Date Of Execution: 2 Dec 1908
Crime Location: Feltwell
Execution Place: Norwich
Executioner: Henry Pierrepoint
James Nicholls was convicted of the murder of Susan Wilson 70 and sentenced to death.
He battered her to death in Feltwell on 11 October 1908.
James Nicholls already had a long criminal record including the rape of a 70-year-old woman in 1897, an attempted rape in 1901 and 22 other convictions including poaching etc.
At the time of the murder he had been committed for rape and theft and was out on bail.
Susan Wilson had lived in a lonely cottage in the fen country with her 53-year-old husband with whom she had been married for 11 years. Their cottage was 2.5 miles from Feltwell.
On 8 October 1908, her husband went out to sell umbrellas in the neighbourhood.
At about 2.30pm on Sunday 11 October 1908 James Nicholls was seen by a person in Feltwell Village going in the direction of the Fens, ie towards Susan Wilson's cottage. He was later seen at about 3pm by a lad who had been watering cows about 300 yards from Susan Wilson's cottage going towards the cottage. Then, about 5 minutes later the lad saw James Nicholls drag Susan Wilson from the cottage. He said that she was shouting for her nearest neighbour and then he dragged her back into the cottage. The lad said that after a while he saw James Nicholls leave the cottage and head off towards another farm.
The lad said that he later saw Susan Wilson's husband in a cart as he was heading back to Feltwell in his cart.
When James Nicholls got to the other farm he told the farmer 'I believe Susan Wilson's husband is killing his wife. I heard her scream and holloa murder and then I hear him say if he could find the hatchet he would chop her bloody brains out. She left off screaming all at once and I heard no more'. James Nicholls's then repeated what he said to the farmers brother and then they saw Susan Wilson's husband running up the road calling out 'Oh dear'. James Nicholls then said 'He has done it now and will want to blame someone else'.
At about 4.10pm James Nicholls went off to another cottage where he spoke to a woman and told her the same story. He was seen to be sweating profusely and had remarked 'The Doctor will know how long she has been dead'.
After he went back off towards Feltwell.
Meanwhile Susan Wilson's husband had reached a cottage and had given the alarm.
Around the same time a policeman met James Nicholls in the road who told him the same story about having heard Susan Wilson's husband murdering her. The policeman then met the lad that had seen James Nicholls go into Susan Wilson's cottage and drag her out.
It was stated that whilst James Nicholls had said that he had heard Susan Wilson's husband murdering his wife, Susan Wilson's husband's alibi was complete. He had left his brother at Hale Station about 16 miles from Feltwell at 1pm and then driven to Feltwell which he said he had arrived at at 3.30pm. He was seen in his pony cart in the village from 3.30pm to 3.45pm by several people including one that had spoken to him for 5-6 minutes. He was also next seen driving home by the lad that had seen Susan Wilson dragged out of her cottage by James Nicholls at a point about 1,400 yards from the cottage at about 4pm.
Susan Wilson's husband himself said that when he reached the cottage he had found the doors fastened on the inside and that when he had entered he had found his wife lying dead with her head cut to pieces after which he ran off for help.
When James Nicholls was later arrested that night in a pub he was half drunk and said that he was innocent. However, there was blood on his coat, vest, trousers and on his shirt at the vest opening. There was also blood found on his boots and Susan Wilson's grey hairs were found on his trousers.
Susan Wilson had been hit at least three times on the head with the hatchet which was found in a pail of water. One blow had severed her jaw and nose, another had opened the cheek and severed the right ear and the third had cleaved her head in two. There were also marks on her neck as of attempted strangulation with a cord.
The police report stated that there were no definite signs of outrage but noted that her blouse was torn and two buttons were off and her dress was up as far as her knees and there were spots of dry blood high up each thigh.
The police report stated that he thought some money was missing from the house but that in the light of James Nicholls's record it was said that there could be no doubt that his motive had been outrage.
Later at court James Nicholls abandoned all imputation on the husband and said that he must have mistaken the voice he had heard and accounted for the blood on his clothes by saying that he was a rabbit catcher.
After his conviction James Nicholls wrote two letters in which he varied his story, and said that he had been present in the cottage when Susan Wilson's husband had killed his wife and said that he had given him 5/- not to tell, which considering the husbands known movements was considered another lying attempt to put the blame on an innocent man. The police report stated that there did not appear to be any doubt as to his guilt.
see National Archives - HO 144/890/171390