The Highbury Mystery
by Arthur Machen
When Thomas Pinch and his sister Ruth, having accomplished their
unpleasant discussion with the brass-and-copper founder of Camberwell,
went into the wild of London to look for lodgings, Tom suggested
Islington as a promising quarter for their search. It is needless to
say that Tom knew nothing whatever about Islington—or any other part
of London. But an old phrase was in his mind, and it tempted him.
“It used to be called Merry Islington, once upon a time,” said Tom.
“Perhaps it's merry now; if so, it's all the better. Eh?”
“If it's not too dear,” said Tom's sister.
“Of course, if it's not too dear,” assented Tom. “Well, where is
Islington? We can't do better than go there, I should think. Let's go.”
So far as I remember they did not find much mirth in Islington,
though they did find two bedrooms and a triangular parlour which suited
them very well. But the fact is that Tom Pinch went to Islington a
little too late; just as I went to the old Fleet Street tavern in 1881,
hoping to meet there the Principal Wits of the Town: a little too late.
Islington was once a noted place for its houses of entertainment, for
its bottled ale and skittles, its cakes, custard, stewed prunes, and so
forth; and thus merry to seventeenth and eighteenth-century London. And
in an Islington tavern just 160 years ago there was a meeting not
devoid of mirth, or at least of cheerfulness, which yet linked itself
on to a mysterious and terrible crime; the murder of Thomas Jenkyns,
retired merchant, of Enfield Wash. The body of this Thomas Jenkyns was
found on the night of September 23, 1765. It was lying in a pool of
blood in a field near Highbury. The poor man's throat had been cut from
ear to ear, as the two men who found the corpse declared. And as for
these two men, Thomas Brown and Richard Staple, inhabitants of some
festering maze of alleys between Holborn and Clerkenwell, I am afraid
they did not bear the best of characters. Bow Street knew them and they
were known also at the taproom of the Bell, where they met friends of
the same way of thinking as themselves. There had been a little highway
robbery and a little burglary in their stories, and they had just
missed the gallows more than once. So it may be as well not to consider
too curiously what the two were doing in Highbury Fields ten o'clock of
this dark September night. Thomas Brown told of the horror of his
friend and himself when they stumbled on the murdered man.
“We were hard put to it to know what to do,” he declared. “It seemed
as if the poor man's head was almost cut away from his body, and I said
to my friend, Richard Staple, who was with me, `Why, Dick,' said I,
`this is a villainous to-do. For if we shift to raise the body, 'tis a
great chance that the man's head will fall apart, and I cannot abide
the thought of it.' `Why, Tom,' said he, `I am much of your mind in the
business. What if we leave ill work as it lies, and go home peaceably
by another way.' But I would not have that neither, lest, as I said, we
should both be nabbed for the fact and come to Tyburn at last. And so
we made shift to raise the dead man tenderly, I holding his head to his
shoulders and trembling a great deal, and in this way bore him as far
as Islington, without any misadventure, it being late of a dark night,
with a cold wind rising, and very black clouds, and scarce anyone
This is, certainly, not a very merry opening, and, indeed, mirth is
only a brief interlude in the tale. The cheerful relief is afforded by
the evidence of Simon Murchison, who kept a snuff-shop in Norton
Folgate, of William Frost, a brass-founder, of Clerkenwell, and of
Abraham Lewis, clock maker, of Devizes. It was largely on their
evidence that Anthony Mullins, citizen and haberdasher, was arrested
and charged with the murder, a week after the discovery of the crime by
the dubious Brown and Staple. The three elderly tradesmen had met by
chance—they had not known each other before—at the Bowl and Sword
tavern at Islington on the afternoon of September 23, and had got into
conversation, all agreeing that things were not as they were in the
reign of King George II.
“We all grew to be pretty dismal over the bad times,” said Abraham
Lewis, “till at last I said, `Why, this will never end it or mend it.
Come! let us go and bump it at Dog and Duck, and I will be surety for
the first bowl of punch, the lowest notch of the three to be debtor for
The three went out into the alley behind the tavern, and it is
interesting to note that Mr. Murchison ordered pipes and a plate of
tobacco, and that Mr. Frost paid for a bottle of brandy “to hearten the
bowl,” and so they went to their match, which Mr. Frost won.
“And while we were in the garden-house at the side of the alley,
drinking our punch, and smoking tobacco, and talking of the game, two
men came out from the tavern and sat on a bench by the wall, speaking
together very seriously, but not as we could hear what they said. They
called for liquor and drank two glasses apiece and went out, and we saw
no more of them.” The three identified the murderer and the murdered.
“I know him,” said Lewis, pointing to Mullins, “by his great beaked
nose, and the dead man I could swear to any day, for as he lifted his
glass I saw that his little finger was crooked back as if it had been
broken, and I saw the body, and the little finger was crooked as I saw
it on the live man.” Then Frost had seen the prisoner read a paper
which Jenkyns had given to him, and Mullins had drawn out a
tortoiseshell and gold spectacle-case of curious workmanship, and just
such a spectacle-case was found on Mullins when he was taken. There
were other witnesses who had seen Mullins and Jenkyns walking on the
way to Highbury Fields a little later in the afternoon: there seemed no
doubt as to the verdict which the jury would bring in.
Then came the surprise of the case. The prisoner's two clerks, Mr.
Osborne and Mr. Nichols, swore that their master had not stirred out of
his counting-house from dinner time till eight o'clock in the evening.
Osborne sat at a high desk facing Mr. Mullins's private counting-house,
which was separated from the rest of the room by a glass partition.
Nichols's stool was under a window and commanded a view of the door.
“I was busy with a great account,” said Osborne, “but ever and again
I looked up from my book, and there sat my master, as he was always
accustomed, but very still.”
Counsel: “Was he not used, then, to sit still in his
Osborne: “Why, not so. He would rise now and again commonly,
and walk a little to and fro, and so sit down again. And twice or
thrice in an hour he would come out and speak with us about the
occasions of the day.”
Counsel: “And did he not stir at all on this afternoon?”
Osborne: “He sat still at his desk and never moved till it
was past eight in the evening.”
And then a very curious point arose. Nichols, the other clerk, had
been strangely overcome towards the end of the afternoon. He had come
up to Osborne, looking very ill and pale, as Osborne said, and
complaining that his heart was heavy, and that “he was sadly
oppressed.” Osborne, belonging to a pre-scientific age, advised his
fellow-clerk to go to the Mitre and drink a little ale, and Nichols did
so, “looking tearfully to the place where Mr Mullins sat, with no
candle by him.” A moment later, Mr. Mullins rose and came down to the
general counting-house and asked Osborne where his fellow was. On
hearing of his occupation, Mullins said, “Ah, poor child! He might do
worse than drink a cup of ale.” Then Nichols returned, and soon after
the two clerks went on their way, one to his lodgings by Pedlar's Acre,
the other to see the fireworks, at Marylebone Gardens. But when counsel
for the Crown cross-examined Nichols as to the nature and cause of his
seizure, the witness said:
“There came a great trembling upon me, and a dread on my heart and a
sickness in my stomach...and I feared very much. And so I looked round
on my stool to see if my fellow Osborne was in his place, and looking
down on the floor of the counting-house I could have sworn that there
was a great pool of blood there, with bubbles of blood in it, and I had
almost swooned away.”
Naturally, Mullins was acquitted on the evidence of his two clerks.
But what is the solution of the puzzle? When I treated this curious
case some time ago, I mentioned the theory that has been advanced by
some occultists of our day. These persons hold that while the natural
body of Anthony Mullins was committing murder at Highbury, his “astral"
body appeared all the while in the counting-house in the City. I was
unable to accept this tempting solution, and declared my opinion that
the two clerks perjured themselves to save their master from the
gallows. But there is this difficulty: Why should the clerk Nichols
have invented the outrageous tale of the visionary pool of blood?