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There are many strange tales related to the Black Country, but the mysterious death of Reuben Curtis remains one of the most perplexing. Non of the characters, that come out of the story, can be described as wholesome, in fact the only innocent one appears to be Reuben Curtis, and he wasn't around to tell the truth.
Reuben Curtis, born in Brierley Hill in July,1828, married Ann Lloyd, born near the Clee Hills, Shropshire, in 1813, in September,1849, the marriage being somewhere near Wordsley, and registered in Stourbridge. Reuben knew she had been married before, but may not have known, that her first husband was alive and well, and living in Wolverhampton, or that she was 15 years older than him. It did not go well this " marriage ", and within a year, Ann had gone off to live with another man, one George Clarke, 57, who, just to complicate things further, was her Uncle, a widower, and lived in Brettell Lane. Not far away, in Brierley Hill, was her brother, William Cowell, by all accounts, a rather nasty piece of work, married with a 3 year old daughter, and lived in Dudley Road. Feeling between the parties, was to say the least, a bit strained, for it's highly unlikely that Reuben would have offered to support his " wife ", given the circumstances. On Sunday, 23rd of June, 1850, Reuben Curtis died, supposedly after falling down a " Jack-Pit ", close to the Round Oak Colliery, Brierley Hill. The Police were only aware of this as an accidental death until some strange things began to happen, the first being an assault on one William Martin, who had appeared at the inquest, but had not told the whole truth. The circumstances about Reuben's death, caused much debate in the town.
William Martin, a 23 year old miner, had indeed been assaulted, by William Cowell and another man, and fearing for his safety, had told the Police. Cowell, found guity by the Magistrates, was fined 40 shillings for the assault, and sent to the County Gaol in Worcester for two months. During his period of imprisonment, the Police got busy taking statements, including a remarkable story from Willam Martin. Just before Cowell's sentence was up, they arrested the " grieving widow ", Ann Curtis, her Uncle, George Clark, and another alleged to be involved, Joseph Whitaker. As Cowell stepped out of the gatehouse on his release, he was arrested again, and then all four were charged with Murder. ( Whitaker was later released ) The town would have a lot more to excite them, when the three came up for trial at the assizes, non of it pleasent, but a lot of it confusing.
The scene of the demise of Reuben Curtis was known locally as " The Levels ", for it was the only large piece of flat land in Brierley Hill. In 1850, it contained an Iron works, and was littered with several Mines and scattered shafts. All the men involved in this story were miners, working at digging out both Coal, and Iron Stone. Sunday, a day of rest for the workers, was usually celebrated with a great deal of drinking, and this day would conform with this pattern. William Martin, a young miner, set off for a day in Dudley, taking with him a young lady, Maria Winwood, and after spending about several hours in the town drinking, they ambled their way home. Crossing the levels,sometime around 11pm they saw, some distance in front of them, three of Martins fellow miners, George Clarke, Reuben Curtis, and Joseph Whitaker. they would appear to have been arguing. Having walked his young lady home, and accepted a bit of supper from her mother, he left to go home and encountered Reuben Curtis, who asked if he could accompany him as far as Round Oak. Off they went and soon they met Clarke, Whitaker, Ann Curtis, Reubens estranged wife, and her brother, William Cowell. Pausing at a Pit Boiler house, ( which provided power for the winding gear of a " Jack-Pit." ) he, Curtis, and Whitaker, got into a conversation, and Curtis left a short while later, heading in the same direction as that taken by the others. ( A Jack-Pit was a term for a shallow mine, used mainly to supply air to the workings below, and protected by a brick wall around the shaft. ) According to Martin, they heard a scream, and running towards the cry, Martin observed George Clarke knock down Reuben Curtis. He then saw William Cowell savagely kick the prostarte man, and when he struggled to his feet, Ann Curtis hit him around the head with an object that she was holding. Then, Clarke got Curtis in a head grip, and with Cowell holding his feet, they shoved, pushed, and kicked the man through an opening in the brickwork of the Jack-Pit. Reaching the scene, Clarke, believing that they hadn't seen anything, pretended he had lost his hat. This failed, because at that moment, Reuben Curtis, in a great deal of pain, was heard to shout out to Whitaker, to get him out. The menacing figure of George Clarke, not only refused to help, but told Martin, that if he interferred, or told anyone, he would get the same treatment. That would have been the end of that, but for the fact that the commotion around the pit had been noticed.
Thomas Morris, an Iron worker was also walking home, and approached to see what had happened. He quickly raised the alarm, which bought out a woman fron nearby cottages, who helpfully carried a length of rope. Quite a crowd had gathered by this time, in the belief that a man had fallen down the shaft, and volunteers went down the shaft to rescue Reuben Curtis. He had not though, fallen to the bottom, but had come into contact with an iron hook, the force of his fall having allowed it to penetrate his side. Laying him down beside the brick wall, he managed a few strangled gurgles, and expired from shock and loss of blood. Ann Curtis it seemed, was yet again a widow, but as the rumour mill swung into full force, how would she fare when her day in court came round.
The key witness on the day of course was William Martin. He had already been beaten up by William Cowell, and was badly frightened, so to show a bit of bravado, he adopted a devil may care attitude in the witness box, laughing and joking as he told his tale. This did not go done well with the Judge, or indeed the Jury. That there was an element of fear among the rest of the witnesses is beyond doubt, for most of them developed what could be termed today as a short term memory loss. Contradictions about the evidence were the order of the day, and it began to be clear, that the evil deeds perpetrated on poor Reuben Curtis were going to go unpunished. Two things were very clear though, he did not throw himself down the pit, neither did he accidently fall, but the evidence failed to show what was glearingly obvious, he was Murdered. The judge, left with the duty to see Justice done, now came up with something that isn't available today. The three callous murderers were not declared guilty, nor were they aquitted, for the Judge discharged them with sureties, a sum of money that bound them over to appear again, at a later date, should more evidence come to light. It never did, and Reuben Curtis remains unavenged to this day, a sad end to the 22 year olds life.
A wonderful thing is work, I could watch it all day. ( See my Blog entry )
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