Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Thurtell, John

THURTELL, JOHN (1794–1824), murderer, born in 1794, was son of Thomas Thurtell, an alderman and in 1824 mayor of Norwich, and was brought up with a view to entering his father's business; but after serving for two years as apprentice on the Bellona, under Captain John M'Kinlay, R.N., he became in 1814 a bombasin manufacturer on his own account. Having failed in Norwich, he proceeded to London about 1820, and sought notoriety in low sporting circles. Extremely muscular, he was a good amateur boxer, and was frequently seen as ‘second’ in public prize-fights. George Borrow met him once at North Walsham while acting in this capacity, and recorded his impressions in ‘Lavengro’ (chaps. xxiv. and xxvi.). He was also attracted by the stage, and used to imitate Edmund Kean. About 1822 he set up a tavern, called the Black Boy, in Long Acre. In June 1823 he and his brother Thomas recovered 2,000l. from the County Fire Office for damages done by fire to a warehouse, the insurance company having unsuccessfully maintained before the court of common pleas that the premises were wilfully set on fire. With this windfall John Thurtell indulged to the full his passion for gambling. At Rexworthy's billiard-rooms in Spring Gardens and elsewhere he lost large sums to the most accomplished blacklegs and gamesters of the day. Among these was William Weare, of 2 Lyon's Inn, solicitor. Thurtell was especially exasperated against Weare, whom he charged with cheating him of 300l., by means of false cards, at blind hookey. A reconcilation was, however, patched up, and on Friday, 24 Oct. 1823, Weare consented to accompany Thurtell to the house of a friend named Probert, near Elstree, for a few days' shooting. Picking up Weare near Tyburn, Thurtell drove rapidly in his gig along the St. Albans road towards Elstree. When close to Probert's house in Gill's Hill Lane, Radlett, Thurtell produced a pistol and shot his companion. The latter managed to jump out of the gig, but Thurtell stunned him with the butt of the pistol, and finally cut his throat. The body was taken to Probert's the same evening, but was eventually thrown into a ‘green swamp’ some two miles distant. Suspicion was promptly aroused by the discovery of the pistol and other evidence of a recent struggle in Gill's Hill Lane, and the murderer's associates, Probert and Hunt, turned king's evidence upon Thurtell being arrested by George Ruthven of Bow Street at the Coach and Horses, Conduit Street, on 28 Oct. He was tried at Hertford before Sir James Alan Park [q. v.] on 6 and 7 Jan. 1824. The prisoner, who was stated to have been coached by Charles Phillips, made a long and powerful speech in his own defence, and the court from the judge downwards were sensibly affected by the ‘terrible earnestness’ of his closing appeal. But, apart from the evidence of his scoundrelly allies, the crime was so clumsily contrived, and the circumstantial evidence was so strong, that there could be no doubt as to the verdict. Thurtell, who made no confession and showed remarkable sangfroid, and whose last anxiety seemed to be to learn the result of ‘the mill between Spring and Langham,’ was hanged at Hertford on 9 Jan. 1824. He is said to have designed the gallows on which he was executed (a structure preserved at the exhibition of Mme. Tussaud). His body was dissected by Dr. Abernethy, and his skull is preserved at the Royal College of Surgeons.

The Gill's Hill tragedy, in spite of the vulgar brutality of its details, laid a powerful hold upon the popular imagination. Thurtell as a sporting man, who was thought to have been hardly used by fortune, was for the time almost a popular hero. Hazlitt spoke of the gigantic energy with which he impressed those who heard his rhetoric at the trial. Sir Walter Scott made a ‘variorum’ out of the numberless newspaper and chapbook accounts of the tragedy, and specially revelled in the four lines ascribed to Theodore Hook:

    They cut his throat from ear to ear,
    His brains they battered in,
    His name was Mr. William Weare,
    He dwelt in Lyon's Inn.

When Scott left London for the north in May 1828 he ‘could not resist going out of his way to inspect the scene of the murder’ (for a vivid description of it, see Lockhart, chap. lxxvi.). James Catnach [q. v.] is said to have made over 500l. by ballads recounting the circumstances of Thurtell's crime (Hindley, Life of Catnach, 1878). A number of the details of the murder were reproduced by Lytton in his account of the murder of Sir John Tyrrell in ‘Pelham’ (1828). Incidents of the trial are still held in remembrance, e.g. the concession of respectability by one witness to the man who ‘drove a gig’ (hence Carlyle's coinages, ‘gigmanship’ and ‘gigmanity’), and the answer by another to the question, ‘Was supper postponed?’ ‘No, it was pork.’ Some sketches of Probert's cottage and other spots connected with the murder were made by James Duffield Harding [q. v.], and the management of the Surrey Theatre announced a drama entitled ‘The Gamblers,’ to introduce the chief scenes of the Gill's Hill outrage, together with ‘the identical horse and gig’ (cf. Sydney Smith in the ‘Edinburgh Review’, xliii. 306).

The British Museum print-room has several engravings of Thurtell from sketches made during the trial.

[In addition to numerous chapbooks, there appeared in 1824 an ably written Narrative of the Dreadful Murder of Mr. Wm. Weare (247 pp. large 8vo), and Recollections of John Thurtell (many editions) by Pierce Egan the elder [q. v.], who had two interviews with the prisoner while under sentence of death. The Fatal Effects of Gambling exemplified in the Murder of William Weare (1824, 512 pp. 8vo.) has numerous illustrations. See also Gent. Mag. 1824, vol. i. passim; Morning Chronicle, 6 Nov. 1823; London Mag., Feb. 1824; Medical Adviser, 17 Jan. 1824 (phrenological observations); Jekyll's Corresp. p. 136; Lockhart's Life of Scott, chap. lxxvi.; Thornbury's Old Stories Retold, pp. 274 sq.; Fitzgerald's Chron. of Bow Street Police Office, 1888, ii. 127 sq.; Lamb's Letters, ed. Ainger, ii. 97; J. P. Collier's Old Man's Diary, 30 Sept. 1832; Nicholson's Autobiog.; Vizetelly's Glances Back, i. 10; Sala's Things I have seen, ii. 92; Thorne's Environs of London, s.v. ‘Radlett;’ Chambers's Book of Days, i. 734; Wheatley and Cunningham's London, vol. ii. s.v. ‘Lyon's Inn;’ Atlay's Famous Trials, 1899; Notes and Queries, 8th ser. iv. 146, vi. 197; Brit. Mus. Cat. s.v. ‘Weare.’]

T. S.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.265
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

Page Col. Line  
359 i 40 Thurtell, John: for James Phillips read Charles Phillips
i 4f.e. after Abernethy insert and his skull is preserved at the Royal College of Surgeons
ii 39 after xliii. 306). insert A published play, ‘The Hertfordshire Tragedy, or the Victims of Gaming,’ by H. M. Milner, was produced at the Royal Coburg Theatre, 12 Jan. 1824.