16 June 2020

A Memorial to a Murdered Policeman

On 21st April 1815, John Burnett, the "Peace Officer" of the Cornish town of Lostwithiel was murdered by a drunken soldier, John Simms. Simms was tried and hanged in Bodmin Gaol.

The memorial to John Burnett inside Lostwithiel parish church

Kentish Weekly Post or Canterbury Journal - Tuesday 6th September 1814


The 28th regiment of Foot, which had been quartered at Pendennis, since the disbanding of the Royal Miners, having received orders to proceed by forced march to Plymouth, for the purpose of embarking there for America; the baggage passed through Lostwithiel on Sunday last. Four of the baggage guard, who had been drinking at a public house remained when the party moved forward it should seem, unconscious of the departure of their comrades. Two of the four were so much intoxicated, as to render it impossible for them to proceed, and the other two who appeared in.full possession of their senses, applied to the constable, to procure a cart to convey the drunken men to the next town. This the constable refused to do, as did a Magistrate who happened to be passing by at the time. An altercation ensued, and the soldiers threatened to shoot the constable, who prudently retreated into his house and shut the door. Enraged at this they fixed their bayonets, with which they menaced some persons who stood by, at the same time threatened to fire through the constable's door, and proceeded to charge their muskets with ball cartridges, which had been served out to them as part of the baggage guard. After having loaded their pieces they walked down Fore-street, one of them presenting his musket in different directions, and attempting to fire it amongst the people, a number of whom were assembled in the street; happily the ruffian was unable to effect his purpose, as the piece flashed in the pan without going off. Having proceeded in this way for some distance, regardless of the remonstrances and intreaties of the inhabitants, they were met by Joseph Burnett, the town serjeant, who made known that he.was a peace officer, and should take the man who was. endeavouring to discharge his piece into custody. The soldier replied, "I’ll shoot you first” and resting his musket on the wheel of a cart, in front of Burnett, declared that if he advanced an inch he would fire. The officer moved a little to one side, to get out of the direction of the piece, when the villain raised the musket, stepped back few paces, and levelling it at the unfortunate man, instantly fired. The ball passed through Burnett’s body, and struck another man named Walter Davies, who stood behind him,* near the hip, shattering his back bone; - both instantly fell. The spectators immediately endeavoured to secure the miscreants, who made all the resistance in their power; fortunately the man whose musket was not discharged, was seized before he could fire; the other kept the people at bay with his bayonet for some time, but was length secured without further mischief. Burnett expired in about half an hour after he was shot; Davies languished until Wednesday, when also died. Both have left families; the former nine and the latter five children. A Coroner’s Inquest was held on the body of Burnett on Monday, and returned a verdict of Wilful Murder against John Sims and Richard Rogers, who were conducted to Bodmin Gaol. 

Stamford Mercury - Friday 2 September 1814

John Sims and Richard Rogers were Monday se'nnight committed to Bodmin gaol, for the murder of Joseph Burnett and Walter Davies.

Royal Cornwall Gazette - Saturday 22 April 1815


Before the Honourable Sir ROBERT GRAHAM, Knt., one of the Justices of His Majesty's Court of King's Bench. 

Wednesday, March 29. John Simms, aged 30, and Richard Rogers, 26, were charged with the wilful murder of Joseph Burnett.

William Hicks sworn and examined— Lives at Lostwithiel; was a constable in August last; recollected seeing the two prisoners in the town; they came to his house between 1 and 2 o'clock and enquired for a cart to forward some drunken men; said they belonged to the 28th regiment of foot; a part of that regiment had passed through Lostwithiel in the morning. Witness told the prisoners they could have no cart, they having no right to one, and asked why they did not go on with their own baggage cart; they made no reply; he then enquired who would pay, they said, the Government; he told them as old soldiers they ought to know better, their own officers were bound to pay for baggage carts; Simms said <em>he</em> was not drunk, did not want a cart for himself, and would not be seen to ride on one; they then left the house of the witness, and he went in and shut the door; his house is near the middle of Market-street. In 10 minutes or a quarter of an hour the prisoners returned to his house, and again required a cart to carry the drunken men to Liskeard; he told them they had no right to a cart but if they would pay he would get one; Simms asked the price; witness told him 12 shillings; He said to Rogers, " Pay the man for the cart;" Rogers then said "Bring the cart here;" Witness said, "Let me see the money, and I will;" on which Rogers turned and said "I'll be d—d if I do," and walked off, and witness returned into his house. Simms appeared sober, and Rogers drunk. James Netherton lives at Lostwithiel; remembered the prisoners at the bar; saw them in Market street, in August last; saw them speak to Mr. Hicks at his door; they made an application to him for a cart; witness was sitting in his own window opposite; after the conversation, Hicks went in and shut the door, and the prisoners went away ; saw them return together to Hicks's house, where they enquired for a cart, as before, and Hicks agreed to get one if they would pay for it; they refused at first, but afterwards agreed to pay for it by making application to another man at the bottom of the town; Rogers went away, and Simms went to the steps of Miss Spernon's house, at a little distance on the same side of the way; witness heard Simms say, with many oaths, that he would have the blood of some person before he left the town; he had a musket in his hand; he fixed the bayonet, and brought it down to the charge; as soon as Rogers was within hearing, Simms hailed him, and requested him to load his gun; Rogers had his piece; Simms desired him to load, saying that "some of the Cornish a—s were going to murder him;"  there were many people, chiefly boys and young persons, round Miss Spernon's door; they said nothing to the prisoners, nor offered them any insult or affront; Rogers attempted to unbutton his pouch to load, but was unable, being so intoxicated. Simms then bade him come to him, and he would assist him; Rogers went up to him, and Simms unbuttoned his pouch and took out a parcel of cartridges, he untied the parcel, took out one, and gave it to Rogers, who bit off the end and primed his piece, and returned the remainder (with Simms' assistance) into his gun; Simms then requested Rogers to ram it down well; he did so, fixed his bayonet, went a few yards down the street, presented his piece, and levelled right down the street; there were many persons in the direction in which he presented it; he cocked his piece and snapped it, when it flashed in the pan; Simms said that Rogers's was a poor gun, and he would load his own, but witness did not see him do it; they then went together down the centre of the street, but witness remained at the head of the street; the prisoners were nearly close together, and some persons were standing at a small distance from them. The witness knew Mr. Joseph Burnett, he was serjeant at mace of the borough of Lostwithiel, and lived in Fore street; witness could see his house from the place where he was standing; he saw Burnett come out of his house, having on the laced hat usually worn by the town-serjeant. The prisoners had not reached the turning at die bottom of the street, when Rogers turned and snapped his gun again, in the direction in which Barnett was going; there was no footpath in the street. Witness saw a man of the name of Davey tap Rogers on the shoulder; prisoners then went down the street together with Burnett and Davey, and passing the corner were lost to the view of the witness; he followed them, and was at the corner just at the report of the gun; he ran to the turning, and saw the smoke of Simms's gun; the arms were then taken from the prisoners, and the loaded musket, belonging to Rogers, was given to the witness; he examined the gun and drew the load, with some assistance; it contained a ball-cartridge; after the prisoners were put into the hall, witness saw Burnett in Mr. Reed's house, where he lay in the parlour, bleeding; witness continued in the room with him; he lived about three quarters of an hour after being shot. Witness knew nothing of what passed after the prisoners turned the corner. James Dewan lives at Lostwithiel; is in the Local Militia, his mother keeps a public house in Fore Street; he saw the prisoners in August last; he saw Simms ramming something down into his piece; the prisoners afterwards came to his mother's door; Burnett was there; Simms then put his ramrod in his piece; witness they saw the piece was loaded; Burnett said in the hearing of Simms, he did not think it was loaded, and Simms then put his ramrod into his piece again, and witness said he was sure it was loaded; and he desired Simms to come inside the door and let him draw the charge, that he (Simms) was an old soldier, and ought to know better; Simms instantly came to a charge at the witness and said he would rather put that into him; the bayonet was fixed, and witness put up his hand, and put it aside; Simms then threw his piece to his shoulder, and the prisoners both went away down the street, they stopped at about 50 or 60 yards; no person followed them at that instant; witness observed the prisoners come to a priming position, one faced up the street and the other down, their locks coming nearly abreast of each other, Simms put his hand to Rogers's lock, and then walked off down the street; witness had observed Rogers's lock before, and saw that the pan was too full of powder to shut close; the prisoners went down the street together, and Davey followed them; witness and Burnett went down about five minutes afterwards; Burnett called at the constable's house; Mr, Rowe's, and witness went to a public house kept by George Reed, in an open place near the Fore street; the prisoners were there, and Burnett afterwards came there; witness was close to the prisoners, when Simms turned and asked him what business he had there; he said he was going in to Mr. Reed's; when Burnett came up, he said he was the town-serjeant, and desired him to go into Reed's and give up their arms to him; Simms repeated that he would kill the first man who came to take his arms, he then went back a few paces, and rested his piece on the wheel of a cart, and took a level on the wheel; witness then turned to Burnett, and desired him to come away, for the prisoners would shoot some person; witness then went into Reed's passage, and had not been there two seconds when he heard the report of the piece; he turned round and saw Burnett turning round towards the door; witness observed a hole in the breast of Burnett's waistcoat. There were many persons in the street, but witness saw only one man follow the prisoners before himself; no person offered any insult to the prisoners. <em> Nicholas Pomeroy</em>, corroborated much of the testimony of the preceding witnesses, and added that he saw one of the prisoners rest his piece against a wall, and attempt to strike a man called Walter Davey; witness followed the prisoners round the corner, towards George Reed's house; heard Burnett say "I require the peace; come in here, and deliver your arms to me;" Simms said "he would be d—d if  he did not shoot him first;" witness saw him, after resting his musket on the wheel of a cart, take it up and present it at Joseph Burnett who might be 10 or 20 feet distant ; Rogers was a few yards distant from Simms, nearer to Reed's house; Simms fired, and Burnett put his arms around him, and turned into the house. <em>George Wills,</em> <em>Walter Lucas</em>, and <em>George Reed</em> corroborated much of the preceding evidence, and all saw the piece fired by Simms. <em>Mr. Burgess</em>, surgeon at Lostwithiel was called in to see Joseph Burnett about 2 o'clock in the afternoon of the 21st of August; Burnett was then at George Reed's house, witness found him bleeding very much, and on examining him he discovered a wound, apparently made by a bullet, which had entered at the lower part of the breast-bone, passed through the right lobe of the lungs, and came out at the right side, about 5 or 6 inches from the spine which was undoubtedly the cause of his death; the deceased was removed to his own house, and died in about three quarters of an hour after the witness saw him. The prisoners then being called on, said that they ,"stood in their own defence, as it was wanted to take their arms from them." They called no witness. The Jury found John Simms guilty, and Richard Rogers not guilty, the latter burst into tears when the verdict was returned; but Simms appeared unconcerned. The Judge then addressed the prisoner Simms in the following words: "John Simms, you have been convicted bv evidence the most clear and precise, of a very heinous crime, the crime of taking away the life of one of your fellow subjects, whose blood calls loudly for retaliation, and who, in the capacity of a Peace Officer was using his utmost endeavours to prevent you from committing that mischief which you by your intoxication and temporary insanity at that time was capable of doing; and while I proceed to my duty in passing the awful sentence of the law upon you, I cannot help regretting your unprepared state for it. The victim of your violence, Burnett, was, as the evidence have stated, a man who was doing and doing no more than his duty as a preserver of the public peace; and however reluctantly you as a soldier might permit your arms to be taken from you, yet the circumstance of your intoxication is no extenuation of your guilt; it is therefore my duty, my painful duly, to pronounce the sentence of the Law upon you, which you have drawn down upon your own head; a Sentence which, though it be both awful and severe, yet I fear you are very unprepared to meet, I therefore most earnestly hope that the short period of time which you have now remaining, you will employ in making your peace with that God whom you have so grievously offended. The Sentence of the Law therefore is, that you be taken to the place from whence you came, and from thence, on Friday next, you be brought to the place of Execution, where you he hanged by the neck till you be dead, and that your body he given to be dissected and anatomized; and may God have mercy upon your Soul!" 

The Execution

John Simms was hanged for the murder of John Burnett on 31 April 1815 at Bodmin Gaol

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