Monday, 19 October 2015

Harriet Reeve Murder Trial Verdict

Harriet Reeve

Tuesday 19th October 1915: For the second day running a Bedfordshire man has been on trial at the Assizes for the murder of his wife. Yesterday Henry Charles Martin was convicted on the lesser charge of manslaughter and sentenced to twelve months in gaol. Today, after a six hour trial, William Benjamin Reeve of Leighton Buzzard has been convicted of the wilful murder of his wife and has been sentenced to death. The evidence was almost identical to that given at the Police Court hearing and the inquest into Harriet Reeve's death, with the addition of Reeve’s own account of events.

Reeve was a man not in very regular employment who was in the habit of drinking rather too much. On the 5th July he had visited several public houses with a man named Thomas Major. When he returned home the worse for drink his wife was anxious to get rid of the children who were in the house and gave them money to go to the Picture Palace. Evidence was given by Private Jack Toms of the Bedfordshire Regiment, the husband of Reeve’s niece Annie. When asked whether Reeve suffered from ill-health which prevented him working Toms replied “No, I think it was laziness”. Mrs. Reeve, however, was an “industrious and sober” woman who had worked as a carpet sewer for Messrs. Aveline and Phillips. When Reeve came to Toms’ house on July 5th he heard him say “I’m going to do my old girl in tonight”, giving as his reason that she never gave him any money. When begged not to carry out this threat Reeve said his loved “his old girl”. Toms had not attached much importance to the conversation, assuming it to be the silly remarks of a drunken man.

Reeve told the court that he was a drover and labourer, who had been married for over twenty years and had lived on good terms with his wife. He was not aware that he had ever threatened his wife’s life. He admitted that on the 5th July he had had a good deal to drink. Asked about his gun he said that he had not used it for months, but it had been left loaded. The gun was peculiar in that when both barrels were loaded if the right hand barrel was fired the left hand one was also likely to go off. He could not remember any of the events of the evening his wife was killed, but he was certain he had no intention of injuring her – she was “the best friend I had got”. He did not remember how the gun and razor came to be found just outside the door, and did not have any memory of cutting his own throat with the razor. He had no recollection of telling Jack Toms he intended to “do his old girl in”; he rarely quarrelled with his wife, and had no grievance against her for not giving him money. He also had no memory of opening the drawer which contained the shot and taking out the shot flasks. He believed the gun must have gone off by accident.

In the closing speeches the prosecution said it was extremely improbably the gun could have gone off accidentally and caused Harriet Reeve such injuries. However drunk he was Reeve had clearly checked before he went home that his wife was there, and he was clearly conscious enough to take the gun from its usual place. Why else would he have cut his own throat if he was not aware he had committed a crime? He had run out of money for more drink and had grown in resentment and hostility to his wife for refusing to give him more as the day went on. The defence pointed out that there were certain discrepancies in the evidence of Jack Toms which suggested it was unreliable. Flemming, the friend of Reeve’s son, claimed to have heard Reeve threaten his wife yet young Reeve who actually lived in the house said he had never heard his father threaten his mother. There was nothing to suggest that Mrs. Reeve felt herself threatened as she had stayed seated in her chair.

The judge said that there was no evidence that Reeve was insane and drunkenness was no excuse for crime. If the jury believed Reeve’s story that the death was an accident they should find him not guilty; if they believed he did not know what he was doing, he should be found guilty but insane; the only other possible verdict was guilty of wilful murder. The jury took only twelve minutes to consider their decision before passing a unanimous verdict that he was indeed guilty of wilful murder. After spending much of the trial slumped low in his seat with his head in his hands Reeve stood unmoved while the verdict was read out. He did not reply when asked if he had anything to say as to why judgment should not be passed on him, and lowered his head while the sentence was pronounced. He swayed when the judge spoke the closing words “And may the Lord have mercy on your soul” and stood as though in a daze until the gaolers escorted him to the cells. As he left he exchanged a brief, inaudible remark with his mother who was seated in the public gallery.

Source: Leighton Buzzard Observer, 26th October 1915

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