Friday, 20 July 2012

Murder most foul

Benjamin Russell was a smuggler and thief.  He was, however, a very small cog in a very big business.  He lived in Burwash and to supplement his income - he was probably a general labourer by day - he ran a small bar in his cellar selling the rum and beer that he was able to acquire via the smuggling trade.  His part of the smuggling trade saw him involved in activities which had to be undertaken late at night just as he did on a moonless night in May 1826.  He and his partner in crime, 19 year old Daniel Leney, set off at midnight to a nearby farm where they stole a large bag of grain.  To make life easier they separated the bag into two sacks and taking one each they set off for home.  Leney soon found he was some way ahead of Russell so he returned to find Russell struggling with the weight of the larger sack.  They swapped sacks and carried on but again Leney found himself ahead of Russell.  This time, however when he returned he found Russell's body lying on the ground.  He was dead.

Leney hid the sacks of grain and ran to Russell's house where he woke Russell's wife Hannah.  She in turn ran to her father in laws house and woke him.  It was 1am on Wednesday morning and all three were aware that if Benjamin Russell's body was found where it was everyone would know he had been up to no good and more importantly the farmer would know who had stolen his grain.  So Leney and Russell senior moved the body to a nearby wood and they concocted a tale which had Leney spending the night with the Russells before leaving with Benjamin Russell in the morning.

They hadn't thought it through however and people soon grew suspicious.  Where were you going at that time?  Why were you in the woods?  Why were you not with Russell when he died if you went out together?  Unfortunately peoples suspicions were not that Russell and Leney had been out stealing grain (that was probably common knowledge) but that Hannah, his wife, had done away with him.  After all they had argued a few weeks earlier, Hannah had claimed that he had another woman and she had been heard to say she wished him dead.  There was no doubt in the minds of the local population - it was murder most foul.

Hannah Russell and Daniel Leney were arrested.  Hannah for the murder of her husband and Leney for aiding & abetting her.  Although details of the smuggling came out at their trial it made no difference, the evidence from Russell's post mortem sealed their fate - a large amount of white powder had been found in his stomach which had been identified as arsenic.

Due to a technical issue their hangings were delayed but on the 3rd August 1826 at midday Daniel Leney was hung.  Hannah would no doubt have been hung soon after but for the intervention of Dr Gideon Mantell, the doctor, geologist & palaeontologist.  He had been present at the trial and had had doubts about the medical evidence given, even sending a note to the defence lawyer suggesting some lines of questioning - advice which had not been used.  Having not been present for the remainder of the trial he had assumed that there was other evidence which had lead to their conviction so when he found it was only the medical evidence and some circumstantial details he came forward and spoke to the High Sheriff.  He could prove it was not arsenic found in Benjamin Russell's stomach which along with other evidence that showed Russell had been having heart problems for several months prior to his death made it clear Russell had died a natural death resulting from a heart condition made worse by the exertion of carrying the sacks of grain.

Hannah was given a royal pardon and released from gaol.  Her compensation was enough money to get her home.  There was not much that could be done for Leney.  


  1. Hi Allison, Do you have access to the source documents by any chance? I am the gggg grandson of Benjamin's father, William Russell, and am keen to get hold of copies of surviving documents. I understand there is a witness statement made by William Russell pertaining to the case.
    King regards,
    David Taylor, Auckland, new Zealand
    prev. of T Wells.

  2. The references for my Hannah Russell research are as follows:

    East Sussex Record Office: R/L/24/1 Goal calendar Sussex, Lewes 1826
    Sussex Weekly Advertiser - 5th March 1827
    Sussex Weekly Advertiser - 31st July 1826

    If you let me have your email address I will scan the newspapers and send you a copy although I won't be able to do it until September. I am going to the National Archives in a couple of weeks to see what more I can find out about this affair - there seems to be a lot more to it than I have found so far.

    1. Hi Allison,
      Eek, missed your reply, which is very rude of me.
      My email is
      Things have waited to be found for nearly 200 years, so a couple of months is hardly a price to pay ;-)