Murderous deeds done in Shropshire

On August 16, 1828, Ann Harris became the last woman to be publicly executed in Shrewsbury in a month when the gallows of the town's jail were kept busy.  

“Foul Deeds and Suspicious Deaths in Shrewsbury and Around Shropshire”On August 16, 1828, Ann Harris became the last woman to be publicly executed in Shrewsbury in a month when the gallows of the town's jail were kept busy.

She was the central character in a shocking murder which was a sensation in its day and, some 60 years later, inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes stories, to write a short factual piece about the case called The Bravoes of Market Drayton.

The story of the crime has now been told again by Dr David Cox in a new book called "Foul Deeds and Suspicious Deaths in Shrewsbury and Around Shropshire."

Dr Cox is a researcher and lecturer at the Institute of Law, Politics and Justice, Keele University, and works in the field of criminal justice history, with numerous articles and several books on the subject already under his belt.

In his book he looks at 16 cases, covering murders, executions, conspiracies and crimes of passion, ranging from the medieval period to the early 20th century.

The victim of the Market Drayton murder was a petty criminal called James Harrison. He was set upon and strangled by Joseph Pugh and John Cox while Cox's younger brother Robert kept a lookout. They then buried the body.

But what was behind the cold-blooded killing?

All began to become apparent when a young Market Drayton crook called Thomas Ellson grassed them up.

Ellson was Ann Harris' son, and brother-in-law of the Cox brothers. He was also in deep trouble, as he had been implicated as a member of a sheep-stealing gang in an age when such a crime carried the death penalty.

The chief witness for the prosecution in Ellson's trial was James Harrison who, not unnaturally - given that by that time he was dead and buried in a shallow grave - failed to turn up. Consequently the case against Ellson collapsed.

Later, facing a new charge of fowl-stealing, Ellson started to tell all he knew in an attempt to gain a pardon.

The plot was laid bare and Harrison's decomposing body was recovered.

Ann Harris, it transpired, had bribed the Cox brothers to kill Harrison, so that her own son Ellson would escape the noose. She, the brothers, and John Cox senior were all arrested. At the trial Ellson testified against his own mother and in-laws.

The jury only took a few minutes to find the Cox brothers and Joseph Pugh guilty of murder, and John Cox senior and Ann Harris guilty of being accessories. All were sentenced to death.

On August 4, 1828, Pugh and John Cox junior were hanged in front of a large crowd at Shrewsbury prison, along with William Steventon, who swung for an unrelated murder. Robert Cox had his death sentence commuted, and was transported to Tasmania.

The death sentence was revoked against John Cox senior, who had consistently denied being part of the plot.

As for Ann Harris, no mercy was shown, and she went to the gallows at Shrewsbury 12 days later, although she did at least have the dignity of a burial, whereas the others were dissected.

"Foul Deeds and Suspicious Deaths in Shrewsbury and Around Shropshire" is published by Pen & Sword Books. It is softback and costs £12.99.