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A Revenant's Revenge?- Did the ghost of a Devonshire Innkeeper send an innocent man to the gallows?

Updated on July 9, 2015
Brian Langston profile image

Brian Langston is a retired Assistant Chief Constable now living in Southern France where he writes on crime, mysteries and the paranormal.

The Red Cow Inn, St. David's, Exeter

The Red Cow Inn c.1940s

A Chance Encounter

The extraordinary case of the restless spirit of a murder victim caused consternation in 1721 after appearing to several people at an Exeter pub, accusing a man of murder.

The subsequent arrest, trial and execution of John Miles for the murder of William Ridley, an Exeter inn-keeper has been the subject of controversy ever since. Was this a fascinating case of justice being meted out from beyond the grave, or was it a tragic case of mass hysteria which sent an innocent man to the gallows?

William Ridley kept the Red Cow Inn in St. David’s, Exeter and one day had to travel out of town to collect some money which was owed to him. On his way he met an old friend, John Miles, whom he had not seen for many years. They adjourned to a local hostelry and reminisced about past exploits over several pints of beer. Ridley confided that he had some money to collect from a nearby address and asked Miles to wait for him in the pub. On returning they downed several more pints and were very merry indeed when Ridley invited Miles to sample the ale at his own pub in Red Cow Village and partake of a hearty supper with him.

The two men went back to the Red Cow and spent the whole evening eating, drinking and regaling each other with stories and getting gradually more and more intoxicated. The raucous laughter and ribaldry drove Mrs. Ridley to an early bed leaving her drunken husband and John Miles together in an annexe to the pub which opened onto a back yard adjoining the street.

Mysterious Disappearance

Several hours later Mrs Ridley awoke and was annoyed that her husband had still not come to bed. She listened out and was puzzled and there wasn’t a sound coming from the downstairs room. She crept down to the annexe and found John Miles slumped fast asleep in a chair in a drunken stupor, but no sign of her husband.

With difficulty, she managed to rouse Miles who mumbled that his drinking partner had gone out into the yard as there was no chamber pot in the room, and he promptly fell asleep again. Mrs. Ridley went out into the yard half expecting to find her husband collapsed drunk but he was nowhere to be found. She called out and searched the yard and pub but he had disappeared without trace.

Mrs. Ridley raised the whole household who searched the surrounding streets and fields with mounting dismay but all to no avail. Concern soon turned to panic and by the following day, when he had still not returned, suspicion began to fall upon the mysterious stranger John Miles who maintained that he had not seen Ridley since he left for his nocturnal visit to the toilet.

Mrs. Ridley then recalled that her husband had collected a significant sum of money the previous day whilst he had been with Miles. His account of the disappearance was sounding increasingly implausible and she was sure that he knew more than he was letting on. She alerted the authorities and when a full scale search failed to find the missing inn-keeper, they turned their attention to the vague and incoherent story related by John Miles.

Finger of Suspicion

From this point on, the case began to gather momentum with Miles as their prime suspect. Their working hypothesis was that Miles had murdered his old friend for the twenty guineas he knew he had collected and had disposed of the body during the night. Despite an exhaustive search neither the body nor the stolen money could be located. Ridley was a well-known figure locally and everyone knew that his disappearance was totally out of character- the town became convinced of the guilt of his so-called friend John Miles.

Miles was arrested and brought before the magistrates on a charge of murder. Despite fiercely protesting his innocence, the authorities considered his lame explanation to be a clear indication of guilt rather than evidence of his intoxication as he claimed.

The case then took an extraordinary turn, whilst he was in custody at Exeter gaol, reports began to circulate of the ghost of William Ridley appearing back at the Red Cow Inn. Strange supernatural knockings were heard which could not be accounted for and two guests claimed the tormented phantom figure of the inn-keeper had appeared to them in the middle of the night. The final proof however came one midnight when, in one of the bedrooms, the curtains suddenly flew open and the the blood-soaked spectre of Ridley manifested itself before an elderly guest who was lodging at the inn. The terrified old man claimed Ridley’s hideous ghost stood at the foot of his bed and announced mournfully that he had been murdered. Not only that- the restless wraith named his murderer as John Miles! This astonishing revelation created frenzy in the town as murder charges were formally laid against Miles and he was committed for trial at Exeter Assizes.

John Miles hanged at Heavitree Drop

In the excitement and hysteria that gripped the town, the jury took only minutes to find John Miles guilty of the murder of his old friend and thousands flocked to jeer and watch him swing from the gallows at the Heavitree drop, despite him protesting his innocence to the bitter end.

The ghost of William Ridley never appeared again after the execution of Miles but Mrs. Ridley found that she could no longer endure the painful memories associated with the Red Cow Inn and decided to sell up and move to another pub to make a fresh start.

Tragic Conclusion

The new owners of the Red Cow moved in and set about making some alterations to the inn and upon taking up some floorboards in the toilet which lay at the end of a long dark passage, discovered the body of William Ridley lying in the cesspit beneath. It was fully clothed and exhibited no injuries. In his pocket was the twenty guineas, he had collected on the day of his death, which had been cited as the motive for his murder. It transpired that some of floorboards of the toilet had been taken up the day of his disappearance and in his heavily drunken state; he had fallen off the toilet into the unusually deep cesspit, sunk below the surface and drowned.

Whether his ghost had indeed appeared, not to accuse but to alert people to the presence of his earthly remains and avert the execution of his old friend, remains a mystery. If the old man who saw it embellished the tale with allegations of murder, then his actions helped to intensify the suspicions against John Miles who on the slimmest of circumstantial evidence was hanged for a murder he did not commit.

The Red Cow Inn remained a popular inn and staging post for centuries afterwards and survived until 2002 when it closed its doors for the last time. It was finally demolished in 2006, thus bringing an end to this intriguing and tragic judicial ghost story.

Red Cow Inn just prior to closure in 2002

About the Author

Brian Langston is a law graduate and MBA and the former Assistant Chief Constable for Thames Valley Police. Since retirement he has drawn upon his extensive detective experience to conduct forensic research into reported supernatural phenomena. His new book ‘True Ghosts and Ghouls of Windsor & Eton’ is due for publication in 2015.

He currently lives in the Languedoc region of Southern France with his wife Jenny and several adopted cats, where he writes and compulsively haunts fleamarkets.


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