Murder most foul
Was wrong man hanged, or was confession in New Orleans just a hoax?
In 1890 the tiny villages of Alpraham and Tilstone, near Tarporley, became the centre of a sensational murder mystery…the details of which have only recently been unearthed.

Our story begins in 1857, on the Tilstone Lodge estate of Edward Corbett Esq. In the early hours of April 17th, Corbett’s gamekeeper, John Bebbington, rose from his bed to make his rounds of the woods and pheasant preserves.

Nothing was heard of him again and later he was found lying dead in a ditch, with his loaded gun beside him.

In an adjacent field the police discovered two sets of footprints – one belonging to the gamekeeper and the other set they traced to John Blagg, 47, a shoemaker and poacher.

At Blagg’s home they found a gun and cartridges matching the one that shot Bebbington. They also found the boots that had made the footprints.

Blagg had previously threatened the gamekeeper and despite his protestations he was charged with murder.

His counsel argued that all the evidence was circumstantial. ‘The poor man is a victim of hatred because he was a poacher; and as the prosecution could not get hold the real murderer, they pounced on the prisoner because he happened, unfortunately, to be disliked by a Cheshire country gentleman.’

After a trial lasting 10 hours Blagg was found guilty and sentenced to be hanged. Petitions to the Home Secretary proved fruitless.

Blagg’s wife and children visited him at Chester Castle and to the end he said it was all a parcel of lies. ‘They were my boots but not worn by me.’

Blagg was hanged and there the matter lay until over 30 years later when a Liverpool merchant, James Sawers, from Neston, paid a visit to New Orleans, and there received news of a startling confession made to the Rector of St Paul’s, New Orleans. It concerned the murder of John Bebbington.

The story, from Henry Edwin Jones, was that Blagg had been getting ready to attend Chester market on the day before the murder and had loaned him a pair of boots. It was he, Jones, who had murdered the gamekeeper.

Jones said he had been educated at the King’s School, Chester, but Mr Sawers maintained that the confession was all a hoax.

However, journalists who checked the story found him in possession of many startling minor recollections which suggested he must have had been implicated.

When Jones made his confession in 1890 a journalist visited Blagg’s widow who still lived in Alpraham.

On the night before the murder she said that Jones, who was known to her husband, had called at the cottage. He had borrowed the boots, but she could not say how or when they were returned, between the murder and the police searching the cottage.

She said the police had spoken with Jones but had let him go. They ‘had it in’ for her husband.

The landlord of the local pub also remembered Jones who worked as a wheelwright in the Potteries and occasionally called in for a drink.

We shall never know whether the wrong man was hanged and, in the end, the authorities did not take Jones’ confession seriously.

The last, tantalising, words went to Blagg’s widow:

‘He said if he disclosed everything that he knew he would be transported for life, and he would prefer instant death to that.’