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The Murder of Martha Sheward


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Bishopgate, Norwich

Bishopgate, Norwich

In the mid 19th century, body parts were found strewn across the city of Norwich, UK: hidden in gullies, under hedges and blocking drains. The police thought it had been done by medical students who had used a dead body for educational purposes but who were known to have a very macabre sense of humour. The police had no reason to believe it was the dismembered body of Martha Sheward, as she hadn't been reported missing. Even more macabre was the fact that no head was found to enable an identification of the woman.

It was some 17 years later that the whole brutal tale came out, and this is the amazing story of what happened to Martha.

Martha's Story

Martha's husband William was a tailor by trade, and by all accounts, his marriage was not a happy one. A row had taken place in their terraced house in Tabernacle Street (now Bishopgate; see photo above). Money had been a constant cause for argument in the household. On this particular day in the summer of 1851, William had had enough and he cut Martha's throat.

Some accounts of the murder state that William used a cut-throat razor but another states that he used a pair of his tailor's scissors or shears. Whatever weapon he used, William calmly left his wife dead in a pool of blood and merely washed and changed his clothes before attending a job interview in Great Yarmouth.

What To Do With the Body?

When William returned home he was relieved to discover that nobody had discovered the body, so he immediately set about clearing up the blood. But what to do with the body? He decided the simplest way of dealing with the problem was to cut Martha into pieces and boil the pieces, which would make it easier to dispose of her. He did this over several days; chopping the body, boiling the flesh and bones and then, each night, putting the parts in a bucket and scattering them across the city.

Unfortunately, the weather was quite warm and the body began to putrefy more quickly than William would have liked. In order not to raise suspicion from his neighbours, he decided to skip the boiling and just cut and scatter the body. William was concerned that his neighbours might smell the putrefying flesh or wonder where Martha was, so he told his neighbours that Martha had left him. Living in a terraced house it was easy for neighbours to overhear the Shewards' arguments so it really was no surprise.

The Guldhall, Norwich

The Guldhall, Norwich

William Sheward's New Life

Time passed and William was satisfied that he had got away with the murder. He eventually remarried and he and his new wife took over the running of a public house in Oak Street, Norwich.

However, the guilt presumably weighed heavily on William, as on New Year's Day of 1869, on a trip to London, he walked into a police station and confessed. He was found guilty of murder, and on April 20th, 1869, he was hanged at Norwich Gaol.

The remains of Martha Sheward were interred in the Guildhall in Norwich, and recently her great-great-great niece arranged for a blessing to take place there so that hopefully Martha will now be at peace.

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