Situated between the town of Bury and the village of Norden lies the small hamlet of Birtle, nestled away in the North West of England. Dotted along the rolling fields are many farm buildings and small businesses that have been passed down through many generations, and it’s within this setting we are travelling back almost two hundred years ago and to the evening of Saturday, 1st October 1825.
It was a miserable and wet evening with localized flooding take place in some parts of the area and with fields saturated by a downpour of rain that had struck the area only a few hours prior.
Benjamin Cass was a farmer but on a small scale who owned his own property as well as several others that he rented out, and as standards of living where to go, one could say he and his wife had a comfortable life. Benjamin, who was 65 years old, was known by many in the local area to be a man of careful habits, someone who had his head screwed-on when it came down to business and he was never short of a penny or two.
Having only married a few years prior, Benjamin shared his home with his wife, Alice, who was older than him at the age of 76.
At around 7pm on the 1st October, a man by the name of John Chadwick called at Marr Crofts, the home of Benjamin and Alice. This in itself was nothing unusual as John would often call on his friend on a Saturday evening where they would share jokes, often talk about how well business was doing as well as take on a few shots of brandy or whiskey or whatever else was on offer.
John would stay at the Cass’s farm until around 10pm and after reading a pamphlet together, John bid his goodbye’s to both Benjamin and Alice.
Benjamin rose from his chair that was situated close-by to a fire and he escorted John to the door. Meanwhile, Alice was sat alone at the end of a couch which was also next to the seat that Benjamin had been sat in for most of the evening. She had begun to rouse herself from where she was sitting, apparently readying herself to retire for the night.
Outside, it was still raining as both John and Benjamin walked 10 to 15 feet out into the yard. There, they spent a few moments talking before John made his way into the darkness of the night and towards his home that was only around 300 to 400 yards away. Unbeknownst to him that this would be the very last time he would ever see his friend, Benjamin, alive ever again.
The following morning and just after 6am, Joseph Cass, called in on his brother Benjamin so they could both partake in their usual routine of going for a walk in the fields both of them owned.
Strangely, upon arriving at Benjamin’s home, the door was found to be unlocked. Making his way in, Joseph quickly came across Benjamin sitting in the same chair he had spent most of the previous evening sat in. His wife, Alice, was seemingly leaning upon his shoulder.
“What! Are you asleep” Joseph jokingly asked.
Getting no response, Joseph walked closer to the couple until he was close enough to place his hand on Benjamin’s head. No sooner had he placed his hand down, he quickly raised it. Shocked with horror, and after looking at his hand, Joseph recoiled as the sight of blood that had covered most of the palm of his hand which came into view.
At this point Joseph instantly knew both Benjamin and Alice where lying in a lifeless state.
Running out of the house, he quickly made his way over to the house of John Chadwick. Alerting him to the horror inside his brother’s house, both Joseph and John made their way back over to Cass’s farm.
On arrival, Chadwick was first to enter the house and he soon found himself confronted by an horrendous sight.
Just as Chadwick had seen the night before, Benjamin Cass was, already mentioned, sat in the same seat as he was during the Saturday evening.
His head was leaning against the back of the chair and he had his feet stretched out against the fender close to the fire.
Alice Cass was seated on the arm of the couch which she had also occupied the previous evening. Her head was leaning on Benjamin’s right shoulder and both her arms were hanging down, one before the other behind the chair.
On the floor near to the chair was a fire poker as well as part of an old coal shovel, matted with bloody and the grey hairs from that of Benjamin’s head.
The shovel, due to years of use had been worn away to a relatively small size with the edges being extremely sharp.
Taking a closer look at both Benjamin and Alice, it was clearly obvious that tremendous rage and violence had been used against the couple.
Benjamin Cass had received several cuts with the shovel; one of which had divided the nose far down the face. Another cut was found on his chin and a third on the back of his neck.
And whilst the details of this may seem sickening, this was only the beginning.
The person or persons responsible for such brutality, not content with using the shovel to commit their awful deeds, decided to make use of the poker.
Blow after blow rained down on both Benjamin and Alice, fracturing their skulls to such an extent that their facial features were so dreadfully mutilated, it would be extremely difficult for the police surgeon to identify the victims just by look alone. For example, the back of Benjamin’s head was completely open, with his nose and chin split apart such was the severity of the blows to his head.
As for the scene of the double murder, it resembled that of an abattoir. Blood splattered the walls and floor. The seat and couch both had been sat in had become a red mass of congealed blood.
The room was ransacked with drawers being left open and items of personal belongings scattered on the floor and side units. Surprisingly, whoever committed the murders had never searched the upper parts of the farm house as 13 shillings and 6 pence was still found lying on a window sill. Also, the victims’ bodies didn’t seem to have been searched as both had small sums of money still in their pockets which would later be found by a local constable who was alerted to the crime not too long after both Joseph Cass and John Chadwick had found them lying dead.
On Monday, 3rd October, the coroner’s inquest would begin in earnest and take place within the Bird In Hand public house before Mr. Ferrand. The proceedings would begin at 9am and conclude at around 6pm later that evening, and whilst no satisfactory conclusion could be made as to who the person or persons responsible for the murders of both Benjamin and Alice Cass where, speculation soon rose that perhaps it was a relative who may have been responsible. No single name was ever mentioned and no fingers pointed to anyone in particular but the police would assume that because nothing was taken from the property (as was then supposed), then perhaps someone close to the Cass’s may have been the perpetrator.
However, the inquest would be adjourned mid-afternoon without any conclusive evidence ever being produced and upon its resumption later in the day, suspicions began to entertain the idea of another person – a man named John Diggle who was a native of Birtle, but who was living in Bury, as a person of interest who could perhaps be an important witness into the events that took place at the Cass’s farm.
Whatever evidence was found was enough to satisfy the authorities that Diggle was a man of interest in this case and on Tuesday, 4th October, Deputy-Constable Andrews from Bury was informed that a man had been apprehended at Royton over in Oldham under circumstances which had induced suspicion that he was indeed connected with the murder of Benjamin and Alice.
Andrews duly made his way to Royton where upon his arrival he found in Diggle in custody.
Andrews subsequent investigations led him to reveal that Diggle had arrived at the Unicorn public house in Royton and after downing several drinks he had attracted the wrong kind of attention from others in the public house as he sang and danced for a long period of time. And whilst this in itself may not seem too relevant, what did pique the interest of Andrews was that Diggle had tried to sell clothing, spectacles and an umbrella which he had in his possession.
A man by the name of John Wylde had agreed to purchase some items of interest off Diggle, paying part of the money with the rest, around seven or eight shillings being outstanding. Wylde told Diggle he would need to return home for the remainder of the money but something came over him to which he would return back to the public house, telling Diggle he wanted to give back the items of clothing he had purchased from him.. He would also offer to buy Diggle a quart of ale providing Diggle would return his money.
Diggle wavered the remainder of the money owed to him telling Wylde he could keep the cloths but only as long as he bought him the quart of ale as promised. Throughout the evening they would both spend time drinking together until Wylde left.
Returning home, Wylde first called upon Elizabeth Mellor, a friend, and told her of the bargain he had made with Diggle. He would also leave the clothes he had purchased from Diggle with her.
News had also quickly spread regarding the murders that had taken place over in nearby Birtle and word soon reached Elizabeth. The following morning, she would contact Johnathan Chadwick, police constable of Royton, and pass over the clothing Wylde had given to her.
Interested in the story that Elizabeth had told him and of course, after hearing about the murders over in Birtle, Chadwick soon caught up with Diggle and took him the to the Spread-Eagle public house. After questioning him over the Birtle murders, Diggle would be arrested and put inside the lock-up at Royton.
On Wednesday, 5th October, Diggle was transferred from Royton back to Birtle, along with the articles he had in his possession.
Upon his arrival, many of the articles were quickly identified as those belonging to the late Benjamin Cass, especially a pair of shoes and the spectacles.
Later that day, Diggle was taken to the infirmary where he would view the bodies of Benjamin and Alice but his demeanor was that of someone not remotely interested or seemingly bothered at the situation he was in.
The case would soon escalate and during an examination, blood would be found in several places on Diggle’s shirt.
It would also transpire that information would soon be received by the police which would indicate that Diggle had been seen over in nearby Rochdale at around one o’clock on the morning of Sunday, 2nd October by a group of men who had lit a charcoal pit. He had with him two bundles of clothing and other items and after spending some time with the men, and offering them cheese and bread, a man by the name of Samuel Sledden bought two pairs of stockings – which would later be proved to have been those once owned by Benjamin Cass. It also seems that the bread and cheese had also been taken from the Cass’s home. Diggle would stay with the men till around six o’clock in the morning and then would leave with Sleddan heading off into the direction of Littleborough. Both men would spend a short time drinking two pints of ale at the Sign of the Gate public house and at around seven o’clock, both men parted on a road to Halifax.
Diggle, now obviously realising the dire situation he was in, would bring to the attention of Andrews the name of another person whom he said he had bought the items off.
That name was Ralph Weston.
On Sunday, 16th October, Weston would be apprehended in the neighborhood of Keighley and transported over to Bury the following day. When questioned about the events that took place on Saturday, 1st October he immediately proved he had an alibi on the night in question.
Despite Diggle’s protestations that it was Weston who had gone into the Cass’s home on the night of the murders and brought out the clothing that was found in Diggle’s possession, Weston was soon acquitted of any wrong doing.
Weston would tell the police that he was with Diggle on the Thursday, Friday and until three in the afternoon on the Saturday when the murders took place. He left Diggle and made his way over to Burnley where he applied for work with a friend he had known for a while by the name of Steen Smith. Unfortunately, there was no work for Weston but Smith told him he could sleep at his house for night. The following morning on Sunday, 2nd October, Weston made his way over to Todmorden, where he remained all day and slept in a barn later that night. He then managed to travel into Keighley where he found work with Messrs. Knight and Sons.
On Saturday, 22nd October, the final inquiry into the murders of Benjamin and Alice Cass would begin. The jury would hear how Weston had an alibi and after going over the details once again on the night the murders took place, the Jury, now satisfied that the murders where now done by one person only, would bring in a verdict of wilful murder against Diggle and on Sunday, 23rd October he would be transferred to Lancaster Assizes to await his trial.
Interestingly, on Saturday, 29th October, reporters had been allowed into the dungeons at Lancaster where Diggle was being held. One in particular who worked for the Bolton Express reported that Diggle was a fine, healthy looking man, about five feet six inches in height; but with an overhanging brow, and a stern look about him. He would, however, assume a carelessness attitude, at times breathing with heavy sighs and then occasionally seemingly roused for a moment to a state of self-worth. One thing that struck the reporter that he never once looked at him in the eye, instead he would survey, with a wild and hurried look, the room he was confined in.
During the interview with the reporter, Cass would confess to being part of the robbery; but reaffirmed that he waited for Ralph Weston in a meadow near the house of the Cass’s; and that on Weston’s return, he asked him “what he had done at ’em?” to which Weston replied, “I’ve hurt ’em, but not killed ’em.”
On Thursday, March 16th, 1826 – the long awaited trial for John Diggle would commence at 8.30am in the morning before Mr Justice Bayley.
John Diggle, accused of murdering both Benjamin and Alice Cass would take to the bar.
He was, in appearance a stout, healthy and active man of about 30 to 35 years of age and had sandy colored hair, blue eyes and a fresh complexion. His demeanor was perfectly calm and after the charges of wilful murder were put before him, he simply replied with, “Not guilty.”
Both John Chadwick and Joseph Cass would take to the stand and go over the disturbing events that took place back on the 1st October the previous year.
John Goodlad, a surgeon from Bury would also take to the stand detailing the horrific injuries both Benjamin and his wife Alice had sustained at the hands of their attacker telling the jury that whilst the coal shovel had obviously made the deep cuts to Benjamin’s face and head, it was the poker that was found at the scene that had certainly inflicted death on both of the victims.
A new witness came forward by the name of Richard Brierly, who told the court that on the 1st October he had seen Diggle on a road from Bury to Haslingden at around 3.30pm in the afternoon heading in the direction of Bury. Diggle was with Ralph Weston. He would also tell the court that the next time he had seen Diggle was at the Coroner’s inquest at the Bird in Hand.
John Quick, who had known Diggle for two to three years by sight only would also tell the court that he had seen him on the 1st October, between four and five o’clock in the afternoon and about two miles from the Cass’s farm house. He did not have anything in his hands and he was alone heading into the direction of Bury.
Evidence was produced of Diggle having disposed of clothes and shoes belonging to Benjamin Cass to two different parties; and the articles sold by him being identified by the neighbours of Benjamin.
William Cass, nephew of Benjamin and a shoemaker who had made the shoes would prove the identity of them and so would a tailor who made the clothes, as being the property of Benjamin Cass.
Joseph Coates, an inmate at the lock-up at the same time Diggle was apprehended would tell the court of a discussion that he had with Diggle during their short time together.
Diggle told Coates that both he and Ralph Weston were in company and Weston said he would go to “old Cass’s” and “would have something, or he would kill somebody.”
Diggle also said to Coates, “I waited for him at Old West Meadow; when he came back, I asked him if he had killed them! He said No, but he had hurt them; and said, as you are going on tramp, take these clothes; you may make something of them; for, if I am catched with them about Bury, they would take me up!”
Diggle went on, “We then went by Jericho, to Littlewood Cross; we then bid each other good night and parted. It was about 12 o’clock. He said he would apply to a factory for work and I came to an oven fire, on the other side of Rochdale.”
Another important witness was John Watmough, a spinner from Rochdale, who would tell the court that when he was also in the lock-up, when, on the 24th October – Ralph Weston was brought in, he overheard a conversation between Diggle and Weston.
He remembered Diggle saying to Weston, “What are you getten here?”
Weston replied, “Jack, did you not say that I gave you the clothes in the middle of a meadow!”
“Yes, I’ll stand to it!” replied Diggle.
“You know very well you are telling lies – I was at Burnley that night.”
Mr. Justice Bayley, having summed up the evidence at considerable length and the jury after retiring for around three quarters of an hour, returned with a verdict of Guilty.
The judge, after a long address to Diggle would pronounce on him the sentence of death. Diggle remained stern, never once baulking at the penalty imposed upon him. He maintained the same attitude throughout the trial, gazing upon the bench and he left the bar with the greatest of apathy.
But this soon changed.
As Diggle was taken to his cell, he immediately burst into tears. All the sturdy and unshaken firmness which he had manifested throughout his trial soon gave way to weeping and he would keep reaffirming his innocence.
He would be soon visited by the Reverend, Mr. Rowley, chaplain of the prison to whom he would shortly confess too.
He acknowledged that the bloody deed was committed by himself alone, although he maintained that the subject of the robbery was first suggested to him by Ralph Weston. He would tell the Reverend that he had waited for some considerable time at a small bridge near to Ashworth before he went to the Cass’s house.
He would also say to the Reverend that he was under the influence of drink and that ever since the murders took place, he had been plagued with remorse.
On Sunday, 19th March, Diggle attended the chapel, along with two other prisoners set for execution – James Simpson and Thomas Martin. He appeared to be composed and firm, just like he was during his trial.
That evening, he slept composedly throughout and at around 11am on Monday, 20th March, the final rites where administered to him and would be pinioned ready for his execution.
By 12pm, Diggle had made his way to the scaffold. The burial service would be read to him by the Chaplain and after the white cloth was placed over his head, he would be launched into eternity as the trap door was opened beneath his feet.
His death was not instantaneous as he struggled slightly for a few passing moments, but he would be left hanging for around an hour. His body later to be removed and given to the surgeons of Lancashire for dissection which was usually the case for those wo had been executed.
He would leave behind a wife and a child.
Benjamin and Alice Cass were interred at St. James Chapel, Ashworth, Rochdale on Saturday 5th March 1825.
Sources used in this story;
Manchester Guardian – Saturday 08 October 1825
Evening Mail – Wednesday 12 October 1825
Manchester Mercury – Tuesday 11 October 1825
Morning Chronicle – Wednesday 02 November 1825
British Press – Thursday 23 March 1826
+ many more courtesy of the British Newspaper Archive – www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk
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