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"Sometimes, murderers have been discovered by the fowls of the air…"

It is the curious tale of the crow detectives that hunted a Norfolk murderer until he so frightened that he confessed his crime and was himself condemned to death.

For centuries, the idea of “wondrous discovery” was a popular belief and accounts of heinous crimes were often embellished with stories of the strange and supernatural. It was believed that God would send signs to reveal secret murders: “sometimes by birds, sometimes by beasts and sometimes by the apparition of the person murdered”, a periodical of the time warned. While God was unable to prevent the wickedness of man, He could reveal it and fight sin by delivering justice via miracles – murder, therefore, would not go unpunished.

And it wasn’t just the nervous public that hoped for divine retribution: there are stories of coroners in the 1600s and 1700s examining corpses in the presence of suspected murderers as they were said to bleed or blink when their killer was close.

Examples of chapbooks, the likes of which told Ralp Suckey's story. CREDIT: Cambridge University Library

In a chapbook – a small, affordable form of literature for children and adults that were sold on the street and which often sprang from folklore – of 1658, the sorry tale of Ralph Suckey, a Norfolk man who could not live with his crime. Ralph had taken the life of a man who – according to the account – “had done him great injury” but was finding it difficult to deal with the guilt.

“Walking one time in the field, he beheld a company of crows flying by him and making such a noise, as they are accustomed when they go in flocks,” the account reads.

“The noise they made was but ordinary, but the guilt of this murderer was extraordinary, for reflecting on the horror of his act and applying all things to himself, he believed that the crows did particularly reprove and tar [accuse] him for his murder.

“Walking not long afterwards at a town called Burnham, he beheld three or four more crows flying by him and making the like noise.”

Did tHe crows know what Suckey did... CREDIT: Crows. Artist: Benson, Frank Weston,

Convinced the crows knew that he had committed a terrible crime, Suckey began to mumble suspiciously and his words were overheard by someone standing close to him. The stranger alerted the authorities and Suckey was brought before a justice to whom he immediately confessed.

“Having confessed it he seemed to be at great ease, having discharged himself of a burden that did so greatly oppress him,” the account continued.

Suckey went “willingly” to his trial at Thetford and later, to his death.


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