Criminal Historian

Working with dead people

Top Five: Crime podcasts

My social media feeds are often full of requests for podcast recommendations, or friends talking about which ones they’re currently listening too. I often work whilst catching up on my favourite podcasts, so thought it was worth summarising my favourites ones. It’s a bit of a golden age for podcasts relating to crime, so there are lots to choose from; however, here are my current top five. If you would like to recommend any others, do get in touch!

1. Serial

http-:serialpodcast.org

http-::serialpodcast.org

The granddaddy of crime podcasts, the first season had a huge impact, and it was recently announced that its subject, Adnan Masud Syed, is to get a retrial after having previously been convicted of the murder of Hae Min Lee 17 years ago.

 

 

 

2. Untold Murder

untoldmurder.com

This British podcast tells the story of the murder of Daniel Morgan nearly 30 years ago (fact: as a child, I remember watching a piece about this case on Crimewatch). It includes interviews with family members, and is a fascinating look at the influence and impact of the British press on murder cases.

 

 

 

3. Body on the Moor

bodyonthemoor

A BBC production, this is an attempt to get closure on the identity and facts behind one man’s death on Saddleworth Moor in Lancashire. How, in this day and age, can a man die and his name die with him? Was it a crime or a suicide? The series is not ‘finished’ – updates will be provided as new material comes to light. An intelligent and well-told series.

 

 

4. Criminal

thisiscriminal.com

Another US series with high production values, Criminal’s social media presence and website design are almost as good as the podcast itself. Just try to ignore the adverts at the start of each episode, which can alternate between annoying and hilarious.

 

 

 

5. Sword and Scale

swordandscale.com

A series recounting various gory real life crime stories. Produced in Florida, its slogan is ‘A podcast about crime that proves the worst monsters are real’, and that gives you an indication of its approach!

 

Abandoned lives: concealed births and abandoned babies in Victorian England

There was a movement in the bushes as she walked down the path that led from her house to the road. Why she stopped to look, she wasn’t sure; perhaps because it was not a breezy day – it was simply cold, and still – or perhaps because the movement seemed unusual.

But stop she did, and stoop down to look more closely. It’s just as well she did, for there, lying amongst the foliage, yet not well hidden – as though somebody wanted it found – was a small bundle of cloths. She picked it up, and it moved; for there, well wrapped up against the cold, was a baby.

Lawford's Gate House of Correction, where Elizabeth Pratt was first sent. © Trustees of the British Museum

Lawford’s Gate House of Correction, where Elizabeth Pratt was first sent. © Trustees of the British Museum

The child was just three months old, and had not been there, in the garden in Stapleton, very long. At the Gloucestershire Assizes in February 1888, 21-year-old servant, Elizabeth Pratt, was found guilty of unlawfully abandoning it, but she refused to admit that it was hers, and even the judge in her case stated that he didn’t know whether the child was hers, or belonged to someone else.

Stapleton – now a suburb of Bristol – was only a village at that time, yet it already had a reputation for child related offences. In 1875, for example, a 33-year-old laundress, Charlotte Gingell, had been found guilty of the lesser charge of concealing the birth of her child after a naked baby girl had been found at the bottom of her well in Stapleton.

When questioned about it, she had tried to stab herself. Her case was deemed to be novel; many concealment cases were the result of young single women who had been seduced, and who hid the bodies of their illegitimate children to ‘hide their shame’ – according to the judge at Charlotte’s trial. Her case was seen to be far worse, as she was a married woman with two older children. She had been found guilty and sentenced to 18 months’ hard labour; but she was not found guilty of murder, despite evidence that the child had been born alive, and died due to either asphyxiation or drowning.

Charlotte appears to have been pregnant with a child by a different father to that of her elder children – then aged three and eight – and her brother and sister-in-law, who she lived with, had told her she would have to go and live somewhere else if she was pregnant. She was worried about her situation, and what would happen with regard to her work and her home if she gave birth to another child.

Like Charlotte Gingell’s, Elizabeth Pratt’s was seen to be a ‘very unusual case’. Usually, if a woman like Elizabeth had an illegitimate child and could not or would not take care of it, it might be looked after elsewhere – or she might even kill it, as the numerous infanticide cases in the 19th century show. There was, to some degree, sympathy with mothers in such a plight, and those charged with infanticide were often found guilty of a lesser offence, or reprieved if convicted.

But Elizabeth had not abandoned her child in the hope that the cold might kill it; she had not drowned it; she had not appeared to want it dead. Instead, she had wrapped it up warmly and left it in a woman’s garden, where it would be quickly and easily found. She could not keep her child, but she wanted it to survive and be cared for. This was recognised when her case was heard at the Assizes, the judge stating that ‘she had done nothing but abandon the child, and it was immediately afterwards found and taken care of.’

Prison register entry for Elizabeth, from Ancestry.

Prison register entry for Elizabeth, from Ancestry.

Elizabeth was from a labouring family, and poverty may have helped to explain her offence. Her father, William, was a labourer in Cromhall, a village in south Gloucestershire, around 11 miles from Stapleton; his wife, Elizabeth, worked as a washerwoman. Neither were well-paid or secure occupations. The 1871 census shows that at that time, William and Elizabeth were maintaining seven children, aged between two and 13. Cromhall was a rural parish, and work was predominantly agricultural labouring.

By the age of 13, Elizabeth was working away from home as a servant, acting as nurse to a family in Berkeley. At the age of 18, she received her first criminal conviction. At the Coleford Petty Sessions on 8 January 1884, she was found guilty of stealing money, and sentenced to a month in prison.

In 1887, she became pregnant, and gave birth in the September of that year. She appears to have been able to look after her child initially – but what happened three months later to make her abandon her child? Could her parents no longer support her, or had she been in a relationship that ended? The records do not record more than the cursory details; we know that Elizabeth was just 4 feet 11 in height, had dark brown hair and could read and write imperfectly; but we do not know the motive for her abandoning her child after three months of looking after it. The records also fail to record whether the child was male or female, or what happened to it after it was discovered.

What is known is that poverty impacted on the lives of those around her. The record of her conviction is on a page full of petty offences – drunken behaviour, begging, hawking without a licence. They are offences committed by those at the bottom of the social ladder, who are trying to either eke out a living or drink when they have nothing else.

Elizabeth was initially sent to Lawford’s Gate, a House of Correction in Bristol. Then, at the Gloucestershire Assizes, Elizabeth was sentenced to 14 days’ hard labour in prison. She was discharged on 1 March 1888. She then returned to service, and in 1891 was working for the Reverend Gerald N Jackson at Tytherington vicarage (Tytherington being a village near Cromhall), acting as the family’s cook. Did the Jackson family offer her a bit of Christian charity? It seems unlikely that in a small community, near her birthplace and where her family lived, that they would have been unaware of her history and convictions.

Prison register entry for Elizabeth, from Ancestry.

Prison register entry for Elizabeth, from Ancestry.

In Tytherington, Elizabeth seems to have made a life for herself. She met a new partner, a labourer named Thomas Creed, four years her junior, and on 5 August 1893, at the parish church in Tytherington, aged 26, she married him. The wedding ceremony was conducted by her employer, vicar Gerald Jackson. She then had three children – Beatrice, born in 1894, Lucinda Emily Maud, born in 1898, and John, born 1900 – before the family relocated to Caldicot, Monmouthshire, where Thomas found work as a fireman. In 1911, the family was living there, seeing their two younger children through school.

What happened to the poor child who was abandoned in a garden in Stapleton? Absent from the censuses, and not referred to by name in either press reports or prison registers, it is hard to tell. However, a William Stevens Pratt was born in the autumn of 1883 in the Thornbury district of Gloucestershire – which included Cromhall – and died there three years later. William was of course Elizabeth’s father’s name; and it was fairly common for illegitimate children to take their natural father’s surname as their middle name. Perhaps Elizabeth had fallen pregnant to a Mr Stevens’ child, and abandoned the baby, only for him to die aged three.

The abandoning of her first child, and her prior conviction for theft, indicate a troubled spell for Elizabeth as a young woman, living in a community with a limited range of options for a girl from a labouring family. It also shows that living in the Gloucestershire countryside was not a rural idyll, but one fraught with hardship, the struggle to find and maintain work, to get money, and to cope when difficult situations arose. The criminal registers and newspaper reports suggest that Elizabeth’s life was not, in this respect, an unusual one.

Based on records from the British Newspaper Archive and Ancestry. One of the criminal records for Elizabeth states that she was born in Lydbrook, in the Forest of Dean; although this is feasible, as it is not too far away, I suspect that this is an admin error, for there are no other records relating to a woman of this name being born in that area at the right time, and other records give her birthplace as Cromhall.

Death by Broomstick: an unusual punishment, for an unusual crime

View over Bala Lake, with woman in Welsh costume; from the National Library of Wales (used under Creative Commons)

View over Bala Lake, with woman in Welsh costume; from the National Library of Wales (used under Creative Commons)

An interesting case from 19th century Wales this week, where it could be debated whether the victim’s family got justice, and whether the defendant got away with her criminal behaviour.

It was 13 March 1888, and in the village of Llanfor, near Bala in north Wales – where the devil was said to visit the village church in the guise of a pig –  neighbours Elizabeth Evans and Ann Jones were fighting. This was not something new. 51-year-old Elizabeth was known for her anger, and she and Ann appear to have frequently rowed.

Both were married women; Elizabeth was the wife of Thomas Evans, an under-gamekeeper, and Ann was married to Evan Jones, a local joiner. Both men worked for the Price family at their Bala estate, Rhiwlas Hall. Ann and Evan had nine children; the eldest, Alice, was only 13.

The families lived next door to each other, in cottages known as Penrhos Isa. They had been in their back gardens, separated by a fence, when they started arguing. This was the result of Elizabeth, that morning, having struck one of the Jones children. Ann had heard her child shout, and rushed into the garden, furiously hurling her broomstick – used for cleaning the floors of her cottage – at her neighbour. They continued shouting at each other, until Elizabeth, infuriated, threw the broomstick back at Ann, striking her hard on the head.

Ann ‘instantly fell down dead in the garden’. A post-mortem showed that she had received a fracture at the base of her skull. The Coroner’s Inquest, held at the County Hall in Bala, under the Merionethshire coroner, heard corroboration that death would have been instantaneous.

Elizabeth was hit – metaphorically, rather than with the broomstick again – with remorse, admitting her offence immediately to the police, and saying she was ‘quite prepared to accept the consequences’. However, whether she was quite as remorseful as she claimed is debatable, seeing as she then added that ‘the deceased and her children had given her frequent annoyance’.

Elizabeth was duly charged with manslaughter. At the Merioneth Assizes in July that year, she was found guilty – of ‘throwing a broomstick with provocation’. She had been on remand for the previous four months, and so the judge determined that she had been in prison long enough. He therefore sentenced her to just one day in prison, warning her ‘of the consequences of violent anger’.

Given that the consequences appeared to be just a day in a cell for killing a woman, it’s not clear that Elizabeth learned as much as the judge intended.

 

(Sources: South Wales Echo, 15 March 1888; The Cardiff Times, 17 March 1888; Llangollen Advertiser, 27 July 1888)

Looking into the face of a criminal

Edgar Kilminster, aged 7

Edgar Kilminster, aged 7

This week, Ancestry has put online lots more criminal records – this time relating to prisoners in Gloucestershire. Although the records cover the period from 1728 to 1914, it is the later records that have received the most publicity, and for one key reason. Dating from the late 19th century, after the mandatory introduction of the criminal mugshot, Ancestry’s records include images of the men, women, girls and boys who came before the local police in a largely rural county.

Not only is this of interest to family historians, who might be able to see, for the first time, what their black sheep ancestors actually looked like (for many were from poor families, and might not have been able to afford to have their photograph taken professionally in any other context), it is of interest to the criminal historian, too, putting a face to a name; and a crime to a face.

Some of those detailed are very young at the time of their first surviving conviction; it is also possible to follow the pattern of offending for a repeat offender. One such pattern can be established for Edgar Leopold Kilminster.

Edgar was born in 1863 in Chalford Hill, near Stroud in Gloucestershire. He was the son of bootmaker William Kilminster – who was originally from Cricklade in Wiltshire – and his wife Harriet (nee Gardiner), born and bred in Chalford. William and Harriet had married locally two years prior to Edgar’s birth.

The Kilminsters were a large family; Edgar had several siblings, including older brother Joseph William, who followed his father into bootmaking, and younger siblings Harriet Florence Melinda (known as Florence), Annie Elizabeth, Alexina Laura, George Ernest, Percy Stanley, Amy Nella, Elsie Mabel, Della May and Gertrude*. Harriet Kilminster appears to have been pregnant on a regular basis from the age of 21 to 45.

St Mary's Mill in Chalford, by Chris Allen (used under creative commons)

St Mary’s Mill in Chalford, by Chris Allen (used under creative commons)

Perhaps with such a large family, it was hard to keep an eye on the children all the time. They needed to go to work at an early age – at 9, Joseph Kilminster was working in a silk mill (possibly St Mary’s, a textile mill in Chalford) and also attending school part-time, along with 8-year-old Edgar. It was a lot for two young boys; maybe they were bored in their little rural community, having such a rigid structure at such an early age; or perhaps they simply wanted to be able to get things that their parents couldn’t afford to buy them. Certainly, the two older boys were soon being noticed by the local police.

The first entry relating to the Kilminster family from the Gloucestershire Calendar of Prisoners is for seven-year-old Edgar, who was committed on 17 June 1870 for ‘stealing sweetmeats’, along with his brother Joseph, aged 9. The boys were found guilty and sent to the house of correction for seven days.

Edgar at the time was just 3’10”, an inch shorter than his hare-lipped brother, a brown haired, blue eyed boy with no prior convictions. But it was not his only conviction.

On 7 November 1876, by now aged 14, 4’12” and working as a factory hand near to his home in Chalford Hill, near Stroud, Edgar was again arrested by the police, and in December, appeared before the local magistrates at the local petty sessions. He was accused of having been ‘found on an enclosed garden of William Farmer at Bisley‘ – having been unable to give a good account of being on someone else’s property, Edgar was given the punishment of a month’s hard labour in the house of correction.

His record at this time notes that he had been known to local policeman PC Packer for 11 years, ‘has been here for stealing and once fined for stealing’; he was charged with, and convicted with, a local friend, George Mills.

Edgar’s offending now progressed to a more serious level, and in July 1879, now aged 16, 5’7″, and working as a labourer, he appeared at the Gloucester Assizes, charged with burglary. He was found guilty, and sentenced to nine months’ hard labour. It was noted by this time that he had four prior convictions; he was released on 30 April 1880.

The returns of habitual criminals, showing Edgar Kilminster's first entry on the right hand page, from Ancestry

The returns of habitual criminals, showing Edgar Kilminster’s first entry on the right hand page, from Ancestry

Edgar lived with his family in Chalford Hill until his late 20s, with his brother Joseph, now married and with a family of his own, living next door. In 1892, he married Mary Elizabeth Griffin in Bisley, and had a family of his own. However, a final surviving entry notes that Edgar Kilminster was convicted in 1897 of assaulting his wife of five years, and given 14 days’ hard labour. This was not his only offence between 1879 and 1897, though, as this final entry recorded eight prior convictions for the now strapping 34-year-old six footer.

One might expect Edgar to continue offending, and to continue living near his family in Chalford, working as a labourer. But instead, the next record for Edgar shows that he instead enlisted in the army – the deformed right thumb he now had being no barrier to service. He signed up for two years’ service in the Royal Artillery, at Pembroke Dock, claiming on his attestation papers that he had never been sentenced to imprisonment.

In 1906, Edgar appeared before the magistrates again. Although this appearance is not listed on Ancestry’s records, it survives in a mention in the Gloucester Citizen newspaper. Edgar and Jesse Gardner (possibly a relative on his mother’s side, but with a different spelling of his surname recorded) appeared at Stroud Petty Sessions, charged with having refused to leave the Bell Inn in Chalford one night, after the landlord, George Brown, had repeatedly asked them to.

Edgar had already been drunk when he went to the pub, and so the landlord had refused to serve him. But Edgar refused to leave for over an hour, instead using ‘abusive language’. The following day, the two men had visited the pub to try and get George Brown to settle the case away from the magistrates, but he seems to have refused. At Petty Sessions, each man was fined five shillings, and ordered to pay another 4s costs. (Gloucester Citizen, 7 September 1906)

In World War 1, Edgar served in the Army Service Corps. He was now living in Glamorgan, and had been working as a timberman. He served despite being 50 when he signed up.

Mary Elizabeth Kilminster died in 1921, and two years later, Edgar married again, this time to Gertrude Mary Hirons. She outlived her husband, for 71-year-old Edgar died on 3 September 1934 at the General Hospital in Stroud, having been taken there from his home on the High Street in Bisley. He had had a long and eventful life, but his birth and death both took place in his home area, where the police and the magistrates had known him so well.

All records referred to can be found on Ancestry; the original calendars of prisoners can be found at Gloucestershire Archives. The Gloucester Citizen was accessed via the British Newspaper Archive.

* These children’s names are taken from census records and cross-referenced with FreeBMD information; however, there may have been more Kilminster children, including Thomas William (born and died 1870), and Louisa Minnie (born 1871, died 1875).

 

 

 

Book review: The Murder of the Century

51AXXHMDNsL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_It always concerns me a little bit when I see a title that looks intriguing, but then the author’s previous works – listed at the start of the book – suggest a lack of knowledge of the specific subject of the book. Paul Collins has previously written works on subjects as diverse as Shakespeare and autism, so I was a bit concerned that this book, The Murder of the Century, which recounts a notorious American murder case from the 1890s, and uses it to explore the newspaper wars of the era, would display a lack of expertise about the subject, or a somewhat flighty attitude towards it.

My fears were groundless, though, as Collins here proves a great storyteller and to have a good grasp of the history of which he writes. He is able to bring to life the existences of the working class in New York’s poorer areas, from the children whose main entertainment is in fishing objects out of the river from the pier side overlooking Brooklyn, to the women eking out a living in slum neighbourhoods through a variety of occupations – including the carrying out of illegal backstreet abortions.

The Murder of the Century starts with the discovery of a torso, found by the aforementioned boys of the East 11th Street area. Another parcel is later found elsewhere, containing another part of the same body. Whose body is it, and who was responsible for killing the man who this body once was?

But the book is about far more than this. It tells the story of the tensions between members of New York’s immigrant community, and centres on German-born Augusta Nack, claiming to be a licensed midwife when New York had no such things. Although depicted by the press as a passionate, rather ‘unwomanly’ creature, who turns her lodgers into her lovers, she is also an unhappily married individual and worthy of sympathy after the deaths of all her children.

A satirical depiction of the media war between Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst

A satirical depiction of the media war between Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst

An investigation into her and two of her lovers creates a picture of immigrant life in New York, and also shows how she became the means by which the New York newspapers and their proprietors – particularly Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst – competed and pushed for supremacy, at no matter what the personal cost to others.

The characters here are well drawn, from Augusta to William F Howe, the showy defence lawyer at the subsequent murder trial. The story is also meticulously researched, and it shows. If you want a good example of how to write a real life, 19th century murder history that draws you in and keeps you reading, this is well worth a try.

 

Who was Robert the Devil?

A scene from Meyerbeer's Robert the Devil, by Degas

A scene from Meyerbeer’s Robert the Devil, by Degas

In 1886, a man appeared before the magistrates of the Marlborough Street Police Court in London, charged with drunk and disorderly behaviour.

The man had been on Oxford Street shortly after midnight the previous night, and his behaviour had gathered such a crowd around him that a policeman walking down the street had gone over to see what was going on. The man was using ‘filthy language’, was obviously very drunk, and refused to leave the area when the policeman requested him to. He was therefore charged with the above mentioned offence.

He was a black man, according to the newspapers, who refused to give his real name to the magistrate, instead stating that he was called ‘Robert the Devil’.

The magistrate asked what he had to say, and Robert answered, “Oh! Nothing at all, Boss.”

The local gaoler, Sergeant Vine, told the court that Robert was a frequent offender, and had appeared in the police court several previous occasions. Robert was told he would have to pay a 10 shilling fine or go to prison for seven days. Robert’s response was to say,

“That will be all right, Boss; the Prince of Wales will pay that for me.”

Robert evidently had long term alcohol abuse or mental health issues. His naming of himself as ‘Robert the Devil’ may not have had racial allusions, though, despite the devil’s likeness being a black goat in some 19th century literature, and there being increasingly negative depictions of black men and women in England during the latter half of the 19th century.

Robert_the_Devil_(horse)

Robert the Devil: a horse, not a man

Robert the Devil was a medieval legend; later, in 1831, Giacomo Meyerbeer created a romantic opera of the same name that saw great success in London in the 1830s and 1840s, and a resurgence in popularity in the 1890s. The name referred to Robert, Duke of Normandy, who was the father of William the Conqueror – but also, in some stories, said to be the son of the devil.

Did the defendant see himself as a devil, a character incapable of redemption? Or was he a romantic hero? The truth is probably somewhat more mundane. In the 1880s, there was a racehorse named Robert the Devil, whose career was eagerly followed in the English press. This drunken man may simply have adopted the horse’s name to avoid giving his own. The racehorse died at Bernham Paddocks ‘somewhat suddenly’, in 1889, aged 12; but what happened to his namesake is not known.

(Sources: Dundee Evening Telegraph, 13 September 1886; Dublin Daily Express, 28 October 1880; South Wales Echo, 2 May 1889; Saunders’s News-letter, 8 June 1832; The Graphic, 4 December 1886)

Dark glamour and transgressive behaviour: Crime Stories in New York

Photo 28-05-2016, 05 50 19It’s not every day that you ask an information assistant at a museum where one of their exhibitions is, and they don’t know the answer – and even ask you questions about the exhibition, because they’re not aware of it.

This is what happened when I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It suggests that the particular exhibition I wanted to see wasn’t high up on their list of priorities, which is a shame – because it was a fascinating one, and one that I hope many visitors would have heard of and sought out.

The exhibition, Crime Stories: Photography and Foul Play, started in March, and runs until the end of July. It is positioned up on the second floor of the Fifth Avenue museum, round the back of the gift shop, and isn’t signposted virtually until you get to it. It’s not one of the main exhibitions the museum is promoting at the moment – evident from its volunteer’s blank face when I asked about it – but it is certainly the most unusual, being only feet away from works by Van Gogh and the likes.

The exhibition charts the history of crime photography, from the 19th century onwards. So we have a good look at French innovations of the Victorian era, in terms of criminal profiling and mugshots, offering a European perspective on crime and its recording. There are some fascinating artefacts – including Samuel G Szabo‘s ‘Rogues: A Study of Characters’ from around 1860, where the Hungarian photographer worked in collaboration with the police to make a study of offenders to try and identify the physical characteristics of the ‘criminal psyche’. His portraits include those of a shoplifter, wife poisoner, highwayman and murderer.

One of Bertillon's mesmerising images

One of Bertillon’s mesmerising images

There is, inevitably, Alphonse Bertillon‘s chart of physical traits of criminals, which enabled police to describe prisoners’ physical features in great detail, from their brows to their ears. Bertillon’s mug shots of suspected anarchists in late 19th century France are also here; and they are so detailed that you can spend a substantial amount of time just looking at them and noticing the detail of clothing, the colour of eyes, and so on.

Moving onto 20th century America, there are several photos by the infamous Weegee – press photographer Arthur Fellig, who produced sensationalist crime photographs, including ‘Outline of a Murder Victim’. There are also several 1940s crime scene photographs, and the curator has made the link between these photos and the film noir of the era very well, showing why these photos look so familiar to us in style and content. Famous assassinations – from Lincoln to JFK, and including Lee Harvey Oswald – are also, understandably, included; the latter two defining modern America.

The exhibition shows how we are both repelled and drawn to crime photography – its ‘dark glamour’ and portrayal of transgression appealing to our subconscious. It’s a well thought out, dark, but compelling display – and if you’re in New York over the next two months, it is well worth seeking out.

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Top Five: Historical Crime Books

I’ve been an avid reader most of my life, but have often shunned novels set in the past. My antenna is tuned in for anachronisms or generalisations, for a poor understanding of period or simply for an unbelievable story.

However, over the years, there have been a few books that have had me unable to turn the pages quickly enough. They have been quite different both in the periods they cover and how they approach history – some cover events which happened only a few years before the books were written; others fictionalise events or characters far more than others.

Historical crime fiction is currently undergoing something of a renaissance with three of my chosen books here being recent examples of the genre. I’m really pleased, in particular, to see the 18th and early 19th centuries being the focus of some great research and writing – I’ve always sung the praises of the 18th century, despite one publisher once telling me that “the 18th century doesn’t sell” and “it’s not sexy”. I’d beg to differ.

But anyway – here’s my list.

512qXgnErSL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

(Penguin, 2000)

It might be a bit of a cheat, as it was written less than a decade after the events it depicts – but it’s too good not to include it here. This book has had, and continues to have, much controversy over how fictionalised the iconic American writer made this tale, which details the horrific murders of the Clutter family in their Kansas home in 1959. Certainly, Capote writes a blend of fact and fiction, but in doing so, creates an incredibly powerful narrative both about murder and the motives of those who commit it. He shows the mundanity and hopelessness of the lives of the two men who carried out the offences – the bleakness of their lives set against the optimism of teenager Nancy Clutter, one of the victims.

 

 

libraLibra by Don DeLillo

(Penguin, 2011)

Those who follow me on Twitter will probably know what a *huge* fan of this contemporary American author I am. DeLillo is particularly interested in the media, and shares some similarities with the likes of Thomas Pynchon, but this is probably one of his most accessible books. It recreates the story of Lee Harvey Oswald – the assassin (lone or otherwise!) of JFK in 1963 – from his own perspective, creating a form of language that makes Oswald a real, if complex, character in a novelisation of his life. Norman Mailer’s Oswald’s Tale is another good ‘faction’ book of the same iconic American historical event.

 

 

UnknownThe Silversmith’s Wife by Sophia Tobin

(Simon & Schuster, 2014)

This is just a beautiful book. It features as it’s main character a woman – yay! – and is a gently unfolding, yet gripping, murder mystery and love story in one. Set in 18th century London, it opens with the murder of the eponymous silversmith, but it is fundamentally about his wife – her reaction to his death and how she lives in its aftermath. It is full of factual detail that is never overpowering (I dislike books that shove their research and their historical accuracy in your face – “Look at me! Look how clever I am!” – as much as I hate inaccuracies. Yes, I’m difficult to please). The story here is what takes precedence over the period; it’s simply a good story that happens to be set in the past.

 

 

51poQlQzpXL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_The Devil in the Marshalsea by Antonia Hodgson

(Hodder, 2014)

I am so jealous of Hodgson for this book. The precursor of her latest book, The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins, it is a meticulously researched book set largely in the Marshalsea debtors’ prison – where Thomas Hawkins is sent. A murder occurs, and Hawkins has to work out what has happened. As I say, the research is so detailed here, and it really brings 18th century London, and life in the debtors’ prisons, to life. It makes you feel both grim and dirty, angry and disbelieving, when you read of the way the impoverished were treated in the past, and the inherent inequality in how different debtors were treated even when they were all being kept in one place.

 

51bT9yipSwL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_The Detective and the Devil by Lloyd Shepherd

(Simon & Schuster, 2016)

Lloyd has been quietly developing a new genre, with his historical crime books that blend fact and fiction, natural and supernatural. This is the latest instalment, the third since The English Monster, which I really enjoyed until near the end, when the reveal about the murderer made me raise an eyebrow, I’m afraid. But I enjoyed this latest instalment right to the finish. Lloyd uses real people and events from the past 500 years, but particularly the early 19th century. His hero is Charles Horton, from the Thames Marine Police; his elderly boss is the equally real magistrate John Harriott, and even Charles Lamb makes an appearance.  Lloyd is equally at home with depicting the grimness of Georgian Wapping as he is with depicting the island of St Helena; and his main female character is a spirited woman who strives to shake off the limitations society has placed on her gender.

 

 

 

 

Marital coercion and the wife who got away

1840s pictureAt common law, married women could avoid being convicted of certain offences simply by the fact that they were married. Coverture meant that women were, to an extent at least, legally subsumed by their husband – they lost some property rights, for example, although the extent to which this occurred in practice has been debated. But under certain circumstances, wives benefitted, as husbands could be found to be accountable for property offences committed by their wives.

There were restrictions on how far this could be taken, of course. As Garthine Walker has noted, the woman had to have been charged with a felony offence, rather than a misdemeanour, and she had to be found to have stolen by the constraint of her husband – it was not enough to have committed a theft in your husband’s absence, even if he had bullied or cajoled you, if there was no evidence of constraint.

Yet, as Peter King has argued, there was a grey area. Because of the differing, even conflicting, views of the courts and individuals about how to apply coverture in these cases, throughout the late 18th and early 19th centuries, married women were more likely than single women to avoid prosecution for such offences.

Although a different type of case, one 1844 trial involving a married woman similarly hinged on whether she had acted freely, or whether her husband had forced her into committing an offence, and shows how the courts could be influenced by a woman’s marital situation, and the concept of coercion. The courts may also have been more reluctant to convict a woman of an offence where a man might have been found guilty.

24-year-old Jane Bannon was tried at the Warwick Crown Court on 7 August 1844 of trying to help her husband escape from prison. Benjamin Bannon, Jane’s husband, then aged 28 and a wool stapler, had been convicted of coining offences at the Warwickshire Assizes just over three months earlier (on 30 March), and sentenced to 14 years’ transportation. He was still in prison awaiting this sentence, and it was alleged that Jane had smuggled a lifting-jack, a spanner, a saw and a pair of scissors to him, to enable him to break out.

Details of Benjamin's offence, from Ancestry

Details of Benjamin’s offence, from Ancestry

It was proved that Jane had indeed got these implements, and taken them to her husband – but the judge told the jury that they had to decide whether she had acted as a ‘free agent’ or whether she had acted ‘under the control of her husband’. If the former, she was guilty of aiding the escape of a prisoner; if the latter, she was innocent in terms of the law.

The jury duly returned a verdict of not guilty, believing that Jane had been made to obey her husband’s instructions. The verdict met with the ‘evident satisfaction of a crowded court’, and Jane could walk free.

Details of Jane's offence, from Ancestry

Details of Jane’s offence, from Ancestry

Her husband, though, was not so lucky. He had failed to escape from prison, and he would fail to avoid his sentence. He was given training as a tailor in prison, but two years after being convicted, on 22 June 1846, he left England on the convict ship Maitland. He arrived at Port Phillip Bay, Victoria, on 9 November that year, with 298 other passengers. From Port Phillip Bay, he was taken the short journey to Williamstown – now a Melbourne suburb, but at that time a nine-year-old port, where a 30 metre stone jetty had been built by convict labour in 1838.

Both Benjamin and Jane vanish from the archives at this point; Jane was not found to have acted as a ‘free agent’ in 1844, but once her husband was on the other side of the world, she was certainly more free than he was.

 

 

References: Garthine Walker, ‘Crime and the Early Modern Household’, in Helen Berry and Elizabeth Foyster (eds), The Family in Early Modern England (CUP, 2007), p.75; Peter King, ‘Female offenders, work and lifecycle change’ in Continuity and Change, 11 (1996), pp.67-68; Shani D’Cruze and Louise A Jackson, Women, Crime and Justice in England since 1660 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009); Coventry Herald, 16 August 1844; Ancestry

Breaking the rural idyll: a murder one summer’s morning

An advert offering a reward for apprehending Henry Ball's killer (Salisbury Journal, 19/6/1815, from the British Newspaper Archive)

An advert offering a reward for apprehending Henry Ball’s killer (Salisbury Journal, 19/6/1815, from the British Newspaper Archive)

Poor Henry Ball. He thought he had a nice job, as keeper of the turnpike gate situated by Marlborough Pond, some five miles from Southampton. He lived there, on the London Road, with his wife, living a calm and otherwise un-newsworthy life. He had reached the age of 80 with no major mishaps.

That all ended one Sunday morning in June – 11 June 1815, to be precise. Mrs Ball had gone out in the morning to Fernhill to speak with a neighbour. Presumably a friend of hers, she stayed for about an hour, leaving her husband at home, at Turnpike House.

But on returning to Marlborough Pond, she found her husband ‘weltering in his blood’. He had been the victim of a prolonged, and vicious, assault.

The Southampton surgeon, Mr Corfe, was summoned, and found that the whole of the left side of Ball’s skull had been ‘beaten into the brain’. His right eye was ‘beaten into his head’. His throat had been cut; his nose was broken.

His assailant had used the fire tongs from the Balls’ own home to rain violent blows on Ball’s head; they were found by him, covered in his blood.

Although the case looked hopeless, Mr Corfe dressed the wounds and Ball, to everyone’s amazement, survived for three days before finally dying of his injuries.*

An agricultural labourer in the traditional smock

An agricultural labourer in the traditional smock

Theft appeared to be the motive; a silver watch on a steel chain, together with a canvas bag containing silver and other articles, were found to have been stolen. It was believed that the killer had hoped to find the money that Ball had collected for the previous week; unknown to them, however, the keeper had taken it to the bank the day before his death.

At his inquest, the coroner’s jury returned a verdict of wilful murder; the Trustees of the South District of the Southampton Road offered a reward of 50 guineas to catch the murderer – with a pardon offered to accomplices.

It was said that a man ‘of suspicious appearance’ was seen on the road at around 8am the morning of the murder, in the clothes typical of the rural labouring class – a round smock frock, light coloured breeches, and large black whiskers.

But the press still had to report that:

No tidings have as yet been heard of the perpetrator or perpetrators of this most inhuman deed, and the whole transaction is at present wrapped in mystery. (Salisbury and Winchester Journal, 19 June 1815)

The reward advertisement was repeated in the local press and the London Gazette into the following month, suggesting that the man who tried to take money off an octogenarian turnpike keeper one summer morning got away, quite literally, with murder.

 

*The Salisbury Journal gave two different accounts of Ball’s ‘lingering’ – on p.4, it said he had survived for three days, but on p.1 of the same edition, the advert offering a reward for the perpetrator’s apprehending stated that he ‘lingered till the next day and then died’.

Other sources: The London Gazette, 4 July 1815; Bath Chronicle, 22 June 1815; Cambridge Chronicle and Journal, 23 June 1815; Salisbury and Winchester Journal, 26 June 1815. The Capital Punishment UK website doesn’t have a record of anybody being hanged in Hampshire for Henry Ball’s murder.

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