Devonshire Characters and Strange Events/Tom Austin

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TOM AUSTIN was a native of Collumpton, and was the son of a respectable yeoman, who, at his death, left him his little property, which was estimated at that time as worth £80 per annum. As he bore a good character, he soon got a wife with a marriage portion of £800. Unhappily this accession to his means completely turned his head. He became wild and extravagant, and in less than four years had dissipated all his wife's fortune and mortgaged his own farm. Being now somewhat pinched in circumstances, he was guilty of several frauds on his neighbours, but they did not prosecute him, out of respect for his family. Then, unable to satisfy his needs, he took to the highway, and stopped Sir Zachary Wilmot on the road between Wellington and Taunton Dean, and as the worthy knight resisted being robbed, Austin shot him dead. From Sir Zachary he got forty-six guineas and a silver-hilted sword. With this plunder he made haste home to Collumpton undiscovered. This did not last long, as he continued in the same course of riot. When it was spent he started to visit an uncle of his, living at a distance of a mile.

On reaching the house he found nobody within but his aunt and five small children, who informed him that his uncle had gone away for the day on business, and they invited him to stay and keep them company till his return. He consented, but almost immediately snatched up an axe and split the skull of his aunt with it, then cut the throats of all the children, laid their bodies in a heap, and proceeded to plunder the house of the money it contained, which amounted to sixty guineas. Then he hastened home to his wife, who, perceiving some blood on his clothes, asked whence it came. In reply he rushed upon her with a razor, cut her throat, and then murdered his own two children, the eldest of whom was not three years of age.

Hardly had he finished with these butcheries before his uncle arrived, calling on his way home. On entering the house this man saw what had been done, and though little suspecting what would meet his eyes when he returned home, with great resolution flung himself upon Tom Austin, mastered him, bound his hands, and brought him before a magistrate, who sent him to Exeter Gaol.

In August, 1694, this inhuman wretch was hanged. He seemed quite insensible as to the wickedness of his acts, as well as to the senselessness of them, and there can be little doubt that he was a victim to homicidal madness.

When on the scaffold, when asked by the chaplain if he had anything to say before he died: "Only this," was his reply, "I see yonder a woman with some curds and whey, and I wish I could have a pennyworth of them before I am hanged, as I don't know when I shall see any again." Tom Austin had many errors, many faults, many crimes to expiate, but he carried with him into the next world one merit—his undying love of Devonshire junket, the same as curds and whey.