I heard about this book several years ago, when the Daily Telegraph (UK) ran an article about 23-year-old Giles Freeman Covington, a seaman who was hanged in Oxford in 1791 for murdering an elderly peddler. After the execution his corpse was sent to an anatomy school for use as a teaching aide. The skeleton ended up as a museum display piece, and remained so until 2001, when the curator of the Oxford Museum declared his intention to give the remains a Christian burial. The man added that he questioned the justice of Covington’s conviction and planned to secure a Royal Pardon.
The Abingdon Waterturnpike Murder revisits the October 8, 1787 killing of David Charteris, a Scottish peddler, and the alleged miscarriage of justice that followed. Charteris was found beaten to death in a ditch at Nuneham, Abingdon, but primitive police resources and the reluctance of local residents to “get involved” left the case unsolved for four years.
A break in the investigation occurred when gossip led to the arrest of one Richard Kilby, an army deserter who offered to tell all in exchange for a Royal Pardon. He told the authorities that Giles Covington and an accomplice named Charles Shury had killed Charteris during a robbery attempt gone wrong.
When Covington’s ship docked in London in 1791 he was arrested and brought to Oxford to stand trial. He didn’t accept accusation gracefully: while Kilby was giving evidence, Covington sprang from his seat and tried to punch him. The jury returned a guilty verdict and three days later, on March 7, 1791, he was executed at the entrance to Oxford Castle. Before submitting to the hangman’s deadly art, he tossed a paper off the scaffold: it was a letter addressed to a local magistrate and read, "I hope you and your family will live to find that Giles Freeman Covington died innocent and then I hope you would relieve the widow that is left behind if Bedlam is not to be her doom."
The Abingdon Waterturnpike Murder is a slim volume about a murder and aftermath that weren’t particularly shocking or sensational, but Mark Davies points out that Covington’s conviction on the basis of an accomplice’s testimony may have been a miscarriage of justice, and ‘justice denied’ stories have a certain pathos. The book also provides a fascinating insight into late eighteenth century social customs and mores. Davies notes in his forward, “Most (of the people who appear in the book) – ordinary working people of little note – would no doubt be greatly surprised to find themselves remembered over 200 years later. But that, I hope is part of the charm of this tale.”
I’m not sure if the Oxford Museum curator went ahead with the pardon request and, if so, what the outcome was. Apparently a similar application was made on March 7, 1991 (the 200th anniversary of Covington’s execution) but a spokesman for the Royal Prerogative of Mercy division at the Home Office stated, "Normally cases like this involve people who are still alive and in prison. But the rules are still the same. (The applicants) will have to produce new evidence to show the original conviction was unsafe." After over two hundred years it’s unlikely that exculpatory evidence will ever come to light, but perhaps a public exoneration in this book will be sufficient.