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Law and Order in LondonCrime and Punishment: Stephen Eaton, George Roades and Sarah Swift
Posted on Jul 30, 2008 - 11:46 PM by Bill McCann

In july 1669, the Reverend John Talbot came to London in connection with a lawsuit. About four in the afternoon he became aware that he was being followed by six persons. Having tried, for hours, to give them the slip he finally took refuge with a gentleman of Gray's Inn. Late that night he set out for his lodging, but they waylaid him in the fields at Shoreditch. With remarkable skill, they used his own to cut a whole in his throat and push the knife down his throat almost to the lung. He died a week later when a coughing fit burst the jugular artery.


Rev. John Talbot had been chaplain to a regiment in Portugal in the reign of King Charles II., where he continued in the discharge of his office till the recalling of the said regiment, when, arriving in London, he preached three months at St Alphage in the Wall. Afterwards he was curate at a town called Laindon, in Essex, where a lawsuit commenced between him and some persons of the said parish, upon the account of which he came up to London.

Several profligate abandoned wretches, to the number of six men and one woman, took into their heads one day to waylay, rob and murder this poor man. Whether, hearing his business, they might think he had a pretty deal of money about him, or whether they acted at the instigations of some of Mr Talbot's enemies, is not certain; however it was, they dogged him from four o'clock in the afternoon whithersoever he went. The names of some of these miscreants were Stephen Eaton, a confectioner; George Roades, a broker; Henry Prichard, a tailor; and Sarah Swift.

Mr Talbot had received information that his adversaries designed to arrest him, which made him a little circumspect while he was abroad; for everyone who took any notice of him he imagined to be an officer. This occasioned him the sooner to be alarmed when he saw himself followed by five or six people from place to place; so that, turn which way soever he would, he was certain of meeting one or more of them. After he had shifted about a long time to no purpose in order to avoid, as he thought, their clapping a writ on his back, he betook himself to Gray's Inn, whither, being still pursued, he had there a good opportunity to take particular and accurate notice of some or all of these evil-disposed persons. Here he took shelter a little while and wrote letters to some of his acquaintances and friends, requesting them to come and lend him their assistance in order to secure his person.

The persons whom he sent to failing him, he got admittance into the chambers of one of the gentlemen of the place, where he stayed till he supposed all the danger was over; then, taking a little refreshment, he took the back way, through Old Street, and so over the fields to Shoreditch. Not long after he had got into the fields he perceived the same persons at his heels who had dogged him before. He was now more surprised than ever, it being eleven o'clock at night. The most probable method of escaping that he could see was by breaking through a reed hedge to a garden house; but before he could reach the place one or more of the villains seized him, and began to pick his pockets.

They found about twenty shillings, and his knife, with which they attempted to kill him, by cutting his throat. Whether it was by chance, or these wretches pretended to have an extraordinary skill in butchering men, is uncertain; but they first cut out a piece of his throat, about the breadth of a crown-piece, without touching the windpipe, and then, in the dependent part of the orifice, they stabbed him with the knife so deep that the point almost reached his lungs. However, Providence so far overruled their cruelty that they did not cut the recurrent nerves, which would have stopped his speech, nor the jugular veins and arteries, which if they had done he had instantly bled to death without remedy, and then possibly no discovery had been made. There was a cut in the collar of his doublet, which seemed to show that they attempted this piece of butchery before they stripped him; but then the nature of the wound intimated, on the contrary, that they pulled off his coat and doublet before they accomplished their design.

This bloody deed was perpetrated at Anniseed Clear on Friday night, the 2nd of July, 1669. While the wretches were committing their butchery the dogs barked and the beasts bellowed in an uncommon manner; so that several gardeners rose out of their beds to prepare for the market, supposing it had been daylight. Soon after it thundered and rained in a terrible manner, which drew several brick makers out of their lodgings to secure their bricks from the weather, and was also the occasion that the murderers did not get far from the place where their barbarity was acted before they were apprehended; so that heaven and earth seemed to unite in crying out against the inhuman deed, and detecting the wicked authors of it. Some of the brick makers who had been alarmed by the thunder and rain discovered Mr Talbot lying in his shirt and drawers, all bloody. These gave notice to their companions, who also came up. They then raised him, and cherished him with a dram which one of them had at hand; whereupon he immediately pointed which way the murderers went.

The Watch near Shoreditch were soon informed of what had happened, and some of them came, as well to take care of the wounded gentleman, as to apprehend the authors of his misfortune. One of the number quickly discovered a man lying among the nettles, and called up his companions, supposing he also had been murdered; but when they came to a nearer examination they saw a bloody knife on one side of him and the minister's doublet on the other. Upon these circumstances, presuming he was guilty of the murder, they apprehended him. At first he feigned himself asleep, and then, suddenly starting up, he attempted to make his escape, but in vain. A pewter pot, with the mark newly scraped out, was found near him, and one of the watchmen broke his head with it, which made him a little more tractable.

In the meantime Mr Talbot, by the great care of the officers of the night, was carried to the Star Inn, at Shoreditch church, where he was put to bed, and whither a surgeon was sent for to dress and take care of his wounds. This man who was apprehended was Eaton, the confectioner. He was carried before Mr Talbot, who instantly knew him, and, by writing, declared that he was the man who cut his throat; and that five more men and a woman were his associates. A second time, upon Mr Talbot's own request, Eaton was brought before him, when he continued his former accusation against him; whereupon he was carried before Justice Pitfield, and by him committed to Newgate. It was not long after Eaton, before the woman was found, who also pretended to be asleep. Mr Talbot swore as positively to her as he had done to the other, and inquired of the constable whether her name was not Sarah, for he had heard one of her comrades say to her, when in Holborn: "Shall we have a coach, Sarah?" The constable demanded her name, and she, not suspecting the reason, told him right, which confirmed the evidence of the dying gentleman.

Shortly after a third, and then a fourth, was taken, who were also committed to Newgate, Mr Talbot knowing one of these also. The care of Mr Talbot's wounds was committed to one Mr Litchfield, an able surgeon, who diligently attended him; and that nothing be omitted which might conduce to his recovery, Dr Hodges, one of the physicians employed by the city during the dreadful visitation in 1665, was likewise called. To these, at the request of the minister of the Charter-house, Dr Ridgely was added. By their joint direction he was in a fair way to be cured, no ill symptoms appearing from Monday morning to the Sabbath Day following, either upon account of his wounds, or otherwise; for though he lay some time in the wet, yet through the experience of these gentlemen he was kept from a fever. Several other surgeons also freely offered their assistance.

About noon on Sunday he was dressed. The wound looked well, and he seemed more cheerful than ordinary; but within two or three hours after, a violent fit of coughing seized him, which broke the jugular vein, and caused such an effusion of blood that he fainted, and his extreme parts were cold, before anyone could come to his assistance. The flux was once stopped, but upon coughing he bled again, so that his case was almost past hope. About one or two next morning he sent for Dr Atfield, minister of Shoreditch church; and though he had before said little more than Aye or No, and his physicians desired him not to strain those parts where his danger lay, but rather write his mind, notwithstanding all this, he talked very familiarly to the doctor, telling him that he hoped to be saved by the merits of Jesus Christ only. Then the doctor pressed him to declare whether he were still fully satisfied as to the persons he swore against. To which he readily answered that he was certain he was not mistaken in what he had done. Being asked whether or no he could freely forgive them, he replied that he prayed for the welfare of their souls, but desired the law might be executed on their bodies. In a word, this reverend gentleman seemed very submissive under this severe dispensation, believing a Providence in everything that happens. The doctor prayed by him, and departed, and within two hours after he expired, having been very devout and composed to the last moment.

Several attestations were made before the justice and at the trial of the prisoners concerning Mr Talbot's having been dogged and murdered by those who had either seen him the day before, or came up to him first, when he was left in the lamentable condition we have been describing. Mr Went, in particular, who was constable of the night when this murder was committed, gave a particular relation of taking the prisoners, and of what Mr Talbot said and wrote when he saw any one of them. The papers which the deceased wrote were likewise produced in court, and it was observable that he particularly exclaimed against the woman, whom he called bloody every time he mentioned her, affirming that she said to her companions several times, "Kill the dog, kill him." The facts and circumstances were so plain that the jury found all the four that had been taken guilty of the murder, not one of them being able to give a satisfactory account of themselves, or to prove where they were after six o'clock on the night the bloody deed was done.

Mr Cowper the coroner, and Mr Litchfield the surgeon, gave in their informations an exact account of Mr Talbot's wound, and both of them deposed that they verily thought it to be the occasion of his death. Mr Litchfield said the knife really penetrated his lungs. The night before Mr Talbot died he wrote to Mr Went, the constable, desiring him to go to the ordinary and inquire with him of Eaton whether any of Laindon's people employed or abetted him in the fact he had committed; if they did, to get their names of him. But Eaton persisted in denying not only that, but even the fact itself, telling them in the most solemn manner that to his knowledge he never in his life saw Mr Talbot till he was brought before him, after he was taken. Sarah Swift likewise being questioned concerning her guilt, and urged to confess what she knew, she answered that she would burn in hell before she would own anything of the matter. To such an uncommon degree had these wretches hardened themselves in their crimes. On Wednesday, the 14th of July, 1669, Stephen Eaton, Gorge Roades and Sarah Swift were conveyed in a cart to Tyburn, where the two men confessed the murder; but the woman continued obstinate to the last. Henry Prichard was reprieved upon some favourable circumstances that were produced.

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