There were at least two murders in the 1890s that were perceived as particularly abhorrent by the Victorian press – although only one was reported by them in great, gruesome, detail. This, the first, was known, rather unoriginally, as ‘the oven tragedy’, and the second as ‘another revolting oven tragedy’. Both involved local bakehouses, and demonstrated the ingenuity of some Victorian domestic murderers.
The first murder occurred in London in November 1898. The murderer, ideally for a somewhat xenophobic press, was a German immigrant baker named Johann Schneider. For reasons never given, he also went by the unlikely pseudonyms of Richard Montague and Richard Mandekow , as well as the simple anglicised John Schneider.
Johann was 36 years old, married, and a father. The only likely person of this description in the 1891 census was a John J Schneider, listed as a baker living in Clerkenwell with his English wife Elizabeth and their two young daughters, Carolina and Elizabeth Jane. In 1898, Carolina would have been 12 and Elizabeth 9.
The census stated that ‘John’ was a native of Felsberg, a town in the Schwalm-Eder area of Hesse, a central region of modern Germany. However, this John’s wife and children were all from the St George East district of London, and the only marriage of an Elizabeth to a Schneider in this district at around the right time involved a Max Schneider, so the census entry may well be wrong. Schneider himself described himself to police as a Russian, living at 150 Regent’s Park Road.
What was true was that Schneider, then going by the name of Richard Montague, had been employed by baker William Ross some two years earlier as an assistant baker. Ross kept a baker’s shop at 82 William Street, off the Hampstead Road. The shop was at street level, and accessed via a door from the street. The private rooms where the Ross family lived were accessed via a staircase from the back of the shop, with the bakehouse based in the basement.
The bakehouse itself consisted of a long baker’s oven, and two troughs in front of it for kneading the bread. The walls were whitewashed, with a clock on one wall, and clear glass windows at the top of one wall looking out into the street. An iron grating in the pavement outside would be lifted up to take the flour when it was delivered, but was otherwise kept fastened – Ross checked it every night.
Ross was successful, and employed another baker to help him – he was a live-in employee who slept in the spare room on the second floor of the building. He began work at 7pm to make the dough, and then go back to bed.
At 11.30pm, he would again be called and would cut the dough until 1am, when he would make the next batch of dough, and then heat the oven. At 3.45am, he would put the dough in the hot oven. Ross in turn slept from 11.30pm until 3am, when he would go down to the bakehouse to help his employee.
In 1876, this employee had been ‘Richard Montague’, and he had stayed, living and working with Ross, for around six months, despite being married. He had absconded from work after that time, saying one day that he was not well, and never returning.
It was a rash move from Schneider, who then found it impossible to get another job. He asked Ross for his job back, but Ross said no – although he gave him two loaves for his children, recognising that it was Schneider’s family who were likely to be suffering. He left his address – 144 Sewards Street Buildings on the Goswell Road – in case Ross later needed work doing.
In the meantime, Ross had employed another German man, Conrad Berndt, a journeyman baker who was only around 19 years old – to take over the role of assistant baker.
Ross later described him as a ‘dark man, with almost black hair, a very good workman’ who wore ‘a soft cap, shirt and a pair of trousers, and a blue-striped canvas belt round his waist with two buckles in it’ as his work uniform. He also had a silver watch and chain, but refused to take these valuable items into the bakehouse in case he damaged them.
On 10 November, around 11pm, Johann Schneider knocked on the door of the bakeshop, wearing a round hat and carrying a green bag in his hand. Ross opened the door, and Schneider asked if he could sleep at Ross’s home overnight, as he needed to be at Grummell’s baker’s shop in Soho by 6am the next morning.
“All right, Richard, I know you – you can come in”, responded the kindly Ross. Schneider entered, and went down to the bakehouse to sleep. Ross went to give Berndt, still in his room, his instructions for the night, and then left him to go to bed himself.
Ross was woken at around 3.15am by knocking and footsteps on the stairs. He lit a candle and went to investigate. He saw Schneider on the bakehouse steps, with his coat on but not his hat. “Where’s Conrad?” asked Ross; Schneider said he had been sick and had to go to lie down.
Ross thought this was odd; not only was Schneider speaking unnaturally quietly, but Conrad had never been ill before, in the whole seven months he had been working there. As he turned away to go to Conrad’s room to check he was alright, Schneider struck his former employer on the back of the head, stunning him. He then tried to stab Ross in the chest.
“Police!” called Ross, and his wife and servant woke and started shouting. Schneider opened the grate outside the shop window and jumped out, running towards the Hampstead Road. He was spotted by a policeman, who, in a very English fashion, thought a man walking outside without a hat on must be suspicious, and who caught him.
The oven had been lit, and was later searched. A piece of charred cloth from a pair of trousers, another piece of cloth from a shirt, and part of a belt were found in it – together with some smoking human remains.
The skull was exposed, and had a clear fracture on the right hand side; a piece of brain was later found on a large stone underneath the oven. Nearby was a hatchet, covered in blood and human hair. Conrad’s room had also been trashed, and items – including money, the watch and the chain – were missing.
Conrad had been killed as a result of a blow to the head, but it was believed he would have lived for around half an hour before a fractured skull and haemorrhaging eventually had their fatal effect. He had been placed in the baker’s oven while unconscious – but probably still alive.
Schneider was believed to be insane, and after being remanded at Marylebone Police Court, was sent to Holloway prison to be examined. During his later trial, one witness, Samuel Feldt, who knew Schneider as a German man named Richard Mandekow, lodging with him at 14 Bartholomew Buildings, described him as ‘morose, downcast, and absent minded – he was depressed because of his poverty and because he could not find work, and he has three children and a wife’.
Others, including those who examined him at Holloway, found him to be ‘emotional’ but sane, the judge found him to be ‘clever and cunning’, and he was therefore found guilty of murder at the Old Bailey, and sentenced to death. He was hanged at Newgate on 3 January 1899.
The murder had a wider impact. William Ross, unsurprisingly, found his business negatively impacted by the news that his assistant had been burned alive in his own bakehouse oven. He also found his own good name besmirched in the press. It was reported in Lloyd’s Weekly News that he had ‘resolved to build a new oven to retain his customers, and that a waxwork show proprietor has offered a large sum of money for the original’.
The newspaper later had to acknowledge that this was very much not the case – and that, in fact, the London Master Bakers’ Protection Society and the Baker’s Record publication had been fundraising in order to enable Ross to start a new business elsewhere, thus letting him escape the stigma of the murder.
Oh, and the second ‘revolting’ tragedy? That was a case in the village of Signa in Tuscany, where a baker named Brogelli, and his wife, murdered their two young sons – the elder being only seven years old – by putting them in their bakehouse oven (or, as the Illustrated Police News put it, ‘Parents roast their two boys in a bakehouse’). Only a few charred remains were ever found.
In the single paragraph that the British papers gave to this ‘foreign’ case, it was reported that ‘The accused absolutely refuse to say how and why the crime was committed’, but in this case, the villagers took the matter into their own hands and tried to lynch the Brogellis.
One case merited whole columns of excited reporting; the other only a brief mention (although also an illustration). But both were tragedies, and both were truly revolting.
Sources: Old Bailey Online, ref t18981212-85; Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, 27 November 1898; Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, 20 November 1898; Capital Punishment UK; Leicester Daily Mercury, 16 December 1898; Cheltenham Chronicle, 17 December 1898; Illustrated Police News, 1 April 1899