Criminal Historian

Working with dead people

Month: September 2016

A Tale of Two Sisters: The poisoners of Victorian Liverpool

Road to Versailles, by Camille Pissarro

Road to Versailles, by Camille Pissarro

It was a snowy morning in Lancashire, as the two women were brought out to the scaffold in the prison yard. They showed no sign of the cold, though, as they climbed up onto it, and were pinioned. Displaying a little nervousness, they stood there, eyes closed, their mouths moving silently as they repeated prayers over and over, over and over. Then their white caps were pulled over their pale faces, and, as the snow fell, their executioner pulled back a lever, and they fell to their deaths.

There they hanged, motionless, as the snow continued falling around Kirkdale Gaol, a gentle, floating snow that was at odds with the violent scene that had taken place in its midst.(1)

**

The women were not strangers, or even friends. They were sisters. Catherine Flanagan and Margaret Higgins both lived in Liverpool, but there was considerable debate about where they were originally from. In the xenophobic, anti-Irish late 19th century, it was speculated that they were both Irish born; but other sources said that they were Scottish, from Dumfries, where their relatives still lived.

Some reports, though, had Higgins admit to being from a village near Belfast, and having migrated to Liverpool with her parents and sister when she was ten. What was known was that Catherine was the elder sister, being around 55 years old; Margaret was some 14 years her junior.

Mrs Flanagan had one trait that in other circumstances would have been commended – she was rather frugal. She spent little, to the extent of being regarded as miserly, and it was said that her favourite occupation was that of acquiring money.

Late 19th century Liverpool

Late 19th century Liverpool

With savings she had accumulated when young, she opened a beer house near Liverpool’s docks – a poor area but one that would guarantee good custom from the local workers. However, she did not like rules and regulations, and soon came to the attention of the police for opening on Sundays, and for the illicit activities that took place in her tavern. After several convictions, she was forced to close her beer house down.

She then put her financial skills to better use by setting up as a money lender. She borrowed money from local loan offices, and then lent it to her hard-up neighbours, in small sums, but charging interest of fourpence in every shilling. She then started dealing with burial societies – with rather a grim result.

The most noteworthy thing about her sister Margaret was that she had had two husbands – her first was a labourer, an Orangeman from Northern Ireland. He died under suspicious circumstances, and it was rumoured that she may have murdered him. She then married again – one Thomas Higgins. He soon died, after insurance policies had been taken out on him.

Suspicions were aroused, and in a dramatic fashion, his funeral was halted by police in order for his body to be examined. At this point, Flanagan disappeared – it took a week for her to be apprehended. An inquest was duly held on Thomas Higgins’ body, starting just after Christmas in 1883. On 4 January 1884, the coroner’s jury returned a verdict of wilful murder against both sisters.

It then emerged that Flanagan had previously taken in a young lodger at her home on Skirvin Street – 18-year-old Margaret Jennings, who had also died under suspicious circumstances (2). Once the sisters had been charged with Thomas’s death, an order was submitted for Margaret’s body to be exhumed. It was believed that the women had killed both in order to get their life insurance.

Two more charges came; one that they had also poisoned Catherine’s son John, and the other, that they had also killed Margaret’s step-daughter, Mary Higgins. John, aged 22, had been buried four years earlier (3); his body was exhumed from its grave at Ford Cemetery, near Liverpool, and was found to be ‘wonderfully’ preserved. His corpse was found to be full of arsenic. John had been insured with a number of burial societies and insurance agents for a total of £71.

Madame Lafarge - another woman accused of using arsenic to kill

Madame Lafarge – another woman accused of using arsenic to kill

Mary Higgins (called Sarah in some reports) had died in November 1882, aged 12 (4),  shortly after Margaret had taken out various death insurance policies on her. Her body was exhumed towards the end of January 1884, and again found to contain arsenic. Both Sarah’s and John’s bodies were reinterred after their post-mortems; no inquests were allowed to be held as more than a year had passed since their deaths.

Faced with the evidence of the insurance policies, Catherine now turned against her sister, offering to give evidence against her, and admitting that she had used arsenic from fly-papers to poison the insured. The Crown, however, refused to let her become a witness.

The two women went on trial at the Liverpool Assizes in February 1884. Both women were charged with the wilful murder of Thomas Higgins, Margaret Jennings, and John Flanagan; Margaret was additionally charged with murdering Mary Higgins (sic). Crowds attended the trial, eager to hear the details of the two middle aged sisters’ alleged offences.

One of the witnesses was Margaret Jennings’ father Patrick, who confirmed that he and his daughter had lodged with Catherine, and had known her son John. In court, he had to describe not only John’s agonising death, over two days – which both the accused women had watched –  but his own daughter’s.

The two women murdered him by poisoning; and were sentenced to death on Saturday 16 February 1884 for doing so. Realising there was no chance of their sentences being commuted, they freely admitted their guilt. They were sent to the nearly 70-year-old Kirkdale Gaol to await their execution, and were said to have been ‘dejected’; because they were both completely illiterate, ‘the time has hung more heavily on their hands than it would have done had they been possessed of any education’.

Kept in separate cells, they had little to keep them occupied, apart from thinking about their impending deaths. They ended up asking the female warders who watched them 24 hours a day to read to them, and were said to have ‘much appreciated’ the stories.

Their own stories, however, were about to end.

**

It is 3 March, a bitterly cold Monday morning. It’s early, and barely light, but even so, a crowd has gathered in the snow in front of the gaol. They cannot see the execution itself, for hangings have been held away from the public gaze for nearly two decades now. (5) Yet there they stand, blowing on their hands, stamping their feet, to keep warm; the women are huddled into their shawls. They have their eyes gazing upwards; not to the sky, but to the spot where, shortly after 8am, a black flag will be hoisted to tell them that the murderers are dead.

Behind the gaol walls, they know that Binns, the executioner, is finalising arrangements, assisted by Samuel Heath, a man from the other side of the Pennines. They have sorted the drop – nine feet six for Flannagan, and two inches more for Higgins. Now they are waiting for the two women to walk the steps to the scaffold… they are adjusting the ropes, placing the nooses under the women’s chins…

And on the outside, as the snow continues to fall, a black flag climbs into the air, watched silently by the crowd. (6)

Report of the execution in the Illustrated Police News

Report of the execution in the Illustrated Police News

 

NOTES

  1. Press reports of the day stress the cold and snowy conditions of the morning the execution took place – see, for example, the Illustrated Police News of 8 March 1884.
  2. Death of Margaret Jennings: BMDs, Liverpool, March quarter of 1883, vol 8b, page 17.
  3. Death of John Flannigan: BMDs, Liverpool, December quarter of 1880, vol 8b page 40.
  4. Some reports said that she was 10, but BMD records state that she was 12 (BMDs for Liverpool, December quarter of 1882, vol 8b, page 30).
  5. Public executions in Britain ended in 1868 (see Capital Punishment UK).
  6. Press coverage taken from: Yorkshire Gazette, 10 November 1883, Dundee Evening Telegraph, 18 February 1884, Stamford Mercury, 8 February 1884, Dundee Courier, 22 February 1884, Cornubian and Redruth Times, 25 January 1884, Dundee Courier, 19 February 1884, Dublin Daily Express, 5 January 1884, Portsmouth Evening News, 29 December 1883, Fife Herald, 5 March 1884.

Book review: Charlie Peace: Murder, Mayhem and the Master of Disguise

614-5PESbKL._SX346_BO1,204,203,200_“A devil once lived in God’s own county,” states the blurb to this new book on the Victorian burglar and murderer Charlie Peace, and this sets up the style of the book well. First-time author Ben W Johnson proudly proclaims his journalistic credentials on the book’s cover, . has a journalistic background which does, perhaps, help explain the style in which he writes.

So what could be a grim, bleak tale of life in 19th century Sheffield becomes, in Johnson’s writing, a romanticised story of a boy who saw his father injured in the course of work and who was also injured young, ending his legitimate career hopes. A tale of a physically and morally repugnant man, who treated his wife appallingly badly, and had little thought as to other people’s feelings, becomes, in this account, almost heroic in places.

Although the author has clearly spent time on his research, the book is occasionally problematic in terms of facts; for example, Johnson states unequivocally that Peace married his wife, Hannah (on page 30, he says that Charlie and Hannah married ‘in a small ceremony in nearby Rotherham’, and on page 137 he notes that she was a woman who ‘took her wedding vows seriously’), but he then refers to her, later in the book, as his ‘common-law wife’ (p.114) – which would mean they were not married.

He frequently refers to Peace’s ‘athleticism’ – despite the fact that Peace was lame and had a pronounced limp. He states that Beverley was a ‘town in North Yorkshire’ (p.85) – it is, and was at the time of the events described in the book, in the East Riding. Peace’s stepson, Willie, is given two different surnames (Willie Ward on p.120 – Ward being briefly one of Pearce’s pseudonyms, but there is no sign that anyone else adopted that name –  and Willie Haines in the illustrations insert) during the course of the book.

More problematically, Johnson also ascribes feelings to Peace and the members of his family, where I am not certain he can possibly know what they were – it is not clear whether he has got them from historical sources or has simply put his modern day sensibilities onto these very different Victorian figures.

So on p.19, we are told that Peace’s parents ‘glowed with pride’ when he played an instrument, and on p.21 that he had visits in hospital from ‘his loving family’ and that he ‘thanked his lucky stars each day’ that he had not had a leg amputated (although on the same page, and the following, we are also told that he had a ‘sense of hopelessness’ about his predicament). His wife is his ‘soulmate and lover’ (p.30); his mother is said to have been ‘alarmed’ by the changes she saw in her son (p.22).  If these feelings are based on archival sources, I would have liked to have been told that, as it instead gives the impression that Johnson has got confused as to whether he is writing a history book or a work of historical fiction.

It’s certainly a great story – Peace moved around the country evading police for quite a while; he may (or may not) have had an affair that led to him becoming what we would call today an obsessive stalker, and murdering his (possible) lover’s husband. He also had the ability to dislocate his jaw at will, changing his appearance, and could feign being different characters through his use of dress and walnut oil.

But he was also, clearly, an unattractive, repugnant character, and the sympathy of readers may well be with the women he came into contact with, as well as the unfortunate lover’s husband and also a Manchester constable who ended up dead at Peace’s hand. He was not the romanticised American-style gangster that Johnson appears to want him to be (the description of a Manchester pub as being ‘more akin to a rowdy Wild West saloon’ on p.55 is one suggestion of this); he was a petty criminal from Sheffield whose committed murders appear to have been more the result of fluke than of plan.

Perhaps the hyperbole and odd similes and metaphors that Johnson clearly loves contribute to this strange attempt to make Peace more of a man than he was. One victim is described as dropping to the ground and lying ‘as still as a carved statue’ while Charlie ‘scampered into the night like a wily urban fox’ (p.72); at another point, Charlie disappears into the darkness ‘like an unwelcome gust of icy wind’ (p.83). Johnson refers to the ‘first green shoots of criminality rising to the surface’ in the young Peace (p.24); elsewhere we are told that ‘the talons of crime had buried themselves too deep into the flesh of this wretched villain’. (p.30). I ended up getting distracted looking for the next example of this unnecessarily flowery language, which is not what a reader wants to do, or should do!

Basically, Johnson has a good story here, but needs to reign in his tendency to over-egg his language in order to tell it effectively. There’s nothing wrong with paring back, rather than adding to, the words. He also needs to decide whether he wants to write a factual history of crime, or whether his enthusiasm is really for historical fiction. Trying to combine two different genres, as he appears to do here, can occasionally jar, as can the propensity to ascribe modern emotions about the family to 19th century characters who may have lived differently, or had different motivations, to those he, in the 21st century, assumes. However, it is still a readable romp through Charlie Peace’s life.

Charlie Peace: Murder, Mayhem and the Master of Disguise by Ben W. Johnson (Pen &Sword, 2016) is available now from Pen & Sword, Amazon and other retailers.

Book Review: Mary Ann Cotton: Dark Angel

mary_ann_cotton

Mary Ann Cotton, suspected serial killer

Mary Ann Cotton has gone into the history books as ‘Britain’s first serial killer’ – something reiterated by a line on this new book‘s front cover. However, as the author, Martin Connolly, sets out to explore, there is doubt as to how many murders she committed – and the author in fact is not sure that she committed any, which makes the unequivocal cover a bit of an odd decision.

The first part of this book, looking at Mary Ann Cotton’s life prior to her trial in 1873, is a bit confusing. Connolly, who lives in the area Cotton was from, assumes that the reader has a knowledge of her life and crimes and therefore fails to explain events properly from the beginning, so the feeling is that the reader is being thrown into situations they are assumed to already know about.

There is also a bit of a confusing chronology and use of sources, and I had to refer back a few times to work out what was happening, and who was who.  In this sense, and in the way the author is confused as to how to refer to poor relief (and his argument that Mary Ann couldn’t have been a prostitute because she had always earned a living – despite prostitution being, by its nature, paid work in itself), the book could have done with more stringent editing by Pen & Sword.

However, once Connolly starts to explore the trial itself, the book becomes far more satisfactory. He relates the trial using archival sources and statements, and so here, we read a straightforward account of what people said, and the suspicions of the neighbourhood relating to Mary Ann. The fundamental unfairness of a trial in which the defendant had little defence or ability to understand what was going on and how to respond to it is made clear, and Connolly explores how such a trial, if held today, would be unlikely to result in a guilty verdict.

12947This is not to say that 40-year-old Mary Ann was innocent; although Connolly makes a good argument as to doubts in her case, my feeling remains that she was guilty of multiple murders. However, the key issue is the lack of defence, and the relegation of Mary Ann almost to a bit-player in her town trial, and this the author explores well.

I also liked the fact that Connolly had researched what had happened to others involved in Mary Ann’s life and trial, particularly her surviving children, which gave a sense of closure to the book, and the inclusion of Mary Ann’s prison letters, in her own spelling and language, which gave a real impression of the woman and how she communicated.

So for an interesting account of how the legal system operated in late 19th century England, and how it was stacked against poorer defendants, Mary Ann Cotton: Dark Angel is recommended.

Mary Ann Cotton: Dark Angel, by Martin Connolly, is published by Pen & Sword books, and can be bought here.

Female felons and controlling the community

Yarn spinning: an example of a spinning wheel from Hereford.

Yarn spinning: an example of a spinning wheel from Hereford.

As one of my particular interests is gender and crime, looking at how women have been represented in the criminal justice system both as victims and perpetrators of crime, as well as being vital witnesses in many case, I like to seek out other research in this area.

So with this in mind, and following on the footsteps of Findmypast’s recent blog post on finding 18th and 19th century ‘Wayward Women’, it’s good to see the British Library publish a post this week on Female Felons in the 18th Century. This post focuses on the women who can be found in the Calendars of Prisoners, and the cases the blog post cites include women accused of false reeling, being bastard-bearers, and of being idle and disorderly.

These offences were common ones for women in the late 18th century. Spinning was a job that women could do from home, whilst looking after their children – and in many cases, children could also help with the job.

However, some women took short-cuts, claiming to have spun a certain amount but actually doing less and taking extra yarn to others to be sold on. Yarn was supposed to comprise a certain number of threads; women convicted of false reeling had spun fewer threads onto a standard reel. For a fuller account of how yarn spinners were regulated in law, John Styles‘ paper ‘Spinners and the Law: Regulating Yarn Standards in the Worsted Industries, 1550-1800’ (Textile History, 44(2), 145-170 (2013) is highly recommended, and can be downloaded here.

Being accused of being ‘lewd’ by having illegitimate children was a form of social control aimed at the mothers, not the fathers, of children. Although theoretically any woman who had given birth to an illegitimate child could face a charge of lewdness, in practice, it tended to be particular women who were deemed to be troublesome, or who had had more than one illegitimate child, who were targeted.

'Une Savoyarde' by Noël Hallé

‘Une Savoyarde’ by Noël Hallé

Women who had several children were perceived to be ignoring the social and moral conventions of society, and therefore had to be ‘punished’ for their repeated transgressions. This appears to be the case with the woman noted in the British Library‘s post; Mary Parker served a year in prison in Wakefield in 1778 after being found to have had three ‘bastard’ children.

And idle and disorderly? This was a term that could be applied to an increasing number of actions under the vagrancy legislation of the 18th and early 19th centuries. It could apply to those begging, or singing for money; but also for a wide range of other occupations or types of behaviour, and was an opportunity to ‘remove’ poorer members of society from the community in which they had been living, thus obviating the need of that particular parish to give them poor relief by shipping them off to their ‘home’ parish. To hear a podcast on ‘Loose, idle and disorderly: Vagrant removal in late eighteenth-century Middlesex’ by Tim Hitchcock, Adam Crymble and Louise Falcini, see the Institute of Historical Research website here.

Again a form of social control, the cases and offences detailed in the British Library’s blog post show how English society was preoccupied with both restricted the ways in which women could make a bit of money, and the way they tried to live their lives.

 

Joking is a hanging offence

It’s nice when two of my research interests – theatre and crime* – come together, so it tickled me to find the following short article in an Australian newspaper from 1907. Although our ancestors’ jokes can sometimes appear a bit opaque – or simply unfunny – to us, with the passing of time, this one is still clear.

 

David Garrick - what a wag

David Garrick – what a wag

Once, when David Garrick was passing Tyburn, he saw a crowd assembled to witness the execution of a criminal.

 

“Who is he?” asked the actor of a friend who was with him.

 

“I believe his name is Vowel,” was the reply.

 

“Ah,” said Garrick, “I wonder which of the vowels he is, for there are seven! At all events, it is certain that it is neither U or I.”

And that is your crime-related humour for the week. 🙂

 

*My next book, which fuses these two interests, will be published by Pen & Sword in 2017.  

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