One of Cambridgeshire’s worst crimes, the Burwell Fire, was thought to be an accident. In 1727 more than a 100 spectators gathered in a barn to watch a play. For some reason, possibly to stop more people sneaking in, the doors of the barn were nailed shut. Richard Whittaker tried to climb in through the loft and managed to set fire to some straw. The fire swept through the barn and no-one could escape – there was panic and some people were trampled. Others perished in the fire before rescuers could break in. 76 died and two more succumbed to their wounds later. Richard Whittaker was cleared of arson at the Cambridge Assizes. That would have been the end of the matter had it not been for a report in the Cambridge Chronicle in February 1774 claiming that a man (unnamed) had confessed to starting the fire deliberately. The general belief was that it was Richard Whittaker.
John Green was the last person to be publicly hanged in Cambridgeshire in 1864, for the murder of Elizabeth Brown in Whittlesey when they were drunk on stolen gin – she refused his advances and he strangled and beat her, then tried to burn the body in a kiln in the Maltings where he worked.
In 1983 the body of London solicitor Janice Weston was discovered by a cyclist in a ditch near to a lay-by on the northbound A1. Despite a large scale police enquiry, no one was ever charged and the crime remains unsolved.
The case of Walter Horsford, the St Neots Poisoner, made headlines as far afield as Aberdeen, Belfast and Truro. Walter, a farmer from Spaldwick near Huntingdon, was condemned and executed for poisoning his widowed cousin Annie Holmes. Horsford had a brief affair with Annie and she became pregnant. Walter had recently married and, rather than cause a scandal, he agreed to try and help Annie get rid of the child. He sent her a powder to take with a note saying ‘take a little in water, it is quite harmless’. The powder was strychnine and Annie died.
In another poisoning case, Mary Reeder (20) and Elias Lucas (25) were charged with poisoning of Susan Lucas at Castle Camps. Susan Lucas was the sister of Mary, who had been having an affair with her brother-in-law. The pair gave the unfortunate Susan arsenic. Mary and Elias were hanged together in 1850, the last public double execution in Cambridge. A crowd of 40,000 spectators gathered to watch on the temporary stands erected around the gallows which were situated at the old Cambridge Castle.
In 1824, Thomas Savage from Somersham was the last man executed for this arson in Cambridgeshire. His two accomplices turned King’s evidence and accused Savage of setting fire to a barn. The blaze had raged for three hours and had damaged at least 20 properties.
The last Cambridgeshire man to be executed, in 1935, for the murder of his wife Sybil in Broughton, was Walter Worthington. He became obsessively jealous and suspected his wife of betraying him with her nephew Lionel. He was executed outside the county at Bedford Gaol.
Some of the most prolific killers associated with Cambridge are ‘the Cambridge Spies’. They were members of a secret society known as ‘The Apostles’, an elitist, Marxist group based at Kings and Trinity Colleges. By betraying agents working for Britain, they were responsible for many deaths. Recruited in Cambridge in the 1930s, these spies remained undetected for many years. Guy Burgess worked for MI6; Donald MacLean became a Foreign Office secretary. Kim Philby also worked for MI6 and as a journalist in Washington. Burgess and MacLean escaped to Moscow in 1951, just prior to being exposed. Philby followed in 1963.
In 2002, Soham in Cambridgeshire became the focus of media attention during the investigation of one of the most notorious crimes in recent years. The cold blooded murder of schoolgirls Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman by the school caretaker Ian Huntley, which his partner (their former school assistant) Maxine Carr helped him to cover up, shocked the whole nation.
One of the more bizarre cases was that of the Yaxley body-snatchers. Until 1832, doctors, medical schools and hospitals were only allowed to carry out medical research on the bodies of recently executed criminals. As there were not enough of these to meet demand, some anatomists paid body-snatchers to raid new graves. The body of a recently buried woman from Yaxley was found hidden in a brew house. This led to the discovery that bodies had been removed from several churchyards in the area. Two men from Farcet, William Patrick and his accomplice William Whayley, were eventually charged with stealing a body. Both men admitted the offence and said that the bodies they had removed were passed to a Mr Grimmer, who took them to London. Whayley provided evidence against Patrick and was released without charge. Patrick was found guilty and sentenced to 12 months’ imprisonment in the County Gaol. As far as we know, the mysterious Mr Grimmer was never found.
By Caroline Clifford