Walter Horsford

Walter Horsford and the case of the St Neots poisoning

In 1898 a 26-year-old farmer, Walter Horsford, stood trial at Huntingdon Assizes charged with the murder, by poisoning, of his cousin Annie Holmes. He pleaded not guilty.

The prosecution, led by Mr. Rawlinson, Q.C., stated that Annie lived at Stoneleigh near Kimbolton in Huntingdonshire. She was a widow and had three children, the youngest still a baby. It was alleged that Horsford was intimate with Annie. In October of 1897, Horsford had married a woman named Bessie. At the end of that month Annie moved to a cottage at St. Neots. By December Annie told Horsford that she was pregnant by him. He wrote her a letter which said, “Dear Annie, Will come over on Friday to see if we can come to an arrangement of some sort or other, but you must remember that I paid you for what I had done. I gave you half a crown and so if I thought well not to give you anything you could not get it. But still I don’t want the talk and to hear it that was by me that you are so.”

On the 28th of December Horsford went to a chemists in Thrapstone and purchased 90 grains of strychnine, on the pretext of killing rats. On the 7th of January 1898, Annie was found dead by her daughter, also Annie. A search of her bedroom revealed a packet containing strychnine with the words “Take in a little water. It is quite harmless”, written on it in Horsford’s handwriting.

Mr. Paine the chemist who had sold Horsford the poison gave evidence and produced the poison register showing Horsford’s signature.

Annie junior told the court that on the evening of January the 7th her mother had taken a full glass of water up to her bedroom. When she looked in her mother later most of the water had gone. Later that night her mother began exhibiting the signs of poisoning and Annie went to get help.

Expert witnesses testified about the handwriting, the cause of death and the fact that Annie was not pregnant. On Monday the 6th of June 1898, after a brief deliberation by the jury, Horsford was convicted of the murder and sentenced to death.

Horsford was transferred to Cambridge prison for execution on Tuesday the 28th of June 1898. An execution shed had been constructed in one of the prison’s yards. Two member of the press were admitted. James Billington pinioned Horsford in the condemned cell at 7.59 am. He was led out into the yard and on into the execution shed in a procession formed by the governor, the Sheriff, Mr. Fowler, the surgeon, four warders and the chaplain, the Rev. Mr. Christie. Horsford walked unaided and maintained his composure to the end. Billington got the hood and noose on quickly, while his assistant, Robert Wade, strapped Horsford’s legs. A drop of 7 feet was given and death was recorded as “instantaneous”. A large crowd had gathered outside the prison to see the black flag raised.

At the inquest later in the morning the prison surgeon testified that there had been fracture/dislocation of Horsford’s neck vertebrae.

Newspapers could print pictures by this time and it is thus possible to have an artist’s impression of what Annie and Horsford looked like.