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Wilson's Border Tales
The Clerical Murderer

The story which has been told of John Smithson, the minister of Berwick, who was, in the year 1672, executed for committing a crime which has seldom stained the hands of the ministers of the religion of Christ, is as true as it is extraordinary. There are connected with it some circumstances which have communicated to it a character of even deeper interest than what generally invests tales of blood. Sympathy for the victim, disgust and hatred towards the perpetrator, and a general feeling of horror at the contemplation of the crime, are the usual emotions excited by the commission of an aggravated murder; but there are sometimes afforded, by these melancholy exhibitions of the weakness and sinfulness of our fallen nature, certain lights "burning blue," which lay open, with their mysterious glare, recesses in the heart of man which no philosophy has ever been able to reach and develop.

It was remarked that Smithson was one of the best of sons. His aged mother was supported by him for a long period, and at a time when he could very ill spare the means. Indeed, such was his filial affection, that he once travelled fifty miles in one day to get payment of a small sum of money that had been due to his father; and to procure which for his mother, he required to beg his way to the residence of the creditor. When he returned, he presented to her the whole sum; and when asked upon what he had supported himself on the journey, he replied that the cause in which he was engaged procured him the means of subsistence, for he was not refused alms by a single individual whom he had solicited.

It was in consequence of his kindness to his father and mother that he was assisted by a rich friend to acquire education fitted for his becoming a clergyman. For this patron he ever afterwards felt the strongest esteem; and his gratitude kept pace with his affection. He attended his friend on his deathbed, and administered to him that knowledge and consolation which the clerical education he had received enabled him to bestow on his dying benefactor. Nor did he consider that the gratuitous assistance, which had thus been extended to him, could be repaid alone by affection towards the vicarious giver, but declared that, as it came from Heaven, so ought the gratitude of his heart to be directed to the origin of all gifts that are bestowed on the deserving.

Gratitude is not only its own reward, but the cause often of the means of its own increase; for Smithson’s benefactor was so pleased with his attention to him when dying, that he left him a large legacy in his will, which relieved him from that state of dependence which he found had limited his means of doing good. He soon afterwards married a very beautiful woman, and got himself placed in the church of Berwick.

His ministerial duties were performed with the greatest devotion and zeal for the welfare of the people intrusted to his charge. His attention to his parishioners was unremitting—his prayers of the dying, or the sorrow-smitten, were fervent—and the poor and aged not only tasted of the consolations afforded by his pious sympathy, but often had their wants relived by his charitable hand. No mortal eye could discover in this any insincerity, far less any cloak put on to cover evil already done, or any false assumption of a good and devout character to avert the eye of suspicion from deeds intended to be perpetrated.

His character had, indeed, in other respects been tried and found not awanting. A relation of his had died, and left a large sum of money to be divided among his nephews and nieces. The money was recovered by Smithson, and upon the young heirs arriving at majority, was divided among them with so much honesty that they all combined in addressing to him a letter, wherein they extolled his character for justice, honour, and piety, and attributed to him all the qualities of a saint.

In addition to all this, his conjugal character was unspotted. His attentions to his wife were what might have been expected from a good husband and a minister of the gospel; the breath of scandal never dimmed the purity of his fidelity, nor could the most querulous exacter of conjugal obligations have found any fault with the manner in which he fulfilled not only the duties of a husband, but the more generous and less easily counterfeited attentions of the lover. His wife seemed to be grateful for his kindness, and respected his official character as much as she loved those private virtues from which she was as much benefited in her moral, as she was edified in her personal and conjugal capacity.

On a Sunday previous to that on which the Sacrament was to be dispensed, he preached in the church of Berwick. His text was the sixth Commandment—"Thou shalt not kill." His sermons, always animated and vigorous, and possessing even a tint of devout enthusiasm, were much relished by his congregation; but, on that day, he outshone all his former efforts of pulpit eloquence. He painted the character of the murderer with colours drawn from the palette of inspired truth; the cruel, remorseless, blood-thirsty heart of the son of Cain, was laid open to the eyes of his entranced audience; the feelings of the victim were described with such power of sympathy that the tears of the congregation fell in ready and heartfelt tribute to the power of his delineation; his own emotion, equalling that of his people, filled his eyes with tears, and leant to his voice that peculiar thrilling sound, which calls forth while it expressed the strongest pity. The man of God seemed inspired, and he communicated the inspiration to those who heard him. His hand was observed to tremble; his eye was bloodshot—his manner nervous, tremulous, excited, and enthusiastic; his voice "broken with pity;" and, at times, discordant with the overpowering excess of his emotion. His whole soul seemed under the influence of divine power; and his body, quailing under the energies of its nobler partner, shook like a thing touched by the hand of the Almighty.

On that morning, the preacher had murdered his wife. By the time the congregation came out, the news had begun to spread. Nobody would credit what they heard, while they exclaimed that his sermon was strange, and his manner remarkable. A determination not to believe was mixed with strange insinuations, and the town of Berwick was suspended between extravagant incredulity and unaccountable suspicions. But the report was true, and the fact remains as one of those occurrences in life, which no knowledge of the heart of man, though dignified with the proud name of philosophy, has been, or perhaps ever will be, able to explain.

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