Five historic and infamous crimes that happened in Cambridgeshire

Cambridgeshire has a long and high history but unfortunately, not all of it is pleasant.

The county has a darker side with many unforgettable crimes having been committed over the years, and their gruesome tales being passed down by the generations.

From poisoners to spies, Cambridgeshire is not lacking in its disturbing stories.

Read more historic stories about Cambridgeshire

Stories of these crimes will have been enormous talking points when they happened as their unnerving details hindered those in the area.

The shocking and infamous crimes below stood out as some of the worst committed in the county’s history.

The Burwell fire

The Burwell fire in 1727 led many, who had gathered to watch a puppet show, to perish.

At about 9pm on September 8, a fire broke out in a barn in the village whilst 100 people were nevertheless inside watching the show.

The barn doors had been nailed shut to stop people sneaking into the show and inside the locked barn was lots of dry straw which the flames quickly engulfed.

You can imagine the fear of those inside the barn as the fire grew and grew, and as spectators began to panic some were already trampled as everyone was desperate to escape.

Out of 100 spectators, 76 perished in the fire before rescuers could break in, whilst two others would later die of the wounds they consistent.

The fire was originally thought to have been an accident caused by negligence.

Many believe a servant, Richard Whittaker, was to blame for the fire but he was cleared of arson at the Cambridge Assizes.

However, the belief that Whittaker was, in fact, guilty grew when a report from the Cambridge Chronicle in February 1774 claimed an unnamed man had confessed to starting the fire deliberately.

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Last person to be publicly hanged in the county

The next crime is a rather disturbing one, exposing the worst things some people are capable of.

In 1864 John Green was found guilty for the brutal murder of Elizabeth Brown in Whittlesey which ended up costing him his own life.

The pair had stolen some gin and got drunk together but when Elizabeth refused John’s advances he responded in a truly horrific way.

John strangled and beat her, then tried to burn her body in a kiln in the Maltings where he worked.

This particular crime has been remembered throughout the years as John’s action led to him being the last person to be publicly hanged in Cambridgeshire.

The St Neots Poisoner

News of this next heinous crime spread far and wide, making headlines as far as Aberdeen, Belfast, and Truro.

The case is that of Walter Horsford and Annie Holmes and tells a rather disturbing story that took place in 1898.

Walter was a farmer from Spaldwick near Huntingdon and he poisoned Annie, his widowed and pregnant cousin.

Walter had engaged in an affair with Annie despite him being recently married and the fact that the pair were related.

Annie fell pregnant with his child and in an effort not to create a scandal he agreed to try and help her get rid of the child.

To do so he sent her a powder to take with a observe saying ‘take a little in water, it is quite harmless’.

The powder was strychnine, which is highly toxic and used as a pesticide – after taking the poison Annie died.

Walter was the first person to be executed in Cambridge, following the end of public execution, and a dedicated building was constructed for his hanging.

The Cambridge Spies

Four members of the ‘Cambridge Five’

This next crime features some of the most prolific spies to ever step foot in the county known as ‘The Apostles’ or ‘The Cambridge five.”

They were based at King’s and Trinity colleges and were responsible for many deaths after they betrayed agents working for Britain.

The spies were recruited in the 1930s – they would pass on information to the Soviet Union during WWII.

They were undetected for many years as the group was active until the 1950s.

Guy Burgess worked for MI6; Donald MacLean became a Foreign Office secretary. Kim Philby also worked for MI6 and as a journalist in Washington.

Burgess and MacLean escaped to Moscow in 1951, just before being exposed. Philby followed in 1963.

John Cairncross and Anthony Blunt were also part of the five.

Yaxley body-snatchers

The last case is a strange one and was that of the Yaxley body-snatchers.

Back in 1832 doctors, medical schools, and hospitals were only allowed to carry out medical research on the bodies of recently executed criminals.

However, there were not always enough bodies to be used.

This is where it starts to get a little grim as it was known that some anatomists paid body-snatchers to raid new graves and retrieve bodies for research.

One deceased woman from Yaxley became a victim of this snatching after her passing.

Her body was found hidden in a brewhouse and led to the discovery that several bodies had been removed from churchyards in the area.

Two men from Farcet, William Patrick and his accomplice William Whayley, were ultimately charged with stealing a body.

Both men admitted the offence and said that the bodies they had removed were passed to a Mr Grimmer, who took them to London.

Whayley provided evidence against Patrick and was released without charge. Patrick was found guilty and sentenced to 12 months’ imprisonment in the County Gaol.

However, as far as anyone knows the mysterious Mr Grimmer was never found.

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