On Sunday September 7 1740 Sarah Griffin, a lone, female traveler was making her way from London to Worcestershire. She had been working as a maid servant in the city, but the stink and pollution of the burgeoning metropolis was taking its toll on her health.
Ahead of her journey, a magistrate had granted her a pass of safe conduct, which she could show to county officials along the route if she was ever picked up for vagrancy. Now, with just 2 Shillings and 3 Farthings in her pocket, she had set out on foot to begin her 130 mile trip back home.
By evening she had reached Acton – now a neighborhood in north London, but at the time a rural beauty spot, six miles north of Charing Cross. It was there she came across 16-year-old, shoemaker’s son William Duell.
Despite his young age, Duell had already developed a bad reputation in his small community. Although he had briefly attended school, he was virtually illiterate – which others put down to his ‘obstinacy’. His father had attempted to arrange an apprenticeship for the boy in the shoe-making trade, but he hadn’t taken to the trade.
Duell was restless. He yearned to be out of doors and loved riding horses. To his credit had an acknowledged knack for taking care of the creatures, and was sometimes hired by local gentry and farmers to work in their stables. Despite his relative youth, he was able to support himself in this manner, occasionally even earning enough to give money to his parents.
But William Duell also kept bad company and was easily led – although few had anticipated the depths of violence of which the young man would soon prove himself capable.
‘The Boy who shew’d her into the Barn’
On the evening in question, the Sarah Griffin had asked Duell if he could help her find a place to lie down for the night. Obligingly, he led her to a barn owned by Mr Life, a local farmer, and helped her make a sleeping place in the hay. Acutely aware of her vulnerability, as both a woman and as a stranger, the woman begged the teenager not to let anyone know where she was sleeping.
The boy agreed, but later that evening went to meet friends at a public house. Over the course of the evening he told his drinking companions that there was a woman in Mr Life’s barn. At their urging, William Duell returned with a group of five or six others, with the intention of raping the unfortunate traveler.
‘Pox’d, or pox’d not, by G – d I will’
Duell led his accomplices to the barn, where the woman was resting in the hay. Outside the moon was waning full, but without artificial light, the inside the barn was pitch black. Awakening to the sound of male voices, the woman attempted to defend herself, telling the men that she suffered from venereal disease. But whether they believed her or not, they were not deterred.
It was George Curtis, who went by the name Tug-mutton, who initiated the assault, threatening to slit Griffin’s throat if she didn’t comply. But for the next several hours, all six men, including Duell, took turns to assault and humiliate the woman, performing acts of sickening cruelty against the helpless traveler.
When they had finished, Curtis robbed her of her small possessions, including her safe conduct pass and the men went on to drink together. They would not allow William Duell to join them, as he had no money of his own.
‘She believed she could not live over the Night’
Sarah Griffin was found the following morning in a critical condition. She had sustained internal injuries during the her ordeal, particularly at the hands of George Curtis, who had sexually tortured her using a broomstick.
A few days after the assault, the woman died, but not before telling authorities everything that had happened to her at the hands of William Duell and his associates. Duell was soon arrested, along with George Curtis. On October 19 a third assailant, John James, alias Jack at the Captain’s, was also apprehended, while the others managed to evade capture.
Given the virtually non-existent nature of 18th century forensic medicine, a coroner’s court held on September 19 was unable to reach a verdict about Griffin’s cause death. When the court was reconvened a few week later they ruled that despite her ordeal, the traveler’s death had been from natural causes.
Thanks to the coroner’s verdict, Duell and Curtis were not charged with murder, but still faced the noose if convicted of either the rape or the robbery.
“I had not a Farthing of the Money, for the Boys beat me about sadly”
After their arrests, William Duell and George Curtis were imprisoned at Newgate Prison in London, until their case was due to be heard on October 15 1740. But on the morning of his court case, Curtis died in prison of unknown causes. The fate of John James is not recorded, but Duell did stand trial at London’s Old Bailey.
In his trial William Duell admitted part in the attack. At the age of 17, he was convicted on the rape charge and sentenced to death. His mother appealed to the judge of his behalf, claiming that “[Duell] never did an ill thing in his Life before” and had been only sixteen when he carried out the crime. But the sentence stood.
Under English law, grand larceny – theft of goods of money valued above 12 d – carried the same penalty death penalty until 1823. Even in 1740, 12d – or one shilling – was not a vast amount of money. Depending on location and time of year, it was a little under what an unskilled male laborer could expect to earn in a day.
By most accounts, Sarah Griffin only had 3 d on her person at the time when she was attacked, although other accounts give the sum of 3 shillings. For reasons that are not entirely clear, Duell was charged, but not convicted, of grand larceny.
This was cold comfort. After all, it wasn’t as if the teenager could be hanged twice…
Part 2 – ‘Blessing the air with his heels’: what happened to William Duell after his execution?