Date Of Execution: 7 Aug 1888
Execution Place: Manchester
Murder of warder WEBB;
John Jackson (Charles Firth) for the murder of Ralph D Webb.
THE ESCAPE OF MURDERER JOHN JACKSON
On May 22nd 1888 an horrific and remarkable murder took place in Strangeways Prison. Prisoner Warder Ralph Webb was murdered by John Jackson, who then effected an escape. He was carrying out work in one of the prison apartments under the supervision of Warder Webb. John Jackson was 29 and was a plumber and glazier by trade. He had been convicted at the Previous Salford Quarter sessions on April 9th for housebreaking and stealing from a Salvation Army Captain named Poynter at Eccles in March. at the trial is was proven beyond doubt that Jackson was also known as Edward Graham and as such had been connected with many robberies in Manchester, Bradford, Beverley, Hull and Huddersfield areas. However he must have been a skilful burglar as he want only "wanted" in these area and had never been convicted there.
When he was arrested in Eccles the circumstances were slightly strange. Jackson had been making enquiries about his target residence in Eccles and the occupier, which had aroused suspicion leading to Alfred Poynter contacting the police. As a result that night, a constable hid inside the house. Jackson entered the house by smashing the kitchen window and went about his business. The Constable made his presence known and after a brief struggle Jackson was arrested and searched. He was found to carrying a couple of jemmies. At the trial Jackson pleaded guilty and was sentenced to six months' imprisonment with hard labour. He was sent to Strangeways.
There was some mystery surrounding the man Jackson himself and the manner of his crime and escape. During his time in the prison Jackson had not been regarded as dangerous and had not shown any signs of escaping. Warder Webb was a tall and finely built man quite contrary to the physique of Jackson. The Matron's apartment in which Jackson had been sent to repair a leaking gas pipe, was well secured with the windows barred and stout locks on the doors. At first not much was know about the circumstances of the escape other than the fact Webb had been struck on the head with a hammer and Jackson had escaped through the roof. Over the next days and weeks the press were to give much coverage to this story and in the process whip up quite a frenzy.
More details of the escape were published in the Manchester Guardian on May 24th. The previous days news report had created a sensation in Manchester which resulted in hundreds of people visiting Southall Street to look at the hole in roof of the apartment from which Jackson had escaped. It appeared that Jackson was working on a gas pipe in the bedroom. He had gone downstairs to melt some lead in order to effect the repair. He had applied some of the molten lead to the pipe and after turning back on the gas supply then asked Warder Webb to smell if they was any gas leaking from the repair. At this point Jackson dealt Webb what turned out to be , a fatal blow to the head with a hammer.
Jackson then effected his escape by breaking through the ceiling and roof of the apartment. The Matron heard some strange noises from the room and when upstairs to investigate. She found the door locked and called for it to be opened. When she got no reply the Matron raised the alarm. When the door was broken open Webb was found on the floor with a massive wound to his head. His boots had been stolen, his pockets which were thought to contain 10 shillings were empty, blood were marks over the floor and there was no sign of Jackson.
The crime had taken place in broad day light. Two lads who were in Southall Street at the time stated that they saw a man climb through the roof and then drop down into the street. He made off in the direction of the brickfields to the rear of the prison. It was thought that he hid there until darkness set in and covered the arrow on his trousers using mud. Immediately after the crime had been discovered warders searched the area for Jackson and notified the local police of his escape. the police were not immediately informed of the nature of Jackson's crime, other than the fact that he had escaped. It was not until some time later that the police were informed of Webb's death. Immediate steps were then taken by Chief Detective Inspector Caminada to trace the murderer. Caminada had all the likely hiding spots searched in the town and in the process received a tip off that Jackson had gone to Oldham.
Caminada and several other officers made their way to Oldham in pursuit of Jackson, but they could find no sign of him. they informed the Oldham police that the fugitive was likely to break into houses in order in obtain food and different cloths. This proved to be accurate as the Oldham police later revealed that two successful burglaries and two unsuccessful attempts had taken place. One house that was broken into was in Park Road from which had been stolen a black Chesterfield overcoat, a white linen jacket and a brown tweed vest. A stone bottle containing half a gallon of porter and some cigars were also stolen. They was little doubt who the intruder was because at the scene of the crime had been left a prison issue stocking and one of the Warder's socks. The other house that was broken into was that of Salvation Army Captain Thomas Woods who lived at Cromwell St, Oldham from which Jackson stole a tweed coat and �1 16s. He also took the keys to the Salvation Army barracks where he stayed for some time because in the building was found the empty bottle of porter and some partially smoked cigars. Pieces of cotton were also found similar to the lining of the linen jacket stolen from Park Rd. Also found were a heavy hammer and three different types of screwdrivers which were thought to have been used to gain access to the houses. Captain Woods' house had previously been broken into and it was now believed that Jackson had also been the culprit on that occasion.
Considering the awful crime that Jackson had committed this second break in at Woods' home was extremely audacious. He had broken in the house by taking the glass out of a widow, then he ransacked the house upstairs and downstairs, smoked some cigars and left the following note on the table: "Goodbye Captain. Though lost to sight to memory dear. - Yours truly, Shakespeare." Also on the other side of the paper were sums which added up to �1 16s, the total he stole from the house, plus the words "Goodbye, yours, truly". As mentioned in the previous days' newspapers, Jackson was "wanted" for several other break-ins. These homes were all occupied by Salvation Army members. It seems he had been very success in duping those people with who he had lodged. His MO was to engage Salvation Army members in conversation in order to found out as much as he could about the homes and the habits of the local captains. soon after these homes were raided and Jackson disappeared.
At this point Jackson had now amassed the sum of £2 and had changed his clothing completely, so this made his detection even more difficult. Manchester detectives accompanied by Warders from Strangeways who knew Jackson well were sent to all neighbouring ports. Police all over the country were informed of Jackson's crime , but unfortunately Manchester Police did not have a photograph of him and could only send out the following description: "John Jackson alias Edward Graham, a plumber by trade and said to be born in Nottingham. he is 29 years of age, 5 feet 6 inches in height, of fresh complexion, brown hair, brown eyes. He has a small lump inside the forefinger of the left hand."
Jackson was said to look much older than his age. Before his recent imprisonment he had a very thick moustache which had been removed once convicted, and it was believed that he might grow a full beard in order to disguise himself. When the County Police had Jackson in custody in March they made all the usual enquiries about him. They only discovered that he had been "wanted" by other police forces and there had been no evidence of him having been in prison before. It was hoped that Jackson would soon be detected as a result of future crime he would commit in order to obtain food and money. Members of the Salvation Army were warned to be very vigilant.
Again on the 25th May, the Manchester Guardian had a report of the previous days events in the search for Jackson. It was reported that a pawnbroker in Lees had told Oldham Police that a man had pawned a jacket in his shop. It turned out to be the one that had been stolen by Jackson from Park Road in Oldham. The pawnbroker was able to describe the clothing worn by the man and it was obvious that it match the descriptions of other clothing stolen in the same raid. The new description was communicated to the Manchester Police and from there to the rest of the country. The whole resources of the Manchester Police Detectives Department were being utilised in the hunt for Jackson, but technically the murder had been committed within the jurisdiction of the County Force as the gaol was by Act of Parliament constituted a portion of the county. The county force were also looking for Jackson.
It was reported that the Prison Governor, Major Preston, had once again stated that no previous knowledge of Jackson other than he was "wanted on suspicion" by several police forces was known. Had the authorities known as much information as they now had about Jackson, he would not have been allowed to carry out the work in which he was employed when the murder was committed. As it was the Governor stated that no blame could be attached to the prison authorities for employing him on such work.
On the 26th May the newspaper reported that there was reason to hope that Jackson had been captured. All the previous day police in Lancashire and Yorkshire had been following leads, but unfortunately conflicting telegrams were being sent to the Manchester Police. One message stated that Jackson had been sighted in Durham while others claimed sightings in Stockport, Stalybridge and Marsden. The latter stating that he was seen heading off in the direction of the Yorkshire Moors. Yet another stated that he was on his way to London. It was thought that the Marsden sighting was probably the most accurate. At 9.00pm the previous evening a telegram from Dewsbury police stated that they had arrested a man answering Jackson's description. CDI Caminada and a prison warder from Strangeways, who had been making enquires in Wakefield, were informed of this and made their way to Dewsbury immediately. Reporting news from outside the major towns and cities was fraught with difficulties. The Dewsbury telegraphic office closed at 9.00pm so the newspaper had know way of knowing if Jackson had indeed been captured.
A report of the Inquest into Webb's death was also published. evidence was given to the effect that the prison authorities had no knowledge of any previous convictions against Jackson. It was stated that this was the third day running that Jackson had carried out work in the Matron's apartment. Each day with a different Warder supervising him. Great detail was gone into about the type of work and how long was spent by Jackson in the apartment. Questions were also asked about the physical suitability of Webb to supervise Jackson and it was reported that he was much stronger than the prisoner. The Inquest was also told that Jackson was the only plumber in the prison. After a long day of hearing evidence the Coroner contemplated adjourning the Inquest or asking the Jury for a verdict. In his opinion he felt that the evidence so far pointed the fact that Webb had been hit by a single bow to the head. All other evidence was circumstantial, no one had seen the murder take place, but that it was for the Jury to say whether they could escape from returning a verdict of wilful murder against someone. It would also be for them to say who that someone was. The Jury found that Jackson was responsible for the murder of Webb. They also asked for the following to be read out: "This Jury considers it highly desirable that a substantial reward should be offered by the Home Secretary, on behalf of the Government, for the apprehension of the man Jackson alias Graham, against whom a verdict of wilful murder has been returned..."
The following reports were published on 28th May and showed the lack of ability to print up to date news. Investigations surrounding the murderer of Webb continued throughout Saturday but without success. During the day information was received that men answering to the description of Jackson were taken into custody at Wolverhampton and Bradford. It was however soon discovered that they were not the fugitive so anxiously sought. Late on Friday night another man was arrested in Dewsbury. Inquiries showed that the man taken into custody was a tramp from Bradford, who satisfactorily established his identity. The paper also reported that the funeral of Warder Ralph D Webb took place at Salford Borough Cemetery on Saturday.
On 3Oth May the paper published that the efforts by the Police to apprehend Jackson had been futile. More than a week had passed since the crime was committed and it was probable that Jackson, who had shown himself to be a bold desperate criminal, had made good opportunity of the time to put him beyond the reach of his pursuers. The efforts of the Police had not been relaxed, though through necessity their movements were being kept secret. It was felt by many that a reward she be offered by the Home Office, but there had been no movement from the Government on this. There was a possibility that a sum of money for a reward could be raised privately. Several further arrests had been made of individuals in various parts of the country. It was reported that sightings of Jackson had been made in Stockport, Farnworth, Doncaster, Thirsk and other towns. A lot of these reports were thought by the Police to be the results of exited imaginations and were totally unfounded.
Other newspapers were beginning to get hot under the collar and the Manchester Guardian quoted directly from the Standard: "The success with which the Strangeways Murder has up to the present date manage to elude capture is not a circumstance on which anyone has reason to congratulate himself. It is, to say the least of it, not very agreeable reflection that at this moment a desperate criminal is at large who, knowing that he has forfeited his life, would not hesitate to commit any crime by which the chance of making good his escape might be secured. The example is likely to prove even more mischievous. With all the country in commotion, with 'clues' here and 'clues' there, with a man being arrested at one place of suspicion of being like the convict and another detained 24 hours who was in no respect that the person wanted, the situation is by no means assuring. Every day is rendering the hunted criminal less and less like the personal description that has been circulated of him, and if only he manages to get a decent disguise nothing is more easy tan for him to pass as an ordinary traveller among the crowds which are constantly entering and leaving railway trains. A week has already elapsed since his disappearance. By this time the chances are that he is in the wilds of London. In a couple of weeks more his hair and beard will have grown, and as an expert burglar such as this ruffian has proved himself to be need never to want for money, there is an extreme probability that unless he is speedily laid by the heels or his 'pals' are tempted to betray him by the hope of a reward the Strangeways murderer will become one of the many cases of unpunished crime."
More details about the true identity of John Jackson and his crimes were published on May 31st. The Bradford Police were positively convinced that his name was Charles Wood Firth and had used the aliases Charles Firth Williamson and Charles William Firth. It was also revealed that he had escaped from Wakefield Prison in August 1883 but was recaptured. He was also wanted for forgery in Dewsbury as well as for a la large number of robberies and burglaries in the West Riding of Yorkshire. Bradford Police has also managed to obtain an excellent photograph of the wanted man. Copies of the photograph were made an immediately posted in Bradford town together with an exact description: Age about 33 years, height 5ft 5 1/2 ins, fresh complexion, grey eyes, dark brown hair, cut mark on nose, scar on left side of neck, mole on left side of back, lump and scar on left side of forefinger of left hand.
The Dewsbury Correspondent of the Manchester Guardian stated that the West Riding Police believed Jackson to be Charles Williamson Firth, son of Mr J F Firth, a Master Plumber from Birstall, who left the area some time ago after forging a cheque at Gomersal. It was also thought that Firth alias Jackson had committed a robbery from Birstall bank, of which his father was caretaker, and stealing £150. He had been convicted of horse stealing and was sent the the Wakefield House of Correction. He escaped from this place in a very similar manner to the one he used at Strangeways. He was whitewashing a corridor, for some reason he was left unsupervised, he then went upstairs and managed to steal a suit of clothes. He broke through a skylight and dropped down into the street. It was later ascertained that he visited his home in Birstall and then went to Hull and other places where he was employed as a navvy for about two months.
On June 1st the Daily Chronicle reported that although prison staff took precautions to identify new inmates it appeared that there were not adequate. The latest accounts of the search for Jackson revealed that he had been a notorious offender and not a person who only had a single conviction, as was thought by the Strangeways authorities, whose real identity was Charles Wood Firth. They did not have the benefit of having a photograph of Firth which was in the hands of the Yorkshire authorities. If his true history had been known no warder in his right mind would have trusted himself alone on a daily basis with such a criminal. They certainly would have not let him have a heavy hammer. Evidently the system of circulating descriptions and photographs of his class needed to be improved. A man's life had been lost because of the complete unconsciousness of the Strangeways staff that they had a hardened criminal in their charge. The goal itself did not appear at present, so far as its outer walls were concerned, to offer any serious difficulties to a convict determined to escape.
By 2nd June the Guardian writers were really getting hot under the collar. In spite of the publicity given to the portrait of Jackson or Firth and the new verbal description of him, he still managed to escape capture. he had of course been "seen" in different parts of the country, but amongst the arrests so far made, none had been the fugitive. His capture was becoming more difficult as time went by and the longer he stayed free the greater the chances were that would he would not be caught for some considerable time. A most circumstantial account of "Jackson's" visit to St Helens was given by Mr W R Andrew: "Several months since, perhaps four or five, but I cannot remember exactly, we were wanting a painter and plumber to look after our premises, and amongst the applicants was a man who gave the name of Graham, and who said was a painter and a plumber. The man answered exactly in appearance to the police description of Jackson, both in height and complexion. Although he was not engaged, he appeared and repeated his application several successive mornings, and this had the effect of impressing his appearance on my mind. The man disappeared: but on Tuesday, having an important engagement in Wigan, I left these works a few minutes before 10 o'clock intending to catch the 10.02 train . I hurried along Cotham Street and was going sharply along the bottom end of Claughton Street when I met Graham face to face. I recognised him and he recognised me, but instead of speaking he stepped sharply into the road, and partly walking, partly running, he went off at a rapid rate in the direction of Baldwin Street. He was wearing an old cap and a shabby black suit, as though he had got his outfit from Shudehill Market. Jackson had his left hand, on the forefinger of which, according to the description, there is a lump, in his trousers pocket, and he did not withdraw it while I saw him." asked why he did not report this to the police Mr Andrew said that he had been in a great hurry to catch his train, and it did not strike him for a few seconds as to who the man really was.
The fact that Jackson endeavoured to make the acquaintance of Salvation Army Officers recalls the circumstance of a robbery that took place in February, round about the same time the man described by Mr Andrews applied for work. on the 10th of that month Captain Emma Burton and Lieutenant Charlotte Marshall of the Salvation Army, came to St Helens, and went to reside at 81 Peter Street. On the 14th of the same month they left their home at about ten minutes to eight, and went to the barracks in Lowe Street, a short distance away, where the ordinary service was held. They had made sure that before they left, they had locked all their doors and fastened the windows, but on their return they were astonished to find that that the back door and window were wide open and a lamp had been lit. The house had been ransacked and a total of about 37 shillings had been stolen. the newspaper reported that the St Helens police were: "making diligent enquiries into these supposed visits to St Helens by Jackson."
Were it not for the audacity of the man the following story would seem improbable, but bearing in mind what has already been published, it does seem possible that this sighting is accurate. In spite of the vigilance of the police Firth visited his home in Birstall, near Bradford on Wednesday. He went into a shop and bought a bottle of aerated water and a newspaper and afterwards asked a lady as to the whereabouts of a friend who was away from home. The lady recognised him. He at first denied his identity but latter admitted it. She urged him to leave for his parents' sake, and after inquiring as to their health disappeared. The Bradford police were thought to have gained valuable information as his probable hiding place, but as yet had not succeeded in laying hands on him. They were confident that he had adopted a completely new disguise, possibly as a woman.
Meanwhile the Cheshire Police were also keeping a keen look out for the murderer. At Winsford there was great excitement about reports of Jackson being caught there. A man bearing a suspicious resemblance to the murderer was detained and examined, but in the absence of a lump on his forefinger, he was released. There were also reports that he was spotted in Northwich. A man was detained overnight who could identify himself to the satisfaction of the police. He was to go before the Magistrates in the morning. On release of the portraits of the murderer the previous day, Mr Hatton a man from Stalybridge came forward to say that he had seen Jackson on the Manchester to Hull train last Saturday. He had claimed to be a ship's captain going to rejoin his ship at Hull. Hatton stated that the man was very scruffy and did not seem to have much knowledge of ships.
Over the next couple of days the newspaper reported Jackson still had not been captured and they republished stories about Jackson's life of crime in Yorkshire from other newspapers. On 5th June they published that Jackson had been sighted in London and the South. A telegram from Maidstone stated that all Kentish stations on the London, Chatham and Dover Line and the South Eastern Railways were being watched and passengers carefully scrutinised.
In Worsely the previous Saturday, a suspicious man with a lump on his left hand had been arrested. The man gave a good account of himself but as the resemblance to the murderer Jackson was so strong, he was not given his freedom until he had been examined by PC Crowther. Crowther was the officer that had arrested Jackson in the attempted robbery at Eccles. Over the next few days "sightings " of Jackson were made all over the country, eventually on June 12th the Guardian published the following gleeful report. The by-line read: FROM OUR OWN REPORTER, BRADFORD, MONDAY.
MORE TO FOLLOW
Thirty three year old John Jackson otherwise known as Charles Wood Firth, Jackson was serving a six month sentence at Strangeways Prison, Manchester, after being convicted on a burglary charge in April. Due to his apprenticeship as a plumber, he was asked to fix some gas pipes in the house of the matron. He agreed to the work and on 22 May was taken to the house and accompanied by a warder, Ralph Webb (45), with whom he got on well. At 4pm that afternoon, the matron heard a noise in the bedroom and when she went to investigate, she found the door locked. She called for help and three warders arrived and forced the door open to find Webb beaten to death on the floor, and a hole in the ceiling from which Jackson had made his escape. He was at large for several weeks while a massive manhunt went on. He was eventually arrested at Bradford, after he had been caught breaking into a house. Back at the station, he was identified as Jackson and taken to Manchester on a murder charge. Tried by Mr Justice Grantham at Manchester Assizes on Friday 13 July, the jury needed just six minutes to find him guilty. He was hanged by James Berry on the 7th August 1888 in Manchester.