The house looked like a battlefield. In the porch, Mr. Isaac Jermy lay spreadeagled, his heart blown to pieces by gunshot. Inside the house, his son, Mr. Jermy Jermy, lay dead with a hole in his chest. Near him, screaming with pain, staggered Mr. Jermy Jermy's wife, Sophia, her arm almost blown off. A few yards farther on, maidservant Eliza Chestney slumped against a wall, her hip riddled with lead shot.
An invading army could not have left behind a more appalling scene of massacre than the one which greeted police when they arrived at Stanfield Hall, in the lonely, brooding fenland of Norfolk; yet they knew exactly where to go and whom to arrest. By dawn, they had surrounded Potash Farm, the isolated home of James Blomfield Rush, a mile away across muddy fields from Stanfield Hall.
Rush offered no resistance; indeed, his whole attitude reflected injured innocence rather than guilt. Told that he was being arrested for attempting to wipe out the entire Jermy family, his reply was a classic of understatement. "Good God, I hope they don't think it is me; 'tis a rather serious offence."
But Rush's puzzled air didn't fool the police. Everyone in Norfolk knew that people had a nasty habit of dying when Rush was around. Years earlier, his wife had died in mysterious circumstances after bearing him nine children. He promptly took a mistress, a music teacher named Emily Sandford, and they lived together at Potash Farm.
Not long afterwards, Rush's stepfather was killed in an odd shooting incident in his own kitchen. He had been admiring his shotgun - an expensive and superior weapon - when it suddenly went off, blowing his head apart. The only other person in the house had been James Blomfield Rush, who had dropped in for a chat after a day's hunting. At the inquest, the jury reluctantly returned a verdict of "Accidental death".
James Blomfield Rush hadn't finished pruning the family tree. For his mother, Mary Rush, was unlucky enough to inherit all his stepfather's cash and property. Nobody was surprised when Mary Rush suddenly fell ill. On a Sunday night, James Blomfield Rush was left alone with his ailing mother. Her nurse returned to find him feeding her with cake moistened with "what looked like wine". A few hours later, Mrs. Mary Rush was dead. She left everything to James Blomfield Rush's nine children; a mistake which Rush corrected by forging a codicil to her will, making over all the inheritance to himself, until his youngest child reached the age of 21.
With his family neatly disposed of, Rush was free to devote his attention to the Jermys. For years - ever since Isaac Jermy had taken over Stanfield Hall - Rush had pursued them with a vendetta of almost Sicilian ferocity. There were a dozen reasons for the feud - all of them stemming from Rush's paranoid hatred of Isaac Jermy, the owner of Stanfield Hall and chief legal officer for Norwich.
For a start, Rush believed Isaac Jermy was not entitled to the Hall. Before Isaac Jermy appeared on the scene, Rush had leased two farms, including the Stanfield Hall farm, from Jermy's father. When the old man died, there was a furious dispute over the ownership of the Hall, and Rush had sided with two other members of the family, Thomas Jermy and John Larner.
The row reached such a pitch that Larner - the more belligerent of the two claimants - led a raid on the Hall and tried to occupy it by force. Isaac Jermy wasn't standing for that. Using his authority as Recorder of Norwich, he called in the army, and while Jermy stood on the lawn reading the Riot Act, soldiers of the 4th Dragoon Guards loaded their muskets and pointed them at the raiders, who were perched on the roof and standing at the windows. The riot fizzled out within minutes.
All this did not endear Rush to his new landlord, who lost no time getting his own back. Gleefully, Isaac Jermy discovered that Rush's leasehold documents had not been properly drawn up, and he used this as an excuse to increase the rents. By then, Rush already had his eye on a third farm owned by Jermy. Despite the serious drain on his resources, he bought it - although he had to borrow the cash from Jermy.
Rush ended up owing Jermy a total of £5000, with a 4 per cent interest adding another £200 each year. Under the terms of the agreement, the whole sum had to be payed back by November 30, 1848, an obligation which placed Rush - irredeemably in debt. Though, theoretically, Potash Farm was a money-maker, standing on rich and productive land, Rush had one drawback. He was a rotten farmer, and under his poor husbandry Potash Farm failed to achieve its potential. Seeing his repayments threatened, Isaac Jermy used his position as landlord to bring an action for miscultivation of the farm - so increasing Rush's hatred.
Hatred came easily to James Blomfield Rush; his fellow villagers regarded him with a mixture of fear and contempt, not least because he was a brutish, thickset man whose violent and deceitful nature brought him into constant conflict with the law. At various times he had been accused of seduction, arson and incitement to riot.
But there was a weapon anyone could use against him. He was illegitimate, a humiliating fact which made him socially inferior to even the most vacant-eyed yokel. Rush felt the stigma bitterly. The whole world, he believed, was united in a conspiracy to thwart his efforts and deny his rights.
With the millstone of Potash Farm round his neck, Rush drifted deeper into debt. In May 1847 he was declared bankrupt, which meant he could neither cash cheques nor hope to pay the coming mortgage debt on Potash Farm. Even the annual interest was beyond him.
It was at this point that James Blomfield Rush hit on the solution. Genocide had worked well before in getting him his father's misdirected inheritance; there was no reason why it shouldn't succeed in ridding him of his tormentors at Stanfield Hall: he would annihilate the whole Jermy tribe.
With devious cunning, Rush began to play both ends against the middle, for whether the Jermys ended up dead or alive, he would be clear of his debt. The first move was to make use of the “Stanfield Hall claimants”, Thomas Jermy and John Larner. Their claim for ownership was still simmering, slightly hampered by the fact that neither could read or write. Rush was the answer to their prayers. Feigning enthusiasm for their campaign, he persuaded them to sign an agreement wiping out the debt and substituting a nominal rent in the event of their gaining Stanfield Hall, in turn for his support.
The two men were too stupid to see that the document could have a more sinister interpretation. In a court of law, their “X's” at the bottom of the agreement implied a conspiracy to oust Isaac Jermy from Stanfield Hall. With the incriminating document safely in his pocket, Rush started on the second stage of his plan. This was a simple matter of forgery, no more difficult than the phoney codicil to his mother's will.
Using Emily Sandford as a reluctant witness, Rush manufactured three agreements, purporting to have been signed by Isaac Jermy, cancelling the debt on Potash Farm and reducing the rents on the other two properties. As his part of the bargain, Rush promised to surrender a sheaf of wholly fictitious “papers and documents” which cast doubt on Jermy's right to Stanfield Hall.
It was now November 27, 1848. In three days' time the debt on Potash Farm fell due, and Rush's forged agreements would be worthless. Isaac Jermy's hand had to be halted within 72 hours, or the only roof over Rush's head would be the one on Norwich debtors' jail. He had to move fast. On the afternoon of the 27th he ordered a labourer to lay down some straw on the footpath which ran from Potash Farm to the lawn of Stanfield Hall. The path had never been covered that far before, but the labourer shrugged his shoulders and asked no questions.
There was still one vital document to fabricate. The following morning, Rush tore a page from a notebook and penned a strange message. "There are seven of us here," it said, "three of us outside and four inside the hall, all armed as you see us two. If any of your servants offer to leave the premises or to follow, you will be shot dead. Therefore, all of you keep in the servants' hall and you nor anyone else will take any harm, for we are only come to take of the Stanfield Hall property."
The note was signed "Thomas Jermy" and was clearly intended to implicate him in the bloodbath at Stanfield Hall. But in his haste, Rush made one disastrous mistake: he forgot that the real Thomas Jermy couldn't write his own name.
That evening, Rush had planned to take Emily Sandford to a concert. But, on the pretext of feeling unwell, he cried off. At 7.30 p.m., while Emily was reading a book, he left the parlour and went to his room. He put on a false wig and a long cloak with a hood that partly covered his face. Slipping the warning note into his pocket, he picked up a double-barrelled blunderbuss that had been converted for quick-loading and set off across the fields to massacre the Jermys, his boots leaving no footprints on the carefully prepared straw.
At the entrance to the Hall he dropped the note where he knew it would be spotted. Then, pulling his hood over his face, he walked in to begin the carnage.
Crippled by wounds, Eliza Chestney was carried to court in a specially made litter. Once there, her graphic account of Rush's attack horrified the jury ..
On Thursday, March 29, 1849 - the first day of the trial of James Blomfield Rush at Norwich Assizes - a path was cleared through the spectators in the courtroom. Two men entered, bearing a covered stretcher, rather like a half open coffin. In it was the shattered figure of Eliza Chestney, one of the only two people who survived the murderous blasts from Rush's blunderbuss. Her wounds had not healed and she was still in pain, but she could recall every moment of that night of terror.
“It was about eight at night,” she told the court. “I heard a gun, then another and then a groan. When I got to the staircase hall, I saw Mr. Jermy Jermy lying on the floor. I then saw a man coming from the dining-room door, and he had what appeared to me to be a shot gun up to his shoulder. He levelled it and shot me. I did not fall directly. Another shot followed at once, and I saw my mistress's arm twirl about. I twisted round several times and fell down. I gave three violent shrieks and said I was going to die and no one would come and help me. I remember no more until I awoke at the bottom of the staircase.”
Prosecuting Counsel: Did you recognize the man who shot you and your mistress?
Chestney: Yes. The prisoner. I have seen him several times at Stanfield Hall. I saw both the head of the man and his shoulders. Mr. Rush has a way of carrying his head which can't be mistaken. No person ever came to Stanfield with such an appearance beside himself.
Another servant, who escaped the hail of gunshot, was equally sure that Rush was the gunman. Martha Reed described how she heard shots, followed by screams. “Miss Jermy came running into the servants' hall. She said, 'Oh, Read, we shall all be murdered!' I then saw a man coming along the passage, about seven yards from Miss Jermy. He had some firearm in his right hand, larger than a usual sized pistol. He was a low, stout man. I have repeatedly seen Rush in the Hall. The man was of the height, size and carriage of Rush, and as soon as I saw him my impression was that it was Rush, and that is my impression still.”
Physically shattered but mentally very much alive, Eliza Chestney evoked the sympathy of all all her heard her. She stood up well to Rush's cross-examination.
In the dock, the “low, stout man” glowered at the witnesses. Disdaining counsel, Rush had elected to conduct his own defence. His tactics consisted of abuse, threats, cajolery, furious protestations of innocence, constant interruptions and appeals to the Almighty. His menacing attitude left many witnesses shaken. “Recollect you are on your oath,” he warned one witness, before beginning his cross-examination. “This trial is one of life and death to me. My firm hope is in God, and as His eye is on you, as you wish to walk out of this Court in health, speak the truth.”
The judge, Baron Rolfe, leaned over backwards to give him a fair hearing. But the more latitude Rush received, the more truculent he became. Gradually, the court sensed that his anger was building up to his confrontation with Emily Sandford, his former mistress and now the crucial prosecution witness. They were right. As soon as her name was called, Rush turned with fury on the judge.
Rush: I have a higher power than you, My Lord, and I say to this witness that I am innocent of this charge.
Judge: It will be for the jury to say so.
Rush: But I must say so, and caution her to speak the truth.
Judge: If she does not speak the truth, she will be subject to the penalty of perjury in this life and punishment in the next.
Rush: I have never had an opportunity of speaking to her, but I wish to tell her to consider what sort of evidence she is about to give.
Judge: You will do yourself no good by...
Rush: I cannot help it! I can prove my innocence! I have never been angry with her from the start . . . although she contradicted the evidence she gave at the first hearing.
Judge: I cannot allow this. You are entitled to be in court while the evidence is given, but if you misconduct yourself you will be removed.
Emily Sandford was pale and thin, she had just given birth to Rush's illegitimate child, but her evidence, given coolly and clearly, was damning. She remembered him leaving the house at around 7.30 on the evening of the shooting. As he passed the parlour, he called out, “Fasten the door after me.” Around 9.30 she heard him knocking at the door. He said “It's only me, open up”, and she undid the bolt and returned to the room. He went straight upstairs, but came down to the parlour a few minutes later. He looked pale, ill and agitated.
“I asked him what was the matter and if anything had happened. He replied, 'No, nothing; if you hear any enquiries for me, say I was out only ten minutes.' Later, I went into his room and asked him where I should sleep. He told me to sleep in my own room, although I always used to sleep in the same bed as him. I noticed that he had a fire burning brightly, although I hadn't lit it.”
Emily didn't realize it then, but the fire had already swallowed up the muddy boots in which Rush had trudged to Stanfield Hall. Around 2.30 in the morning, Emily was woken by Rush knocking at her bedroom door. He came to her bed and told her, “You must be firm. If anybody' asks you how long I was out, say ten minutes.”
Most damning of all the witnesses was Rush's mistress, Emily Sandford.
As soon as Emily Sandford finished giving evidence, Rush jumped to his feet to cross-examine. Emily's ordeal had only just started. It was to last for another 12 hours. At first, Rush began quietly, playing on Emily's old affection for him. He suggested that Emily could have confused the time he left and returned, as her watch had been three-quarters of an hour fast. When Emily stuck to her original statement, Rush raised the possibility that she was so immersed in her book that she lost all track of the time.
Rush: Now, I want you to recollect yourself. You say you began to read after I left on the evening of the 28th?
Rush: Was I away, do you think, more than half an hour?
Emily: Yes, I should think you were away until nine o'clock.
Rush: Now I ask you on oath, given on a solemn occasion like the present, if you think I was absent more than half an hour?
Emily: It is impossible to say exactly, as I was reading an amusing work. You appeared to return sooner than I expected.
Rush: If you can recollect the name of the work, perhaps it will assist you in giving a correct answer?
Emily: The name was Whitefriars, or the Days of Charles II.
Rush: Now, I ask you from what you were reading, do you think I was absent more than half an hour?
Emily: Yes, I should say a great deal more. I read half the volume while you were away.
Cajolery having failed to get the answers he wanted, Rush adopted a more intimidating tone. “I must caution you how to answer,” he snapped, “unless you wish to swear my life away falsely. If you wish to do so, say so at once, and I will not ask you another question.”
There was a cry of “Shame!” from the courtroom. and even the indulgently patient judge warned Rush that he would not tolerate any browbeating of witnesses, but Rush had got the bit between his teeth. After a few deferential questions, he returned to the attack, accusing Emily of betraying him out of spite.
Rush: Have you not told me that I should repent the day that I did not make you my wife?
Emily: I told you you would never prosper after the day you refused to make me your wife, or something like it. But that was two years ago. I told you you would not prosper after you had broken your promise, and you have not.
Rush: Have you ever told me that I should not marry anybody else but you?
Emily: You have told me so. You told me so when I charged you with being unfaithful. You said repeatedly that I had made you a reformed man.
Again there was an interruption from the courtroom. “Poor, pitiful thing!” shouted a woman. Rush gave her a look of unadulterated venom. He had tried to shake Emily's evidence, and failed. The irony of the situation must have occurred to Rush. If he had “made an honest woman” of Emily, as he had promised, she could not have given evidence against him. No wife can be forced to testify against her husband. But a mistress can.
Little wonder that Rush had turned on Emily when she had first signed the damaging evidence against him before the trial. George Pinson, governor of Norwich Jail, recalled Rush's outburst. “I heard the prisoner say, 'If you sign that,' pointing to the statements, 'I hope your hand will rot.'”
But Rush had already signed his own life away. A handwriting expert testified that the various papers and agreements apparently signed by Thomas Jermy and Isaac Jermy were, in fact, in Rush's handwriting, and so was the warning note dropped in Stanfield Hall.
In the dock, Rush glowered. Maybe he had just realized his stupid mistake in signing the illiterate Thomas Jermy's name to the note. If he hadn't, the next witness clinched it, for it was Thomas Jermy. His evidence consisted of two words. But they must have shattered Rush's overweening confidence.
Counsel: Can you write?
Thomas Jermy: No, sir.
Counsel: That is all I have to ask him. For once, Rush was speechless. “No questions,” he growled.
Late on the fourth day the prosecution closed its case, and the stage was set for Rush to appear as his own defence counsel. But he was in no hurry. “I trust, My Lord,” he asked the judge, "that you will not call on me at this late hour to commence my defence?" "Do you not think yourself able to do justice to it?" said the judge innocently. “No, My Lord,” Rush replied, “not at this late hour of the day.” It was the barest hint of what James Rush had in store.
In his cell that night, Rush was even more demanding than usual. The prison staff had become resigned to his tantrums, particularly his unctuous piety. “Thank God I am quite comfortable in body and mind,” he told the governor. “I eat well, drink well, and sleep well.” Even the prison chaplains had tired of his arrogant self-righteousness and his constant appeals for “God to witness my innocence”.
They were lucky. They were not at Norwich Assizes the following morning, Tuesday, April 3, 1849, to hear the most extraordinary defence ever presented by a prisoner in a British court. Before a dazed judge and jury and a courtroom stunned by disbelief, Rush spoke for 14 hours non-stop. It was an astonishing harangue, wild, illogical and demented; a rambling tirade of self-justification and wounded innocence, punctuated by fierce appeals to the Almighty.
Rush flailed at every target in sight. The only respite came when he started babbling about a “foreign body”, referred to by one of the prosecution's medical witnesses. He clearly had no idea of the meaning of the phrase, and the judge intervened.
“You do not understand it,” said Baron Rolfe mildly. “Medical gentlemen. when they find anything in the flesh which is of a different nature, call it a foreign body . . .” It made little difference. The judge's explanation was swept aside in a torrent of words.
At last, with judge, jury and officials visibly wilting, Rush reached his peroration. His eyes bulged, and he was panting and bathed in sweat. His burly, aggressive figure seemed to burst out of the dock as he invoked the Almighty to rescue the jury from the most disastrous mistake of their lives.
“I am sure that God in His goodness will influence your verdict in my favour. My whole trust is in Him and that He may guide you. Should there be - which I cannot see how there should be - a division as to your opinion, be ruled by me and trust in God - those who are for me - and you will afterwards think it the happiest day of your lives, when you stood firm, and on no account whatever would return any other verdict than that of 'not guilty'.
“The others, if there are any against me, will bless you in their dying moments that you did not allow them to return a verdict of 'guilty' against an innocent man. I have not the slightest doubt that at one time or other it will come out who were the real perpetrators of this most horrid deed. I say again, gentlemen, trust to God and do your duty; do not be led away from the facts of the case by the flowery eloquence that may be used against me by the learned gentlemen employed against me.
“All I can say is, may God Almighty bless you and make you discern with a wise and understanding heart. This is the prayer of one who expects justice at your hands for the sake of his dear little children, who are destitute of a mother and who are looking to you to give them back their father.”
The marathon was over. In his closing speech, Serjeant John Barnard Byles, Chief Prosecuting Counsel, could not resist the observation that “the present trial has exceeded in the annals of judicial long-suffering anything that has ever been experienced”. One look at the judge, sitting exhausted on the Bench, was sufficient confirmation.
After Rush's 14 hours of ranting demagogery, the speed of the jury's decision took the court by surprise. After a mere 10 minutes they returned a verdict of guilty. Rush looked as though he would have liked to strangle each juryman personally. “My Lord,” he barked, “I an innocent of that, thank God Almighty.”
As he placed the black cap upon his head, the judge was no longer the patient, tolerant figure anxious to extend every concession to the prisoner in the dock. “There is no one who has witnessed your conduct during the trial and heard the evidence disclosed against you.” he said, “that will not feel with me when I tell you that you must quit this world by an ignominious death, an object of unmitigated abhorrence to everyone.” He then sentenced Rush to death.
Outside the court at Norwich hundreds gathered to hear the verdict ...
The morning of April 21, 1849, was dull and drizzly. The wind whipped the rain against the walls of Norwich Castle and along the small bridge on which the gallows had been set. But by midday the sky had cleared, and with the sun came the crowds. They came by coach and train, by pony-and-trap and horseback, on foot or on their parents' shoulders, until more than 13,000 people covered the entire area around the scaffold, many perched on the rooftops and the church tower.
Inside the Castle. James Blomfield Rush was far from subdued. Pressed by the prison chaplains for a last-minute confession, Rush turned on them so violently he had to be restrained. He was still protesting when John Calcroft, the executioner, pinioned his arms. Rush marched resolutely to the scaffold, shaking his head as if to say, “What a scandal that an innocent man should hang.”
On the platform, he turned his back to the crowd and issued a few brisk orders to the hangman. “This doesn't go easy,” he said, as Calcroft adjusted the noose. “Put the thing a little higher. Take your time. Don't be in a hurry.”
They were his last words. The trapdoor shot open, and he was swallowed into the platform. He was 48. The crowd made no sound as he went.
Wife, mother, father, the Jermys, both father and son, Mrs. Jermy and her crippled maidservant . . . James Blomfield Rush cut a swathe of tragedy wherever he went. His baleful influence now followed the only survivor to the ends of the earth. A generous local squire, Sir John Boileau, sent Emily Sandford to start a new life in Australia.
He paid her bills, gave her a letter of introduction to the Bishop of Melbourne and bought her a piano so she could continue teaching. But her notoriety had sped ahead of her. When her identity was discovered, she was harassed, mobbed and persecuted. There was no work for her. Emily Sandford became Rush's final victim, his malevolent spirit reaching out to her from beyond the grave. And one morning she killed herself.
The national press seized upon the murder details with relish.
Ref: Crimes and Punishment Weekly, Number 91 - 1976. p 2535-2542
The same article was also published in Crimes and Punishment - The Illustrated Crime Encyclopedia, Volume 21 - 1994. p 2601-2608