WEIRD NORFOLK: A 19th century Norfolk crime which became a sensation across the country
PUBLISHED: 18:00 30 November 2019 | UPDATED: 16:48 01 December 2019
Today we settle down to be entertained by real-life tragedies on television, and lap up true crime podcasts. But our fascination with murder is nothing new.
Anyone for a pottery model of a murder mansion? Or a ceramic figurine of one of the tragic victims? Or a news sheet telling the full gruesome story of a 19th century Norfolk crime which became a sensation across the country?
More than 20,000 people crowded on to Castle Hill in Norwich city centre 170 years ago to watch the final act in a notorious murder case.
Special train tickets were issued for people to travel to the public execution from London on the newly-opened railway, souvenirs were snapped up, buskers performed ballads about the crime and there was a carnival atmosphere across the city. Charles Dickens himself visited the murder scene at Stanfield Hall, near Wymondham and said it 'had a murderous look that seemed to invite such a crime.'
James Blomfield Rush was hanged outside Norwich Castle in April 1849 for the double murder of his wealthy landlords.
Rush, of Potash Farm, Hethel, was a tenant farmer and land agent, who had been loaned a large sum of money by his landlords and employers, Isaac Jermy, and his son, also called Isaac, of grand Stanfield Hall. One dark evening in November 1848, two days before repayment was due, Rush, disguised himself with a cloak, wig and false whiskers, armed himself with two pistols, and walked into Stanfield Hall. He killed the father first, and then his son. He then shot and terribly wounded the younger Isaac Jermy's pregnant wife. Most of the servants fled to hide, but a maid, Eliza, remained with her mistress and was also badly injured.
In the stables another servant heard gunfire and swam the moat to escape what he believed was rampaging horde of armed raiders, before racing to Wymondham to find help.
Details of the grisly scene which greeted the horrified doctor, police and neighbours were reported by regional and national newspapers. Then came the arrest and a backstory of forgery, deception, seduction and violence; the case became a sensation. Isaac senior had been the Recorder of Norwich, a highly prestigious legal position. He had changed his name to Jermy, as stipulated in the will of the relative from whom he inherited Stanfield Hall. However, Rush knew of a bitter dispute with another branch of the family who believed the estate belonged to them, and planned to blame the massacre on the rivals. He dropped notes as he shot claiming seven people had invaded the hall, led by "Thomas Jermy, the owner."
But the survivors identified Rush despite his disguise and soon details of his debts and deceit (plus a court case over the seduction of a Miss Dank) were being lapped up by eager readers across the country.
Rush was a widower and father-of-nine and when he planned the murders he expected the children's governess, who was also his mistress and pregnant with his child, to give him a false alibi.
She might have helped him forge letters, but she was not prepared to let him literally get away with murder and became a star witness for the prosecution.
The trial was followed across the country. Rush turned down legal counsel and defended himself, his closing speech lasting a mammoth 14 hours. It took the jury just 10 minutes to find him guilty.
A gallows was built on the bridge in front of the castle entrance and the execution was watched by an estimated 20,000 day-trippers and locals.
The murderer's corpse was taken back into the castle where a death mask was made before he was buried within the grounds.
The Science Museum in London still has a plaster copy of that death mask which was studied by phrenologists who believed criminals could be identified by the shape of their skulls.
The father and son he killed so brutally lie in the churchyard at Wymondham Abbey.
The turbulent history of Stanfield Hall inspired a novel and a film and a life-size waxwork of Rush was part of Madame Tussaud's Chamber of Horrors in London right up to 1971.
Victorian readers clamoured for these murder stories, in their newspapers, in the special crime pamphlets produced like programmes for public executions, and in "penny dreadfuls" - serialised sensational novels costing just a penny per week and featuring tales of anything from mass murder to vampires. Collectable ceramic figures of Rush, his victims and his mistress, and models of Stanfield Hall, Potash Farm and Norwich Castle were snapped up to grace mantelpieces across the country.
They all contributed to the Victorian fascination with crime,which continues to this day as we tune in to the latest real-life murder thriller show or podcast.
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