Strange meeting in Dartmoor
Stephen Wade recalls the time when a Doncaster killer met a famous Irish Radical and writer (from his forthcoming book, Jane Austen’s Aunt Behind Bars)
(Thames River Press)
The first part of this story concerns a man known as Captain Slack around the Holmes, one of the poorest places in Doncasterin the 1860s, with mission churches and schools. When the story first broke, the press fastened onto the fact that Slack and his wife were both ‘of intemperate habits’ and that appears to have been the source of the man’s murderous rages, this particular one proving to be the killing of his wife and his own ruin.
On 11 July, around six o’clock, Thomas Slack, aged forty, came home from a long drinking session; he found his wife, Ann, also drunk. They lived at the Holmes in Wheatley. A little girl had been helping Ann do some housework and she left just before Thomas appeared on the scene. The house had a kitchen and a front room, and later it was ascertained where exactly Slack struck – for he did strike, just minutes after coming home. He went into a rage when seeing her drunk: he took out his pocket knife and stabbed her in the neck. Ann staggered outside, screaming for help. She was bleeding heavily of course, and she fell as she went outside, into the arms of a neighbour who had rushed to the spot.
The woman who first held the dying woman was Hannah Slack, (aunt by marriage to the prisoner) and she left Ann breathing her last, with another woman before going inside and confronting the man. Hannah found him in the front room sitting on a sofa with his hand in his pocket and she said,
‘You have murdered your wife!’
Slack answered, ‘I have not seen her, where is she?’ But the drunk strangely then added, ‘Oh is she dead? She was my best friend… I’m very sorry.’
Hannah Slack now emerges as the heroine in the tale. The hand in his pocket grasped his knife and he said that he was going to take his own life. Hannah restrained him and shouted for help. It was very risky for her to have gone in there alone, in the first place. The other neighbours around responded and finally came to her assistance. Slack was grabbed and held, and a short time after the police arrived, led by Superintendent Astwood, who arrested Slack and took him away. He was charged with murder but he was sober enough to say that it was not so, because he was in drink. That was significant, because at court he stood indicted on charges of both murder and manslaughter.
The definition of murder needs to be placed at this point in the sad story: a murder is a killing which is done ‘with malice aforethought’ – there has to be a mens rea – an aim to kill – and then the actus reus – the deed done which would lead to the taking of life. The two Latin terms are crucially important. Slack had immediately thought that his drunkenness would be a defence and would pre-empt a murder charge. He was wrong.
Dr Charles Fenton gave medical evidence, saying he arrived on the scene about forty five minutes after the deadly attack. He found a wound two inches long on Ann’s neck; this was close to the left ear and death had been caused by the piercing of the cartoid artery.
It was clear from this that the knife wound had caused the death.
It was looking bleak for Slack. His defence, Mr Price Q.C., straightaway introduced the notion of provocation, saying, ‘I have known and worked with the family for several years… Mr Slack is a good and kind husband. The deceased was very unkind and provoking in every sense of the word. She did not bear a good character.’
Price then launched into the high drama of the plea aimed at the jury, insisting that this had not been wilful murder. He said, cleverly, that the law was bound to lay down general principles, but the application of these principles lay with the jury…’ In other words, he was angling for the wilful murder to be dropped by reason of severe provocation. The argument was that Price had suffered long and hard over the years, worthily trying to bring this fallen woman back to habits of sobriety.
But Hannah Slack’s testimony was crucially important. Slack had some barges on the River Don, hence his nick-name, and Hannah pointed out that he was often away from home; their marriage was a very unhappy one, she said. Then she described how she had seen both of them very drunk on that fateful evening. After the killing but before Hannah had known, she saw Slack walking along the garden and he ‘doubled up his hands and ruffled his hair in quite a delirious manner.’
Price was stretching all sinews and brain cells to paint a good picture of Slack. He cross-examined Hannah and she explained, ‘He has had to call me up dozens of times when he could not get deceased to bed because she was so drunk… I have often seen men come to the house when he has been away.’ The tale of their life together was depressing. Hannah pointed out that when the Slacks were first married they had a well-furnished house. ‘Drink had led Ann to pawn absolutely everything for beer or gin-money, and Hannah pointed out that there was not even a blanket in the house to put over the deceased body.
It was apparent that the man had been driven to distraction, and the presiding judge, Mr Justice Lowe, asked Price if he intended to set up an insanity defence. The answer was no: he was keeping to the provocation appeal.
The Slacks had been married for ten years, but for the last six months the decline had been extreme. Hannah said that Slack had been going toSheffieldalmost every day in that period, and coming home drunk, finding yet more items pawned and both of them heading for complete destitution.
This story could have been just another domestic homicide, at a time when such things were happening all the time. Slack’s story would have faded into oblivion, but fate decreed that he was to meet Michael Davitt, writer, journalist and politician, born inCountyMayoin 1846. After being evicted from their land, his family moved across the Irish Sea toLancashire, where Michael found work in a cotton mill, and at the age of eleven, in 1857, he lost an arm in a mill accident.
Slack had completed seven years of his sentence and was in Dartmoor, when along came Davitt, and they sat and talked. Slack told him that after a year in gaol his brother wrote to him advising hope and patience. Then six years past. Davitt and Slack had this conversation;
‘And have you not heard from your brother these six years?’ I asked, after listening to his story of drink, murder and repentance.
‘Oh no’ he replied, ‘Did not he say I need not expect to have a letter again until he could send a good one? I am expecting one now every day, and I think that as I have served seven years the Secretary of State will send me my release, coming on Christmas.’
Slack was then taken to another prison and Davitt did not see him for another five years; then he was brought back from Portsmouth and Davitt asked the same question. Slack replied, ‘As I have done twelve years now without a report, I am certain the Secretary of State will soon discharge me.’ Davitt concluded that if the ‘wretch’ was ever told of his brother’s conduct, he would have been ‘released by death’ before he had served half his term.
Davitt took a profound interest in prisoners and in prison reform and he was a literate, widely-read man. As was the case with many nationalism Irish prisoners in the nineteenth century, he wanted books and thirsted for learning, and to write poetry and autobiography. When John Mitchel, another Irish writer who wrote a famous prison journal, settled into prison life, he lamented the low quality of the prison reading-matter: ‘As for the books I read… The literature most in favour here seems to be of the very paltriest of London novels reprinted in America and they have those vile compositions called family Libraries… dry skeletons of dead knowledge…’
Davitt also searched for good reading, and being a writer, he searched for and cultivated other writers. He met several poets, one of which had a staggering level of egotism. Davitt begins his tale: ‘It was while studying the backs of doors and the bottoms of dinner-cans that I first met a convict poet in the flesh.’ He gave the Irish writer a poem to criticize and Davitt adds, after gaining possession of the man’s slate (there was no paper): ‘ I became possessed of his slate and found about fifty lines of a medley which commenced with ‘when we are most alone we are least alone’ containing nothing but unconnected lines stolen from Milton, Shakespeare and Young’s Night Thoughts.’
But Davitt is important for many reasons, and one of these is his realisation that writing and reading poetry in prison life is very important. He wrote a guide to reform in his second volume of memoirs and in that he had a lot to say on the use of the Free Libraries in prisons. He argued for more use to be made of libraries within prisons, and in fact developed a range of suggestions, all expressed with the practical eye of a man who has been at the receiving end of a prison regime. Davitt was a man of many parts, and a great thinker: his later writings reveal an impressive sensibility, and his prison memoirs make it clear that he genuinely felt for others, with a real empathetic sense of their troubles and the injustice around him. His writings on his prison time urge one to speculate as to what achievements he might have had as a reformer on questions of social issues, had he not been so busy with politics, as in his opposition to Parnell and his advocacy of non-denominational education. These activities made him enemies, but then, he was used to that, and in some ways thrived on it.
– You can see a full selection of Stephen Wade’s published books via his web site by click here.