George Victor Townley murdered 22-year-old Elizabeth (Betsy or Bessie) Goodwin on 21 August 1863. It was a passion-filled murder where he stabbed her several times because she broke off their engagement. It was also one more story in a long line of horrid stories and would have been a perfect tableau for Madame Tussaud‘s Chamber of Horrors showing a one-time lover murdering his romantic partner.
Elizabeth was the daughter of Henry Goodwin and had moved into the family home of Wigwell Grange near the small Derbyshire village of Wirksworth to help her 83-year-old grandfather, Francis Green Goodwin. He was well-known in the community as veteran Captain Goodwin. Twenty-five-year-old George Victor Townley lived with his wealthy and respectable middle-class parents about two miles from Manchester in Hendon Vale. George’s father was a General Commissions Agent involved with shipping and marine insurance.
While Elizabeth was living with her grandfather, she met George through her uncle, who knew the Townley family. After they were introduced, the couple formed an attachment and became engaged. However, during the engagement, things were not always smooth. She ended their engagement sometime in May of 1863, and although it was revived for a short period, she broke it off again in August of that same year.
She had written to George ending the relationship on 14 August. Apparently, she had met a young reverend at Wirksworth, and she and her family found the clergyman more suitable because George Victor Townley had no job, no prospects, and lived off his father’s money. When George received word of the broken engagement, he was insistent that Elizabeth see him one last time and wrote her several letters. She responded each time and dated her last letter 19 August:
“My dear George, – I write this in the greatest haste to tell you not to come on (any) account. I leave here to-day, and can’t tell when I shall or can be back again. I do not wish to see you, if it can possibly be avoided, and indeed there will be no chance now, so we had better end this state of things at once, and say ‘Good bye’ without seeing each other. I feel sure I could not stand the meeting. If you write once more within the next three days I can get it, but not later than that time without its being seen, for my letters are strictly watched, and even opened.”
In response, he visited her at Wigwell Grange around 5:30pm on 21 August. She greeted him at the drawing room door and then the two walked outside and took a garden seat. After some time, she returned to the house alone, had tea with her grandfather, and read him the newspaper. About quarter to seven she went back outside to the garden seat and continued talking with George. They were then seen walking around the grounds and down the lane that led from Wigwell to the turnpike road.
According to a laborer named Reuben Conway he was walking home along the turnpike road to Wigwell Grange when he heard a moaning noise. He rushed to the sound and found Elizabeth guiding herself along the wall, which was some distance from Wigwell. Her face was covered in blood and the front her dress was saturated in it. She asked Reuben to take her home and told him that a gentleman was trying to murder her.
Reuben looked around but could initially see no one. He picked her up and carried her about twenty feet before he met George Victor Townley, who admitted that he was the person who had stabbed her. Reuben requested help in getting Elizabeth home and George assisted Reuben in carrying her towards Wigwell. Apparently during this time, George called her “poor Betsy” and said, “you should not have proved false to me.”
The men’s progress was slow and eventually they laid her down at Willey Bottom’s gate. George then applied pressure to her neck wounds and tried to stop the bleeding while Reuben ran to get help. When he returned, she was still alive, and they picked her up again and carried her. Along the way Reuben’s uncle approached and asked who had done such a terrible deed. George admitted to him, “I know, and …[Reuben] knows. I am the man who has done it, and I shall be hanged for it.”
Elizabeth by now knew she was dying and fearfully expressed as much before expiring a few minutes later. At that point, George kissed her tenderly and noted that she was dead. The men continued carrying her to the house, where they meet the housekeeper and the white-haired old Captain Goodwin at the door. The Captain was unsure what terribly thing had happened to his granddaughter and when he asked, he was told that she had been murdered. He then listened dumbfounded as George Victor Townley admitted he had killed her stating:
“The woman who deceives me shall die … I told her I would kill her … She knew my temper.”
According to the housekeeper, it was about 8:40pm when Elizabeth’s dead body was carried in and placed on the kitchen floor. Great excitement then prevailed among the female staff who stood over it. In the meantime, George Victor Townley and the Captain went into the drawing room where George removed two packets of Elizabeth’s love letters from his pocket and gave them to the Captain telling him that he could read them if he wished but that he didn’t want them brought to court. He then asked the Captain to burn them.
Captain Goodwin stated that George seemed excited and that he asked him if he wanted tea. George agreed and as they sat down to tea, the police were contacted and apprised of the murder. Police-constable Charles Parnham arrived around 10pm and found the men having tea together. When he entered, George immediately approached him and told him he wished to give himself up and admitted that he had murdered Elizabeth. Parnham reported:
“I then cautioned him as to what he said, and asked him if he was aware of the nature of the charge he was giving himself up for. He said, ‘Quite so, I will go with you quietly, only let me see her first.’ I then asked prisoner what he had done with the instrument or knife he had committed the deed with. He took the knife out of his pocket and gave it to me. It was closed, and wet with blood. I then took him into the kitchen, and he looked steadfastly at the body, but he did not speak. On the road to the lock-up he said, ‘I am far more happy now I have done it, and I trust she is.’”
When word leaked to the press of the murder, it made instant headlines, and interest remained high months later when the case went to trial. In fact, from the very first day of the trial the excitement was palpable as large crowds appeared in hopes of being admitted into the courtroom. Of this eagerness and anticipation, the Bedfordshire Mercury reported:
“The excitement on Friday morning, at ten o’clock the hour for entering upon the trial of the unhappy young man, George Victor Townley, was intense. Large crowds stood around the outer gates eagerly discussing the chances of the prisoner’s escape. From an early hour the majority of the places for which the Sheriff had issued tickets of admissions were filled. The Grand Jury gallery and all the Sheriff’s galleries were crowded to inconvenience. One whole side of the galleries was occupied almost exclusively by ladies, who evinced, if possible, a more eager interest than even the male spectators in the result of the proceedings. The array of representatives of the press was the largest ever seen on any former occasion, and the acting sheriffs and his assistants were puzzled to make room for them.”
When George entered the courtroom, he was no longer the man many people remembered. According to a Derbyshire Courier reporter:
“[H]e looked haggard and careworn, and his beard, which has been long, was cut much shorter. … He is light-haired and apparently of sanguine temperament, easily excited, and as easily depressed. But his countenance has nothing in it that would indicate him to be a person capable of committing the atrocious crime with which he stands charged.”
A Mr. Stephen represented George Victor Townley at trial. It was revealed that Elizabeth had suffered three stab wounds and that they were all on the right side of her neck: one below and behind the right ear, one in front of this wound, and a third wound that extending to within half inch of the chin which had separated the vertebra, carotid artery, and jugular vein. It was also determined that George had used a large pen knife with a white handle to commit the murder.
Mr. Stephen used insanity as George’s defense, even though George argued against it. He claimed that he was not insane even though his family tried to prove he was or at the very least that he had become mentally ill since the murder. Some people protested and argued that he should not be found to be a madman “four months after the commission of his offence.” George’s defense also presented examples of madness on his maternal side, but the prosecution argued that mental illness did not exist within his direct line and so therefore he didn’t suffer from insanity.
The 12-man jury agreed with the prosecution’s arguments. They dismissed the idea that George suffered from any sort of mental insanity and found him guilty of murder during their six-minute deliberation. The judge then sentenced him to death, but he was concerned enough about George’s mental health that he wrote to the Home Secretary and George was granted a respite while a review was conducted into his mental state. Of this, the Norfolk Chronicle reported:
“The extraordinary circumstances under which the respite of the convicted murderer George Victor Townley was obtained continue to excite general interest, and a further inquiry seems to be unavoidable. We were unaware, when we alluded to the case last week, of all the particulars connected with the transaction, which have since been made public. It seems that Sir George Grey did not grant the respite on the report of the Lunacy Commissioners, but on a certificate of the convict’s insanity, signed by two justices and two medical men, in according with the provisions of an Act of Parliament passed in 1840, ‘for making further provision for the confinement and maintenance of insane prisoners,’ which enacts that if any person under sentence of death (or in prison for any other offence) shall appear to be insane, two justices of the peace, with the aid of two physicians or surgeons, shall inquired into his sanity. And if they certify that he is insane, it shall be lawful for one of the principal Secretaries of the State to remove him to a lunatic asylum. There can be no doubt that this act was passed simply to relieve the governors of gaols from the care of insane prisoners, who could not be properly treated in such institutions, and was never intended to apply to cases like that of Townley’s, in which the question of sanity has been put to a jury, and in which also the Lunacy Commissioners themselves have properly, at the suggestion of the judge also, made a special investigation. Their report concluded as follows: – ‘Being of opinion, therefore, that the prisoner continues to be in the same mental state as when he committed the murder, and underwent his trial, we think that applying the law as laid down by Mr. Baron Martin in this case, the prisoner George Victor Townley was justly convicted.’ Yet, in the face of this, by the strange perversion of the law above mentioned, he escapes the usual punishment of his crime. The visiting justice and other magistrate of Derbyshire have pressed the Home Secretary for a further inquiry, and we do not see how it can be withheld. Whether there be one of not, it is clear the law cannot be allowed to remain in its present unsatisfactory state, and the sooner the act of 1840 is repealed or modified the better.”
The first review had a technical error and that resulted in a second review by the Lunacy Commissioners. They then found George sane at the time of the murder but there were many questions about his sanity afterwards. Ultimately, his death sentence was commuted to penal servitude for life, and he was transferred to the Pentonville Prison.
The reprieve and commutation created an uproar among some in the public. Certain newspapers and their loyal readers believed that George Victor Townley had escaped death because of privilege and wealth not because of insanity, and they demanded justice. The Herts Guardian, Agricultural Journal, and General Advertiser reported:
“We all have a right to complain of the reprieve of Townley …. Any man who can get a couple of doctors to swear he is mad (and the lower order of doctor may be hired very cheaply) may escape the gallows until the law shall be altered. And the cry of ‘one law for the rich and another for the poor’ is so far just, that money sets attorneys and doctors working hard for you, while if you have none these amiable persons will leave you to be hanged.”
Because of the controversy, the Home Office found themselves having to defend their decision. However, looking at it from today’s standards, it seems that both the Townley and Goodwin family had equal resources and that the decision for the reprieve and penal servitude were not based on privilege or wealth but on George Victor Townley’s actual mental state at that time.
Despite his receiving a life sentence, George’s time in prison did not last long. On Sunday, 12 February 1865, he threw himself over the balustrade while returning from church.* He died at twenty minutes past eight in the infirmary from a skull fracture. His suicide happened in the prison’s central hall that was about 24 feet high. He sustained a ghastly cut over his right temple and forehead that extended half over his right eye. Prisoner George Bearman was an eyewitness and reported:
“I recollect that on Sunday … I was sitting on the right of the deceased at chapel. He was very quiet till the last hymn was sung. He then got up, opened his Prayer-book, and sang out the two last verses very loudly. I never heard him do that before. He said to me, ‘319th hymn.’ That was the right hymn. He afterwards shut his Prayer-book, repeated the Service, and then, going before me, walked out. He made a full stop at the bottom step in the chapel, dropped his Prayer-book, got hold of the rails round the gallery, put his feet on the steps, and sprang right over, head over heels, and as he fell, he exclaimed, ‘Oh!’ He fell flat on his face below.”
*Interestingly two days before George Victor Townley’s death, on Friday, 10 February 1865, Captain Goodwin died. He was 86 years old.
-  Bedfordshire Mercury, “Trial of George Victor Townley,” December 21, 1863, p. 6.
-  Derbyshire Courier, “The Murder at Wigwell Grange,” December 12, 1863, p. 3.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  Bedfordshire Mercury, p. 6.
-  Derbyshire Courier, p. 3.
-  Morning Post, “The Case of George Townley,” December 26, 1863, p. 7.
-  Norfolk Chronicle, January 23, 1864, 5
-  Herts Guardian, Agricultural Journal, and General Advertiser, “Townley’s Reprieve,” January 23, 1864, p. 5.
-  Bedfordshire Times and Independent, “The Suicide of Victor Townley,” February 18, 1865, p. 7.