IT was a penny dreadful in verse, an enterprising unknown poet or grasping opportunist, depending on one's view, penning the demise of a servant who blasted to death a maid on whom he doted.

Within a gaol I am lamenting,

Will no one shed a tear for me;

In agony I'm sure relenting,

The author of a tragedy;

I dearly loved Naomi Kingswell,

But alas she proved false to me,

I in Southampton did murder,

At the age of twenty-three.

So ran the first of nine verses for which Richard Williams made a few pence by peddling the story of the abject Abraham Baker to a ghoulish crowd estimated at about 2,000 men, women and children who assembled outside the gate of the former Winchester Prison on January 8, 1856, to witness his hanging.

It was a 'crime passionnel.'

Baker was infatuated with Kingswell, but he was rebuffed.

According to Mrs Wood who ran a West Street restaurant they patronised, his ardour was "all on one side." Equally so was the local press's attitude to the principals, painting as her " pretty and interesting" and denigrating the spurned lover as "sour and ignorant, down-looking, sallow complexioned, hollow cheeked with a large circle of dark skin around his cavern-seated eyes."

It was at Newport on the Isle of Wight that the pair met and, according to the Hampshire Advertiser, he "pressed his attentions on her, meaning marriage." They came to Southampton together where a new era was dawning, and where they saw their future.


Winchester Gaol

Winchester Gaol.


The railway had arrived, the Royal South Hants Hospital established, and the foundation stone of the new docks laid. The commercial centre was expanding.

But in 1856, Moira Place - named after the Earl of Moira who commanded an army on Netley Common during the wars with revolutionary France - still reflected a more gracious age, occupied by the affluent professional class.

But 'The Sweetheart Murder,' as it was locally coined, belonged to the downstairs world where wages were shockingly poor and the hours insufferably long. Most retainers, however, were honest, such as Kingswell who was hired as upper housemaid by the Rev. William Poynder.

Not so Baker who was appointed as a footman in the same household. He was weak, moody and vain. Easily corruptible too. Led astray by his elders who readily demonstrated the simplicity of slipping money from their unsuspecting master's pocket.

"Pride, short prayers, not reading my bible, Sabbath breaking and all manners of wickedness which ended my days for the shooting of my fellow creature," he was to later lament of his downfall to the prison chaplain.

Baker's dark side became apparent to Kingswell who he tried to manipulate - and was rejected.

"He was guilty of an act which caused great offence to the housemaid, " jurors were told. "In short, so annoyed was she at his conduct, she would no longer receive him as a suitor."

He pleaded for forgiveness but she refused to acknowledge him any further. Too late, he realised his folly - and if he could not have her, then nobody else would.

It was October 14, 1855.

Strangely, in view of what was to follow, the vicar's cook, Charlotte Lacey, had seen nothing to indicate there was friction between the couple. Normally, servants worshipped with their masters but on this particular day, Baker went to an inn where he wrote a letter disposing of his clothing, money, watch and rings to his parents - his father was a master tailor in Newport.



Moira House on Moira Place.


The landlady asked after "His Intended," as he introduced Kingswell. The pair often ate there and he replied: "Quite well."

And with that he abruptly left, murder in mind.

Having retreated to his bedroom, he returned to the kitchen minutes later as the cook was preparing dinner for the vicar's family attending divine service at All Saints Church in the high Street. Placing a pistol at the back of the maid's head, he shot her.

"Baker, what have you done?" the cook cried out.

"I've done it and she deserved it, as you know," he muttered, making no effort to flee.

The cook rushed out outside and hailed a passing police officer who detained Baker without resistance.

Probably it was the romantic aura of the crime that captured the public's imagination, for a new gold ring was found on Baker who had evidently prepared to propose marriage to his tragic victim. In other respects, it was a straightforward story of a love that was unrequited and not betrayed.

As news of the murder spread, crowds thronged outside the house, which in turn was inspected by the mayor and other magistrates.

Incarcerated in the town's jail that stood in Ascupart Street where he was initially held, the footman told the governor and the mayor: "I felt very hurt and leaving my place, considering all the things from the first time I knew her, the due respect and attention I always paid her in the most humbly and homely manner, seemed altogether more than I could bear. I believe I said nothing more to her until I used that unfortunate weapon. The whole of the morning and the previous day I scarcely did not know what I was doing. Naomi had upset my mind so much and so frequently."



Recreation of scene in Southampton where murder took place.


Significantly, he confessed of his intent: "There is not a shadow of doubt that if she had been less strict in her ways, she would not have fallen by my hand."

Inevitably charged with murder, Baker appeared at the Hampshire Winter Assizes where a local gunsmith told jurors how he had purchased a pistol and shot for 15s 6d to ostensibly shoot a large dog.

The footman's counsel waxed lyrical about poets and writers who had written of the strength of emotion caused by love when it took hold of the human heart. Baker's heart had been "maddened by passion owing to his affections being slighted."

But his task was forlorn. The trial was over in three hours.

Several jurors wept. Eight of them apparently were in favour of urging a recommendation for mercy but it was opposed by the foreman and never made known to the judge, Mr Justice Parke, who was deeply moved as he passed the only sentence available to him - that of death, telling the trembling the penitent Baker who had fainted during the evidence: "You allowed jealousy to take possession of your mind and to overpower those feelings of reason and religion which you seemed to be possess in a strong degree. You left her not a single moment to reflect and think on the acts of her life, not to ask pardon of God for those sins which she committed through life."

Baker slumped into the arms of the warders who carried him from the dock. Calm and collected thereafter, he spent his last few days in prayer, confessing he had premeditated the murder.

His execution was witnessed by some 2,000 spectators, "principally of the working classes, among them females," the Hampshire Advertiser reported. "The conduct of the crowd was very becoming, for while the dreadful ceremony was carried out a solemn silence prevailed."

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