The Horrible and Barbarous Murder of Poor Jael Denny

‘A rope I purchased to kill the maiden,
And in a field I did throw her down,
I strangled her and I killed her infant,
And left her laying upon the ground…’

(Excerpt from the 19th century gallow ballad from Hodge’s ‘Copy of Verses On T.Drory and Jael Denny‘)

When it comes to historical artifacts I have noticed that I seem to have a tendency towards the most gruesome of histories, I guess its human nature to want to stare at the grotesque and wonder what leads people to live the lives they do. When I’m fortunate enough to frequent an antique store with some money in my pocket the subject matter I find myself drawn to most is historical prints and newspaper cuttings of crimes or somewhat deviant behaviour. On a recent trip to Glendalough I stopped off at a small antique shop in Annamoe, Co. Wicklow. Amongst all the gems this little store held I came across the small framed cutting from a book printed in 1861 titled ‘London Labour and the London Poor’ – that is shown above. The picture is titled ‘The Horrible and Barbarious Murder of Poor Jael Denny’ I was immediately intrigued to find out the story behind this crime.

One of the best sources I came across while researching this article was a series of letters written in 1853 by an Ebenezer Starnes. Starnes refers to the murder of Jael Denny in his letter titled, ‘Brutality and Cruelty of the British People’. Thomas Drory, the protagonist in this crime was a man of high social standing from Brentwood near Chelmsford. Starnes states of Drory ‘his ordinarily mild deportment, effeminate looks, and small person appear in strange contrast with the horrible details of his crime’. Jael Denny was a local girl of a lower social standing, she and Drory had become involved in a short courtship during the latter part of 1850, from which Jael became pregnant. According to Drory’s own testimony, which shifted quite a lot during the investigation, in the weeks leading up to Jael’s murder he had begun carrying a rope on his person at all times secreted inside his coat pocket, in another statement he said he took it from the cellar of his father’s house right before the murder, either way the fate of Jael remained the same.

On a cold March evening in 1851 Drory claims he bumped into Jael by accident, she wished to speak with him about their unborn child, at the time he said he could not talk to her but would return in an hours time. When Drory went to meet Jael that evening for the second time it was obvious to him that the purpose of the talk was to urge Drory into marriage. They walked along and talked before sitting down at the bank of a river at her suggestion. While they sat and watched daylight fade he passed the rope gently around her, managing to get the end of the rope into a loop before she perceived it. Jael jumped up and put her hands to her throat to try and free herself but Drory pulled hard on the rope and she fell to ground dying almost immediately. Drory then left the scene of the crime, leaving poor Jael lifeless by the river bank.

Shortly after her death Drory was arrested and charged with the murder of Jael Denny, Drory immediately admitted his guilt.

‘The darkness of the night I thought
Would shield me from the deed I’d done,
But justice would not let escape
Young Thomas Drory, the farmer’s son.!’

(Excerpt from gallow ballad, ‘Confession of Thomas Drory’ from Disley)

On a cold Tuesday morning, Thomas Drory was executed in front of the county jail at Springfield – near Chelmsford – in front of a crowd of six to seven thousand people. He had written a letter the previous night to the High Sheriff yet again reiterating his part in ‘that grievous offence’ and acknowledged that he had been ‘justly convicted’. When Drory made his way to the gallows he appeared dishevelled and was trembling with fear, he was to be hung before another local murderer Sarah Chesham, when he reached the gallows the crowd hushed as his body was dropped from the platform, Drory’s body wrangled and shook for 4 or 5 minutes before all life was gone. He was buried within the precinct of the jail, many people had requested a cast of his head (as had been a popular morbid curiosity at the time) but all were refused.

‘As I walked down by Chelmsford Jail,
I heard a youth in sorrow sigh,
In anguish he did sore bewail,
Saying, I am condemned to die…’

(Excerpt from gallow ballad, ‘Confession of Thomas Drory’ from Disley)

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