Criminal Historian

Working with dead people

Month: October 2016

The condemned miner with a Jesus complex

From press coverage of Dunn's speech at the Durham Assizes

From press coverage of Dunn’s speech at the Durham Assizes

John Thomas Dunn, a 52 year old miner, was not looking forward to the new year. He knew that once 1927 turned into 1928, his days were literally numbered, for on Friday 7 January, he would die.

It was the peak of the Roaring Twenties; flappers were frenetically dancing the Charleston, and the bright young things were enjoying life. Many were enjoying the glamour of the movies, watching the silent film stars pout and preen on cinema screens – perhaps with a bit of awareness that, for some, their careers would not last much longer, for The Jazz Singer, a ‘talkie‘ had been released in October 1927, and once sound arrived for good, those whose voices were deemed unattractive would have to find other careers.

But this was all a world away for Dunn. He was an unemployed  miner in the north-east, living at Sacriston in Co Durham. Sacriston had been home to a colliery since 1838; by the end of the 19th century, it had employed 600 local men. In 1903, it had seen a mining disaster, when water flooded the mine, killing two men.

Dunn, who had previously worked at this colliery, had married Ada Elizabeth Stokes in her hometown of Gateshead back in 1903, and the couple had had several children over the next two decades. Ada was eight years her husband’s junior, having only been around 20 years old when she married.

On 25 September 1927, though, Dunn had raised the alarm, shouting that his 44-year-old wife had committed suicide. However, during a subsequent trial, it was argued that he had actually strangled Mrs Dunn and then hanged up her body up with a rope to make it look like she had killed herself.

It was widely known that the Dunns had not been happily married, and, in fact, a week before her death, Ada Dunn had left her husband and returned home to her mother in Gateshead. But at his trial, which took place at the Durham Assizes, damning evidence came from two of the Dunns’ children.

Richard Dunn, aged 11, stated that when he had gone to bed on the night of the death, he heard his parents quarrelling, a stool overturning, and then a choking noise. The couple’s married daughter, Ada Walsh, then stated that John had tried to strangle her mother some years earlier.

When he was found guilty, on 15 November, Dunn had lost his usual self-control (it was noted that he had spent the trial watching what was going on with ‘keen attentiveness’, and often making notes that he would then pass to his counsel). He shouted out, passionately, making an emotional and sometimes manic speech, that started with his former chequered career in the army:

“I did not intend to go only to protect my country, but to protect my family. I was discharged under a false colour; I went back again, and said I had never been in. That was the courage of a man. I left the army twice with a character. It is easy for a man to get a bad name; it is easy for a dog never to carry a name of goodness once its name is bad.

“I have carried the burden of my children. I had a little girl blind. No one could have done more for her, and I thank God today through hard work and toil she can see. If she was standing beside me now she would give me a kiss of joy. I do not say I had a deceitful wife all through my life. She carried, like me, a weakness. It is a pity we ever met. She was led by other women, and she found that her friends were her enemies. Many times I suffered weakness, and when I went to the doctor with my suffering, I never told him the thing I was suffering from. I said to him, ‘For God’s sake, do not put down heart complaint, or else I will be done for work.'”

He then started talking of God, in an increasingly disjointed way, before ending:

“My children, I appeal for you today. When Christ was crucified He looked up and said, ‘Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.’ I forgive my children because they know not. God help them; God help me.”

The death sentence was then passed against him. A woman in the gallery immediately fainted and had to be carried out; one of Dunn’s sons, a little boy, ran out of the court into the street outside, shouting, “My father is to be hanged!” A policeman had to run after him and bring him back to the court.

gordon_hewart_1st_viscount_hewart

Lord Hewart, the Lord Chief Justice

Dunn had appealed his conviction, before the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Hewart, asking to call further evidence, but this appeal was dismissed at the Court of Appeal on 12 December. He had been trying to claim a defence of insanity; however, Lord Hewart, in giving judgement, pointed out that the original defence had been that no murder had been committed, and that Mrs Dunn had killed herself – so how could Dunn now be claiming insanity as a defence?

One newspaper stated that the execution was originally set for 29 December; however, another stated that it would ‘probably take place in the first week of January’, and this, in the event, is what happened.

On the evening of Thursday 5 January, members of the Dunn family arrived at Durham Gaol to visit their condemned relative. Somewhat surprisingly, they found him upbeat – in fact, one later said, he was ‘the most cheerful member of the party’.

He was still declaring his innocence, using the common excuse that his memory of the night his wife died was ‘blank’ – he had no memory, apparently, of anything that had happened prior to cutting his wife’s body down from behind his kitchen door.

“I would prefer death to a living tomb,” he commented, hating the idea of a long sentence in jail; his family commented that he “betrayed not the slightest concern as to his fate”.

Instead, he told them about a ‘curious experience’ he had had during his time in the condemned cell.

“A thrush fell through the window, and I found it had a broken wing. I tended it and healed the wing. The bird stayed in the cell for about a week, then one morning it flew away, leaving me feeling very lonely.”

Dunn was soon to feel lonely again, as his relatives were told to leave. They were not allowed to shake his hand as they left, and so left feeling somewhat aggrieved. Dunn, though, simply sat in his cell after their departure, writing letters.

A press headline regarding Dunn's 'wounded bird' story

A press headline regarding Dunn’s ‘wounded bird’ story

On the morning of Friday 6 January, he woke early, and had a light breakfast. He then ‘walked firmly to the scaffold’, which had been built only a few paces from his cell. A small crowd had gathered outside the prison, and keenly read the official notice of his execution when it was put up; executioner Pierpoint had done an efficient job.

There one particularly interesting point about this particular case. Dunn was a working-class man, unemployed, and poor; when he first appeared on remand in court charged with wilful murder, he had to ask for legal assistance, and was granted it under the terms of the Poor Persons Act. A local firm of solicitors, Ferens, Burrell, Carpenter and Swinburne, offered to take on the case. He was certainly keenly interested in how the trial progressed, and wanted to contribute to his solicitors’ work; yet how aware was he really as to the danger he was in, and did Mr Ferens, who represented him, employ the right defence at the original trial?

For Dunn’s passionate speech after conviction  – and his tale about the wounded bird – could also be read as the rambling speeches of an insane man. The press clearly saw his trial speech as an unusual occurrence, but focused in on his forgiveness of his children for giving evidence against him. Yet by comparing himself to Jesus in such a rambling way, by talking about parts of his former life that did not present himself in a good light, or that were not relevant, his speech departed from being simply about forgiving others, and went into stranger territory.

It seems not only that insanity should have been used as his initial defence, but that it might have succeeded. Instead, whether on his solicitor’s advice, or because he insisted on it, John Dunn continued to maintain that his wife had killed herself – and once the jury had decided otherwise, Dunn had, in effect, tied that noose around his neck himself.

Sources:

Western Daily Press, 16 November 1927

Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail, 13 December 1927

Durham Chronicle, 16 December 1927

Fife Free Press, 7 January 1928

 

 

 

Remaking The Victorian Slum

Earlier this month, I gave a talk on life in a Victorian slum at the British Crime Historians Symposium, where I looked at how the press depicted those who lived in a particular Welsh slum at the end of the 19th century.

Reportage relating to the London slums, from the Aberdeen Journal, 2 January 1894 (via British Newspaper Archive)

Reportage relating to the London slums, from the Aberdeen Journal, 2 January 1894 (via British Newspaper Archive)

The Victorian press increasingly, as the century progressed, looked at slum life in very black and white terms, and this was particularly noticeable when newspapers discussed the female residents.

They were either domestic angels – fighting their grim surroundings by trying to present as clean a face to the world as possible (both in terms of their own looks, and those of their house, whitewashing walls, keeping their rooms tidy, and so on) – or slatterns, unfeminine women with their sleeves rolled up, exposing – the horror – bare arms and fighting in the street with other women, whilst their children roamed around with local animals, both kids and animals being hungry and neglected.

This black and white depiction of slum dwellers, its reliance on generalisations rather than the individual experience, has also been evident in two contemporary media items this week.

Firstly, we had the opening episode of The Victorian Slum on BBC2. This ‘reality’ series, fronted, rather oddly, not by a historian but by a scientist, recreates a Victorian slum (apparently a set) and fills it with 21st century residents, in order to show them coping with the trials of life as a member of the 19th century underclass.

The series is arranged in a chronological fashion, so the opening episode was, apparently, the 1860s. We had the familiar tropes of Victorian working-class depictions, so a shared tenement, doss house, outdoor privy, and so on. A range of occupations were shown, including the doss house keeper and matchbox makers.

So far, so good; but the episode was full of sweeping generalisations that failed to show the wide range of experiences of Victorian life.  It’s a drawback of limited time that such programmes assume that our ancestors lived a far more hegemonous life than we do today – yet they had an individual experience, just as we do now.

Not everyone in a doss house slept standing up over ropes, because doss houses were different. Not everyone failed to make a living sufficient to keep their families going, even if they never managed to move out of their working-class area. But this episode of The Victorian Slum made it look like everyone went through the same experience, thus making Victorian history (or this version of it) both simplistic and misleading.

We also had incredibly clean faces and clothes on these individuals; the watercress sellers were sent to Covent Garden, where, unsurprisingly, the tourists were keen to give the strangely dressed people with a TV crew accompanying them lots of money. The money was also modern rather than the 19th century equivalent, which made modern life intrude rather strangely into the programme.

A view of the courtyard at the National Trust's Birmingham back-to-backs (image by NotFromUtrecht, on Wikimedia Commons)

A view of the courtyard at the National Trust’s Birmingham back-to-backs (image by NotFromUtrecht, on Wikimedia Commons)

It’s also very much a London-based programme. Life in the Manchester slums, as Engels described in the 1840s, could be particularly grim; my research into the slums of Birmingham and Newport has revealed differences to the London experience. Therefore, the series provides a generalised, simplistic view of one particular region, rather than a more nuanced account of how life in the slums could vary from place to place – not just form the 1860s to 1870s, for example.

Meanwhile, on the BBC’s online Magazine site today, we had The Victorian Slum‘s presenter, Michael Mosley, give us his guide to ‘how to eat like a Victorian‘. Unsurprisingly, this was a similarly generalised perspective – ‘slum dwellers…lived mainly on bread, gruel and broth’, and ‘the children of the slums were undernourished, anaemic, rickety and very short’ (what, ALL of them?).

Then we are told that ‘most people’ had physically demanding jobs that meant ‘they were active for 50 to 60 hours a week’, and later, that ‘many Victorians’ worked a 12 hour, six day week (so 72 hours a week). Does he mean ‘most people’ or most working class people, or most working class men, or simply, SOME people?

food poisoning in the Victorian era

A Victorian family eating – from Paul Townsend’s Flickr stream


The meals are described as though everyone from a certain class would have eaten the same way, regardless of their job, their location (what about differences between rural agricultural workers and urban workers?), their age, or health.

So although it’s great that there is this continued interest in the press and on television about life for our Victorian ancestors, the generalisations and simplistic recreations of Victorian life actually risk distorting what life was really like, creating a false history that becomes, like Chinese whispers, gradually accepted.

And the biggest disappointment, for me, is the failure to recognise the individuality of life and existence, and to assume, instead, that what life was like for one man or woman was fundamentally identical to others, because of their shared class.

 

 

The second episode of The Victorian Slum is on Monday 17 October at 9pm on BBC2.

BCHS5 review: A Coven of Crime Historians

I’m not sure what you call a group of crime historians meeting together. My first suggestion on Twitter was this:

Edinburgh University's Old College, location for this year's BCHS

Edinburgh University’s Old College, location for this year’s BCHS

Although Helen Rogers then suggested ‘a trouble’ (also good); but despite us not being remotely witch-like, I’ve finally gone with ‘coven’ – a word meaning a meeting that was first recorded in writing in 16th century Scotland. And this Scots link is particularly relevant.

For last weekend saw the fifth British Crime Historians Symposium (BCHS) take place in the rather grand surroundings of the Old College of the University of Edinburgh.

BCHS is an event that takes place every two years, where crime historians can gather to discuss their latest research, to debate history and crime, and to just generally socialise with others with similar interests!

We’re all a grim lot, I suppose, being interested in crime and deviance over a wide timespan and geographical scope. Yet BCHS has always shown how friendly crime historians are – from my experience, it’s one of the most enjoyable conferences to attend, with a really good atmosphere.

Generally, crime historians are very supportive to others, and therefore the questions after individual papers and panels tend to be more interesting and less combative (or insecure, depending on how you read it) than at some other conferences.

The Digital Panopticon homepage - BCHS attendees got to play with its data

The Digital Panopticon homepage – BCHS attendees got to play with its data

It must be good, for this is the third BCHS event I’ve attended; at my first, in Milton Keynes in 2012, I was on a panel with the ace Lucy Williams. Both of us were doing our PhDs at the time; of course, we’ve both finished now, and she is now working on the Digital Panopticon project – a truly collaborative project between several universities – which was represented by several members of the team this year, presenting various aspects of the research they’ve conducted, as well as detailing what the project is up to.

We were also able to take part in a workshop with access to the Digital Panopticon beta website, and it was good to be able to see what the project will eventually be able to offer not just crime historians, but anyone trying to research their family history, too.

What was particularly enjoyable this year was the increasing number of historians and papers looking at visual evidence – from newspaper illustrations to crime scene photographs, the visual can give us evidence about people’s lives just as well as text can. One of the most interesting panels for me was on photography, science and medicine.

Alexa Neale presenting her paper on crime scene photography

Alexa Neale presenting her paper on crime scene photography

Alexa Neale‘s paper on the evidence left by mid-20th century crime scene photographs was fascinating; not only because such photographs document lifestyles in west London slums – areas that are now far beyond gentrification to being locations where only the riches members of society can live. But they also show the minutiae of people’s lives, as well as marking the location where they died.

Alexa’s paper was followed by Amy Bell‘s on the crime scene photography of illegal abortion sites. Again looking at London in the mid-20th century, prior to the legalisation of abortion, and again utilising photographs really well in her presentation, these looked at the juxtaposition of domestic scenes with the medical paraphernalia of abortion tables, rubber sheets and buckets.

Perhaps the most striking image, though, was of the grim flat where one woman was given an illegal abortion by her friends – a dirty, grimy, cluttered space where, in the tiny kitchen, a cereal packet advertising a competition to win a new home was left on a surface. Again, the juxtaposition of this woman’s life with the promise of a new one – set against her own, awful, death – was moving.

Finally, we moved back to the 19th century, and Kelly Ann Couzens‘ paper on a rape case that came before the Scottish courts. This again focused on people from the lowest rung of society – those living in tiny, multiple-occupancy flats where there was precious little privacy, and where victims of crime faced difficulties in getting those in positions of authority to believe them.

Entrance to the Old College's Playfair Library

Entrance to the Old College’s Playfair Library

But this was just one great panel of many; from murder narratives (Clare Sandford-Couch and Helen Rutherford) to juvenile sex offenders (Yorick Smaal), transportation to policing (Clive Emsley, Chris Williams, Haia Shpayer-Makov), baby farming (Jim Hinks) to corruption in horse racing (Vivien Miller), it was all here, with participants attending from all over the world, from Scotland to Australia.

Julia Laite deserves special mention for her excellent plenary paper, which looked at the difficulties (or frustrations) in trying to construct a micro-history that has transatlantic elements – from dealing with archives in different countries (and the attendant language issues), to working out why a picture of an Australian town features a camel strutting down the high street! There were several heads nodding, as other historians clearly related to Julia’s experiences.

And that’s why we all come together for BCHS. It’s an opportunity to talk to others, to hear about their experiences, and to relate to them – we’re part of a community of historians who are all undertaking our own research yet are fascinated by, and supportive, of others’.

It was great to hear from some new and fairly new research students undertaking some really interesting work – and by the time of BCHS6 in 2018 (due to be held at Edge Hill University in Ormskirk), who knows what else they will have to tell us?

These tweets really sum up the weekend for me…

The evidence of Annie McCann

A Glasgow slum, from the special collections of Glasgow University, accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

A Glasgow slum, from the special collections of Glasgow University, accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

The Farrells had only lived upstairs for the past few months – only a wee while, since the beginning of 1905, I’d say, so I did nae really know them well; but they made their presence clear by their noise and their arguments. She? She liked a wee dram – well, more than that, for she was a drinker all right. But if I were married to him, I’d need a drink too. And he was no saint, neither, for he had a drink or too on occasion, and when he’d had a drink, he liked to use his fists. At least she wasn’t like that.

I talked to Mary Ann Winters after what happened. She’s just 13, one of the lasses from the courts off Cowgate. On the night it happened, she said she was playing with Mary Gorman in Hall’s Court, and heard quarrelling coming from the window of the Farrells’ tenement. To be honest, we all heard it; it was a regular thing at the weekend for the Farrells to fight. But then Mary Ann said she heard Annie shout, “Police!” and “Murder!” – and then she moaned, as if someone was in pain.

Did she try and find out what was going on? No, of course she didn’t. That’s life round here – there are fights, shouts for the police… When the men get paid on a Friday eve, they go and buy whisky, get drunk, pick fights. It doesn’t matter who they’re with – workmates, relatives, wives, strangers – they’ll pick a fight with them.

He, Tom, was a labourer for the Edinburgh Corporation Electric Lighting Department. Grand name he had – Thomas Anderson Farrell, the Anderson after his ma. He wasn’t old; the papers said he was 28, but I think he could have been a few years older. His wife, Annie, was a MacAdam before she wed.

Blackfriars Street today

Blackfriars Street today

We all lived at 36 Blackfriars Street, in the Old Town – living above each other, so we could hear our neighbours going about their daily business, and saw a lot of them, passing each other on the stairs. The Farrells were at the bottom – just one room, they had; that, and the coal cellar. It was just them, though, for even thought they had been married several years, they had no children.

The morning after the murder, Tom came knocking on the door. I answered it, and all he said was, “Annie’s gone”. He asked me to come into his house and see her; I did so, but never knew he meant she was dead. Well, not until I saw her, lying there on the bed, cold. She was covered in bruises; different sizes, but they were everywhere.

I told Tom to call the police, but he refused to. I must have raised my voice, for others from our building were roused. One of my other neighbours, a man, looked in, and immediately departed for the police office – I believe he told them what we’d seen. But as soon as he had left the house, Tom ushered me out, left with me, and locked the door behind him. Then, without a word, he left up Blackfriars Street.

The High Court of Justiciary in Edinburgh

The High Court of Justiciary in Edinburgh

Luckily, it turned out that Annie had given a spare key to one of my other neighbours. When the police turned up, they were able to open the door with that key, and so when Tom returned, and tried to use his key, he found the door unlocked, and the police within. That gave him a fright! They took him straight into custody, and I later saw Annie’s body taken away – the poor woman was taken, rigid and blue, to the city mortuary to be cut open.

Aye, I followed the story in the papers. I knew that he would be tried at the High Court of Justiciary, but not that he would look so smart. They never used to have any money, the Farrells, once they’d spent on the drams of whisky they seemed to live on (her more than him, though, to be fair). Yet the papers said he looked smart.

But they also said that a couple of years before she died, someone – either Tom or his brother – had put a notice in the paper saying that Annie had died. She hadn’t; she was merely in hospital, poorly, but was soon released. It was a bit odd, that, putting a death notice in the papers when she was very much alive.

It was strange, too, seeing me mentioned in the trial reports. There were several of us, though, called to give evidence in court, which was terrifying, to be honest, as I had never set foot in there before – I am a law abiding woman.

The court had already heard from family. Annie’s sister, Susan Murray, said Annie – whhad been a servant before she married – was addicted to drink. I think she was trying to say that Tom married Annie for her money; when she was in service, she managed to save a fair amount, and after their marriage, Tom lived off her money for a good six months. Basically, he spent it all.

They had to move to Manchester to try and get a living, but then moved back to Edinburgh, and into Blackfriars Street at the start of this year. Susan said they lived ‘in great poverty’ here; well, it’s true, none of us have much money, but we all look out for each other here, we know each other and there are few secrets. Like Susan said, we had all seen Annie with a black eye here and there. But the Farrells didn’t have much money left for food; two days before she died, Annie had eaten nothing, and on the Saturday, all she’d had was a cup of tea and a boiled egg.

I’m not surprised that Tom’s brother Alex made his sibling out to be a saint. It’s what families tend to do, although Susan and her husband weren’t too nice about Annie. But Alex said Annie was a drunk, and Tom wasn’t. He may not have drunk as much as her, but he still drank, that’s for sure.

When I was called, I told them what I knew. The night before the murder, before the two girls had heard Annie shout for the police, I had heard her too. It was between six and seven o’clock in the evening of the seventeenth, I’d say, and I was in the house. I heard Annie cry, “Oh, Tam, don’t, and I’ll make your dinner.” I was worried about her – for, as I say, we look out for each other here – and I went down and knocked at the door. Tom answered, and was rather rude to me; he told me to go and mind my own business.

I next saw her a few hours later,  about 10 o’clock, on the stairs with a jug of beer. That was the last time I saw her – alive, at any rate.

Weir's Close, Edinburgh (from the Library of Congress)

Weir’s Close, Edinburgh (from the Library of Congress)

Several of our neighbours in the building – Elizabeth Tait, Catherine Casey, William Stafford – gave evidence about the fighting and the drinking, too, as well as Pat Tansy from Weir’s Close, and Catherine Shanley from Hall’s Court.

We said how when the Farrells fought, often on a Friday night, Annie would sometimes have to sleep away from home, to avoid him. She might knock on our doors and ask if she could share our bed for the night, but on occasion she had slept in privies, just to have a roof of some kind over her head.

It was 30 August when the trial started. He pleaded not guilty, saying Annie had died after a fall – even though the coroner had clearly said she had been beaten and kicked to death. Her spleen had been ruptured; the poor woman had died of shock.

Lord Ardwall. (c) Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation; accessed via Wikimedia Commons

Lord Ardwall. (c) Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation; accessed via Wikimedia Commons

I was still in court when the verdict was announced. There was a whole crowd of us; neighbours, family, friends, and those who didn’t know the Farrells but were just simply being nosey. The trial had lasted all day, until nine in the evening.

The judge, Lord Ardwall, said that there could be no ‘reasonable doubt’ that Annie’s injuries were inflicted by someone other than herself, and that they had caused her death. He wasn’t sure that a murderous intention could be proved, though, and so didn’t think a verdict of murder against Tom would be ‘safe’. It’s not surprising, then, that the jury reached a verdict so quickly. They found Tom guilty of culpable homicide, and Lord Ardwall sentenced him to ten years’ penal servitude.

Do I think it was the right verdict? I don’t know. But what I do know is that in ten years, Tom will still be in his 30s, he’ll have the rest of his life ahead of him, while poor Annie turns into dust. She may have liked a drink, but that was no reason to beat the poor woman to death, was it?

Annie McCann was one of the neighbours who gave evidence at the trial of Thomas Anderson Farrell at Edinburgh’s High Court. This account uses both her testimony and that of unnamed witnesses, taken from trial reports and press coverage in the Edinburgh Evening News, 31 August 1905; Hull Daily Mail, 19 June 1905; Aberdeen Journal, 19 June 1905; Edinburgh Evening News, 30 August 1905; Edinburgh Evening News, 31 August 1905; Gloucestershire Echo, 31 August 1905. However, accounts have been paraphrased.

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