Damn his blood by Peter Moore tells us the story about the 1806 murder of Reverend George Parker that happened in Oddingley, UK. I happened upon this book while on vacation in London. We were in Waterstones, Islington, when I saw this book on the £0.99 cart. The woodcut and the different fonts on the cover caught my eye.
Peter Moore describes the murder in such detail that you can see the story and all underlying plots unfold. Plots, as there’s more than one murder described in the book.
Moore starts with Parker’s last day on earth. It begins peacefully. We learn that Parker has a wife and a young daughter. But two pages later you read that Parker was “a man in a state of burning, both his clothes and his flesh.” Two butchers, Thomas Giles and John Lench, who followed the cries of others about a gunshot, saw a man fleeing. Giles set in the pursuit and comes close but when threatened, gives up.
The book is enriched with woodcuts, maps, and photography. It explains the setting in the UK, the landscape, the relationship between the farmers, and the economy in the 1800s. Early on in the story it is clear that Parker was an ambitious man. The reason is not clear to me. Was it pure self-improvement, financial gain, social standing or, a combination? Moore raises the issue of vanity and pretentiousness and rightfully so. Whatever Parker’s reasons were, he had the tact of a bull inside a fine china store and would soon suffer the consequences.
Key players are Captain Evans who plotted with his occasional employee Richard Hemming, a carpenter, against Parker. Joseph Taylor, a specialist horseman, and farmers John Barnett and Thomas Clewes, each had grievances against Parker. However, Evans had more. With his background he understood the changing economical and political landscape because of the war against Bonaparte and the industrial revolution. Rural life would change fundamentally.
Oddingley, as other surrounding areas, was plagued by inflation. During the time of the murder, it was not just the poor who suffered. The middle class felt the financial pinch as well. The costs of living went through the roof. Parker made the brilliant deduction that his financial situation could be changed by simply raising taxes. As a Reverend, he showed callous disregard for those around him. According to his logic, he had added expenses now that he had a wife and daughter. So he decided to make some changes to the tithe that the rent-paying village farmers owed him.
Before he arrived in Oddingley, the parish had a compound tithe meaning
- one fixed price of £135
- paid annually
- in one single payment
- on March 25
Tithe law is complex as there are many subcategories so any simplification is welcome. And it worked well until Parker decided during a period of inflation and dispute, to start collecting the tithe in kind. In other words, he would travel from farmer to farmer, assess their crops, claim his share, and immediately transport that back to his property for storage. This didn’t sit well with the farmers.
Nothing unites people more than to have a common enemy to hate, bash, gossip about, and then to rally around to raise morale. That’s what the farmers did in the pub. United by their belief that Parker was greedy, they felt very close to each other. And when closeness and alcohol come together confessing true feelings are just another pitcher away. It led to the dangerous “I wish someone would…” phase. And of course, someone did.
In 1806, the UK didn’t have a professional police system as we know it now. Theories for crime prevention and investigations were not applied by teams of detectives who would secure the scene and start canvassing the area. But the people did have a great system in place to try to apprehend suspects or at least, to warn their fellow neighbours. This is the famous hue and cry system e.g. screaming “stop that thief!” If that didn’t bring results, the reward system often did. Parker’s killer escaped nonetheless.
After Giles and Lench found Parker, the outrage about the Reverend’s murder was mild. Reverend Reginald Pyndar, one of King George’s justices of the peace, who lived in a neighbouring parish, took control of the investigation. After an examination, the coroner found that Parker had trauma to the right side of his head and back as a result of the shotgun. In addition, Parker had a fractured skull with bone beaten into his brain. Either major wound group would separately have resulted in Parker bleeding to death. The second attack just ensured that Parker died silently.
Many details did not surface during the investigation such as the growing animosity against Parker in the village and the secret pub confessions. Of course, there were rumours but the villagers also knew that some would act on them. But they remained silent. The man Giles followed was Hemming and the jury accepted him to be Parker’s killer. But he had escaped.
Hemmings’ wife, Elizabeth Burton, took care of her husband’s business accounts and kept a close eye on the family’s income. Her notes in his ledger would later become evidence against Evans. How Hemming was found, you need to read for yourself. You will not be disappointed.
The story is so rich in description that you almost wished the author left some out to allow your own imagination to fill in the blanks. I also believe that the book would have benefitted from a timeline, enumerations by bullet points, footnotes especially where another criminal cases is mentioned, and from a list of the most important characters in this case.
Highly recommended reading!