The story of the murder of Isaac Jermy and his son, the shooting of his wife and a servant, by James Rush is worthy of Dickens and Wilkie Collins. It’s a story of disguise, forged deeds, secret rooms, a hidden closet, and even a shallow well under the floorboards where the forged papers were found. In the closet were discovered a widow’s black dress, made to fit the murderer, a black crepe bonnet and a veil – these were worn by Rush on the night of the murder and on several nights before when the murderer went about in the dark testing his disguise.
No wonder that in January, 1849, Dickens visited Stanfield Hall, the site of the notorious murders. The newspapers were full of the sensational events which had occurred in November, 1848. Dickens found nothing attractive in the house but noted ‘a murderous look that seemed to invite such a crime.’ Dickens arrived just as the police were searching for the pistol. Dickens thought that the murderer’s son might have offered any of the assisting labourers five pounds to find the weapon and give it to him.
The murder of Isaac Jermy was about money. James Rush was a tenant of three farms owned by Isaac Jermy, but he was broke and faced eviction from Potash Farm. He forged deeds to try to prove his right to the farms and made his mistress, Emily Sandford, copy them. When Isaac Jermy refused his titles, Rush determined to murder him.
James Rush lived with Emily Sandford, his supposed housekeeper. Her evidence at the trial showed that she was more than that. Rush conducted his own defence and cross-examined Emily, trying to establish his alibi. He elicited the information that she was in her nightgown and sitting on his knee at some crucial time. Sensation in court! Nightgown – and on his knee. And she kissed him. According to the newspapers, Rush was a libertine who ‘boasted of his seductions.’ He gave a closing speech which lasted fourteen hours – no wonder the judge condemned him to death. Moreover, when he returned a wallet which he had examined as a piece of evidence, forty pounds was missing. He had palmed it and hidden it in his hat – so he admitted a few days later.
On the same trip Dickens visited Yarmouth ‘the strangest place in the wide world.’ The endless marshes remained in his imagination for he made it the home of Mr Peggotty, Ham and Little Em’ly, and the scene of Steerforth’s death. Emily Sandford, like Little Em’ly, emigrated to Australia. Little Em’ly had been seduced by James Steerforth – just as Emily Sandford had been seduced by James Rush.
The newspapers of the time reveal some interesting parallels between Dickens’s Little Em’ly and Emily Sandford who was also rather small. The Norfolk Chronicle published a memoir of her on April 14th, 1849, explaining that Miss Sandord ‘is very diminutive in figure, but pretty and ladylike.’ It seems that she was from a respectable family, fallen on hard times, who was obliged to seek a post as a governess. Enter the libertine James Rush who interviewed Emily and her mother. Both were impressed by his gentleman-like manners – so polite and charming – touch of James Steerforth here, I wonder? Steerforth was very charming to the Peggotty family and his sights were on Little Em’ly. Emily Sandford was employed and went down to Norfolk with Mr Rush to look after his children. After some time, James Rush proposed, and, according to the memoir, poor Emily ‘forgot her bond of virtue’ – a child was born in 1848. No marriage took place.
After the trial in which she was regarded as a victim of the murderer, a subscription was raised for Emily Sandford by those who participated ‘in the general feeling of commiseration for the unprotected and destitute state into which the unfortunate Emily Sandford has been plunged by the crimes of the convict James Blomfield Rush.’ Donations of not less than £1.00 were asked for and the list of subscribers was headed by Lord Leicester and Lord Hastings who gave £5.00 each. Lady Byron, the widow of the poet, gave £3.00. A total of £200.10 shillings was raised by April 14th.
James Rush was found guilty and sentenced to death. His guilt was proved by two female witnesses. He shot Eliza Chastney, a servant at Stanfield Hall, but she recovered and denounced him in court. Emily Sandford gave evidence about the forged deeds which she had copied, not knowing they were forgeries. Rush was hanged on 21st April, 1849.