John Howells was born in Carmarthen in 1823 and was a stonemason by trade. In September of 1844 aged just 21 whilst out drinking with a friend he was accosted by a notorious trouble maker John Evans whose reputation as a rather nasty individual was well known. At that time John Howells had a young wife and daughter and was just beginning to enjoy family life in Cambrian Place when his life was about to change forever. A quiet individual by nature, and always courteous, but provocation can sometimes change a person’s personality in an instant as was the case with John Howells on that fateful September evening when John Evans lay dead on the ground with a gaping head wound caused by the altercation with John Howells.
Even today those of us who have been brought up in Carmarthen will testify to its unfortunate reputation over the centuries of crimes committed through drunkenness and disorderly behaviour. Much has been written on the subject of Carmarthen’s rather inebriated murky past and this one story shows just how dangerous it could be walking the streets of Carmarthen in the 1840’s. It is amazing to think that in 1844 when this unfortunate incident occurred there were 171 Public Houses in Carmarthen (one hundred and seventy one) – an unbelievable number for such a small town, which had swollen in size to accommodate a substantial number of soldiers stationed here due to the Rebecca Riots. What follows are extracts from the “Welshman” newspaper of the case against John Howells, originally on a charge of murder but later changed to “Excusable Homicide” The newspaper reported the story as you will see, in a manner that today could appear to be offensive to many who read it. Part of the report on the Post Mortem of John Evans has been removed as even by today’s standards it is too graphic to publish.
However, history cannot be re-written and John Howells was to live another 61 years after this terrible incident until his death in 1905 at the age of 82, when he was buried here in St David’s cemetery with his wife and daughter. He lived a quiet existence to the end of his life, may he rest in peace. As for John Evans the unfortunate victim in this story, he is not recorded as being buried in St David’s Cemetery. Also to continue the “theme” of the effects of alcohol, the short story at the end of this article recounts the sad tale of ANN JESSOP who died from asphyxiation as a result of becoming drunk – just a year earlier than the fateful fight between Evans and Howells. A sad ending to a life still to live.
“DEATH FROM DRUNKENNESS”
Great excitement was caused in Carmarthen on Wednesday evening, by a widely circulated report that a man had been killed. Large crowds of people thronged to the spot where the supposed murder had taken place, and where it was found that the deceased individual was John Evans, alias John Wilkes, who had been fighting with a mason named John Howells. Evans was a shoemaker of some notoriety in Carmarthen both for his propensity to inebriation, and his quarrelsome disposition when intoxicated. Howells, on the other hand, was a mason of a quiet disposition. From the particulars we were enabled to gather, it appears that Howells, in company with John Davies, a mason, came out from the back door of the Black Lion, into Conduit lane when there they were met by Evans, very much intoxicated, who commenced a series of annoyances against Howells, swearing at him, and threatening to fight him. Howells seems to have exercised forbearance rather surprising for a person of his class of life, telling Evans to go home, that he d not want to fight him, and that if he continued to annoy him, he would give him in charge to the police. Evans followed Howells to Spilman Street, and then, stripping off his coat, he rushed at and struck Howells several times about the head. Howells then adopted a mode of fighting but too commonly pursued in Carmarthen among the lower orders – an unmanly and cowardly mode. He bent down his head, and butting at Evans’s stomach, seized him by the thigh, as to throw him down in such a manner that his head struck the ground first. Evans got up, and again struck Howells, declaring that he was man enough for him, and would “send him to hell.” Howells again rushed at him, and this time with fatal effect, for Evans fell without a groan, and never moved afterwards. It is said that after the deceased fell, Howells kicked him two or three times on the head; but this seems doubtful. After remaining a few minutes looking on (during which time no one attempted to assist Evans up, or to see whether any life was remaining), Howells and his companion walked away, and Howells was apprehended the police on the bulwarks by the side of the river walking quite unconcernedly. The body of John Evans was conveyed to his own house and it was then found that he was quite dead. An extensive bruise appeared on the back of the head, and very slight cut was visible, but no other mark of violence was seen. Surgeons Rowlands and Hughes attended immediately, the former of whom attempted to bleed him, but all assistance was of no avail.
The Inquest on the body was held yesterday evening a. six o clock, at the Black Lion, before J. P. Watkins. Coroner and a jury consisting of the following persons Messrs. John Williams, currier, (Foreman) J Philipps, J. L. Collard, T. Richards, J. Davies, T. Lamb, W. Morris, John Morgan, John Thomas, Thomas W. Jones, Evan Thomas, Samuel Evans, and John Thomas. The Jury proceeded to view the body, which was lying nearly naked on a kind of bier in the deceased’s house, or rather hovel, for there was scarcely an article of furniture in it. It was fast approaching decomposition (although it had only been lying dead a day,) and the effluvia emitted from it were quite intolerable. On their return, the prisoner and his attorney were allowed to be present, and a quantity of evidence was then taken, some of which was perfectly unimportant, while other parts were extremely contradictory. The first witness examined was Mr. Thomas Stanhope Gardnor, whose evidence was not material, as he only saw the commencement of the fight, and did not appear to know anything about the matter. Next came David Davies, auctioneer, who said :— about 5 o’clock yesterday evening I saw the deceased and Howells and another man standing in Conduit Lane. Evans was making attempts to strike Howells. I stopped there to look on. There was no crowd about them then. Evans held his fist up, but Howells did not. Evans came into Spilman-street, and took off his coat. He then turned to Howells, and said, “I’ll knock you to hell.” He went up to Howells several times, and thrust his fist in his face. Howells said, “I don’t want to fight you go home.” Howells also added that he would give Evans in charge, if he would not go home. Evans called him a coward, and struck several times. Howells then gave Evans a blow and pushed him down, falling upon him. Some persons standing by lifted them both up, and Evans attempted to strike Howells again, but as he was in the act of striking, Howells stooped, caught hold of Evans’s legs, and threw him down on his back, falling down himself also. Howells was lifted up by the person that came with him, but Evans remained lying there. Howells went away shortly after. Howells attempted to kick the deceased when he lay on the ground, but was prevented from doing so. Evans did not move after the second fall. I believe Howells only fought in self defence, because he told Evans to go home a great many times, as he did not want to fight. Howells lifted the deceased fairly up and threw him down. Evans was as drunk as he could be, but I should think Howells was sober, or he would not suffer so much abusive language as he did. Mr Thomas Jones, Saracen’s Head, corroborated the witnesses’ testimony.
John Davies, mason :-“ Howells and myself came out of the back door of the Black Lion about 5 o’clock yesterday in the Conduit Lane. John Evans came there and said Howells must fight with him, at the same time taking hold of him by the chin. Howells asked what he had done to Evans. Evans replied by cursing and swearing and declaring that Howells was bound to fight him. We then went away towards Spilman street, and Evans followed us, after having prevented us from going into King Street.
Evans then put his fists in Howells face, and Howells said that if he did not leave him alone he would give him in charge of the police. Evans took off his coat, handkerchief, and apron, and struck Howells several times. Howells caught hold of Evans by the hip and putting his head against his stomach threw him down on his back and fell on him. Evans rose and came up to Howells again. Howells seized him in the same way, and Evans again fell on his back. Howells fell on him again. I then seized Howells and took him away. The deceased was very quarrelsome when drunk.
Thomas Somersgill, Lance Corporal of the 13th Light Dragoons- “I was in the Saracen’s Head about five o’clock yesterday, and saw two men in the street fighting. I did not go out, but looked at them through the window. The deceased fell, but immediately got up and took his coat off. He made a rush at the prisoner, and struck him 2 or 3 times. The prisoner then made a step towards him, stooping down, and butted him with his head, and catching him by his legs threw him down on his back. When he was down, I saw the prisoner kick at him several times, but as there was a great crowd I could not see whether the kicks took effect or not. I called out from the window, “Take that coward away” and ran out to the passage. I saw the deceased on the ground and thought he was drunk or stunned. I saw that throughout the affair the prisoner was anxious to evade Evans. Howells did not appear drunk, or he would have returned the insults much sooner than he did. Evans was very drunk. In consequence of a wish on the part of the Jury that a post mortem examination should take place, the Coroner here adjourned the inquest until six o’clock this day. The post mortem examination is to be made by Messrs. Rowlands and Hughes. The Jury were then bound over in their own recognisances to appear today, and the prisoner was removed back to the station house.
6TH SEPTEMBER 1844 PAGE 3 THE WELSHMAN
DEATH FROM DRUNKENNESS.—ADJOURNED INQUEST.
At six o’clock on Friday evening the jury again met. The first witness examined was Mr. James Rowlands, surgeon, who deposed as follows:-“I made a post mortem examination of the body John Evans, at 10 o’clock this morning. Externally it presented nothing of importance, except on the left side and back of the head, where I found a contused wound from which blood oozed. There was a small scar on the left shoulder, but that was not a recent one. The proximate cause of death was pressure of blood on the brain, which pressure of blood was caused by outward violence. I don’t think it was apoplexy, because there was such a quantity of black venous blood. The walls of the heart were rather thin. The liver and kidneys were perfectly healthy. There was no previous disease to account for the appearances in the head except the violence. Drunkenness and a consequently distended stomach certainly have a tendency to produce apoplexy, but it did not produce it in this instance. Mr. John Hughes, surgeon, was next examined, and he fully corroborated Mr. Rowland’s testimony.-The Coroner then read the evidence to the jury and proceeded to observe upon the distinction between murder, manslaughter and homicide. He said that in this case there was no evidence of malice, and might proceed from sudden transport, or the involuntary commission of an unlawful act in the absence of malice. The right of a man to natural defence does not imply a right of attack. To justify the plea of self defence, it must be proved that the slayer had no other possible or probable means of escape from his assailant, and if the jury were convinced that Howells had no other possible – or probable means of escaping, and that he had retreated as far as he could, then the homicide might be excused. But if the evidence did not satisfy them that he had used due diligence and had other means of escape, then it cannot be excused. It did not matter who struck the first blow – that was unimportant; but before the homicide could be excused or justified, the jury must be perfectly convinced that Howells used all possible means of escaping from Evans.-The jury then consulted together for about an hour, and returned a verdict of “Excusable Homicide.” Howells, who had been all the while in custody, was discharged after having been admonished by the coroner.
13TH SEPTEMBER 1844 PAGE 3 THE WELSHMAN
…DEATH FROM DRUNKENNESS.— Editorial
We have to add another death this week at Carmarthen, to the many that are almost daily occurring in some place, from indulgence in “drink”. As the details in evidence of this case, a case of “death from drunkenness” will be seen our report of the inquest held yesterday evening on the body of John Evans, we allude to the melancholy event here, in order to direct public attention to the consequences of a vice which, notwithstanding all the efforts of teetotalers, is not, we fear, on the decrease. Temperance has yet to be taught in this town as well as in other towns. But it is not to be taught perhaps so effectually by teetotal lectures as by the affluent and influential classes, who, instead of offering inducement to drunkenness, either directly in the shape of gratuities, or indirectly, by countenancing a career of dissipation, should not only themselves practically inculcate temperance, but provide the humbler classes with the means of enjoying wholesome recreation. Where are the common lands of Carmarthen?-where the village greens of South Wales? Never was any population in the world so utterly destitute of the means of rational recreation. If the object had been to encourage drunkenness no surer method could be adopted than that which we see here. It seems—there is some difficulty in ascertaining it for certain, but it seems that John Evans, the unfortunate subject of the Coroners inquest, with other men, who are ever ready to welcome equally the arrival or the funeral at Carmarthen of any man, woman, or child, for a pot of ale, saw in the return of Mr. Morris, the borough’s member, an opportunity of indulging in drink. He and they accordingly having earned their gratuity, in the usual way, got drunk – the consequences of that drunkenness are detailed in our account of the inquest that viewed the body of the deceased. What a moral does not a drunken death teach! How eloquent is the fate of John Evans! No lecture so convincing, no sermon so impressive all that wretched mans end and that scarcely less wretched remainder of the survivor’s, John Howells. Nor are any of us perhaps wholly free from blame – the more influential the more reprehensible – who sanction by silence, or stimulate in any other way, a vice which has been the ruin of so many men—of so many even in the limits of the town where John Evans fell down dead —under what circumstances the evidence before the coroner’s jury shows.
An inquest was held yesterday evening, at the Lion Royal Hotel, before J. P. Watkins, Esq., coroner, to enquire touching the death of Ann Jessop. The deceased had for some time past cohabited with an old pensioner named Johnson, who accompanies the troop of 4th Light Dragoons now in Carmarthen, as an assistant farrier. They resided on the Castle Hill. On Wednesday, Johnson received his pension, and after purchasing a gown, a pair of stays, some stockings, shoes, &c., for deceased, he gave her a sovereign. With this it appeared she purchased a bottle of rum, and drank until she became quite stupid. While in that condition she wanted more spirits, but Johnson, who was also intoxicated, refused to allow her to have it. The woman of the house went into their room some time afterwards, and discovered the deceased lying on the bed, on her face. She asked Johnson what was the matter, and he replied that she was drunk. It was found, however, that she was dead. A report was instantly raised that Johnson had killed her, but on enquiry it turned out perfectly unfounded. She had been “beastly drunk” as one of the witnesses described it, and falling on her face on the bed, had been suffocated. She was about 48 years old. The jury returned a verdict that the deceased died by excessive drinking. A vote of censure was afterwards unanimously passed by the jury, (many of whom were publicans,) on the shameful practice which prevails in this town of giving liquor to persons already intoxicated.
Published by the “Welshman” August 1843.