We often think of crafts and the people who make them as gentle and refined. But then, we craft and we aren’t always that gentle or refined. The fact is that people who craft, whether for amusement or a living, run a wide gamut. It’s also a fact that people have always been interested in the macabre.
And this leads to the story of hanging bobbins.
Bobbins are the tools bobbin lacemakers use to hold their threads. In most places, they are simple. For instance, the bobbins in this detail of Caspar Nectscher’s 1664 painting, The Lacemaker, shows a style of bobbin that’s similar to modern Belgian and German bobbins.
Note that they are simple wooden spindles with a somewhat bulbous end and little if any decoration to them. Their job is to be utilitarian and that’s it.
But for some reason, in the Midlands area of England, bobbins got a lot more whimsical. They were often decoratively turned, and since they lack the bulb on the end, they feature a ring of beads called a ‘spangle’ at the bottom for extra weight and better tension. Painting, decorative metal bitts, and even writing were not uncommon, as you can see from this photograph of Midlands lace bobbins from the Cowper & Newton Museum.
For a brief period in the 19th century, a particularly grim kind of bobbin surfaced: the hanging bobbin. There are only a few documented examples, but there are enough that they are given their own category.
So what are they? They are lace bobbins made to commemorate the execution by hanging of criminals.
The single most common one reads ‘JOSEPH CASTLE – HUNG 1860.’ Castle was married to a lacemaker named Jane. He abused her. When she left him, he stalked her. Eventually, he murdered her. The story goes that on the day he was hanged for his crime, Jane’s parents held a big party for everyone they knew and gave out these bobbins as party favors. The story has never been confirmed, so it may well be apocryphal… but this is the single most common hanging bobbin. In fact, I have one in my own collection.
The earliest hanging bobbin commemorates the hanging death of two brothers, Matthias and William Lilley in 1829. William and Matthias were caught poaching. During their attempt at poaching, a gameskeeper was shot at and the brothers were convicted of attempted murder. Experts think this bobbin may have been made in sympathy for the brothers, rather than righteous glee at the deaths of convicts. It’s also the rarest hanging bobbin.
The latest example dates from 1871 and commemorates the death of one William Bull who murdered a harmless albeit drunken woman named Sarah Marshall in Little Staughton in a particularly brutal attack. He was hanged at Bedford prison, and Bedfordshire was a major area of lace making. There have been bobbins found in the area that some experts have connected to the victim in this crime, but considering how common the names ‘Sarah’ and ‘Marshall’ would have been in the area at the time, and the popularity of bobbins with names on them, I doubt anyone will ever be able to accurately connect those dots.
And then there’s the hanging bobbin for Franz Muller. This is kind of an unusual one because it’s the only one where the murder was not committed in a lacemaking area, per se, nor did it have anything to do with a lacemaker or a relative of a lacemaker. In point of fact, Mr. Muller was the first person to commit murder on a railway in Great Britain. Muller’s victim, Thomas Briggs, was the chief clerk in a banking firm in London. Muller attacked him for his gold watch, beating him to death with a walking stick. But while the crime had nothing to do with lace, lacemakers, or a lacemaking area, Muller was jailed in Bedford Prison, and the investigation of the crime was followed through the whole country.
There’s one bobbin commemorating the hanging of a woman, too. Twenty-two year old Sarah Dazeley was hanged in 1843 in Bedford (there’s that town again!) for the arsenic poisoning of her second husband. Suspicion has hung in the air ever since that she may also have poisoned husband number one.
William Worseley was hanged in 1868 He and his accomplice, Levi Welch murdered a man in Luton. Only Worseley was hanged, however, because Welch flipped on him and turned state’s evidence. There truly is no honor among thieves, or murderers.
The final identified hanging bobbin is for Miles Weatherhill, the only mass murderer of the bunch. Mr. Weatherhill, it seems, fell in love with a cook named Sarah Bell who was in the employ of one Rev. Anthony Plow in Todmorden. When the Rev. Plow refused Weatherhill permission to court his lady love, Weatherhill refused to give up. Sarah Bell returned to her family in York. Weatherhill followed and tried to persuade her to come back to Todmorden. She refused. So of course the only rational thing Weatherhill could think of to do was to return home himself, murder the Rev. Plow, the reverend’s infant daughter, and a servant named Jane Smith. When Mr. Weatherhill shuffled off this mortal coil at the end of a hangman’s rope on April 6, 1868, a local bobbin maker turned a profit turning a commemorative bobbin.