Criminal Historian

Working with dead people

Month: November 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


When the Wild Woman of the Mountains stole a child

From William Blake's illustrations for Dante's Inferno

From William Blake’s illustrations for Dante’s Inferno

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The area the Wild Woman was walking in 1867

The area the Wild Woman was walking in 1867

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

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

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

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

When asked to explain herself, she said,

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

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

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



The Mugshots of Preston Park

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

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

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

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

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

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


The misfortunes of a Victorian actress

punch2Laura Bentley was in dire straits. A 41-year-old Londoner, she supported her bedridden mother, who she lived with in lodgings in Delancey Street, St Pancras. In fact, their lodgings were nothing more than a single furnished room on the top floor of number 82.

Her wages were not enough to keep the pair afloat, and she had got into financial difficulties. This was mortifying to her; her father had been a gentleman with an income of £500 a year.

Laura had been ‘educated and brought up as a lady’ – but her father had absconded. He then died, and her mother had remarried, this time to a drunkard who spent all the late Mr Bentley’s money. He then seems to have left, leaving Laura and her mother in poverty.

Laura described herself as being of an ‘excitable’ personality; so excitable that at one point, she had to be taken into the insane ward of the Islington workhouse for three days. She was again admitted to the workhouse, and then to the insane or lunatic ward – the Hagar Ward – of the workhouse in 1897. Then living in Camden Town, she was admitted by her uncle, Frederick Roberts.


Laura Bentley's discharge to the Islington workhouse infirmary, 1897, via Ancestry

Laura Bentley’s discharge to the Islington workhouse infirmary, 1897, via Ancestry

She had originally wanted to be an actress, and had worked as such for some time, before an attack of laryngitis left her voice permanently affected. She had therefore found herself ‘disqualified’ from her profession, and so had to take on a job as a machinist. Initially she worked at Peter Robinson’s factory, and then at the Swan and Edgar premises.

But then she lost her job, due to ‘alterations made by these firms’, she said, but also, perhaps, because her health was poor. She had started drinking, and mixing with ‘women of loose character’.  She owed five weeks’ rent, and  the landlady had talked of evicting her due to her staying out all night drinking.

Her mother, who was unable to move her limbs due to chronic rheumatism, had formerly had to be helped by the charity of some local women, and the parish. Now, though, she was entirely reliant on Laura, and both women were on the verge of starving. It was also said that Laura had no friends left to call on for help.

Laura spent her days ‘tramping’ around the city trying to find work, to no avail. The combination of failure in her chosen profession, failure also in her second job as a machinist, and failure to adequately support her mother, may have led her to the drinking (although the mixing with loose women may simply have been out of loneliness and a desire for company).

It also, eventually, led to Laura becoming so ‘weary and distressed’ that she attempted to commit suicide by jumping off the York and Albany Bridge into the Regent’s Canal.

Laura's admission to the lunatic ward of the Islington workhouse, 1897

Laura’s admission to the lunatic ward of the Islington workhouse, 1897

Yet she also failed at doing this.

As she was desperately trying to clamber over the bridge in the dark – it was one o’clock in the morning – hindered by her long skirts, a local police constable spotted her. He ran up to her and grabbed her skirts, pulling her back.

“I beg you to let me do it!” she cried, “I am in fearful trouble! About 4l will save me from suicide, but if you will not let me do it, I will do it another day.”

Instead, she was arrested, and brought to Marylebone Police Court, charged with attempting suicide. She was remanded on bail, with the judge, Curtis Bennett, saying that ‘probably something would be done for her.’

What that would be, he failed to say, beyond suggesting that a gaol doctor should examine her, and that the parish overseers should be notified that her mother might need looking after.

But the records show that machinist Laura Bentley was again admitted to the workhouse – this time St Pancras – in 1903. It was stated at this point that she had ‘no home’. In 1906, again homeless, she was returned to the St Pancras workhouse. Her ‘nearest known relative or friend’ was the same uncle who had had her admitted to the lunatic ward in 1897.

It is clear that Laura’s cry for help – her attempted suicide – did not result in a happy ending. Brought before the magistrates, the only options open to her were prison or workhouse. It seems that the rest of her life was spent yo-yoing between workhouse and lodgings of some sort, between pauper wards and lunatic wards.

It was not the kind of life that an aspiring actress would have envisaged in her youth, but it showed the lack of options, open to many women in Victorian England when they fell on hard times.

Sources: Daily News, 11 July 1898; Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, 17 July 1898; workhouse admission and discharge records on Ancestry.

Where an executioner’s experiment was laid to rest

Fred's resting place (© Criminal Historian)

Fred’s resting place (© Criminal Historian)

In the shadow of the Lucy Tower of Lincoln Castle – site of the city’s Georgian and Victorian prisons – is what looks like a peaceful garden. Enclosed by medieval walls, with several trees casting shade over the grass, it is a peaceful environment.

Yet look closer, and you’ll see several small stone markers dotted around. Some are bare, their inscriptions having never existed, or being erased by the wind and rain over time. Others are still clear, though; initials, and a date. For this is the final resting place of many of the criminals who were hanged at the castle in the 19th century.

One of the most clear stones records the initials WFH, and marks the grave of William Frederick Horry. Fred Horry was a nasty character, who has gone down in history as the first person to be hanged by Victorian executioner William Marwood.

Born in 1843 in Boston, Lincolnshire, he was married at the age of 23 to Jane, but the marriage was not happy. They ran a Staffordshire hotel together, but within five years of the marriage, they had separated amidst allegations of alcoholism (on Fred’s part) and adultery (on Jane’s part).

Jane returned to Boston with their children, whilst William stayed in Staffordshire. He tried to see his family, but was abusive, and forbidden from seeing his children. He sold the hotel, moved to Nottingham, and kept trying to see his family.

After one final attempt in 1872, when he was again refused, he bought a revolver in Nottingham, and then travelled to Boston.

He made his way to his father’s house, where his family were staying, and, at 3pm, as Jane walked into the dining room, he raised the revolver and shot her dead.

Horry's Assize record (via Ancestry)

Horry’s Assize record (via Ancestry)

At the Spring Assizes on 11 March 1872, held at Lincoln, he was sentenced to death. On 1 April, he was executed at the castle by William Marwood, using, for the first time, the new ‘long drop’ method of hanging that was seen as more civilised, as it resulted in a quicker death.

Horry may have died quickly, but he lives on, part of the tourist trail at Lincoln Castle, and remembered in the history of the famous executioner.

Fred Horry's final resting place (© Criminal Historian)

Fred Horry’s final resting place (© Criminal Historian)

Throwing baby onto the fire: a tale for Bonfire Night

To mark Bonfire Night in a somewhat macabre way, here’s a cheery tale from the Western Mail of 5 November 1895 (accessed via the wonderful Welsh Newspapers Online site).

Man throws baby onto fire


You can understand why Mrs Vaughan may have wanted to divorce her husband, can’t you?

Wilhemina's divorce petition, from Ancestry

Wilhemina’s divorce petition, from Ancestry

William Thomas Vaughan married  Johanna Friedricke Wilhemina Lehmann in Usk in 1884. He was 27 at the time, and she was 23. Wilhelmina, as she was known, had been born in Germany but settled down to life in the Old Port area of Brecon, where she took on new work as a dressmaker, now that, as a married woman, she could not continue working as a lady’s maid.

Their two children were Otto William, born in 1885, and Friedricke Maria, born in 1886. Whether it was Otto or Frederika who ended up on the fire is not recorded, but at least the unfortunate baby survived.

And there was a happy ending for poor Wilhelmina after her divorce. Although in 1901 she was living in the same street in Brecon where she had been ten years earlier, she was now married to Frederick Harrison, an American four years her junior (they married in Brecon in 1896). She was working as a costumier, and had her daughter Friedricke still living at home – son Otto was now living in Maesteg where he was a grocer’s apprentice.

William Vaughan’s fortunes remain unknown; he is harder to track than his former wife. One hopes, though, that he never tried to throw a baby onto the fire again…


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