After serving a nine-month term in Usk Gaol for burglary, 21-year-old Joseph Garcia was released to roam the world at large on July 16, 1878. The stereotypical stranger in a strange land, the Spanish seaman could only speak a few words of English, but his subsequent actions spoke volumes in any language.

On the day, he was given his liberty from prison, Garcia hadn’t travelled very far when he made a port of call at Llangibby’s Castle Cottage on the road to Usk. The young Spaniard wasted little time in proving that he had not learned any lessons whilst in prison. At Castle Cottage, Garcia committed much more than just another burglary. For in his wake, he left inside the blood-splattered walls of that cursed cottage, the badly-mutilated bodies of farmworker William Watkins, 40, his wife Elizabeth, 44, and their three young children.

Gravestone of the Watkins family
(Tindle News)

The scenes inside the cottage were like hell on earth and indicated that husband and wife had put up a long and hard fight for survival before succumbing to stab wounds, while their children Charlotte (8), Frederick (5), and Alice (4), were hacked to death as they slept. To cap his bloody handiwork, Garcia set fire to the cottage in three different places before taking his leave.

A young lad named Frank James who worked for Mr. William Watkins found the murdered man, in his own words ‘asleep in the garden’ and rushed away to tell his mother, who quickly gathered it was something more sinister, judging by the scared expression on the boy’s face.

One of the first witnesses upon the scene, Mr. E. George of the White Hart Inn, recalled, quite fittingly considering the demonic and diabolical deeds that had taken place there, the overwhelming smell of sulphur.

In the police records of his witness statement, Mr. George recalled, “It was about seven o'clock in the morning when the little boy (Frank James) came here (White Hart Inn) and said ‘Mr. Watkins has been killed. I went up to the place at once to see what was the matter. When I got there I found Mrs. Watkins lying dead inside the gate and her husband was lying dead about four yards from her. Smoke was issuing from the top of the house. We succeeded in opening the door leading upstairs to the bedroom, but the stench of what smelt like burning sulphur was so powerful that we could not go in, so we went outside and broke some slates off the roof. This let the stench out and we then entered the bedroom.”

Greeted with the grimmest of scenes, George describes how the children were all lying dead on their beds with their throats cut and how all three of them had been badly burnt after being so ruthlessly butchered.

In the house, potatoes were found in a dish, as though the husband and wife had been eating together and there was a little plate and spoon nearby for the children’s food.

Quite poignantly, it was also discovered that the clock face had also been taken out of the family’s timepiece and the pendulum thrown upon the ground. As if to give the world a chilling reminder that time had stopped completely for the Watkins household on that day.

A Chronicle reporter allowed to later visit the scene by Police wrote, “A demon-like vengeance had been lavished on every article of furniture. The woman’s throat was not only cut, as were also the children’s, but she was stabbed in several places, and one of her hands was maimed, apparently with a sharp instrument. The man appeared to have been dealt with in much the same way. Another peculiarity in connection with this dreadful affair is the circumstance that the poor woman’s body was covered with wallflowers plucked from the garden and strewn over the corpse as though in mockery.”

Joseph Garcia, who was seen loitering a short distance from the Watkins’s house, once in the morning, once in the afternoon, and once in the evening by three independent witnesses before the murder was committed, was arrested at Newport Railway Station the following morning between 12-1-pm after police had issued a description of the suspect.

A policeman had observed a man matching Garcia’s description go to the fountain for a drink. He accosted him and after finding his words were not understood, asked Garcia whether he was a Frenchman, a Spaniard, or an Italian. Getting nothing out of him, he informed a certain Sergeant McGrath who recognised in Garcia an old acquaintance, for the desperado had until very recently been imprisoned at Usk Prison for a burglary committed at St Brides.

Portrait of Joseph Garcia
(Public Domain)

Garcia was arrested wearing a black cloth coat, round bowler hat, and dark trousers. He also had on a pair of boots the same size and make of the murdered man. His clothes were very wet, and there was blood on his wrist. His left cheek was slightly scarred as though with a sharp instrument.

Concerning Garcia’s appearance, it was said to be not at all alarming. He was described as a slightly built short man, with a long, sharp nose and thin features, that contained small eyes, surmounted by a thick shock of black hair. His manner was recorded as being composed, and he spoke in a decided tone in reply to the questions put to him, displaying not the faintest symptom of emotion of any kind. He denied all charges and when asked how he accounted for the considerable property in his possession which belonged to the murdered people, he said he found it.

At his committal hearing at Caerleon Magistrates, the crowd in and outside the court was enormous and the Chronicle reported, “The noise outside the court was powerful enough at times to prevent the witness from being heard, and from the character of the exclamations which permeated to the interior of the court the crowd appeared ready to lynch Garcia.

“Although the babble of contending voices was at times perfectly deafening, the prisoner preserved a calm demeanour throughout the trial. The only movement visible on his features was the shooting to and fro of his eyes - very dark and very brilliant, which at times betrayed a latent interest in what was going on.”

At the Monmouthshire Assizes held in October, it was argued that nobody would probably ever know the motive of the man who committed these murders, but it might just be that the prisoner was refused a night’s lodging or some food by the Watkins household, and then committed the crime.

In his summing up the judge urged the jury to remember that Garcia was not seen all the day after the murder, that he was found with the stolen goods, and that he had blood upon him.

The jury found Garcia guilty, and he was sentenced to death. The condemned man betrayed no reaction on being informed of the sentence.

Garcia did not sleep well during his last night on earth, and when he rose between six and seven o’clock on Monday, November 18 to await the noose at Usk, he failed to eat his breakfast. When the notorious executioner William Marwood, who developed the more merciful ‘long drop’ technique of hanging, bound Garcia’s arms to his sides, the prisoner submitted with the greatest meekness and appeared as if all his physical strength had left him.

Uttering pious exclamations to the end, Garcia was heard to say on three occasions, “I am innocent, I never did it.”

An Abergavenny Chronicle reporter on the scene of the execution wrote, “The poor wretch Garcia presented a ghastly figure as the procession made its way to the repulsive-looking scaffold. From the cell to the scaffold was only a few paces, but, few though they were, they were too many for the wretched culprit. His strength entirely deserted him. The shadow of death had already fallen upon him. He was dressed in his blue sailor’s trousers and his blue jersey. His face and neck were colourless. As soon as he saw the scaffold he gave one glance at it and shut his eyes. From this time he was completely overcome. His head swung helplessly from side to side as if his life had already fled. His strength had utterly gone and he was partly supported, partly dragged, up the steps by the warders who were on each side of him.

Hovering as near his person as the presence of the warders would permit, was Father Echevarria, the Spanish priest, whispering short prayers and pious ejaculations in the ear of the doomed man. With Garcia finally standing upon the drop, the last moment had now come. Father Echevarria stepped forward and pressed his little crucifix to the lips of Garcia, who smiled faintly and said in the Spanish tongue, “My mother! Let the Spanish consul write to my mother.”

Quick as thought, a white linen covering was thrown over Garcia’s face. Equally quick was the rope placed around his neck and amidst the prayers and invocations of priests, Garcia was hurried into the presence of the “Great and Righteous Judge who cannot err.”

The tragic tale of the Llangibby massacre seems an open and shut case, but there have always been claims that Garcia was innocent.

The file on his background is scant, but we know he was born in the small town of Puebla in the province of Valencia in 1857. He came from a middle-class farming family and had four siblings.

At an early age, he enlisted in the Republican Army to fight against the Carlists who were backing pretender Don Carlos’s claim to the Spanish throne. The war saw plenty of atrocities on both sides and there has been speculation that Garcia’s exposure to such brutality could have led to his capacity for cold-blooded violence.

Garcia arrived in Newport in 1877 and had little luck finding work. He broke into the home of David Williams and his wife in St Brides. Although he was brandishing a knife he left the couple unharmed.

He was later arrested by Sergeant McGrath and sentenced to nine months of hard labour in Usk Gaol. Upon his release, he received an exemplary report from warder George Whiting. Yet despite being released amongst a number of other prisoners, when the murders were discovered he was immediately identified as the chief suspect.

Police officers in the area were put on full alert for “a Spanish sailor age 21, 5ft inches high, proportionate figure, dark complexion, black hair, dark eyes, dressed in a blue blouse.”

Old newspaper clipping
(Public Domain )

Then as of now, the killing of children always triggers an overwhelming anger and the desire for swift and speedy retribution. When Garica was caught wearing the shoes of William Watkins and carrying a small bundle of the Watkins family possessions, alongside scratches on his left cheek, it seemed fate had delivered the police their man.

Outside Caerleon police station the mob was baying for the Spaniard’s blood, but inside when asked how he came about the property in his possession he replied, “I found it.”

What was judicially acceptable by Victorian standards would not be allowed today. Before his trial, a local newspaper has already branded Garcia a killer. His chances of a fair trial were looking slim.

His defense claimed Garcia had found the incriminating possessions by the roadside and argued, “Do you believe that he put on the clothes of the murdered man and walked along the road close to the house.”

Yet the horror of the crimes and the compelling nature of the evidence was enough to point the jury in one direction only.

In a bizarre twist, after Garcia was found guilty and condemned to death the Crown “Prosecutor SR Bosanquet held private discussions with Garcia and expressed a deep unease at the outcome of the trial in a letter to the Home Department.

Yet Garcia’s fate was sealed and his time over. His ultimate innocence or guilt was left for God to decide.

Picture of Joseph Garcia praying
(Public Domain )