Sunday, 21 February 2021

Bonfire Night 1878

November 5th 1878 and a fatal shooting is reported at the Gresley Arms Inn, the account appearing in the Lichfield Mercury on November 8th. William George Green, landlord of the Gresley Arms Inn, is playing host to a number of individuals while in the background a host of bangs are going off as the traditional fireworks are let off to remember the uncovering of the Gunpowder Plot.

During the evening Green slipped away to borrow a pistol from neighbour Henry Joseph Stych. Green informs Stych he is going to fire the pistol in the kitchen where his friends have gathered, thinking this would be thoroughly amusing jape. Green asks Stych to load the pistol as his knowledge of firearms is minimal. As he returned with the loaded pistol, Green stumbled and the gun went off, whereupon one Samuel Bates collapsed. Green later maintained the pistol contained nought but gunpowder, no shot had been loaded. This seemed unlikely as Bates, now lying on the floor, had blood coming from his head. Green sent Stych to find a doctor and the police superintendent, although their arrival was simply to pronounce the man dead and to summon a surgeon to carry out the postmortem. The inquest, arranged for the following day, was presumed to be a mere formality. Yet the surgeon discovered a glass marble embedded in the skull during the postmortem which was brought as evidence the following day at the Gresley Arms Inn before the coroner Mr Simpson.

Stych was the first to give evidence, telling how Green came to him at 8pm the previous day and explained how he saw the prank working. Together both men observed the gun being loaded with nothing but paper and powder and by 8:20pm Green and the loaded gun returned to the Gresley Arms with Stych coming along to enjoy the fun. However Stych entered first and, with his back to the events, did not see what happened. Contemporary reports stated how very nervous Stych was and the coroner had to ask him to speak up repeatedly. The jurors were allowed to ask questions of Stych in order to ascertain just how the marble had been loaded in the gun. George Cotton, who had been working with Bates and was lodging at the inn, said he heard the explosion and saw the blood but never noticed a gun – Cotton also added that Green had been very friendly and he could not see how he would have had a motive. Then fellow workmates Edward Plummer and James Ellson took to the witness stand and gave the same stories as Cotton. Mrs Stych also spoke, she Henry’s mother, also said she saw Green enter the inn and it seemed to her the gun had caught on an iron bar as he passed and thus the gun went off accidentally. She refused to confirm that marbles could be found around her home, this the coroner declared ‘not at all credible’. Green maintained he had brought the gun into the inn most carefully and as safely as could ever be expected. At no time did the gun leave his sight, nor did he load a marble or ever see any marble.

George William Homan, the surgeon performing the postmortem, reported how he found Bates lying on the kitchen floor, propped by pillows. He was found to be dead, and he observed a wound at his left temple just above the eyebrow, this large enough to insert a finger into the brain, he then showed the marble he extracted to the court and the cries of horror were testament to the unexpectedly large size of this marble. Witnesses said that Bates had been bending forward when the shot rang out. The witnesses acted out their roles and places for the coroner, to show how they observed Green returning to the kitchen preceded by Stych. Then someone pointed out the marble in question could not have been fired from the pistol as it was too large to fit into the powder chamber. Stych did admit he was using the gun earlier that day for target practice, but no marbles were involved. He was given ample opportunity to state he had unknowingly placed the marble in the gun but, with evidence pointing to the contrary, he never admitted doing such. Green apparently fired the gun accidentally, he admitting it went off while he was carrying it but denied he had pulled the trigger. The coroner was unsure how the marble had entered the skull but certainly nobody present could have targeted Bates and a verdict of accidental death was recorded.

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