Christmas is traditionally a time for murder stories, so Chris Lloyd tells an ancient tale which has been revived this year

THIS was the year that the Murder Stone came back from the dead.

In January, a vehicle smashed into it, and the driver left it broken and lying beside the road – in much the way that on May 19, 1826, an attacker left Nicholas Carter lying at the same spot, his body broken, his skull fractured and his life ebbing away.

But this October, the stone was painstakingly reassembled so that once again it stands sentry on its spot beside an A-road into Wensleydale, and drivers can once again take heed of its stark message in bold capitals: “DO NO MURDER”.

Because for the unfortunate Mr Carter, a 55-year-old cattle dealer from Crakehall, there was no way back from his bludgeoning on that rural roadside.

May 19, 1826, was a Friday and, as usual, Mr Carter had been at Leyburn mart. At 2.30pm, he’d called at Hutton & Company’s bank in the town – the Richmond and Swaledale Bank – where the cashier, William Wail, gave him a bill for £26 and three £5 notes. Mr Wail noticed that Mr Carter had plenty more notes in his distinctive canvas purse.

Mr Carter headed for home on horseback, going east on what is today the A684. At 4.15pm, he called at a house in Constable Burton where Ann Boyes owed him 15 shillings. Then he continued homewards ...

At 4.30pm, his broken body was found by corn dealer William Plews between Akebar and Grazing Nook Farm. The sight of it spooked his horse as he rode round a bend.

“I saw Nicholas Carter’s horse eating grass in the lane, and Nicholas laid on the ground,” Mr Plews said later. “His hat lay about half a yard from him. I saw a rail between his legs, with the small end to the ground. He was laid on his left side, leaning against the hedge side, and his head hanging down.

“I shouted ‘Nicholas Carter’ three or four times as loud as I could, but he never spoke, as he was nearly dead.”

Mr Plews galloped to neighbouring Grazing Nook Farm for assistance and with the help of a servant loaded the dying man into a cart, along with the hat and the rail. The sorry load completed Mr Carter’s homeward journey, and Archibald Campbell, the Bedale surgeon, attended him as he passed away during the night.

“I found, on opening the head, the whole right side completely fractured,” said the surgeon. “I never saw so extensive a fracture. It had evidently been done with a blunt instrument.”

Elsewhere in the dale, Leonard Wilkinson, 22, with sudden wealth in his pocket, was embarking on a drinking and spending spree in which he also surprisingly paid off many of his debts. Wilkinson was regarded as an idle, but not dishonest, man, who had fallen in with “some loose acquaintances” but had accepted his duty to pay maintenance for his illegitimate baby.

He’d been at Leyburn mart that morning wearing a “mixture coloured coat, fustian trousers, and a pair of gaiters”.

In the afternoon, he’d been seen in the same clothes near the murder scene, crossing an oat field towards Finghall. Footprints in the field showed the mark of a leather gaiter strap on the right boot although, curiously, not on the left.

Wilkinson had gone to a pub in Thornton Stewart, where he’d paid the landlady 3s 6d which he had owed since November, and had treated everyone to drinks. Then he’d headed to Middleham for three more tankards of ale. He slept the night in a pub, and paid the landlady 3s 6d on the Saturday morning for his bread and cheese breakfast.

On leaving Middleham, he bought a hat for 7s 6d, and when he arrived in Leyburn, he bought a gold ring for ten shillings from watchmaker William Robinson, to whom he had owed two shillings since the previous August. He paid off that debt, and then toured the area, paying off more debts. He stopped Edward Mason, who was ploughing in a field, and repaid him 22 shillings, and then he found Constable David Chapman and paid him “four £1 notes for the maintenance of a bastard child, he being eight guineas in arrears”.

Wilkinson spent most of the next 24 hours buying drinks in pubs in Akebar and Bedale, until the morning of Sunday, May 21, when Marmaduke Wyvill, the Whig MP for York whose family home was at Constable Burton Hall, galloped up to him and arrested him on the road near Finghall. Mr Wyvill found a key among his possessions which opened a deposit box in a pub in Crakehall. In the box was a pair of gaiters, although the left one did not have a strap on it to go under the foot.

Wilkinson denied the murder, but said he had met a chap called William at Leyburn mart and they’d spotted Mr Carter counting his money. He and William had parted company but had met up again at 5pm that fateful Friday at Finghall church where William informed him he had committed murder and gave Wilkinson all the hot money before fleeing.

Wilkinson said he had stashed the canvass purse in a hollow tree near the church in Johnny Dodsworth’s hedge. When a constable retrieved it, Jane Carter, Nicholas’ widow, identified it as one she had made for her late husband a year earlier with his initials on it.

All of this evidence was heard at York Assizes on Friday, July 15, 1826, where Wilkinson pleaded not guilty.

A contemporary account says: “The prisoner was called on for his defence. He merely said: ‘I am clear of the crime laid to my charge’.”

The jury took just 11 minutes before finding him guilty, and he was sentenced to death.

“He had maintained the greatest firmness during his trial, but a change in his deportment was very visible,” says the contemporary account. “As he proceeded to the condemned cell, he became more dejected, his step less firm, and his eye appeared moist with the starting tear.”

That evening, he was visited in his cell by “a respectable young woman” to whom he was apparently engaged. She was truly unlucky in love: her first fiancé had drowned days before their wedding, and now her second was about to hang.

On the Saturday, Wilkinson’s aged parents visited his condemned cell, and on the Sunday, he confessed to the prison chaplain that he alone had committed the murder.

On Monday, July 17, 1826, at 11.45am, he was led in tears from his cell to the drop which was in the large courtyard of the castle.

“When he stepped upon the fatal platform, his countenance wore a sorrowfully placid expression, and he turned his back towards the immense crowd of spectators,” says the account.

Not only was the courtyard full, but the streets and fields about were crowded with people anxious to witness the grisly spectacle.

As the clock struck 12, Wilkinson finished his final prayers, the chaplain left him and the executioner approached him.

“On being asked, just before he was turned off, how he felt, he replied ‘I am happy’,” says the account, which was published in 1831. “A moment of breathless suspense ensued, the drop fell, the sufferer made a few convulsive motions which, after being suspended about a minute and a half, were succeeded by a rapid and violent agitation of the muscular system.

“All then was still. The vital spark had fled, the scenes of mortality had closed upon him for ever.”

There is a story that his body was then drawn and quartered, and what little remained was buried in a child-sized grave outside the wall of Finghall churchyard. This is most unlikely, as those executed at York Castle were buried in unmarked graves within the prison grounds, although some bodies were given to surgeons for dissection and the advancement of the understanding of anatomy – for example, when Mary Bateman, “the Yorkshire Witch” from Thirsk whose hen amazingly laid eggs predicting the end of the world, was hung in 1809, her body was given to science and her skeleton remains in the Thackray Medical Museum in Leeds.

No-one could account for Wilkinson’s murderous action which was so out of character both before and after he had committed the dreadful deed – only an essentially honest person, it was said, would go round repaying his debts after he had come into money by way of murder.

The account concludes: “There was no evidence of premeditation, and this act seems to have been the result of one of those sudden insanities that occasionally affect the human race.”

To warn people to be wary of an attack of sudden insanity, Marmaduke Wyville is believed to have installed the stone with “DO NOT MURDER” inscribed on it.

After the damage in January, the pieces of the stone were saved by Peter Fall, who lives at Grazing Nook, and they were put back together by Darlington mason, David France. It was put back together in October under the watchful gaze of Dorothy Jane Dale, 90, of Spennymoor, who is the great-great-great-granddaughter of Nicholas and still has the pocket watch which was stolen from him on May 19, 1826.