Criminal Historian

Working with dead people

Month: May 2016

Top Five: Historical Crime Books

I’ve been an avid reader most of my life, but have often shunned novels set in the past. My antenna is tuned in for anachronisms or generalisations, for a poor understanding of period or simply for an unbelievable story.

However, over the years, there have been a few books that have had me unable to turn the pages quickly enough. They have been quite different both in the periods they cover and how they approach history – some cover events which happened only a few years before the books were written; others fictionalise events or characters far more than others.

Historical crime fiction is currently undergoing something of a renaissance with three of my chosen books here being recent examples of the genre. I’m really pleased, in particular, to see the 18th and early 19th centuries being the focus of some great research and writing – I’ve always sung the praises of the 18th century, despite one publisher once telling me that “the 18th century doesn’t sell” and “it’s not sexy”. I’d beg to differ.

But anyway – here’s my list.

512qXgnErSL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

(Penguin, 2000)

It might be a bit of a cheat, as it was written less than a decade after the events it depicts – but it’s too good not to include it here. This book has had, and continues to have, much controversy over how fictionalised the iconic American writer made this tale, which details the horrific murders of the Clutter family in their Kansas home in 1959. Certainly, Capote writes a blend of fact and fiction, but in doing so, creates an incredibly powerful narrative both about murder and the motives of those who commit it. He shows the mundanity and hopelessness of the lives of the two men who carried out the offences – the bleakness of their lives set against the optimism of teenager Nancy Clutter, one of the victims.

 

 

libraLibra by Don DeLillo

(Penguin, 2011)

Those who follow me on Twitter will probably know what a *huge* fan of this contemporary American author I am. DeLillo is particularly interested in the media, and shares some similarities with the likes of Thomas Pynchon, but this is probably one of his most accessible books. It recreates the story of Lee Harvey Oswald – the assassin (lone or otherwise!) of JFK in 1963 – from his own perspective, creating a form of language that makes Oswald a real, if complex, character in a novelisation of his life. Norman Mailer’s Oswald’s Tale is another good ‘faction’ book of the same iconic American historical event.

 

 

UnknownThe Silversmith’s Wife by Sophia Tobin

(Simon & Schuster, 2014)

This is just a beautiful book. It features as it’s main character a woman – yay! – and is a gently unfolding, yet gripping, murder mystery and love story in one. Set in 18th century London, it opens with the murder of the eponymous silversmith, but it is fundamentally about his wife – her reaction to his death and how she lives in its aftermath. It is full of factual detail that is never overpowering (I dislike books that shove their research and their historical accuracy in your face – “Look at me! Look how clever I am!” – as much as I hate inaccuracies. Yes, I’m difficult to please). The story here is what takes precedence over the period; it’s simply a good story that happens to be set in the past.

 

 

51poQlQzpXL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_The Devil in the Marshalsea by Antonia Hodgson

(Hodder, 2014)

I am so jealous of Hodgson for this book. The precursor of her latest book, The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins, it is a meticulously researched book set largely in the Marshalsea debtors’ prison – where Thomas Hawkins is sent. A murder occurs, and Hawkins has to work out what has happened. As I say, the research is so detailed here, and it really brings 18th century London, and life in the debtors’ prisons, to life. It makes you feel both grim and dirty, angry and disbelieving, when you read of the way the impoverished were treated in the past, and the inherent inequality in how different debtors were treated even when they were all being kept in one place.

 

51bT9yipSwL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_The Detective and the Devil by Lloyd Shepherd

(Simon & Schuster, 2016)

Lloyd has been quietly developing a new genre, with his historical crime books that blend fact and fiction, natural and supernatural. This is the latest instalment, the third since The English Monster, which I really enjoyed until near the end, when the reveal about the murderer made me raise an eyebrow, I’m afraid. But I enjoyed this latest instalment right to the finish. Lloyd uses real people and events from the past 500 years, but particularly the early 19th century. His hero is Charles Horton, from the Thames Marine Police; his elderly boss is the equally real magistrate John Harriott, and even Charles Lamb makes an appearance.  Lloyd is equally at home with depicting the grimness of Georgian Wapping as he is with depicting the island of St Helena; and his main female character is a spirited woman who strives to shake off the limitations society has placed on her gender.

 

 

 

 

Marital coercion and the wife who got away

1840s pictureAt common law, married women could avoid being convicted of certain offences simply by the fact that they were married. Coverture meant that women were, to an extent at least, legally subsumed by their husband – they lost some property rights, for example, although the extent to which this occurred in practice has been debated. But under certain circumstances, wives benefitted, as husbands could be found to be accountable for property offences committed by their wives.

There were restrictions on how far this could be taken, of course. As Garthine Walker has noted, the woman had to have been charged with a felony offence, rather than a misdemeanour, and she had to be found to have stolen by the constraint of her husband – it was not enough to have committed a theft in your husband’s absence, even if he had bullied or cajoled you, if there was no evidence of constraint.

Yet, as Peter King has argued, there was a grey area. Because of the differing, even conflicting, views of the courts and individuals about how to apply coverture in these cases, throughout the late 18th and early 19th centuries, married women were more likely than single women to avoid prosecution for such offences.

Although a different type of case, one 1844 trial involving a married woman similarly hinged on whether she had acted freely, or whether her husband had forced her into committing an offence, and shows how the courts could be influenced by a woman’s marital situation, and the concept of coercion. The courts may also have been more reluctant to convict a woman of an offence where a man might have been found guilty.

24-year-old Jane Bannon was tried at the Warwick Crown Court on 7 August 1844 of trying to help her husband escape from prison. Benjamin Bannon, Jane’s husband, then aged 28 and a wool stapler, had been convicted of coining offences at the Warwickshire Assizes just over three months earlier (on 30 March), and sentenced to 14 years’ transportation. He was still in prison awaiting this sentence, and it was alleged that Jane had smuggled a lifting-jack, a spanner, a saw and a pair of scissors to him, to enable him to break out.

Details of Benjamin's offence, from Ancestry

Details of Benjamin’s offence, from Ancestry

It was proved that Jane had indeed got these implements, and taken them to her husband – but the judge told the jury that they had to decide whether she had acted as a ‘free agent’ or whether she had acted ‘under the control of her husband’. If the former, she was guilty of aiding the escape of a prisoner; if the latter, she was innocent in terms of the law.

The jury duly returned a verdict of not guilty, believing that Jane had been made to obey her husband’s instructions. The verdict met with the ‘evident satisfaction of a crowded court’, and Jane could walk free.

Details of Jane's offence, from Ancestry

Details of Jane’s offence, from Ancestry

Her husband, though, was not so lucky. He had failed to escape from prison, and he would fail to avoid his sentence. He was given training as a tailor in prison, but two years after being convicted, on 22 June 1846, he left England on the convict ship Maitland. He arrived at Port Phillip Bay, Victoria, on 9 November that year, with 298 other passengers. From Port Phillip Bay, he was taken the short journey to Williamstown – now a Melbourne suburb, but at that time a nine-year-old port, where a 30 metre stone jetty had been built by convict labour in 1838.

Both Benjamin and Jane vanish from the archives at this point; Jane was not found to have acted as a ‘free agent’ in 1844, but once her husband was on the other side of the world, she was certainly more free than he was.

 

 

References: Garthine Walker, ‘Crime and the Early Modern Household’, in Helen Berry and Elizabeth Foyster (eds), The Family in Early Modern England (CUP, 2007), p.75; Peter King, ‘Female offenders, work and lifecycle change’ in Continuity and Change, 11 (1996), pp.67-68; Shani D’Cruze and Louise A Jackson, Women, Crime and Justice in England since 1660 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009); Coventry Herald, 16 August 1844; Ancestry

Breaking the rural idyll: a murder one summer’s morning

An advert offering a reward for apprehending Henry Ball's killer (Salisbury Journal, 19/6/1815, from the British Newspaper Archive)

An advert offering a reward for apprehending Henry Ball’s killer (Salisbury Journal, 19/6/1815, from the British Newspaper Archive)

Poor Henry Ball. He thought he had a nice job, as keeper of the turnpike gate situated by Marlborough Pond, some five miles from Southampton. He lived there, on the London Road, with his wife, living a calm and otherwise un-newsworthy life. He had reached the age of 80 with no major mishaps.

That all ended one Sunday morning in June – 11 June 1815, to be precise. Mrs Ball had gone out in the morning to Fernhill to speak with a neighbour. Presumably a friend of hers, she stayed for about an hour, leaving her husband at home, at Turnpike House.

But on returning to Marlborough Pond, she found her husband ‘weltering in his blood’. He had been the victim of a prolonged, and vicious, assault.

The Southampton surgeon, Mr Corfe, was summoned, and found that the whole of the left side of Ball’s skull had been ‘beaten into the brain’. His right eye was ‘beaten into his head’. His throat had been cut; his nose was broken.

His assailant had used the fire tongs from the Balls’ own home to rain violent blows on Ball’s head; they were found by him, covered in his blood.

Although the case looked hopeless, Mr Corfe dressed the wounds and Ball, to everyone’s amazement, survived for three days before finally dying of his injuries.*

An agricultural labourer in the traditional smock

An agricultural labourer in the traditional smock

Theft appeared to be the motive; a silver watch on a steel chain, together with a canvas bag containing silver and other articles, were found to have been stolen. It was believed that the killer had hoped to find the money that Ball had collected for the previous week; unknown to them, however, the keeper had taken it to the bank the day before his death.

At his inquest, the coroner’s jury returned a verdict of wilful murder; the Trustees of the South District of the Southampton Road offered a reward of 50 guineas to catch the murderer – with a pardon offered to accomplices.

It was said that a man ‘of suspicious appearance’ was seen on the road at around 8am the morning of the murder, in the clothes typical of the rural labouring class – a round smock frock, light coloured breeches, and large black whiskers.

But the press still had to report that:

No tidings have as yet been heard of the perpetrator or perpetrators of this most inhuman deed, and the whole transaction is at present wrapped in mystery. (Salisbury and Winchester Journal, 19 June 1815)

The reward advertisement was repeated in the local press and the London Gazette into the following month, suggesting that the man who tried to take money off an octogenarian turnpike keeper one summer morning got away, quite literally, with murder.

 

*The Salisbury Journal gave two different accounts of Ball’s ‘lingering’ – on p.4, it said he had survived for three days, but on p.1 of the same edition, the advert offering a reward for the perpetrator’s apprehending stated that he ‘lingered till the next day and then died’.

Other sources: The London Gazette, 4 July 1815; Bath Chronicle, 22 June 1815; Cambridge Chronicle and Journal, 23 June 1815; Salisbury and Winchester Journal, 26 June 1815. The Capital Punishment UK website doesn’t have a record of anybody being hanged in Hampshire for Henry Ball’s murder.

Snapshot of a female thief’s life

Kate Stobbs - from Tyne & Wear Archives and Museums' collection on Flickr

Kate Stobbs – from Tyne & Wear Archives and Museums’ collection on Flickr

Many poorer women came into contact with police and magistrates in the early years of the 20th century, the difficulty of their lives economically being evident in what they were accused, charged, or convicted of. This photo is from Tyne & Wear Archives and Museums, and shows Kate Stobbs, who was arrested for larceny in June 1903, and who appeared at the North Shields Police Court.

At the time this photograph was taken, Kate was 48 years old. As Kate, or Catharine, Hood, she had married Robert Stobbs in North Shields in early 1874, when she was 19.

Kate was born on 29 December 1854, and baptised on 28 January the following year. She had, by 16, been acting as her mother Charlotte’s housekeeper, and helping care for her three younger siblings at home in Bell Street. Her Scottish father David, a mariner, had been away from home a lot due to his work.

They had had six children, but only one survived – a daughter, Elizabeth, born in 1879. Both Kate and Robert were born and bred in North Shields, but moved around the north-east in search, it appears, of work for Robert. In 1881, he was described in the census as a boatbuilder, and the family was living at 24 Linskill Street in North Shields.

By 1891, they had moved to Elswick, in the western part of the city of Newcastle, bordering the river Tyne. This had plenty of opportunity for work, being home to the Elswick manufacturing works, the Elswick Colliery, and a train station, which had opened two years earlier. Robert, two years his wife’s senior, was working as a joiner, and Elizabeth was still living with her parents. The couple seemed settled in Elswick; they were still there in 1901, living at 80 Maria Street. By this time, Elizabeth had moved out of home – she had married, at 17 or 18 years old, in 1897. Robert was still working as a joiner.

A year later, the local paper recorded that Robert Stobbs, ‘described as a tramp’, had been up before the North Shields magistrates, charged with begging in Preston Lane. He was committed to prison for three weeks. Although there are others with the name of Stobbs living in the area at around this time, Robert and Kate may have been having difficulties – reflected in Kate’s own arrest a year later – and so this may be a further indication of economic problems, and perhaps unemployment on Robert’s part.

By June 1903, the couple had taken furnished rooms in a house at 73 Howdon Road, North Shields. Their landlady was a woman named Barbara Bowman. She was not a wealthy woman either – in 1881, she had been described as the wife of a general labourer named John. She was a decade older than her tenants, but also a native of North Shields. Like Kate, she had also lost children; in the 1911 census – by which time she appears to have been a district nurse, visiting the sick – she stated that she had had eight children, of whom five had died.

But Kate appeared to have little solidarity with her landlady; she needed money, she had none, and so she looked to Barbara’s belongings. She stole numerous items, and took them to the pawnshop. When Barbara noticed they were missing, she reported both Kate and Robert to the police, unsure as to who had stolen them, and suspecting that Robert may have stolen them, then given them to Kate to pawn.

Accordingly, both were initially charged with larceny. The goods stolen were fairly extensive, and could not have been carried on foot – at least, not easily. One or both of them had taken a quilt, two blankets, a pair of boots, a plane, saw, vest and other items – valued at nearly £4 in total. Chivalrous Robert denied all knowledge of the thefts, and was cautioned and dismissed. Kate was convicted, and sent to prison for 14 days.

It is hard to believe that Kate could have committed the acts without Robert’s knowledge; had he not noticed the sudden appearance of money where there had been none before, or goods or food bought when there was nothing to buy them with? Perhaps there was a tacit agreement between the pair that Kate should take the blame and leave Robert to try and get work while she was serving her sentence.

After this affair, the couple moved away from their home county, and in 1911, were living in Alum Waters in County Durham, near the village of New Brancepeth. Robert had found work as a bricklayer’s labourer – not on the level of joining or boatbuilding, but a legitimate occupation at least. Robert died in 1915, aged 62; Kate continued to survive, although presumably not far from the breadline, until 1931, dying at the age of 76.

The 1911 census entry for Kate and Robert Stobbs, from Ancestry.

The 1911 census entry for Kate and Robert Stobbs, from Ancestry.

 

Sources: Shields Daily Gazette, 21 October 1901; Shields Daily Gazette, 11 June 1903; BMDs for Durham, vol 10a page 519 and vol 10a page 574.

 

 

 

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