Harriet Wright in 1840.. Murder or vindictive suicide?
Questions still remain about how Harriet Wright died when her body was pulled from the canal under Lancaster Street bridge, and her sweetheart Josiah Lilly was the man in the frame
Handsome Josiah Lilly probably felt the rope round his neck when a burly sergeant banged on his door.
The evidence was damning. The body of Lilly’s sweetheart, Harriet Wright, had been discovered in a nearby cut, with Lilly’s hat floating nearby.
A sodden note found in her pocket, asking the pretty 23-year-old for cash, had been penned by him.
What’s more, on the fateful night – May 7, 1840 – the couple had been seen publicly squabbling over a bonnet and shawl quick-tempered Harriet had accused her boyfriend of stealing.
And in the days before the killing, Lilly had confided to a friend: “I will hang for her before the week is out.”
Lilly was also a man of tainted character. He had endured numerous stints at the House of Correction, a workhouse for vagrants and beggars, and faced trial over the theft of Harriet’s clothes – a trial scuppered when she refused to take the witness box.
His ‘inconsistent recollections’ of what took place on that evening in May only added to the weight of opinion that this was an open and shut case. He first told police he last saw Harriet at 9.30pm, later remembering it was actually 11pm.
Yet at Warwick Summer Assizes, the 17-year-old was cleared of murder, the jury swayed by eye-witness accounts of the couple walking happily together on the night in question. Much was also made of Lilly’s anguish when told of his girlfriend’s violent death.
In fact, there was even doubt over whether Harriet had been killed at all.
One thing became apparent soon after the body was dragged from murky canal waters near Walmer’s Lane Bridge, Birmingham. Harriet had been involved in an altercation. Tell-tale bruising on her wrists were consistent with the victim being grasped by strong hands.
Yet Lilly, described by journalists of the day as ‘of prepossessing appearance, with red hair, a fair complexion and intelligent face’, played the suicide card.
When shaken awake by Sergeant Brough only hours after the grisly discovery, he gasped: “Good God, is she dead?”
He told Inspector Edmonds at the local nick: “I did not do it, but I am as bad as if I had done so, because I knew she intended to do it.”
And Lilly had a simple explanation for his hat being found at the scene. He’d been set up by his suicidal partner.
“It was taken off me for a trap, he explained. “She took my hat and ran towards the canal.”
“If I am to hang,” he announced dramatically, “I shall die innocent.”
It was a version of events that would take some swallowing, but a jury swallowed the story hook, line and sinker.
A court may have decided Lilly was not a murderer, but he was certainly a ne’er-do-well. After falling in with a bad crowd, Harriet’s father had banned his girl from having contact with him. Smitten, she continued the relationship behind her dad’s back.
Eventually, they moved into furnished lodgings in Ludgate Hill before Lilly was again sentenced to 14 days in the House of Correction for skipping work.
It was there, he wrote the note found in the dead girl’s pocket.
Harriet, quite simply, had had enough of her workshy fiancé: she packed her bags and returned to dad. Love swiftly turned to loathing. Lilly was accused of stealing Harriet’s bonnet and shawl from the Ludgate Hill lodgings they shared and was due to stand trial only two days before her body was found.
His defence at the murder trial made much of the victim’s refusal to give evidence in the theft case. It proved how close the couple were. Harriet had even told her sister: “I will destroy myself if Josiah even turns his back on me.”
Surprisingly, it took the jury a very short time to find the accused not guilty, dismissing the evidence against him as ‘circumstantial’.
“Who killed Harriet Wright?” is the question that remains following that verdict. Officers were left to ponder if it was, indeed, murder or suicide.
There is, however, one more mystery. What happened to Josiah Lilly?
Following the trial, he disappeared from the face of the earth, with not a single record revealing his name.