ISAAC EDWARD SEWELL
A Story of Jealousy
and Cold Blooded Murder
This article was originally published in the August 2007 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society
Isaac Edward Sewell was born in 1877 at Pytchley, near Kettering in Northamptonshire. His parents were Isaac Brown Sewell, born about 1842 at Slawston in Leicestershire and Sarah Charlotte Dainty, born 1850 at Pytchley. They married in 1874 and had five other children all born at Pytchley between 1876 and 1887.
Isaac Edward went into the shoe trade, which was a major industry in the towns and villages around Kettering. His father died in 1889, and his mother remarried William Percival in 1894. They were all still living in Pytchley at the time of the 1901 census but Isaac, using the name Edward, was head of his household living with his three younger brothers and their maternal grandfather. His youngest brother Samuel, aged 14, was recorded as being an imbecile.
At some time in the early part of 1912 Isaac had met and moved in to live with Mary Jane Pursglove at 76 Northall Street, Kettering. She originated from Northampton and had previously been married to a soldier who went off to the Boer War. Mary moved with her two children to Kettering around 1902 and eventually set up home with a man named Bell, a railway engine driver, at Carrington Street in Kettering. By the time this arrangement came to an end, Mary had another child, a second daughter. Despite this split Mary would still see Bell at Carrington Street even after she had set up home with Isaac.
Northall Street was in a poor area of Kettering. A two up and two down terrace house forming part of a narrow way between Rockingham and Rothwell Roads, populated by families at the lower end of the social scale and poverty along with domestic violence was common.
When Isaac moved in, Mary's 14 year old son had already been sent away to a reform school and her 17 year old daughter Elizabeth had recently given birth to an illegitimate baby. It was known that both Isaac and Mary liked to drink in nearby public houses and that for such families money was always scarce and a worry. In this case, further tensions were caused by Mary continuing to see Bell, her previous partner, at his Carrington Street house. Isaac knew that Mary had continued with this relationship despite his protests and obvious resentment. It was common knowledge that it caused many arguments between the couple.
As the weeks went on Isaac's jealousy grew and on Saturday 27th July 1912 a serious row resulted in threatened physical violence. Mary told Isaac that if he thought that her seeing Bell was a risk to them then he should leave and live elsewhere.
Early in the evening Mary went to their bedroom to lie down on the bed. She was followed soon after by Isaac who lay beside her. After she fell asleep he went downstairs and picked up his shoemaker's knife and returned upstairs to the bedroom. Mary was lying on her back presenting an ideal target as Isaac slashed down and across her unprotected throat. His second cut went from the centre of her throat towards her left ear. So violent was this assault that Mary's head was almost severed from her body.
Isaac left Mary where she lay and left the house locking up after him. He went to the nearby Three Cocks public house and had a whisky and then on to the Old White Horse where he stayed drinking until about 9.30pm when he was found drunk and disorderly in the street and was arrested by the Police.
When Isaac left the house, Mary's six year old daughter Gladys was out playing with friends. About 8.30 on trying to go into the house she found the front door locked, which was unusual. She went to a neighbour, Sarah Smith, who came and helped Gladys in through a window at the back of the house. Sarah told Gladys to find a key and open the back door. While she waited she heard the young girl screaming and when Gladys came to the door she said she had found her mother on the bed. Sarah went up and found Mary's bloodstained body.
Police were called around 9.00pm and a Dr. Lee attended saying that Mary had been dead for about 2 hours. Neighbours told the Police about the loud argument between Isaac and Mary during that day and a search for Isaac was begun. It was soon found that Isaac Sewell was in custody for being drunk and disorderly, so he was left in a cell for the night to sober up. On being interviewed the next morning Isaac confessed to what he had done making no attempt to deny it. He blamed it on Mary going to see Bell.
The inquest was held in the boardroom at Kettering Workhouse on Monday 29th July and after evidence of the discovery of the body, the injuries inflicted and Sewell's confession the jury returned a verdict of wilful murder and released the body for burial the next day at Kettering Cemetery, which was attended by hundreds of people.
Isaac was remanded in custody and for three months awaited his trial. The court appointed Bernard Campion to represent the accused and he visited Isaac regularly to ascertain anything that may be used to mitigate the crime, despite the confession.
On 19th October 1912 Isaac Edward Sewell appeared at the Northamptonshire Assizes before Mr Justice Scrutton and pleaded not guilty. The prosecution brought forward their witnesses in what appeared to be a straightforward case. There was no doubt that Isaac had killed Mary, but Campion wanted to show that at the time of the murder he had suffered an attack of insanity.
It was found that four years earlier Isaac had been in a serious cycling accident, which resulted in him being hospitalised for some time suffering with concussion. Campion seized upon this and claimed that Isaac's brain had been damaged. So much so, that from the time of the accident he eventually descended into insanity. Campion brought witnesses into court, including two of Isaac's brothers, to testify that over the four years since the accident Isaac had become increasingly aggressive and over the last year had complained of headaches, so bad, that at times they affected his ability to work.
There was also a family history of suicide; Isaac's father had hung himself and an uncle drowned. Campion argued that no other reason but insanity could explain the violent death of Mary. The prison doctor gave evidence that throughout his custody Sewell had not once shown any sign of insanity. He refused to believe that any mental illness had been suffered and that Isaac was quite sane.
Campion addressed the jury saying that they had to consider the state of mind of the accused at the vital moment when the crime was carried out. He submitted that at the crucial moment of extreme violence, for some reason, the mind of Sewell became unbalanced to the degree that he was unable to control himself and that Sewell was insane when the crime was committed. No medical evidence was called by Campion to support his view. The prosecution argued that the defence was not proven and therefore invalid. There was only one reason why Isaac Sewell had brutally murdered Mary Pursglove and that was extreme jealousy.
In his summing up Mr Justice Scrutton repeated the prosecution view that no medical evidence had been produced to prove insanity. If the jury were satisfied that Sewell knew what he had done, even if under an uncontrollable impulse, they must not find him insane.
The jury went out to consider and returned with their verdict in forty five minutes. Isaac Edward Sewell was found guilty but insane. He was sent to an asylum for the rest of his life.
Richard Cowley - Guilty M'Lud!: The Criminal History of Northamptonshire
Kevin Turton - Northamptonshire Murders
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