British Executions

Verney Asser

Age: 30

Sex: male

Crime: murder

Date Of Execution: 5 Mar 1918

Crime Location: Sutton Veny Camp, Warminster, Wiltshire

Execution Place: Shepton Mallet

Method: hanging

Executioner: John Ellis


Verney Asser was convicted of the murder of Joseph Harold Durkin 24 and sentenced to death.

He shot him at Sutton Veny Camp on 27 November 1917.

They had both been corporals in the Australian Imperial Force and Lewis Gun instructors and had slept by themselves in a large Lewis Gun instruction hut at Veny Sutton Camp near Salisbury.

They appeared to have been good friends.

Joseph Durkin had been visiting and having connection with a widow in Salisbury and it was thought that Verney Asser had also visited the widow whilst Joseph Durkin was there.

The widow had eight children and although she had only just buried her husband, she appeared to have been much attached to Joseph Durkin and so it was said that there was no reason to suppose that there was trouble between the two men on her account. However, one witness gave evidence of there having been a wordy quarrel between them some seeks before the murder, but that appeared to have blown over and on Sunday 25 November 1917 Verney Asser and Joseph Durkin were photographed together.

However, on the night of 27 November 1917 at about 11pm Joseph Durkin told the sergeant of the guard and another corporal who slept in the next hut that Joseph Durkin had shot himself.

He said that he had been asleep at the time, heard a shot, and then saw Joseph Durkin lying with a rifle in his right hand. He said that he then picked the rifle up, opened the breach, and then replaced it in Joseph Durkin's hand and went to give the alarm.

Joseph Durkin was found lying in his bed on his right side with his head inclined to the left. He had been shot through the head with the bullet entering about two inches in front of the left ear and leaving about two inches behind and below the right ear.

However, the wound was proved by experiment on meat to have been inflicted by a rifle held at a distance of not less than five inches.

Further, his blankets were pulled up on his shoulders undisturbed as if he had been asleep.

As such, it was determined that it was quite impossible for a man, even if he were standing up to have fired a rifle in a position to have inflicted such a wound.

However, the Coroner's jury returned a verdict of suicide but the Director of Public Prosecutions took the matter up and it was shown that there was no doubt that Joseph Durkin had been shot as he lay asleep.

The corporal from the other hut gave evidence that Verney Asser had come into his hut (32) where the ammunition was kept three times, 9.30pm, 10.20pm and 10.30pm and took what appeared to be two magazines back to his own hut (31) where he and Joseph Durkin slept.

The corporal also noted that at 9,35pm he heard a report in hut 31 and that a bullet passed through his hut, but he said he did nothing and that he heard a second report at 10.40pm but again took no notice until Verney Asser came into his hut and told him that Joseph Durkin had shot himself.

Verney Asser denied the murder but after his conviction he practically admitted to having shot Joseph Durkin, but pleaded insanity although the court of criminal appeal refused to consider the plea and referred to the secretary of state’s powers.

The grounds on which he pleaded insanity were:

  1. That Verney Asser's father committed suicide. However, it was determined that Verney Asser's father was found dead at Bootle in 1906 but that the jury at his inquest had returned the verdict of death from natural causes.
  2. That Verney Asser had at various times been in asylums, Haslar and Rainhill in 1904, Delhi Hospital Tidworth in 1916 and an asylum in Australia. However, it was noted it had been determined that Verney Asser had been in the navy and that at the age of 17 was sent to Haslar on 22 February and discharged on 7 April as suffering from dementia. Shortly afterwards he was confined in Rainhill between 6 and 30 May where he showed no sign of insanity and admitted that he had malingered to obtain his discharge from the navy. In 1916 he was suffering for four days in Tidworth military hospital from alcoholism and that it was thought at least probable that if it was true that he had been in an asylum in Australia that his attack of insanity there was of a similar nature.

The police report to the Home Secretary noted that Verney Asser had not been drunk on the night of the murder and that the doctors report found no indication of insanity about him. The police further noted that there had been no recommendation to mercy at his trial.

It was noted that it was impossible to say why Verney Asser shot Joseph Durkin in his sleep but that there was no doubt about his guilt and the police report stated that they could see no reason for interference with his sentence.

Verney Asser was executed at Shepton Mallet on the 5 March 1918, being hanged by John Ellis and William Willis.

see National Archives - HO 144/1489/355227

see Sutton Veny

see Mansfield Reporter - Friday 18 January 1918