Criminal Historian

Working with dead people

Murder at Shandy Hall

Women dying of arsenic poisoning were a popular subject for the press – this later example is from the Illustrated Police News

It was January 1888. By the end of the year, Jack the Ripper would have grabbed the public and press attention with a series of brutal murders of women in the East End of London. The Met Police commissioner, Sir Charles Warren, would have resigned, condemned by public opinion after failing to find the killer (although he would agree to continue in his role until a successor was found the following year).

The Whitechapel murders may have occupied the press and public from then on, but they were not the only murders in the UK and Ireland in that year – not by any stretch. In addition, as the year started, it heralded the end of one man’s devious and shocking murderousness – and deeds that had seen his wife betrayed in the worst way possible.

Shandy Hall, home to Philip Eustace Cross (image from Cork Past and Present)

Philip Henry Eustace Cross was born at Shandy Hall, a large house in Dripsey, County Cork. He was an educated, middle-class man who had been surgeon-major with the 53rd Regiment, and who had served during the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny. His military career had seen him awarded medals for action in both of these campaigns. In 1888, he was now over 60 years old, a man who should have been looking forward to a pleasant, and more peaceable, retirement.

But Philip was not the kind of man to be happy with genteel retirement, despite appearing to be in a happy, secure family. On 17 August 1869, he had married Mary Laura Marriott. Mary was English, being from Essex and from a good social position, with the prospect of a healthy inheritance – her father was listed in the 1851 census as ‘gentleman and landed proprietor’.

They married at St James’s Church in Piccadilly, Philip leaving the church with the kudos of a younger wife on his arm – at the time, Mary was 28 to her husband’s ‘over 40’ years. Five children duly came along before, in 1874, Mary’s father, Richard, died. No marriage settlement had been given five years earlier, and now, Philip Eustace Cross got his father-in-law’s fortune of £5,000.

Despite now having plenty of money, the marriage was not happy – or at least, Philip ensured it wasn’t. He made clear his desire to end his relationship with Mary, but she stayed with her husband, believing that her marriage was for life and instead tolerating his irritation and bad behaviour towards her in a way that surprised even the most conservative of newspapers.

By the start of 1887, Dr Cross had decided to kill poor Mary. It was no coincidence that the year before, he had met a Scotswoman named Evelyn Forbes Skinner. At that time, aged around 22, she was working as a governess for the Caulfield family, who lived two miles from his own Shandy Hall. In October 1886, Miss Skinner left Mrs Caulfield’s house and became the Cross family governess at Shandy Hall. After three years, in January 1887, she moved to Carlow to become a governess there.

By this time, Miss Skinner was having an affair with Dr Cross. On 28 March, he travelled over to her, and booked them a hotel together. They spent the night together, and the following morning disappeared together. Dr Cross was not seen again until nearly a month later, when, on 22 April, he returned to Shandy Hall, failing to explain to his long-suffering wife where he had been.

A week later, an old school friend of Mary’s, a Miss Jefferson, arrived to see her old friend. She knew that Mary was usually in very good health, but on seeing her, recognised that she was poorly. She was also rather despondent, being very aware of her husband’s adultery.

Yet it was later commented that she ‘appeared to be an uncomplaining creature, not given to insisting on her rights’, and that she ‘preferred to brood over the wrong done her and pine away beneath her load of sorrow.’ So when she became increasingly unwell over the course of May 1887, others believed she was simply responding to her husband’s bad behaviour.

The symptoms of poisoning were present, despite the desire of others to see her illness as psychological. She had heart spasms, cramps, vomiting, and diarrhoea. She had to call on servants during the night to come and help ease her suffering. She was in pain.

Through her month of illness, her callous husband continued to sleep in the same bedroom as her. On at least one occasion, a servant was called by Mrs Cross to their bedroom, only to find Philip fast asleep in the neighbouring bed, oblivious to his wife’s struggles. He appeared not to care, and paid her no attention. On the last night of her life, Philip and Mary Cross were together in their bedroom. He poured both of them a glass of brandy – but added a little something to Mary’s. During the night, the servants heard screaming coming from the room, but as Philip hadn’t summoned them, they stayed in their own rooms. It was only at six o’clock the next morning, when they were already up and working, that Philip came to them and said:

“Get up, ye girls, the mistress is gone [dead] since half-past one last night.”

At six o’clock the next morning, not much over 24 hours since she had died, Mary Laura Cross was buried in a private funeral (you can see images of her grave at Findagrave here).

The marriage allegation for the very recently widowed Philip, and his lover Evelyn (from Ancestry; original document at London Metropolitan Archives)

This was not the end of the grubby story. 15 days after his wife’s untimely death, the impatient Philip Eustace Cross married Evelyn Skinner – in the same church in London where he had married Mary 18 years earlier.

At the end of June, they returned to Shandy Hall – a bad decision, as by this time, the Irish authorities had become suspicious, and ordered the exhumation of Mary’s body. This was done on 21 July 1887, and unsurprisingly, the subsequent examination found symptoms of arsenic poisoning.

On 28 July, Dr Cross was arrested for the murder of his first wife. His comment exposed his ego and his belief that a man of his stature should be above suspicion.

“My God, my God! To think that a man in my time of life should commit murder. There is a God above who will see the villainy of this.”

Despite this arrogance, the law prevailed. On 14 December, Dr Cross  – perceived as ‘cool, self-possessed, indifferent’ throughout – went on trial at the Cork Assizes. There was plenty of evidence against him now, and the defence case was widely regarded as weak. The jury took just an hour to find Cross guilty of murder.

The verdict was a shock to Cross, who had been convinced that he would be acquitted. The day before the verdict was given, he had invited friends to come and dine with him at Shandy Hall in two days time; he had also arranged for his horse and trap to be ready to take him home from the court of the day of the verdict. Subsequently, he tried to get the case reopened, but the judge commented that he was ‘an obnoxious landlord and had been boycotted’, and that, bizarrely, was seen as a valid reason why he did not deserve another chance to prove his innocence.

At 8am on 10 January 1888, Dr Philip Eustace Cross, a bad husband and undoubtedly a selfish, unfeeling individual, was hanged at Cork, the press commenting that although there were such criminals who merited discussion of the abolition of capital punishment, Cross was not one of them.


Philip Cross’s will left his property to his brother Edward, in trust to two of his children by Mary – Sophia Mary and Henry Eustace. He also asked that the property be bequeathed to his son Philip Richard and financial payments be made to two more daughters – Elizabeth Laura Marriott and Henrietta Emeline. In addition, he asked that £400 be set apart for the use of ‘the male child born of my wife on or about the 23rd December 1887. He is not yet baptised. I desire him to be called John.’ (Waterford Standard, 18 February 1888).

Philip and Evelyn’s son, John, married in 1909, and in recording his father’s details, failed to mention that he was deceased.

Given that Philip only married Evelyn Skinner in June 1887, she must have been pregnant by him at the time of Mary’s murder. Perhaps Evelyn’s pregnancy had made his desire to get rid of his first wife more imperative, in his warped mind.

After Philip was hanged, Evelyn Forbes Skinner moved to England. In 1891, she was living in Hampshire with her three-year-old son, who she had baptised according to his father’s wishes, John Eustace (when John married, in 1909, he gave his father’s name and occupation, without stating that he was deceased, recording rather proudly that Philip was a major; conversely, when his half-sister Sophia had married six years earlier, she had ensured that the fact that her father was dead was recorded).

Philip had left Evelyn a legacy of £60 a year, to be paid in six-monthly instalments. However, the payments would only be paid as long as she remained a widow – if she married again, the money would stop. Philip made it clear that the money was to go towards caring for their son – so if she remarried before he was 21, the money would then go directly to him until he reached that age.

Evelyn did remarry – in 1898, a decade after Philip’s execution. Her new husband, who she wed in London, was a fellow Scot, Patrick James Robertson (BMDs, St Giles, vol 1b, page 1171). Although the 1911 census for Paignton, Devon, records her as being married still, at this time there was no sign of Patrick Robertson. Instead, Evelyn was living with her elderly mother, as well as her and Patrick’s nine-year-old daughter – who was, ironically given the name of Philip Cross’s first wife, called Mary.

Evelyn died in Westgate-on-Sea, Kent, on 30 July 1937, aged 72, with probate being granted to her now married daughter, Mary May. Philip Cross had inherited £500 from his first wife in the 1870s; by the time of her own death, Evelyn’s effects were worth only £93.

The day Jack the Ripper appeared in court

In 1888, a murderer – or murderers – struck in East London, killing several women in gruesome ways. The offender (if, indeed, it was only one) has never been caught, but his murders caught the public imagination at the time, and he continues to be written about, and theorised about.

For years afterwards, the subsequent murders of women would be reported in terms of whether they could be new victims of the same murderer  – for example, in 1890, when Phoebe Hogg was found murdered near Hampstead, it was initially reported that she was an ‘unfortunate’ woman whose death had led people to fear that Jack the Ripper had started a new campaign of terror, but in north London this time, instead of east. In fact, Phoebe – and her baby daughter – had been killed by a woman: the lover of Phoebe’s husband (you can read my article on this case here).

But although the most famous of the Whitechapel Murders caused a panic around the capital, and beyond, others were gripped and excited, even, about the tales of terror, perhaps in the same way that those reading penny dreadfuls were both repelled and fascinated by crime and tales that were far from their own experiences. The fear surrounding the unknown killer also led more unscrupulous men to suggest that they were Jack, in order to instil that fear in others and make them do what they wanted.

A map of the Ripper victims produced by the Glasgow Herald on 10 November 1888. The first two women named here are not now regarded as part of the Ripper ‘canon’.

This was certainly the case in Ilkeston, Derbyshire, in October 1888.  By this time, four of the five canonical victims of the Whitechapel murderer had been killed, discovered, and written about in the national and provincial press – one more, Mary Jane Kelly, was to be killed the following month. No suspects had been identified; no arrests made. There was a very real concern that more women would be murdered.

In light of this charged atmosphere, at the Heanor Petty Sessions, miles away from East London’s gloom, a man was remanded into custody, on charges of drunkenness and robbery. He was asked his name, and in response, said it was ‘Jack the Ripper’.

The magistrates, who decided to charge him in the slightly more pleasant name of ‘John Rip’, heard that he had gone out into Ilkeston the previous Friday night, got drunk, and accosted a woman named Priscilla Bennett as she was on her way home. He then threatened to ‘Whitechapel her’ if she refused to give him money.

Priscilla replied that she had no money, and that if the man didn’t ‘go about his business’, she would scream for help. ‘Jack’ grabbed her, put his hand over her mouth, and took a shilling out of her hand – the only money she had actually had. He then ran off down the town’s Burn Street.

Apparently, the use of such a threat had been common in the Ilkeston area over the previous days – a significant timeframe as two Ripper victims had been murdered just a week before this ‘Jack the Ripper’ appeared in court. Violent men now had a handy phrase to threaten women with – give us your money, or we’ll murder you like the Ripper murdered his victims – and to ‘Whitechapel’ someone became synonymous with a particularly unpleasant death.

And what happened to the Ilkeston ‘Ripper’? He was found guilty of theft, and sent to gaol for three months with hard labour. As he was led to the cells, this pleasant individual shouted, “I’ll do it, and blow her brains out afterwards” – failing, in the process, to understand the methods used by his more famous namesake.

Story taken from the Leeds Mercury of 9 October 1888, the Derbyshire Courier of 9 October 1888, the Derbyshire Advertiser and Journal of 12 October 1888 and the Derbyshire Advertiser and Journal of 19 October 1888, all sourced from the British Newspaper Archive. Press coverage does not give a real name for ‘Jack the Ripper’, and no alias of ‘John Rip’ is listed in the online Derbyshire Calendar of Prisoners.

In 1898, the Illustrated Police News – that bastion of sensitivity – breathlessly reported that there had been a shocking occurrence in America. More importantly, it had taken place at the execution of a criminal.

The execution in question had been that of Richard James at Gainesville in Florida – James had been convicted of the murder of his wife.

As the condemned man had been led to the scaffold, a woman suddenly appeared, dressed in fine garb. Onlookers assumed she was a tourist (to Florida, rather than to executions, presumably) as she was carrying in her hand a Kodak camera.

But instead of photographing swamps, or palm trees, she instead ‘pushed’ her way through the crowd of onlookers waiting to watch a man hang, and stood on a step-ladder placed a few feet away from the hanging apparatus.

There she remained as the priest had his final ways with James, and while the trap was sprung, and while the latch was pulled, and while the body swung in mid-air, and while others shuddered at the contortions that body made.

The body finally became still, and when it did, the woman took a few snaps of the room in which James was hanged, and of the guards who had led him there, and then, in a rather relaxed manner, she simply walked off.

Nobody knew who this woman was; nobody knew her name. The Illustrated Police News, however, saw it as a sign of the times. The end of the 19th century was seeing the New Woman emerge – a threat to men, apparently, with her desire for independence and education.

The publication felt that this incident was the inevitable result of women getting ‘ideas’, and decided to make  something of a satire out of it with its subsequent illustration (pictured). The New Woman was the sort of woman who would photograph a dead man as he swung; never mind the fact that both men and women had been gawping at the condemned for generations beforehand, there was a cheap political point to be had with this case.

Illustration from the Illustrated Police News of 26 March, 1898, via the British Newspaper Archive


Book Review: The Murder That Defeated Whitechapel’s Sherlock Holmes

The Great War was still fresh in everyone’s minds when, one snowy night in Hitchin, Hertfordshire, a middle-aged shopkeeper was found murdered in her corner shop, her dog lying dead nearby.

Elizabeth Ridgley, aged 54, was a spinster who lived alone, apart from her pet. She served the local community well, and opened her shop long hours in order to cater for their every need. Who could have wanted her dead?

This is the story that Paul Stickler seeks to explore and analyse in The Murder That Defeated Whitechapel’s Sherlock Holmes, now published by Pen & Sword books. The title is something of a misnomer; there is a tendency to link Sherlock Holmes to all sorts of real-life characters to grab the attention, but the man referred to here, Detective Chief Inspector Fred Wensley, is no Sherlock Holmes, but instead a methodical and effective Scotland Yard man – and that, in my mind, is equally good!

Likewise, the Whitechapel link is somewhat tenuous: perhaps designed to make you think of the Whitechapel Murders of 1888, it is a reference to Wensley having once worked in that area of East London. Yet this book is about small-town Hertfordshire and its inhabitants, and its title should both reflect that and be proud of it. There is no need to try and link it to London: it is not about that, but about a rather claustrophobic Home Counties community.

The murder of Elizabeth Ridgley is significant because it was not originally deemed to be murder at all. The original Hertfordshire police detective assigned to the case rather bizarrely decided that Mrs Ridgley had died in a freak accident, and that her dog had been accidentally killed by her shortly before her own death.

The story, as detailed by Paul Stickler, makes you almost laugh as you read it, for to modern minds, it seems inconceivable that a woman could have an accident that involved her smearing quantities of her own blood all over the downstairs of her house, moving from room to room, and then fracture her beloved pet’s skull, again by accident. Yet that is what George Reed, of the Hitchin police, insisted had happened (as Stickler notes, he was about to retire, and perhaps didn’t want to finish with a nasty murder case).

Luckily, Scotland Yard had its doubts about this accident theory too, and brought in Wensley to reinvestigate. He believed it was murder, identified a suspect, and in due course, saw the case come to court. It’s not quite right to say, as the title does, that this murder case defeated Wensley; instead, I was left at the end of the book believing strongly that he had got the right man, but that the mess left by Reed meant that the jury had little hard evidence to go on. Stickler reaches the same conclusion; and one feels that he is far more of a Wensley than a Reed, detailing the whys and wheres and hows in careful detail.

This is obviously due to Stickler’s background in CID, investigating murders himself until his retirement in 2008. His skill in detailing crime scenes and analysing evidence are obvious in reading this book; although it takes time to get going, you soon get drawn into the events, curious to know more about the victim and her alleged attacker.

Where he falls down slightly is in his storytelling; he is prone to use lots of commas to create very long sentences, for example, where a few judicious full-stops would have made it easier to read some of what he’s trying to say. In addition, some of the characters remain – perhaps inevitably, but obstinately –  two-dimensional, including Reed himself, whose actions appear so peculiar and irrational. Finally, the jumps in time and place, particularly in the early part of the book, don’t quite work.

But these are minor quibbles. Stickler’s professional experience results in a book where you feel he has really attempted to get under the skin of the investigating police – to see what they saw, to analyse the evidence, and to point the reader in the right direction. It hints at issues around class, nationality, money, and the aftermath of war, whilst never detracting from what the book is: a study of a murder, and also of how the police operated at this time. It also, fundamentally, shows that justice is not always served, however hard the Wensleys of this world try.

The Murder That Defeated Whitechapel’s Sherlock Holmes: At Mrs Ridgley’s Corner, by Paul Stickler, is published by Pen & Sword at £14.99. Thanks to the publisher for sending me a review copy of the book.

The Female of the Species

In 1928, the Illustrated London News ran a series of articles on the science behind the detection of crime, which purported to look objectively at crime and those who committed it, citing various scientific methods of analysing crime.

In reality, it was not as scientific or objective as the series’ title suggested, and in particular, an article about the female criminal demonstrated the age old belief that women were unlikely to be ‘femme soles’ when it came to committing crime – if they were criminals, it must be because a nasty man had persuaded her to fall into such a life.

The article was written by H Ashton-Wolfe, ‘assistant investigator under Dr Georges Béround, Director of the Marseilles Scientific Police Laboratories‘ (Laboratoire de criminology de Marseille)- a title that hinted at a scientific education and experience – yet the piece could really have been written by any layman. In fact, ‘H Ashton-Wolfe’ was Harry Ashton-Wolfe, a writer of true crime adventures, and who has been described elsewhere as ‘cheerleader for “modern” scientific detection, adventurous master of disguise and shameless name-dropper’.

Women often committed crimes ‘because they dare not disobey the orders of a gang whose vengeance they fear’ or because they were in love with a male criminal and simply followed his requests ‘blindly’.  Although it was a ‘rule’ that women committed crime only because there was a man involved, Mr Ashton-Wolfe then declared that there were, in fact ‘many habitual and professional female malefactors’.

Of course, though, the ‘female brain’ being different from the male, the offences committed by women were markedly ‘feminine’ in nature They were physically weak, and so relied on their other skills – ‘guile, deception, and a flaunting of sex’. Robberies with violence, burglaries, and any murder not involving poison, were ‘the prerogative of man’, as women were incapable of committing any crime that involved ‘skilled labour’.

Women were distrustful, particularly when it came to other women, and would only work with them when they were personal friends. Male burglars and conmen would avoid working with women because she would ‘always be a slave to her more sensitive nervous system’ and tended to quarrel too much to be useful.

So much of what a woman apparently couldn’t do. What was she good at (apart from the ‘flaunting’ of sex, of course…)? She had a keen eye, for starters, and was used by criminal gangs to act as a ‘spy, decoy, and watcher’.

Burglars would use young women to divert the attention of night watchmen, sometimes encouraging girls to make the acquaintance of the local watchmen over a period of time beforehand, sometimes giving him a sob story about being poverty-stricken, or abandoned by her parents, to get sympathy. It was, of course, easier to get the attention of the watchman if ‘she was pretty’.

Women were also liars, apparently – good at lying to the police and sticking to a story if a burglary was discovered. Their skill as listeners and questioners enabled them to get valuable information regarding the habits of a building’s residents. If they were ‘trained’ properly by men, they could learn to draw pictures of windows, doors, locks and burglar alarms to help the burglars plan their sorties.

But women did not choose to do such work: she ‘very often did not become a criminal from choice’. She was, however, able to choose to take part in schemes ‘in which her powers of seduction give her an undoubted advantage, and her victims are nearly always of the opposite sex.’ They weren’t able to hide their sex from investigators, though: ‘They appear to be devoid of imagination, and leave obvious and distinctive traces which reveal their sex to the skilled observer.’ The wearing of perfumes and powder, heels, and having long nails were all seen as part of women’s inability to hide themselves from the eyes, ears and noses of the police.

Women also dressed alike. Female hotel thieves, known as ‘hotel rats’ apparently all wore black silk from head to toe, and went barefoot as they crept from hotel room to hotel room to steal money and jewellery from residents. Over their heads, they wore a cowl – like a balaclava, with nostril and eye holes cut into it. Unfortunately, for some time, women failed to realise, apparently, that if spotted dressed in such a way by hotel staff, they would immediately be outed as a hotel rat, and captured. When they realised, the fashions changed – and hotel rats started to wear purple pyjamas, to make them look more like a hotel resident.

The tale of the hotel rats and their silky clothing – designed to make it hard for any disturbed hotel-stayer to grab hold of them – is interesting, but what else does this piece tell us? Firstly, it tells us that there was little understanding, even in the 1920s, of female criminality. Women were still seen as largely incapable of committing crimes on their own initiative – they had to be under the influence of a male mastermind. They were incapable of violent crime, or of displaying physical strength.

Men and women were perceived as being fundamentally different – male and female fingerprints, apparently, were a sign of this (despite ALL fingerprints being different, regardless of gender). Men were good at crimes needing violence, strength, or physical action – but women were recognised for superior mental skills such as finding out information and planning, even if they were not ‘imaginative’.

There was little recognition of individuality, and of individual differences. Instead, men and women were put into simplistic, generalised boxes and assumed to primarily act true to their gender. Yet the attempt to try and rationalise female criminality was surely a sign that women were committing crimes that could not be easily explained or understood, and the desire to minimise their involvement in offences to the least violent ones, or to supporting roles in these offences, was an attempt to maintain out of date perceptions of what a woman was, and what she was capable of.

Images taken from the Illustrated London News, on the British Newspaper Archive





A quick post today not about criminal behaviour, but about the deaths that occurred in a single week in London. I find stats like this fascinating as much for what they don’t say as what they do; and the awful deaths of the poorest members of London’s society still make you catch your breath nearly two centuries later. In order to understand the criminal behaviour of our ancestors, we need to also understand the communities they lived in, and the pressures they faced. Reports like this play a part in helping us to gain that understanding.

It was the last week in December, 1849, and Londoners could think themselves lucky if they made it to the second half of the century, if the week’s returns of deaths in the city was anything to go by.

As reported in the Illustrated London News, during that last week, 1226 individuals were born in London, but 1162 people died, of whom, over 800 had had medical attention for various fatal diseases.  Nearly 200 inquests were carried out as a result of deaths in this week; it was found that 65 deaths were due to fractures, wounds, drowning, hanging, suffocation, burns, scalds or poison – over twice the weekly average (there was no recording how many deaths were suicides, and how many were murders).

A further 44 deaths were from apoplexy, and in 45 cases, the cause of death could not be ascertained.

Seven children had died after being suffocated in bed; five deaths were due to drinking (including the death of a 14 year old girl who drank too much gin and died 38 hours later of congestion of the brain).

Poverty was sadly in evidence, as well. One child sadly ‘died of want’ and a 40-year-old man died of exposure to cold and destitution. Another man, a former pork butcher, who was only 27 years old, had been admitted into the St Martin in the Fields workhouse, but died three days later from the effects of starvation and neglect.

Although some of these deaths were of children and young people (42 children had died of measles, 24 of scarlatina, and 24 of whooping-cough), others had a longer life. One woman was reported dead at the age of 100, having finally succumbed to inflammation of the lungs.

Eight people died of the flu, and nine of diarrhoea. On the positive side, the seven fatal cases of smallpox that week, and 31 of typhus, were lauded as showing that those diseases were ‘less prevalent than usual’. Hoorah! 🤨



New crime website: Our Criminal Ancestors

A new website aimed at helping people research their family’s criminal history was launched last weekend in Hull.

The website, Our Criminal Ancestors, is a project that aims to help people explore the criminal past not only of their families, but also their community – whether a specific town, or a wider region.

Stemming from a public engagement project by academics at Leeds Beckett and Hull universities, those behind it hope that people will submit their stories and events from history, focusing on the years from 1700 to 1939. You can submit the story of your ancestor’s career in the police, for example, or, conversely, their criminal record!

However, the website also aims to help individuals learn about the history of crime, offering advice and features about crime, policing and punishment, through blog posts and case studies.

The website is currently divided into a couple of primary strands – Getting Started (looking at key sources and archives), Criminal Lives (featuring stories from the archives), and Timelines (divided into themes, such as youth justice, policing and punishments) – with maps, blogs, events and resources all highlighted as well. Another strand, Join In, points readers towards the History Pin website, where you can submit your own stories.

Although the website has only just been launched, and is fairly small scale at the moment, it has huge potential for those researching crime history, and its collaborative outlook, encouraging the public to help build a repository of stories and information about crime history in different communities, is great. Do get involved in submitting stories to the site, as this is crucial to its future success – and you never know what you may learn from it yourself.

You can also keep in touch with the project on Twitter, via @OurCriminalPast.



Jolly Jane: (mis)understanding a female serial killer

A ghost sign in modern Boston

I’ve just returned from a fantastic trip to Massachusetts, and while there, of course, thought to research some of the crime and news stories from the state’s history. Here’s one I found which is interesting both because it has parallels with elements of the story of Amelia Dyer in Britain around the same time, but also because it shows that, throughout history, ‘experts’ (usually male) have struggled to explain female criminality, and in particular the relative few cases of female serial killers. It seems that we seek explanations for female deviancy to a far greater extent than with male criminals – even when, sometimes, there might not be a coherent explanation at all, however hard we look.

She was born Honora Kelley, and like many residents of Massachusetts in the mid 19th century, she was the child of Irish parents – of course, many Irishmen and women had fled the Great Famine of their homeland in the 1840s and both New York and Boston, on America’s east coast, had seen an influx of migrants as a result.

Although these Irish people had fled famine, many of them found that life in America was not much of an improvement. Life was a struggle, and many found it hard to feed their families and keep a roof over their heads. Sickness and disease was ever present, and Honora’s own mother, Bridget, soon died of consumption.

Jane Toppan, the former Honora Kelley

She and her siblings were left to be brought up – dragged up – by her father Peter, an abusive man who was regarded as mad by his neighbours. Within a few years of his wife’s death, it became clear that Peter could not father his children effectively. He abandoned his youngest two – Honora, then six, and her eight-year-old sister Delia – at a local female orphanage, and never saw them again.

At the age of eight, Honora was sent out to work by the orphanage, becoming a servant in the household of Ann Toppan in Lowell, north of Boston.

Although her miserable start in life should not be used to excuse her later offences, it is clear that Honora had the odds stacked against her. She was from a poverty-stricken immigrant family; her mother was dead and her father absent. She had no chance of a happy childhood, and her working life started when she was still a young child.

In later life, she targeted others who were themselves vulnerable, as though angered by memories of her own childish vulnerability, and the failure of her parents to give her a secure start to life. The fact that she took on the surname of her Toppan employers suggests a desire to become part of a family – yet she would later try and destroy it.

It could have been so different for Honora, though. She had chances which others in her situation did not; at 21, she started training to be nurse, and at work was well-liked. As she had become known as Jane Toppan, others nicknamed her Jolly Jane because of her friendliness. But underneath, there were darker thoughts going round Jane’s head.

Like Amelia Dyer in Britain at the end of the 19th century, Jane used her nursing as a cover to kill, and started to kill whilst working in a hospital. Curious about life and death – remember, this is a woman who had lost her own mother to tuberculosis when she was young – she started fiddling with the dosage of medicines to see what happened to patients when they were given too much of a drug.

She would get into bed with them to see what the effect was, and to watch them fall unconscious. Eventually, while working at the Massachusetts General Hospital, she was sacked for administering drugs ‘recklessly’.

The 1893 city directory for Cambridge, MA, shows Jane working as a private nurse there

She no longer had access to hospital patients, but still had the desire to poison individuals and monitor the effect of the poison on them. She started working as a private nurse when her hospital job ended so prematurely, and found other opportunities to injure or kill individuals, too. In 1895, she killed her landlord and his wife; four years later, Elizabeth Toppen Brigham, daughter of her first employer, was killed with strychnine.

She killed Mattie Davis, and then moved in with her widower, Alden, to ‘look after’ him. In 1901, she killed Alden, as well as his daughters Genevieve Gordon and Minnie Gibbs. Her preferred poisons were morphine and atropine.

Jolly Jane had got careless in trying to kill an entire family rather than an individual. A toxicology test was ordered for Minnie Davis Gibbs, and it showed that she had been poisoned. Jane was duly arrested for murder, and later confessed to over 30 murders.

Most of her known victims were women – the youngest victim was Minnie, aged 40; the oldest was her landlord Israel Dunham’s 87-year-old wife. The majority of the victims, however, were in their sixties or seventies.

When she was arrested, Jane had objected to her being described as ‘morally insane’. She argued, “I can read a book intelligently, and I don’t have bad thoughts, so I don’t see where moral degeneracy comes in.”

Although she insisted she was sane and knew what she was doing when she poisoned so many people, the jury clearly could not comprehend how a sane woman could do such awful things, and found her not guilty by reason of insanity. She was ordered to be sent to a local asylum – the Taunton State Hospital.

Once in there, Jane claimed to be ‘haunted by the horrible fear that all around her are seeking to serve her as she served her numerous victims.’ She embarked on a hunger strike out of a fear that her own food would be poisoned, and had to be force fed with a tube.

Meanwhile, continuing press coverage of Jane’s offences were as confused by her as the jury at her trial had been. This was clearly an intelligent woman, and appeared ‘mentally, physically, and morally’ normal; yet she must clearly be insane, for why else would a woman kill? Despite this insistence of her madness, one newspaper had to admit that this was a ‘peculiar’ mental illness that seemed to have left her ‘intellectual faculties unimpaired’.

Jane is listed as an inmate of the Taunton State Hospital in the 1930 US census (image via Ancestry)

There was clearly a doubt as to what Jane’s motives were, and what could explain the actions of a female serial killer. This was not a common story – the victims had not done anything to Jane, and she was not an ‘angel of death’ seeking to stop people from going through pain by ending their suffering herself.

She was an ordinary woman, a trained nurse, and the experts of the time queued up to try and understand what she had done. As a British paper noted, ‘Criminologists, alienists and the public generally are aghast at her crimes. She alone is unconcerned.’

Jane was asked to explain her actions, and simply said that she could not control her impulse to kill – but ‘when the paroxysm passed, I was myself again. I cared no longer for the patients to die.’ In 1904, she was interviewed in the asylum that was now her home, and she attempted again to explain her thought processes:

“I do not know the feeling of fear, and I do not know the feeling of remorse, although I understand perfectly what these words mean. I do not seem to be able to realise the awfulness of the things I have done, although I realise what those awful things are. I seem incapable of realising the awfulness of it. Why don’t I feel sorry, and grieve over it? I don’t know.”

Unlike her own mother, Jane lived a long life. Unlike her victims, she died of natural causes. She died at the Taunton State Hospital in Massachusetts in September 1938, 36 years after she was committed to that establishment, remaining something of an enigma to those investigating female criminality.




Northampton Mercury, 27 June 1902, p.8); Lancashire Evening Post, 3 September 1938, p.8; Dundee Evening Telegraph, 26 June 1902, p.4, St James’s Gazette, 26 June 1902, p.8, Leominster News, 2 September 1904. Do note that the relationship and names of some known victims of Jane Toppan varies from site to site (and within sites, on occasion!).

From dreams of Valentino to death on the beach

Rudolph Valentino, heartthrob of 1920s cinema


“Why is it so quiet, what are they hiding?” (Sylvia Plath, Berck-Plage)

It was 1934, and a beautiful blonde woman named Rachel Mery was about to die.

Rachel was a romantic, who fell headlong in love, and who loved grand gestures. She was now about to embark on her grandest, carrying out a suicide pact with her lover on the beach at Berck, near Le Touquet in northern France. She was only 23 years old.

She was born in Paris, the ‘youngest and prettiest’ daughter of a wealthy estate broker. She was always a dreamer – a girl whose health was deemed so delicate that she had not been sent to school, but instead kept at home to read and dream, and given an unusual amount of freedom by her doting parents.

It is no surprise that, lonely and in need of romance, she had developed a passion for the cinema, being described as ‘cinema mad’. She became obsessive, not just about the cinema, but about its stars – and in particular, about Rudolph Valentino – as had thousands of others. When he died, prematurely, in August 1926, she had joined hundreds of these other mourning women to burn candles in his memory; she had also built an altar to him.

Valentino – as he was in his films – had shown Rachel an idealised view of men and of love. Having lived her life to date in books and in films, with their often unrealistic view of life and passion, she believed this is what life was really like, and the reality would never be able to match it. For the rest of her life, Rachel seemed to be searching for the dramatic, passionate love affairs that were the mainstay of fiction.

Paris in 1934

However, ‘real’ men failed to live up to her ideals. In 1929, she had fallen ‘violently’ in love again – this time with a well-known orchestra leader, Fernand Heurteur, of the Grand Kinema in Paris. Fernand was regarded as something of a Don Juan, and it is clear that this middle-aged, successful man would never be the soulmate of a romantic young woman.

A year later, then, unsurprisingly, Rachel found out that 41-year-old Fernand had, in fact, been living with another woman, and had never mentioned this fact to her. They had initially argued at his flat, and then, on his agreeing to go for a drive, they argued again.

As they bowled along the Rue de Pyramides, she asked Fernand to leave his lover, but he responded, “Never”. She then took her father’s revolver out from her pocket, showing it to Fernand and saying, “It’s either for you or for me.” An unphased Fernand answered, “I don’t care. You may kill me or kill yourself.” So Rachel chose to kill Fernand – and he had been killed instantly, leaving the car to career along the road and crash into a lamp-post.

The police arrived, and she calmly surrendered to them, saying, “He is dead. I shot him because I loved him too much.” She continued to tell them what happened as she powdered her nose. “He wanted to abandon me – I told him so,” she sighed, before pointing with her ‘daintily-shod foot’ to the revolver on the floor of the car.

She was sent to prison to await trial, but while incarcerated, doctors discovered that she had tuberculosis, which was causing her to lose weight drastically. She was taken to her trial on a stretcher, and, due to her health, was given only two years in prison, as a first offender, and was actually released immediately, on payment of 100,000 francs in damages.

A railway poster for Berck

She then went as a patient to a sanatorium near Berck. Whilst there, a 34-year-old man named Georges Veron was admitted, also suffering from advanced tuberculosis, and fell in love with her. They spent much of their time going for rides in a pony-carriage, and writing romantic verses to each other. On Sunday, 21 January, they went out again for a ride, but never returned.

A coastguard found the lovers’ bodies, still in their pony-carriage, on the sand dunes. Rachel was lying back with her arms folded, looking as though she was asleep. Georges was lying across her body.

It was found that Rachel had first drunk a vial of a sleeping draught, and then, once she was asleep, Georges had shot her in her right temple, before shooting himself in the mouth. Their intention to carry out the pact was set out in a bundle of letters Rachel had written and posted – they arrived with their recipients nearly a week after the bodies were discovered.

Rachel’s death was as romantic as she could have wanted. She had finally found a lover who believed in a big statement as she did; neither of them had anything to lose, as they were faced with death sentences anyway. They died on a windswept beach, their deaths making the headlines just as Valentino’s had less than a decade before.


Details taken from British newspaper accounts, 1930-1934, of Rachel’s escapades, found on the British Newspaper Archive.

An Edwardian bicycle advert

I love looking through newspaper reports of court cases, but some Edwardian examples I’ve found recently make me feel quite sorry for the individuals named, as they seem to have been fined for simply trying to have fun, or keeping fit. In just one newspaper from 1909, I’ve found:

  • Morris Keen, of 8 Kilburn Square, Kilburn, fined a shilling for playing cricket at Kilburn Square
  • Edward Baker, of Kensington, fined 2s 6d for riding his bike at night without lights
  • Nelson Gowlett, of 38 Mora Road, Cricklewood, fined 2s 6d for playing football in the street
  • Harold Peacock, William Mudge and Leonard Andrews, all of Kilburn, and Reginald Travers of Willesden Green, fined 2s 6d each for cycling on a footpath leading to a park

Some of these named men, at least, were in their teens at the time of these offences – Nelson Gowlett, for example, from what I can see on Ancestry, was only 17 at the time, and Harold Peacock and William Mudge were both 15.

Of course, rules and regulations had to be obeyed; but it all seems a bit trivial and sour-faced to me – but it also conjures up an image of Edwardian London, where local youths spent their time playing cricket or football, and cycling with their mates. Maybe the past isn’t a different country after all?

Source: Kilburn Times, 18 June 1909

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