Brutal murder of a match girl
9 March 2023
The murder of match-seller Betsy Richards in 1871 was described by Oxford coroner William Brunner as the worst crime he had seen in his 28 year career. In spite of this, the crime has remained unsolved for over 150 years.
A gory crime scene is discovered near Binsey Lane
Betsy's body was found face down in a field next to the Botley turnpike road, close to the junction with Binsey Lane, by labourer William Flexton and 13-year-old Alfred Walker on the morning of Sunday 5th November 1871. They didn't need to turn her body over to know that she was dead, and immediately summoned the police.
Betsy's throat had been slashed. It was only a single cut, but such a deep one that it had severed her trachea, windpipe, oesophagus, internal jugular vein and carotid artery. The coroner stated that this injury would have rendered her unable to cry out for help, but blood stains on the ground indicated that she had walked 18 yards before finally collapsing and succumbing to blood loss.
Speculation that Betsy may have taken her own life was dismissed due to the seriousness of the injury, and the absence of a knife found close to her body. The motive was not robbery, as neither Betsy's purse, nor any of her other possessions had been taken.
The police struggled to find any solid leads as to the identity of Betsy Richard's murderer. They were hampered by a number of red-herrings. Two suspicious characters, both local labourers, were seen on the Botley Road on the night of the crime, one of whom had a scratched and bloodied face. However, he was able to provide a confirmed alibi that he had sustained the injuries while insensibly drunk the previous evening in an Oxford city tavern. The son of a local gamekeeper was also interviewed but released.
A pocket knife with dark stains was found close to the Hollybush Inn in Osney. However, the stains were found not to be blood and it was dismissed as a possible murder weapon.
Betsy Richard's life is put under scrutiny
More details about Betsy's life came to light at the inquest. Betsy was 33 years-old, and lived with 63 year-old musician William Hopkins. The pair had been together 11 years, and Hopkin's stated that she 'lived with him as his wife' but it is unclear whether they were actually married.
Hopkin's admitted that Betsy was 'of weak intellect', but denied suggestions of impropriety, saying he had never known her intoxicated, she didn't carry a knife, had no enemies that he knew of and was not in the habit of walking the streets at night.
However, a number of other witnesses were called who painted a different picture of Betsy. The language used in the respectable Jackson's Oxford Journal is guarded, but the implication from the witness testimonies was that Betsy Richard's was in the habit of supplementing her match-sellers income with sex work.
Eliza Drinkwater stated she had spoken to Betsy at 10:30pm and had given her money for beer. Drinkwater stated that Betsy was 'believed amongst us girls to be a loose character'. Cab driver George Green testified that he had seen Betsy standing alone on New Road between 11:30pm and 11:45pm.
Gardener Charles Lansbury stated that he had seen Betsy with men at night 'perhaps a dozen times'. On the night of her murder he testified to having passed Betsy walking in the direction of Botley after midnight in the company of a 'tall man', who he described as more respectable looking than the men he usually saw in Betsy's company. He described the mas as being between 30 and 40, wearing a tall black hat, a brownish overcoat and grey trousers. Lansbury didn't hear the pair speaking but said the appeared to be sober.
The case is summed up
The mystery respectable-looking tall man appears to have been police's best lead, but I haven't found any evidence that this individual was ever identified. The Secretary of State offered a reward of £100 for the discovery of the murderer, but an article in Jackson's Oxford Journal on 25 November stated than public opinion was that the murderer would ultimately 'escape detection'.
This was the last mention I have found of the case. Despite the shocking brutality of the crime, there seems to have been little further action taken by police. There was a depressing under-currant of victim-blaming during the inquest, in which witnesses appear to have been summoned primarily to blacken the character of Betsy Richards and portray her as a someone who recklessly put her own life at risk by engaging in sex work.
At one point in the inquest it is mentioned that a surgeon had been summoned to examine Betsy's body for traces of 'a certain disease which may have excited the anger of any one going in her company'. None was found, but the fact that Betsy's sexual health was called into question publicly at the inquest suggests to me a complete lack of respect for the victim, if not a further attempt to suggest the murder was her own fault. It's hard to imagine a female victim from the middle or upper classes being discussed in this way at the time.
In his summing up of the case, the best the coroner managed to say was that 'although the woman was of bad character, yet she was a fellow human being'! True, and a shame that few people involved with the case seem to have taken the trouble to treat her as one.
- Jackson's Oxford Journal, Saturday 11th November 1871
- Jackson's Oxford Journal, Saturday 18th November 1871
- Jackson's Oxford Journal, Saturday 25th November 1871