Book review: My Life With Murderers

Turn on your TV and watch a programme about true crime, murderers or the psychology of offending, and the odds are that David Wilson will be involved. Professor of Criminology at Birmingham City University, former prison governor, and before that an academic in a different field – having gained a PhD in history – Wilson has had a long and varied career that has involved coming into contact with some of the UK’s most notorious offenders.

But more recently, he has become something of a ubiquitous figure in the media – true crime’s version of Lucy Worsley, perhaps, popping up in various locations and scenarios to tell us his thoughts. Sometimes, you forget about his academic credentials, and see him more as a TV presenter or media figure, such is his worth to production companies.

This creates, though, a dilemma. What is Wilson most proud of: his criminological work, or his media work? How does he see himself? This dilemma becomes apparent in his new book, My Life With Murderers, which is published next month.

Subtitled ‘Behind Bars with the World’s Most Violent Men’, it is a strange beast that is not sure of what genre it belongs to. Part memoir, part discussion of prison and rehabilitation, of psychopathy and mental health, Wilson’s self-belief and pride in his media work and other public-facing roles are clear throughout.

A bit of judicious editing would have been helpful here, to reign in Wilson’s excesses and keep him ploughing a tight narrative. Instead, he jumps around from topic to topic, interspersing regular anecdotes that serve to depict him as a multi-talented individual: an academic heavyweight, a source of advice to others, a sportsman who is happy to play badminton or rugby with offenders – or even go for a pint or two with them.

He’s proud of having gone to an ex-con’s wedding with his wife, even though his account of it lays bare an awkwardness about class and how a middle-class academic perceives a lower-class event (it featured skulls! But it was still a good day out!). He’s equally proud of being sought out for media work, or receiving rapturous applause at student events. He clearly sees himself as a persuasive character, a confident performer, someone people look up to. He wants the media attention, just as he argues one of the murderers he has interviewed (Bert Spencer, a suspect in the Carl Bridgewater case) wants it.

When he is asked to interview the suspect in order to draw conclusions for a book foreword he has been asked to write, his response is: “I agreed but on one condition – I wanted to film the interviews in order to generate as much publicity for this cold case as I could.” However, one is left with the distinct impression that he’s not trying to get publicity to help solve a case as much as he wants the publicity for himself.

And the book’s premise is not quite right. It’s not about the ‘world’s most violent men’ – they are predominantly British men. In addition, not all of it is about Wilson meeting murderers: there are his thoughts on murderers he’s never met; a retracing of the steps of murderers such as Thomas Hamilton, the man behind the Dunblane massacre of 1996, or taxi driver Derrick Bird, responsible for 12 murders in Cumbria in 2010.

He heads north to be something of a voyeur in these communities, wanting to know what the locals think (in Dunblane, they are reluctant to indulge him; and you get the sense that in Cumbria, he is only told the minimum. Do they not realise that this is Professor David Wilson they are talking to?!).

Wilson does acknowledge the fact that he would be unable to do some of his work without the handy group of postgrad students he has at BCU, who help him by ‘painstakingly going through the various documents, newspaper accounts, court and police reports’ in the Carl Bridgewater case, but largely, this is about him – an autobiography of sorts, and an indulgence.

However, he clearly sees it as more of an academic tome than it is – he ends by recommending various reading into the subject, although I’m surprised by his assertion that ‘there has been surprisingly little rigorous academic attention paid to murder’ and his summing up historical views about murder into a single paragraph that omits much of the academic work I’ve read about the history of crime.

Perhaps this is due to his acknowledged sidelining of gender and crime. He has largely dealt with male murderers, and so he states that this is what he has written about. That’s fair enough, and he does mention the lower percentage of female murderers compared to men. However, his mention of female psychopathy is interesting, and I would have liked to read more about this – perhaps this is a book that is waiting to be written by someone else.

Studies into murderesses, though, could have been mentioned in his bibliography section, with a recognition that this is something of interest to those reading about murder; although he mentions Shani D’Cruze, this isn’t in relation specifically to works into female killers, and I was particularly looking for works such as Lizzie Seal’s Women, Murder and Femininity to be included.

There are some interesting stories here, but as I say, they needed pulling into a bit more shape to my mind – although it’s undoubtedly an interesting book to dip in and out of, and there are some complex and fascinating characters presented to the reader in it.

However, in short, if you’re interested in what makes a murderer tick, there are probably books that will tell you more about it than this one. But if you’re interested in what makes Professor David Wilson tick, this partial memoir will probably tell you more than even he thought it would.

 

 

 

The Death of Bertillon

Alphonse Bertillon’s mugshot of himself

105 years ago today, a pioneer died. Alphonse Bertillon, the French criminologist who created ‘Bertillonage’ – an anthropometric system of identifying criminals – died in Paris.

Bertillon, who is also credited with being the creator of the modern criminal mugshot, developed his identification system based on his discovery that some physical features and bone dimensions in the body remained constant throughout an individual’s life. He concluded that if you made measurements from each individual and recorded them systematically, that individual would be found to be completely distinguishable from anyone else.

There were five key measurements taken by Bertillon: the length of an individual’s head, its breadth, the length of a middle finger, of a left foot, and of the forearm from the elbow to the end of a middle finger. Other measurements and features were also recorded, including eye colour.

Bertillon’s death, as reported in the Liverpool Echo of 14 February 1914

Bertillonage was then adapted for police use, in order to ‘fix’ someone’s identity, thus serving a dual use in preventing mistaken identity or the impersonation of an individual, whilst also identifying repeat offenders. It was introduced in France in 1883, but not in England until 11 years later, as part of a system also involving the photography of criminals and their fingerprinting.

This was, of course, all done in the days before computers, and in France, measurements were recorded on over 100,000 handwritten cards that had to be sorted through manually in order to whittle down a number that approximated an individual. These were kept in a ‘cabinet of very ordinary dimensions’. Ultimately, though, final identification was only achieved by means of a photograph taken of each individual, and kept with their measurements.

By the time of Bertillon’s death, anthropometry had fallen out of favour, and fingerprinting had supplanted it. Bertillonage was seen as expensive, and it needed ‘specially instructed measurers, men of superior education’. Although Bertillon had stressed the accuracy of his system it had since become clear that errors did creep in, with measurements being wrong and difficult to correct.

However, although his system was clearly flawed, it opened up the possibilities of different forms of identification, and the unique aspects of a human’s body. Bertillonage enabled police forces to think in different ways about how best to identify offenders, and to encourage more scientific, accurate methods of doing so.

 

Learn more about the village lock-up

I’ve done a couple of things recently to do with the village lock-up, which anyone interested in the history of crime in England might like to look at. The village lock-up was once a key part of rural life and law enforcement, and even today, several examples of them survive.

Firstly, I took part in a BBC series about the history of our villages, in which I explored the village lock-up at Cromford in Derbyshire. It’s available on BBC iPlayer for a few more weeks, and you can see it here. The Cromford lock-up is interesting both because it was a repurposing of an existing house for a new purpose, and because the need for it was due primarily to workplace thefts – from the mill at Cromford – and Richard Arkwright‘s desire to curb these thefts.

Secondly, on the back of this programme, I’ve written a piece about the history of the village lock-up, and their falling out of use, for the latest issue of Discover Your Ancestors. There are plenty of lock-ups in my local area, the Cotswolds, but both here and elsewhere, they differ in terms of size and looks.

Use some of the examples in my article and go and explore them (I’d especially recommend the one in the centre of Lacock village in Wiltshire, as you can explore the rest of the National Trust site at the same time!).

They’re fascinating buildings and were once a key part of maintaining authority in rural communities, being temporary homes to suspected offenders until they could be moved on elsewhere, or simply somewhere for drunks to ‘dry out’ overnight.

No crime? It’s still news

Crime reporting has been a staple of the newspapers for centuries; but even if there’s no crime taking place, that can still be news in itself.

In the 1940s, it was reported that in Iceland, there was only a single, small, lock-up in the country, and it was used so infrequently that it had been turned into offices.

Crime was so unusual in the country that there hadn’t been a single murder in Reykjavik in 20 years. 

These two facts were deemed newsworthy enough to make the pages of the British press.

How to write about crime

Crime fiction is hugely popular, and for every person who wants to read crime fiction, there’s another who wants to write it. In some quarters, there’s a bit of snobbery about crime writers, as though they’re not ‘proper’ writers (what are those? Writers of literary fiction, presumably), or as though crime writing is ‘easy’. It’s not. I know that I, for one, would be no good at writing crime fiction; it requires both the usual fiction writing skills of planning, construction and structure, believable dialogue, and so on – but also skills in research, making sure everything is believable, and making sure that if you have a policeman doing X, then that is what he would be doing in real life.

Much as when you write historical novels, you have to avoid factual errors or anachronisms, in crime fiction you have to avoid errors in how police, detectives or pathologists operate – your readers will know if you just, um, make it up. In short, a well-crafted crime novel is the result of a lot of labour, and a lot of talent.

However, some people have asked me for recommendations as to books that might help them write their first crime novel. I don’t think anything can beat a bit of first hand research, but there are several books out there designed to help potential authors. Here are two that have been passed my way – I’m not endorsing one over the other, or these two more than others, but they are suggestions as to books you might find useful.

The first, The Crime Writer’s Casebook, by Stephen Wade and Stuart Gibbon (Straightforward Publishing), recognises that writers might be writing about historical crime as well as contemporary crime. Wade has written several history books, primarily for Pen & Sword, and so he utilises real crimes from the past, while Stuart Gibbon – who is a former Met detective – focuses on police practice and more contemporary crime investigation.

It has some very useful information, although the mix of history and modernity is a bit uneven, and it can segue into diversionary historical case studies where a more concise guide to how history can help understand modern crime might have been more useful.

The second book, The Crime Writer’s Guide to Police Practice and Procedure by Michael O’Byrne (Hale Books) is focused on the present and offers a straightforward guide to job roles (such as the Family Liaison Officer), procedures (such as the interview), and forensics and profiling.

It’s easy to read and although the law and procedures might change (as the author points out), there’s plenty here that will be useful even if things change before another edition comes out! The author is a former chief constable, with a long career behind him in both the Royal Hong Kong Police and then the Metropolitan Police, so has the experience necessary for such a book.

These are just two books that are out there; if you have any suggestions as to books you’ve found helpful in researching or writing historical crime or contemporary crime fiction, do post them in the comments or let me know, and I’ll update this post.

Book review: Revisiting the Yorkshire Ripper Murders

This new book, by Louise Wattis, is part of Palgrave Macmillan’s Histories of Gender, Violence and Victimhood series. It is part of a welcome trend in history to re-present [sic] notorious or infamous crimes against women where the victims have become sidelined or marginalised, the focus being on the male perpetrator and his life rather than on those whose lives were stopped short.

We have Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five to look forward to next month – her book looking at the Whitechapel Murders from the perspective of the women involved, and attempting to show the reader the complexity and reality of their lives, rather than the rather disturbing obsession with who their killer was, and moving deeper beyond the assumption that sex workers were targeted by the unknown murderer.

But first, we have this text that seeks to explore the Yorkshire Ripper murders, both within their own time, and subsequently, looking at how feminist perspectives and modern criminology can help us explore issues of violence, time, space and place. The impact of the serial killer’s crimes on local communities and the fear he engendered, not only on sex workers but on the wider community is recognised and studied.

The murderer, Peter Sutcliffe, is discussed both in relation to the position of serial killers within British culture, and in relation to feminism. His crimes are therefore used as a case study from which the mythologising of serial killers, and the cultural impact of such offences, can be analysed and explored. As Wattis notes, ‘the nature of this case has much to tell us about feminism, fear of crime, violence against women and serial murder, representations of victims and sex workers, and the relationship between violence, culture and the social imaginary.’ (p.2)

An interesting approach taken by Wattis is her use of oral history, whereby she interviews individuals – both men and women – who were living in the Leeds area at the time of the Yorkshire Ripper’s murders. This enables her to get differing reactions to the crimes, which differ both in terms of gender (men remembering fearing being treated as potential suspects; women worrying about their personal safety) and in terms of class and politics (sex workers, non-sex workers, and feminist activists being talked to).

Wattis states that she seeks to look at the ‘serial killer as object of captivation and ubiquity within popular culture’ (15), and she is not the first to do so, of course. Press and public alike have long been fascinated and repelled in equal measure by the actions of rogues, whether housebreakers such as Jack Sheppard or murderers such as the perpetrator of the 1811 Ratcliff(e) Highway murders, or, of course, Jack the Ripper.

Today we fancy that we live in a more civilised society than our ancestors, and yet our macabre obsession with serial killers remains – as evidenced in the pages of tabloid coverage regarding the 2006 murders of five women in Suffolk by Steve Wright – coverage which, perhaps inevitably, led to him being termed the ‘Ipswich Ripper’ in some quarters.

Like Sutcliffe and ‘Jack the Ripper’, this male violence towards women, particularly vulnerable sex workers, lends itself well to a conversation about the ‘gendered nature of the serial killer and the role of masculinity and misogyny in shaping the actuality and representation of serial murder’ (15).

Mary Ann Cotton: was she REALLY Britain’s ‘first female serial killer’?

Yet women have also been serial killers, although in lesser numbers, and their lives and offences tend to be explored slightly differently. Professor David Wilson is one of those who have studied the 19th century murderess Mary Ann Cotton, who hanged for her crimes in 1873, but who has become almost mythological in the attempt, or desire, to see her as ‘the first female serial killer’ in Britain, or a mass murderer on a scale which cannot be determined by archival evidence, or by her conviction for murder, which was not actually  for multiple murders, but for one – that of her stepson.*

The tendency seems to be for women’s economic and social lives to be explored in order to ‘understand’ their crimes; were they pushed to do it? Was it desperation that forced them to act? It has only been, really, with the case of Joanna Dennehy (who killed three men in Peterborough nearly six years ago) that we have started to recognise that women might simply have a similar desire to kill as men, and that we cannot always divide serial killers into neat gendered parcels in terms of their motivation and backgrounds.

This book is both thoughtful and thought-provoking. It puts the crimes of one individual into their spatial and temporal context, placing them within the background both of growing feminist activism in the 1970s and a resurgence of the feminist movement in the 2000s. It serves both as an analysis of the Yorkshire Ripper crimes and coverage, and of serial killing more generally, whilst placing such crimes within the context of the society in which they take place. It’s well worth a read, particularly for both history and cultural criminology students.

 

* Mary Ann Cotton is widely suspected of having murdered others, including three husbands, but it’s important to note that she was not convicted of any more killings. The doubt as to who she may have killed have helped create a mythology around her – that of ‘Britain’s first serial killer’ – when it will never be known who she actively killed, or whether a female committed multiple murders before her, but was never suspected, caught or convicted. The media, however, like their titles: and I did query the TV channel Crime+Investigation, for example, when they ran a Twitter poll on ‘who was Britain’s first serial killer?’ – giving only two options (Mary Ann Cotton v baby farmer Annie Walters), and none for the possibility that we can’t know who was the ‘first’, or that it was a woman.

 

 

Jack the Ripper outdone

The headline in the Burnley Express, 14 August 1895, p.4
(from the British Newspaper Archive)

Since 1888, the name of ‘Jack the Ripper’ has been used by the press to denote many a crime so heinous that journalists struggled to describe it by any other means than by comparison to the Whitechapel Murders.

In 1895, for example, the Burnley Express described the murder of a family in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, as ‘a ghastly crime: “Jack the Ripper” outdone’. 

Bizarrely, the man, who was covered in blood, was carrying another child in his arms. The child was clad only in a nightdress, and that nightdress was on fire.

When the police rushed to the landlady’s house – one in a row on Commercial Street – they found her body wedged behind the back door.

Poor Mary Elizabeth Reynolds, like most of the Ripper victims, had been horrifically mutilated: she had died from having her throat cut, but then she had been disembowelled and her breasts cut off. 

In the back bedroom, two of Mary’s children – 16-year-old William Henry and 15-year-old Charles – were found with their throats cut. In the front room, her little grandson, William Peck, not yet four years old, was lying dead with his throat cut, and his body burned. 

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Screenshot-2019-01-21-at-10.54.06.png
Mary’s entry in the National Probate Calendar for 1896 on Ancestry. In 1891, she was listed in the census as a widow – here, she is recorded as a spinster (Mary Elizabeth Peck was born in Arnold, Notts, in the June quarter of 1847, but I haven’t been found evidence of a formal marriage to a Mr Reynolds).

The murderer, labourer Henry Wright, 35, had murdered all but one of the inhabitants of his lodgings before setting fire to the front bedroom where the little boy lay. By the time the fire brigade arrived, the upper floor of the house was completely in flames.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Mansfield_Old_Town_Hall_and_Old_Court.jpg
The Old Town Hall and Old Court in Mansfield (photo by David Hallam-Jones on Geograph)

The murders had been committed on Sunday 11 August, and it wasn’t until 4 September that Henry appeared at the Mansfield Police Court, on four counts of murder. He had been in the infirmary until this point, and was still so weak that he had to be supported on a chair by two policemen. He was fitting, and clearly unwell.

The first person to speak before him was George Reynolds, Mary’s stepson, who had escaped Henry Wright’s murderous urges. He had woken up at 2am smelling smoke, and had found his bedroom door locked from the outside, but managed to escape.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Screenshot-2019-01-21-at-10.57.12.png
In 1891, Mary was living at 1 Star Terrace, Commercial Street, Mansfield. With her were William and ‘Charley’, the two sons who were murdered with her four years later.
(via Ancestry)

He spoke of how Henry Wright had appeared infatuated with Mary, and had wanted to marry her – but disliked the fact that she had children, who he saw as getting in the way of his desires. In short, Mary had refused him, and he thought it was because the children didn’t like him.

George was lucky, though: the police had arrived as he was desperately trying to get out of his room, and had, despite the flames, managed to rescue him.

As he spoke, Henry appeared to faint several times – but a doctor, called to examine him, believed him to be faking symptoms of ill health. He was therefore committed to trial at the Nottingham Assizes and, on 4 December 1895, he was found guilty and sentenced to death. It was argued in court that he had been in a ‘homicidal mania’ following Mrs Reynolds’ rejection of him, as he perceived it.

As was sadly common with male murderers such as Wright, his motive for murder was unrequited love – or rather, seeing himself as a spurned lover. Domestic violence often centres around the male desire for control, for power: and when that control is seen to be lost, murder is sometimes the result, as too many stories in the modern press attest. 

Wright stated that if he ‘could not have Mrs Reynolds, no one else should’. He murdered her to make sure that she could not love anyone else, mutilating her body to perhaps make her less attractive to him and to others, in some warped kind of thinking.

He then murdered the younger children because he was fixated on them, seeing them as being the reason why Mrs Reynolds would not marry him, rather than her simply not wanting to. He wanted the woman, but not the family.

So although the mutilation of a woman made the Victorian press think of Jack the Ripper, Henry Wright was no Ripper, but a man who sought control and who refused to recognise a woman’s right to reject him and to love her children.

The Home Secretary refused to recommend a reprieve in Henry Wright’s case, and he was duly executed at Bagthorpe Jail on Christmas Eve, 1895. He was said to have walked to the scaffold ‘in apparent anguish of mind’, having previously sat through his trial ‘in seeming indifference’.

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It was certainly a horrific crime with similarities to the Whitechapel deaths, but in this case, there was little doubt as to who the perpetrator was, for he had walked naked (apart from a pair of socks) into a police station with a nasty wound to his throat, telling a startled policeman that he had just killed his landlady – Mary Elizabeth Reynolds, aged around 48 – and three children.

Bizarrely, the man, who was covered in blood, was carrying another child in his arms. The child was clad only in a nightdress, and that nightdress was on fire.

When the police rushed to the landlady’s house – one in a row on Commercial Street – they found her body wedged behind the back door.

Poor Mary Elizabeth Reynolds, like the Ripper victims, had been horrifically mutilated: she had died from having her throat cut, but then she had been disembowelled and her breasts cut off. 

In the back bedroom, two of Mary’s children – 16-year-old William Henry and 15-year-old Charles – were found with their throats cut. In the front room, her little grandson, William Peck, not yet four years old, was lying dead with his throat cut, and his body burned. 

Mary’s entry in the National Probate Calendar for 1896 on Ancestry. In 1891, she was listed in the census as a widow – here, she is recorded as a spinster (Mary Elizabeth Peck was born in Arnold, Notts, in the June quarter of 1847, but I haven’t been found evidence of a formal marriage to a Mr Reynolds).

The murderer, labourer Henry Wright, 35, had murdered all but one of the inhabitants of his lodgings before setting fire to the front bedroom where the little boy lay. By the time the fire brigade arrived, the upper floor of the house was completely in flames.

The Old Town Hall and Old Court in Mansfield (photo by David Hallam-Jones on Geograph)

The murders had been committed on Sunday 11 August, and it wasn’t until 4 September that Henry appeared at the Mansfield Police Court, on four counts of murder. He had been in the infirmary until this point, and was still so weak that he had to be supported on a chair by two policemen. He was fitting, and clearly unwell.

The first person to speak before him was George Reynolds, Mary’s stepson, who had, inexplicably, escaped Henry Wright’s murderous urges. He had woken up at 2am smelling smoke, and had found his bedroom door locked from the outside, but managed to escape.

In 1891, Mary was living at 1 Star Terrace, Commercial Street, Mansfield. With her were William and ‘Charley’, the two sons who were murdered with her four years later.
(via Ancestry)

He spoke of how Henry Wright had appeared infatuated with Mary, and had wanted to marry her – but disliked the fact that she had children, who he saw as getting in the way of his desires. George was lucky: the police had arrived as he was desperately trying to get out of his room, and had, despite the flames, managed to rescue him.

As he spoke, Henry appeared to faint several times – but a doctor, called to examine him, believed him to be faking symptoms of ill health. Despite appearing mentally unstable to modern eyes, he was committed to trial at the Nottingham Assizes and, on 4 December 1895, he was found guilty and sentenced to death, it being argued that he had been in a ‘homicidal mania’ following Mrs Reynolds’ rejection of him, as he perceived it.

As was sadly common with male murderers such as Wright, his motive for murder was unrequited love – or rather, seeing himself as a spurned lover. Domestic violence often centres around the male desire for control, for power: and when that control is seen to be lost, murder is sometimes the result, as too many stories in the modern press attest. 

Wright stated that if he ‘could not have Mrs Reynolds, no one else should’. He murdered her to make sure that she could not love anyone else, mutilating her body to perhaps make her less attractive to him and to others, in some warped kind of thinking.

He then murdered the younger children because he was fixated on them, seeing them as being the reason why Mrs Reynolds would not marry him, rather than part of her. He wanted the woman, but not the family.

So although the mutilation of a woman made the Victorian press think of Jack the Ripper, Henry Wright was no Ripper, but a man who sought control and who refused to recognise a woman’s right to reject him and to love her children.

The Home Secretary refused to recommend a reprieve in Henry Wright’s case, and he was duly executed at Bagthorpe Jail on Christmas Eve, 1895. He was said to have walked to the scaffold ‘in apparent anguish of mind’, having previously sat through his trial ‘in seeming indifference’.

Book Review: Convicts in the Colonies

Regular readers of this blog will already know of Lucy Williams’ work – she has been kind enough to write guest posts for me, and those who are interested in crime history will undoubtedly know of her own blog, Wayward Women, on which her first book for Pen & Sword was based.

Other books have followed in what seem like quick succession – I am in awe of her sheer productivity, which contrasts with my own procrastination and general laziness – and now her latest P&S book, Convicts in the Colonies: Transportation Tales from Britain to Australia, has been published.

With each of her books, you can see Lucy’s development as a writer. Although she has always been good, her confidence in writing for a general rather than academic audience has grown, and this is, perhaps, the culmination of her previous efforts. It is a labour of love, being based on her ‘day job’ as a research assistant on the Digital Panopticon project (which again I’ve covered before on this blog), and her knowledge and interest in the subject is evident throughout.

The book looks in death at those who were sentenced to transportation to Australia in the 18th and 19th centuries, using case studies as well as historical background and contextualisation to build a picture of what life was like for convicts from the point of sentencing to the end of their lives. The journey to the other side of the world, the conditions, and the options open to them in Australia, are all explored using original records and accounts.

Some P&S histories that are based on individual case studies can be a bit disappointing when they rattle through the individual’s life without context or background. This book avoids that disappointment by weaving the cases into a wider narrative about convict life and experience, showing the variety of individuals who had to begin their lives again in an often difficult environment, and how transportation could actually offer them the opportunity to progress further in life than they would have been able to do within the more rigid societal systems of Britain.

Convicts in the Colonies: Transportation Tales from Britain to Australia, by Lucy Williams, is published by Pen & Sword and costs £19.99 (hardback). You can buy it from the Pen & Sword website, Amazon, or ‘all good booksellers’.

Why John Power didn’t hang

The City of Waterford today ( © Nell Darby)

John Power was a respectable and respected man in his home community of Clonmoyle, County Waterford. He was a farmer, regarded as being ‘in a big way of business’, and a member of the Carrick-on-Suir district council. He was also a wife abuser, and on this day in 1900, he should have been hanged at Waterford Gaol, the punishment for murdering Mrs Power.

It was Bonfire Night, 5 November 1899, when he had killed his wife, and when her body was examined, it was found to have ‘evidence of shocking ill-usage’. John Power was said to have ‘had some drink’ prior to the murder; his wife had not.

Just month later, he was found guilty of murder at the Leinster Winter Assizes. His downfall was complete, it seemed: whereas he was once held in high esteem by his neighbours, he was now described as having committed a crime of ‘a most brutal character’.

The jury could barely believe the evidence before them regarding this scion of the community, and recommended him to mercy. The trial judge, Justice Johnson, did not share their feelings, and told the jury he could ‘hold out little hope that the sentence would be commuted.’

The case is interesting because of the relative lack of interest the British press showed towards it. Ireland was still part of Britain, still governed by Westminster (although since 1898, the Irish had had more control over local matters through their county councils). This was a British case in that respect, and the British provincial press tended to cover murder cases from around the British Isles in as much gory detail as possible.

Yet the coverage of this particular case was muted to the extreme. A couple of lines here and there – only one longer piece, published soon after the murder. The newsworthy part of the case was not the murder itself, or the longer-term treatment of a wife by her husband; it was the husband’s position as a district councillor that was worthy of coverage.

The case was interesting because it was not the working-classes who were involved: this was no labouring man beating his wife to death following one too many pints – it was longstanding domestic violence involving someone seen as above reproach by his friends and neighbours.

The victim herself was interesting only because of who her husband was; in only one of the articles I have found relating to the case was she even named. She was Nano Power, a woman so loved by her family that her ‘very old’ mother had kneeled down over her dead body as it lay in her home, to pray for her.

And, perhaps unsurprisingly, her husband never underwent the ultimate punishment for her death, as he should have done on 8 January 1900. His death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment on 29 December 1899, in recognition of the ‘circumstances’ surrounding the offence with which he had been found guilty.

His solicitor, Joseph F Quirk, was said to have ‘exercised all the influence he possesses’ to get the death sentence commuted, and his ‘well-recognised reputation as an energetic and thoroughly reliable legal advocate’ with ‘influence’ was lauded in the press. He was said to have been ‘proud’ of his success in this particular case.

He had defended a man who had been heard to speak crossly to his wife on numerous occasions, because she ‘used not to do things he told her to do’. In the months prior to her death, she had appeared ‘frightened’ to her neighbours.

The 1901 census for Clonmoyle shows Nano and John Power’s children now living with their aunt and uncle.

He was a man who had spoken rudely to his wife in front of their 12 year old son, William; who had been so appalling to her that his two eldest children – William and his younger brother, Laurence, 10, – had run away into nearby fields so that they would not have to see their mother abused.

They had seen their mother try and run away from her husband, only to be caught and pulled back into the kitchen by him. The Power family servant, young Minnie Shanahan, had seen her master hit her mistress with his fist, and, loyal to Nano Power, had tried to save her by trying to stand between husband and wife.

Nano Power tried to defuse her husband’s anger by acting quiet and docile; she would remove herself from situations, sitting on the stairs, making herself occupy as small a space as possible. She was a regular attender of Mass; she acted peacemaker and homemaker, preparing meals and ensuring they were ready for her husband whenever he wanted them.

In return, her husband killed her, in view of their servant, who he then asked to perjure herself and deny she had seen anything, or else he would tell everyone in their neighbourhood that she was an informer ‘and all the neighbours would be down on me, and myself and my father and mother would be disgraced for ever’, as Minnie later bravely stated.

This was the man whose sentence was commuted, and whose solicitor was ‘proud’ of having helped this local farmer. At the Assizes, much was made of Minnie’s testimony, and how it conflicted with what she had said earlier at Nano Power’s inquest.

One can understand this young servant girl’s confusion, her desire to help her mistress – even in death – and how that contrasted with her fear of her master and of the other local bigwigs who, she said, had threatened her with gaol depending on what she said.

She had to admit that Nano had taken drink the day of her death; that whisky had been found in Nano’s room, and that Nano had been complaining of a pain in her back earlier (the insinuation being, perhaps, that she had died of natural causes – despite bruises being found on her body that were not there earlier in the day, and the postmortem concluding that she had a severe head wound, possibly inflicted by being kicked by a boot-wearing individual).

John Power had also drunk several glasses of alcohol, but it was Nano’s drinking that was judged. It was Nano’s character that the defence attempted to assassinate, despite the evidence that she had received a whole series of injuries, including bruised and broken ribs (five broken on each side), a broken arm, and her left lung pierced by one of the broken ribs.

She had bruising from her head down to her stomach. She had a ruptured liver and a torn spleen. She was thin, poorly nourished; but, crucially, there was no damage to her organs that indicated regular alcohol intake, and no alcohol at all was found in her stomach.

Yet. The defence still argued that she had not been murdered. She may have fallen down stairs (an argument that doctors refuted). John Power may have put his arms too tightly round her whilst trying to carry his drunken wife upstairs, thus accidentally breaking her ribs (another argument that was refuted).

The 1899 entry for John Power in the Irish Prison Registers 1790-1924 collection on Findmypast.

Power was convicted of murder, but the jury – drawn from his class and background – still sympathised. They preferred to believe that he had been married to a drunken woman, and his family had closed ranks, with his cousin backing John’s allegations of female drunkenness.

Even John Power’s earlier efforts to prevent there being an inquest into his wife’s death were seen as the result of a loving husband not wanting it to become publicly known that ‘his unfortunate wife was subjected to this lamentable vice’, rather than the efforts of an abusive, violent husband to escape punishment and the shame of seeing his position in society ruined.

One man who does seem to have been on Nano Power’s side was the judge at John Power’s trial. He poured scorn on the idea that Nano had fallen downstairs, stressed that their sons had seen their mother mistreated by their father, and ridiculed John Power’s assertions that there had been ‘peace and contentment’ in their house the night of the murder, and that Nano might have killed herself (by hitting herself in the head with his boot?).

He also stressed that Nano, aged 45 when she died, was ‘frail and ill-nourished’, that she was a ‘poor creature’ who had never even tried to act in self-defence towards her husband.

The judge saw John Power as a ‘wretched man’, who displayed ‘brutal and cowardly violence’ towards his wife. The jury, the defence solicitor, the Home Secretary, and the local community in County Waterford all appear to have either disagreed, or to have preferred to ignore what was before them.

And as a result, John Power didn’t hang.

Extract from the Waterford Registers & Records set on Findmypast, originally from Waterford City & County Council, detailing Nano Power’s death.

With thanks to Findmypast and The British Newspaper Archive, whose resources were used in researching this story.

Book Review: The 19th Century Underworld

Pen & Sword is putting an increased emphasis on the history of crime at the moment, which in my mind is obviously a good thing – as is their use of academic historians, using their skills and research to explore aspects of crime history for a general readership.

A recent release in this area is The 19th Century Underworld, by Dr Stephen Carver, who, although a cultural historian, is also an experienced literature lecturer. His interests in 19th century literature and history come together in his book, which inevitably touches on Jack the Ripper (although here he is presented as a Gothic icon) and bodysnatchers, as well as poverty, pornography and prostitution.

Carver acknowledges our awareness of the ‘grimness’ of Victorian rookeries, and our debt to Charles Dickens in his portrayals of the undesirable aspects of 19th century life; but he also goes beyond this, looking further back in history to show how 18th century law and order and population increases led to the subsequent problems associated with Victoria‘s reign.

There is, perhaps unsurprisingly, an emphasis on the London experience here, in terms of looking at policing, the Ripper, and the crime associated with the infamous Ratcliff Highway in east London; but this is also to do with the sources – books, broadsides and newspapers were as fascinated with life in the capital as we are today (this is also indirectly acknowledged by Carver in his discussion of Victorian literature and media towards the end of the book).

But this is not to say that the provinces are ignored, and crimes elsewhere are explored. There is plenty for everyone, regardless of what aspect of the 19th century underworld they are interested in; Carver’s interest in, and knowledge of, the literature is evident throughout, and he takes the reader on a rapid walk through the nooks and crannies of 19th century life, where you’re never quite sure of what lurks around the corner, but whatever it is, it is bound to be darkly fascinating.

The 19th Century Underworld, by Stephen Carver, is published by Pen & Sword and can be ordered from the publisher’s website, Amazon, or booksellers.