A murder without a motive is meaningless, as well as intriguing. If there is no motive, the police must be sure they have arrested the right man. So did Joseph Le Brun really kill his sister and wound his brother-in-law at their home in St. Helier, Jersey, on the evening of December 15th, 1874?
The facts were very simple. Le Brun, who was usually drunk, was absolutely sober that day. As was his habit, he had dinner with his sister Nancy and her husband Philip Laurens that evening, and because his brother-in-law had to go out, he stayed on longer than usual.
At about 8.45 p.m., however, the police were told by an excited neighbour that Nancy Laurens had been murdered and her husband had been shot. They asked Laurens, who had face injuries and an arm wound, who had attacked him, and he replied: My brother-in-law Joseph shot me. They found the body of Nancy covered in blood sitting on a sofa. There was a shawl covering her face and her stockinged feet were in a bucket of water.
They arrested Le Brun, who was in bed, and took him to the house where Laurens was awaiting a doctor. Laurens called Le Brun a hangdog, and asked, Why did you fire at me? Le Brun replied, It wasnt me.
At the inquest on Nancy, Philip Laurens said that when he opened his front door on returning home Le Brun pointed a gun at him and shot him in the face. I said to him, What have you done? You have shot me. He made no answer.
Laurens said he didnt notice his wife on the sofa, but ran to a neighbour, Clement Rondel, for help. The gun, he said, was his own, and his brother-in-law often borrowed it. He had never had the slightest quarrel with Le Brun. He added that he had recently received £28 (a considerable sum 130-odd years ago), which he had given to his wife for safekeeping, and Le Brun was aware of this.
Le Brun was tried at St. Helier on July 7th, 1875. The suggestion that he might have killed his sister for the £28 fell flat when the court was told that Nancy was drunk nearly every day and he would not have needed to kill her in order to steal the money.
The evidence against Le Brun was purely circumstantial; no motive was suggested, there was no blood on his clothes, no powder on his hands, and only small change in his pockets. The Attorney-General said that although he was unhappy in seeking the death sentence, the penalty if Le Brun were guilty could not be otherwise.
The jury of 24 unanimously convicted Le Brun of attempting to murder his brother-in-law, and then, curiously, said they couldnt agree about Nancys murder.
Under Jersey law if five of the jury did not say that Le Brun was innocent he would be declared guilty. The judge asked each juror for his opinion, and finally announced that Le Brun had been found guilty by a majority verdict.
Public opinion on the island was horrified. The jury foreman wrote to the Home Secretary seeking a reprieve, as did the lawyer acting for Le Bruns relatives, who pointed out that Philip Laurens, like his wife, was a great drunkard, and could well have mistaken another man for Le Brun.
But there was no reprieve. Joseph Le Brun went calmly to the scaffold on Thursday, August 12th, 1875. The law abolishing public executions in Britain did not extend to the Channel Isles until 1907, so he made history by becoming the last man to be publicly hanged in the British Isles.