James Carse, b. 1758

Sailor who Served with Nelson Turned Murderer

The victim of a robbery, James Carse appears to have lost his sanity when he killed Sarah Hayes, but his case illustrates the limited ability of the eighteenth-century criminal justice system to cope with cases of mental instability.

A Sailor

James Carse was born in Morpeth, Northumberland on 29 October 1758, the son of John and Margaret Carse.1 As an adult, he was 5' 7" tall, with brown hair and grey eyes.

He became a sailor, and served under Captain Horatio Nelson on the Boreas Frigate for four years. In August 1787 Carse received the substantial sum of forty guineas and another ten guineas when he was paid off on the 30th of November at Sheerness. Nelson described Carse as "melancholy, but the quietest, soberest man that he ever saw in all his life". However, only three days after leaving the ship, he committed a brutal murder.

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After he was paid off, Carse was attacked by a group of sixteen men on his journey to London. They threatened to kill him, and he was forced to hand over fourteen guineas. His brother Thomas stated that Carse seemed different upon his arrival in London, more melancholy. James said that he wished to go home to bed, and spoke as if he had been "beat by somebody". George Nesbit, a public house owner who rented a room to Carse, also noted the change.

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Between six and seven pm on the December 2nd, Carse went drinking with a group of friends, but did not appear drunk. An hour later, he entered a public house, "known by the sign of a ship in distress", in Parsons Street, Wapping. He ordered three pennies worth of rum and water, before sitting next to a Miss Mary Mills, who was drinking in a box beside the fire.

Carse drank three parts of his drink, and offered her the rest. The two walked to her house, with the intention of sleeping together. Mary lived with Sarah Hayes, the victim. Carse asked Sarah for a pot of hot rum and paid her half a crown. He sat down, sent for another hot brandy, and Sarah offered him some beef. He began to behave oddly, removing his clothes, piling them up and folding his hat in half, before resting his head upon it on the bed.

Mary too began to remove her clothes, and was wearing only a nightshift. Sarah was sitting on a stool in the room, smoking a pipe. Carse demanded more to drink, which Mary provided. Suddenly, he jumped out of the bed, wearing only a shirt, and holding a knife in his hand.

He grabbed Sarah by the throat and shouted "I will, I must, I must, I must" and stabbed her, making a wound eight inches in length and two in depth. It proved fatal.

Mary Mills rushed from the room and called for help from George Hawkins, a local police constable. Hawkins entered the room and grabbed Carse, forcing him to clothe himself. When Hawkins questioned Carse he simply stated that he had heard people around the house, and they would have murdered him had he not defended himself. He claimed that Mary and Sarah had threatened him, claiming the people outside would attack.

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The Trial

During his trial at the Old Bailey on 12 December, the judge addressed the jury, asking them to decide whether the madness that Carse exhibited had been brought on by alcohol or whether he might have committed such a deed when sober.

After "retiring for some time", the jury found Carse guilty of murder, but recommended "that an enquiry should be made into the state of the man's mind before execution". The judge agreed and respited his sentence.

On 10th April 1794, he was pardoned, to serve in the Navy, and was delivered aboard the Tender off the Tower.

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External Sources


1 Family Search.

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About this Biography

Created by

Victoria Philpott 

Further contributions by

Robert Shoemaker