be “overwhelmed with grief”. Upon hearing his sentence, it is said that he had nearly fainted and had to be removed by a jailer. From Newgate prison, he callously wrote a letter to Sarah’s grieving father blaming her murder on her alleged adultery. And with his appeal denied, on Saturday 29th of March at 4pm, just one day before his execution, he attempted to take his own life.
According to the turnkey, whilst sat in his bed staring intently at the fire, “he threw himself headfirst into the grate”; as the flames scorched his hair, the hot coals seared his skin, and - as the room stunk of burning flesh - his face became a mass of bubbling wounds which popped and spat like hot fat. But having been rescued within seconds, his fate wouldn’t be decided in this room, but at the gallows.
Therefore it’s odd that, for William Bousfield whose deadly dream was of being an actor…
…that he would fail to realise that his greatest performance was yet to come.
On Sunday 30th of March 1856 at 6am, he rose from his prison bed, had his wounds bathed, and with his last request being “a little wine at breakfast”, the Sherrif, the Reverand and the Governor came to collect him. Only William, unless he was faking, was not well, as “held to a chair by two aides with one wiping a frothy liquid from his mouth, he appeared to be in a dying state, his limbs refusing to work”.
Whether this was a symptom of his burns, a cunning ploy or just cowardliness, we shall never know. But although the doctor declared “his pulse was low, but his arteries were active”, with his face still red, blistered and swollen, although described as “an appalling sight”, his execution was imminent,
At 8am, having to be carried to the scaffold by four men, with two at his arms and two at his legs, with a hemp noose around his scorched neck (which still bled from his tender burns); the Reverand read from the burial service, the prison bell rang its deathly toll, and the 5000 strong crowd fell silent.
Only his death wouldn’t be a quick and kindly act of compassion, as with William Calcraft famed as an executioner who - like William – was a showman, seeing these executions as a form of entertainment rather than an act of punishment, as the crowd sat supping beer, he would wow them with his cruelty.
So, with his hands and legs tied, as Calcraft removed the bolt, William Bousfield dropped…
…only he didn’t fall a few feet as his neck snapped, but mere inches as his throat was strangled. Seeing his body twisting and flinching in pained agony as his bodyweight pulled on his neck, the crowd roared with glee as the man dangled, this being a joyous bit of entertainment as they ate with their picnics.
And although it took most men several minutes to die, the show was far from over, as having somehow swung his feet up, as William secured himself precariously on the scaffold - the crowd cheered. Seeing his act of rebellion, Calcraft kicked his legs so his strangling could continue – and so the crowd booed. And so this went on, for several minutes, William swinging his legs up, and Calcraft kicking them off.
Upon his fourth attempt at saving his skin and ten full minutes into his torture, as William exhaustedly stood there wobbling upon a slim slip of wood – with the crowd growing ever restless as his protracted agony descended from a bit of harmless fun to an act of wanton cruelty – keen to end it quick and to appease the turning masses, Calcraft threw himself at William’s legs, and with his 16-stone of weight, he hung off them. As for the next few minutes, William’s body was gripped in a convulsive twitch…
…until suddenly, he went very still. Buried in an unmarked grave inside Newgate Prison, the last sound he possibly heard was the applause of the crowd, which marked the curtain call of William Bousfield.
The Murder Mile UK True Crime Podcast has been researched using the original declassified police investigation files, court records, press reports and as many authentic sources as possible, which are freely available in the public domain, including eye-witness testimony, confessions, autopsy reports, first-hand accounts and independent investigation, where possible. But these documents are only as accurate as those recounting them and recording them, and are always incomplete or full of opinion rather than fact, therefore mistakes and misrepresentations can be made. As stated at the beginning of each episode (and as is clear by the way it is presented) Murder Mile UK True Crime Podcast is a 'dramatisation' of the events and not a documentary, therefore a certain amount of dramatic licence, selective characterisation and story-telling (within logical reason and based on extensive research) has been taken to create a fuller picture. It is not a full and complete representation of the case, the people or the investigation, and therefore should not be taken as such. It is also often (for the sake of clarity, speed and the drama) presented from a single person's perspective, usually (but not exclusively) the victim's, and therefore it will contain a certain level of bias and opinion to get across this single perspective, which may not be the overall opinion of those involved or associated. Murder Mile is just one possible retelling of each case. Murder Mile does not set out to cause any harm or distress to those involved, and those who listen to the podcast or read the transcripts provided should be aware that by accessing anything created by Murder Mile (or any source related to any each) that they may discover some details about a person, an incident or the police investigation itself, that they were unaware of.
Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a crime writer, podcaster & tour guide of Murder Mile Walks, hailed as one of the best "quirky curious & unusual things to do in London".
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