This broadside details the murder of 96-year-old John Arkhust and his aged housekeeper Elizabeth Haines, in a secluded cottage on Fetcham Common near Leatherhead in Surrey. On Friday 13 October 1826 a boy employed to gather apples in Arkhurst’s orchard found the door to his cottage open and the bodies of the man and woman lying inside ‘mutilated in a shocking manner’. According to press reports the horrible scene threw the neighbourhood into ‘a state of considerable excitation and horror’ and police officers were summoned from London to begin the investigation. Although various suspects were suggested at the time of the murders (including a man previously convicted of burgling the property) nobody was convicted of the homicides.
The narrative of the murder scene contained within this broadside is explicit: note for example the detail describing how the blood of Haines dripped through the ceiling into the room below. When combined with gory images, such as that shown at the top of this broadside, it is understandable why descriptions such as this were criticised for whipping up public anxieties about crime.
During the 19th century, gruesome murders and public executions were often reported in printed sheets such as the one displayed here. Known as ‘broadsides’ or ‘street literature’, they were sold by street peddlers, and purchased to paste on to walls or to read (or sing) aloud to others. Execution broadsides were produced on cheap paper and illustrated with crude woodcuts. They typically included an account of the crime committed, the conviction and punishment of the criminal, an illustration of the hanged offender and, often, a ballad or moralising hymn. Images of the gallows were frequently re-used, the printers filling in the appropriate number of dangling bodies depending on the number of criminals hanged. These macabre sources are a reminder of the sensationalism surrounding crime in this period. Public executions were still seen as a form of entertainment, often attracting crowds of thousands.