‘The late revolting murder and mutilation at Alsagers Bank’
It is easy to imagine life in the past through a rosy haze and see the modern world as increasingly dangerous and unpredictable. Perhaps Adolphus Fielding, going about his business as an itinerant trader around Audley in 1845, felt safe and at peace with the world. Perhaps, as he approached a cottage in Alsagers Bank on 12 November, he thought only of warming himself, enjoying a few minutes gossip and maybe earning some money. But this is the story of his death on that day in 1845, a day when the past, for him, was a dangerous place to be.
Two recent murders in the area, of a gamekeeper’s son in 1843 and of a constable earlier that year, both committed by poachers, had shocked Alsagers Bank. But they could hardly have prepared the inhabitants for the grisly events some of them were to witness. As the local paper said:
...but for the hope that the actor in the scene of blood was not of sound mind at the time, it might well be designated one of the most sanguinary and diabolical crimes ever perpetrated.
Adolphus Fielding was a potter, about 49 years old, whose failing eyesight had forced him to become an itinerant dealer in small wares. His round was confined to Audley and the neighbourhood, but he lived a few miles away in Stoke Road, Newcastle. The cottage he visited that day was owned by a widow, Martha Colclough, who lived there with her son and three lodgers; James Dean, Fanny Mycock (who passed as Dean’s wife) and their small son. The cottage was probably on the spot where the ‘Farmer’s Boy’ public house now stands. Dean was about 33 years old at the time and was working as a mason on alterations to Apedale Hall. He was married, but had been separated from his wife for 14 years.
Contemporary extracts reproduced here are taken from the local paper of the day, the Staffordshire Advertiser. Some of the punctuation may have been altered for clarity.
This is how the Staffordshire Advertiser tells the story,
It seems that Fielding, in the course of his journeys, called at the cottage where Dean lodged, which is a little out of the public road. About noon on Wednesday, Fielding went into the cottage and it does appear that there were not any other persons in the house at the time except James Dean (who it seems was not in good health and had not been at work that week) and his little boy, a child of about five years of age. The old woman who belonged to the cottage was gone to Newcastle, and the woman with whom Dean lived was at a neighbouring shop. In a very few minutes afterwards, this woman was met in the road by the child, who told her that his father was ‘touching’ the old man who had given her (his mother) a tea pot. On the woman hastening to the cottage, to her great horror she saw through the open door the headless body of the unfortunate man on the floor, which was deluged with blood, and Dean striking at the head with an axe. An alarm was of course instantly made, and numbers flocked to the place, but from the ferocious appearance of the murderer, they were afraid to enter the house. Seeing the crowd, Dean took up a portion of the brains of his unhappy victim and threw them at the bystanders! After some little time, a man named Scott, a collier, made two attempts to secure him but was repulsed. He received several wounds about the neck, and another on the face during the second encounter, Dean having armed himself with a pair of scissors and a knife.
Ultimately the infuriated man bolted the door and placed the head of his victim on the fire, which he commenced blowing with the bellows. This circumstance being witnessed through the windows, and it seeming to be the intention of the murderer to consume the body, Mr Wilson and other persons got a ladder, and having procured a quantity of water went to the top of the cottage and poured it down the chimney to put out the fire, which plan proved successful. They afterwards stopped up the top of the chimney and the steam and smoke drove Dean to an upper room, he dragging the ladder by which he had ascended up after him. The door of the cottage was then burst open by the neighbours and the extent of the frightful tragedy was immediately apparent. The head when taken off the fire was so disfigured that it scarcely presented a human aspect. The body still lay on the floor. Various attempts were made to capture Dean, who stood at the top of the stairs, armed with another axe of a larger size than that he had first used, and repelled his assailants by throwing bottles and other things he could lay his hands on at them. Ultimately, some person got to the top of the cottage and having broken through the roof in several places, policeman Webb and others rushed upon him as he was crouching in one corner of the room, and after some severe struggling he was handcuffed and brought out. His appearance at this time beggars description. What with his blacked appearance from the dust and smoke caused by the fire being put out and his clothes thoroughly soaked in the blood of his unhappy victim, he presented a spectacle properly terrific.
The prisoner shortly after his capture became quite passive and was conveyed to the lock ups at Audley where he said but little and nothing, we understand, about the crime he had committed.
Any conversation between Dean and Fielding that day could only have been brief. Only five minutes had elapsed between Fanny Mycock leaving the house (she did not see Fielding) to when she returned to find him dead. It was unlikely that Dean had ever been at home when Fielding had visited, he would have been at work, so there was little possibility that the two men would have quarrelled.
The child, the only eye witness to their meeting, was at first unable to explain what had happened. However, his mother later found out in more detail what he had seen:
The little fellow states that before the old man as he was called (the deceased) came in, his father got the axe and put him (the boy) on the screen, telling him that if he did not sit still he would cut his head off. Just at this instant, the deceased, who it is supposed came over the fields from Scott Hay, entered the cottage and the melancholy sequel is already known.
The newspaper speculated that Fielding saw the axe in Dean’s hand, remonstrated with him and was then attacked. The instrument with which Dean struck the first and probably fatal blow was not the axe, but a pair of tongs, described as ‘much bent and stained with blood’.
A disturbed state of mind
Several episodes in the week before Dean’s encounter with Fielding suggested that Dean’s state of mind was deteriorating into madness:
On the previous Saturday night, which was the first time that anything remarkable was noticed in his conduct, he got up in bed and alarmed the house by shouting ‘Glory, glory, glory’ and adding that ‘The devil was upstairs and he would fetch him down’
On Monday morning he went to work as usual but spoiled some of the stone he was engaged on, and afterwards went and kissed one of the foremen at the works. In consequence of this strange conduct he was taken to a physician in Newcastle by the woman who passed as his wife, on Monday. The doctor prescribed some medicine, but told her that he was more fit for an asylum than an infirmary, and requested her to take care of him and bring him again. On the Tuesday, Dean accompanied the woman to Stone and returned to Alsagers Bank about half an hour previous to the commission of the dreadful deed.
Other stories emerged later about Dean’s strange behaviour:
It is stated that on the Sunday before the murder he went with Fanny Mycock, the female with whom he lived, and his little boy to the house of a relative of the woman in Newcastle and when there he took off his flannel drawers, put them on the fire and stood calmly looking on until they were consumed. There is reason to believe, from several circumstances, that the unhappy man meditated both the death of the woman Mycock and the boy. She states that on their return from Stone, on the morning of the murder, Dean was with herself and the boy in the cottage when he said ‘Three, two, one, Father, Son and Holy Ghost, thee, me and that lad shall soon be as one.’ And soon after he said ‘Fanny, thou art very flat, but thoul’t be flatter just now.’
The Staffordshire Advertiser of Saturday 15 November 1845 reported the inquest in full. It took place on Thursday afternoon (November 13) at the house of Mr Wilson, the Gresley Arms, Alsagers Bank, before W. Harding Esq. Coroner.
The Coroner [said] that the present case was one of a more dreadful nature than any which had occurred since he held the office of coroner. According to the law they were to ascertain how, and by what means, the unfortunate deceased had come to death. The question for them to consider would not be the state of the mind of the accused party - that would be for the decision of a higher tribunal - but they would have to decide whether, from the facts which would be laid before them, there was sufficient evidence to justify them in sending the case for trial. He would request them to dismiss from their minds the rumours they may have heard out of doors, and confine themselves to the evidence of the several witnesses which would be laid before them. Their first duty would be to view the body.
The Jury at once proceeded to the cottage where the body of the deceased lay. The scene was most tragical. The floor and the walls of the cottage were stained with blood and the headless trunk and half-burned head of the deceased in whose countenance not a solitary feature could be traced, altogether presented a most horrible appearance.
The Jury having reassembled, the first witness called was William Ratcliffe, a relative of the deceased, who, however, not being able distinctly to identify the body was not proceeded with.
Humphry Ratcliffe, being sworn said ‘I am a potter residing in Stoke Road, Newcastle and the deceased was my nephew. His name was Adolphus Fielding and he was 49 years of age. He had sometimes gone by the name of Ratcliffe in consequence of being brought up by the family of Ratcliffes. I saw him on Tuesday night last, and had some conversation with him but he did not say where he was going the following day. The deceased had a mark upon one of his arms which had been made for the purpose of relieving his eyes. The mark is what is called ‘ragging’. I had seen the same mark on the body which is now lying dead and from that mark, the clothes and the general appearance, I have no doubt that it is the body of Adolphus Fielding. I have seen the head which is severed from the body; it is very much burnt - so much so that I cannot distinguish the features. He carried a small oval basket; I could tell it if I saw it again.’
The inquest continued with the evidence of Fanny Mycock:
‘I am a single woman and live at Alsagers Bank with James Dean. Between 11 and 12 o’clock I left Dean in the house with my little boy, who is about five years of age, and went to a small shop nearby kept by a person named Bayley, which is from two to three hundred yards distant. I had not been five minutes from the house when I met my little boy in the road, opposite the chapel, as I was going back. He said to me “mother, my father has touched that old man who gave you the teapot, but the old man did not touch my father.”’ [The witness here explained in reference to the teapot that she had purchased one from the old man alluded to, about five weeks back, and had given him a penny for it]. ‘Being afraid that James Dean was beating the old man, I immediately ran to the house. When I got there the door was open, and I saw Dean with the old man on the floor and his head was off. Dean had an axe in his hand as was chopping at the head when I went to the door. He did not seem to notice me and I ran immediately away into the main road and made an alarm. I did not meet the old man when I went to Bayley’s shop. I am not married to James Dean but I have lived with him since the birth of this child [the little fellow was in the room, and as he played about the mother’s knee, appeared totally unconscious of the awful nature of the proceedings taking place.] We lodged with Martha Colclough, a widow, and have done so since we came to this neighbourhood, which is about 23 weeks, Martha Colclough with her son Samuel also live in the house but neither of them were in at the time. I went with the prisoner to Stone on Tuesday, to see my mother, and we got back on Wednesday morning about half an hour before it happened. James Dean had appeared very strange in his conduct for several days, and on Monday, I went with him to a physician at Newcastle, and I received a prescription from him to get some medicine. The axe-hammer produced is one belonging to Martha Colclough and the one I saw Dean chopping the old man with. I saw the body this morning and it is the same he was cutting at. Dean is about 33 years of age, and has not been tipsy for two years.’
Martha Proctor, wife of James Proctor, collier, being sworn said, ‘I live with my husband at Alsagers Bank and our house is a few yards from Martha Colclough’s cottage. I know James Dean - he lodges with Martha Colclough, and the last witness lives with him. Yesterday at about a quarter past twelve, I heard a great scream in the road, and went out thinking some colliers had been killed; I saw the last witness and she said, “Our James is killing Adolphus”, and I said, “What Adolphus?” to which she replied “The little stutting (stammering) man.” When she said the little stutting (stammering) man I knew who she meant. Fanny Mycock said to me “Don’t you go, for he will kill you.” I went to the cottage door and saw James Dean: his back was towards me; he was stooping but I did not see what he was doing; he was doing something with his hands but I was so frightened that I ran away.’ Thomas Downing, a shoemaker, gave corroborative testimony.
By the request of the foreman, the witness Humphry Ratcliffe was recalled, and asked whether the deceased stammered, to which he replied that he did.
William Scott, who appeared to have been a good deal bruised, was next sworn and examined: ‘I am a collier and live at Alsagers Bank. In consequence of what I heard from Fanny Mycock I went about half past one yesterday to the house where James Dean lodged; the door being open I went into the house; and saw Dean cutting away at the head of the deceased; he held the hair of the deceased head with his left hand and was cutting away at it with the axe-hammer he had in his right hand; the head was severed from the body. When he saw me he dropped the axe and took up a knife from the bench which was near him and pointed it with a hissing kind of noise towards me. I went out and got a rail to defend myself when I came in again he had got a pair of scissors in one hand and a knife in the other. Dean then came at me and struck me with something in the face and also stabbed me in the neck. The rail I had with me broke, and we had a struggle, and I slipped down. I managed to get away, and as soon as I was gone out of the house he fastened the door after me. In about two minutes afterwards, on looking through one of the windows I saw him put the head of the deceased on the fire. Some persons then got a ladder and poured water down the chimney to put out the fire and prevent him from burning the body. There was a great steam and smoke in the house in consequence of which he retreated upstairs. The door was then burst open, when it was found that Dean had pulled the ladder which is used to go upstairs after him. The roof was then broken in by several persons, and Webb, a police constable seized upon him, and with difficulty he was handcuffed and afterwards he was brought out. The head of the deceased was on the fire and the body lay partly under a bench. Several chairs were placed before it. There were some clothes betwixt the bench and chairs. The coat [which was] produced I saw Dean pull off and throw down near the place where I saw him chopping at the head of the deceased. I have seen him wear the coat before.’
William Price being sworn said, ‘I am a sub inspector of police at Halmer End in the parish of Audley. The shirt, waistcoat and trousers produced I took from the prisoner in Hanley lock ups. The jacket was lying by the side of him at the lock ups and there is something like the brains of a person sprinkled upon them. There was a pocket book in the coat pocket [The pocket book was very much stained with blood. It contained a few unimportant memorandums.] The shovel and tongs produced I found in the cottage and there is blood and hair upon them.’
Mr G Tait said, ‘I am a surgeon residing at Audley and have seen the body of the deceased at the house of Martha Colclough, which has been sworn to and identified as the body of Adolphus Fielding. The body was lying on a piece of wooden furniture in the house. The head which had been taken off near the shoulders was lying near the body. The head was very much burnt and there was a large fracture on the left temple. The features were not at all discernible. The primary cause of death was undoubtedly the injury on the temple and was quite sufficient to have caused death.’
Mr H Davies, surgeon, Newcastle who had also seen the body concurred in the opinion of Mr Tait.
No other witnesses being examined, the room was cleared and in two or three minutes afterwards, the jury returned a verdict of WILFUL MURDER against James Dean.
The prisoner who was in the jury room during the enquiry made not the slightest observation in any portion of the evidence of the witnesses and in fact appeared quite an unconcerned spectator.
The coroner stated that he was not aware the prisoner had been in the room the whole time and addressing him said ‘James Dean, if you wish any of the witnesses to be recalled to enable you to put any questions to them, I will recall them.’ The prisoner with a vacant stare said ‘I was not taking any notice.’
The coroner then told him that the jury had returned a verdict against him of the wilful murder of Adolphus Fielding and enquired if he had anything to say. The prisoner replied ‘I have a good deal to say but I have forgot it. I did not want to kill him. I did not kill any man did I?’
After a few observations from the coroner, the prisoner was committed for trial at the next assizes and the witnesses were bound over. Mr McDermott said he would undertake to be prosecutor in the case. The prisoner was brought to the county gaol yesterday at noon by Sub-Inspector Price, and at both the Madeley and Whitmore station of the Grand Junction Railway conducted himself in a most remarkable and occasionally in a violent manner.
After the coroner’s investigation was over, the body of Adolphus Fielding was taken from the cottage where it lay to a public house in the neighbourhood. It was then removed to the house of Fielding’s uncle, Humphrey Radcliffe, in Stoke Road, Newcastle, before burial.
The funeral took place on Monday afternoon. The body was interred in the Harts Hill Churchyard, the mournful ceremony being performed in a very impressive manner by the Rev F.F. Clark, the incumbent. The deceased had been a member of the Baptist community in Newcastle between 20 and 30 years, and on the Sunday preceding his death he had joined with members of the church in partaking of the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper. The melancholy event is to be improved by a suitable discourse in the Baptist church, Newcastle, on Sunday evening. In the parish of Audley, the neighbourhood where the deceased had travelled for more than 20 years, for the purpose of vending his wares, he was of course well known and was generally esteemed as a quiet inoffensive man. It is a somewhat remarkable coincidence that on the Sunday before his death the deceased and William Radcliffe his uncle, with whom he resided, agreed in the course of conversation to go at the same early period to Hartshill Church yard to select a spot where, on their decease they might be interred together.
On the Friday after the offence, Dean was taken to the county gaol. During the journey to the Madeley Station his behaviour, according to the report in the local paper, was bizarre:
He conducted himself in a very boisterous manner. Whilst on the train he attempted to kiss one of the guards. On the way he frequently exclaimed ‘What shall I do? What shall I do? I have killed a man’ and on one occasion enquired if he thought they would hang him. On his arrival at Stafford, he was extremely violent, resisting the officers, kicking one of them with great force, and refusing to walk; he was at length obliged to be conveyed by force.
When he reached the prison, he continued to fight and kick until he found resistance vain and he then quietly submitted to the restraints imposed upon him. He has remained perfectly peaceable since his committal, though at times he has appeared to labour under great depression of spirits.
More information emerged about Dean after his committal.
Dean, it appears, some years ago worked at Trentham, in which neighbourhood he formed the intimacy with the female Mycock. He afterwards went to Macclesfield, where about two years ago he fell into a very low desponding state, from which he recovered in a few weeks by going to work in the country with a very lively companion. He was afterwards employed as a mason in the erection of Smallwood Church, in Cheshire, and about six months ago was engaged at the buildings now in progress at Apedale Hall, and went to lodge at Alsagers Bank with widow Colclough.
The Assize Court
James Dean was placed at the bar, charged with ‘the wilful murder of Adolphus Fielding on the 12th November last at the parish of Audley’. The Staffordshire Advertiser of 21 March 1846, described the proceedings:
When placed on the dock he was as motionless as a statue, and upon being called upon by name by the Clerk of Arraigns to hold up his right hand, he took not the slightest notice.
John Chidley, the head turnkey at the gaol stated to the court that the prisoner would remain in the state in which he was now for days together, and would speak to no one, and at other times he would converse freely. The Jury were then sworn to try the state of the prisoner’s mind.
The Court enquired whether the prisoner was defended, when it was stated that he was not, Mr Yardley who appeared on behalf of the prosecution observed that more than a doubt existed as to whether the prisoner was in a fit state of mind to answer the charge and whether he understood the nature of the present proceedings.
John Chidley being sworn stated that the prisoner was under his care in the gaol. At times he would remain for days together in his presently unconscious state. At other times he would understand what was addressed to him.
By the judge: ‘From my experiences of his conduct I don’t think he understands anything now going on.’
Mr Robert Hughes the surgeon to the gaol was next examined and stated that the prisoner had been several months under his care and his conduct was certainly that of an insane person; occasionally he appeared to have some lucid intervals.
The judge [stated] ‘I believe him to be of unsound mind and that he has not discretion to act. At times he remains in the same listless state for several successive days.’
The head turnkey observed that from 28th Feb to 10th March the prisoner kept moaning day and night and incessantly calling out both Chidley and Mountford. On a late occasion they found it necessary to impose some restraint on him; he having knocked his head with such force against one of the windows, as not only to break through the lead and glass but also knock the iron bar out.
The judge [declared], ‘Gentlemen of the jury, the effect of this inquiry is not to discharge the prisoner, he will be kept in custody.’
The jury after a moment’s consideration, returned a verdict that the prisoner was of unsound mind and unfit to take his trial for the offence he is charged.
His Lordship remarked that if the prisoner should be found fit he might be up upon trial before the assize or otherwise he must stand remanded until the next assizes.
The prisoner who throughout appeared to know nothing of what had been passing was removed from the dock.
Fanny Mycock’s troubles were not over. Later that month, she was a witness in another court case, reported in the Staffordshire Advertiser of 29 November as ‘The Savings Bank Case’. John Weaver, a stonemason from Chesterton working on Apedale Hall, was came before the magistrates accused of forgery. He had signed his name as James Dean, in an attempt to withdraw £10-1s-6d from Dean’s Newcastle Savings Bank account. Weaver did not deny that he had done so, but said that he had acted under Fanny Mycock’s instructions, and had immediately handed over all the money to her. Fanny Mycock told the court that Dean had given her permission to get the money from the bank and that he would willingly sign any paper that the Bank might require. Mrs Morgan, a cashier of the bank, said that in the circumstances, the bank could not accept Dean’s signature. Although Fanny protested that the greater part of the money belonged to her and that Dean had said before witnesses and in letters that she should take it for her little boy, the bank remained firm. As the money was deposited under Dean’s name, he was the only person with the power to withdraw it. As the newspaper account relates, Fanny became desperate:
Fanny Mycock, with some impatience, asked ‘who is to keep me and my child? I can get nothing to do about here; I want to go to Macclesfield, where I shall be getting something in the factories.’
More of Fanny’s story emerged the next day. She had lived with Dean for more than five years, and for some of that time had worked in a factory in Macclesfield, where she had saved £7. Dean had not known that she deposited this money in his name in the bank. The remaining three pounds was Dean’s money, but he had given permission for her to take it. In spite of Fanny’s testimony, John Weaver was committed for trial at the assizes, but was released on bail. In March 1846 he was finally found ‘not guilty’.
Hundreds of people visited Martha Colclough’s ruined cottage in the aftermath of the murder. She made the decision to destroy it when she had the means.
The fate of James Dean is a mystery. Although he was in gaol at the time of the Savings Bank case, no subsequent record can be found of him. His name is not on the census of Stafford prison, nor does the Stafford prison governor’s personal records list him as one of the ‘lunatics’ there. Research has not so far uncovered a record of his death.