The new true crime series Murdertown is a powerful exploration of some of the most startling crimes in British history, unfolding in different locations across the country. Host Katherine Kelly now returns to her native Barnsley to probe a crime which shook this South Yorkshire town in 2015.
The victim was an elderly man who'd been stabbed to death in his own home. The crime stumped police at first. There had been no forced entry and no clear motive. But then, some CCTV footage revealed a woman using the dead man's card to withdraw cash, and the police used this thread to unravel a complex and disturbing story which stemmed right back to another murder many years before.
And this is far from the only murky tale from Barnsley's past.
A look into the history of Barnsley reveals stories that still fascinate and disturb to this day – and not all involve murder. Take the Barnsley Public Hall stampede of 1908, when what should have been a fun day out at the pictures – still a new and exciting technology back then – turned into a nightmare for the town's children and their families. Packed tightly into the Public Hall to see the show, some of the kids were directed to the ground level to relieve pressure in the auditorium. In the rush down the stairs that followed, numerous children were trampled over, with 16 killed and many more badly injured. As a news item at the time put it, "When the reserve police arrived they found the narrow stairway practically blocked with bodies."
Then there was the phenomenon of resurrectionists, or grave-robbers, which came to Barnsley in the Victorian era. Cadavers for medical research were in short supply, inspiring a shady trade in dead bodies. In 1829, one such resurrectionist – a man named William Yeardley – was caught with a box stuffed with the body of an infant boy.
When the reserve police arrived they found the narrow stairway practically blocked with bodies
Yeardley was hauled into court, prompting worried Barnsley locals to rush to the graveyard to check if their dead relatives had been dug up and sold. The contempt for Yeardley was summed up by a magistrate who said, "People can talk all they like about the interests of science… but better that dissecting rooms are empty rather than the feelings of mankind should be violated." The resurrectionist panic would cause paranoia about the dead of Barnsley for a long time to come.
The Wombwell Murder
As well as tragic accidents and grisly trade, Barnsley and its surroundings have also witnessed acts of deliberate murder. One of the most sensational took place in 1903, in the nearby community of Wombwell. It's noteworthy for the bizarrely protracted nature of the violence itself, and the rather poignant final moments of the convicted killers.
They were Emily Swann and her lover John Gallagher. Emily was a married mother with no fewer than 11 children, while John was a local miner who lodged with the Swann family. An affair ensued, which wasn't surprising given how Emily was regularly beaten by her thuggish husband. One day, after Emily was left with two black eyes, John Gallagher snapped and charged over to confront her husband. While Emily looked on, John thrashed her abusive husband – then calmly took a break and went to a neighbour's house to report that "I've busted four of his ribs and I'll bust four more."
I've busted four of his ribs and I'll bust four more.
Vowing to "murder the pig before morning", he then returned to the Swann house to finish the job, while Emily was allegedly heard to shout "Give it to him, Johnny." The couple were duly arrested, with Emily being deemed just as culpable as her vengeful lover.
The reason the Wombwell murderers are remembered today is largely down to their rather touching final moments. "Good morning, John," Emily said as they stood on the gallows side by side. "Good morning, love," he replied, as they each had a noose put around their necks. "Goodbye," she said. "God bless you."
The Ripper and Others
The wider region around Barnsley has been impacted by some of Britain's most notorious killers, many within living memory. One, of course, was Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, who stalked women in Bradford, Leeds and Huddersfield in the late 1970s, allegedly because the voice of God told him to execute prostitutes.
In 2009, another killer with a pathological hatred for sex workers took victims in Bradford. Stephen Griffiths, a publicity-hungry narcissist who referred to himself as the "crossbow cannibal" in court, had previously done time for a knife attack, even being diagnosed as a "sadistic psychopath". Convicted of murdering three women, he was caught on CCTV literally chasing one victim down and shooting her with his crossbow.
Less well known today, but one of the most wanted men of his day is Arthur Hutchinson, who in 1983 brought horror to the community of Dore, just south of Barnsley. On the run from police for a previous crime, Hutchinson broke into the home of Basil and Avril Laitner, who that very day had joyously celebrated the wedding of their daughter. Hutchinson went berserk in the house, savagely murdering not just the couple, but also their adult son who was staying over.
He then dragged their other daughter out to the wedding marquee, where he repeatedly raped her in between casually eating the leftovers from the wedding feast. A bitemark left in cheese was one piece of evidence which snared the pitiless killer. Like the Yorkshire Ripper and the Crossbow Cannibal, Hutchinson will die in prison.