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  • Gavin Whitehead

Trial by Playbill: The Murder of William Weare (S3BE3)

Updated: Jun 12

In 1823, John Thurtell murdered the gambler William Weare while the two were riding in a horse-drawn gig. Cashing in on public fascination with the case, the Surrey Theatre staged The Gamblers, a play that recreated the murder and incorporated the actual horse-drawn gig in which the crime took place. The Gamblers became one of the most explosive melodramas of the nineteenth century and came back to haunt Madame Tussaud more than two decades later. Show notes and full transcript below.

Above: Broadside engraving that reconstructs the murder of William Weare as well as the disposal of his body. The lower left-hand image stresses how close Thurtell and his accomplices hid the body to Probert's cottage.



1824 portrati of John Thurtell. This must have been done shortly before his execution.

John Thurtell immersed himself in the world of gambling and became what today we would call a fight promoter. These are porcelain figures of two bare-knuckle boxers, Tom Cribb (left) and Tom Molyneux (right). They fought each other in 1810, and the match went down in history as one of the most celebrated sporting events of the nineteenth century. To be honest, these pugilists have no connection to the murder of William Weare. I just came across them in the V&A's collection and thought they were cool, so I'm posting them here!

This cartoon accompanied Gilbert à Beckett's 1849 article in Punch, "Old Bailey Dramas," which harkens back to the Surrey's production of The Gamblers in 1823/4.



---Borowitz, Albert. The Thurtell-Hunt Murder Case: Dark Mirror to Regency England. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987.

---Fitzball, Edward. Thirty-Five Years of a Dramatic Author’s Life. London: T.C. Newby, 1859.

---Flanders, Judith. The Invention of Murder: How Victorians Reveled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime. New York: Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, 2013.



Charles Nicholls was passing through Gill’s Hill Lane, Hertfordshire, a quiet country road about fifteen miles outside London, when he spotted some road-menders, digging around in the bushes along the side of the path. Asking what they were up to, he learned that earlier that morning, the workmen had come across an unidentified man combing through the verge. No less curious than Nicholls was now, they had asked him what he was doing. The previous night, the stranger told the workers, he was riding down Gill’s Hill Lane in a gig, a horse-drawn vehicle designed to carry one or two passengers, when the conveyance overturned. He lost his penknife and handkerchief in the accident, and being unable to find them in the dark, he returned that morning to give it another shot. After searching in vain for a little while longer, he left the site of the accident, emptyhanded, whereupon the road-menders, still nearby, set aside their spades and rummaged about in the foliage themselves, in hope of turning up valuables. To their horror, they uncovered objects that would only be of value to police: a knife and a flint-lock pistol, both reddish-brown with dried blood. Strands of human hair clung to the butt of the pistol, which appeared to be caked with brains. Profound unease mingled with mystery; a violent struggle had clearly unfolded in the vicinity, but a body was nowhere to be found. What had happened—and to whom? Nicholls double-timed it to nearby Watford where he alerted magistrates to “some singular circumstances pointing to foul play.”

After an inquiry in Hertfordshire, a local magistrate collected the names of three suspicious men: John Thurtell, Joseph Hunt, and William Probert. Probert was living in a rented cottage a stone’s throw from Gill’s Hill Lane and had hosted Hunt and Thurtell two at the property the other night. Thurtell and Hunt had since returned to London. While Hunt was located and taken into custody, officer George Ruthven followed a trail that led straight to Thurtell. Ruthven surprised him at the Coach and Horses Pub, leading him outside to his chaise and handcuffing him to the rail on the side of the carriage. Ruthven recalled the events that followed with a sense of bafflement: “On the road nothing could be be more chatty and free than the conversation on the part of Thurtell. If he did suspect where I was going to take him, he played an innocent part very well, and artfully protested total ignorance . . . I drove up to the inn, where Probert and Hunt were in [the] charge of the local constables. Let us have some brandy and water, George, said Thurtell . . . I went out of the room to order it. Give us a song said Thurtell, and Hunt, who was a beautiful singer, struck up ‘Mary, list awake.’ I paused with the door in my hand and said to myself – ‘Is it possible that these men are murderers?’”

Thurtell was apparently making light of the murder investigation. As it happens, some Londoners would be doing the same when a play about the killing in Gill’s Hill Lane, titled The Gamblers, debuted about three weeks later. While the play enjoyed a warm reception among certain theatergoers, The Gamblers was far from a crowd-pleaser. On the contrary, it became one of the most explosive melodramas of the nineteenth century, spawning such outrage that people were still talking about it more than twenty-five years later, in 1849, when George and Maria Manning committed their misdeeds and set off a firestorm of public debate about crime and punishment. Today, we’ll hear how Thurtell tumbled down a slippery slope of vice that ended in homicide, how The Gamblers went down in history as an affront not only to good taste but also the justice, and how the controversy enveloping that play came back to haunt Madame Tussaud decades later. This is The Art of Crime, and I’m your host, Gavin Whitehead. Welcome to bonus episode 3 of Queen of Crime . . .

Trial by Playbill: The Murder of William Weare

The Progress of a Gambler

At the time of his birth, an outside observer would not have foreseen a life of crime for John Thurtell. Born on December 21, 1794, he came from an upstanding family, his father a well-to-do Norwich merchant who served as alderman and then as mayor. After a largely uneventful stint in the military, Thurtell’s father set him up with a job manufacturing bombazine, a kind of woolen cloth.

Unfortunately, John lacked the business acumen to thrive in this profession and also showed a readiness to lie and cheat his way out of a bind. After writing a small library’s worth of promissory notes, Thurtell deceived his creditors, claiming that robbers had stolen the money he owed. This convenient theft met with skepticism, and the bombazine business finally went bankrupt in February 1821.

But then Thurtell never had much of a passion for textiles. Well before his enterprise’s implosion, he had immersed himself in what was known as “the fancy,” the seedy underworld of gambling. He took a special interest in high-stakes prize-fighting, an illegal activity in Regency England. To avoid arrest, boxing matches were held in fields that were close to county lines, making it easy for all involved to dash into another jurisdiction if a constable came calling. Thurtell looked particularly at home in this arena partly because he looked like a prize-fighter. Habitually clean-shaven, with a head of close-cropped, light-brown hair, he stood a formidable six feet tall and had an athletic figure. In the words of George Barrow, a nineteenth-century novelist who met Thurtell, “You might have supposed him a bruiser; his dress was that of one . . . something was wrong, however, in the manner—the quietness of the professional man; he looked like one performing the part—well—very well—but still performing the part.” Rather than throwing punches in the ring, Thurtell became what today we would call a fight promoter. He appears to have organized his inaugural match in July 1820, something of a coup since he lured the noted Norwich boxer Neil “Flatnose” Painter out of retirement to duke it out with Tom Oliver, an old rival of Painter’s. (Oliver had previously bested Painter., butPainter beat him down in this rematch and then retired for real.) Unscrupulous as ever, Thurtell soon earned a reputation for rigging fights—for being “on the cross,” as they said back then.

The London Underworld

After his bombazine venture bombed in 1821, Thurtell moved to London and eventually returned to the textile industry. As he had in Norwich, however, he spent most of his energy wading around in the local swampland of gambling and boozing. Hopping from one pub to the next, he fell in with two fellow gamesters who would one day conspire to commit murder with him: Joseph Hunt, an ex-convict who had done time for gambling, and William Probert, a spirit merchant who rented that cottage in Gill’s Hill Hertfordshire.

During this time, Thurtell made—and lost—plenty of bets with William Weare. Weare made his home at Lyon’s Inn, lodgings favored by members of the legal profession, which enabled Weare to claim that he worked as a solicitor. This appears to have been a cover for his main source of income: gambling. According ot a contemporary account, Weare rolled with a gang “who lived by blind hooky [a card game], hazard [dice], billiards and the promotion of crooked fights.” Weare achieved notoriety in the bars, back alleys, and out-of-the-way fields where he pocketed his earnings. Rumor had it that he carried his life savings—a walloping £2,000—with him wherever he went. Thurtell was one of many men who lost considerable sums to Weare and strongly suspected Weare of cheating.

By October 1823, Thurtell was desperately strapped for cash. His textile business had gone up in flames—both figuratively and literally. Just as his credit was running one, a fire miraculously—ahem, I mean tragically—destroyed his warehouse, which Thurtell had insured. The insurance company rejected Thurtell’s claim, at which point he sued. This required no small measure of audacity on his part since Thurtell looked overwhelmingly guilty—witnesses testified that he had talked about arson with them, and lawyers showed that someone had covered up the warehouse’s one and only window before the conflagration, preventing the night watchmen from seeing it as they patrolled outside. Against all odds, the jury sided with Thurtell, awarding him £1,900 in damages. Yet Thurtell’s money troubles remained unresolved. The insurance company appealed, withholding the payment. Meanwhile, the £1,900 in damages went to Thurtell’s creditors. As the appeal ran its course, the gambling man holed up in an inn that he and his brother co-managed, afraid that if he showed his face around town the insurance companies might have him arrested for fraud.

The Hertfordshire Horror

It was around this time that Thurtell hatched a plan to murder and rob William Weare with the help of Hunt and Probert. To this end, Thurtell and company invited Weare to go shooting in Gill’s Hill, Hertfordshire, near Probert’s cottage, where they would crash at night. Weare accepted. In the late afternoon of October 24, 1823, Thurtell picked up an unsuspecting Weare in a horse-drawn gig. As Thurtell and Weare journeyed from London to Hertfordshire, they made several stops at inns, giving perfect strangers ample opportunity to notice both them and their distinctive horse, which had gray fur with a white face and white socks. When hammering out the plot, Hunt had agreed to meet Thurtell and Weare on the road, whereupon the two of them would attack their target. However, Hunt never materialized as the gig neared Probert’s cottage. So, when Thurtell and Weare came to a sufficiently tenebrous and secluded stretch of Gill’s Hill Lane, not far from their destination, Thurtell produced a flint-lock pistol and shot Weare in the face. Grievously injured yet clinging to life, Weare toppled out of the carriage and took flight. Thurtell gave chase and overtook his quarry, clubbing him with the butt of his firearm before slashing his throat. Collecting himself, Thurtell hid the body along with the murder weapons in the shrubbery.

Not long after, the killer heard the thumping of hooves as a carriage skittered toward him with Probert onboard. Thurtell demanded to know why Hunt hadn’t shown, and when Probert explained that Hunt was waiting at an inn nearby, Thurtell interrupted and growled that he “had done the business without his help.” Probert high-tailed it to the inn, picked up Hunt, and sped back to the murder scene. From there, they proceeded to Probert’s cottage.

What followed was an evening of cold-blooded treachery and light-hearted carousing. Thurtell and his confederates sat down to dinner with Probert’s wife and two of his in-laws, devouring pork that Hunt had brought with him. (Later, at the trial, prosecutors asked Probert’s servant, “Was the supper postponed?” The witness replied, “No, it was pork.” That brutal homicide had done nothing to dull the appetite of the accused scandalized the public.) After cleaning their plates, the conspirators told Probert’s wife that they were off to visit a neighbor. Then, they stole back to Gill’s Hill Lane. The first order of business was to relieve Weare of whatever valuables he had on him. They would have commenced this task with immense anticipation—by reputation, remember, Weare went everywhere with as much as £2,000 in savings. Their hearts must have sunk when they emptied his pockets and discovered the actual amount he had on his person: a paltry £15. After splitting the sum, they stuffed Weare’s body into a sack and dumped it in a pond within sight of Probert’s cottage. Having robbed a dead man of both his belongings and a proper burial, they stepped back inside for some down-home fun. Thurtell played cards with one of Probert’s in-laws, and Hunt regaled them with a selection of songs.

The next day, Probert took Thurtell and Hunt aside and expressed concern about hiding a corpse so close to the cottage. Being as discreet as possible, the three transferred the body to another pond, this time three or four miles away in Elstree. Soon, Charles Nicholls would report his findings at Gill’s Hill Lane and set in motion the train of events that led to the arrest of Thurtell and his accomplices. Guided by testimony from Probert and Hunt, the authorities were able to exhume Weare’s body from its watery grave. They also recovered some of the victim’s possessions from both Hunt’s lodgings and Probert’s cottage. Thurtell was charged with murder, with Hunt and Probert named as accessories. To mount an air-tight case, prosecutors offered Probert immunity in exchange for testimony against Thurtell and Hunt. Probert agreed.

The public waited for what promised to be a blockbuster trial. The Hertfordshire homicide aroused widespread excitement, partly because it shed light on London’s underbelly, with its blind hooky, hazards, and fixed bare-knuckle boxing. The murder also horrified and fascinated the nation because it encroached on the sacred space of the family home. After all, the miscreants had sunk Weare’s cadaver in a pond right outside Probert’s cottage, a barbarism that tainted the quaint, little homestead. Hundreds of morbid sightseers crawled over the property, gawking at the drawing-room where Thurtell, Hunt, and Probert had partied after the murder. Turnout was so impressive that the property owner started charging admission. The first wave of tourists even located the crime scene in Gill’s Hill Lane, clipping leaves stained with the victim’s blood as souvenirs. Those who could not make the daytrip to the countryside found more than enough to satisfy their curiosity in broadsides and newspapers. We’ll hear about the controversial play that recreated this crime after a quick break.

Trial By Playbill

Like other purveyors of true-crime culture, theater managers smelled profit. Violent crime was the bread and butter of melodrama, the dominant form of theatrical entertainment in the nineteenth century. Accompanied by a live orchestra and crackling with over-the-top dialogue and acting, melodramas typically presented a comfortingly simplistic moral universe, in which good and evil were clearly delineated. In London, certain playhouses, especially those in the East End and south of the Thames, churned out countless plays about fictional homicides, with a company of resident actors playing the same type of roles in different narratives night after night. In 1840, the satirical magazine, Punch, described the fare of such venues like this: “the leading man is one who is murdered at least twice a week, commits paricide several times in the course of the year, and is torn by remorse every night at about nine o’clock.” While made-up murders played out time and again on these stages, it was unheard-of for plays to revolve around a real-life homicide, particularly one that was still in the headlines. (That sort of thing did happen, but at looser, less regulated places of entertainment, like puppet booths and penny gaffes, unlicensed theaters that often operated in working-class neighborhoods.) It was therefore noteworthy when, in November 1823, an unnamed playwright slapped together a melodrama that recreated the Hertfordshire horror onstage. Titled The Gamblers, the play was set to open on November 17, 1823, at the Surrey Theatre, south of the Thames.

The Surrey’s management clearly worried about blowback for dramatizing the homicide and went out of their way to justify it beforehand. In the playbill, audience members were assured that The Gamblers was written well before that dreadful business in Hertfordshire. It was just a wild coincidence that its plot bore any resemblance to the murder of William Weare. Lest they be accused of exploiting the victim’s violent end, which to be clear was not their intention, they totally considered jettisoning the melodrama altogether. But then the media frenzy attending Weare’s homicide made them re-evaluate. Journalists had already provided the public with “columns filled with the most intimate particulars of the Murder, [and had] also given illustrations of every Scene attached to the fatal deed.” Given the enormous public interest in the Gill’s Hill killing, the Surrey’s management reckoned that “in denying our Audience a Drama,” they would shirk “a duty unquestionably due both to them and to ourselves.” It was quite a noble sacrifice on their part, staging The Gamblers. As you will have noticed, these guys were talking out of both side of their mouth. The playbill begins by denying any intentional connection between the plot of The Gamblers and the horrible murder in Hertfordshire only to imply that, yeah, it was based on the slaying of William Weare.

Despite these equivocations, the audience knew what they were watching: a thinly veiled recreation of the homicide. In another feeble effort to distance the melodrama from true events, the author alters the key players’ names: Thurtell’s avatar answers to Woodville, and Weare’s is called Frankley. Midway through the melodrama, these two ride into view by way of the wings in a horse-drawn carriage, destined for a cottage in the countryside. The vehicle traveled upstage, and just as it was about to reach the back wall, Woodville shot, pursued, and knifed Frankley almost exactly as Thurtell had Weare. In addition to more or less accurate blocking, the playbill touted, the production boasted “CORRECT VIEWS” of Gill’s Hill Lane, not to mention Probert’s cottage. In the name of accuracy, set designers had studied the locations in question and painted faithful scenery. Yet the Surrey had more in store. In a stunning display of what fans called ingenuity and detractors called depravity, the venue had procured none other than “THE IDENTICAL HORSE AND GIG Alluded to by the Daily Press” which had spirited Weare to his untimely demise. In the words of a reviewer for the Literary Chronicle, the scene amounted to “as close a representation of the actual events as possible.”

The Surrey’s recreation of the Hertfordshire horror polarized audiences and critics. There is evidence to suggest the gig went over well with some audience members. A writer for the Observer pinpointed it as “the strongest feature of interest,” with spectators applauding as it rolled into view. At the same time, the reonstruction of Weare’s murder in general and the gig in particular unleashed a furor. A reviewer for The Times notes that spectators hissed while Woodville launched his assault on Frankley. Some of these hecklers may have wished simply to deplore Thurtell’s crime. Yet if extant accounts are any indication, playgoers took issue with the Surrey’s exploitation of Weare’s misfortune in the name of entertainment. Lodging this complaint (among others), a writer for the Mirror of the Stage condemned the theater with a vehemence seldom matched in contemporary criticism: “we blush to live in the same day with a man and an author who has stained the pages of history with an act so indecent and atrocious.” Even Edward Fitzball, the Surrey’s resident dramatist who was famous for his tales of murder and the macabre, thought his employers had crossed a line. He stormed out of the building when his boss pitched the idea of working the “IDENTICAL” gig into a melodrama about the Gill’s Hill killing. In so doing, Fitzball breeched contract despite badly needing the money. He was appalled by the notion of using the prop “to assist in the reality of the intended production.” Simply put, the Surrey wanted you to feel like you were watching Weare die, and by selling that experience as a desirable commodity, the theater suggested that the only thing better than attending The Gamblers would have been to watch the homicide in real life.

In was not just drama critics crying foul of The Gamblers; lawyers were, too. The melodrama premiered a full two weeks before Thurtell and Hunt were scheduled to stand trial, and because of this timing, a reviewer for the Drama denounced the play as a violation of due process: [E]very effort, in short, is made that scenic representation and perverted ingenuity can effect, to bring guilt home to the unfortunate prisoners now under an awful charge in Hertford gaol. Is this just, or fair, or decent? It was, we thought, a pride with Englishmen, that ere a hair of the victim’s head was touched, legal guilt should be established by legal proof; that without such proof even the peering suspicion of guilt, in the minds of the Jury or the Judge, availed as nothing; and, above all, that the only sentiment entertained towards an untried person, was a hope of his innocence.” Others shared this reviewer’s indignation. On November 19, two days after The Gamblers premiered, Thurtell’s solicitor successfully motioned for an injunction against the Surrey’s owner and the playbill’s printer, maintaining they would prejudice the jury and impede the “due and impartial administration of justice.” In accordance with this ruling, the star of the show, Mr. H. Kemble, came forward after the second performance and announced that the piece would be withdrawn until “further notice.”

Audiences would not have to wait long for the reopening. Thurtell was found guilty, sentenced to death, and finally executed on January 9, 1824. (Hunt was found guilty as an accessory to murder and transported to Australia in March of the same year. He passed away on January 25, 1861, living to the age of sixty-seven.) Thurtell inspired awe in his final days, speaking eloquently at his trial and bearing himself with indomitable self-possession on the morning of his hanging. With justice served, London’s playmakers were now in the clear. Three days after Thurtell met his maker, on January 12, The Gamblers reopened at the Surrey. Much to the dismay of one journalist, the creative team had not thought better of showcasing the notorious horse and gig. In fact, the Surrey had expanded its inventory of murderabilia for the second run of the show. Several scenes unfolded inside Mordaunt’s (i.e. Probert’s) cottage, which contained furniture procured from the actual residence, including the sofa Thurtell was believed to have slept on the night of the murder. That same week, H.M. Milner brought out another melodrama on the subject, The Hertfordshire Tragedy. This moralizing blood-fest also recreated Weare’s murder onstage, but Milner opted not to incorporate props that were sourced from the crime scenes. Maybe that explains why The Hertfordshire Tragedy would soon be forgotten.

The Lasting Legacy of the Identical Gig

In the nineteenth century, the theatergoing public, which accounted for a huge percentage of the overall population, had a retentive memory. More than two decades after The Gamblers closed, Victorians recalled the melodrama as one of the most scandalous chapters in the history of British theater. Journalist Gilbert à Beckett invoked it on two separate occasions during the true crime controversy of 1849, which we discussed in our episode about Maria Manning.

À Beckett referenced The Gamblers for the first time even before Mrs. Manning rose to notoriety. As we mentioned in episode about Maria, the 1849 homicide trial of James Blomfield Rush garnered such publicity that the Old Bailey criminal court started charging admission. À Beckett satirized this policy with an article in Punch, published on March 24 and titled “Old Bailey Dramas.” Strikingly, the humorist harkens back to the Gamblers fiasco of nearly three decades earlier: “We are almost old enough to remember when the Trial of Thurtell was dramatised across the water [by which he means south of the Thames], and ‘THE IDENTICAL GIG’ formed a single line in the play-bill.” At the Surrey, thrill-seekers were prepared to pay for a close look at objects associated with real-life homicides. At the Old Bailey, they were prepared to pay for a close look at people associated with real-life homicides. Riffing on this idea, à Beckett includes a fanciful advertisement for the Old Bailey that parodies the Surrey’s playbill. À Beckett’s notice touts “Real Criminals!!” not to mention “Legal Jokes!”

À Beckett referenced The Gamblers yet again on December 22 of that year, this time blasting Madame Tussaud. As you may remember, Tussaud’s acquired the black satin gown that Maria Manning had worn to court, a garment that played an essential role in her reputation as a “Lady Macbeth,” so much so that broadsides depicted her wearing what appears to be black satin while killing Patrick O’Connor. Implicitly forging a link between the costuming of Tussaud’s waxwork, the Old Bailey’s commodification of access to criminals on trial, and the Surrey’s acquisition of the infamous gig, à Beckett writes, “We remember hearing of instructions having been given to an author to write a melodrama on the Thurtell Murder, with special orders to bring in the ‘identical gig,’ but we had hoped that those days of depraved taste were past.” Clearly, they had not.


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