In September 1786 an unnamed sailor was murdered at Hindhead in Surrey, England. His murderers were eventually tried and hung for their crime at the appropriately named Gibbet Hill.
On September 24, 1786 the Unknown Sailor was making his way back on foot from London to Portsmouth and visited the Red Lion Inn at Thursley.
This is where he crossed paths with those who would murder him. They were seafarers named James Marshall, Michael Casey and Edward Lonegon. He must have felt at ease in their company since he paid for their drinks and food and afterwards left with them to Hindhead Hill. This was the last time he was seen alive.
Later that day, a shepherd boy tending his flock on the Common spotted a ragged bundle on the ground in the distance. He found the sailor's body, his throat had been cut, his head almost severed from his body. His clothing had been stripped off.
Like other criminals, greed became their downfall when the murderers tried to sell the victim's clothing at the Sun Inn in Rake.
The Hampshire Chronicle, dated October 2, 1786, reads:
Sunday last a shocking murder was committed by three sailors, on one of their companions, a seaman also, between Godalming --- They nearly severed his head from his body, stripped him quite naked, and threw him into a valley, where he was providentially discovered, soon after the perpetration of the horrid crime, by some countrymen corning over Hind Head, who immediately gave the alarm, when the desperadoes were instantly pursued, and overtaken at the house of Mr. Adams, the Sun, at Rake. They were properly secured, and are since lodged in gaol, to take their trials at the next assizes for the county of Surrey.
Six months later they were tried at Kingston assizes and two days after that, on Saturday, April 7, 1787, they were hanged in chains on a triple gibbet close to the scene of the crime in Hindhead.
Along with drawing great attention from the surrounding area, the occasion drew the dubious boast that it was the only gibbet in the country at the time to have held the weight of three bodies. The unknown sailor himself was buried in Thursley Churchyard, where his grave can still be seen today. His gravestone was paid for by the residents of the village.
The inscription reads:
In memory of
The Sailor's Stone was erected by James Stillwell of nearby Cosford Mill soon after the murder. It was sited on the Old Coaching Road from London to Portsmouth close to the site of the murder. The inscription on the front of the stone reads:
Hindhead Common was a location much feared even before the murder. The route was indeed a dangerous one, with highwaymen and footpads waiting to relieve the unsuspecting traveler of their belongings and lives, with strange lights and unexplained shadows lurking to frighten even the hardiest soul who strayed there after dark.
In an attempt to counteract the negative associations with the spot, in 1851 a granite celtic cross was erected on Gibbet Hill, paid for by Sir William Erle.
The cross has four Latin inscriptions around its base. They read:
POST TENEBRAS LUX
IN OBITU PAX
IN LUCE SPES
POST OBITUM SALUS
which translate to "Light after darkness. Peace in passing away. Hope in light. Salvation after death."
This did little to quell stories of figures looming in the gloom around the memorial stone, believed to be the ghosts of the three murderers, unable to rest. The murder retained a hold on the popular imagination and has been referred to by Dickens in Nicholas Nickleby, S. Baring-Gould's 1896 novel, The Broom-Squire, and was the inspiration behind a painting by J.M.W Turner.
No doubt the fact that the murderers' bodies were left in chains for several years, a grisly reminder and deterrent to anyone considering committing a similar crime added to its reputation for being haunted.
Gilbert White of Selborne records, in his Naturalist's Journal 1768–1793, that on December 23, 1790 there was a terrible thunderstorm during which:
"Two men were struck dead in a windmill near Rookshill on the Sussex Down and on Hindhead one of the bodies on the gibbet was beaten down to the ground". How long the other bodies remained there is unknown however in 1827 the gibbet was still standing.
Source - Winsham
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