Criminal Historian

Working with dead people

Book review: The Crime Museum Uncovered

9781781300411First things first – this is a beautifully designed book. It’s a good slab of a coffee-table book for its £12.99, and is visually striking. That’s not just the front cover, but throughout – the page design is lovely, the choice of black/white/orange works extremely well, and I’d be proud to have written a book that is presented so well by the publisher.

It’s also a bit of a page turner. There’s not that much text on each page – the focus is on the images throughout, which are artefacts and documents taken from the exhibition, and that is absolutely the right approach. Yet it is still difficult to put down. Because there is only a relatively short amount of text per story or theme, the temptation is to ‘just’ read another page or story before you finish.

There is a mix of cases presented here – both famous crimes (or infamous), and those that were once famous but are now rather forgotten about, or those that were always seen as less newsworthy than others, because of their mundanity or commonality. Therefore, there’s something for everyone (as long as you have an interest in crime in the first place, that is).

Those are the good points – and they far outweigh the bad. There are a few typos, which is a shame (for example, one of the murderers mentioned in the book has his name spelled two different ways); an index would have been useful to look up individuals or particular case.

The timeline that the exhibition itself uses would have been good to have more clearly in the book. Although there is a fairly short one that whizzes through the key developments, I would have liked a more comprehensive, slightly more detailed timeline, using a larger font and clearer design for dates. There is always an emphasis here on the criminals and their victims, but I am curious about the detectives themselves, some of whose names are listed, but whose work and lives are ignored or glossed over.

But if you have your interest whetted in a particular case, individual, or artefact, this book will give you the information you need. The photography is very good, and so the book acts as an aide memoire after visiting the exhibition, as well as a standalone introduction to one of the most secretive museums in London’s history.

The Crime Museum Uncovered: Inside Scotland Yard’s Special Collection, by Jackie Kiely and Julia Hoffbrand, is on sale from 9 October 2015, at the price of £12.99. It is published by IB Tauris.

The Crime Museum Uncovered, Examined

IMG_9761This morning, I was able to attend the press preview of The Crime Museum Uncovered, the Museum of London‘s major new exhibition, which opens to the public this Friday.

I have previously written about the exhibition on this blog and on the History Today website, where I had expressed concern about how the exhibition might end up mythologising criminals, through its publicity focus on the likes of the Krays and the Great Train Robbery.

So did the exhibition allay my fears? Mainly, yes.

IMG_9737There has been a concerted effort on the part of the curators to keep in mind that every crime has a victim as well as a perpetrator. Where possible, they have included photographs of both offender and victim(s), so that the visitor is always reminded of those who have suffered as a result of violence.

This has been particularly well done in the case of the display about the Great Train Robbery. It is easy to forget, given the fact that a movie was made about one of the robbers, and another was made out almost to be a folk-hero, that there was a victim – Jack Mills, the train driver. In the exhibition, in the middle of an array of artefacts, is a striking black and white image of the injured Mills, bandaged and bruised. There is no detailed commentary about this – there is no need. He is at the centre of the display, where he should be.

And the uneasy questions that might arise from an exhibition of crimes, criminals and criminal artefacts are not evaded – they are faced straight-on. The final room of the exhibition is an area for contemplation, where visitors can submit their views on computer screens, or sit and listen to talking heads discuss issues around the exhibition – including the key one:

“Should this collection be open to the public?”

Here, the likes of Victims’ Commissioner Baroness Newlove and KCL Chair of Philosophy Law Leif Weinar join individuals from the Met, the Crime Museum and the London Mayoral office, as well as Jackie Keily, co-curator of the exhibition, to talk about the exhibition and the issues it raises.

Perhaps the main problem of the exhibition lies in the sheer amount of information it presents – through items rather than words. There is so much to look at that more than one visit may be needed to do it justice.

There is also the problem of emphasis. The emphasis is not on the Crime Museum’s early history; at the long-lead press preview, I was told this was because of a relative lack of artefacts from its early period – all of the Crime Museum’s early material was going to be included, which suggested there wasn’t that much. But there is – and it has been crammed into too small a space.

The recreation of the Crime Museum room to house these earlier artefacts is a great idea, and the room has been designed well as a space. But it is too crammed with stuff, meaning that it is difficult to view everything clearly. The prime example is that of the criminals’ death masks, which are fascinating – but they are placed round the room on a high shelf, making it difficult to see them very closely.

Too high, m'lud!

Too high, m’lud!

Criminal records are all put together under the glass of a table, too many for the space. For those of us particularly interested in the early history, it is frustrating not to be able to see everything clearly.

IMG_9723To get from this space to the more spacious room that details themes and individual cases, visitors make their way through a corridor where the nooses used to hang notorious figures line one side.

This is done well; each noose, with a small label detailing who it was used on, against a backdrop of a Victorian image of a crowd baying at an execution.

The first room in the exhibition, which leads into the ‘recreation’ of the Crime Museum is also a perfect way to start, with its introduction to the museum and its timeline of key events in policing history. If anything, I would have liked more of this history and context.

The only thing I didn’t like was the first thing you see when you come down the stairs to the exhibition space – a modern police car, all brash and well-lit. It seems to sit incongruously with the darker tones of the exhibition and its primary focus on a prior history.

But the Museum of London has an incredible pedigree of producing absorbing, informative, yet interactive and easy to follow exhibitions, such as its Dickens and Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men ones, both of which I enjoyed.

IMG_9745This doesn’t fail either; a lot of thought and research has gone into uncovering the Crime Museum.

Although I may have liked to see more input from criminal historians (not just me!), it’s still a thoughtful, and careful, exploration of crime and those involved in it – criminals, victims, policemen, and others within the criminal justice system who have had to deal with often disturbing or upsetting cases, but who have, till now, been neglected.

The Crime Museum Uncovered opens on 9 October and continues until 10 April 2016; tickets can be purchased from the Museum of London here.

Tomorrow, on this blog, I will be reviewing the book that accompanies the exhibition – The Crime Museum Uncovered: Inside Scotland Yard’s Special Collection.





Coveting clothing: six women, one theft, in 18th century London

An 18th century laundress - the occupation of Ann Taylor

An 18th century laundress – the occupation of Ann Taylor

On 9 December 1789, laundress Ann Taylor and Elizabeth Wylie, a needlewoman, were put on trial at the Old Bailey, accused of stealing four pieces of cambric fabric from a warehouse in St Martin’s Lane.

This was a crime alleged to have been committed by two women, against two women; the muslin and ready made linen warehouse, near the Strand, was owned by two sisters, Ann and Anna Maria Tapp.

At the time, Ann Tapp said, Taylor and Wylie were the only customers in the warehouse shop, having come in to buy a neckcloth, or cravat.

While Ann Taylor was paying for it, Elizabeth Wylie went to the window to look at another neckcloth that was on display there. As that happened, Ann Tapp said:

“Two other women came in while they were in the shop; I turned round to speak to them other women, and I thought I heard something move while I was speaking to them; I fancied they took the cambric; I missed it directly.”

The Tapps’ father then came into the shop, and Ann Tapp told him her suspicions. She went to the magistrate in the evening – presumably after the shop had closed – to report Taylor and Wylie for grand larceny (the cambric being valued at £3, well over the amount that would make the offence the lesser one of petty larceny).

At trial, the counsel, Garrick, tried to suggest that Ann Tapp had originally thought the other two customers had stolen the cambric, and that the paper she had said the cambric had been stored in had originally been referred to as ‘waste paper’. Garrick clearly felt the offence was trivial, perhaps because of the gender of complainants and defendants. He asked Ann Tapp,

“You know that this indictment imputes a capital offence to each of these prisoners? You did not know, perhaps, that this indictment affected the lives of the prisoners?”

Ann Tapp was made to feel guilty for bringing the complaint; before Garrick, she said she would be “very sorry” to know that Taylor and Wylie were suffering. Her own family’s fortunes were then brought up; her father was in “very distressed” circumstances, and wasn’t it the case that the business was actually her father’s, and she simply worked there for him?

Ann Tapp, rightly, objected to this question, as it suggested that she could not possibly be in charge herself, as a woman and daughter. She confidently asserted that it was her and her sister’s business:

“She is in partnership with me, and no other person; my father has no interest in the business at all but what I choose to give him; it is one thing to assist a father who is in distress, and another to be a partner. The trade is quite independent of my father; he is not answerable for anything that goes in, or anything that goes out.”

Her father, Francis, was also called on to give evidence, and clearly referred to the warehouse as being “my daughters’ shop”. He said when he turned up at the shop, either Ann Taylor or Elizabeth Wylie admitted to taking the cambric and wanted to leave, but he wouldn’t let them. He rang the bell in the shop to call the servant, and told her to run and get the constable. When he, and the magistrate, Thomas Mumford, turned up, one of the accused ran up to the shop counter and dropped the cambric’s paper, saying, “Lord bless me! Here is some waste paper lays!” to try and make out that she had discovered rather than stolen it.

Garrick was not convinced. He thought the Tapps were overestimating the value of the cambric, and suggested that they were trying to make the two accused women face the death penalty, therefore being unduly harsh towards two of their own gender. But although Elizabeth Wylie called two witnesses to attest to her good character, both she and Ann Taylor were found guilty and sentenced to death.

The pardon granted to Elizabeth Wylie and Ann Taylor in 1790, via Findmypast.

The pardon granted to Elizabeth Wylie and Ann Taylor in 1790, via Findmypast.

This was not the end of the story, however. The jury had recommended the pair to mercy, and in 1790, two petitions were submitted to John William Rose, Recorder of London, asking for clemency in the case. The petitions were submitted by the women themselves, and by two aldermen and another alderman who also happened to be a London MP.

They argued that they were not only innocent of the crime, and that the failure of the other two women in the shop to appear as witnesses for the prosecution affected their trial, but that the early trial – which took place just a week after the alleged theft – had prevented them from finding either sufficient character witnesses, statements of previous good character, or sureties for their good behaviour. In addition, Ann Taylor said that she was a widow with three young children to support.

Their heartfelt petitions worked. The Recorder recommended mercy, on condition that they find financial sureties for good behaviour for the time equal to the remainder of their sentence. In December 1790, Elizabeth Wylie and Ann Taylor were formally pardoned, a year after being sentenced to death.

Sources:, ref t17891209-7, TNA HO47/12/54 (read at TNA) and TNA HO13, accessed via

Edwin Tyson, the vindictive vicar who got up the noses of the Grand Jury

Milburn, a village formerly in Westmorland, now in Cumbria

Milburn, a village formerly in Westmorland, now in Cumbria

In 1861, Mr Thomas Cox found himself without a job. He had been, until recently, the village schoolmaster in Milburn, and hoped – needed – to get another position as soon as possible. Yet, for unknown reasons, he was unable to find either references or a job, so he decided on a rather rash course of action.

He applied for a job, but instead of enclosing the details of contacts with his application, who could be approached for references, wrote glowing testimonials of his personal and professional qualities himself, signed by individuals who certainly existed, but who had no idea that their names were being used in this context.

Unfortunately for Cox, he had, it seems, lost his previous job after engaging in a spat with a local clergyman, Edwin Tyson, who was a 65-year-old Yorkshireman described in the 1861 Westmorland census as a ‘clergyman without cure of souls’. This meant that he did not have a parish of his own to take care of.

Cox had been employed at the local national school – which, of course, would have close links with the Church of England, and therefore with the local parish church. Reverend Tyson had strong views about how the school should be run, but Cox had disagreed with him. They had quarrelled over the school’s management, and Tyson held a grudge.

Thomas Cox's entry in the 1861 Milburn census

Thomas Cox’s entry in the 1861 Milburn census

He suspected Cox of taking unethical steps to procure another job – for Tyson would have refused to have provided a reference. In addition, Milburn was a small place, and gossip may have reached his ears about Cox’s intentions. So the vicar started criminal proceedings against the schoolmaster.

However, when the case came before the Grand Jury at the Westmorland Summer Assizes, the clergyman was seen in rather an unholy light. His actions were seen as vindictive, and the prosecution brought out of malice.

The jury also heard that the men whose names had been used as referees had given depositions, where at least ‘some’ of them stated that they would have been ‘perfectly willing to give him that character’ that he had written for himself.

In addition, there was doubt as to whether he had deliberately written the references without their consent; some said that they had authorised him to write them on their behalf – presumably, they did not have the time or inclination to think up a paragraph themselves.

If Cox HAD written these references with a deliberate intent to mislead, this would, the judge made clear, be an offence at common law – the offence of forgery. Yet it seems that the jury had taken against the vicar and his desire to punish Cox for disagreeing with him over the school’s management. After retiring for 45 minutes to discuss the case, the jury ‘ignored the bill’ and the case was dropped.

Source: The Lancaster Gazette, 10 August 1861

Escape to Philadelphia: how Mr Wills, the bigamist who made his wife commit incest, got away with it

Early 19th century portrait of a Bethlem patient

Early 19th century portrait of a Bethlem patient

In 1857, the newspapers were full of breathless tales about one man, whose name changed according both to his desire and the individual newspaper’s disregard of the facts.

This was a man who lied his way across the Atlantic, who had deserted his young wife and left her in Bedlam, committed bigamy, and left his first wife destitute. Yet the press coverage described his story as “very romantic” and he was portrayed as a “principal actor” in a drama that was viewed more as a romantic fiction than as a real tale with real victims.

The man in question was called John Blair Wills, but he also used the name John Goddard. He may have received a more favourable press reception than some other 19th century bigamists (of whom, there were many) because of his class; this was an educated man who claimed to be a doctor or an architect – and was readily believed.

The non-conformist baptism register for John Blair Wills in Basingstoke

The non-conformist baptism register for John Blair Wills in Basingstoke

Wills had been born in Basingstoke in 1831, and at the age of 24, had married Mary Ann Maxwell. This came after a concerted pursuit of his intended, after the had bumped into her on an omnibus in Bath when he was allegedly a medical student and she was a 12-year-old girl (The Leeds Mercury, 19 November 1857).

He had repeatedly asked Mary Ann’s parents to marry her from that time, and, understandably, they had refused permission. But five years later, when Mary Ann was now 17, they had met again in Surrey Gardens, and married in Kennington on 24 March 1855.

Mary Ann soon became pregnant, and, as the Daily News later reported, she became so ill after being confined – perhaps with what we would recognise today as post-natal depression) that she had to be placed in Bethlem Hospital. After several months, she was considered improved somewhat, and Wills was asked to come and get her. He failed to do so, and instead sent his brother, James Fenton Wills.

Then he did something beyond the pale. Bored of his wife, he duped Mary Ann into marrying his brother, taking advantage of her “simple and weak intellect”. James went along with the plan, telling Mary Ann that John had married another woman while his wife had been incarcerated, and that she was therefore free to marry again herself. Having no other source of income, and shocked at her husband’s alleged actions, she was talked into the marriage, which took place in August 1856.

Mary Ann’s friends soon found out about the wedding, and started an enquiry into John’s status. He then married Anne Good, in April 1857, meaning that both husband and wife had committed bigamy, and that Mary Ann had, in Victorian eyes, also committed incest by marrying her brother-in-law. When Mary Ann’s friends and family discovered the truth, James Wills abandoned Mary Ann. Left destitute, she was “thrown upon the parish, and received into the Lambeth Infirmary”.


The bigamous second marriage of John Blair Wills

The bigamous second marriage of John Blair Wills

John Wills and his ‘wife’ Anne then fled to Liverpool – with John’s three-year-old son* by Mary Ann – and on 7 November, they sailed together on the Great Western ship, bound for New York. The Leeds Mercury reported that all John and Anne had taken with them was “some little luggage and a little boy”.

John travelled as John Goddard, describing himself initially as a surgeon, and then later as an architect. He and Anne were said to be aiming ultimately for Philadelphia, beyond the long arms of the British police. They seem to have escaped justice (a John and Anne Wills, of the right ages, were certainly living in Philadelphia in 1870) – unlike poor Mary Ann Wills, who remained in the workhouse infirmary.

She was viewed with sympathy, and received some financial charity from individuals; yet she also seems to have been viewed like one of the poor creatures in Bedlam who 18th century ladies used to go and gawp at; in December 1857, for example, it was reported that “the Marchioness of Townshend has called and seen Mrs Wills”.

Sources: Ancestry, Dundee Courier, 2 December 1857, The Bristol Mercury, 28 November 1857, The Leeds Mercury, 24 November 1857, Leeds Mercury, 19 November 1857, Daily News, 16 November 1857, Reynold’s Newspaper, 22 November 1857

* The newspapers clearly stated that the child was a three year old boy; but there are records online suggesting that John and Mary Ann actually had a girl.

Still Reading The Riot Act

Continuing my weekend of marking the 300th anniversary of the Riot Act, here are my final five events and facts linked to this piece of legislation.

6. Rioting at the Races

Henri_Julien_Dumont_-_At_the_racesA horse race in County Down resulted in the Riot Act being read in 1813. A group of around 12 local men had gathered at the Downpatrick Racecourse on 22 July with the aim of “annoying the soldiers” – members of the East Middlesex Militia had been drafted in to control the rather exuberant crowds, members of which were said to be “not quite sober”. Unluckily for the mob, a local magistrate, William Montgomery, had been attending the races, and saw a “rush” of men start rioting. The anti-English sentiment towards them was clear, with the rioters referring to the “English buggers”. Montgomery shouted, “Fire, soldiers, or we shall all be killed!” The soldiers duly started firing shots, the magistate read the Riot Act out, and the mob was “intimidated” and dispersed.

7. Freemen’s perks

Bundesarchiv_Bild_135-S-16-19-12,_Tibetexpedition,_SchafIn Worcester, freemen of the city were allowed to let their cattle graze on a piece of ground in the city’s centre. ‘Certain encroachments’ had been made on the ground by others in August 1817 – apparently the illegal construction of buildings and fences – of and at a special committee meeting of the freemen, it was decided to serve notices on some of the ‘encroachers’, but only the ones whose constructions ‘appeared the most obnoxious’. This led to rioting and the destruction not only of some of the encroachments but also of inhabited houses. Magistrates ran to the scene and read the Riot Act, but when the crowd refused to move on, the decision was made to bring in the Worcestershire Yeomanry Cavalry. Their mere presence was enough to make the crowd disperse, but it was noted that the place attacked now presented “a singular scene of devastation”. 12 people were committed to the city’s gaol for rioting or abetting the rioters.

8. Peterloo and Press Bias

Peterloo, by Richard Carlile, from Manchester Library

Peterloo, by Richard Carlile, from Manchester Library

The Riot Act was used, notoriously, in the Peterloo Massacre of 1819 – it was read prior to the massacre, when cavalry charged the crowd that had gathered in Manchester’s St Peter’s Field for a meeting where parliamentary reforms would be demanded. Shortly after the meeting had started, local magistrates had called on its speaker, radical Henry Hunt, to be arrested and for the crowd to be dispersed under the Riot Act, which was duly read out at 1.30pm on 16 August. The Morning Post, reflecting the view of the establishment, described the radicals as “menacing”. The paper believed that the Riot Act resulted in a “masterly” result for the authorities, with the key radicals being taken into custody. In reality, 11 people were killed during the event, after militia, on horseback, charged into the protesters. [The Morning Post, 19 August 1819]
9. Escaping the Mob

1880s depiction of the Queen Square riots

1880s depiction of the Queen Square riots

In 1831, the Riot Act was read at the Queen Square Riots in Bristol. A mob had gathered to protest at the rejection of the second Reform Bill by the House of Lords. The bill had sought to give Bristol and some other cities greater representation in the Commons. The riot started at the new Bristol Assize Courts which were being opened by a local magistrate who was anti-reform, Sir Charles Wetherell. He threatened to imprison protesters, and they chased him to the Mansion House on Queen Square, where he escaped in disguise. Troops were called in during the subsequent three day riot, and four men were eventually hanged.
10. Death to Rioters

1919 copy of the Riot Act (original held in the West Midlands Police Museum)

1919 copy of the Riot Act (original held in the West Midlands Police Museum)

The Riot Act included clauses relating to crowds damaging property, such as churches, houses, barns and stables. Anyone who caused such damage could, under the Act’s provisions, be sentenced to death without benefit of clergy. Individuals could be sentenced to death under the Riot Act’s provisions until 1837, when the Punishment of Offences Act reduced the penalty to transportation for life.



For the first part of my Riot Act weekend, see here.

Reading The Riot Act

300 years ago today, on 1 August 1715, the Riot Act came into force. Introduced as a response to a series of civil disturbances that had taken place across England over the previous five years, it was intended to introduce a quicker way of punishing rioters.

Over the next two days, I’ll look at the Act’s history and how different groups of people – from theatre audiences and racegoers to dockers and stocking weavers – came under its remit.
1. A Baker’s Dozen?

riotact1The act (1 Geo I, s.2) made it illegal for 12 or more people to “unlawfully assemble and disturb the public peace”. They now had to disperse within an hour of being read a specified portion of the act, or be considered guilty of felony. In some cases, there was doubt as to how many individuals had assembled, and it seems that numbers may have been rounded up or estimated on occasion, to get to the necessary dozen. Several press reports about riots that had resulted in the Riot Act being read referred to “between ten and 12” rioters being involved, or “around 12”.
2. Riot Act Confusion

The Gordon Riots

The Gordon Riots

There could be confusion over whether the Riot Act had been properly read or not during an assembly. In the aftermath of the 1768 St George’s Fields Massacre, for example, there was doubt over whether it had actually been read. During the 1780 Gordon Riots, there was additional confusion, with the authorities being unsure whether they could stop the rioters without reading the Riot Act. Afterwards, Lord Mansfield explicitly stated that authorities could still use force to stop violence during a riot – the Riot Act simply created a further offence of failing to disperse after it had been read.
3. The Dung Wharf Riot

The Thames Marine Police headquarters in Wapping (own photo, taken in the Thames Police Museum)

The Thames Marine Police headquarters in Wapping (own photo, taken in the Thames Police Museum)

In 1798, the wonderfully named Dung Wharf Riot in Wapping took place. It was a response to the formation of a new, privately funded police force that aimed to stop the problem of thefts from ships, dockyards and storage yards on the Thames. The Thames Marine Police were resented by many local workers, for whom the thefts represented a valuable supplementary income. During the subsequent riot, the famous magistrate Patrick Colquhoun – one of the Marine Police’s founders – came out of his office to read the Riot Act. However, although the rioters briefly dispersed, they then gathered again and a local off-duty officer was killed. One of the rioters was hanged, but the Marine Police continued. [I wrote about this riot for Who Do You Think You Are? magazine; their podcast, featuring me talking about Dung Wharf, can be found here.]

4. A Theatrical Riot

new theatreThe opening of the New Theatre in Covent Garden on 18 September 1809 nearly led to the Riot Act being called. Shakespearean actor John Philip Kemble started to read an address to the audience, but couldn’t make himself heard over the over-excitement of the theatre goers. When he gave up and walked off stage, the audience started shouting – there was a “clamour and jarring of discordant vociferation, some calling, off! Off! And others, go on! Go on!”. A local magistrate, Justice Read, and his colleagues from the Bow Street police office turned up, but on seeing him produce a paper – widely believed to be a copy of the Riot Act – the audience hissed him until he gave up. After singing God Save The King very loudly, several times, the audience eventually gave up, but not until “a very late hour”. The night was the first in what became the  Old Price Riots – three months of discord that originated with rising ticket prices.
5. A Funereal Reading of the Riot Act

760px-Lee's_knitting_frameProblems in the Nottingham hosiery industry led to many stocking-weavers there being laid off. Reduced to a state of near starvation and reliance on parish relief as a result of economic pressures, the men were then driven to despair when many employers introduced the new wide stocking frames, which needed less manual labour. The weavers started to break into manufacturers’ premises to destroy these frames – in one day, they destroyed 53 frames in Sutton, Notts, alone. One man was shot and several more injured. When the funeral of the shot man took place, the High Sheriff, Under Sheriff and six magistrates turned up, acompanied by a group of constables and 30 mounted dragoons. The Riot Act was read, and as the coffin was being lowered into the grave, the High Sheriff announced that an hour had elapsed since the Act had been read, and that mourners would be arrested if they did not immediately disperse. The funeral ended rather quickly as a result.
Numbers 6 to 10 in my list of cases where the Riot Act was read will be published tomorrow.

Murdered by a travelling showman

The Illustrated Police News' depiction of the murder (via British Newspaper Archive)

The Illustrated Police News’ depiction of the murder (via British Newspaper Archive)

Robert West was a travelling showman, running a coconut shy at the fairs that toured around England. Originally from Oxford, he was around 44 years old, and was used to a peripatetic life.

He had arrived, in his caravan, at the village of Handsworth Woodhouse near Sheffield at 11.30pm on Friday night, 23 August, his intention being to remain and set his shy up at the village feast that weekend.

He started quarreling with his wife Emma, which often happened as the result of Robert’s tendency to drink. Their son – one of their six children – realised Robert was drunk, and was arguing as a result of jealousy over his wife’s perceived behaviour. The son went off for a walk to get away from them.

While he was out, at 1am, West went running up to Police Sergeant Ford of the West Riding constabulary, as he was passing the caravan on his patrols.

“I’ve murdered my wife!” West shouted, and PS Ford ran with him to the van, where he found Emma lying on the floor, almost decapitated. By her side was a large knife, and the floor was covered in blood.

West was taken into custody at Sheffield, and immediately made a written confession. However, he had, in front of PS Ford, first said that he was “satisfied” with the murder, and “regretted that he had not also murdered the man whom he alleges to have been intimate with his wife”.

In the police court, Robert cross-examined Emma’s mother himself. She had got very upset, and shouted, “You bad, bad man, you murderer, you villain!”

Robert responded, “You can talk, but you are as bad as every one of them.”

“Am I, you bad villain? You murderer of my poor daughter!” screamed his mother-in-law.

Robert muttered,

“I am very glad I did it, and I am only sorry I did not do both of them. All I want is to die now, and the sooner the better. I shall then be out of the way. I told her I should do it, and I am glad I did it. I wish I’d done the other one as well.”

PS Ford then explained that as he had walked Robert to the police station after the murder, he had said,

“This thing has been brewing, it will be 12 months next Sunday, When we was here at the feast last year I began to find out of her tricks. There’s another I intended to do first; that’s Leicester Jack, and then her, but he kept out of the way, else I should have done him first.”

Robert West was committed to the Leeds Assizes on the charge of leaving murder. As he left the dock to be committed to Wakefield Prison, he said, “Goodbye, all of you!”

The travelling showman travelled no more. He was found guilty of murder at the Assizes and was executed at Armley Prison in Leeds, on 31 December 1889.

Webb's entry in the Wakefield Prison register, from Ancestry.

Webb’s entry in the Wakefield Prison register, from Ancestry.

Sources: Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sun 25 August 1889, Illustrated Police News, 31 August 1889, Capital Punishment UK, Ancestry, British Newspaper Archive.


John Brown and his John Thomas: a perversion stopped by the Vagrancy Act

800px-Tramp_smoking_cigar_with_cane_over_arm_-_restorationJohn Brown had a bit of a predilection. The white-haired Londoner, who was around 70 years old, had a disconcerting habit of exposing himself in public places.

John Brown would get his John Thomas out at every opportunity, in any public place in the vicinity of Whitefriars.

Whitefriars, between Fleet Street and the river Thames, had once been a salubrious place, but was now acquiring a reputation as “a debtors’ sanctuary and thieves’ paradise”, a dingy area where people fought and cheated their way through life.

It was in this darkening part of London that John Brown operated, targeting not not only women, but children, horrifying them. It was in this small, grim network of alleys and wharves that Brown had been able to carry on with his anti-social, sexual behaviour for a considerable amount of time.

But in 1824, a new vagrancy act was passed, that suddenly curtailed Brown’s activities.

The interior of the Guildhall, 1820

The interior of the Guildhall, 1820

Although the vagrancy acts of the eighteenth and nineteenth century have been regarded as categorising a huge range of activities and behaviour as disorderly, or as examples of vagrancy, for the purposes of prosecution and punishment, this act showed itself to have a useful purpose.

Its predecessor had already regarded exposing oneself as an act of vagrancy, referring to “all persons openly and indecently exposing their persons in any street, public place, or highway”, but 5 Geo IV, c.83 made this clearer.

It stated that “very person wilfully, openly, lewdly, and obscenely exposing his person, in any street, road, or public highway, or in the view therefore, or in any place of public resort, with intent to insult any female” would be classed as a rogue and vagabond, and be punished by being imprisoned in the common gaol for up to three months.

This was part of a concerted effort to clamp down on activities perceived as immoral – a moral crusade, if you will, as a reaction to economic and social problems following the end of the Napoleonic Wars, that continued over the course of the 19th century.

The local residents of Whitefriars took the first opportunity to bring John Brown to the sitting magistrate of the Guildhall, Alderman Thompson. He was charged under the new act with having “for several nights successively” exposing himself to his neighbours.

Two of his victims, both women, gave evidence against him, and it was established that the case was both fully proved and came within the remit of the new statute.

Alderman Thompson regarded it as a “very aggravated” case, because Thomas repeatedly carried on his activities, night after night, and therefore sentenced him to the maximum penalty the 1824 Vagrancy Act allowed – three months of hard labour in the House of Correction.

Source: The Times, 30 June 1834, page 3; “Old and New London: Volume 1” (Cassell, Petter and Galpin, London: 1878), pp.182-199, via British History Online.



What an ass: Goodyer Long, who had sex with a donkey and lived to tell the tale

donkeyPoor Goodyer Long. Not just saddled with that name, but also saddled (appropriately) with a rather unpleasant conviction – that of bestiality with a female ass.

Bestiality was not that unusual an offence in the 18th and early 19th centuries, with criminal records detailing many cases, but usually involving boys in their teens or early twenties, trying to find an outlet for pent-up sexual desires. However, in the 1830s, there seems to have been several cases involving older men that were viewed less sympathetically than those involving the young – one 57-year-old man was executed in Bodmin in 1834 for the offence, and several other men were convicted at Exeter around the same time.

Goodyer was not a young man with no other way of dealing with his sexuality; he was a married man in his late 50s. But still, he was convicted of this capital offence “on the clearest evidence” at the Lent Assizes in Norfolk on 8 April 1837, and duly sentenced to death. The judge stated that he held out “no hopes of mercy”. He was due to be executed on 29 April, but instead was sent to the prison hulk York where, with the “exception of one indifferent muster”, he conducted himself well.

One would think that his offence would quickly alienate him from his local community – who would want to stick up for a man who stuck… well, never mind the rest of that sentence.

Yet the community DID rally round Goodyer. 29 inhabitants of the villages of Fundenhall and Tacolneston (listed as Tawlnestone) – including the rector and churchwardens, as well as the delightfully named Righteous Reeve – signed a petition to argue that he should not be executed. His wife, listed as Mary Long (actually Maria, nee Andrews), and sister, Mary Filby, also signed the petition and stuck by him.

Why did they think he deserved clemency? They actually tried several tacks. He was “usually” of good character; he was a drunk who, after a few, didn’t know what he was doing (even when an ass of any kind was involved); there was nobody at his trial to support him; his age was a mitigating factor… and lastly, the killer tack – he “may” have been suffering from insanity.

The prison ship, or hulk, York, where Goodyer Long was sent.

The prison ship, or hulk, York, where Goodyer Long was sent.

The petition, and the varied reasons for mitigation worked. On 21 April, a week before he was due to be hanged, Goodyer’s sentence was reduced to transportation for life. But again, he was sent back to the prison hulks.

He was received on the Leviathan – which had previously seen battle at Trafalgar – at Portsmouth on 1 June 1837, and then, on 14 April 1840, he was transferred to the hulk York, in Gosport, where it seems he served three years, living alongside some 500 other convicts on the ageing ship.

He was never transported. Perhaps surprisingly to modern eyes, on being discharged from the hulk, Goodyer returned to Norfolk. With few resources and a criminal record, he may have had little alternative. In 1851, he was in his home parish of Fundenhall, aged 72 and in receipt of parish relief, living with his wife. He died there two years later.


Sources: The National Archives (TNA) HO 17/75/58, 18 April 1837; 6 December 1843; The Bury & Norwich Post, 12 April 1837; 1851 census for Mill Road, Fundenhall, Norfolk (via The Genealogist); BMD Deaths, Norwich, 1853 (first quarter), 4b 203.

« Older posts

© 2015 Criminal Historian

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑