Criminal Historian

Working with dead people

Prison Life, 1895

394px-Hombre_con_grilletes_(dibujo_de_Goya)In 1895, it was noted, with concern, that a substantial proportion of the population of Canterbury Prison was made up of repeat offenders. During that year, according to a report from the Prison Commissioners, there had been 1155 men and 167 women imprisoned there; the daily average was 128 prisoners, although at its quietest, the prison had been home to 100, and at its busiest, 171.

Canterbury Prison dated from the beginning of that century, having been established as a county gaol in 1808. Its predecessor had been regarded as inadequate following a rise in the number of prisoners in Kent in the late 18th century, the result both of a rise in crime and the impact of the American War of Independence on transportation.

It was noted that ‘a discouraging feature of prison work is the number of men and women who appear time after time in prison’. At Canterbury, 220 men and 60 women that year had already been in a prison prior to their most recent committal – equating to 19 per cent of male prisoners, and 36 per cent of females.

Of these repeat offenders, 27 men and 12 women had over 10 prior convictions resulting in a committal to prison. 11 men and three women had between eight and ten prior committals, and nine men and seven women six or seven prior committals. It was believed that once men and women had been committed once, they were likely to be embarking on a long criminal career.

When the prison population at Canterbury was analysed on 31 March 1895, it was found that the majority of men there at the time were young – between 21 and 30 years old. One of the relatively few ‘older’ men there at the time was Arthur Funnell, a 34-year-old butcher, who had been sent to the prison whilst on trial for forgery, as he had been unable to find sureties. Whilst in prison, Funnell’s father died; his mother was seriously ill, her health no doubt not helped by her son’s incarceration.

It was recognised that individuals placed within Canterbury’s prison walls were unlikely to behave well either in prison or on being released, and that prison actually increased their chances of repeat offending afterwards – they became, to an extent, institutionalised.

Hendrik_Frans_Schaefels_-_Young_prisoner_in_his_cellIn prison, several individuals, both male and female, were reported to have committed offences, primarily violence, ‘idleness’, or breaches of regulations. Punishments for such offences included flogging, being put in solitary confinement (by the end of the 19th century, known as ‘punishment cells’), being put in ‘short commons’, whereby their diet was restricted, or losing other privileges.

Even when not being punished, the prisoners were subject to hard labour, which in Canterbury primarily meant the treadwheel – although unlike in some prisons, this had a purpose, pumping water for the prison. If not on the treadwheel, prisoners were engaged in making mail-bags and chopping wood.

All male prisoners who had a prison sentence of over four months were visited by a schoolmaster, to ensure that their educational achievement reached the third standard, and the chaplain also visited inmates every three months to encourage ‘moral elevation’. It was noted that ‘the prisoners take great interest in reading, and the cases where they injure the books are happily few and far between.’

Short commons may not have been much of a punishment for some; it was noted that ‘the mere feeding of a prisoner costs little enough’, suggesting that the diet was both cheap and limited. This was in contrast to the money spent in 1895 on new stores and staff quarters at the prison.

Despite the education and religious training, prison was hard on its inmates, and suicide was recognised as a problem – netting had to be put up around staircases and corridors to prevent hangings. It was recognised that poverty and unemployment might be factors in reoffending once prisoners were released, and so the chaplain would recommend particular inmates who could benefit from the services of the Discharged Prisoners’ Aid Society, which aimed to help them find a job.

It was noted that ‘very few cases, really worthy of help, are refused, and then only if the aid asked for is beyond the Society’s scope.’ The society was helped by the Church of England Temperance Society‘s Labour Home, located at Dover, which received and employed ‘men who have no immediate hope of employment’. Women were sent further afield, primarily to Miss Steer’s Bridge of Hope, on the infamous Ratcliff Highway.

So prison life in Kent had the recognised potential of leading to reoffending, through interaction with other prisoners and with resultant poverty once back on the outside, and measures were put in place to try and stop this through education and employment. Yet it was also clear that by restricting prisoners’ diets, by incarceration and hard labour – the economic value of which was reported in financial terms in the prison commissioners’ report – the prisons themselves created an atmosphere of desperation in some that could lead to suicide.

Sources: Canterbury Journal, 19 October 1895, Dover Express, 1 November 1895, Folkestone, Hythe, Sandgate and Cheriton Herald, 23 March 1895, Canterbury Journal, 30 December 1895.


A “peculiar” father and his dead daughters

Luke_Fildes_(1891)_The_DoctorToday, stories involving people who refuse on religious grounds to seek medical help for themselves or members of their family are still to be found in the press. Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, may refuse blood transfusions.

In 1906, a similar, tragic, story was reported in the press, but with little sympathy for the beliefs of the man at the heart of the story. Former Lambeth horsekeeper James Cook was deemed simply “peculiar” after he refused medical help for his two daughters, Dorothy May and Hilda.

The two girls had initially had measles, but then developed bronchitis and pneumonia. This terminology, the use of the word ‘peculiar’ to describe James was a play on words; he was a member of the Peculiar People, a name given both to a branch of the Wesleyan evangelicals.

James was originally from Norfolk, and was, at the time of the deaths, in his late 30s. The 1901 census shows him working as a housekeeper and living in Lambeth with his wife Grace, and one-year-old Dorothy May. He had married Grace West in 1895, back in her home county of Essex, which was the centre for the Peculiar People, its founder, James Banyard, being from Rochford.

In line with his religious beliefs, James had refused to send for a doctor when his elder daughter became ill; after concern from others, he was ordered by a judge to seek help, but still refused. As a result,first Dorothy, and then Hilda,  died at their home in Ashmole Place, off the Clapham Road. Dorothy May was just six years old; Hilda was only 18 months old.

James was sent charged with, and convicted of, manslaughter. This followed an inquest, where James told the coroner,

“Gifting the Testament is the treatment. We are to do our part and the Lord will do His. Here are His promises. They are ‘Yea!’ and ‘Amen!’ to them that believe.”

He refused to accept that he had not called a doctor because he couldn’t afford one – he had been unemployed – saying that this would be to offer an excuse, when he didn’t feel one was required. If he had believed a doctor could help, he would have called one, but he felt that his trust in God was all that was needed.

The coroner, in response, had argued that it was not part of his duty to ask why ‘these people’ disobeyed the law, ‘but they must be prepared to bear the legal consequences of doing so.’ A doctor gave evidence that medical assistance would have done a lot of ‘good’ for the two girls.

Later, the jury at James’s trial at the Old Bailey asked for him to be leniently dealt with ‘owing to his having committed the offence through his religious belief.’

The father was unrepentant, arguing that “if I am wrong, the Book is too.” He sought to justify his actions, stating that the bible did not tell him to call a doctor, and he “wished the jury knew it [the bible] as well as he did”. Rather than calling a doctor, he had instead called ‘an elder of the sect’, James Whaley, to anoint them with oil and pray over them. The prayers, obviously, failed to work.

The judge, Justice Bigham, was not as sympathetic towards the man as the jury was; he reminded the jury that Cook had a previous conviction, from 1896 – an identical offence, after another child had died in the same circumstances. In that case, Cook had been let off with a warning, ‘which he had obstinately and persistently neglected’.

Yet despite this, Cook was sentenced to just nine months’ hard labour. The press was more sceptical about him than the jury had been, regarding the man as both odd and abnormal for placing his beliefs above his love for his daughters.

Sources: London Daily News, 17 May 1906; Manchester Courier, 11 May 1906; Manchester Courier, 27 June 1906; North Bucks Free Press, 30 June 1906


How Victorian prisoners communicated

Robert Clibburn, a prisoner at Dorchester in 1898 (Dorset History Centre, via Ancestry). Sadly, probably not the Robert mentioned in this story...

Robert Clibburn, a prisoner at Dorchester in 1898 (Dorset History Centre, via Ancestry). Sadly, probably not the Robert mentioned in this story…

In 1898, a conspiracy case came before the Westminster Police Court, involving two prisoners. One of the interesting details it recorded involved the methods prisoners used to communicate with each other, and how these methods could be used for nefarious aims.

The case was brought against Robert Cliburn, otherwise known as Robert Harris, Robert Collins, Robert Robertson, Robert Stephenson and Robert Carew – he liked a good alias. Robert was described as a well-dressed young gentleman, a former telegraph messenger in the West End of London, but who was currently of no occupation. He was accused of conspiring with two convicts who were currently in prison on robbery and blackmailing charges.

The two convicts in question gave evidence in the case – a Mr Allen and Mr Sanders. Allen had been sent to Pentonville Prison the previous September, and Sanders was brought from Portland prison to Pentonville the following January. It was noted that from his arrival, Sanders was not allowed to communicate with Allen, and to prevent him doing so, he was not allowed to go to the prison chapel (the defendant’s counsel, Mr Geoghegan, commented, “Is preventing a man going to chapel a punishment or a reward?” to which the Pentonville warder, Mr Parkes, admitted it was “not exactly a punishment”).

An extract from the debate about prisoners' means of communication, 1898

An extract from the debate about prisoners’ means of communication, 1898. It refers to a book written by William Hamilton Thomson, who had been confined in Millbank and Dartmoor Prisons, about his experiences of the prison system.

Parkes admitted that prisoners tended to communicate with each other a lot in chapel. In places like  Lincoln Castle, the chapel had separate booths for each prisoner, thus cutting them off physically from head other, but apparently this did not stop channels of communication. Where there weren’t separate booths, prisoners talked to each other by mouthing, and even if the warden tried to stop them, they could find other means of communication. In addition, in their cells, they could also communicate with each other, even though their doors were closed. Mr Geoghegan and Mr Parkes had the following conversation:

“In some of these patent prisons they communicate with a system of raps?”

“Yes, they do. I do not say they do it in chapel; of course, it is only spirit-rapping there.” Loud laughter in the court.

“I am speaking of the cells. They use a sort of Morse telegraphic code?”

“Yes, they do; but they must be located in the same corridor. And then they can communicate through a large number of intervening cells.”

“A prisoner in no. 1 can be heard in no. 12, nine or ten cells away?”

“It is so. If they understand the telegraphic system, they can communicate from one end of the ward to the other by knocking.”

“And whatever the warders do, they can’t prevent that? It shows the march of science?”

“No, they can’t stop it.”

The case showed the ingenuity of prisoners, and their basic human desire to have conversations and interaction with others. Speech was not necessary, but a creative approach was. Where they were visible to each other, they could mouth conversations; but where they weren’t, they created an alternative system of code, fostering a sense of identity among them, and separating themselves from their warders.

Although in this case, communication between Allen and Sanders may have been used to plan further offences, it was also a means of surviving in prison, of getting ‘one over’ on the authorities by being able to forge relationships with each other through alternative forms of communication.

Robert Clibburn was a prisoner at Portland in 1901 - presumably, he was able to communicate with other prisoners there...

Robert Clibburn was a prisoner at Portland in 1901 – presumably, he was able to communicate with other prisoners there…

Source: Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, 30 January 1898

Ancestry puts notices of wanted criminals online

A copy of the Police Gazette from 1831

A copy of the Police Gazette from 1831

Today, Ancestry has published more criminal records online. They are notices taken from The Police Gazette, which was used to pass on details of suspected criminals across the UK, and offered rewards for information.

The records include details of wanted suspected criminals, offenders in custody, and missing persons, and cover the periods 1812-1902 and 1921-1927. They can be searched by name, age, type, date and location of crime and will be of interest to anyone wanting to find out about a particular offender or even a victim of crime. Some also include police sketches.

The Police Gazette started publication in 1772, its full name being The Police Gazette; or, Hue and Cry. It dropped the last part of its title in 1839. The publication was produced by the Home Office and the Met Police until 1883, when the Met took on full responsibility for it. It was eagerly read, with cases used as the sources of newspaper reports. As far back as 1828, one regional paper noted that:

“The Police Gazette, or Hue and Cry, is absolutely entertaining.”

Michael Ostrog

Michael Ostrog

One of the offenders listed in The Police Gazette records released by Ancestry is Michael Ostrog (c.1833-1904), who was one of the suspects in the Whitechapel Murders – also known as the Jack the Ripper murders.

It was not surprising that Ostrog came under suspicion. He was a Russian-born con man, a thief who had claimed to have had surgical training and worked in the Russian Navy.

Ostrog had been charged with larceny, but failed to report to the police after being released from the Surrey County Lunatic Asylum in 1888. The record noted his use of aliases – which included Bertrand Ashley and Claude Clayton – and described him as ‘a dangerous man’. His physical description is also given, noting moles on his shoulder and neck and ‘corporal punishment marks’.

Doubt has since been case on Ostrog’s involvement in the Whitechapel murders, as he may have been in jail in France during the period when the five supposed victims of ‘Jack the Ripper’ were killed. He continued to commit crime long after his description appeared in The Police Gazette, and in 1894, when he was charged with obtaining jewellery under false pretences in Eton, he was described in the press as:

“a sinister-looking elderly man.”

Ostrog’s defence when he appeared before the Buckinghamshire magistrates was that he could not have committed the crime, as ‘he was in Banstead lunatic asylum’ at the time.

An 1829 edition of The Police Gazette (via the British Newspaper Archive)

An 1829 edition of The Police Gazette (via the British Newspaper Archive)

The Police Gazette for certain periods can already be searched via the British Newspaper Archive (the majority of its records come within the period 1850-1899, as far as I can see); this Ancestry release gives researchers a wider time period to search, and will also be useful for cross-referencing, as sometimes a search engine on one site can fail to find something but a different site’s search will get a result. In addition, if you have an Ancestry subscription but not a BNA one, you will now be able to access these fascinating records for the first time.

Sources: Nottingham Evening Post, 14 June 1894; Sheffield Independent, 9 February 1828




The Victorian bakehouse – a useful means of disposing of bodies

Illustration of the second 'revolting oven tragedy' in the Illustrated Police News

Illustration of the second ‘revolting oven tragedy’ in the Illustrated Police News

There were at least two murders in the 1890s that were perceived as particularly abhorrent by the Victorian press – although only one was reported by them in great, gruesome, detail. This, the first, was known, rather unoriginally, as ‘the oven tragedy’, and the second as ‘another revolting oven tragedy’. Both involved local bakehouses, and demonstrated the ingenuity of some Victorian domestic murderers.

The first murder occurred in London in November 1898. The murderer, ideally for a somewhat xenophobic press, was a German immigrant baker named Johann Schneider. For reasons never given, he also went by the unlikely pseudonyms of Richard Montague and Richard Mandekow , as well as the simple anglicised John Schneider.

Johann was 36 years old, married, and a father. The only likely person of this description in the 1891 census was a John J Schneider, listed as a baker living in Clerkenwell with his English wife Elizabeth and their two young daughters, Carolina and Elizabeth Jane. In 1898, Carolina would have been 12 and Elizabeth 9.

The census stated that ‘John’ was a native of Felsberg, a town in the Schwalm-Eder area of Hesse, a central region of modern Germany. However, this John’s wife and children were all from the St George East district of London, and the only marriage of an Elizabeth to a Schneider in this district at around the right time involved a Max Schneider, so the census entry may well be wrong. Schneider himself described himself to police as a Russian, living at 150 Regent’s Park Road.

What was true was that Schneider, then going by the name of Richard Montague, had been employed by baker William Ross some two years earlier as an assistant baker. Ross kept a baker’s shop at 82 William Street, off the Hampstead Road. The shop was at street level, and accessed via a door from the street. The private rooms where the Ross family lived were accessed via a staircase from the back of the shop, with the bakehouse based in the basement.

'Bread baking' by Anders Zorn (1889)

‘Bread baking’ by Anders Zorn (1889)

The bakehouse itself consisted of a long baker’s oven, and two troughs in front of it for kneading the bread. The walls were whitewashed, with a clock on one wall, and clear glass windows at the top of one wall looking out into the street. An iron grating in the pavement outside would be lifted up to take the flour when it was delivered, but was otherwise kept fastened – Ross checked it every night.

Ross was successful, and employed another baker to help him – he was a live-in employee who slept in the spare room on the second floor of the building. He began work at 7pm to make the dough, and then go back to bed.

At 11.30pm, he would again be called and would cut the dough until 1am, when he would make the next batch of dough, and then heat the oven. At 3.45am, he would put the dough in the hot oven. Ross in turn slept from 11.30pm until 3am, when he would go down to the bakehouse to help his employee.

In 1876, this employee had been ‘Richard Montague’, and he had stayed, living and working with Ross, for around six months, despite being married. He had absconded from work after that time, saying one day that he was not well, and never returning.

It was a rash move from Schneider, who then found it impossible to get another job. He asked Ross for his job back, but Ross said no – although he gave him two loaves for his children, recognising that it was Schneider’s family who were likely to be suffering. He left his address – 144 Sewards Street Buildings on the Goswell Road – in case Ross later needed work doing.

In the meantime, Ross had employed another German man, Conrad Berndt, a journeyman baker who was only around 19 years old – to take over the role of assistant baker.

Ross later described him as a ‘dark man, with almost black hair, a very good workman’ who wore ‘a soft cap, shirt and a pair of trousers, and a blue-striped canvas belt round his waist with two buckles in it’ as his work uniform. He also had a silver watch and chain, but refused to take these valuable items into the bakehouse in case he damaged them.

Van Gogh's 'The Bakery in Noordstraat' (1882)

Van Gogh’s ‘The Bakery in Noordstraat’ (1882)

On 10 November, around 11pm, Johann Schneider knocked on the door of the bakeshop, wearing a round hat and carrying a green bag in his hand. Ross opened the door, and Schneider asked if he could sleep at Ross’s home overnight, as he needed to be at Grummell’s baker’s shop in Soho by 6am the next morning.

“All right, Richard, I know you – you can come in”, responded the kindly Ross. Schneider entered, and went down to the bakehouse to sleep. Ross went to give Berndt, still in his room, his instructions for the night, and then left him to go to bed himself.

Ross was woken at around 3.15am by knocking and footsteps on the stairs. He lit a candle and went to investigate. He saw Schneider on the bakehouse steps, with his coat on but not his hat. “Where’s Conrad?” asked Ross; Schneider said he had been sick and had to go to lie down.

Ross thought this was odd; not only was Schneider speaking unnaturally quietly, but Conrad had never been ill before, in the whole seven months he had been working there. As he turned away to go to Conrad’s room to check he was alright, Schneider struck his former employer on the back of the head, stunning him. He then tried to stab Ross in the chest.

A depiction of Schneider's surroundings in Holloway prison, from Lloyd's Weekly Newspaper, 20 November 1898

A depiction of Schneider’s surroundings in Holloway prison, from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, 20 November 1898

“Police!” called Ross, and his wife and servant woke and started shouting. Schneider opened the grate outside the shop window and jumped out, running towards the Hampstead Road. He was spotted by a policeman, who, in a very English fashion, thought a man walking outside without a hat on must be suspicious, and who caught him.

The oven had been lit, and was later searched. A piece of charred cloth from a pair of trousers, another piece of cloth from a shirt, and part of a belt were found in it – together with some smoking human remains.

The skull was exposed, and had a clear fracture on the right hand side; a piece of brain was later found on a large stone underneath the oven. Nearby was a hatchet, covered in blood and human hair. Conrad’s room had also been trashed, and items – including money, the watch and the chain – were missing.

Conrad had been killed as a result of a blow to the head, but it was believed he would have lived for around half an hour before a fractured skull and haemorrhaging eventually had their fatal effect. He had been placed in the baker’s oven while unconscious – but probably still alive.

Schneider was believed to be insane, and after being remanded at Marylebone Police Court, was sent to Holloway prison to be examined. During his later trial, one witness, Samuel Feldt, who knew Schneider as a German man named Richard Mandekow, lodging with him at 14 Bartholomew Buildings, described him as ‘morose, downcast, and absent minded – he was depressed because of his poverty and because he could not find work, and he has three children and a wife’.

Others, including those who examined him at Holloway, found him to be ‘emotional’ but sane, the judge found him to be ‘clever and cunning’, and he was therefore found guilty of murder at the Old Bailey, and sentenced to death. He was hanged at Newgate on 3 January 1899.

The murder had a wider impact. William Ross, unsurprisingly, found his business negatively impacted by the news that his assistant had been burned alive in his own bakehouse oven. He also found his own good name besmirched in the press. It was reported in Lloyd’s Weekly News that he had ‘resolved to build a new oven to retain his customers, and that a waxwork show proprietor has offered a large sum of money for the original’.

The newspaper later had to acknowledge that this was very much not the case – and that, in fact, the London Master Bakers’ Protection Society and the Baker’s Record publication had been fundraising in order to enable Ross to start a new business elsewhere, thus letting him escape the stigma of the murder.

Oh, and the second ‘revolting’ tragedy? That was a case in the village of Signa in Tuscany, where a baker named Brogelli, and his wife, murdered their two young sons – the elder being only seven years old – by putting them in their bakehouse oven (or, as the Illustrated Police News put it, ‘Parents roast their two boys in a bakehouse’). Only a few charred remains were ever found.

In the single paragraph that the British papers gave to this ‘foreign’ case, it was reported that ‘The accused absolutely refuse to say how and why the crime was committed’, but in this case, the villagers took the matter into their own hands and tried to lynch the Brogellis.

One case merited whole columns of excited reporting; the other only a brief mention (although also an illustration). But both were tragedies, and both were truly revolting.

Sources: Old Bailey Online, ref t18981212-85; Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, 27 November 1898; Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, 20 November 1898; Capital Punishment UK; Leicester Daily Mercury, 16 December 1898; Cheltenham Chronicle, 17 December 1898; Illustrated Police News, 1 April 1899

Book review: The Thieves of Threadneedle Street

9780752493404_5A tale of audacity and chutzpah, this book, by Nicholas Booth, details the lives and escapades of two American brothers, George and Austin Bidwell, and their ‘colleagues’ as they attempt to defraud the Bank of England.

The Thieves of Threadneedle Street is reminiscent of Bonnie and Clyde in its breathless chases – criminals outmanoeuvring the cops and their victims across vast expanses of rural and urban America, and then via the Atlantic to London.

This breathlessness is the book’s main problem. Sometimes, it moves so quickly across countries and time – backwards and forwards across Victorian society – that it can be hard to keep up. The division of chapters into short sections by way of date, place and time would work well as a device, but it is used too frequently.

Likewise, although only a minor stylistic point, the use of flowery fonts and dotted lines to denote changes in time or place are actually distracting – a stylistic annoyance. Too many fonts are used, in short – one for chapter headings, one for section headings, one more for the main text – and they don’t really complement each other.

Austin Bidwell, from 'The Great Bank of England Frauds' by Edgar Wallace

Austin Bidwell, from ‘The Great Bank of England Frauds’ by Edgar Wallace

But more importantly, and on a more positive note, this is a fascinating story and the author has attempted to move it beyond the standard narrative by means of this to-ing and fro-ing, which should be commended. The central setting is the trial of the Bidwells in 1873, where their multiple aliases and prior offences were detailed; from this setting, the exploration of their past is undertaken both by prosecutors and by the author.

The Bidwells are notoriously hard to pin down, due to their habit of each taking credit for successful crimes, their various names, and the tendency of the Victorian press to be a bit slapdash with the facts. Booth fully recognises and acknowledges these problems, and the fact that he is able to create such a full account of them is an achievement in itself.

Despite the slightly hectic feel of the narrative, this is still a compelling narrative that says almost as much about the Victorian press, law and detective work as it does about the criminal themselves.

The Thieves of Threadneedle Street, by Nicholas Booth, is published by The History Press.




Calico Sarah, a thief who refused to die

William_Hogarth_-_Gin_Lane Sarah Wells was a woman from the parish of St Botolph without Aldgate in London. Not much is known of her life today, apart from the fact that she was a thief and a mother – but the criminal records of the early 18th century show that she was a strong woman who could hold her own against London’s men.

In January 1720, she appeared at the Old Bailey, charged with pick-pocketing. She was alleged to have stolen a silver watch from Robert Hoe on 16 December 1719.

The court heard that Hoe had spent some time drinking on board a ship on the Thames, and that afterwards, he made his way back into the city. On reaching Rosemary Lane, he asked someone the way to the Exchange; Sarah came up to him and said, “I am going that way and will show you”.

But instead, she led him a different, wrong, way – the way that led back towards her own lodgings. “I’ll put you right,” she told him, but he then felt for his watch, realised it was missing, and promptly accused her of stealing it, together with some money.

Sarah, realising that she had been rumbled, tried to put the watch back into his hand, but Hoe was having none of it. He tried to drag her towards a Justice’s house, but she cried out, “Everett! Everett!” This man, Everett, came over and started to beat poor, drunken Hoe. The high constable tried to get near, but somehow, Sarah managed to stop him helping for a whole hour, and was heard to say,

“Damn him for a son of a bitch! I wish I had not gave him his watch, it would have served to maintain me in Newgate. I would not have given him it again but that I did not know how to convey it off.”

In her defence, Sarah said she had been going to see her child, who was with a wet nurse, but Hoe had followed her and struck her several times, causing her to call “Murder!” He had then tried to run away, but she managed to hold him till a crowd of onlookers gathered.

The Old Bailey a century later

The Old Bailey a century later

The problem was that Sarah was unable to call any witnesses – not even Everett, who she claimed had only beaten Hoe out of self-defence. Because of this, and her poor reputation – being known as Calico Sarah hints at Sarah’s reputation for the theft of fabric* – she was found guilty, and sentenced to death.

But this was not the end of Sarah’s life – or not quite just yet. Exactly three years after her conviction, she was again brought before the Old Bailey. It appears that her death sentence was commuted to transportation.

One would think that might be regarded as a lucky escape, if one survived the journey to the American colonies, but not Sarah. She was now charged with having returned to England before the expiration of the time of transportation. She was now, again, sentenced to death.

This time, Sarah attempted to plead her belly – to claim that she was pregnant and should therefore not be hanged. On 8 February 1723, at the Justice Hall in the Old Bailey, she was declared quick with child, and avoided being executed with four less fortunate men. She was granted a conditional pardon in May that year.

Sarah was proactive as a thief, able to take advantage of those rendered virtually incapable through drink, and willing to take on men. She used language on the same terms, and gave as good as she got. Yet she was also willing to use her position as a woman, able to plead her belly and turn the insecurity of pregnancy into a means of prolonging her own life.

Sources: Old Bailey Online, t17200115-47 and t17230116-2; The National Archives, ref SP 44/81, f.285

*There is a brief mention of Sarah’s nickname in Lois A Chaber’s “Matriarchal Mirror: Women and Capital in Moll Flanders” (PMLA, 97:2 (1982), 212-226).

Killing off the pirates – ‘dead, dead, dead’

I’ve written before about pirates – and posted a short video-slideshow thingy on Vimeo about them. I’m fascinated by piracy, and by the history of Execution Dock in Wapping and its association with piracy. For anyone wanting to know about about this area of history, I’d heartily recommend the Museum of London Docklands‘ exhibition (complete with gibbet); but here’s another fascinating piece of history on Twitter today:

Naval and maritime historian Sam Willis posted this 18th century death warrant – dated 5 April 1722 – that condemns eight men to be ‘hanged by the neck till you are Dead, Dead, Dead’.

Black Bart's memorial stone, photographed by John Baiden.

Black Bart’s memorial stone, photographed by John Baiden.

These men were Bartholomew Roberts‘ crew members. Roberts (1682-1722) was a Welsh pirate who, after his death, became known as Black Bart.

Roberts died in a battle between two ships – HMS Swallow and the pirates’ ship, the Royal Fortune. His men were still drunk from an earlier victory over the Neptune ship, and may not have been much help to the Welshman. Whilst stood on deck, he was killed by grapeshot, and thrown overboard by his crew – Bart had wanted to be buried at sea.

As a result of the battle, 54 men were condemned to death – two were reprieved, but the other 52 were hanged. One crew member, John Philips (not the pirate John Phillips, who was hanged in Boston two years later), had tried to blow the pirates’  ship up by lighting the magazine with a match, but was prevented by two other men.

The warrant pictured was signed at Cape Coast Castle, a Swedish-built castle in Ghana. It was a commercial fort, which became capital of British possessions on the Gold Coast in the late 17th century. However, it was also a ‘slave castle, used for slave trading. Of the men captured by the Royal Navy after Black Bart’s death, 65 were black and sold into slavery.

However, the death of the ‘unbeatable’ Black Bart was seen as the beginning of the end of the Golden Age of Piracy. Although pirates continued to be hanged, it could be argued that none captured the imagination in quite the same way as Black Bart.

Sam Willis’s new series, Britain’s Outlaws: Highwaymen, Pirates and Rogues, continues on BBC Four tonight.


When the Wild Woman of the Mountains stole a child

From William Blake's illustrations for Dante's Inferno

From William Blake’s illustrations for Dante’s Inferno

Harriet Haines, or Hayes, was a ‘notorious’ character, known as the Wild Woman of Wales or the Wild Woman of the Mountains, who, since the late 1850s, had chosen to isolate herself from her community, living at the top of a mountain in Caernarfonshire.

She was originally from Ireland, and nobody knew how long she had lived in Wales. What was known, though, was that during summer, she camped at the top of the mountain, and at night, when everyone was in bed, she would climb down to the lowlands to steal fruit and vegetables from local people’s orchards, and milk their cows, thus enabling her to live for free – although at cost to those who were growing food and rearing cows for their own families’ sustenance.

In winter or cold weather, she would wander into other people’s houses – which were rather remote from each other- and ‘pretend’ to be mad. If she came across anyone weak-minded or old in the house, she would demand ‘the best food in the house’ and only exit when other family members came in.

One Wednesday morning in February 1866, it being very cold and wet, Harriet made her way down the mountain to Ty Newydd, Dolwyddelan, to warm herself in someone else’s house. She heard the family return, and hurriedly left the building – but on seeing a toddler playing at the door, grabbed it and made her way back towards the hilltop. Luckily, the child’s mother soon realised it was missing, and ran out to look for her two year old.

She found Harriet with the stranger’s child 200 yards away, but had to struggle with her to get the child from her. She immediately went for the police – which must itself have taken some time – and the nearest police constable located the Wild Woman at Bryn Eithin, near Capel Curig. She was taken to the lock-up at Llanrwst, ‘where she was safely lodged’.

Why did Harriet steal the child? Nobody seems to have asked this question – it was simply assumed that it was the kind of thing a mad hermit would do. Perhaps Harriet saw it as a bargaining tool – if the family gave her food, she would return the child – or maybe she was even lonely, and wanted someone to keep her company on her isolated mountain-top.

However, it seems that up to that point, there had been a fair amount of tolerance towards this woman, who refused to be part of the local community, yet needed its resources. It was only when she abducted a young child that she was finally seen to have crossed the line.

Tolerance was now in shorter supply. The following year, Harriet was described in the press as ‘an awful creature’ who illustrated the barbarity of Wales as a country (ironically, this was in a story repeated verbatim in an Irish newspaper – which completely missed the point that Harriet was herself Irish, not Welsh).

The area the Wild Woman was walking in 1867

The area the Wild Woman was walking in 1867

It was noted that she had twice been ‘captured’  and that she had now ‘been finally run down’ by the local community. A large group of locals got together after having spotted Harriet near Llanfairfechan, and attempted to chase her. A police constable was at the head, and he eventually found this dangerous and awful woman… fast asleep on a mountain that led from Caerhun to Rowen.

The constable woke her up, and at 2am one Friday morning in late July 1867, brought her to the lock-up. At this point, she told him that she thought she had been excommunicated by the Pope and ordered to live a solitary life on the mountain for ten years. However, she now found herself ordered to live in the confines of Caernarfon Gaol for the next month.

On her release, Harriet returned to her former ways, but was still not left alone. In 1881, now ‘aged and decrepit’, she was discovered by another police constable, PC Humphreys, sleeping in an outbuilding on the side of the Llanfairfechan mountain. It was January, and she was half-covered in snow.

She was charged with this offence, and PC Humphreys’ superior, Inspector Hughes, said at Bangor Police Court that to his knowledge, she had been ‘wandering about the mountains’ for years, and that in November 1879, she had been sent to gaol for 14 days for again sleeping in an outbuilding. Apparently, even though she was now an old woman, she usually slept in ‘holes’ on the mountainside, and only ventured down when the weather was simply too bad to stay outside.

When asked to explain herself, she said,

“When I’m up in the mountains, I am almost as far as God; but they won’t let me be near God. They bring me down to this earth again.”

The newspapers felt that this simple statement was evidence that Harriet was of weak intellect; the magistrate, Reverend D Evans, said that it was clear that Harriet would be ‘better off’ in gaol, dispatching her there for another 14 days. Perhaps this was a sympathetic approach – for in gaol, Harriet would at least be warmer (if not warm – Victorian gaols not being known for their luxuries) and out of the snow.

Sources: Carnarvon Herald, undated, but repeated in Freeman’s Journal, 16 February 1866 and Wrexham and Denbighshire Advertiser, 17 February 1866; Oswestry Advertiser, undated, but repeated in Saunders’s News-Letter, Dublin, 5 August 1867; North Wales Chronicle, 15 January 1881.



The Mugshots of Preston Park

mugshotThe BBC recently published an interesting post on their website that I linked to on Twitter, but is also worth highlighting here.

The story details how Preston Park Museum in Stockton-on-Tees is tracking the lives of prisoners whose mugshots have survived in prison books, but whose personal details or offences have not been recorded or survived.

The mugshot book is believed to be from the North Riding of Yorkshire, and dates to between 1878 and 1896. It is currently being digitised and forms part of the recreation of a police station at the museum.

But some of the individuals are better known than others, and so the museum is attempting to find out the names and other details of anonymous mugshots, with the aim of making the details available to researchers and academics.

They are crowdsourcing this to an extent, posting images of individuals to Twitter and Facebook in the hope that members of the public might be able to help to either identify them or conduct their own research into who they might be.

For more on the project, see this post from one of Preston Park Museum’s staff at the Leeds Beckett University website.


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