Carmarthenshire has a wonderfully rich and varied history with more than its share of weird and wonderful events from the past. You can find out about some of them on the Creepy Carmarthen Tour each Wednesday evening between now and October, and at the end of this month as part of the Llandeilo Literary Festival. But just for now here is a selection of some of my favourite snippets of local history.
The recruit who chopped off his finger
Carmarthen men have a proud history of service in the British Army, with monuments around the town marking those who died in conflicts ranging from the Crimean War to the Korean conflict of the nineteen fifties. In 1846 a recruiting party visited Carmarthen with the aim of finding likely young men willing to join the ranks.
They found Gabriel Davies drinking his friends in one of the local pubs and, after the sergeant had plied him with ale, got him to accept “the Queen’s shilling”. Accepting that coin from the recruiter was as good as a contract and “Billy” as he was known was destined for a career in the forces.
However, Billy soon sobered up and regretted his impulsive decision. But how to get out of military service? He decided that the army probably wouldn’t want a handicapped man. So he pulled out the clasp knife he kept in his pocket and tried to cut off his trigger finger.
His friends were horrified and managed to wrestle the knife from him. Undeterred he then tried to bite his finger off but that proved too difficult a task. Not to be defeated he left the pub and, using the axe the landlord used for cutting up firewood, hacked off the offending digit.
So, no trigger finger – and no career in the army either. His guess was right, the army no longer wanted him and he was discharged from his duty once he had handed back the shilling to the NCO.
The man who killed a king
Wealthy Carmarthenshire aristocrat Rhys ap Thomas had been a boyhood friend of Henry Tudor, a pretender to the English throne.
So when Henry landed with his troops in Pembrokeshire he turned to his old ally and asked for his support.
But Rhys had sworn an oath of loyalty to King Richard III declaring that he would only let an invading army pass “over my body”. “I’ve given my word,” he told his friend, “My word is my bond.”
“Were those your very words?” Henry asked. “Then we can deal with that.” He got Rhys to stand underneath a bridge while he marched his army over the top.
“There, we have walked over your body,” he told him. “You never told the king that it would be your dead body did you?”
Honour satisfied the two men joined forces and met King Richard’s army twenty-two days latter at Bosworth. Despite being outnumbered three-to-one by the monarch’s forces Henry triumphed.
According to Welsh legend it was Rhys himself who struck the blow that killed the king, hacking off the back of his skull with an axe. For his part in putting Henry VII on the throne Rhys was rewarded with land, titles and great wealth, effectively becoming king of Wales.
The last public execution
David Evans prepared to meet his maker as he stood on the scaffold, the hangman’s noose around his neck. In front of him fifteen thousand local people stood on Spilman Street waiting to see him kick and twist as his life ebbed away.
He had been sentenced to death in 1829 for the cruel and calculated murder of his girlfriend, Hannah, who he stabbed to death on a Sunday afternoon stroll.
At the signal from the prison governor the executioner kicked away the stool from under Evans’s feet and down fell the prisoner. Down fell the gallows too, the woodwork collapsing on top of luckless murderer.
“Let him go,” the crowd called, “He’s innocent, let him go.” In those days people believed that if the execution failed then it was a sign from God that the prisoner was blameless.
Evans believed it too. The Carmarthen Journal quotes him as calling out: “No hang, no hang, no hang, no! No gentleman was ever hanged twice.”
But the hangman was not inclined to show mercy. “No sir,” he said. “I have sworn my duty to hang you by the neck until you are dead. So, up you go and down you drop and may the Lord have mercy on you.”
Once the gallows had been repaired the execution was carried out again, this time to the hangman’s complete satisfaction.
A highwayman hangs
Edward Higgins found it easy to fight off the two men who tried to apprehend him when he was caught red-handed breaking in to a house in the coastal town of Laugharne. His bad luck was to also encounter their dog which bit him and refused to let go.
Higgin’s arrest was a major coup for the authorities. The man was a notorious highwayman with a price on his head, wanted for murder and burglary as well as for his criminal activities on the highways and byways of both England and Wales.
Thousands crowded around the hilltop at Pensarn to watch his execution with the well-to-do paying the hangmen a handsome bribe to be allowed to step on to the scaffold and touch the dead man’s hand.
The sentence of the court had been that Higgins should be hanged, drawn and quartered, a throw-back to earlier times when the condemned were cut down after being throttled by the noose, revived by the executioner who would then castrate and disembowel them while still alive before cutting up their body into quarters.
In 1767 this practice had changed a little and criminals were now hanged until they were dead before the body was cut into bits. The hangman and the governor of the gaol would make a little extra on the side by holding the body’s dissection in public.
In Higgin’s case his corpse had been sold on to a local surgeon who wanted a fresh corpse so his “apprentices” could benefit from some practical anatomy lessons.
The doctor opened up the highwayman’s chest cavity to begin the gruesome work – at which point they discovered that Higgin’s heart was still beating. Although he had been allowed to hang for the statutory hour after execution he was not yet dead.
The surgeon quietly “finished him off” before continuing with his work.
Hotel landlord killed in a bullfight
Hunting, cock-fighting and other cruel sports were a popular feature of local life two centuries ago. Carmarthen was best known as a venue for bull-baiting and the town was famous for its “fighting dogs’.
The main venue was the market square in front of The Guildhall where a ring had been set into the cobbles.
The poor bull was tethered to the ring by a chain which was fastened in turn to the ring through its nose. While the terrified creature was unable to escape the dogs were trained to rip and tear at its flesh with the best hounds aiming to bite the bull’s head to score the most points.
Not that the dogs escaped scot-free and many of them were killed or maimed by the bull during the course of the contest.
This cruel sport was actually sponsored by Carmarthen Town Council and met with approval from the local butchers who believed that bull-baiting tenderized the meat.
The practice was outlawed in the Cruelty to Animals Act of 1835 but not before there had been a notable human casualty of the “sport”.
The landlord of the Bull Head Hotel on Lammas Street found himself rather too close to the action than he would have liked when the press of people in the crowd forced him directly in front of the bull. The horn tore into his stomach causing a mortal wound.
He was carried back to his hotel where, accord to contemporary reports, it took him three days to die of his wounds.
Eight year old charged with murder
Carmarthen’s courts have seen many a murderer stand in the dock over the course of the centuries. However, no case was crueller than that of an eight year-old girl who faced the charge of killing her brother and sister aged four and six.
This country was at war with the Spanish at the time and local people were warned of the prospect of an invasion from the sea and a special watch was kept along the coast.
The children all heard rumours about the Spaniards and how cruel they were to the people they captured. Adults were killed or enslaved, they said, while children would be eaten alive.
One night the children’s parents were away from home and there was a terrific thunderstorm. The youngsters mistook the sound of the thunder for Spanish guns.
Terrified that they might fall victim to the invaders the little girl decided to take matters into her own hands. Rather than be taken by the Spaniards and suffer the terrible fate that had been forecast the little girl decided to kill her siblings and then to kill herself.
Using her father’s billhook she was successful in despatching her brother and sister and then tried to commit suicide by throwing herself in to the river but was saved from drowning by her neighbours.
She was put on trial for the murders in the old Guildhall which stood in the centre of the town. Mercifully she was discharged by the courts.
History does not recorded her name only the scant details of the trial which took place around 1742.
Beware the drunken driver
One the main roads through Carmarthenshire carries a grim warning of the perils of drunken driving. In 1935 Edward Jenkins was the driver of the mail coach taking its load of letters, parcels and passengers from Gloucester to Carmarthen.
It was a responsible job and the coach would stop regularly at the roadside inns and taverns to pick up the post and to change horses. Unfortunately Jenkins would also use the opportunity to stock up on ale and by the time he left Brecon heading towards Llandovery everyone on board could see that he was drunk.
Driving at breakneck speed along the winding road Jenkins encountered a farm cart blocking the way. Trying to avoid it he drove the coach off the road, plunging down one-hundred-and-twenty feet to the river below.
There were five passengers on board as well as the driver and his guard. The coach was reported as being “smashed to atoms”. Miraculously they all survived.
The Royal Mail erected a monument to mark the site of the accident and to warn all road users of the perils of drunk driving. Jenkins was fined £5 and lost his job.
That monument to Jenkin’s folly can still be seen in a small layby alongside the A40.
The thrice times buried butler
Henry Tremble, the butler at Dolaucothi Hall in the north of Carmarthenshire had ambitions to better himself. So when the landlord of one of the local pubs retired he asked his employer if he could take over running the tavern.
Judge John Johnes knew that Tremble was a man of good character and had all but promised him that he would become the new tenant of the Dolaucothi Arms. However, the Judge had heard rumours about the butler’s wife, Martha, who was a little too fond of the bottle. He told his servant that while he would do an excellent job Martha was likely to drink away the profits. Instead he was giving the tenancy of the pub to another local man.
Tremble was furious and a blazing row broke out between the two men, ending with the Judge giving his butler a week’s notice.
During those seven days the servant hatched a plan to revenge himself for his disappointment. On the eve of his final day in employment he wrote a suicide note leaving all his savings to his daughter so that she could provide for her brothers and sisters.
On Saturday 19th August 1976 the judge’s daughter caught Tremble in the act of stealing the family silver. Grabbing his master’s shotgun he hunted down the Judge to his study where he blasted him in the belly with both barrels before seriously wounding the daughter.
“Tremble did it. Mind he is taken,” the judge told those who came to his aid before he died.
The butler fled to the family home in the nearby village of Caeo where he held the police at bay for some time before finally committing suicide.
While the Judge’s funeral attracted thousands of mourners, Tremble was buried with little ceremony in an unmarked grave behind the village church. But local people were unhappy that both the murderer and his victim were buried in the same graveyard.
A few weeks later a group of villagers took it on themselves to dig up the butler’s body and to move it to another cemetery at Llanddulas in Breconshire. Locals there were bemused to find an unmarked grave when no one had died in the village. So they opened the grave and discovered the corpse of the now notorious killer.
A few days later, in the dead of night, they brought the body back to Caeo in the dead of night and left the coffin outside the church door with a note pinned to the lid.
“Keep your own murderer” it said. And so this time they did.
The fasting girl
According to the newspapers of 1869 twelve year old Sarah Jacobs had eaten nothing for the past two years.
The little girl had fallen ill with stomach pains which the family doctor was unable to diagnose. Although the pains disappeared it left the girl with such a severe aversion to food that she refused to eat.
Despite the fact that nothing was seen to pass her lips Sarah appeared the thrive, losing a little weight but otherwise apparently in good health. As news of her “illness” spread people came from miles around to visit her at the family farm at Llanfihangel ar Arth.
Her parents, Evan and Hannah, saw the chance to make a little money from the curious visitors and began to charge to allow them into her bedroom where the pretty little girl was put on display dressed as if she was a bride. Although they must have connived with her in the fraud Sarah was a very convincing actress, welcoming her visitors, reading to them from the bible and leading them in prayer.
Inevitably her story attracted the attention of the press as well as medical experts who were fascinated by her condition. Crowds of visitors from all over England and Wales made the journey by train to Pencader and then on foot to the farm to witness “the miracle”.
Suspecting fraud a panel of nurses were brought in from St Thomas’s hospital in London with instructions to watch over her day and night. They were allowed to offer her food if she requested it but otherwise to simply observe and do nothing.
Unwilling to admit fraud, and unable to access the food that she had clearly obtained from someone, she inevitably starved to death.
They held an autopsy at the Eagle Inn in the village and a quantity of small bones and a sticky substance were found in Sarah’s stomach. It was clear to all the observers of the post-mortem that she had managed to eat something in the days before she died.
Evan and Hannah Jacob were subsequently convicted of Sarah’s manslaughter and served short sentences of just one year and six months respectively in Swansea gaol.
The burning of the Bishop
The crowd in Carmarthen’s Market Place watched in silence as their bishop was tied to the stake and bundles of firewood placed all around him.
Dr Robert Ferrar, Bishop of St David’s, had been sentenced to death on a trumped-up charge of heresy for his opposition to Queen Mary’s imposition of the Catholic religion following the death of her father, Henry VIIIth.
Determined to defy his persecutors the Bishop had told them that he would go to his death in silence showing no reaction to the pain and agony that he would be suffering.
However, when the time came to carry out the execution the organisers discovered that no-one had been given the responsibility of lighting the bonfire – a task none of them relished. A volunteer was called for and, offered the bribe of land and a farm, a local peasant agreed.
Once the bonfire was lit and everyone could see the flames catching the bishop’s clothes, scorching his face and setting fire to his beard the man burst into tears and ran away. By now the bishop was consumed by the fire and must have been suffering terribly but true to his word gave no sign whatsoever of the pain.
A local soldier took pity on the poor man and, using a pikestaff borrowed from one of the men keeping the crowd in order, he struck the bishop over the head until he was dead.
His executioner never received his reward. Two days later he died of apoplexy – what we would probably say was either a heart attack or a stroke.
The tale of Dr Ferrar’s death is recorded in Foxe’s Book of English Martyrs along with those of 600 other victims of Queen Mary’s persecution of the protestant faith.
Author: Nick Brunger
Nick leads an award-winning “horrible history” tour of Carmarthen from Easter to October every year. Private tours are available at any time.