Criminal Historian

Working with dead people

Sticking it to the sheep

Waifish_boyWe still refer today, in our industrial present, to goading people – metaphorically prodding them just to annoy them, or to make them do something. Yet the phrase ‘to goad’ comes from a far more rural implement – the goad, a stick that was either shaped to form a point at one end, or fitted with a sharp spike to its top.

The goad was used for driving cattle – usually oxen during ploughing, but also for other animals being driven to market. In 1816, Sir Walter Scott noted that countrymen were ‘armed with scythes…hay-forks…goads’ and it was clearly still a fundamental part of the rural worker’s armoury in the first half of the 19th century.

This might seem to be a world away from early Victorian London – the sprawling urban metropolis described by the likes of Charles Dickens; a world of inequality, of paupers starving in workhouses living only streets away from businessmen and industrialists, making their money and creating a recognisably modern city.

Yet some rural traditions continued to impinge on the urban modernity. In the 1840s, there were around 4000 butchers within London, and Smithfield Market was the main place where animals were sold. Farmers sent their cattle into London to be sold on; it was noted that ‘the principal supply of live cattle for the consumption of the metropolis is from the northern counties.’

There was clearly scope for mistreatment of these animals, being brought into the city to be sold on, killed, and used for feeding the residents of the metropolis. But it was not always those responsible for the cattle who were guilty of neglecting or abusing their animals. For example, in 1841, a young boy, described as a ‘ragged-looking little urchin’, by the name of Franklin, was charged by the Animals’ Friend Society – a society established by Lewis Gompertz in 1832 – with having wilfully ill-used a sheep.

He appeared in the Marlborough Street Police Court in London, where a local constable gave evidence, stating that he had watched the boy as he followed a flock of sheep, giving himself amusement by hitting the animals over their heads with a thick stick, and occasionally poking a goad into their ribs.

Franklin was not employed to help drive the sheep; in fact, the drover kept trying to get him to go away. But Franklin simply laughed at the drover, and continued to hit the sheep until the constable grabbed him and brought him to Marlborough Street.

In court, the offending stick was produced, and it had obviously seen a considerable amount of wear. Franklin seems to have made it himself, making a hole at one end to insert a goad that would wound the sheep only to a certain depth of skin and tissue.

Before the magistrate, George Long, who was shortly to transfer to the Marylebone Police Court, Franklin insisted that he had been asked to help drive the flock by a butcher – despite the drover’s claims otherwise. Mr Long asked whether he used the goad to injure the sheep – “Oh no, I never sticks the poor sheep with the goad”, answered the boy.

A surprised Mr Long responded, “What do you have it for?” to which an unperturbed Franklin answered, “Only to stick into the bullocks.”

Franklin, the bored child who probably enjoyed answering the magistrate back as much as he enjoyed goading animals, was promptly fined five shillings “for his barbarity”.

 

Sources: The Morning Post, 16 March 1841, Diana Donald, ‘Picturing Animals in Britain, 1750-1850’ (Yale University Press, 2007), p.354, OED, Oxford Dictionary of National BiographyVictorian London,

 

 

Wayward women and malleable morality in Victorian Cornwall

I’ve recently been looking at the criminal activities of Cornish women in the 19th century, placing their offences within their wider economic and social context. However, here, I thought I’d focus in on one particular Cornish family, to show how their offences and lives could be different from those of local men, and how these women were able to contribute to the household economy and form a financial coping strategy in times of economic need. Their lives were governed not by conventional morality (or concepts of what defined morality) but by a practicality and by close bonds with the other women in their families.

In March 1848, two women, 34-year-old Elizabeth Worsley and 47-year-old Eliza Harvey, were convicted at the Penzance Borough Sessions of keeping a bawdy house, and sentenced to three months each in prison. This was a fairly unusual offence to be charged with, judging from surviving criminal registers for Cornwall; women were more frequently convicted of in the 1840s of larceny, including larceny as a servant, a more serious offence whereby female servants stole from their masters or mistresses. But there was also an apparent monitoring of female sexuality in the mid 19th century, with women being deemed to be ‘common prostitutes’ for walking in public at night, or for having an illegitimate child.

380px-EN_BESKYTTERINDE_AF_INDUSTRIENElizabeth Worsley, one of the women charged, lived in the Penzance area all her life. She was born there in 1814, and died in the town in 1873. In 1851, the census listed her as the head of household at a house in Camberwell Street, Penzance, working as a boot binder, along with her sister, 29-year-old Mary Worsley. Also with them were Elizabeth’s two children – Charles F Worsley, aged 11, and daughter Wilmot Ann Worsley, 3, and Mary’s son, two year old Isaac. Elizabeth was clearly listed as single; her two children were illegitimate, and took her surname. Similarly, Mary’s son was also illegitimate. Also present at their house was Elizabeth’s ‘sweetheart’ – named as such in the census – Peter Knight, a 31-year-old mariner.

In 1861, Elizabeth was still working as a shoe or boot binder, but was now living at 31 Adelaide Street. Now aged 41, she was listed in the census as unmarried, but she was also stated to be the mother of Charles, a 21-year-old cordwainer, Amelia, 15, a servant, and Wilmot Ann, 12, a scholar. Two of Elizabeth’s other sisters were now living with her – a married sister, 42-year-old Ann Rowe, and a younger, single sister – Wilmot Worsley, after whom her niece was named. This younger sister also had an illegitimate child with her – Isaac Crow Worsley, aged 12. Neither sister had a job, and so Elizabeth and her two older children were responsible for maintaining this extended family.

Elizabeth – still single – and her son, Charles, were in 1871 living with her ‘daughter in law’ Amelia, 24 (presumably the same Amelia who was stated to be Elizabeth’s daughter ten years earlier; see note at end). Also living with them was Elizabeth’s nephew Isaac, by now a 22 year old labourer. Charles had followed his mother’s occupation, and was now a shoemaker.

So we have here a woman who never married, but who had and raised children on her own, maintaining an extended family through her work. She may well have supplemented her boot-binding income with sex work, as the bawdy house conviction suggests; was the ‘sweetheart’ named in the earliest census one of her clients? But she lived in close confines with this extended family, and it seems unlikely that if she had sex for money she did so on a formal basis, from her own home. It seems more likely that when times were hard, she may have tried to get money where she could, on a more ad hoc, disorganised basis, until things got better.

Christian_Krogh-Albertine_i_politilægens_venteværelseWhat does seem apparent is that this was a matriarchal set-up, where marriage was neither sought nor thought about. Elizabeth’s own illegitimate daughter Wilmot Ann, born in 1849, followed her mother’s example. She died in 1928 in Penzance, still unmarried, but this does not mean she did not have relationships. In 1881, she was the head of household in a house in Friggens Court, off Market Street, working as a seamstress. She was working to support not only herself, but her 10-year-old illegitimate son, Charles. Charles was actually her second illegitimate child; the first, Mary, baptised in 1868, seems to have died young.

Wilmot only had one recorded appearance before the magistrates – in August 1881, she appeared at the Penzance Petty Sessions, charged with disobeying a school attendance order – she had not been making Charles go to school. She was fined 2s 6d for the offence. At the same time, two of her relatives similarly appeared; William Worsley for not ensuring that his children regularly attended St Paul’s School, and was fined the same as Wilmot. Then Amelia Worsley was summoned for not sending her daughter to school, but she claimed her child was ill, and produced a doctor’s certificate (The Cornishman, 11 August 1881).

It was noted that she did not send her children to school regularly – and in fact, four months earlier, Amelia Worsley had been before the magistrates for the same reason, both her son and daughter having failed to attend school. In that case, Amelia had argued that her son ‘had been frightened by a dog’ and her daughter was ill; but she was censured for not having got a medical certificate to that effect (The Cornishman, 17 February 1881). In this case, too, the children appear to have been Amelia’s illegitimate son and daughter.

This was the same situation ten years later; Wilmot was now working as a charwoman, living in a different, but still poor part of the town, her income now supplemented by Charles’s work as a driver. Wilmot then moved to a two-room house at 7 Summer Court, New Street, where she remained for at least ten years. She continued to work as a char, and clearly signed her name as ‘Mrs Wilmot Worsley’, despite not marrying, and the use of ‘Mrs’ to denote a female whether married or single having become obsolete.

These children’s illegitimate status seems to have been overlooked or tolerated within their local community, and all of them were baptised within the Church of England (in Wilmot’s and Amelia’s cases, Elizabeth was recorded as her father in the records, with a Mary Worsley listed as mother). There is no record online that their baptisms had the common annotation ‘base born’ or ‘illegitimate’ next to them.

Elizabeth freely declared that she was a single woman, as did Wilmot, although she used the title ‘Mrs’. Amelia, in 1901, was listed as a widow in the census, when she was working as an office caretaker and living on her own – but she was similarly listed as a widow in 1891, and in 1881, when she was working as a laundress and living with her children Mary, 10, Charles, 7 – and an 11 month old child, William. And as mentioned previously, in the 1871 census, she listed herself as ‘wife of John Worsley’, but there was no John living at the address, and no record of any Cornish marriage between a John Worsley and Amelia.*

Were the Worsleys simply one family who refused to live by the conventions of Victorian morality, or were they representative of their community? The apparent acceptance of their lifestyles in their local area, their openness in recording their status and that of their children, and the many cases involving ‘immoral’ behaviour and prostitution by women in Cornwall during the 19th century suggests that female sexual behaviour was not perceived by these women as anything to be embarrassed about – even if the authorities sporadically attempted to punish them for it.

 

* There is one marriage between John Worsley and, possibly, an Amelia Hardy in 1870, but this took place in Manchester, and there is no evidence that the Worsleys ever moved outside of Penzance. In addition, as Amelia is clearly Elizabeth’s daughter in the 1861 census, and has Elizabeth’s family with her in 1871, it seems unlikely that she was a daughter-in-law with the maiden name of Hardy, rather than a Worsley by birth. There is also no record of Elizabeth Worsley having a son named John (one John Worsley baptised in 1852 in Penzance was the son of Mary and John Worsley). However, a John Worsley, aged 49, did die in Penzance in 1878, so I cannot be 100% sure that Amelia wasn’t telling the truth.

An image from the Newgate Calendar

An image from the Newgate Calendar

Findmypast has today released the third phase of its crime, prisons and punishment collection, covering England and Wales between 1770 and 1935.

The collection now includes the following series from The National Archives (TNA):

  • PCOM 4: Home Office and Prison Commission Female Licences
  • HO26: Home Office – Criminal Registers for Middlesex
  • HO27: Home Office – Criminal Registers for England and Wales

More records from other TNA series (HO8, HO47, HO140, PCOM2 and PCOM3) have also been added, along with the Newgate Calendar, vols 1 and 2 – containing over 80,000 records of ‘notorious characters’ and their offences up to 1841.

Tasmania Convict Records from 1800 to 1833 can also now be searched – a collection including records from over 20 different sources, held by the Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office.

This latest tranche of criminal records can be searched on Findmypast via this link.

 

I’ve not got much time to blog at the moment, as I get my next book ready to send to my publisher – but I found this small item in the Illustrated Police News (10 June 1899) that was rather sweet (despite the subject matter). I’m sure many of us can relate to always being seen asa child by older generations of our families, even when the police are involved…

 

IPN 10 June 1899

Top Five: Crime podcasts

My social media feeds are often full of requests for podcast recommendations, or friends talking about which ones they’re currently listening too. I often work whilst catching up on my favourite podcasts, so thought it was worth summarising my favourites ones. It’s a bit of a golden age for podcasts relating to crime, so there are lots to choose from; however, here are my current top five. If you would like to recommend any others, do get in touch!

1. Serial

http-:serialpodcast.org

http-::serialpodcast.org

The granddaddy of crime podcasts, the first season had a huge impact, and it was recently announced that its subject, Adnan Masud Syed, is to get a retrial after having previously been convicted of the murder of Hae Min Lee 17 years ago.

 

 

 

2. Untold Murder

untoldmurder.com

This British podcast tells the story of the murder of Daniel Morgan nearly 30 years ago (fact: as a child, I remember watching a piece about this case on Crimewatch). It includes interviews with family members, and is a fascinating look at the influence and impact of the British press on murder cases.

 

 

 

3. Body on the Moor

bodyonthemoor

A BBC production, this is an attempt to get closure on the identity and facts behind one man’s death on Saddleworth Moor in Lancashire. How, in this day and age, can a man die and his name die with him? Was it a crime or a suicide? The series is not ‘finished’ – updates will be provided as new material comes to light. An intelligent and well-told series.

 

 

4. Criminal

thisiscriminal.com

Another US series with high production values, Criminal’s social media presence and website design are almost as good as the podcast itself. Just try to ignore the adverts at the start of each episode, which can alternate between annoying and hilarious.

 

 

 

5. Sword and Scale

swordandscale.com

A series recounting various gory real life crime stories. Produced in Florida, its slogan is ‘A podcast about crime that proves the worst monsters are real’, and that gives you an indication of its approach!

 

Abandoned lives: concealed births and abandoned babies in Victorian England

There was a movement in the bushes as she walked down the path that led from her house to the road. Why she stopped to look, she wasn’t sure; perhaps because it was not a breezy day – it was simply cold, and still – or perhaps because the movement seemed unusual.

But stop she did, and stoop down to look more closely. It’s just as well she did, for there, lying amongst the foliage, yet not well hidden – as though somebody wanted it found – was a small bundle of cloths. She picked it up, and it moved; for there, well wrapped up against the cold, was a baby.

Lawford's Gate House of Correction, where Elizabeth Pratt was first sent. © Trustees of the British Museum

Lawford’s Gate House of Correction, where Elizabeth Pratt was first sent. © Trustees of the British Museum

The child was just three months old, and had not been there, in the garden in Stapleton, very long. At the Gloucestershire Assizes in February 1888, 21-year-old servant, Elizabeth Pratt, was found guilty of unlawfully abandoning it, but she refused to admit that it was hers, and even the judge in her case stated that he didn’t know whether the child was hers, or belonged to someone else.

Stapleton – now a suburb of Bristol – was only a village at that time, yet it already had a reputation for child related offences. In 1875, for example, a 33-year-old laundress, Charlotte Gingell, had been found guilty of the lesser charge of concealing the birth of her child after a naked baby girl had been found at the bottom of her well in Stapleton.

When questioned about it, she had tried to stab herself. Her case was deemed to be novel; many concealment cases were the result of young single women who had been seduced, and who hid the bodies of their illegitimate children to ‘hide their shame’ – according to the judge at Charlotte’s trial. Her case was seen to be far worse, as she was a married woman with two older children. She had been found guilty and sentenced to 18 months’ hard labour; but she was not found guilty of murder, despite evidence that the child had been born alive, and died due to either asphyxiation or drowning.

Charlotte appears to have been pregnant with a child by a different father to that of her elder children – then aged three and eight – and her brother and sister-in-law, who she lived with, had told her she would have to go and live somewhere else if she was pregnant. She was worried about her situation, and what would happen with regard to her work and her home if she gave birth to another child.

Like Charlotte Gingell’s, Elizabeth Pratt’s was seen to be a ‘very unusual case’. Usually, if a woman like Elizabeth had an illegitimate child and could not or would not take care of it, it might be looked after elsewhere – or she might even kill it, as the numerous infanticide cases in the 19th century show. There was, to some degree, sympathy with mothers in such a plight, and those charged with infanticide were often found guilty of a lesser offence, or reprieved if convicted.

But Elizabeth had not abandoned her child in the hope that the cold might kill it; she had not drowned it; she had not appeared to want it dead. Instead, she had wrapped it up warmly and left it in a woman’s garden, where it would be quickly and easily found. She could not keep her child, but she wanted it to survive and be cared for. This was recognised when her case was heard at the Assizes, the judge stating that ‘she had done nothing but abandon the child, and it was immediately afterwards found and taken care of.’

Prison register entry for Elizabeth, from Ancestry.

Prison register entry for Elizabeth, from Ancestry.

Elizabeth was from a labouring family, and poverty may have helped to explain her offence. Her father, William, was a labourer in Cromhall, a village in south Gloucestershire, around 11 miles from Stapleton; his wife, Elizabeth, worked as a washerwoman. Neither were well-paid or secure occupations. The 1871 census shows that at that time, William and Elizabeth were maintaining seven children, aged between two and 13. Cromhall was a rural parish, and work was predominantly agricultural labouring.

By the age of 13, Elizabeth was working away from home as a servant, acting as nurse to a family in Berkeley. At the age of 18, she received her first criminal conviction. At the Coleford Petty Sessions on 8 January 1884, she was found guilty of stealing money, and sentenced to a month in prison.

In 1887, she became pregnant, and gave birth in the September of that year. She appears to have been able to look after her child initially – but what happened three months later to make her abandon her child? Could her parents no longer support her, or had she been in a relationship that ended? The records do not record more than the cursory details; we know that Elizabeth was just 4 feet 11 in height, had dark brown hair and could read and write imperfectly; but we do not know the motive for her abandoning her child after three months of looking after it. The records also fail to record whether the child was male or female, or what happened to it after it was discovered.

What is known is that poverty impacted on the lives of those around her. The record of her conviction is on a page full of petty offences – drunken behaviour, begging, hawking without a licence. They are offences committed by those at the bottom of the social ladder, who are trying to either eke out a living or drink when they have nothing else.

Elizabeth was initially sent to Lawford’s Gate, a House of Correction in Bristol. Then, at the Gloucestershire Assizes, Elizabeth was sentenced to 14 days’ hard labour in prison. She was discharged on 1 March 1888. She then returned to service, and in 1891 was working for the Reverend Gerald N Jackson at Tytherington vicarage (Tytherington being a village near Cromhall), acting as the family’s cook. Did the Jackson family offer her a bit of Christian charity? It seems unlikely that in a small community, near her birthplace and where her family lived, that they would have been unaware of her history and convictions.

Prison register entry for Elizabeth, from Ancestry.

Prison register entry for Elizabeth, from Ancestry.

In Tytherington, Elizabeth seems to have made a life for herself. She met a new partner, a labourer named Thomas Creed, four years her junior, and on 5 August 1893, at the parish church in Tytherington, aged 26, she married him. The wedding ceremony was conducted by her employer, vicar Gerald Jackson. She then had three children – Beatrice, born in 1894, Lucinda Emily Maud, born in 1898, and John, born 1900 – before the family relocated to Caldicot, Monmouthshire, where Thomas found work as a fireman. In 1911, the family was living there, seeing their two younger children through school.

What happened to the poor child who was abandoned in a garden in Stapleton? Absent from the censuses, and not referred to by name in either press reports or prison registers, it is hard to tell. However, a William Stevens Pratt was born in the autumn of 1883 in the Thornbury district of Gloucestershire – which included Cromhall – and died there three years later. William was of course Elizabeth’s father’s name; and it was fairly common for illegitimate children to take their natural father’s surname as their middle name. Perhaps Elizabeth had fallen pregnant to a Mr Stevens’ child, and abandoned the baby, only for him to die aged three.

The abandoning of her first child, and her prior conviction for theft, indicate a troubled spell for Elizabeth as a young woman, living in a community with a limited range of options for a girl from a labouring family. It also shows that living in the Gloucestershire countryside was not a rural idyll, but one fraught with hardship, the struggle to find and maintain work, to get money, and to cope when difficult situations arose. The criminal registers and newspaper reports suggest that Elizabeth’s life was not, in this respect, an unusual one.

Based on records from the British Newspaper Archive and Ancestry. One of the criminal records for Elizabeth states that she was born in Lydbrook, in the Forest of Dean; although this is feasible, as it is not too far away, I suspect that this is an admin error, for there are no other records relating to a woman of this name being born in that area at the right time, and other records give her birthplace as Cromhall.

Death by Broomstick: an unusual punishment, for an unusual crime

View over Bala Lake, with woman in Welsh costume; from the National Library of Wales (used under Creative Commons)

View over Bala Lake, with woman in Welsh costume; from the National Library of Wales (used under Creative Commons)

An interesting case from 19th century Wales this week, where it could be debated whether the victim’s family got justice, and whether the defendant got away with her criminal behaviour.

It was 13 March 1888, and in the village of Llanfor, near Bala in north Wales – where the devil was said to visit the village church in the guise of a pig –  neighbours Elizabeth Evans and Ann Jones were fighting. This was not something new. 51-year-old Elizabeth was known for her anger, and she and Ann appear to have frequently rowed.

Both were married women; Elizabeth was the wife of Thomas Evans, an under-gamekeeper, and Ann was married to Evan Jones, a local joiner. Both men worked for the Price family at their Bala estate, Rhiwlas Hall. Ann and Evan had nine children; the eldest, Alice, was only 13.

The families lived next door to each other, in cottages known as Penrhos Isa. They had been in their back gardens, separated by a fence, when they started arguing. This was the result of Elizabeth, that morning, having struck one of the Jones children. Ann had heard her child shout, and rushed into the garden, furiously hurling her broomstick – used for cleaning the floors of her cottage – at her neighbour. They continued shouting at each other, until Elizabeth, infuriated, threw the broomstick back at Ann, striking her hard on the head.

Ann ‘instantly fell down dead in the garden’. A post-mortem showed that she had received a fracture at the base of her skull. The Coroner’s Inquest, held at the County Hall in Bala, under the Merionethshire coroner, heard corroboration that death would have been instantaneous.

Elizabeth was hit – metaphorically, rather than with the broomstick again – with remorse, admitting her offence immediately to the police, and saying she was ‘quite prepared to accept the consequences’. However, whether she was quite as remorseful as she claimed is debatable, seeing as she then added that ‘the deceased and her children had given her frequent annoyance’.

Elizabeth was duly charged with manslaughter. At the Merioneth Assizes in July that year, she was found guilty – of ‘throwing a broomstick with provocation’. She had been on remand for the previous four months, and so the judge determined that she had been in prison long enough. He therefore sentenced her to just one day in prison, warning her ‘of the consequences of violent anger’.

Given that the consequences appeared to be just a day in a cell for killing a woman, it’s not clear that Elizabeth learned as much as the judge intended.

 

(Sources: South Wales Echo, 15 March 1888; The Cardiff Times, 17 March 1888; Llangollen Advertiser, 27 July 1888)

Looking into the face of a criminal

Edgar Kilminster, aged 7

Edgar Kilminster, aged 7

This week, Ancestry has put online lots more criminal records – this time relating to prisoners in Gloucestershire. Although the records cover the period from 1728 to 1914, it is the later records that have received the most publicity, and for one key reason. Dating from the late 19th century, after the mandatory introduction of the criminal mugshot, Ancestry’s records include images of the men, women, girls and boys who came before the local police in a largely rural county.

Not only is this of interest to family historians, who might be able to see, for the first time, what their black sheep ancestors actually looked like (for many were from poor families, and might not have been able to afford to have their photograph taken professionally in any other context), it is of interest to the criminal historian, too, putting a face to a name; and a crime to a face.

Some of those detailed are very young at the time of their first surviving conviction; it is also possible to follow the pattern of offending for a repeat offender. One such pattern can be established for Edgar Leopold Kilminster.

Edgar was born in 1863 in Chalford Hill, near Stroud in Gloucestershire. He was the son of bootmaker William Kilminster – who was originally from Cricklade in Wiltshire – and his wife Harriet (nee Gardiner), born and bred in Chalford. William and Harriet had married locally two years prior to Edgar’s birth.

The Kilminsters were a large family; Edgar had several siblings, including older brother Joseph William, who followed his father into bootmaking, and younger siblings Harriet Florence Melinda (known as Florence), Annie Elizabeth, Alexina Laura, George Ernest, Percy Stanley, Amy Nella, Elsie Mabel, Della May and Gertrude*. Harriet Kilminster appears to have been pregnant on a regular basis from the age of 21 to 45.

St Mary's Mill in Chalford, by Chris Allen (used under creative commons)

St Mary’s Mill in Chalford, by Chris Allen (used under creative commons)

Perhaps with such a large family, it was hard to keep an eye on the children all the time. They needed to go to work at an early age – at 9, Joseph Kilminster was working in a silk mill (possibly St Mary’s, a textile mill in Chalford) and also attending school part-time, along with 8-year-old Edgar. It was a lot for two young boys; maybe they were bored in their little rural community, having such a rigid structure at such an early age; or perhaps they simply wanted to be able to get things that their parents couldn’t afford to buy them. Certainly, the two older boys were soon being noticed by the local police.

The first entry relating to the Kilminster family from the Gloucestershire Calendar of Prisoners is for seven-year-old Edgar, who was committed on 17 June 1870 for ‘stealing sweetmeats’, along with his brother Joseph, aged 9. The boys were found guilty and sent to the house of correction for seven days.

Edgar at the time was just 3’10”, an inch shorter than his hare-lipped brother, a brown haired, blue eyed boy with no prior convictions. But it was not his only conviction.

On 7 November 1876, by now aged 14, 4’12” and working as a factory hand near to his home in Chalford Hill, near Stroud, Edgar was again arrested by the police, and in December, appeared before the local magistrates at the local petty sessions. He was accused of having been ‘found on an enclosed garden of William Farmer at Bisley‘ – having been unable to give a good account of being on someone else’s property, Edgar was given the punishment of a month’s hard labour in the house of correction.

His record at this time notes that he had been known to local policeman PC Packer for 11 years, ‘has been here for stealing and once fined for stealing’; he was charged with, and convicted with, a local friend, George Mills.

Edgar’s offending now progressed to a more serious level, and in July 1879, now aged 16, 5’7″, and working as a labourer, he appeared at the Gloucester Assizes, charged with burglary. He was found guilty, and sentenced to nine months’ hard labour. It was noted by this time that he had four prior convictions; he was released on 30 April 1880.

The returns of habitual criminals, showing Edgar Kilminster's first entry on the right hand page, from Ancestry

The returns of habitual criminals, showing Edgar Kilminster’s first entry on the right hand page, from Ancestry

Edgar lived with his family in Chalford Hill until his late 20s, with his brother Joseph, now married and with a family of his own, living next door. In 1892, he married Mary Elizabeth Griffin in Bisley, and had a family of his own. However, a final surviving entry notes that Edgar Kilminster was convicted in 1897 of assaulting his wife of five years, and given 14 days’ hard labour. This was not his only offence between 1879 and 1897, though, as this final entry recorded eight prior convictions for the now strapping 34-year-old six footer.

One might expect Edgar to continue offending, and to continue living near his family in Chalford, working as a labourer. But instead, the next record for Edgar shows that he instead enlisted in the army – the deformed right thumb he now had being no barrier to service. He signed up for two years’ service in the Royal Artillery, at Pembroke Dock, claiming on his attestation papers that he had never been sentenced to imprisonment.

In 1906, Edgar appeared before the magistrates again. Although this appearance is not listed on Ancestry’s records, it survives in a mention in the Gloucester Citizen newspaper. Edgar and Jesse Gardner (possibly a relative on his mother’s side, but with a different spelling of his surname recorded) appeared at Stroud Petty Sessions, charged with having refused to leave the Bell Inn in Chalford one night, after the landlord, George Brown, had repeatedly asked them to.

Edgar had already been drunk when he went to the pub, and so the landlord had refused to serve him. But Edgar refused to leave for over an hour, instead using ‘abusive language’. The following day, the two men had visited the pub to try and get George Brown to settle the case away from the magistrates, but he seems to have refused. At Petty Sessions, each man was fined five shillings, and ordered to pay another 4s costs. (Gloucester Citizen, 7 September 1906)

In World War 1, Edgar served in the Army Service Corps. He was now living in Glamorgan, and had been working as a timberman. He served despite being 50 when he signed up.

Mary Elizabeth Kilminster died in 1921, and two years later, Edgar married again, this time to Gertrude Mary Hirons. She outlived her husband, for 71-year-old Edgar died on 3 September 1934 at the General Hospital in Stroud, having been taken there from his home on the High Street in Bisley. He had had a long and eventful life, but his birth and death both took place in his home area, where the police and the magistrates had known him so well.

All records referred to can be found on Ancestry; the original calendars of prisoners can be found at Gloucestershire Archives. The Gloucester Citizen was accessed via the British Newspaper Archive.

* These children’s names are taken from census records and cross-referenced with FreeBMD information; however, there may have been more Kilminster children, including Thomas William (born and died 1870), and Louisa Minnie (born 1871, died 1875).

 

 

 

Book review: The Murder of the Century

51AXXHMDNsL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_It always concerns me a little bit when I see a title that looks intriguing, but then the author’s previous works – listed at the start of the book – suggest a lack of knowledge of the specific subject of the book. Paul Collins has previously written works on subjects as diverse as Shakespeare and autism, so I was a bit concerned that this book, The Murder of the Century, which recounts a notorious American murder case from the 1890s, and uses it to explore the newspaper wars of the era, would display a lack of expertise about the subject, or a somewhat flighty attitude towards it.

My fears were groundless, though, as Collins here proves a great storyteller and to have a good grasp of the history of which he writes. He is able to bring to life the existences of the working class in New York’s poorer areas, from the children whose main entertainment is in fishing objects out of the river from the pier side overlooking Brooklyn, to the women eking out a living in slum neighbourhoods through a variety of occupations – including the carrying out of illegal backstreet abortions.

The Murder of the Century starts with the discovery of a torso, found by the aforementioned boys of the East 11th Street area. Another parcel is later found elsewhere, containing another part of the same body. Whose body is it, and who was responsible for killing the man who this body once was?

But the book is about far more than this. It tells the story of the tensions between members of New York’s immigrant community, and centres on German-born Augusta Nack, claiming to be a licensed midwife when New York had no such things. Although depicted by the press as a passionate, rather ‘unwomanly’ creature, who turns her lodgers into her lovers, she is also an unhappily married individual and worthy of sympathy after the deaths of all her children.

A satirical depiction of the media war between Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst

A satirical depiction of the media war between Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst

An investigation into her and two of her lovers creates a picture of immigrant life in New York, and also shows how she became the means by which the New York newspapers and their proprietors – particularly Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst – competed and pushed for supremacy, at no matter what the personal cost to others.

The characters here are well drawn, from Augusta to William F Howe, the showy defence lawyer at the subsequent murder trial. The story is also meticulously researched, and it shows. If you want a good example of how to write a real life, 19th century murder history that draws you in and keeps you reading, this is well worth a try.

 

Who was Robert the Devil?

A scene from Meyerbeer's Robert the Devil, by Degas

A scene from Meyerbeer’s Robert the Devil, by Degas

In 1886, a man appeared before the magistrates of the Marlborough Street Police Court in London, charged with drunk and disorderly behaviour.

The man had been on Oxford Street shortly after midnight the previous night, and his behaviour had gathered such a crowd around him that a policeman walking down the street had gone over to see what was going on. The man was using ‘filthy language’, was obviously very drunk, and refused to leave the area when the policeman requested him to. He was therefore charged with the above mentioned offence.

He was a black man, according to the newspapers, who refused to give his real name to the magistrate, instead stating that he was called ‘Robert the Devil’.

The magistrate asked what he had to say, and Robert answered, “Oh! Nothing at all, Boss.”

The local gaoler, Sergeant Vine, told the court that Robert was a frequent offender, and had appeared in the police court several previous occasions. Robert was told he would have to pay a 10 shilling fine or go to prison for seven days. Robert’s response was to say,

“That will be all right, Boss; the Prince of Wales will pay that for me.”

Robert evidently had long term alcohol abuse or mental health issues. His naming of himself as ‘Robert the Devil’ may not have had racial allusions, though, despite the devil’s likeness being a black goat in some 19th century literature, and there being increasingly negative depictions of black men and women in England during the latter half of the 19th century.

Robert_the_Devil_(horse)

Robert the Devil: a horse, not a man

Robert the Devil was a medieval legend; later, in 1831, Giacomo Meyerbeer created a romantic opera of the same name that saw great success in London in the 1830s and 1840s, and a resurgence in popularity in the 1890s. The name referred to Robert, Duke of Normandy, who was the father of William the Conqueror – but also, in some stories, said to be the son of the devil.

Did the defendant see himself as a devil, a character incapable of redemption? Or was he a romantic hero? The truth is probably somewhat more mundane. In the 1880s, there was a racehorse named Robert the Devil, whose career was eagerly followed in the English press. This drunken man may simply have adopted the horse’s name to avoid giving his own. The racehorse died at Bernham Paddocks ‘somewhat suddenly’, in 1889, aged 12; but what happened to his namesake is not known.

(Sources: Dundee Evening Telegraph, 13 September 1886; Dublin Daily Express, 28 October 1880; South Wales Echo, 2 May 1889; Saunders’s News-letter, 8 June 1832; The Graphic, 4 December 1886)

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