Criminal Historian

Working with dead people

How Emily, 13, got away from the Whitechapel kidnapper

One 13-year-old girl faced a double ordeal in 1885, after first being abducted, and taken across the Channel against her will – and then facing a cross-examination by her kidnapper when the case reached the Old Bailey.

Christina Fischer, known to her family as Emily, was born on 15 March 1872 in Germany. Her family had emigrated, like many other German residents, to London, where they settled at 59 Greenfield Street, off the Commercial Road in Whitechapel. Emily’s father, William, worked as a printer. The family spoke little English, and so it was understandable that many of their friends and acquaintances in the capital were other German immigrants.

One man they got to know sometime in 1883 was Julius Hahn, then aged 27, and working as a baker. On 24 October 1885, he had come to the Fischer house about 8am, with two of his own children. William Fischer’s wife, Mary, was at home and took the children upstairs.

Julius told William that he intended to travel back to Germany that day, after visiting the West End (different accounts state either that his wife was ill in hospital there, or that she had recently died there), and asked if he could leave his children there until he returned from his trip west. That was all fine, and so Julius left, returning some three hours later. He said his goodbyes, then, and went off with his children.

But shortly before his return, William had sent his daughter Emily out for a newspaper. She had returned with it, then went out again prior to Julius leaving the house. That was the last the Fischers saw of her for three days.

After she failed to return, later on that Saturday, William started to make inquiries as to her whereabouts, asking at the Blackwall Docks, where he thought Julius might have headed. He had clearly linked Emily’s absence with Julius’s departure soon after. There were no clues as to where she was, and after two sleepless nights, and two days searching, William finally went to the Thames Police Court in Stepney to obtain a warrant for Julius’s arrest.

**

So where was Emily during this weekend? As her father had suspected, she was with Julius Hahn. She had gone out the second time to meet a friend, and as she was coming back, she bumped into Hahn with his two children. “Will you come with me to carry the baby?” he asked, claiming that he could not manage the two of them on his own. Emily agreed, and carried the baby to the docks, some ten minutes’ away. Hahn then asked if Emily would come with him to his ship – “You cannot get out of this gate – you must go by a little boat on board.”

Emily went downstairs on the boat to put the baby to bed, when she realised the boat had started. Running back on deck, Hahn told her that she would now have to go with him to Rotterdam. She burst into tears, but his response, she said, was to threaten her, saying “if you tell anyone, you will see what I will give you”. Emily ran back below deck; Hahn followed her and told her he wanted a kiss. She would not let him. He tried to put his hand up her clothes; Emily, with great presence of mind, threatened to tell the captain.

Emily shouted out to a woman on board, and she reported matters to the steward. But it was too late for Emily to get back to the docks, and she ended up on board all the way to Rotterdam, arriving there on Sunday morning. Hahn then tried again, asking Emily to travel on with her to Bingen – she refused, thrust the baby back at him, ran away from the ship and leapt on board another that was travelling back to England. She reached London again the next day.

**

When Hahn was tried for abduction at the Old Bailey, he was allowed to cross-examine the 13-year-old girl he had tried to kiss. He tried to tell her that she had agreed to go with him if he paid her 20 shillings; suggested that she had wanted him to touch her, and that she had wanted to go to Bingen with him as another passenger had said it was nicer than England. She insisted that it was Hahn who had said Bingen was nicer than England, as part of a concerted effort to make her go with him.

The criminal register entry for Julius Hahn’s offence, from Ancestry

Hahn also cross-examined Mr and Mrs Fischer, suggesting that they had consented to him taking their daughter to Germany. They both indignantly denied that. But then another German man, again examined by Hahn, said that Hahn had claimed to him that Emily was his servant, employed to look after the children. Emily had gone to him saying she needed a ticket to return to England on the next boat, but said he had not seen her cry, or Hahn behave badly towards her.

Hahn also got this man, Theodore Peters, to say that Emily had never mentioned to him being touched in an indecent manner by Hahn. It would have taken some courage for a young girl to tell a male stranger that another man had been behaving indecently towards her.

Towards the end of the trial, Emily was re-examined, and asked again about the details of Hahn’s attempts to grope her. She said, clearly and calmly, that it was bedtime, and she was in the ladies’ cabin, lying down with Hahn’s five-month-old child. Hahn had come in and, despite Emily being with his own daughter, tried to put his hand up this girl’s clothes.

Hahn’s last words were “I did not touch her with any intention”, but despite his aggressive, insistent cross-examining of the young witness, and attempts to portray her and her parents as liars, Emily kept her cool. Julius Hahn was found guilty of taking Emily Fischer away without her parents’ consent – but not guilty on a charge of indecent assault.

This was a fair verdict; although Emily clearly stated that Julius had tried to put his hands up her clothes, and to kiss her, she never said he had succeeded; there had been an attempt, but not a successful one. He had certainly abducted her, though, and it was only due to her presence of mind and intelligence that she was able to see her home again.

Sources: Old Bailey Online (t18851214-84, 14 December 1885, Morning Post, 14 November 1885; South Wales Daily News, 16 December 1885, Criminal Registers on Ancestry.co.uk

Where Dr Crippen’s nemesis lies

Dr Crippen, from Wikimedia Commons

At the top of a windswept hill in Somerset, overlooking Brean Down one way, and the built-up bay of Weston-super-Mare to the right, is the small, appropriately-named, church of St Nicholas Uphill. It can be seen from the marshes, an isolated little building clinging to its hilltop like lichen.

The churchyard is small; on a bitingly cold, windy, January day it takes some time to reach, clambering up a muddy path (not a formal route, but one trodden into the grassy hill by previous ramblers) and slipping back a few times, while the wind forces tears from one’s eyes.

One might expect the relatively few graves here to be of Somerset folk who lived fairly quiet lives, but, in fact, there are several fascinating ones, from a man ‘killed’ (the gravestone fails to record how) to another who failed to come back from the battle of Passchendaele in World War 1.

But this is the most interesting find for a criminal historian, set near the back of the churchyard, with a vista of sea and marsh behind.

This is the final resting place of Frank Castle Froest, a former superintendent of CID at Scotland Yard. His obituary, on 7 January 1930, summarises why his achievements belie his quiet grave:

“Mr Froest was one of the most famous officers of his time, and established for himself an international reputation. It was while Mr Froest was Superintendent of the CID of Scotland Yard that the North London Police under his direction began the inquiries which led to the discovery of the few human fragments, which were subsequently identified as part of the body of Mrs Crippen.

Later [in 1910], Mr Froest received information from a liner in mid-Atlantic that Dr Crippen, with the young woman, Miss [Ethel] Le Neve, dressed as a boy, was believed to be on board, this being the first occasion that wireless had been used to effect the arrest of a criminal.

Mr Frost immediately communicated with the Canadian police, and he sent a detective-inspector by a faster boat, and Dr Crippen and Miss Le Neve were brought back to England, the former being tried at the Old Bailey, and hanged for the murder of his wife by the administration of a deadly poison, hyoscine.” (Lancashire Evening Post, 7 January 1930)

Froest, a Freemason, was also famous for arresting politician and fraudster Jabez Balfour in the early 1890s, having smuggled him onto a British ship in South America, and then charging him with fraud. He ‘specialised’ in dealing with confidence tricksters, including ‘Continental gangs of swindlers’, and on retiring, he became a magistrate and county alderman.

He retired two years after Crippen’s execution, the king, George V, commenting:

“Goodbye, Mr Froest, and Godspeed. The detective and police organisation in which you have served so long is, in my opinion, the best in the world.” (Western Gazette, 10 January 1930)

Frank moved to Weston-super-Mare, although he continued to travel – including trips to Algeria and Indonesia in the 1920s, by which time he was living at 2 Uphill Road, near the church where he would be buried in 1930. The records of the Old Bailey record his frequent presence

Frank was 73 when he died; his gravestone, placed at the top of the hill by his daughter [possibly Mabel, named in his will], ends with words that sum up his busy, exciting, dangerous, work for the CID in the late 19th and early 20th centuries:

“Fight the good fight.”

For more on Frank Froest’s career at Scotland Yard, the Old Bailey Online website records him as a witness in several trials from the 1880s onwards.

Did this murder case really change the law?

There was an interesting article on the BBC website today, looking back at the murder of a 10-year-old girl, Mona Tinsley, from Newark, in 1937.

It’s always interesting to read about old cases, and how they were investigated; but here, something more is being alleged. The headline of the piece states that it was a ‘murder that changed the law’, and includes a long quote from a legal historian, Benjamin Darlow, about the principle of ‘no body, no murder’ in English law.

Darlow states that after a man who had thought to have been murdered in 1660 turned up two years later, there would be no murder conviction based on a case where no body had been located for the following 294 years – i.e. until 1956.

The implication, though, is that Mona Tinsley’s case was the one that changed this situation, suggesting that a murder conviction was obtained in her case, despite her body not being found.

Yet that is not the case, as the article later states. The former Tinsley family lodger – who, it is suggested, was having an affair with Mona’s aunt – was charged and tried prior to Mona’s body being found… but only with abduction.

Although he was suspected of killing her, without a body, he could not be tried with murder, and so was convicted of abduction alone. It was only when Mona’s body was found, six months after her disappearance, that he could then be charged with her murder.

But this isn’t what the article seems to be trying to argue. There may have been public calls for the law to be changed given the suspicion attached to one individual; but nowhere in the article does it state that this was the case, or that it was the murder of Mona Tinsley that led to the law being changed some 20 years later.

Legal history and criminal history are fascinating areas for research and many are interested in reading about historic cases – but it would be useful to have a clearer exposition of what this case was – and indeed, wasn’t – about. I was left confused by what the article was purporting to say, and I don’t think I will be the only one.

 

Happy Christmas from the Criminal Historian!

The Illustrated Police News keeps it festive in 1896

While you’re eating your turkey at the weekend (unlike me – I’ll be munching a nut roast or something equally interesting), spare a minute for those who have had more miserable times at Christmas.

This would include Thomas Gundry, a brewer’s manager from Caversham, near Reading, who managed to get shot on Christmas Day in 1895.

It was 8pm, and, after lots of eating and drinking at home, Gundry was playing a game of bagatelle in his dining room, when he heard the firing of a gun, and, at the same time, saw a bullet ‘crashing’ through his window and shutters. The bullet passed over his head and shattered some plate glass over his mantlepiece.

The shot came from outside the Gundry house; a man named Henry Hinde had been passing by, and saw another man standing before the window with a gun in his hand. He immediately chased the offender, but instead of being scared, the strange man turned and pointed the gun at Hinde.

The brave Hinde, though, knocked his assailant’s arm, and although the gun fired, the bullet was sent into the air. Hinde was momentarily shocked – as would be expected – and taking advantage, the gunman again ran off.

On being eventually captured by police some distance away, at Goring railway station, he was disarmed, and it was found that the gun was a revolver that had indeed been fired twice.

It emerged that the prisoner was Arthur Haslam, also known as Thomas Clayton, a homeless 58-year-old. He was also Thomas Gundry’s brother-in-law, although the two men had never previously met – both Haslam and Gundry had married daughters of Mrs Pittman, ‘of Pittman Brewery, Goring’, and Gundry was the manager of that brewery.

Gundry’s marriage was happier than Haslam’s; the latter man had separated from his wife in 1885, after 15 years of marriage, and he had been made to give up all right to live with his wife, and ‘all control’ of their daughter. He was bitter, and – following an unsuccessful career mining in the Transvaal – struggling financially.

From this point on, he had started to ‘annoy’ various relatives for money. Earlier on Christmas Day, Haslam had sent a note to Gundry, asking him to see him at Sloane Square, but his request had been denied. He said he was angry that his relatives had failed to give him funds, and intended to ‘terrify’ them into agreeing to his future demands.

He may have intended to kill Gundry and then kill himself; he had threatened suicide before, and when apprehended by the police, had strychnine on him. He was desperate, and the fact that his relatives – including his estranged wife and daughter – would be celebrating Christmas while he struggled alone, had ‘irritated’ him.

In February 1896, Arthur Haslam was found guilty of attempting to cause grievous bodily harm, and was sentenced to three years’ penal servitude.

Here’s hoping you all have a calmer Christmas Day than was experienced in Caversham in December 1895!

Sources: Illustrated Police News, 4 January 1895; Berkshire Chronicle, 8 February 1896 , accessed via the British Newspaper Archive

 

Crime and policing museums in the UK and Ireland

Lincoln Castle

Lincoln Castle

I’ve started putting together a map of crime and policing museums from England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. This is a work in progress, and so will be added to, although do feel free to make your suggestions as to other places I should be listing!

I’ve already been to quite a few of these, and when I’ve got time, hope to put together short reviews or links to my published reviews of these sites.

My first visit to one of these sites was to Inverarary Jail back in 1995, when I was on a family holiday here. My aunt persuaded me to go with her for something to do, and so I have her to thank for getting me interested in criminal history at that point! The photos you can see on the map have all been taken by me; when I can find the ones I’ve taken of other sites, I’ll add those too.

Top Five: Resources for the history of autopsies and coroners’ inquests

An view of a coroner's inquest, 1826. (Wellcome Library, London, used under creative commons)

An view of a coroner’s inquest, 1826. (Wellcome Library, London, used under creative commons)

Thanks to a reader of this blog, Sherry, who asked me if I could recommend any books or publications that look at 19th century autopsy procedures, I thought I’d do a short list this week of resources for those wanting to know more about historical autopsies and also the role of the coroner.

The autopsy – also known as the postmortem – is the dissection and examination of a dead body, to establish a cause of death. The role of the coroner is aligned to this in that his or her role is to inquire (with the help of a jury) into any death that appears to be unnatural, through the means of an inquest. In Victorian times, the autopsy might be carried out either in operating theatres or in private homes – and coroner’s inquests might be held in a local pub.

Many stories I have covered on this site originate with a report of a coroner’s inquest, and, in fact, one of my own family history mysteries relates to my great-great-grandfather, who died in the 1890s.

An inquest was held to see whether he had died through neglect or as a result of manslaughter – irritatingly, the inquest records for West Sussex, where he died, have not survived, and the newspapers don’t seem to mention him, so it looks like I’ll never find out what the coroner said about this case (although the death certificate duly recorded a verdict of ‘neglect not amounting to manslaughter’, so I know what the coroner’s jury decided!). But anyway – onto my list.

1 . The Victorian Medico-Legal Autopsy, by Karyo Magellan

number-1

This fascinating article first appeared in Ripperologist magazine, but is now available on the Casebook website. It looks at autopsies and forensic examinations as they existed in 1888, the year that Jack the Ripper was wreaking havoc in east London.

 

2. Short History of the Autopsy, by Jack Gulczyński, Ewa Izycka-Świeszewska and Marek Grzybiak

number-2

For an academic discussion of the history of the autopsy, try this (English language) article in the Polish Journal of Pathology. This is actually the second of two articles, and focuses on the period between the 16th and 21st centuries. It’s free to download as a pdf, which is a novelty with academic journal articles. 🙂

3. A Bite Into the History of the Autopsy, by Julian L Burton

number-6

This is another academic article, this time from the journal Forensic Science, Medicine and Pathology (1(4), December 2005, pp.277-284). Part of it looks at the development of the autopsy during the 17th to 19th centuries, although its focus is limited to Europe.

 

 

4. The Coroners’ Society

number-4

The website for The Coroners’ Society of England and Wales has a page on its history, and that of the duty of coroners throughout history. It links to the inaugural minutes of the society from 1846, and refers to legislation such as the Coroners Act of 1887 (and if your interest is well and truly piqued, elsewhere on the site, you can learn how to become a C21st coroner…).

5. The National Archives

number-5

Although The National Archives (TNA) does not have any coroners’ records available to view on its own site, it has a useful research guide as to where you can find information about coroners’ inquests. These include records held at TNA (such as CHES 18 and ASSI 66), and those found in local archives as part of Quarter Session records (coroners being required to file their inquests there until 1860).

And also, remember that historic newspapers can also shed a surprising amount of detail on the process of Victorian postmortems, particularly in prominent murder cases. In the UK, you can try the British Newspaper Archive and Welsh Newspapers Online; or in the States, Newspapers.com.

Mad murder: A crime for which there was no reason

A depiction of the murder in the Illustrated Police News

A depiction of the murder in the Illustrated Police News

It was regarded as one of the most cold-blooded murders that had ever been committed in Somerset. It was a Friday in the third week of March, 1868, when, around six o’clock in the evening, the body of a 13-year-old boy named John Wilkins was found just inside a gate, about ten yards from the main road in Winscombe.

The corpse was said to have presented a ‘most sickening spectacle’; the head was ‘beaten almost to the jelly’, and the throat cut so deep that the head was also almost severed from the body.

John was employed by local farmer Henry Hancock to keep his birds; he was only young, and minding his own business – who would want to see him dead?

Locals didn’t have long to wait to find out. Soon after the body was discovered, a young man by the name of Alexander Holmes called at the house where the Banwell policeman, Acting-Sergeant Hancock, lived. The constable was out on duty, so Holmes, who was himself only 18 years old, told the elderly landlady what he wanted to get off his chest instead:

“I have just killed a lad.”

The rather brave landlady stayed with the stranger, until the parish constable arrived, and promptly took him into custody. He was then taken to the Axbridge police station by PC Barrington.

Holmes told the policeman that he was the son of a retired army officer, Colonel Holmes, who had been with the 12th Lancers but now lived at Cloughjordan, near Roscrea, in County Tipperary, Ireland. Holmes had been living with turf dealer Edwin Godfrey at Edington, near Bridgwater, for the previous three years – an arrangement between Godfrey and Colonel Holmes – and appeared to have had a quiet life.

Yet behind his calm façade, he apparently  hid a desire to kill. He said:

“I felt I must kill someone, and it is a great wonder to me how it is I have not killed more.”

This comment was because he had passed several more people on the road to where he came across young John, who was at work in a field. He had seen the boy, entered through the gate to that field, bludgeoned him to the ground, and then tried to cut his head off.

This was a horrific, unplanned murder in a small community; but as was common with Victorians, they were both fascinated and repelled by the case. Soon, they were flocking to the scene of the crime – it was said that at one point there were ‘hundreds’, not just from Winscombe but from the surrounding villages.

The police searched the area, and found a heavy, bloodied stick just ten yards from where the body had been found; six yards further, they found a knife by the side of a small brook that ran through the meadow – Holmes stated that it was here that he calmly washed his hands after killing John Wilkins.

At the trial, at the Somerset Assizes, the pointlessness of the murder was reiterated.

“The prisoner had never seen the boy before – they were perfect strangers to each other – would any man in his senses have gone and belaboured a poor boy about the head and then cut his head from his body?”

There was no premeditation. No accomplice. Holmes had lived 20 miles from Wilkins, and had never seen him before; and he had confessed almost as soon as he had committed the murder.

There were two hypotheses as to why Holmes had killed. The first was simply that he had voices in his head demanding that he kill – it didn’t matter who, he was just told to attack someone.

But the second was that he was of ‘extremely weak intellect’, and to further this argument, Holmes’ old teacher, the Reverend F Howse, was called before the coroner, and noted that:

“He had a master to instruct him in Latin, French, and drawing, but he was incapable of learning these things.”

He also added that boys on the street used to ‘call’ after Holmes; a key part of testimony in Victorian court cases was to show that an individual was ‘simple’ by demonstrating that he or she had been publicly teased by other children.

Colonel Holmes’s friend, an army surgeon, was asked to visit his friend’s son; he asked him why he killed the boy and ‘he said he could not help it. I asked him if he knew the consequences of such an act, and he laughed like an idiot’.

Unsurprisingly, the proprietor of a lunatic asylum near Taunton was asked to examined Holmes; he noted that although he was clearly of weak intellect, he was able to answer every question put to him ‘quite rationally’. He now stated that he had been motivated by reading an account of another, very recent, murder, at Todmorden*, and this had given him the idea.

This has clear echoes of the fears many Victorians had that reading murder accounts, particularly those in penny dreadfuls, might motivate readers to commit similar crimes (Kate Summerscale’s discussion of penny dreadfuls, and perceptions of them, in The Wicked Boy is well worth a read).

It was found that Holmes was clearly a disturbed young man, and after only two minutes of consultation, the jury decided that Holmes was not guilty of murder, by reason of insanity. He was ordered to be kept in custody ‘until her Majesty’s pleasure be known.’

Alexander Holmes' entry in the prison registers for Somerset, 1868 (from Ancestry)

Alexander Holmes’ entry in the prison registers for Somerset, 1868 (from Ancestry)

It later emerged that Colonel Holmes knew his son was insane; being in straitened circumstances following his retirement on half-pay, he had arranged for Edwin Godfrey to look after his son as though Godfrey was running a lunatic asylum.

Edwin Godfrey's entry in the 1871 Edington census - he was no longer running an unlicensed asylum... (image via Ancestry)

Edwin Godfrey’s entry in the 1871 Edington census – he was no longer running an unlicensed asylum… (image via Ancestry)

Unfortunately, though, Godfrey did not have the order or medical certificates required under the Lunacy Acts to run an asylum – but he was cheap, only asking for 7s a week to look after the troubled boy. Colonel Holmes’ defence was to the point:

“In placing him out, I thought it was for my own son’s good.”

Both Colonel Holmes and Edwin Godfrey were bound over in the sum of £40 each, and Godfrey was bailed until the next Assize.

This had a negative impact on the Wilkins family, for Colonel Holmes had previously promised to give them an annuity of £20 a year, a very small reparation for his son’s act.

However, once Alexander was moved to the Lunatic Asylum for Criminals, the Secretary of State sent his father notice that he would have to pay 14s a week maintenance for him. He then had to pay for his defence and that of Godfrey, in the forthcoming trial on the charge of unlawfully keeping a lunatic without license to do so.

Already feeling the pinch of his reduced income, Colonel Holmes immediately dropped his plans to help John Wilkins’ relatives.

Sources:

Belfast Morning News, 18 March 1868, Bristol Times, 28 March 1868, Taunton Courier, 25 March 1868, Bristol Times & Mirror, 11 April 1868, Taunton Courier, 29 April 1868, Potter’s Electric News, 18 March 1868 (via the British Newspaper Archive)

*The Todmorden murder was the murder of Jane Smith, at Todmorden Parsonage, by Miles Weatherill. Jane had given information that Weatherill was illicitly ‘walking out with’ Sarah Bell, a 16-year-old servant of the Todmorden vicar, the Reverend Plow, that resulted in Sarah losing her job. Weatherill took his revenge, and also shot Mrs Plow, the vicar’s wife, although she survived. Weatherill was convicted of murder, and given the death sentence.

 

The lamplighter’s wife: a dark tale from Edwardian London

A hysterical woman yawning, c.1890, by Albert Londe (Wellcome Images, used under Creative Commons)

A hysterical woman yawning, c.1890, by Albert Londe (Wellcome Images, used under Creative Commons)

It was just after 8pm on 8 July 1907 – a Monday night in north London. Lamplighter Harry Mitchell, aged 33, had just left his home in Stoke Newington to light his lamps for the night. He lived in a top floor flat in what were somewhat euphemistically called artisan’s dwellings at 34 Garnham Street, with his wife, Clarissa Maria, and three children – a six-month-old girl, 18-month-old boy, and a seven year old girl.

Left behind, Clarissa was seen to open the front window at the top of the building – and to onlookers’ horror, push through her seven-year-old daughter, Clarissa Alice, who fell and became impaled on the spikes of railings that separated the building from the pavement. Mrs Mitchell then looked through the window to check that her daughter had fallen, before rushing back into the front room.

George Tilley, a mill foreman, was walking down the street when he saw the first child impaled on the railings. He ran over and gently lifted her off, before a movement above made him raise his eyes. To his horror, he saw the middle child, known as Frederick, only 18 months old, clinging onto the sill of the second floor window. As he watched, this child too fell ‘with a thud’ into the space between the railings and the flats, lying there clearly severely injured.

Jessie Abrahams, a local woman who was also passing by at the time, said there was a gap of around two or three minutes between the two children falling out of the window. She had also seen Clarissa Mitchell ‘very deliberately’ open the window wider, before throwing herself out – as though tumbling through space, it was later said. Her body was impaled on the railing spikes with such force that several men were needed to lift her off the railing.

The three Mitchells were carried by shocked onlookers to the nearest dispensary, on the High Road, where much to everyone’s amazement, Frederick was found to be still alive, although critically injured, and was immediately rushed to the Metropolitan Hospital. It was initially believed that both the mother and elder daughter were dead – but a more thorough investigation found signs of life in both, and they were taken to the German Hospital in Dalston. Although both were conscious, they were said to be in a ‘very critical’ condition.

The Mitchell family’s neighbours, hearing the shouts and thuds, and learning what had happened, were obviously concerned about the fate of the younger daughter. They broke into the flat, and there found the baby sleeping peacefully in bed.

What had caused this woman to take such an awful course of action? Mr and Mrs Mitchell were said to be highly respected residents of their local community, members of the Salvation Army, and hard working.

However, the 30-year-old Mrs Mitchell, who worked as a servant, but who when not at work was confined to a small flat with three small children to look after, had been said to have been ‘low spirited for some time’. This was another way of saying that she suffered from depression.

On her husband leaving for work one summer’s evening, she had decided she could take life no more, and had tried to take her children with her on a journey to a better world. Her only comment on being lifted from the railings was that her head hurt; her oldest child, however, told onlookers:

“Mother threw me out. I clutched the curtains, but they broke.”

The following day, it was reported that Mrs Mitchell had spent a restless night in the German Hospital, and had been screaming ‘almost continuously’. The little girl impaled on the railing had been far quieter, despite having been impaled through her groin; but her brother was in a far worse state.

It took a month for the woman to be charged with wounding her children – she was also charged with attempting suicide. The time lapse was due, simply, to her injuries; she was in hospital for weeks following the event. At the North London Police Court, she was committed to the Central Criminal Court for trial; she had only spoken once, asking, “Can I see my children?”

The Asylum for Criminal Lunatics, Broadmoor. (Wellcome Images, used under Creative Commons) Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

The Asylum for Criminal Lunatics, Broadmoor.
(Wellcome Images, used under Creative Commons)

But her children were, a month later, still in hospital, and she was not permitted to see them. A doctor called to give his opinion remarked that he thought she was insane, and so the gaol doctor was asked to keep her under observation. Clarissa Mitchell duly appeared at the Central Criminal Court on 10 September 1907.

Here, new light was shed on Clarissa’s past. Harry Fullarton, the assistant medical officer at Holloway Prison, where she was held pending her trial, gave evidence that she was mentally ill, and had been for some time – ‘she is quite unfit to understand the present proceedings or instruct solicitor or counsel’.

He said that he had found out that she had previously been detained as a lunatic between August 1901 and March 1903, before being released in the belief that she was ‘cured’. At the time of her incarceration, she was already married and was caring for baby Clarissa; on being released, she returned to her husband and quickly had two more children.

To modern eyes, it seems highly possible that Clarissa was suffering from post-natal depression that may have turned into psychosis; the timing of her two severe bouts of mental illness both came when she had very young children in her care.

It was found that Clarissa Mitchell was insane and unfit to either plead or to take her trial on a charge of wounding. She was ordered to be detained at His Majesty’s pleasure.

And what of the family she tried to destroy? The baby, sadly – the one child Clarissa had not tried to kill – may have died; but the two she had thrown from the window both survived. The 1911 census shows Clarissa Alice, now 11, and Harry Frederick William Mitchell, now aged five, living with their father at 100 Rendlesham Road in Clapton.

Harry Mitchell, aged 37, was still working as a lamplighter for the Gas Light and Coke Company; in the census return, he had recorded the fact that he had been married for 12 years, and had had four children, of whom, one had died (I have not been able to ascertain whether this was the sleeping baby of 1907, or a child who had died prior to this).

Another hand had scrawled a red line through the details of his marriage, denying Clarissa her existence as the lamplighter’s wife, and thus, albeit unknowingly, denying her existence, too, as her children’s mother.

*

Sources: Belfast Weekly News, 11 July 1907; Portsmouth Evening News, 9 July 1907, Wells Journal, 11 July 1907, London Daily News, 9 August 1907, Diss Express, 16 August 1907, Old Bailey Online (ref t19070910-21). Birth of Clarissa Alice Mitchell, Edmonton, Mar 1900 (vol 3a 374); 1911 census on Ancestry.

Clarissa Maria Mitchell died in 1941, aged 65 (FreeBMDs, Windsor district, Dec 1941, vol 2c, page 869 – the location suggests that she may have died in Broadmoor, which was in Crowthorne and thus came under the Windsor district for registration purposes); Clarissa Alice, unlike her mother, never married; she died, a spinster, in her 80s (source: Civil Registration Death Index, on Ancestry).

 

 

 

Though she be but little, she is fierce

800px-lesmode_parisiennes1851In 1851, an assault case was heard at the Keele petty sessions in Staffordshire, before two male bastions of the local community – the magistrates. The assault was alleged by a female servant, Elizabeth Hughes, against her employer’s daughter – and it highlights how women were perceived both by male magistrates and by the local press which, at this time, was largely staffed by men.

Elizabeth Hughes was employed by a farmer, Mr Goodall, who lived and worked at Foxley, near Audley in Staffordshire. Her disagreement was with his daughter Margaret, who had asked Elizabeth to feed the farm’s pigs one day. There may have been various ‘ranks’ of servant, and Elizabeth clearly felt that feeding pigs was not a task that she should carry out.

She had made her feelings clear to Margaret Goodall, who apparently then pushed her, squeezed her chin, and banged her three times on the head with a milking can. Elizabeth had resented this treatment, and duly taken Miss Goodall to the magistrates.

But Elizabeth was roundly mocked by the magistrates and in the press. Not only had she the gall, as a lowly servant, to bring a complaint against a respectable farmer’s daughter, but she was ‘a person of little stature’ with ‘a most rattling tongue’, who ‘described her grievance with considerable volubility’.

Although this census entry is hard to read, it records Elizabeth Hughes as a servant in the Goodall household at Audley in 1851. Margaret Goodall is not present. (source: Ancestry)

Although this census entry is hard to read, it records Elizabeth Hughes as a servant in the Goodall household at Audley in 1851. Margaret Goodall is not present. (source: Ancestry)

Perhaps predicting that she would face some prejudice, Elizabeth had used a considerable amount of intelligence and gained a reference to her good character from her former mistress, in order to show the magistrates that she was a good, truthful person.

However, there were a selection of ‘bystanders’ at the petty sessions – probably, given the mundanity of the cases being heard that day, being complainants, defendants and witnesses in these other cases, waiting their turn, rather than nosey locals who had come specifically to listen to this case.

One of the magistrates, Captain Mainwaring (no, nothing like the Dad’s Army character, but Captain Rowland Mainwaring of the Royal Navy, whose ancestral home was the grand Whitmore Hall), decided to play to this audience, reading the reference out for laughs. Although Elizabeth’s former employer stated that she was a very good servant, and very honest, she had added that she had ‘a little too much tongue’ – which the magistrate and the onlookers found rather amusing.

Local magistrate and landowner Captain Rowland Mainwaring was recorded in the 1851 Staffordshire census (source: Ancestry)

Local magistrate and landowner Captain Rowland Mainwaring was recorded in the 1851 Staffordshire census (source: Ancestry)

Margaret Goodall then argued that Elizabeth was an impertinent woman, and that no assault had taken place – she then brought a farm lad, George Taylor, forward to give evidence to this effect. The magistrates disagreed and duly fined Margaret the small amount of 2s 6d; however, despite this, they then stated that they believed there were ‘faults on both sides’.

The ‘impertinent’ servant, Elizabeth, then asked if she could have the wages owed to her. Margaret’s father, farmer Goodall, was in court, and he was told to pay them, and to let Elizabeth leave his service.

The small but feisty woman then left the court – ostensibly a victor in her case, but only after having been laughed at, mocked for her physical stature, and her ability to stand up for herself, and now unemployed to boot. There were clearly risks in lowly rural female servants bringing cases against their employers and their families.

 

Source: Staffordshire Advertiser, 3 May 1851

An aside: Martin Baggoley, in Derbyshire Murders (The History Press, 2012), writes of one man who was sentenced to life imprisonment for murdering a police constable in 1879 (although released in 1894); this was Gerald Mainwaring, the son of ‘the late Rev’d Mainwaring of Whitmore Hall, Staffordshire, who had served as a magistrate on the Newcastle bench’ .  Gerald’s father was Charles Henry Mainwaring (1820-1878); the Oxford University Alumni directory on Ancestry states that Charles was the third son of one Rowland Mainwaring; therefore, the laughing magistrate was the grandfather of a murderer, which seems quite ironic.

The condemned miner with a Jesus complex

From press coverage of Dunn's speech at the Durham Assizes

From press coverage of Dunn’s speech at the Durham Assizes

John Thomas Dunn, a 52 year old miner, was not looking forward to the new year. He knew that once 1927 turned into 1928, his days were literally numbered, for on Friday 7 January, he would die.

It was the peak of the Roaring Twenties; flappers were frenetically dancing the Charleston, and the bright young things were enjoying life. Many were enjoying the glamour of the movies, watching the silent film stars pout and preen on cinema screens – perhaps with a bit of awareness that, for some, their careers would not last much longer, for The Jazz Singer, a ‘talkie‘ had been released in October 1927, and once sound arrived for good, those whose voices were deemed unattractive would have to find other careers.

But this was all a world away for Dunn. He was an unemployed  miner in the north-east, living at Sacriston in Co Durham. Sacriston had been home to a colliery since 1838; by the end of the 19th century, it had employed 600 local men. In 1903, it had seen a mining disaster, when water flooded the mine, killing two men.

Dunn, who had previously worked at this colliery, had married Ada Elizabeth Stokes in her hometown of Gateshead back in 1903, and the couple had had several children over the next two decades. Ada was eight years her husband’s junior, having only been around 20 years old when she married.

On 25 September 1927, though, Dunn had raised the alarm, shouting that his 44-year-old wife had committed suicide. However, during a subsequent trial, it was argued that he had actually strangled Mrs Dunn and then hanged up her body up with a rope to make it look like she had killed herself.

It was widely known that the Dunns had not been happily married, and, in fact, a week before her death, Ada Dunn had left her husband and returned home to her mother in Gateshead. But at his trial, which took place at the Durham Assizes, damning evidence came from two of the Dunns’ children.

Richard Dunn, aged 11, stated that when he had gone to bed on the night of the death, he heard his parents quarrelling, a stool overturning, and then a choking noise. The couple’s married daughter, Ada Walsh, then stated that John had tried to strangle her mother some years earlier.

When he was found guilty, on 15 November, Dunn had lost his usual self-control (it was noted that he had spent the trial watching what was going on with ‘keen attentiveness’, and often making notes that he would then pass to his counsel). He shouted out, passionately, making an emotional and sometimes manic speech, that started with his former chequered career in the army:

“I did not intend to go only to protect my country, but to protect my family. I was discharged under a false colour; I went back again, and said I had never been in. That was the courage of a man. I left the army twice with a character. It is easy for a man to get a bad name; it is easy for a dog never to carry a name of goodness once its name is bad.

“I have carried the burden of my children. I had a little girl blind. No one could have done more for her, and I thank God today through hard work and toil she can see. If she was standing beside me now she would give me a kiss of joy. I do not say I had a deceitful wife all through my life. She carried, like me, a weakness. It is a pity we ever met. She was led by other women, and she found that her friends were her enemies. Many times I suffered weakness, and when I went to the doctor with my suffering, I never told him the thing I was suffering from. I said to him, ‘For God’s sake, do not put down heart complaint, or else I will be done for work.'”

He then started talking of God, in an increasingly disjointed way, before ending:

“My children, I appeal for you today. When Christ was crucified He looked up and said, ‘Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.’ I forgive my children because they know not. God help them; God help me.”

The death sentence was then passed against him. A woman in the gallery immediately fainted and had to be carried out; one of Dunn’s sons, a little boy, ran out of the court into the street outside, shouting, “My father is to be hanged!” A policeman had to run after him and bring him back to the court.

gordon_hewart_1st_viscount_hewart

Lord Hewart, the Lord Chief Justice

Dunn had appealed his conviction, before the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Hewart, asking to call further evidence, but this appeal was dismissed at the Court of Appeal on 12 December. He had been trying to claim a defence of insanity; however, Lord Hewart, in giving judgement, pointed out that the original defence had been that no murder had been committed, and that Mrs Dunn had killed herself – so how could Dunn now be claiming insanity as a defence?

One newspaper stated that the execution was originally set for 29 December; however, another stated that it would ‘probably take place in the first week of January’, and this, in the event, is what happened.

On the evening of Thursday 5 January, members of the Dunn family arrived at Durham Gaol to visit their condemned relative. Somewhat surprisingly, they found him upbeat – in fact, one later said, he was ‘the most cheerful member of the party’.

He was still declaring his innocence, using the common excuse that his memory of the night his wife died was ‘blank’ – he had no memory, apparently, of anything that had happened prior to cutting his wife’s body down from behind his kitchen door.

“I would prefer death to a living tomb,” he commented, hating the idea of a long sentence in jail; his family commented that he “betrayed not the slightest concern as to his fate”.

Instead, he told them about a ‘curious experience’ he had had during his time in the condemned cell.

“A thrush fell through the window, and I found it had a broken wing. I tended it and healed the wing. The bird stayed in the cell for about a week, then one morning it flew away, leaving me feeling very lonely.”

Dunn was soon to feel lonely again, as his relatives were told to leave. They were not allowed to shake his hand as they left, and so left feeling somewhat aggrieved. Dunn, though, simply sat in his cell after their departure, writing letters.

A press headline regarding Dunn's 'wounded bird' story

A press headline regarding Dunn’s ‘wounded bird’ story

On the morning of Friday 6 January, he woke early, and had a light breakfast. He then ‘walked firmly to the scaffold’, which had been built only a few paces from his cell. A small crowd had gathered outside the prison, and keenly read the official notice of his execution when it was put up; executioner Pierpoint had done an efficient job.

There one particularly interesting point about this particular case. Dunn was a working-class man, unemployed, and poor; when he first appeared on remand in court charged with wilful murder, he had to ask for legal assistance, and was granted it under the terms of the Poor Persons Act. A local firm of solicitors, Ferens, Burrell, Carpenter and Swinburne, offered to take on the case. He was certainly keenly interested in how the trial progressed, and wanted to contribute to his solicitors’ work; yet how aware was he really as to the danger he was in, and did Mr Ferens, who represented him, employ the right defence at the original trial?

For Dunn’s passionate speech after conviction  – and his tale about the wounded bird – could also be read as the rambling speeches of an insane man. The press clearly saw his trial speech as an unusual occurrence, but focused in on his forgiveness of his children for giving evidence against him. Yet by comparing himself to Jesus in such a rambling way, by talking about parts of his former life that did not present himself in a good light, or that were not relevant, his speech departed from being simply about forgiving others, and went into stranger territory.

It seems not only that insanity should have been used as his initial defence, but that it might have succeeded. Instead, whether on his solicitor’s advice, or because he insisted on it, John Dunn continued to maintain that his wife had killed herself – and once the jury had decided otherwise, Dunn had, in effect, tied that noose around his neck himself.

Sources:

Western Daily Press, 16 November 1927

Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail, 13 December 1927

Durham Chronicle, 16 December 1927

Fife Free Press, 7 January 1928

 

 

 

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