Murder at the Church Street Barracks - in 1862

Photo:Flood said "Is that you, O'Dea?"

Flood said "Is that you, O'Dea?"

John Flood killed John O'Dea

By John Montgomery (former North Laine resident)

Few Sussex murder trials have excited such local public interest as the case of John Flood, a 22-year-old cavalry trooper serving with the 18th Hussars in Brighton.

Stationed at the Church Street barracks

He and this victim John O’Dea were fellow soldiers in the same troop. In June 1862 they were stationed at the Church Street barracks, which then occupied the site of the present swimming pool.

Had been serving for about four years

They had both been in the regiment for about four years. Flood was a quiet, inoffensive young man, who had earned a good conduct stripe. But O’Dea was quarrelsome, with a record of violence.

System of secret courts martial

Contrary to army regulations, the regiment had a primitive system of secret courts martial, in which men were literally tried by their comrades for petty offences and punishment was inflicted.

John Flood had suffered

Flood had frequently suffered from this system. On one occasion he had been stripped and given 12 lashes with a belt.

His comrades frequently persecuted him, led by O’Dea and two other troopers named Filburn and Gassett. As a result, Flood complained that he was miserable and wished he were dead.

Flood was on guard duty

On 1st June 1862 he was on guard duty at the barracks when O’Dea, who had been given stable duty, complained: “You have left me a very dirty saddle to clean.”

Flood replied: “Mine was as clean as any man’s when I left it.”

O’Dea said: “You are a liar. I will have you tried by one of our courts martial when you come off guard.”

Came off duty and started drinking

Flood had 10 rounds of ammunition in his pouch but his carbine was not loaded. At 7 o’clock he came off duty and was confined in the guard room, where he drank several pints of beer and some rum, all on an empty stomach.

Placed a cartridge in the breech

He then lay down on a rug with his carbine by his side. By then he had placed a cartridge in the breech.

Shot O'Dea through the heart

At 9 o’clock he drank two large glasses of neat rum. Then 15 minutes later, when O’Dea entered the room, Flood asked: “Is that you, O’Dea?”  Without waiting for a reply Flood then stood up, raised his carbine, and shot the man through the heart. They were so close together than Flood had to step back.

O’Dea cried out: “Oh God, I have been shot!” and staggered around, finally dying on the floor.

Other soldiers came in

When Corporal Brown and other soldiers ran into the guard room Flood made no effort to escape, merely asking if O’Dea were dead. He then tried to get hold of a sword but was pinned down.

Charged with willful murder

At the Sussex Summer Assizes at Lewes, when he was charged with willful murder, the prisoner explained that O’Dea had promised him a thrashing when he came off duty, taunting Flood as being “no fighting man”.

Commanding Officer not informed about the secret courts martial

Giving evidence Corporal Brown told the judge it was not his duty to inform the Commanding Officer about the existence of courts martial among the men. He believed that the system existed throughout the army. He himself had been subjected to it. It was never mentioned to officers, who in any case took little interest in what occurred among the troopers.

The men's characters reported

The Adjutant of the regiment told the court that Flood was a quiet, inoffensive man, but that O’Dea was quite the reverse.

Flood was overcome with emotion

During the trial the prisoner sat in a chair, clearly overcome with emotion, burying his face in a handkerchief. When his friend Trooper Cole said he was “one of the best men in the troop and a most obliging man”, Flood almost broke down.

Powerful plea for mercy

His counsel, Mr Ribton, made a powerful plea for mercy, claiming that the young man had an excellent character, had been subjected to brutality by some of his fellow soldiers, and that to hang him for a crime to which he had been driven would be a miscarriage of justice.

Extreme provocation

He blamed the tragedy on extreme provocation and on drink, which had maddened Flood’s over-sensitive mind. This might make the jury consider that he was not in a sound state of mind when he pulled the trigger. In that case, he suggested, Flood should be acquitted of murder and found guilty of manslaughter.

Murder, not manslaughter

Summing up, the Judge instructed the jury that they might recommend mercy, which would be for the Queen to exercise. But the crime, he said, was murder and not manslaughter. There was no excuse for killing a comrade.

A verdict of guilty

The jury retired but returned after 30 minutes, when the foreman, in a voice hardly audible, pronounced a verdict of GUILTY.

Prisoner sorry for what he did

When invited to say why sentence of death should not be passed, the prisoner mumbled: “I was greatly excited at the time. I did not know what I was doing. I am very sorry for it.”

Sentenced to be hanged

The Judge then sentenced Flood to be hanged but was so greatly affected that he fell back in his chair, covering his face with his hands. The prisoner was immediately taken from the dock and was hurried below in an almost senseless state.

Queen Victoria extended mercy

But John Flood was not hanged. As the result of influential appeals made to Sir George Grey, the Secretary of State, the Commander-in-Chief of the Army was consulted. Queen Victoria was then advised to extend her royal mercy to the young soldier.

Unable to escape from continuous provocation

Sir George said that the “unhappy culprit” had been “goaded to the act by continuous and irritating provocation, from which he could not escape”.

Reprieve announced when coffin already made

Flood received notice of his reprieve while awaiting execution in Lewes Gaol. His coffin had already been made and the date of the grim event had been fixed, when the Governor entered his cell and told him the good news.

Penal servitude for life instead

Although saved from the gallows, he was to serve penal servitude for life. Such a sentence, in the grim prison conditions of the time, was almost as terrible as execution. But when Flood was told the news, he knelt down on the floor of the condemned cell and thanked God for his deliverance.

 

[First published in the North Laine Runner, No 71, January/February 1988; reprinted in No 236, September/October 2015]

 

 

 

 

 

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