This is an unusual murder case where the verdict turned on "touching the body," one of the "trials by ordeal" that were used to determine the guilt or innocence of an accused person. A person accused of murder was made to touch the body of the victim. If they were guilty, God would cause the corpse to show some sign, such as opening its eyes, pointing its finger etc. In the Norcott case, the local Jury brought in a verdict of suicide. However, the case went to Appeal at the King's Bench in London. This is an eyewitness account of that hearing.
"THE following relation was found among the papers of Sir John Maynard, an eminent lawyer, and formerly one of the Commissioners of the Great Seal of England.
"The case, or rather history of a case, that happened in the county of Hertford, I thought good to report here, though it happened in the fourth year of King Charles I., that the memory of it may not be lost, by miscarriage of my papers, or otherwise. I wrote the evidence that was given, which I and many others did hear; and I wrote it exactly according to what was deposed at the trial, at the bar of the King's Bench - viz.
"Joan Norcott, wife of Arthur Norcott, being murdered, the question was, How came she by her death? The coroner's inquest, on view of the body, and depositions of Mary Norcott, John Okeman, and Agnes his wife, inclined to find Joan Norcott felo-de-se, they informed the coroner and jury that she was found dead in her bed, the knife sticking in the floor, and her throat cut. That the night before, she went to bed with her child, her husband being absent; and that no other person, after such time as she was gone to bed, came into the house. That the examinants, lying in the outer room, must needs have seen or known if any stranger had come in.
"The jury, upon these evidences, gave up their verdict to the coroner that she was felo-de-se. But afterwards, upon rumour among the neighbourhood, and their observation, divers circumstances, which manifested that she did not, nor, according to those circumstances, could not possibly, murder herself, the jury, whose verdict was not yet drawn up in form by the coroner, desired the coroner that the body, which was buried, might be taken out of the grave, which the coroner assented to. So that thirty days after her death she was taken up in the presence of the jury and a great number of people; whereupon the jury changed their verdict. The persons, being tried at Hertford Assizes, were acquitted; but so much against the evidence, that judge Harvey let fall his opinion that it were better an appeal were brought than so foul a murder escape unpunished. Whereupon, Pascha 4 Car., they were tried on the appeal which was brought by the young child against his father, grandmother, aunt and her husband, Okeman; and because the evidence was so strange, I took exact and particular notice, and it was as follows: --
"After the matters above mentioned were related, an ancient and grave person, minister of the parish where the fact was committed (being sworn to give evidence according to custom), deposed that the body being taken out of the grave thirty days after the party's death, and lying on the grass, and the four defendants pressed, they were required each to touch the dead body. Okeman's wife fell on her knees and prayed God to show some token of her innocency, or to that purpose; her very words I have forgot. The appellees did touch the dead body, which was before of a livid and carrion colour (that was the verbal expression in terminis of the witness), whereupon the brow of the dead began to have a dew, or gentle sweat, arise on it, which increased by degrees, till the sweat ran down by drops on her face. The brow changed to a lively colour, and the dead opened one of her eyes and shut it again; and this opening of the eye was done three several times. She likewise thrust out the ring - or wedding-finger three times, and pulled it in again, and the finger dropped blood from it on the grass.
"Sir Nicholas Hyde, Lord Chief justice, seeming to doubt the evidence, asked the witness: "Who saw this besides you?"
WITNESS: "I cannot swear what others saw; but, my Lord, I do believe the whole company saw it; and if it had been thought a doubt, proof would have been made of it, and many would have attested with me."
"Then the witness, observing some admiration in the auditors, spake further:
"My Lord, I am minister of the parish, and have long known all the parties, but never had any occasion of displeasure against any of them, nor anything to do with them, or they with me, but as I was their minister. The thing was wonderful to me, but I have no interest in the matter; only as I am called upon to testify the truth, I have done it."
"This witness was a very reverend person, as I guessed, about seventy years of age; his testimony was delivered gravely and temperately, but to the great admiration of all the auditory; whereupon, applying himself to the Lord Chief justice, he said further:
"My Lord, my brother here present is minister of the next parish adjacent, and I am assured he saw all done that I have affirmed."
"Here that person was also sworn to give evidence, and deposed the same in every point - viz. the sweating of the brow, the change of the colour, the opening of the eye, the thrice moving of the finger and drawing it in again. Only the first witness added that he himself dipped his finger in the blood which came from the dead body, to examine it, and he swore that he believed it was blood.
"I conferred afterwards with Sir Edward Powel, barrister-at-law, and others, who all concurred in the observation; and for myself, if I were upon my oath, I can testify that these depositions, especially the first witness, are truly reported in substance.
"The other evidence was given against the prisoners - viz. the grandmother of the plaintiff, and against Okeman and his wife - that they confessed that they lay in the next room to the dead person that night, and that none came into the house till they found her dead in the morning. Therefore, if she did not murder herself, they must be the murderers. To prove that she did not murder herself it was further deposed:
"Firstly, that she lay in a composed manner in her bed, the bed-clothes nothing at all disturbed, and her child by her in bed.
"Secondly, that her neck was broken, and she could not possibly break her neck in the bed if she first cut her throat, nor contra.
"Thirdly, that there was no blood in the bed, saving a tincture of blood on the bolster whereon her head lay, but no substance of blood at all.
"Fourthly, that from the bed's head there was a stream of blood on the floor, which ran along till it ponded in the bending of the floor in a very great quantity; and that there was also another stream of blood on the floor at the bed's foot, which ponded also on the floor, to another great quantity, but no continuance or communication of blood, at either of these two places, from one to the other, neither upon the bed; so that she bled in two places severally. And it was deposed, that upon turning up the mat of the bed, there were found clots of congealed blood in the straw of the mat underneath.
"Fifthly, that the bloody knife was found in the morning sticking in the floor, at a good distance from the bed; and that the point of the knife, as it stuck, was towards the bed, and the haft from the bed.
"Lastly, that there was the print of a thumb and four fingers of a left hand.
"Sir Nicholas Hyde, Lord Chief justice, said to the witness: "How can you know the print of a left hand from the print of a right in such a case?"
"WITNESS: "My Lord, it is hard to describe; but if it please that honourable judge to put his left hand upon your left hand, you cannot possibly place your own right hand in the same posture. This was tried and approved."
"The prisoners had now time to make their defence, but gave no evidence to any purpose; whereupon the jury departed out of the court; and returning, acquitted Okeman and found the other three guilty; who being severally demanded what they could say why judgment should not be pronounced, they only cried out after one another: "I did not do it, I did not do it."
"Judgment was given, and the grandmother and the husband executed; but the aunt, being with child, had the privilege to be spared execution.
"I inquired if they confessed anything at the gallows, but could not hear that they did.
The following looped links will allow you to scroll through the series.
The complete text of the Newgate Calendar is available online here.
Find Westminster Hall on the Map