The Killer wore a Wig

PEOPLE had a nasty habit of dying when James Blomfield Rush was around.

At first, it was just a family affair. Rush's wife was the first to go. She died. suddenly and mysteriously at their home at Potash Farm, in one of the most remote parts of Norfolk.

Their marriage-bed was barely cold before Rush took a mistress, a music teacher named Emily Sandford.

Shortly afterwards, Rush broke off from a day's hunting to visit his stepfather. While they were examining the man's prize fowling-piece, it went off, killing him instantly. There were no other witnesses and the jury had no alternative but to return a verdict of Accidental Death.

James Rush's mother, Mary, was unlucky enough to inherit all the stepfather's money. One Sunday night, hearing his mother was unwell, Rush came to sit by her bedside. A nurse described how Rush gently fed her with "cake moistened with what looked like wine."

Mrs Rush died a few hours later.

There was no slip-up over the inheritance this time. Rush forged a codicil to his mother's will, making over all her property to himself. But Rush's annihilation of his own family was merely a rehearsal.

The real target was the Jermy family, the "squirearchy" who lived at Stanfield Hall, only a mile from Rush's Potash farm.

Rush had carried on a running battle with the Jermys for years, ever since the day when Isaac Jermy - the Recorder of Norwich inherited the Hall from his father, Old Man Jermy.

Rush had leased two farms from the old man, both of which he ran atrociously. Sensing trouble from Isaac, the young, keen newcomer, Rush sided with two other members of the Jermy family - Thomas Jermy and John Larner - who disputed Isaac's claim to Stanfield Hall.

When the three men led a local rabble in a raid on the Hall, Isaac Jermy used his authority as Recorder to call in the army. The Riot Act was read, muskets were loaded and the raiders sent packing.

There was nothing Isaac Jermy could do about his two relatives. But there was something he could do to cut his rebellious tenant down to size.

He increased the rent of Rush's two farms. The blow couldn't have come at a worse time for James Blomfield Rush. Despite his hapless reputation as a husbandman, he was just about to bid for a third farm on Isaac Jermy's land.

Foolishly, Rush went ahead with the deal. It suited Isaac perfectly. To clinch the sale, Rush had to borrow £5,000 from Jermy at 4% interest, with the condition that the whole sum had to be repaid by November 30, 1848.

There was no chance of Rush paying back the money in the time, particularly as his existing two farms consistently failed to make a profit.

It was at this point that Isaac Jermy fatally overplayed his hand. He brought an action against Rus h for miscultivation of Potash Farm, and in May 1847 Rush was declaredbankrupt. Now there was no way of even paying back the interest, let alone the original £5,000.

Rush's simmering hatred became paranoic. He believed the Jermys were persecuting him. There was only one solution to the problem. . . the one that had worked before.

The Jermys would have to be massacred. Not one by one like his own family, but in one single, satisfying bloodbath.

The dupes, Rush decided, would be his old friends Thomas Jermy and John Larner, the half-witted and illiterate "Stanfield Hall claimants".

Rush promised renewed support for their campaign, in return for a little favour. He persuaded them to sign an agreement wiping out the debt and substituting a nominal rent for his three farms. The agreement would come into effect if the claimants succeeded in gaining Stanfield Hall.

Rush knew the two men hadn't the remotest chance of ousting Isaac Jermy from the Hall. That wasn't the point. At the right time, the incriminating document could be produced as proof of conspiracy by the two claimants.

The next step was to forge three more agreements, this time bearing Isaac Jermy's signature. These cancelled the debts on Potash Farm and reduced the rents on the other two properties.

In return, Isaac Jermy was to gain a bundle of completely false documents which were to cast doubt about his claim to Stanfield Hall.

So much for the "paperwork".

Now Rush had to move fast. It was November 27, 1848, and in three days' time the debts were to fall due. That afternoon, Rush paid a labourer to shovel straw on the footpath from Potash Farm to the lawn of Stanfield Hail.

On the evening of the 28th, Rush told Emily Sandford that he was feeling unwell. While she continued reading a book, he left the parlour and went to his room. But, not to lie down.

Rush put on a false wig and a long cloak with a hood that partly covered his face. Picking up a double-barrelled blunderbuss that had been converted for quick-loading, he set off along the straw-covered path to the Hall.

Rush's principal persecutor, Isaac Jermy, was the first to die. Rush waylaid him in the porch and shot his heart from his chest with one blast.

Advancing into the house, Rush shot dead Isaac's son, Jermy Jermy, and turned his gun on the man's wife, Sophia. She tried to flee but, Rush fired again. The shot almost blew off one of her arms and she collapsed unconscious.

Maidservant Eliza Chastney watched horror-struck as her mistress fell. Before she could escape, Rush riddled her hip with gunshot.

The house looked like a battlefield. On the way out, Rush paused to drop his final "red herring". It was an apparently hastily-scribbled note.

"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 you 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 come to any harm, for we are only come to take of the Stanfield Hall property". The note was signed "Thomas Jermy."

Satisfied that suspicion would instantly fall on Thomas Jermy and his fellow Stanfield Hall claimants, Rush returned to Potash Farm and went straight upstairs to burn his muddy boots.

Although he had been out two hours, he told his mistress: "If you hear any enquiries for me, say I was out only ten minutes."

He ordered Emily to sleep in a separate room, but at 2.30 the following morning she awoke to find him by her bedside.

"You must be firm," he, repeated. "If anybody asks you how long I was out, say 10 minutes."

Emily asked him if anything had happened, but his only explanation was, "Nothing. Not much. You may hear something in the morning."

Emily did more than "hear something".

At dawn, police surrounded Potash Farm and called on Rush to surrender. "Don't try to shoot," they warned. Every man was armed.

Rush was flabbergasted. He was sure nobody at the Hall had recognised him. And why hadn't the police followed his carefully prepared "clues" leading to Thomas Jermy and John Larner?

He put a brave face on it. Told that he was being arrested for attempting to massacre the entire Jermy family, he replied, "Good God, I hope they don't think it is me; 'tis a rather serious offence."

Rush's childish faith in his wig-and-cloak disguise was completely shattered at the trial, which opened at Norwich Assizes on March 29,1849.

The maimed figure of Eliza Chastney - one of the only two people to survive the murderous blasts from Rush's blunderbuss was carried into the court on a covered stretcher.

She immediately identified Rush as the murderer.

"I have seen him several times at Stanfield Hall," she told the court, "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 other person ever came to Stanfield with such an appearance beside himself. I know of no other person like him."

Eliza Chastney's evidence was corroborated by another servant, Martha Read. She, too, had escaped death at the Hall, and she described how she heard a fusillade of 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. That is my impression still."

Rush was just as menacing in the dock as he had been outside. Conducting his own defence, he took outrageous advantage of the latitude of the court. His aggressive attitude to many of the witnesses left them shaken and unnerved.

"Recollect you are on oath!" he barked at one man. "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."

But most of Rush's venom was reserved for Emily Sandford, his former mistress and now the chief witness for the prosecution.

In a 12-hour cross-examination, his attitude towards her ranged from wounded innocence to abuse, from cajolery to intimidation.

At one point, he exclaimed: "If you wish to swear my life away falsely, say so at once, and I will sit down and not ask you another question!"

But he failed to shake her damning evidence about the crucial two hours between 7.30 and 9.30 when Rush vanished from Potash Farm to wreak vengeance against the Jermys.

Far more incriminating evidence was to come.

Rush got a hint of it when a handwriting expert testified that the various documents and agreements apparently signed by Thomas Jermy and Isaac Jermy were in Rush's handwriting.

The same handwriting appeared on the preposterous "warning note" dropped at Stanfield Hall and clearly intended to implicate Thomas Jermy.

Even as the handwriting expert spoke, the awful realization must have dawned on Rush that, in his haste, he had signed Thomas Jermy's name on the warning note . . . and Thomas Jermy was illiterate.

The next witness dispelled all doubt.

It was Thomas Jermy. He only gave two words of evidence, but they were enough to convince the jury.

"Can you write?" asked prosecuting counsel. "No sir," replied Jermy.

"That is all I have to ask," said counsel.

Rush's own defence started on the morning of the fifth day - Tuesday, April 3, 1849.

In one of the most astonishing harangues ever heard in a British courtroom. Rush spoke for 14 hours without stopping.

His speech was wild, rambling and illogical. Judge and jury visibly wilted as his tirade gained momentum. He repeatedly proclaimed his innocence and appealed dramatically tothe Almighty for justice.

Just as his gunshot had sprayed Stanfield Hall, so did his garbled oratory hit out at every target in sight. Much of the speech was gibberish - particularly when Rush referred to evidence he had clearly misunderstood.

When he started babbling about "foreign bodies" - a phrase he had picked up from one of the medical witnesses - the judge had to correct him.

"You do not understand." said Baron Rolfe. "This was not a reference to any person. Medical gentlemen, when they find anything in the flesh which is of a different nature, call it a foreign body. . . "

But Rush wasn't listening. Nothing could stem his torrent of words.

At last, they ebbed away in a sanctimonious plea to the jury.

"All I can say,' he ended, "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."

Everyone except Rush looked exhausted. Dragging himself to his feet, the Chief Prosecuting Counsel observed. "The present trial has exceeded in the annals of judicial long-suffering anything that has ever been experienced. "

The jury had had enough, too. Despite Rush's prolonged self-justification, they took only 10 minutes to reach their verdict: guilty.

Sentencing Rush to death, the Judge spoke for everyone when he said, "There is no one who has witnessed your conduct during the trial and heard the evidence disclosed against you 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."

It was a grim and morbidly satisfied crowd of 30,000 that waited for James Blomfield Rush to appear on the gallows outside Norwich Castle on the morning of April 21,1849.

There were none of the customary cheers for the prisoner. There was absolute silence as executioner John Calcraft tied the noose.

"Put the thing a little higher," grumbled Rush. "Take your time, Don't be in a hurr--"

The drop cut short his words. Not a single person among those present groaned as the rope jerked and the body of James Rush hung lifeless on the scaffold.

Ref: Headlines, Number 52 - December 1975