The Murder of Rhoda Carter at Watchfield
21 September 2022
The picturesque thatched cottage known as Carter's Cottage was the scene of a grizzly murder that shook the sleepy village of Watchfield in 1893.
When farmer John Carter's wife Rhoda went missing in July 1893, he initially claimed that she had gone to Eastleech to visit her pregnant sister.
However, his neighbours noticed him behaving suspiciously. He was seen carrying coal, logs and pails of water into the washhouse that adjoined their cottage. Soon plumes of disgusting-smelling smoke were issuing from the washhouse.
When his neighbours asked what he was doing, he claimed variously that he was boiling offal, or that he was merely heating water so he could shave.
The police are called in
When John's brother-in-law returned from Eastleech with the news that Rhoda had not been seen there, the police were called.
John admitted to the police that he had been lying about Rhoda going to Eastleech. He told PC Sparkes that Rhoda had left him but that he didn't know where she had gone.
PC Sparkes considered it suspicious that Rhoda had left without taking any of her belongings, but could not find any signs of foul play.
John Carter's crime is uncovered
A few days later John Carter was drinking with his brother in a local pub. When his brother asked him about the rumours circulating in the village about the whereabouts of Rhoda, John shocked him by confessing that he had murdered her.
If John expected his brother to keep his secret, he was mistaken. The next day his brother reported what John had told him to the police and John was arrested.
This time a more thorough search of the cottage and its outbuildings was made. Buried under the floor of the washhouse the police discovered Rhoda's mutilated body.
It was a grizzly sight. Her nose was broken and there were strangulation marks around her neck. Worse than that, her body showed the hideous signs of John's attempts to dispose of her body, first by burning and then by boiling!
John Carter is tried at Reading
At his trial, the following November, John pleaded not guilty to murder. He claimed his wife had attacked him with a straight razor and he had stuck her in self-defense, killing her accidentally with a single blow.
However, the prosecution was able to prove that Rhoda had died by strangulation, and the jury found him guilty of murder.
John Carter was hanged at Reading gaol on 3 December 1893.
A trail of dead wives?
However, before his execution rumours began to circulate that this was not John's first crime of this kind. Rhoda was John's third wife. His first wife had died in suspicious circumstances, supposedly falling down a flight of stone steps and hitting her head at their former home. Their young daughter had testified that John was not in the house at the time, and John was absolved of any suspicion of wrongdoing.
John's second wife had gone missing four years previously. John claimed that she had walked out on him, but at the time people had expressed incredulity that she would have left him without taking her children with her. John's second wife was never seen alive again.
John Carter's second confession
A few days before his execution, John asked to speak to a chaplain and confessed to the murder of his second wife. He agreed to give the police directions to where he had buried her body on the condition that she be given a proper Christian burial.
The police followed John's directions to a spot at Broadlease Farm where John had been living with his second wife at the time she disappeared. They found the body of a woman who, like Rhoda, had a broken nose.
When questioned, one of John's children admitted knowing that her violent father had murdered her mother, saying that he had threatened her to make her stay quiet. She also identified the dress that the body was wearing as belonging to her mother.
Although largely forgotten about today, at the time John Carter's crimes were so notorious that a wax effigy was added to Madame Tussauds Chamber of Horrors in London, where it remained on display for decades.
- 'Curious Oxfordshire' by Roger Long (Sutton Publishing, 2008, ISBN: 0780750949576)
- John Carter - The Watchfield Horror (pdf)