Criminal Historian

Working with dead people

Month: August 2015

Escape to Philadelphia: how Mr Wills, the bigamist who made his wife commit incest, got away with it

Early 19th century portrait of a Bethlem patient

Early 19th century portrait of a Bethlem patient

In 1857, the newspapers were full of breathless tales about one man, whose name changed according both to his desire and the individual newspaper’s disregard of the facts.

This was a man who lied his way across the Atlantic, who had deserted his young wife and left her in Bedlam, committed bigamy, and left his first wife destitute. Yet the press coverage described his story as “very romantic” and he was portrayed as a “principal actor” in a drama that was viewed more as a romantic fiction than as a real tale with real victims.

The man in question was called John Blair Wills, but he also used the name John Goddard. He may have received a more favourable press reception than some other 19th century bigamists (of whom, there were many) because of his class; this was an educated man who claimed to be a doctor or an architect – and was readily believed.

The non-conformist baptism register for John Blair Wills in Basingstoke

The non-conformist baptism register for John Blair Wills in Basingstoke

Wills had been born in Basingstoke in 1831, and at the age of 24, had married Mary Ann Maxwell. This came after a concerted pursuit of his intended, after the had bumped into her on an omnibus in Bath when he was allegedly a medical student and she was a 12-year-old girl (The Leeds Mercury, 19 November 1857).

He had repeatedly asked Mary Ann’s parents to marry her from that time, and, understandably, they had refused permission. But five years later, when Mary Ann was now 17, they had met again in Surrey Gardens, and married in Kennington on 24 March 1855.

Mary Ann soon became pregnant, and, as the Daily News later reported, she became so ill after being confined – perhaps with what we would recognise today as post-natal depression) that she had to be placed in Bethlem Hospital. After several months, she was considered improved somewhat, and Wills was asked to come and get her. He failed to do so, and instead sent his brother, James Fenton Wills.

Then he did something beyond the pale. Bored of his wife, he duped Mary Ann into marrying his brother, taking advantage of her “simple and weak intellect”. James went along with the plan, telling Mary Ann that John had married another woman while his wife had been incarcerated, and that she was therefore free to marry again herself. Having no other source of income, and shocked at her husband’s alleged actions, she was talked into the marriage, which took place in August 1856.

Mary Ann’s friends soon found out about the wedding, and started an enquiry into John’s status. He then married Anne Good, in April 1857, meaning that both husband and wife had committed bigamy, and that Mary Ann had, in Victorian eyes, also committed incest by marrying her brother-in-law. When Mary Ann’s friends and family discovered the truth, James Wills abandoned Mary Ann. Left destitute, she was “thrown upon the parish, and received into the Lambeth Infirmary”.


The bigamous second marriage of John Blair Wills

The bigamous second marriage of John Blair Wills

John Wills and his ‘wife’ Anne then fled to Liverpool – with John’s three-year-old son* by Mary Ann – and on 7 November, they sailed together on the Great Western ship, bound for New York. The Leeds Mercury reported that all John and Anne had taken with them was “some little luggage and a little boy”.

John travelled as John Goddard, describing himself initially as a surgeon, and then later as an architect. He and Anne were said to be aiming ultimately for Philadelphia, beyond the long arms of the British police. They seem to have escaped justice (a John and Anne Wills, of the right ages, were certainly living in Philadelphia in 1870) – unlike poor Mary Ann Wills, who remained in the workhouse infirmary.

She was viewed with sympathy, and received some financial charity from individuals; yet she also seems to have been viewed like one of the poor creatures in Bedlam who 18th century ladies used to go and gawp at; in December 1857, for example, it was reported that “the Marchioness of Townshend has called and seen Mrs Wills”.

Sources: Ancestry, Dundee Courier, 2 December 1857, The Bristol Mercury, 28 November 1857, The Leeds Mercury, 24 November 1857, Leeds Mercury, 19 November 1857, Daily News, 16 November 1857, Reynold’s Newspaper, 22 November 1857

* The newspapers clearly stated that the child was a three year old boy; but there are records online suggesting that John and Mary Ann actually had a girl.

Still Reading The Riot Act

Continuing my weekend of marking the 300th anniversary of the Riot Act, here are my final five events and facts linked to this piece of legislation.

6. Rioting at the Races

Henri_Julien_Dumont_-_At_the_racesA horse race in County Down resulted in the Riot Act being read in 1813. A group of around 12 local men had gathered at the Downpatrick Racecourse on 22 July with the aim of “annoying the soldiers” – members of the East Middlesex Militia had been drafted in to control the rather exuberant crowds, members of which were said to be “not quite sober”. Unluckily for the mob, a local magistrate, William Montgomery, had been attending the races, and saw a “rush” of men start rioting. The anti-English sentiment towards them was clear, with the rioters referring to the “English buggers”. Montgomery shouted, “Fire, soldiers, or we shall all be killed!” The soldiers duly started firing shots, the magistate read the Riot Act out, and the mob was “intimidated” and dispersed.

7. Freemen’s perks

Bundesarchiv_Bild_135-S-16-19-12,_Tibetexpedition,_SchafIn Worcester, freemen of the city were allowed to let their cattle graze on a piece of ground in the city’s centre. ‘Certain encroachments’ had been made on the ground by others in August 1817 – apparently the illegal construction of buildings and fences – of and at a special committee meeting of the freemen, it was decided to serve notices on some of the ‘encroachers’, but only the ones whose constructions ‘appeared the most obnoxious’. This led to rioting and the destruction not only of some of the encroachments but also of inhabited houses. Magistrates ran to the scene and read the Riot Act, but when the crowd refused to move on, the decision was made to bring in the Worcestershire Yeomanry Cavalry. Their mere presence was enough to make the crowd disperse, but it was noted that the place attacked now presented “a singular scene of devastation”. 12 people were committed to the city’s gaol for rioting or abetting the rioters.

8. Peterloo and Press Bias

Peterloo, by Richard Carlile, from Manchester Library

Peterloo, by Richard Carlile, from Manchester Library

The Riot Act was used, notoriously, in the Peterloo Massacre of 1819 – it was read prior to the massacre, when cavalry charged the crowd that had gathered in Manchester’s St Peter’s Field for a meeting where parliamentary reforms would be demanded. Shortly after the meeting had started, local magistrates had called on its speaker, radical Henry Hunt, to be arrested and for the crowd to be dispersed under the Riot Act, which was duly read out at 1.30pm on 16 August. The Morning Post, reflecting the view of the establishment, described the radicals as “menacing”. The paper believed that the Riot Act resulted in a “masterly” result for the authorities, with the key radicals being taken into custody. In reality, 11 people were killed during the event, after militia, on horseback, charged into the protesters. [The Morning Post, 19 August 1819]
9. Escaping the Mob

1880s depiction of the Queen Square riots

1880s depiction of the Queen Square riots

In 1831, the Riot Act was read at the Queen Square Riots in Bristol. A mob had gathered to protest at the rejection of the second Reform Bill by the House of Lords. The bill had sought to give Bristol and some other cities greater representation in the Commons. The riot started at the new Bristol Assize Courts which were being opened by a local magistrate who was anti-reform, Sir Charles Wetherell. He threatened to imprison protesters, and they chased him to the Mansion House on Queen Square, where he escaped in disguise. Troops were called in during the subsequent three day riot, and four men were eventually hanged.
10. Death to Rioters

1919 copy of the Riot Act (original held in the West Midlands Police Museum)

1919 copy of the Riot Act (original held in the West Midlands Police Museum)

The Riot Act included clauses relating to crowds damaging property, such as churches, houses, barns and stables. Anyone who caused such damage could, under the Act’s provisions, be sentenced to death without benefit of clergy. Individuals could be sentenced to death under the Riot Act’s provisions until 1837, when the Punishment of Offences Act reduced the penalty to transportation for life.



For the first part of my Riot Act weekend, see here.

Reading The Riot Act

300 years ago today, on 1 August 1715, the Riot Act came into force. Introduced as a response to a series of civil disturbances that had taken place across England over the previous five years, it was intended to introduce a quicker way of punishing rioters.

Over the next two days, I’ll look at the Act’s history and how different groups of people – from theatre audiences and racegoers to dockers and stocking weavers – came under its remit.
1. A Baker’s Dozen?

riotact1The act (1 Geo I, s.2) made it illegal for 12 or more people to “unlawfully assemble and disturb the public peace”. They now had to disperse within an hour of being read a specified portion of the act, or be considered guilty of felony. In some cases, there was doubt as to how many individuals had assembled, and it seems that numbers may have been rounded up or estimated on occasion, to get to the necessary dozen. Several press reports about riots that had resulted in the Riot Act being read referred to “between ten and 12” rioters being involved, or “around 12”.
2. Riot Act Confusion

The Gordon Riots

The Gordon Riots

There could be confusion over whether the Riot Act had been properly read or not during an assembly. In the aftermath of the 1768 St George’s Fields Massacre, for example, there was doubt over whether it had actually been read. During the 1780 Gordon Riots, there was additional confusion, with the authorities being unsure whether they could stop the rioters without reading the Riot Act. Afterwards, Lord Mansfield explicitly stated that authorities could still use force to stop violence during a riot – the Riot Act simply created a further offence of failing to disperse after it had been read.
3. The Dung Wharf Riot

The Thames Marine Police headquarters in Wapping (own photo, taken in the Thames Police Museum)

The Thames Marine Police headquarters in Wapping (own photo, taken in the Thames Police Museum)

In 1798, the wonderfully named Dung Wharf Riot in Wapping took place. It was a response to the formation of a new, privately funded police force that aimed to stop the problem of thefts from ships, dockyards and storage yards on the Thames. The Thames Marine Police were resented by many local workers, for whom the thefts represented a valuable supplementary income. During the subsequent riot, the famous magistrate Patrick Colquhoun – one of the Marine Police’s founders – came out of his office to read the Riot Act. However, although the rioters briefly dispersed, they then gathered again and a local off-duty officer was killed. One of the rioters was hanged, but the Marine Police continued. [I wrote about this riot for Who Do You Think You Are? magazine; their podcast, featuring me talking about Dung Wharf, can be found here.]

4. A Theatrical Riot

new theatreThe opening of the New Theatre in Covent Garden on 18 September 1809 nearly led to the Riot Act being called. Shakespearean actor John Philip Kemble started to read an address to the audience, but couldn’t make himself heard over the over-excitement of the theatre goers. When he gave up and walked off stage, the audience started shouting – there was a “clamour and jarring of discordant vociferation, some calling, off! Off! And others, go on! Go on!”. A local magistrate, Justice Read, and his colleagues from the Bow Street police office turned up, but on seeing him produce a paper – widely believed to be a copy of the Riot Act – the audience hissed him until he gave up. After singing God Save The King very loudly, several times, the audience eventually gave up, but not until “a very late hour”. The night was the first in what became the  Old Price Riots – three months of discord that originated with rising ticket prices.
5. A Funereal Reading of the Riot Act

760px-Lee's_knitting_frameProblems in the Nottingham hosiery industry led to many stocking-weavers there being laid off. Reduced to a state of near starvation and reliance on parish relief as a result of economic pressures, the men were then driven to despair when many employers introduced the new wide stocking frames, which needed less manual labour. The weavers started to break into manufacturers’ premises to destroy these frames – in one day, they destroyed 53 frames in Sutton, Notts, alone. One man was shot and several more injured. When the funeral of the shot man took place, the High Sheriff, Under Sheriff and six magistrates turned up, acompanied by a group of constables and 30 mounted dragoons. The Riot Act was read, and as the coffin was being lowered into the grave, the High Sheriff announced that an hour had elapsed since the Act had been read, and that mourners would be arrested if they did not immediately disperse. The funeral ended rather quickly as a result.
Numbers 6 to 10 in my list of cases where the Riot Act was read will be published tomorrow.

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