Criminal Historian

Working with dead people

Watched: The Unsolved Murder of Frances Buxton

Coverage of the case from the Sheffield Evening Telegraph made explicit the unlikelihood of the perpetrator being found

On 17 January 1920, Mrs Frances Buxton, landlady of The Cross Keys pub in Chelsea, was murdered.

Two days before, Mrs Buxton, aged 53, had been ‘pestered’ by a man at the bar. He was quite tall – between 5’10 and 6 foot, with a long, clean-shaven face, light hair and ‘very piercing’, close-set black eyes. He seemed respectable; he wore a bowler hat, was aged about 40, but spoke with quite a high-pitched voice for a man.

But what he said in that high-pitched voice disturbed her. He asked her intrusive questions about her love life, requested that she have supper with him, and then finally asked her if she lived at the pub on her own. She answered ‘yes’ and then immediately realised how stupid she was to do so. The man had then tried to walk into her private parlour, at which point, she pushed him out.

The incident bothered her so much that the following day, 16 January, she asked a local timekeeper, named variously as Briscoe Hervey, or Detley Driscoll Harvey, if he had noticed the man when he had been in the pub that day, but unfortunately, Hervey had not noticed him. However, he realised how concerned she was; she felt that she, and the pub, were being watched, but thought perhaps it was the police, monitoring the premises for evidence of improper conduct.

The London electoral register for 1919 records Frances in Chelsea (from Ancestry)

Frances was a married woman – but separated. She had lived apart from her husband, Frank, since about 1908, and they had not seen each other since the previous summer. Frank had relocated to Sussex, where he ran the Sussex Hotel in Bexhill-on-Sea.

Frances was not a drinker, but she had seen other men since she and Frank had separated; one of her barmaids, a Mrs Mitchell, believed that she had been seeing two men ‘at times’.

Then, on the morning of 18 January, Frances Buxton was found dead in the cellar of her pub; she had died shortly before midnight on the night of the 17th. That evening, Mrs Mitchell and her daughter had been working at the pub – the daughter was engaged to wash glasses – and had left at 10.30pm, Frances saying goodnight to them before Mrs Mitchell closed the door. Frances may then have had a late meal – in a small room behind the bar, the remains of a meal were later found, with it looking like she had been disturbed whilst eating.

Happier days? The 1891 census records Frances living with her husband Frank at 64 Fetter Lane, in the City of London

Whatever happened just before midnight that night involved violence. There was a smashed bottle and a pool of blood in the passageway, and Frances’s body had been placed on a pile of burning sacking, and covered in sawdust, with a spade lying nearby. She had not been dead long when the police found her. She had been killed from head injuries caused by the broken beer bottle, including a fractured skull – but her nose had also been broken by a blow, and it looked as though someone had attempted to strangle her with a cord of wire.

There were clues found by the police; fingerprints on Frances’s dress and the walls; two Treasury notes dropped by the perpetrator; missing money and jewellery belonging to Frances. All except the missing items (obviously) were photographed by the police, who suspected that two individuals – men – must have committed the crime.

The National Probate Calendar entry for Frances, from Ancestry. Although the date she died is given as 18 January, she was attacked the night before.

The inquest into Frances’s death had to be adjourned, but on Tuesday 3 February, it was resumed, with the coroner, HR Oswald, stating that ‘as there was no immediate prospect of the arrest of any suspected person, the jury could not in fairness continue to adjourn the inquiry on the chance of one taking place.’ The coroner’s jury soon, therefore, returned a verdict of wilful murder ‘by some person or persons unknown’.

There had, in the three weeks or so since the murder, been no arrests, and there was, as the coroner noted, no sign of there being any in the near future. This increased the fascination with the case by the press; the Globe employed a ‘special representative’ to give a gushing account of an interview Frank Buxton had with the police, together with a list of jewellery that was missing from the pub. This correspondent had made ‘inquiries from neighbours’ who frequented the pub, to build a picture of what it had been like on the night of the murder: ‘there were several couples playing dominoes’ was one of the earth-shattering things he found out.

More significant, perhaps, was the reporter’s suggestion that as Frances’s ‘exceptionally good’ watch-dog had failed to bark (or at least, was not heard to bark) when Frances was attacked, ‘the crime was probably perpetrated by someone familiar with the premises and known to the dog’. Given that the murder occurred in a popular pub, where many people would have been ‘familiar’ to the dog, though, this might not narrow the list of suspects down very much.

And so it proved. Nobody was arrested or charged with the murder, and five years later, it was being described in the press as ‘one of London’s unsolved crimes’.

 

NOTE: Five years after Frances’s death, in 1925, the case made headlines again when a man at the Tottenham Police Court suddenly declared that his niece could solve ‘the Chelsea murder mystery’. Another man had been charged with stabbing his nephew, following an argument where he had made allegations about his nephew’s wife. In court, another of the nephew’s uncles – so probably the defendant’s brother – commented about the nephew’s wife, “Our niece doesn’t want it known that she can give the information the police want to solve a Chelsea mystery of four [sic] years ago. The proprietress of a public-house was found murdered and her jewellery stolen.”

The defendant in this case was discharged, and immediately turned to the reporters in the police court, and asked them to print the family’s allegations against the nephew’s wife. Was this a baseless vendetta against the woman, or was there really a witness who could say what had happened? We don’t know, and all subsequently went quiet again – until the summer of 1926, when a Mr Creed was murdered in a Bayswater provision shop, a crime that resulted in anonymous letters being written to the police by a woman.

In coverage of this crime, it was noted that ‘the circumstances of the murder of Mr Creed are very similar to those in the case of the murder, in 1920, of Mrs Frances Buxton.’ Then, the following summer (1927), an ex-convict provided a statement to Scotland Yard that whilst serving a sentence in a French prison, he got talking to another prisoner who confessed that he had ‘taken part’ in the Chelsea crime.

Although Scotland Yard were stated to be trying to track down this confessing prisoner, there was doubt as to whether the ex-convict was telling the truth, for he was, after all, ‘well-known to the police in this country, and one who has many aliases.’

Sources: Western Daily Press, 21 January 1920, p.6; Nottingham Journal, 4 February 1920, p.5; Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, 4 February 1920, p.9; Globe, 19 January 1920, p.1; Daily Herald, 25 June 1925, p.5; Lancashire Evening Post, 25 June 1925, p.6; Nottingham Evening Post, 30 August 1926, p.1; Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 25 July 1927, p.5; Nottingham Journal, 25 July 1927, p.1; Northern Whig, 25 July 1927, p.9. Records relating to the murder of Frances Buxton are also to be found in The National Archives (ref MEPO 3/268B).

Event: Talk on crime in 18th century England

Speaker John T Smith (photo via Bucks FHS)

A quick heads-up for those of you in or near Buckinghamshire: this Saturday (20 January) will see John T Smith presenting a review of crime in England in the 18th century at the monthly meeting of the Buckinghamshire Family History Society.

John will look at the transporting of offenders to lands beyond the seas; he says that ‘Botany Bay and Van Diemen’s Land came later, and we know about their history, but most people haven’t much idea of where we exported our Buckinghamshire felons before 1787.’

The talk will take place at 2pm at Turnfurlong Junior School in Aylesbury (HP21 7PL); non-members of the Bucks FHS are welcome, and there is a £4 charge for admission.

 

Mr Dumpig the butcher and his New Year murder

With a surname like his, it was perhaps inevitable that Adolf Dumpig would grow up to be a butcher. There was no reason, though, why he had to be a butcher of people – and, in particular, of his baby son.

However, in January 1904, Mr Dumpig, a 28-year-old German immigrant to London, was charged with the murder of eight-month-old Walter Dumpig. On the evening of 2 January, he appeared – flanked by two warders – in Islington Coroner’s Court, to hear the inquest into his son’s death. Unable to speak English – or not well enough to understand the coroner – a German-speaking Met Police officer, Constable Schneider, acted as his interpreter.

The records indicate that the Dumpigs were recent immigrants to Britain, for less than a year before the awful events of New Year’s Eve, 1903, they had married back in Berlin; Adolf Otto Louis Dumpig, aged 27, had wed Selma Ida Antonie Knobel (known as Antonie) on 2 February 1903. Antonie was then just 21 years old.

11 months after that happy even, Walter Schroeder’s poor, mourning, mother, Antonie Dumpig, was called on to detail what had happened on New Year’s Eve, 1903. She said that Adolf was generally a sober man, but on New Year’s Eve, he had been out drinking, ‘to keep up the New Year’. Antonie had been left at their home at 295 City Road to celebrate on her own, as she had to look after the baby – obviously, Adolf had not thought to stay with her and mark the night together.

The couple rented just two rooms in the building on City Road, from a clerk named William Woods. One room was on the first floor, and the other in the basement. Woods lived in other rooms in the same building.

Adolf returned home just after midnight, and made some hot rum for the couple to drink together. Combined with his earlier drinking, though, this made him very drunk – and he rapidly became violent, scaring Antonie so much that she ran from the kitchen into another room. Adolf followed her and locked her in that room, before returning to the kitchen. Their baby son Walter – asleep in a bassinet – was left in that room with his drunk, violent father.

Imagine Antonie’s desperation. She was locked in a room, unable to get out and get to her child. Meanwhile, she could hear Adolf drunkenly breaking windows, shouting, and heard signs of violence. The noise was so great that at one point, around 1am, their landlord William Woods ventured out of his room to see what the matter was; he saw Antonie crouching in a corner of the hall, outside the door, with dripping-wet clothes, while her husband stood over her, talking to her angrily in German, before hitting her as she stood to go into the room.

Woods had the courage to try and intervene, but was then himself hit by Adolf. Instead of trying to reason with this drunk, angry, butcher, he did the sensible thing and ran out to fetch a policeman (other reports, however, state that it was Antonie who herself summoned the attention of a passing policeman, by shouting out from her locked room).

Antonie managed to get out of the room before the police arrived, and headed straight back to her kitchen. There, she discovered the body of her son. His throat had been cut.

The policeman who attended the scene, Sergeant Walter Lane, said that on approaching the backyard, he had found Adolf Dumpig sitting on a wall, so drunk that he appeared asleep. His hands had been covered in blood, and Sergeant Lane’s fears had immediately been roused (apparently, he was suspicious as soon as he noticed that Dumpig was not wearing either a hat or an overcoat…). Dumpig was not coherent; he was still very drunk, vomiting, and reeked of rum.

Soon after, Inspector Laban Lynes of G Division discovered a butcher’s knife in the yard. Adolf Dumpig – a journeyman butcher, but who had been unemployed for some time – had killed his own son with his work tool. He was taken to the City Road Police Station and charged with murder; his reply, which was translated by the Worship Street Police Court’s interpreter, Aaron Lichenstein [sic] was to his wife:

“Did I do this, or did Antonie? Speak the truth, say what you did to the child; I was out last evening, I never done it; should it come that I should murder my child that I love so dearly?”

By this time, it was 4.45am, and although he was still a little bit drunk, it was thought that he had ‘recovered’ a lot from earlier, to the extent that he could understand what was being said to him.

Not surprisingly, the coroner’s jury returned a verdict of wilful murder against Dumpig the Butcher, and he was committed for trial at the Central Criminal Court. On 11 January 1904, he was found guilty and sentenced to death.

Somewhat surprisingly to modern readers, the jury ‘strongly recommended’ him to mercy. This may have been because of contemporary concerns about how drink could affect even the most law-abiding of people; or sympathy towards his unemployed status, which may have led to stress and therefore a desire for drink.

Yet this remained a man who abused his wife; who tried to shift the blame for his son’s violent death onto her – the ultimate betrayal of trust by a man towards his spouse. Dumpig was a butcher in more than one way; he killed animals for a living, his son because he was drunk; and he tried to hang his wife by accusing her of killing her child.

 

Sources:

Portsmouth Evening News, 4 January 1904, p.1; The Salisbury Times, 8 January 1904, p.2 (both via British Newspaper Archive); Berlin Marriages, 1874-1920 on AncestryOld Bailey Online, ref number t19040111-131. CapitalPunishmentUK does not list Dumpig as having been hanged in 1904, and, as this suggests, the jury’s plea for mercy was successful. The 1911 census for Dorset shows that Adolf Dumpig, born 1876 in Berlin [and described as a stone dresser], was at that time a prisoner at Portland Convict Prison.

 

Death at Drybank: The sad case of Rees Brandish

In 1897, the discovery of a little boy’s body in a Warwickshire village laid bare the problems that could face single mothers in Victorian England. I wrote about this case for my monthly history column in the Stratford Herald, but here, I’ve spent a bit more time looking at the detail, as there was much more to the story than I could fit into a single page article!

It was Saturday 13 November 1897, a day that the residents of Ettington, Warwickshire, would remember. The peacefulness of the village was broken by the Stratford police, arriving in force to dig the  grounds of Drybank Farm. They had a woman in custody who, it was believed, had murdered her son: their enquiries had brought them to this rural farm.

It was not until they had dug almost the whole of the farmhouse garden up, to a depth of around two feet, that they found the naked body of a little boy buried in the soil, doubled up, and covered in lime. That boy was Rees Thomas Yelves Brandish, aged just two-and-a-half.

As further details emerged, the horror of Rees’ short life became apparent, and highlighted the problems faced by single mother in the Victorian era. For Rees was illegitimate, the son of a 33-year-old unmarried nurse, Elizabeth Brandish. Elizabeth, a blue-eyed, good-looking woman, could not look after her son as she needed to work – and work could be lost if employers found out their female workers had had a child out of wedlock.

Therefore, Elizabeth paid an elderly woman named Mrs Post, who lived at Wye, near Ashford in Kent, five shillings a week to look after her son. Thoughout the late 19th century, and even into the 20th, there were unscrupulous women who would advertise their desire to have a baby to adopt or look after, in return for either a one-off upfront fee or a weekly charge.

The notorious baby farmer Amelia Dyer

They really wanted the money rather than the child, though, and would either neglect the child, use  laudanum to suppress their appetites, starve them, and see them die – or, alternatively, in the case of Amelia Dyer, for example, simply murder them.

Elizabeth, though struck lucky. Although Mrs Post had advertised for a child to look after, she was one of the genuine women who actually wanted to help others. From the age of nine weeks old, she and the rest of the Posts became the only family Rees knew – one he bonded with and was at home with – while his mother found work in Clent, in north Worcestershire.

However, it appears that Elizabeth may have actually have been hoping that she was answering an advert from a baby farmer. It was later claimed that she had got into a conversation with a woman one day who had advised her about such acts. Had Elizabeth been annoyed that she instead got a woman who cared about her son, and who looked after him well – costing his mother five shillings a week for the past two and a bit years?

This may be why, on 9 September 1897, Elizabeth announced that she was retrieving her son from the Post house. She arrived in Wye, saying she was going to take Rees to her brother’s farm at Ettington – it was not, in fact his farm, but he was employed to work there by the farm’s bailiff. He also had no idea that his sister had been pregnant, let alone given birth.

Suspicions were aroused in Kent when Elizabeth quickly left with her child, but without any of his spare clothes. It was also noted by Mrs Post and her family that Elizabeth did not display any love for Rees when she came to take him away.

Rees was said to have been ‘weary, tired and sad at being taken away from those he had come to regard as his only friends,’ and the Posts turned out to be far more solicitous of his well-being than Elizabeth. Mother and son were found the next night by a police sergeant in London, wandering around the capital’s streets.

Concerned, the policeman took them to a local police station, for Elizabeth to be treated by a doctor, and then transferred to the Euston area, where they stayed the rest of the night in a hotel. Finally, on the morning of 11 September, they travelled on a train bound for Bletchley, changing at Blisworth for a second train for Banbury, and then getting off at Towcester at 4.50pm.

What would have been the entrance to Euston station when Elizabeth and Rees Brandish went there to catch their train

On embarking at Euston, Elizabeth and Rees had got into a third-class compartment, which they shared with other travellers; it was observed that Nurse Brandish had with her a large tin trunk.

When the train stopped at Towcester, she had got off with her trunk and her son, and tried to get into the stationmaster’s office to buy a second-class ticket on the 7.19pm train leaving that station. She appeared so strange and excited that the stationmaster wouldn’t let her in, instead selling her an excess ticket outside to enable her to travel second-class for the rest of the journey.

The mother and child were seen entering an empty second-class carriage. However, by the time she got off the train at Ettington, at 8pm, Elizabeth was alone: but she was carrying a large bundle under her arm, in addition to the tin trunk. Two months later, Rees’ body was found buried in a farmhouse garden in that village.

Suspicions about Elizabeth were relayed to the police, and they didn’t take long to find her, back in Clent. When she was arrested, a letter was found in her pocket, where she noted that she would probably be hanged, and asked for forgiveness, writing, ‘whatever wrong has been done in my life has not been of my own seeking.’

She claimed that she had been seduced by a man on a train three years earlier, he having ‘taken advantage of my loneliness’; when she told him she was pregnant, he had denied having had anything to do with her. She had given birth on her own in London, and been very ill for some time afterwards. Her luck then improved, as a ‘kind lady’ paid for her to train as a nurse.

She had since been working in Clent, where the community knew her and respected her; those she worked for regarded her with great esteem. But more significantly, it appears that she was being courted by a policeman in Clent, and he was thinking about proposing: had Elizabeth been worried that he would end the relationship if he found out that she had had an illegitimate child – a child she had failed to mention to him previously?

While Elizabeth was being arrested, taken to the Stratford police station, and then on by train to Warwick Gaol – a large crowd gathering at Stratford station in the hope of catching a sight of this allegedly murderous mother – there was little attention being paid to the life of the little boy whose life had been cut short. The emphasis was on this pretty woman who was so caring in her profession, yet was accused of having killed her own child.

Ettington Church, by John Holmes, on Geograph

On Rees’ body being discovered, this lack of attention towards the little boy continued. His body was covered loosely in some sacking and dumped in a wheelbarrow to be taken to the local pub for an inquest. Later, the vicar of Ettington being away, Rees received no religious funeral service; instead, his remains were put into a cheap, rough elm coffin, with no inscription on it, and taken on ‘an ordinary truck’ to be buried in the churchyard.

It was a pauper’s burial, paid for by the parish and organised by the parish overseer. The only people present for the burial were the undertaker and his son, and two ladies who took pity on this poor, unloved child. Once interred, it was reported that Rees’ grave was ‘hastily shovelled in’ with soil.

As the Leamington Spa Courier sadly noted:

“Seldom has the truth and the force of the lines, ‘Rattle his bones, over the stones, he’s only a pauper who nobody owns’ been more clearly illustrated than at Ettington.”

Villagers were said to have been deeply upset by the lack of respect granted to this small child who ‘was in no way responsible either for the circumstances of his birth, or death’, but they weren’t upset enough to arrange a better service, or to attend the burial.

The trial of Elizabeth Brandish for the wilful murder of her son started in March 1898 at the Warwick Assizes. After three days of debating, the jury was unable to reach a verdict, and so was discharged. A second trial then began at the following, summer, Assizes, but with an unexpected result.

Because so much of the evidence against Elizabeth was circumstantial, they had found her not guilty – despite there being no obvious alternative reason for Rees’ death and subsequent burial at the farm where his uncle worked, and despite Elizabeth’s confessional-style letter. The judge at the trial was stunned, and ended up leaving the court having failed to tell Elizabeth that, after nine months in prison awaiting a trial and verdict, she had been acquitted and was now, again, a free woman.

Teh Leamington Spa Courier noted that never had so much interest been taken in the ‘peaceful little hamlet’ of Ettington, whose only other distinction was its ‘proximity to the birth town of the Immortal Bard’.

 

 

 

Murder at the Adelphi

William Terriss (© Criminal Historian)

Today, 16 December, is the 120th anniversary of a murder that shocked the theatre-going world of Victorian Britain, and the general public. It was on this day that the eminent and popular actor William Terriss was killed, just outside the stage door of the Adelphi Theatre on London’s Strand.

Terriss was murdered by a less successful actor, Richard Archer Prince, who had fixated on the idea that Terriss was responsible for his lack of success.

The 50-year-old actor had been about to enter the theatre on the evening of 16 December, using the stage door at the rear of the theatre, which opens out onto Maiden Lane, parallel to the Strand. He was due on stage that night, appearing in the play Secret Service. Before he could get into the theatre, however, he was accosted by the younger Richard Prince, who had been waiting for him, and was stabbed to death.

Prince was not unknown to his victim. The two men had previously been in a production together – Prince in a minor role – and Terriss had, on one occasion, been so offended by something the struggling actor had said to him that he was said to have had him dismissed. This was said to have caused lasting resentment to Prince; although Terriss had subsequently tried to find him work, and had ensured he was sent small sums of money via the Actors’ Benevolent Fund, Prince had been unable to find any security in his chosen profession.

The case, understandably, caused pages and pages of sensationalised press coverage; the theatrical newspaper The Era described the murder in the following terms:

“A great blow has fallen upon the dramatic profession and the playgoing public – a blow so sudden and so terrible that even after the lapse of two nights and a day they have scarcely recovered from the stunning, overpowering, effect of the awful news.” (The Era, 18 December 1897)

The murder was newsworthy for several reasons. It was an incredibly rare offence – no English actor had been murdered in the country by one of his profession before, certainly not during the Victorian era.

The stage door of the Adelphi Theatre, where William Terriss was murdered (© Criminal Historian)

The offence had taken place in the heart of London’s theatre land. It had been witnessed by others; and the victim was both well-known and well-loved (The Era noted that Terriss was liked by all classes, from those in the ‘mansions of the West End’ to the residents of the ‘slums of the East’). It was also, though, the culmination of the increasingly obsessive behaviour evinced by individuals towards successful actors and actresses.

There had been spates of what we today call stalking throughout the Victorian era, with both men and women being targeted by ‘fans’, who would send love letters, demand to see the actors after their performances, or follow them. The press had reported instances of actresses being followed home from performances and assaulted, and of one actress being sent a bullet by an obsessed man who decided he would kill her if she wouldn’t have a relationship with him.

Part of The Era’s coverage of Terriss’s murder

In these instances, though, the stalkers involved did not kill their obsessions, although they may have threatened to, or have injured them. Part of the huge reaction to Terriss’s murder, then, was due to its rarity: perhaps it foretold of a more dangerous age to come, when stalking, and deaths as the result of them, would cease to be so unusual.

The murder was also significant because of the focus on Prince’s mental health. He clearly had issues, as evinced in his desire to blame Terriss for his employment and financial difficulties – and he had previously turned up at the Adelphi to argue his case with Terriss.

He was found guilty but insane at his subsequent trial, but his punishment caused debate about the status of actors in British society, and whether the murder of an actor was perceived as a lesser offence than anyone else’s murder. This was because of the insanity judgement; rather than being sent to prison, or even hanged, Prince was ordered to be sent to Broadmoor, where he lived a long life (and a more comfortable than in a Victorian prison), dying there in 1936.

 

For more on the death of William Terriss, and the incidences of stalking involving actors and actresses in Victorian Britain, read my book, Life On The Victorian Stage (Pen & Sword, 2017).

 

 

Crime reporting and moral panics – what’s changed?

This 1891 article refers back to the moral panic caused by the Ratcliff Highway murders 80 years earlier

A couple of people on my Twitter timeline posted this earlier today – it’s an article on The Daily Beast about an app, Citizen, that is designed to highlight the crimes currently underway in your neighbourhood, and to enable individuals to discuss it (you can also receive alerts ‘every time a significant incident or emergency happens near you’, according to the app’s promo statement).

It sounds, at first glance, to be an app serving the public interest. You can avoid places where trouble is underway; if you’re brave (or foolhardy), you can intervene; or you can talk about it with others in your vicinity, perhaps reassuring each other about it.

But, as writer Taylor Lorenz states in the Daily Beast article,

“Do I need to know about every carjacking in sight of my office to remain personally safe? Probably not. Using Citizen, in fact, made me more paranoid and probably stoked a lot of my latent irrational fears about violent crime and axe murderers.”

In this, Taylor is no different to newspaper readers in the 18th and 19th centuries, who were both terrified of crime, yet drawn to stories of crime at the same time. Newspapers fed into their fears by increasingly publishing crime stories, drawn from court cases, gossip, and imagination. Reading the Victorian newspapers on the British Newspaper Archive, it’s hard to miss the reams of murders, assaults, thefts, and more bizarre or unusual crimes with their dramatic headlines and breathless tones.

The Whitechapel Murders created huge panic, not just in 1888, but for years afterwards (and perhaps even today). This example is from the Illustrated Police News in 1905.

These stories often used what appears to modern eyes to be a standard narrative – in many cases, the perpetrator of the crime is male, working-class, from a poor or slum area. He may be a drunkard; he may be Irish (many crimes were associated with Irish immigrants, with drink, or with class, betraying Victorian xenophobia and class-consciousness, as well as later efforts by temperance advocates to associate drink with criminality).

Moral panics were created or fed by these newspapers; an isolated case, or a couple of unrelated offences, might be seized upon and magnified, a link being made between disparate offences in order to create the impression of a crime wave. A particular group within society might then be associated with this offence, or group of offences, with the press and/or legislators then seeking to make an example of this group.

This ‘deviancy amplification spiral’, as criminologists and sociologists have termed it (1), could either make it appear more serious an offence than it was; or have the unintended result of readers, the public, then romanticising the criminal and his actions, making a folk-hero of him if he wasn’t feared instead. There were, then, two possible over-reactions – fear, or the adoption of a romantic narrative that may not have reflected the crime or the criminal (see the romanticisation of highwaymen in some quarters).

Elements of the press had some consciousness of what was happening here; in 1874, the Sheffield Daily Telegraph noted that:

‘happiness and goodness, because they are common-place conditions of life, do not make anything like the same impression on men’s minds that is made by the exceptional instances of vice and misery. We hear of a horrid murder… of some pitiable scene of domestic discord or moarital violence, and compare men with brutes…and are tempted to despair of human nature.’ (2)

The paper argued that such crime stories attracted public attention (and that of the press) because of their relative rarity – that is why they were newsworthy. Its comment also suggested that an aspect of human nature was – and is – inclined to use such relatively isolated cases to think about wider philosophical issues about life and death. Yet it failed to acknowledge its own role in magnifying these ‘rare’ offences and to create a panic amongst the public that crime was more prevalent than it really was.

Moral panics, of course, have never gone away, as the prevalence of books discussing contemporary examples show (3). The Citizen app suggests that there are simply more ways today to disseminate crime news and to create a moral panic; it originally started as an app that was deemed to encourage vigilante action, and so hastily rebranded and relaunched – but now, it appears that it serves a more voyeuristic than useful purpose, thus highlighting its similarity to crime reporting throughout the last few centuries.

SOURCES:

  1. Leslie T Wilkins, Social Deviance (Tavistock, 1964); Stanley Cohen, Folk Devils and Moral Panics (Routledge, 2002); Tim Newburn, Criminology (2017)
  2. Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 16 July 1874, p.2
  3. See, for example, Julian Pettley (ed), Moral Panics in the Contemporary World (Bloomsbury Academic, 2016); Erich Goode, Moral Panics (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009, 2nd ed); Chas Critcher, Moral Panics and the Media (OUP, 2003). All discuss modern examples of moral panics. In terms of work on earlier moral panics, David Lemming and Claire Walker (eds), Moral Panics, the Media and the Law in Early Modern England (2009) is highly recommended.
  4. The two newspaper excerpts used as illustrations in this post come from the Homeward Mail of 16 March 1891, and the Illustrated Police News of 23 December 1905, both via the British Newspaper Archive.

 

The men who decided a desperate mother’s fate

I am used more to writing about Victorian crime than more modern offences, and as part of my writing, I’ve often read the work of others on infanticide, and the impact of illegitimacy on women – aside from the possibility of being regarded as ‘immoral’ for having had sex outside of marriage (unlike men), women had to worry about how they would cope economically: would they be able to provide for a child? Would they be able to find and keep a job, if their employers knew they were an unmarried mother? What help was there for them if they struggled?

In Victorian times, infanticide might be the answer, the last resort, although sympathy towards such women can be sometimes detected in the decision to find them guilty of the lesser charge of concealing the birth of a child, rather than in the capital offence of infanticide; or in the increasingly common decision not to carry out the death penalty but to imprison these women instead.

Even well into the 20th century, it was not unheard of for the mother of an illegitimate child to try and kill her offspring; however, there was a more obvious sympathy towards the woman expressed by the courts, and greater time and effort made to understand why she had committed such a crime. In 1939, one case was heard in Rosyth, Fife,  that was duly reported in The Scotsman.

Although the individuals involved in the case were named in press reports at the time, I’m choosing not to here, as there is a possibility that the children involved are still alive today (although the original sources are listed at the end of this post).

The case centred around a young woman who was accused of having thrown or dropped her two-year-old daughter from a train in the Inverkeithing tunnel the previous autumn, with the aim of killing her. By some miracle, the child not only survived, but was said to have survived unharmed. The advocate in the case described it as ‘very exceptional, very difficult and very sad’.

The woman was actually married, but her husband was in the navy, and so she rarely got to see him as he was posted abroad. She had had a son by the husband while he was home; but she found it increasingly difficult to cope with a young child on her own.

She was a nervous woman who worried a lot, even about small things. She needed a bit of love and attention – and in 1936, she found it with another man, although apparently only for a brief spell. This caused her more worry, however, when she found out she was pregnant – not by her absent husband, but by this brief fling. In early 1937, she gave birth to her daughter.

The husband duly found out, but stayed with his wife; however, she felt that he had never completely forgiven her for her ‘fall’, and she could therefore not forgive herself, either. In November 1938, while her husband was again away, her son became ill; she was nursing him, looking after her daughter, getting very little sleep, and she was short of money.

She wrote to her husband asking for money, and he immediately sent her a pound. As she hadn’t acknowledged receipt of it, a week later, he wrote asking whether she had received the money – she gained the impression that he was cross with her for asking for financial help.

Already struggling, she became increasingly upset, the lack of sleep causing her to lose whatever equilibrium she had had. Yet she was seen by her neighbours and family as a good mother, always ensuring that her children were fell fed and clothed.

On the evening of the train incident, she had made both her children their tea, before taking her daughter out. They got on the local train; but then she made the sudden decision to throw her child out.

There was no attempt to portray the mother as insane; however, it was recognised that on the night of the train journey, she was struggling so much from a lack of sleep and emotional problems, that she hadn’t been fully responsible for her actions.

A doctor was called as witness, who described the mitigating factors: the birth of her daughter, the ‘feeling of shame’ about her affair and its result (as in Victorian times, the birth of an illegitimate child was often viewed by authority as ‘shameful’, and mothers were almost expected to feel shamed by their actions), and her worries about her husband’s views.

The mother had thought that the little girl was coming between her and her husband; that he thought less of her as a result of her human fallibility; she was short of money and living in straitened circumstances in ‘unpleasant conditions’; she was worried about her son’s illness, and about the ‘unkindness’ she thought she saw in her husband’s latest letter.

Her action was a spontaneous one, an impulse reaction to the thoughts going round her head. As soon as she had thrown the child, she seemed to regain awareness, desperately trying to ‘recover’ her daughter.

Although she pleaded guilty at the start of her trial, her fate was determined by a group of men, of a different status to her, with little personal knowledge of the circumstances under which she laboured.

The High Court of Justiciary (© Criminal Historian)

Different medical men differed in their opinions of her sanity; even the Lord Justice-Clerk and the advocate-depute, James Walker, disagreed over whether she was insane or sane, and whether she needed to be freed or made to undergo some kind of supervision – whether in an asylum or at home.

The advocate stated that ‘the case was left in a most unsatisfactory condition’. In the end, she was sentenced to three months in prison; however, after sentencing, the Lord Justice-Clerk added that ‘if the prison authorities thought that the woman’s case was one more suitable for hospital treatment than for ordinary prison treatment, they would have an entirely free hand to do what they thought right.’

And as for the little girl who was thrown out of the train, the court was told that she would be either adopted or looked after by her grandparents – she would not be returned to her mother.

So this was both a sympathetically heard case, but one that had no winners. The mother had pleaded guilty to assault with intent to murder, which should have led to a severe sentence – but she had only received three months, out of recognition for her ‘great mental distress’ at the time.

However, that sympathy did not extend to giving her the benefit of the doubt regarding the care of her daughter: she was to be removed from her parent, for good.

Sources:

The Scotsman, 18 January 1939, p.8; The Scotsman, 19 January 1939, p.14; Aberdeen Press & Journal, 19 January 1939, p.7. Images, unless otherwise stated, are from the Illustrated Police News (via British Newspaper Archive) and used for general illustrative purposes.

Peppermints on the beach: the murder of Mrs McLennan

A depiction of the discovery of Mrs McLennan’s body, from the Illustrated Police News (found in the British Newspaper Archive)

It was December 1914; the smell of war was well and truly in the air, as Britain had commenced its involvement in what would be a four year war that would initially be known as the Great War before, decades later, becoming World War 1.

But in the community of Cockenzie, on the east coast of Scotland, the war must have felt a world away. However, their own peace was to be shattered by the discovery of the body of a young, blonde woman one Thursday morning, found on nearby Seton Sands. Her throat had been cut, and she had been dead for several hours.

Initially, her identity was not known – the police had simply described her as in her early 20s, good-looking, and, rather strangely, ‘possibly a shop assistant’. She was found clothed, and in the pocket of her skirt was a ha’penny, and a small bag of peppermint sweets marked with the name of a confectioner in Edinburgh.

The East Lothian police sent three bloodhounds on the scent of the murderer for the following 48 hours, but nothing was found except for a blood-stained razor – presumably the murder weapon. Even the sweet bag turned out to be almost useless as a clue, as it was one of thousands in existence with the name of a major wholesale sweet manufacturer on it – a manufacturer that, it was said, supplied almost every shop on the Scottish east coast.

However, although the murderer could not be found, the woman herself was soon identified. She was Mrs McLennan, aged 23, and she had been married just two years. Her marriage was already over in all but name, however, and she and her husband had separated, each returning to their own parents’ house to live. Mrs McLennan had returned home with a child, born in May 1913.

Mrs McLennan now lived with her parents in Bangor Road, Leith, and had left there on the Wednesday evening – she had not been seen again, although her death was estimated to have not occurred until four o’clock the next morning.

Her mother said that her daughter had spent the early part of the evening looking frequently at the clock, as though she had an appointment, and at six o’clock had put her hat on and opened the door. Her mother asked her why she was ‘going out on a cold night like that’, but she didn’t give a reason.

She had already had a brush with a violent man, though; she had, in fact, met her husband a couple of years earlier when, as she was crossing the Leith park, she had been ‘insulted’ by a man. She had called for help, and it was William McLennan who ran to her rescue. The insulting man had then assaulted McLennan, as he tried to protect the young woman – then known as Miss Howie.

The result of the assault was that William asked her out, and they were soon married.

The Nottingham Journal’s headline got the story slightly wrong – or at least, had the potential to be misconstrued…

It was not until February 1915 that anyone appeared in court in relation to Mrs McLennan’s death – and it was her valiant rescuer of a few years previously: William McLennan appeared in the Edinburgh High Court, charged with the murder of his wife.

William, described as a ‘man of weak appearance’, pleaded guilty to culpable homicide, and the Crown accepted this plea. It was stated that William had been ‘mentally deficient’ since his childhood, and his faculties had been further impaired by an accident shortly after marrying, and due to his ‘unhappy home circumstances’ with his wife. He was also severely epileptic, and had spent periods incarcerated in a lunatic asylum due to this, which had not helped his mental state.

He had arranged to go for a walk with his estranged wife on that Wednesday evening in December 1914, and at some point the following morning, he took a razor to her throat and killed her in what the court heard was a motiveless attack.

Although society had failed to treat him humanely for his epilepsy, his alleged mental deficiencies were treated more sympathetically. He received a relatively lenient sentence of seven years’ penal servitude for killing the girl he had rescued from another attacker in Leith park. Her rescuer had become her murderer.

NOTE: Sadly, although perhaps not unexpectedly, the press coverage of this murder failed to name the murder victim, apart from referring to her as Mrs McLennan – it was her marital status that was seen as important, not her own identity. However, a search on ScotlandsPeople would suggest that her name prior to marriage was Jemima Dawson Howie – a girl of this name married William McLennan in the Leith South district in 1912 (ref 692/2 312), which would match the information that WAS provided in the newspapers. The birth of Jemima Dawson Howie was registered in 1892 in Leith South (ref 692/2 213), which would again make her around the right age to have been the murder victim in this case.

Rogues Gallery – Faces of Crime

Highly recommended this month is the free exhibition Rogues Gallery: Faces of Crime, 1870-1917, which is at the National Records of Scotland in Edinburgh until 1 December.

The centre of the small, but perfectly formed, exhibition is five photograph albums that survived from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, detailing some of the many Scottish criminals who were photographed after committing offences. Alongside these are historical trial records from the NRS.

Individuals whose stories are covered in the exhibition include Eugene Chantrelle, the French-born teacher who poisoned his wife Elizabeth in Edinburgh in 1878, and who is said to have been the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson‘s Mr Hyde, as well as lesser-known characters such as Margaret Reid, a servant convicted of theft and fraud in 1899, and thief George Anderson, who worked as a miner and watchmaker but who was convicted in 1901, at the age of 36.

More details can be found here; visit the exhibition Monday to Friday, 9.30am until 4.30pm, at the NRS, General Register House, 2 Princes Street, Edinburgh. There is also a great-sounding series of talks arranged to tie-in with the exhibition, and details of these can be found online here.

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Reckless turnip throwing – a Hallowe’en crime

A seasonal turnip, by Geni at Wikipedia

It was Hallowe’en – 31 October – in 1899, and a group of men and boys were celebrating the night in Yell – one of the Shetland islands in the north of Scotland. They were full of the joys of autumn – and possibly alcohol – but one man was not enjoying the pumpkin season, and had no desire to join in the fun.

This was Gilbert Tulloch, who lived at New House near the Yell Sound. He had no wish to be annoyed by the lively individuals outside, and so remained obstinately in his house, bolting his door against intruders. However, he had forgotten to bring his dog in, and the poor animal, stuck outside, started to bark.

Something then struck the door, and Gilbert, reluctantly, opened the door to quickly let the dog back in. However, he immediately saw a group of youths around 60 feet away, with one, Arthur Robertson, near the door. Gilbert spoke to him, presumably to ask him to keep further away from his house, or to request that he not strike his door. Robertson took offence and threw the nearest thing to hand at Mr Tulloch. That thing turned out to be a turnip.

The turnip struck Gilbert full in the face, and it was so heavy that it broke his nose, loosened five of his teeth, and struck him deaf in his right ear. Blood coursed down his face, making him appear as though he was a Hallowe’en creature rather than a persecuted householder.

Arthur Robertson was prosecuted, and duly convicted of a rather unusual-sounding offence: that of recklessly throwing a turnip. Because Gilbert had been so badly injured by it, the local sheriff decided that although Robertson had no prior convictions, he could not be convicted of this offence under the First Offenders Act. The sheriff further said that although he had ‘no objection to boys having larks’, in this case, it had led to both annoyance and injury to another man.

Robertson was fined 10 shillings – if he couldn’t, or refused to, pay, he would have to go to prison for four days instead. The sheriff noted that he hoped this punishment ‘would be taken as a warning by the youths of the county, and prevent them carrying their larks beyond the degree of moderation.’

 

Source: Shetland Times, 16 December 1899, p.5

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