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George Victor TOWNLEY





Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: The victim had broken their engagement
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: August 21, 1863
Date of arrest: Same day
Date of birth: 1838
Victim profile: Miss Elizabeth Caroline Goodwin, 22 (his former fiancee)
Method of murder: Stabbing with knife
Location: Wigwell Grange, Derbyshire, England, United Kingdom
Status: Sentenced to death in 1865. On February 12, 1865, committed suicide at prison. He jumped over a staircase railing unto a stone floor twenty three feet below. He landed on his skull and was pronounced dead

He murdered a young woman who had broken their engagement (when they were alone together) and he surrendered to her grandfather. That was in 1863. The case is one of those untidy ones that foes of capital punishment like to overlook - you see, Townley came from a respectable upper middle class family. When he was tried for the murder he was represented by "Mr. Stephen", the future Maybrick and Lipski Justice Stephen - and father of James Kenneth Stephen. He was also examined by Dr. Forbes Winslow (interesting how all these strands keep intertwining). Townley's reluctant defense was insanity (he felt he was not insane). His family tried to prove he was, and if not was getting mentally ill since the crime. Baron Martin gave Townley a very fair trial, but the jury took six minutes to find him guilty (but not insane).

His family used influence to get the Home Secretary Sir George Grey to have a sanity hearing on the basis that Townley was now insane. This was being conducted when the prisoner's solicitor decided to take advantage of a sloppy law "Further Provision for the Confinement and Maintenance of Insane People - 3 & 4 Victoria, c. 54".

This law said that with prisoners under sentence of death, if you get two Justices of the Peace and two doctors to certify the prisoner is insane the Home Secretary must remove the prisoner to an insane asylum. Though they subsequently discovered a technical error (regareding where the magistrates were to come from), the Home Secretary acted on their certificate and respited Townley. This action by the solicitor and his committee upset the public and part of the legal community in Derbyshire (where the murder occurred). It did not help matters that at this time a relatively poor man named Samuel Wright was hanged for his wife's murder, despite better evidence that he was insane [the situation here somewhat resembles the 1922 uproar about Ronald True and Henry Jacoby]. Sir George Grey dismissed carping at the defects of the certificate - he said the date of the execution was approaching and he was concerned about saving the life of an insane man. Most people felt Townley was saved by a trick.

Now the reason I feel that the Townley case is not cited by opponents of capital punishment. The purpose of opposing capital punishment is that it is inhumane to take a person's life - that prison is far more humane. There was one person who disagreed with this. His name was George Victor Townley.

On February 12, 1865, after one year of the "kinder" punishment, he jumped over a staircase railing unto a stone floor twenty three feet below. He landed on his skull and was pronounced dead. Apparently he did not think imprisonment was kinder.

A good legal review of the case is in NINE VERDICTS ON VIOLENCE by Jack Smith - Hughes (London: Cassell & Co., Ltd., 1958). The second chapter - essay "The Broken Engagement: A Controvertial Reprieve" (p. 23 - 50) is about Townley. On another thread I discussed the Wadsworth and Stepney Murders of 1860, and mentioned that Arthur Conan Doyle wrote of them in a series of essays on true crimes. The third one he wrote was about Townley, whom he renamed "George Victor Parker" because his relatives were still alive.


The Wigwell Grange Murder

In 1863 at Wigwell Grange, located two miles east of Wirksworth on the old turnpike road to Alfreton, George Victor TOWNLEY murdered Miss Elizabeth Caroline GOODWIN. Miss GOODWIN known to her family as Bessie, lived with her 80 year old grandfather at the Grange, she was a tall attractive young woman of 22 years. She had met TOWNLEY while paying an extended visit to Manchester; he came from a good family and after several meetings they had got engaged. During the summer of 1863 she had second thoughts and wrote to TOWNLEY breaking off the engagement. There followed an exchange of letters, until with reluctance she finally agreed to meet TOWNLEY at Wigwell.

On the day of the meeting they spent some time in the house in earnest conversation before being seen to walk through the grounds and into the road. It was there in a fit of rage TOWNLEY stabbed Bessie in the throat with fatal consequences. He admitted the offence and was held at the Old Lock Up in Wirksworth prior to his trial at Derby Assizes later in the year. At the trial a plea of insanity was put forward. TOWNLEY was found guilty, but the judge wrote to the Home Secretary who granted a respite, while enquiries were made into TOWNLEY's sanity. The sentence was eventually commuted to life imprisonment.

The trial created quite a lot of interest as both people involved were members of the gentry. But when the verdict became known there was an uproar, the national press were outraged by what seemed an injustice. It appeared TOWNLEY had been able to avoid being hanged, as a result of privilege and a private enquiry which his family and friends had paid for, when a poor man in a similar position would not. This so-called injustice did not last for long, as in February 1865, TOWNLEY committed suicide at Pentonville prison.



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