James Sargisson (1844? -1864) – was he wrongly convicted of murder?

While I was researching Sargison’s for my one name study I came across a record in FindmyPast’s Crime, Prisons and Punishment collection for a James Sargisson who was committed for trial in 1864 at the Leeds summer assizes. He was sentenced to death on 17 August 1864 for the wilful murder of John Cooper in Abbey Lane in the parish of Laughton-en-le-Morthen in the West Riding of Yorkshire.  The case became known as the Roche Abbey murder. Cooper, a gardener, had been bludgeoned to death on the evening of 9 April, after having visited a tavern in Brookhouse. His stolen watch and keys were later found in James’s lodgings and James admitted to seeing the “deed being done by another man”.  This man was later identified as George Denton. He too was sent for trial with James but was not convicted. Denton’s case was defended by legal counsel Mr Vernon Blackburn. The grand jury decided that the evidence provided by James could not be corroborated and Denton was released. James does not seem to have had any access to legal counsel.

A combination of local newspaper entries and census records for Laughton-en-le-Morthen helped me to establish James’ parents, John Sergison (1813-1893) and Elizabeth Row (1818-1890). The surnames in records for both John and James varied significantly. A feature which I’ve already written about in a previous blog post.

James was baptised on 21 April 1844 in All Saints Church, Laughton-en-le-Morthen. He was recorded with his family in the 1851 census living at Brookhouse in the parish of Laughton-en-le-Morthen. His father John was an agricultural labourer. By 1861 James was a farm servant at Pond Farm, Dodworth in the parish of Silkstone, where the head of the family was John Coldwell, a farmer of 60 acres.

All Saints Church, Laughton-en-le-Morthen by Richard Croft, CC BY-SA 2.0

A newspaper report of the murder at Laughton-en-le-Morthen in the Leeds Intelligencer (27 August 1864), provided some background into James’s family. His parents were living in Brookhouse at the time of his trial and this was where James was born. The report goes onto say that James received very little education and that “at a proper time he was sent for farmer’s service”. He was described as being about 11 stones in weight and about 5ft 7 ½in high. It seems that the murdered man John Cooper was about three stones heavier and much taller than him and the report goes onto suggest that James could not have murdered him on his own. The report describes Cooper as “stout, tall, muscular and active” and that “we most sincerely hope that if another person was concerned in the foul and cowardly murder a few more days may disclose the secret as to who he is”.    

James was sentenced to death by hanging at Armley Gaol in Leeds. He was hanged outside the prison at 9am on 10 September 1864 with another prisoner Joseph Myers. It was the only public execution which ever took place outside the prison and according to newspaper reports attracted a crowd of 80,000-100,000 (Morning Advertiser, 12 September 1864). After his death James was buried in the prison graveyard.

Modern photo of Armley Gaol by Kenneth Yarham, CC BY-SA 2.0

Not everyone at the time believed that James was guilty of murder. A reporter visited James’s residence at Lockwood near Huddersfield after his death and interviewed Mrs Schofield (Leeds Mercury, 20 September 1864). James began lodging with the family in May 1862 and secured work in a nearby brickyard. He stayed with the family for about a year and then returned to Laughton-en-le-Morthen where he secured work. After his conviction he asked that none of his old companions or fellow workers go to Leeds to see him being hung. The reporter also interviewed Mr Haigh, the manager of one of his previous employers, who described James as “willing and obliging; he could set himself to any kind of work and nothing came wrong in his hand”. He then went onto say that he was of good character and “could not say a word against him”. A colleague of James’s, Sanderson, was also interviewed; he said that:

“Jim was foolish for not letting us know when he got into trouble; for we would have tried to get him a reprieve; they’ve hung him, but they’ve hung the wrong one – he never did the murder”.

Perhaps there was a miscarriage of justice here as it seems unlikely that James could have assaulted Cooper on his own. His lack of education could have been a contributing factor as well as an apparent lack of legal representation. Maybe James was guilty of receiving stolen goods but not murder. He was survived by his parents John and Elizabeth who continued to live in the parish of Laughton-en-le-Morthen until their deaths.

I am interested in knowing more about James and his family. Do contact me if you have any further information which you are willing to share with me.

Bibliography

Armley Gaol, Leeds. http://www.capitalpunishmentuk.org/armley.html : accessed December 2021.

Births, baptisms, marriages, deaths and burials. https://www.ancestry.co.uk/  : accessed December 2021.

British Newspapers. https://findmypast.co.uk : accessed December 2021.

Croft, Richard. All Saints Church, Laughton-en-le-Morthen. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Main_Page : accessed December 2021.

England and Wales, Crime, Prisons and Punishment, 1770-1935. https://findmypast.co.uk : accessed December 2021.

Laughton-en-le-Morthen. https://www.genuki.org.uk/big/eng/YKS/WRY/LaughtonEnLeMorthen : accessed December 2021.

Silkstone. https://www.genuki.org.uk/big/eng/YKS/WRY/Silkstone : accessed December 2021.

Yarham, Kenneth. Armley Gaol. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Main_Page : accessed December 2021.

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