Content warning – this article contains graphic details relating to murder & suicide.

Image credit – Stephanie Cottle


Halloween 2021 is upon us. I know, you’re probably thinking, how on earth is it the end of October already? It really is scary how fast the months have gone by. 

For the past 18 months the earth has played host to a new spectre. One that shrouded our globe with a veil of uncertainty and chaos. There is however, no shadow without light. Throughout the pandemic we have seen enormous acts of selflessness. Latest government reports state that 47% of people informally volunteered – calling on neighbours, delivering groceries or ensuring medication arrived to those isolating. These deeds shone like sunlight through moth-eaten fabric, breaching the heavy curtain of endless bad news. 

For me, a bright moment amidst the gloom last year was meeting Deborah Contessa. Deborah, who works within a small group of volunteers as a tour guide, gives her time and efforts over to protecting the stories of those who reside in Layton cemetery. There is much to be learned from those who have gone before us, Deborah and her team prevent these lessons from falling forever into silence.

For Halloween, I could think of no one better to bring us some fearsome facts and a tragic tale from between the tombstones. 

Stephanie Cottle.

Image credit – Stephanie Cottle 

Image credit – Stephanie Cottle

Many visitors to our wonderful Victorian cemetery here in Layton are frequently shocked and occasionally appalled to discover the final resting places of murderers dotted betwixt those of our most famous sons and daughters or their family and friends.

Quite often people labour under the common misconception that those who have ended their own lives, or have deprived others of theirs, are unable to be laid to rest in ground that has been consecrated.

Whilst indeed a convicted criminal executed for their crime(s) would have ended up interred within the grounds of the gaol where they were incarcerated within prior to their execution, it is not true that executed criminals could not be buried in consecrated ground.  This only applied to those hanged for murder, and was a rule quite often flouted!

The practice of ignominious burials; those which did not take place in churchyards, cemeteries or consecrated burial grounds, was abolished in 1824. It was then agreed the interment of people who had taken their own lives and convicted criminals could take place in a churchyard but only at night, and be conducted without religious rites. Thankfully, with a change in understanding, by 1882 those who had taken their own lives were allowed to be buried during the hours of daylight.

Within the archive of Layton Cemetery you can find examples of these practices being conducted. Here I share a rather sinister story from 1895. 

Too close for comfort – John and Sarah Toomey 

John Toomey was working alongside his wife at the Foxhall Hotel, Blackpool, employed by landlord Richard Seed. In the October (the end of the holiday season) of 1895, John was given his notice. His wife Sarah, who worked as a chambermaid and cook was not.

Although they’d been married for 35 years and had six daughters and two sons, their time together had not always been harmonious for Sarah. John had taken many a mistress, even travelling to America without his wife. That said, John was regarded as hardworking and the pair were thought to be a good team, with none of their disputes obvious to customers or coworkers. John, only being a casual kitchen porter, also worked as a warehouseman in Manchester and had worries that when he was away Sarah might have been entertaining one or two of the waiters she worked alongside.

On the 11th of October, Toomey was witnessed purchasing a knife from Mr Bickerstaffe’s Ironmongers in Foxhall Road. He explained that he was going back to the United States and that he needed it for hunting.

The following Sunday marked the last day of the season and though a lot of the staff would be saying goodbye to each other for the last time they happily enjoyed a buoyant midday meal together. After lunch Sarah returned to her room, while John remained in the bar area for another couple of hours with the rest of the staff. Eventually the staff decided to call it a day after realising they wouldn’t get much rest before the evening rush. 

Later, when it was noticed the tables had not been set for tea the staff weren’t unduly worried. Two of the waiting staff (Smith & Taylor) went upstairs to rouse the Toomeys. When their insistent knocking wasn’t answered they tentatively pushed open the door. Inside they were met with the most grisly of sights! On the floor lay poor Sarah, her throat savagely slashed from ear to ear, her head almost separated from her torso! By her side was a large hunting knife. Of her husband there was no sign except for a bloodstained shirt, hastily cast aside.

As the police search for Mr Toomey escalated, rumours abounded. There was much gossip and general tittle-tattle regarding the case. Had he dressed as a woman and escaped abroad by ferry? Did he board the boat to Belfast never to return? Had suicide in the sea been his final solution? The last sighting of John was believed to have been at The Red Lion pub where he handed a parcel to the landlord requesting it be delivered to his daughter.

A body found later in Regents Park, London, was thought to be that of Toomey, but when it was discovered Toomey had several toes missing the St Pancras Police realised their error. On the 28th October an unidentifiable corpse washed ashore at Rossall beach, and upon counting the toes it was concluded this was what remained of John Toomey.

Sarah Toomey is now forevermore resting in an unmarked grave in Layton Cemetery. On the 31st of October 1895, her murderous husband was also interred. On All Hallows’ Eve his burial occurred without ceremony, reputedly under the cover of darkness. Perhaps most shockingly of all, Sarah’s diabolical spouse remains to this day, in a grave less than four meters away from her own. 

Image credit – Deborah Contessa

Deborah Contessa


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