Dreads and Drolls, by Arthur Machen

The Highbury Mystery

When Thomas Pinch and his sister Ruth, having accomplished their unpleasant discussion with the brass-and-copper founder of Camberwell, went into the wild of London to look for lodgings, Tom suggested Islington as a promising quarter for their search. It is needless to say that Tom knew nothing whatever about Islington — or any other part of London. But an old phrase was in his mind, and it tempted him.

“It used to be called Merry Islington, once upon a time,” said Tom. “Perhaps it’s merry now; if so, it’s all the better. Eh?”

“If it’s not too dear,” said Tom’s sister.

“Of course, if it’s not too dear,” assented Tom. “Well, where is Islington? We can’t do better than go there, I should think. Let’s go.”

So far as I remember they did not find much mirth in Islington, though they did find two bedrooms and a triangular parlour which suited them very well. But the fact is that Tom Pinch went to Islington a little too late; just as I went to the old Fleet Street tavern in 1881, hoping to meet there the Principal Wits of the Town: a little too late. Islington was once a noted place for its houses of entertainment, for its bottled ale and skittles, its cakes, custard, stewed prunes, and so forth; and thus merry to seventeenth and eighteenth-century London. And in an Islington tavern just 160 years ago there was a meeting not devoid of mirth, or at least of cheerfulness, which yet linked itself on to a mysterious and terrible crime; the murder of Thomas Jenkyns, retired merchant, of Enfield Wash. The body of this Thomas Jenkyns was found on the night of September 23, 1765. It was lying in a pool of blood in a field near Highbury. The poor man’s throat had been cut from ear to ear, as the two men who found the corpse declared. And as for these two men, Thomas Brown and Richard Staple, inhabitants of some festering maze of alleys between Holborn and Clerkenwell, I am afraid they did not bear the best of characters. Bow Street knew them and they were known also at the taproom of the Bell, where they met friends of the same way of thinking as themselves. There had been a little highway robbery and a little burglary in their stories, and they had just missed the gallows more than once. So it may be as well not to consider too curiously what the two were doing in Highbury Fields ten o’clock of this dark September night. Thomas Brown told of the horror of his friend and himself when they stumbled on the murdered man.

“We were hard put to it to know what to do,” he declared. “It seemed as if the poor man’s head was almost cut away from his body, and I said to my friend, Richard Staple, who was with me, ‘Why, Dick,’ said I, ‘this is a villainous to-do. For if we shift to raise the body, ’tis a great chance that the man’s head will fall apart, and I cannot abide the thought of it.’ ‘Why, Tom,’ said he, ‘I am much of your mind in the business. What if we leave ill work as it lies, and go home peaceably by another way.’ But I would not have that neither, lest, as I said, we should both be nabbed for the fact and come to Tyburn at last. And so we made shift to raise the dead man tenderly, I holding his head to his shoulders and trembling a great deal, and in this way bore him as far as Islington, without any misadventure, it being late of a dark night, with a cold wind rising, and very black clouds, and scarce anyone abroad.”

This is, certainly, not a very merry opening, and, indeed, mirth is only a brief interlude in the tale. The cheerful relief is afforded by the evidence of Simon Murchison, who kept a snuff-shop in Norton Folgate, of William Frost, a brass-founder, of Clerkenwell, and of Abraham Lewis, clock maker, of Devizes. It was largely on their evidence that Anthony Mullins, citizen and haberdasher, was arrested and charged with the murder, a week after the discovery of the crime by the dubious Brown and Staple. The three elderly tradesmen had met by chance — they had not known each other before — at the Bowl and Sword tavern at Islington on the afternoon of September 23, and had got into conversation, all agreeing that things were not as they were in the reign of King George II.

“We all grew to be pretty dismal over the bad times,” said Abraham Lewis, “till at last I said, ‘Why, this will never end it or mend it. Come! let us go and bump it at Dog and Duck, and I will be surety for the first bowl of punch, the lowest notch of the three to be debtor for the second.’”

The three went out into the alley behind the tavern, and it is interesting to note that Mr. Murchison ordered pipes and a plate of tobacco, and that Mr. Frost paid for a bottle of brandy “to hearten the bowl,” and so they went to their match, which Mr. Frost won.

“And while we were in the garden-house at the side of the alley, drinking our punch, and smoking tobacco, and talking of the game, two men came out from the tavern and sat on a bench by the wall, speaking together very seriously, but not as we could hear what they said. They called for liquor and drank two glasses apiece and went out, and we saw no more of them.” The three identified the murderer and the murdered.

“I know him,” said Lewis, pointing to Mullins, “by his great beaked nose, and the dead man I could swear to any day, for as he lifted his glass I saw that his little finger was crooked back as if it had been broken, and I saw the body, and the little finger was crooked as I saw it on the live man.” Then Frost had seen the prisoner read a paper which Jenkyns had given to him, and Mullins had drawn out a tortoiseshell and gold spectacle-case of curious workmanship, and just such a spectacle-case was found on Mullins when he was taken. There were other witnesses who had seen Mullins and Jenkyns walking on the way to Highbury Fields a little later in the afternoon: there seemed no doubt as to the verdict which the jury would bring in.

Then came the surprise of the case. The prisoner’s two clerks, Mr. Osborne and Mr. Nichols, swore that their master had not stirred out of his counting-house from dinner time till eight o’clock in the evening. Osborne sat at a high desk facing Mr. Mullins’s private counting-house, which was separated from the rest of the room by a glass partition. Nichols’s stool was under a window and commanded a view of the door.

“I was busy with a great account,” said Osborne, “but ever and again I looked up from my book, and there sat my master, as he was always accustomed, but very still.”

Counsel: “Was he not used, then, to sit still in his counting-house?”

Osborne: “Why, not so. He would rise now and again commonly, and walk a little to and fro, and so sit down again. And twice or thrice in an hour he would come out and speak with us about the occasions of the day.”

Counsel: “And did he not stir at all on this afternoon?”

Osborne: “He sat still at his desk and never moved till it was past eight in the evening.”

And then a very curious point arose. Nichols, the other clerk, had been strangely overcome towards the end of the afternoon. He had come up to Osborne, looking very ill and pale, as Osborne said, and complaining that his heart was heavy, and that “he was sadly oppressed.” Osborne, belonging to a pre-scientific age, advised his fellow-clerk to go to the Mitre and drink a little ale, and Nichols did so, “looking tearfully to the place where Mr Mullins sat, with no candle by him.” A moment later, Mr. Mullins rose and came down to the general counting-house and asked Osborne where his fellow was. On hearing of his occupation, Mullins said, “Ah, poor child! He might do worse than drink a cup of ale.” Then Nichols returned, and soon after the two clerks went on their way, one to his lodgings by Pedlar’s Acre, the other to see the fireworks, at Marylebone Gardens. But when counsel for the Crown cross-examined Nichols as to the nature and cause of his seizure, the witness said:

“There came a great trembling upon me, and a dread on my heart and a sickness in my stomach . . . and I feared very much. And so I looked round on my stool to see if my fellow Osborne was in his place, and looking down on the floor of the counting-house I could have sworn that there was a great pool of blood there, with bubbles of blood in it, and I had almost swooned away.”

Naturally, Mullins was acquitted on the evidence of his two clerks. But what is the solution of the puzzle? When I treated this curious case some time ago, I mentioned the theory that has been advanced by some occultists of our day. These persons hold that while the natural body of Anthony Mullins was committing murder at Highbury, his “astral” body appeared all the while in the counting-house in the City. I was unable to accept this tempting solution, and declared my opinion that the two clerks perjured themselves to save their master from the gallows. But there is this difficulty: Why should the clerk Nichols have invented the outrageous tale of the visionary pool of blood?

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38