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WEIRD NORFOLK: The haunting secrets hidden in Bacton Wood and the ghost of a double-murderer

PUBLISHED: 18:00 14 March 2020

Does the spirit of William Suffolk still roam Bacton Wood?   Picture: MARK BULLIMORE

Does the spirit of William Suffolk still roam Bacton Wood? Picture: MARK BULLIMORE

Archant Norfolk 2016

If you go down to the woods today, you may have a grim surprise…Listen out for the ghost of a murderer left hanging in a gibbet in Bacton Woods.

Tarred and jammed into a human-shaped cage hanging from a post in Norfolk woodland, William Suffolk's penance for the brutal murder of his lover was to be left to rot in plain sight - and while his physical body has gone, his ghost remains.

Bacton (also known as Witton) Wood is a beautiful, peaceful pocket of woodland, a mosaic of more than 30 different kinds of trees and a popular place for picnics. But explore in the right place and you may find a small mound of earth beside one of the main tracks: this is thought to mark the exact spot where horror was once hidden in the trees, suspended in mid-air between earth and sky. It was here 'Bloody Will' swayed in the wind in his dreadful body cage, a dreadful threat to anyone considering illicit love - Gibbet Piece was named after William Suffolk.

The Gentleman's Magazine of 1797 contains an account of the crime, telling the time-old tale of an extra-marital affair: Suffolk, a married father of four, fell for neighbour Mary Beck and she, in turn, fell pregnant with their child. Born in secret in isolated countryside, Beck and Suffolk conspired to kill and bury the poor child, therefore protecting their secret affair. Mary's brother discovered the affair, confronted Suffolk and told him to end it.

On February 3 1797, the lovers met on a common near North Walsham to talk, but Mary pre-empted Suffolk, ending their tryst. An argument broke out and Suffolk snapped: he took a large stick and rained blow after blow on Mary, dragging her apparently-lifeless body to a cart track, leaving her head in a wheel rut in an attempt to disguise her injuries as an accident.

'In this state she was discovered, and had only strength to declare that Suffolk was the murderer, who, on being taken into custody, and soon after being informed by the constable that she was not then dead, declared, that, if he thought she could have stirred hand or foot, he would have beaten her till this time,' reads the piece. Mary died on February 5 and Suffolk was sent to trial and sentenced to death. He was hanged at Norwich Castle on March 25 before being taken to be gibbeted.

Between 1752 and 1832, 144 convicted criminals in England were hanged in chains. When gibbets were erected, crowds of onlookers would visit for a peek at a famous criminal - but quickly, the gibbet cages became horror shows of unimaginable gore. Nearby households would be forced to shut windows to prevent the stench pervading their homes and gibbets would twist and sway in the wind, giving corpses an uncanny air of 'life'.

Some suggest Suffolk's body may have been covered in a layer of pitch, possibly to preserve the body while the gibbet was constructed or to allow even more people to visit before the corpse liquefied. Suffolk hung in the woods for either four or six years - accounts vary - during which many passers-by grabbed a souvenir to take away (bones, clothing, shavings from the gibbet) to create their own dark museum.

In this waste-not-want-not time, the gibbet itself was also repurposed, used by a Knapton carpenter in the construction of his cottages. In a letter written to the Eastern Daily Press in July 1918, writer J Mortlock revealed a local colonel had ordered the post be removed because his horse shied when close to it, adding: 'I interviewed an old lady five years ago at Bacton, aged 84, who remembered her father often saying he had seen the grass growing in the mouth of the skull.'

Rumours quickly spread that while William's body was no longer physically in the woods, his vengeful spirit remained. People reported hearing the sound of creaking at the place the gibbet had once been, dogs and horses refused to pass the area of the wood where Suffolk's body had been suspended. According to local stories, relatively recently, children were playing in the wood close to where the gibbet once stood and came across a skeleton lying on the moss. Petrified, they ran home to tell their parents, who came to investigate and found…nothing. Needless to say, the children didn't rush back to play there again.

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