Criminal Historian

Working with dead people

Month: June 2016

Death by Broomstick: an unusual punishment, for an unusual crime

View over Bala Lake, with woman in Welsh costume; from the National Library of Wales (used under Creative Commons)

View over Bala Lake, with woman in Welsh costume; from the National Library of Wales (used under Creative Commons)

An interesting case from 19th century Wales this week, where it could be debated whether the victim’s family got justice, and whether the defendant got away with her criminal behaviour.

It was 13 March 1888, and in the village of Llanfor, near Bala in north Wales – where the devil was said to visit the village church in the guise of a pig –  neighbours Elizabeth Evans and Ann Jones were fighting. This was not something new. 51-year-old Elizabeth was known for her anger, and she and Ann appear to have frequently rowed.

Both were married women; Elizabeth was the wife of Thomas Evans, an under-gamekeeper, and Ann was married to Evan Jones, a local joiner. Both men worked for the Price family at their Bala estate, Rhiwlas Hall. Ann and Evan had nine children; the eldest, Alice, was only 13.

The families lived next door to each other, in cottages known as Penrhos Isa. They had been in their back gardens, separated by a fence, when they started arguing. This was the result of Elizabeth, that morning, having struck one of the Jones children. Ann had heard her child shout, and rushed into the garden, furiously hurling her broomstick – used for cleaning the floors of her cottage – at her neighbour. They continued shouting at each other, until Elizabeth, infuriated, threw the broomstick back at Ann, striking her hard on the head.

Ann ‘instantly fell down dead in the garden’. A post-mortem showed that she had received a fracture at the base of her skull. The Coroner’s Inquest, held at the County Hall in Bala, under the Merionethshire coroner, heard corroboration that death would have been instantaneous.

Elizabeth was hit – metaphorically, rather than with the broomstick again – with remorse, admitting her offence immediately to the police, and saying she was ‘quite prepared to accept the consequences’. However, whether she was quite as remorseful as she claimed is debatable, seeing as she then added that ‘the deceased and her children had given her frequent annoyance’.

Elizabeth was duly charged with manslaughter. At the Merioneth Assizes in July that year, she was found guilty – of ‘throwing a broomstick with provocation’. She had been on remand for the previous four months, and so the judge determined that she had been in prison long enough. He therefore sentenced her to just one day in prison, warning her ‘of the consequences of violent anger’.

Given that the consequences appeared to be just a day in a cell for killing a woman, it’s not clear that Elizabeth learned as much as the judge intended.

 

(Sources: South Wales Echo, 15 March 1888; The Cardiff Times, 17 March 1888; Llangollen Advertiser, 27 July 1888)

Looking into the face of a criminal

Edgar Kilminster, aged 7

Edgar Kilminster, aged 7

This week, Ancestry has put online lots more criminal records – this time relating to prisoners in Gloucestershire. Although the records cover the period from 1728 to 1914, it is the later records that have received the most publicity, and for one key reason. Dating from the late 19th century, after the mandatory introduction of the criminal mugshot, Ancestry’s records include images of the men, women, girls and boys who came before the local police in a largely rural county.

Not only is this of interest to family historians, who might be able to see, for the first time, what their black sheep ancestors actually looked like (for many were from poor families, and might not have been able to afford to have their photograph taken professionally in any other context), it is of interest to the criminal historian, too, putting a face to a name; and a crime to a face.

Some of those detailed are very young at the time of their first surviving conviction; it is also possible to follow the pattern of offending for a repeat offender. One such pattern can be established for Edgar Leopold Kilminster.

Edgar was born in 1863 in Chalford Hill, near Stroud in Gloucestershire. He was the son of bootmaker William Kilminster – who was originally from Cricklade in Wiltshire – and his wife Harriet (nee Gardiner), born and bred in Chalford. William and Harriet had married locally two years prior to Edgar’s birth.

The Kilminsters were a large family; Edgar had several siblings, including older brother Joseph William, who followed his father into bootmaking, and younger siblings Harriet Florence Melinda (known as Florence), Annie Elizabeth, Alexina Laura, George Ernest, Percy Stanley, Amy Nella, Elsie Mabel, Della May and Gertrude*. Harriet Kilminster appears to have been pregnant on a regular basis from the age of 21 to 45.

St Mary's Mill in Chalford, by Chris Allen (used under creative commons)

St Mary’s Mill in Chalford, by Chris Allen (used under creative commons)

Perhaps with such a large family, it was hard to keep an eye on the children all the time. They needed to go to work at an early age – at 9, Joseph Kilminster was working in a silk mill (possibly St Mary’s, a textile mill in Chalford) and also attending school part-time, along with 8-year-old Edgar. It was a lot for two young boys; maybe they were bored in their little rural community, having such a rigid structure at such an early age; or perhaps they simply wanted to be able to get things that their parents couldn’t afford to buy them. Certainly, the two older boys were soon being noticed by the local police.

The first entry relating to the Kilminster family from the Gloucestershire Calendar of Prisoners is for seven-year-old Edgar, who was committed on 17 June 1870 for ‘stealing sweetmeats’, along with his brother Joseph, aged 9. The boys were found guilty and sent to the house of correction for seven days.

Edgar at the time was just 3’10”, an inch shorter than his hare-lipped brother, a brown haired, blue eyed boy with no prior convictions. But it was not his only conviction.

On 7 November 1876, by now aged 14, 4’12” and working as a factory hand near to his home in Chalford Hill, near Stroud, Edgar was again arrested by the police, and in December, appeared before the local magistrates at the local petty sessions. He was accused of having been ‘found on an enclosed garden of William Farmer at Bisley‘ – having been unable to give a good account of being on someone else’s property, Edgar was given the punishment of a month’s hard labour in the house of correction.

His record at this time notes that he had been known to local policeman PC Packer for 11 years, ‘has been here for stealing and once fined for stealing’; he was charged with, and convicted with, a local friend, George Mills.

Edgar’s offending now progressed to a more serious level, and in July 1879, now aged 16, 5’7″, and working as a labourer, he appeared at the Gloucester Assizes, charged with burglary. He was found guilty, and sentenced to nine months’ hard labour. It was noted by this time that he had four prior convictions; he was released on 30 April 1880.

The returns of habitual criminals, showing Edgar Kilminster's first entry on the right hand page, from Ancestry

The returns of habitual criminals, showing Edgar Kilminster’s first entry on the right hand page, from Ancestry

Edgar lived with his family in Chalford Hill until his late 20s, with his brother Joseph, now married and with a family of his own, living next door. In 1892, he married Mary Elizabeth Griffin in Bisley, and had a family of his own. However, a final surviving entry notes that Edgar Kilminster was convicted in 1897 of assaulting his wife of five years, and given 14 days’ hard labour. This was not his only offence between 1879 and 1897, though, as this final entry recorded eight prior convictions for the now strapping 34-year-old six footer.

One might expect Edgar to continue offending, and to continue living near his family in Chalford, working as a labourer. But instead, the next record for Edgar shows that he instead enlisted in the army – the deformed right thumb he now had being no barrier to service. He signed up for two years’ service in the Royal Artillery, at Pembroke Dock, claiming on his attestation papers that he had never been sentenced to imprisonment.

In 1906, Edgar appeared before the magistrates again. Although this appearance is not listed on Ancestry’s records, it survives in a mention in the Gloucester Citizen newspaper. Edgar and Jesse Gardner (possibly a relative on his mother’s side, but with a different spelling of his surname recorded) appeared at Stroud Petty Sessions, charged with having refused to leave the Bell Inn in Chalford one night, after the landlord, George Brown, had repeatedly asked them to.

Edgar had already been drunk when he went to the pub, and so the landlord had refused to serve him. But Edgar refused to leave for over an hour, instead using ‘abusive language’. The following day, the two men had visited the pub to try and get George Brown to settle the case away from the magistrates, but he seems to have refused. At Petty Sessions, each man was fined five shillings, and ordered to pay another 4s costs. (Gloucester Citizen, 7 September 1906)

In World War 1, Edgar served in the Army Service Corps. He was now living in Glamorgan, and had been working as a timberman. He served despite being 50 when he signed up.

Mary Elizabeth Kilminster died in 1921, and two years later, Edgar married again, this time to Gertrude Mary Hirons. She outlived her husband, for 71-year-old Edgar died on 3 September 1934 at the General Hospital in Stroud, having been taken there from his home on the High Street in Bisley. He had had a long and eventful life, but his birth and death both took place in his home area, where the police and the magistrates had known him so well.

All records referred to can be found on Ancestry; the original calendars of prisoners can be found at Gloucestershire Archives. The Gloucester Citizen was accessed via the British Newspaper Archive.

* These children’s names are taken from census records and cross-referenced with FreeBMD information; however, there may have been more Kilminster children, including Thomas William (born and died 1870), and Louisa Minnie (born 1871, died 1875).

 

 

 

Book review: The Murder of the Century

51AXXHMDNsL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_It always concerns me a little bit when I see a title that looks intriguing, but then the author’s previous works – listed at the start of the book – suggest a lack of knowledge of the specific subject of the book. Paul Collins has previously written works on subjects as diverse as Shakespeare and autism, so I was a bit concerned that this book, The Murder of the Century, which recounts a notorious American murder case from the 1890s, and uses it to explore the newspaper wars of the era, would display a lack of expertise about the subject, or a somewhat flighty attitude towards it.

My fears were groundless, though, as Collins here proves a great storyteller and to have a good grasp of the history of which he writes. He is able to bring to life the existences of the working class in New York’s poorer areas, from the children whose main entertainment is in fishing objects out of the river from the pier side overlooking Brooklyn, to the women eking out a living in slum neighbourhoods through a variety of occupations – including the carrying out of illegal backstreet abortions.

The Murder of the Century starts with the discovery of a torso, found by the aforementioned boys of the East 11th Street area. Another parcel is later found elsewhere, containing another part of the same body. Whose body is it, and who was responsible for killing the man who this body once was?

But the book is about far more than this. It tells the story of the tensions between members of New York’s immigrant community, and centres on German-born Augusta Nack, claiming to be a licensed midwife when New York had no such things. Although depicted by the press as a passionate, rather ‘unwomanly’ creature, who turns her lodgers into her lovers, she is also an unhappily married individual and worthy of sympathy after the deaths of all her children.

A satirical depiction of the media war between Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst

A satirical depiction of the media war between Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst

An investigation into her and two of her lovers creates a picture of immigrant life in New York, and also shows how she became the means by which the New York newspapers and their proprietors – particularly Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst – competed and pushed for supremacy, at no matter what the personal cost to others.

The characters here are well drawn, from Augusta to William F Howe, the showy defence lawyer at the subsequent murder trial. The story is also meticulously researched, and it shows. If you want a good example of how to write a real life, 19th century murder history that draws you in and keeps you reading, this is well worth a try.

 

Who was Robert the Devil?

A scene from Meyerbeer's Robert the Devil, by Degas

A scene from Meyerbeer’s Robert the Devil, by Degas

In 1886, a man appeared before the magistrates of the Marlborough Street Police Court in London, charged with drunk and disorderly behaviour.

The man had been on Oxford Street shortly after midnight the previous night, and his behaviour had gathered such a crowd around him that a policeman walking down the street had gone over to see what was going on. The man was using ‘filthy language’, was obviously very drunk, and refused to leave the area when the policeman requested him to. He was therefore charged with the above mentioned offence.

He was a black man, according to the newspapers, who refused to give his real name to the magistrate, instead stating that he was called ‘Robert the Devil’.

The magistrate asked what he had to say, and Robert answered, “Oh! Nothing at all, Boss.”

The local gaoler, Sergeant Vine, told the court that Robert was a frequent offender, and had appeared in the police court several previous occasions. Robert was told he would have to pay a 10 shilling fine or go to prison for seven days. Robert’s response was to say,

“That will be all right, Boss; the Prince of Wales will pay that for me.”

Robert evidently had long term alcohol abuse or mental health issues. His naming of himself as ‘Robert the Devil’ may not have had racial allusions, though, despite the devil’s likeness being a black goat in some 19th century literature, and there being increasingly negative depictions of black men and women in England during the latter half of the 19th century.

Robert_the_Devil_(horse)

Robert the Devil: a horse, not a man

Robert the Devil was a medieval legend; later, in 1831, Giacomo Meyerbeer created a romantic opera of the same name that saw great success in London in the 1830s and 1840s, and a resurgence in popularity in the 1890s. The name referred to Robert, Duke of Normandy, who was the father of William the Conqueror – but also, in some stories, said to be the son of the devil.

Did the defendant see himself as a devil, a character incapable of redemption? Or was he a romantic hero? The truth is probably somewhat more mundane. In the 1880s, there was a racehorse named Robert the Devil, whose career was eagerly followed in the English press. This drunken man may simply have adopted the horse’s name to avoid giving his own. The racehorse died at Bernham Paddocks ‘somewhat suddenly’, in 1889, aged 12; but what happened to his namesake is not known.

(Sources: Dundee Evening Telegraph, 13 September 1886; Dublin Daily Express, 28 October 1880; South Wales Echo, 2 May 1889; Saunders’s News-letter, 8 June 1832; The Graphic, 4 December 1886)

Dark glamour and transgressive behaviour: Crime Stories in New York

Photo 28-05-2016, 05 50 19It’s not every day that you ask an information assistant at a museum where one of their exhibitions is, and they don’t know the answer – and even ask you questions about the exhibition, because they’re not aware of it.

This is what happened when I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It suggests that the particular exhibition I wanted to see wasn’t high up on their list of priorities, which is a shame – because it was a fascinating one, and one that I hope many visitors would have heard of and sought out.

The exhibition, Crime Stories: Photography and Foul Play, started in March, and runs until the end of July. It is positioned up on the second floor of the Fifth Avenue museum, round the back of the gift shop, and isn’t signposted virtually until you get to it. It’s not one of the main exhibitions the museum is promoting at the moment – evident from its volunteer’s blank face when I asked about it – but it is certainly the most unusual, being only feet away from works by Van Gogh and the likes.

The exhibition charts the history of crime photography, from the 19th century onwards. So we have a good look at French innovations of the Victorian era, in terms of criminal profiling and mugshots, offering a European perspective on crime and its recording. There are some fascinating artefacts – including Samuel G Szabo‘s ‘Rogues: A Study of Characters’ from around 1860, where the Hungarian photographer worked in collaboration with the police to make a study of offenders to try and identify the physical characteristics of the ‘criminal psyche’. His portraits include those of a shoplifter, wife poisoner, highwayman and murderer.

One of Bertillon's mesmerising images

One of Bertillon’s mesmerising images

There is, inevitably, Alphonse Bertillon‘s chart of physical traits of criminals, which enabled police to describe prisoners’ physical features in great detail, from their brows to their ears. Bertillon’s mug shots of suspected anarchists in late 19th century France are also here; and they are so detailed that you can spend a substantial amount of time just looking at them and noticing the detail of clothing, the colour of eyes, and so on.

Moving onto 20th century America, there are several photos by the infamous Weegee – press photographer Arthur Fellig, who produced sensationalist crime photographs, including ‘Outline of a Murder Victim’. There are also several 1940s crime scene photographs, and the curator has made the link between these photos and the film noir of the era very well, showing why these photos look so familiar to us in style and content. Famous assassinations – from Lincoln to JFK, and including Lee Harvey Oswald – are also, understandably, included; the latter two defining modern America.

The exhibition shows how we are both repelled and drawn to crime photography – its ‘dark glamour’ and portrayal of transgression appealing to our subconscious. It’s a well thought out, dark, but compelling display – and if you’re in New York over the next two months, it is well worth seeking out.

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