Criminal Historian

Working with dead people

Month: November 2016

Mad murder: A crime for which there was no reason

A depiction of the murder in the Illustrated Police News

A depiction of the murder in the Illustrated Police News

It was regarded as one of the most cold-blooded murders that had ever been committed in Somerset. It was a Friday in the third week of March, 1868, when, around six o’clock in the evening, the body of a 13-year-old boy named John Wilkins was found just inside a gate, about ten yards from the main road in Winscombe.

The corpse was said to have presented a ‘most sickening spectacle’; the head was ‘beaten almost to the jelly’, and the throat cut so deep that the head was also almost severed from the body.

John was employed by local farmer Henry Hancock to keep his birds; he was only young, and minding his own business – who would want to see him dead?

Locals didn’t have long to wait to find out. Soon after the body was discovered, a young man by the name of Alexander Holmes called at the house where the Banwell policeman, Acting-Sergeant Hancock, lived. The constable was out on duty, so Holmes, who was himself only 18 years old, told the elderly landlady what he wanted to get off his chest instead:

“I have just killed a lad.”

The rather brave landlady stayed with the stranger, until the parish constable arrived, and promptly took him into custody. He was then taken to the Axbridge police station by PC Barrington.

Holmes told the policeman that he was the son of a retired army officer, Colonel Holmes, who had been with the 12th Lancers but now lived at Cloughjordan, near Roscrea, in County Tipperary, Ireland. Holmes had been living with turf dealer Edwin Godfrey at Edington, near Bridgwater, for the previous three years – an arrangement between Godfrey and Colonel Holmes – and appeared to have had a quiet life.

Yet behind his calm façade, he apparently  hid a desire to kill. He said:

“I felt I must kill someone, and it is a great wonder to me how it is I have not killed more.”

This comment was because he had passed several more people on the road to where he came across young John, who was at work in a field. He had seen the boy, entered through the gate to that field, bludgeoned him to the ground, and then tried to cut his head off.

This was a horrific, unplanned murder in a small community; but as was common with Victorians, they were both fascinated and repelled by the case. Soon, they were flocking to the scene of the crime – it was said that at one point there were ‘hundreds’, not just from Winscombe but from the surrounding villages.

The police searched the area, and found a heavy, bloodied stick just ten yards from where the body had been found; six yards further, they found a knife by the side of a small brook that ran through the meadow – Holmes stated that it was here that he calmly washed his hands after killing John Wilkins.

At the trial, at the Somerset Assizes, the pointlessness of the murder was reiterated.

“The prisoner had never seen the boy before – they were perfect strangers to each other – would any man in his senses have gone and belaboured a poor boy about the head and then cut his head from his body?”

There was no premeditation. No accomplice. Holmes had lived 20 miles from Wilkins, and had never seen him before; and he had confessed almost as soon as he had committed the murder.

There were two hypotheses as to why Holmes had killed. The first was simply that he had voices in his head demanding that he kill – it didn’t matter who, he was just told to attack someone.

But the second was that he was of ‘extremely weak intellect’, and to further this argument, Holmes’ old teacher, the Reverend F Howse, was called before the coroner, and noted that:

“He had a master to instruct him in Latin, French, and drawing, but he was incapable of learning these things.”

He also added that boys on the street used to ‘call’ after Holmes; a key part of testimony in Victorian court cases was to show that an individual was ‘simple’ by demonstrating that he or she had been publicly teased by other children.

Colonel Holmes’s friend, an army surgeon, was asked to visit his friend’s son; he asked him why he killed the boy and ‘he said he could not help it. I asked him if he knew the consequences of such an act, and he laughed like an idiot’.

Unsurprisingly, the proprietor of a lunatic asylum near Taunton was asked to examined Holmes; he noted that although he was clearly of weak intellect, he was able to answer every question put to him ‘quite rationally’. He now stated that he had been motivated by reading an account of another, very recent, murder, at Todmorden*, and this had given him the idea.

This has clear echoes of the fears many Victorians had that reading murder accounts, particularly those in penny dreadfuls, might motivate readers to commit similar crimes (Kate Summerscale’s discussion of penny dreadfuls, and perceptions of them, in The Wicked Boy is well worth a read).

It was found that Holmes was clearly a disturbed young man, and after only two minutes of consultation, the jury decided that Holmes was not guilty of murder, by reason of insanity. He was ordered to be kept in custody ‘until her Majesty’s pleasure be known.’

Alexander Holmes' entry in the prison registers for Somerset, 1868 (from Ancestry)

Alexander Holmes’ entry in the prison registers for Somerset, 1868 (from Ancestry)

It later emerged that Colonel Holmes knew his son was insane; being in straitened circumstances following his retirement on half-pay, he had arranged for Edwin Godfrey to look after his son as though Godfrey was running a lunatic asylum.

Edwin Godfrey's entry in the 1871 Edington census - he was no longer running an unlicensed asylum... (image via Ancestry)

Edwin Godfrey’s entry in the 1871 Edington census – he was no longer running an unlicensed asylum… (image via Ancestry)

Unfortunately, though, Godfrey did not have the order or medical certificates required under the Lunacy Acts to run an asylum – but he was cheap, only asking for 7s a week to look after the troubled boy. Colonel Holmes’ defence was to the point:

“In placing him out, I thought it was for my own son’s good.”

Both Colonel Holmes and Edwin Godfrey were bound over in the sum of £40 each, and Godfrey was bailed until the next Assize.

This had a negative impact on the Wilkins family, for Colonel Holmes had previously promised to give them an annuity of £20 a year, a very small reparation for his son’s act.

However, once Alexander was moved to the Lunatic Asylum for Criminals, the Secretary of State sent his father notice that he would have to pay 14s a week maintenance for him. He then had to pay for his defence and that of Godfrey, in the forthcoming trial on the charge of unlawfully keeping a lunatic without license to do so.

Already feeling the pinch of his reduced income, Colonel Holmes immediately dropped his plans to help John Wilkins’ relatives.

Sources:

Belfast Morning News, 18 March 1868, Bristol Times, 28 March 1868, Taunton Courier, 25 March 1868, Bristol Times & Mirror, 11 April 1868, Taunton Courier, 29 April 1868, Potter’s Electric News, 18 March 1868 (via the British Newspaper Archive)

*The Todmorden murder was the murder of Jane Smith, at Todmorden Parsonage, by Miles Weatherill. Jane had given information that Weatherill was illicitly ‘walking out with’ Sarah Bell, a 16-year-old servant of the Todmorden vicar, the Reverend Plow, that resulted in Sarah losing her job. Weatherill took his revenge, and also shot Mrs Plow, the vicar’s wife, although she survived. Weatherill was convicted of murder, and given the death sentence.

 

The lamplighter’s wife: a dark tale from Edwardian London

A hysterical woman yawning, c.1890, by Albert Londe (Wellcome Images, used under Creative Commons)

A hysterical woman yawning, c.1890, by Albert Londe (Wellcome Images, used under Creative Commons)

It was just after 8pm on 8 July 1907 – a Monday night in north London. Lamplighter Harry Mitchell, aged 33, had just left his home in Stoke Newington to light his lamps for the night. He lived in a top floor flat in what were somewhat euphemistically called artisan’s dwellings at 34 Garnham Street, with his wife, Clarissa Maria, and three children – a six-month-old girl, 18-month-old boy, and a seven year old girl.

Left behind, Clarissa was seen to open the front window at the top of the building – and to onlookers’ horror, push through her seven-year-old daughter, Clarissa Alice, who fell and became impaled on the spikes of railings that separated the building from the pavement. Mrs Mitchell then looked through the window to check that her daughter had fallen, before rushing back into the front room.

George Tilley, a mill foreman, was walking down the street when he saw the first child impaled on the railings. He ran over and gently lifted her off, before a movement above made him raise his eyes. To his horror, he saw the middle child, known as Frederick, only 18 months old, clinging onto the sill of the second floor window. As he watched, this child too fell ‘with a thud’ into the space between the railings and the flats, lying there clearly severely injured.

Jessie Abrahams, a local woman who was also passing by at the time, said there was a gap of around two or three minutes between the two children falling out of the window. She had also seen Clarissa Mitchell ‘very deliberately’ open the window wider, before throwing herself out – as though tumbling through space, it was later said. Her body was impaled on the railing spikes with such force that several men were needed to lift her off the railing.

The three Mitchells were carried by shocked onlookers to the nearest dispensary, on the High Road, where much to everyone’s amazement, Frederick was found to be still alive, although critically injured, and was immediately rushed to the Metropolitan Hospital. It was initially believed that both the mother and elder daughter were dead – but a more thorough investigation found signs of life in both, and they were taken to the German Hospital in Dalston. Although both were conscious, they were said to be in a ‘very critical’ condition.

The Mitchell family’s neighbours, hearing the shouts and thuds, and learning what had happened, were obviously concerned about the fate of the younger daughter. They broke into the flat, and there found the baby sleeping peacefully in bed.

What had caused this woman to take such an awful course of action? Mr and Mrs Mitchell were said to be highly respected residents of their local community, members of the Salvation Army, and hard working.

However, the 30-year-old Mrs Mitchell, who worked as a servant, but who when not at work was confined to a small flat with three small children to look after, had been said to have been ‘low spirited for some time’. This was another way of saying that she suffered from depression.

On her husband leaving for work one summer’s evening, she had decided she could take life no more, and had tried to take her children with her on a journey to a better world. Her only comment on being lifted from the railings was that her head hurt; her oldest child, however, told onlookers:

“Mother threw me out. I clutched the curtains, but they broke.”

The following day, it was reported that Mrs Mitchell had spent a restless night in the German Hospital, and had been screaming ‘almost continuously’. The little girl impaled on the railing had been far quieter, despite having been impaled through her groin; but her brother was in a far worse state.

It took a month for the woman to be charged with wounding her children – she was also charged with attempting suicide. The time lapse was due, simply, to her injuries; she was in hospital for weeks following the event. At the North London Police Court, she was committed to the Central Criminal Court for trial; she had only spoken once, asking, “Can I see my children?”

The Asylum for Criminal Lunatics, Broadmoor. (Wellcome Images, used under Creative Commons) Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

The Asylum for Criminal Lunatics, Broadmoor.
(Wellcome Images, used under Creative Commons)

But her children were, a month later, still in hospital, and she was not permitted to see them. A doctor called to give his opinion remarked that he thought she was insane, and so the gaol doctor was asked to keep her under observation. Clarissa Mitchell duly appeared at the Central Criminal Court on 10 September 1907.

Here, new light was shed on Clarissa’s past. Harry Fullarton, the assistant medical officer at Holloway Prison, where she was held pending her trial, gave evidence that she was mentally ill, and had been for some time – ‘she is quite unfit to understand the present proceedings or instruct solicitor or counsel’.

He said that he had found out that she had previously been detained as a lunatic between August 1901 and March 1903, before being released in the belief that she was ‘cured’. At the time of her incarceration, she was already married and was caring for baby Clarissa; on being released, she returned to her husband and quickly had two more children.

To modern eyes, it seems highly possible that Clarissa was suffering from post-natal depression that may have turned into psychosis; the timing of her two severe bouts of mental illness both came when she had very young children in her care.

It was found that Clarissa Mitchell was insane and unfit to either plead or to take her trial on a charge of wounding. She was ordered to be detained at His Majesty’s pleasure.

And what of the family she tried to destroy? The baby, sadly – the one child Clarissa had not tried to kill – may have died; but the two she had thrown from the window both survived. The 1911 census shows Clarissa Alice, now 11, and Harry Frederick William Mitchell, now aged five, living with their father at 100 Rendlesham Road in Clapton.

Harry Mitchell, aged 37, was still working as a lamplighter for the Gas Light and Coke Company; in the census return, he had recorded the fact that he had been married for 12 years, and had had four children, of whom, one had died (I have not been able to ascertain whether this was the sleeping baby of 1907, or a child who had died prior to this).

Another hand had scrawled a red line through the details of his marriage, denying Clarissa her existence as the lamplighter’s wife, and thus, albeit unknowingly, denying her existence, too, as her children’s mother.

*

Sources: Belfast Weekly News, 11 July 1907; Portsmouth Evening News, 9 July 1907, Wells Journal, 11 July 1907, London Daily News, 9 August 1907, Diss Express, 16 August 1907, Old Bailey Online (ref t19070910-21). Birth of Clarissa Alice Mitchell, Edmonton, Mar 1900 (vol 3a 374); 1911 census on Ancestry.

Clarissa Maria Mitchell died in 1941, aged 65 (FreeBMDs, Windsor district, Dec 1941, vol 2c, page 869 – the location suggests that she may have died in Broadmoor, which was in Crowthorne and thus came under the Windsor district for registration purposes); Clarissa Alice, unlike her mother, never married; she died, a spinster, in her 80s (source: Civil Registration Death Index, on Ancestry).

 

 

 

Though she be but little, she is fierce

800px-lesmode_parisiennes1851In 1851, an assault case was heard at the Keele petty sessions in Staffordshire, before two male bastions of the local community – the magistrates. The assault was alleged by a female servant, Elizabeth Hughes, against her employer’s daughter – and it highlights how women were perceived both by male magistrates and by the local press which, at this time, was largely staffed by men.

Elizabeth Hughes was employed by a farmer, Mr Goodall, who lived and worked at Foxley, near Audley in Staffordshire. Her disagreement was with his daughter Margaret, who had asked Elizabeth to feed the farm’s pigs one day. There may have been various ‘ranks’ of servant, and Elizabeth clearly felt that feeding pigs was not a task that she should carry out.

She had made her feelings clear to Margaret Goodall, who apparently then pushed her, squeezed her chin, and banged her three times on the head with a milking can. Elizabeth had resented this treatment, and duly taken Miss Goodall to the magistrates.

But Elizabeth was roundly mocked by the magistrates and in the press. Not only had she the gall, as a lowly servant, to bring a complaint against a respectable farmer’s daughter, but she was ‘a person of little stature’ with ‘a most rattling tongue’, who ‘described her grievance with considerable volubility’.

Although this census entry is hard to read, it records Elizabeth Hughes as a servant in the Goodall household at Audley in 1851. Margaret Goodall is not present. (source: Ancestry)

Although this census entry is hard to read, it records Elizabeth Hughes as a servant in the Goodall household at Audley in 1851. Margaret Goodall is not present. (source: Ancestry)

Perhaps predicting that she would face some prejudice, Elizabeth had used a considerable amount of intelligence and gained a reference to her good character from her former mistress, in order to show the magistrates that she was a good, truthful person.

However, there were a selection of ‘bystanders’ at the petty sessions – probably, given the mundanity of the cases being heard that day, being complainants, defendants and witnesses in these other cases, waiting their turn, rather than nosey locals who had come specifically to listen to this case.

One of the magistrates, Captain Mainwaring (no, nothing like the Dad’s Army character, but Captain Rowland Mainwaring of the Royal Navy, whose ancestral home was the grand Whitmore Hall), decided to play to this audience, reading the reference out for laughs. Although Elizabeth’s former employer stated that she was a very good servant, and very honest, she had added that she had ‘a little too much tongue’ – which the magistrate and the onlookers found rather amusing.

Local magistrate and landowner Captain Rowland Mainwaring was recorded in the 1851 Staffordshire census (source: Ancestry)

Local magistrate and landowner Captain Rowland Mainwaring was recorded in the 1851 Staffordshire census (source: Ancestry)

Margaret Goodall then argued that Elizabeth was an impertinent woman, and that no assault had taken place – she then brought a farm lad, George Taylor, forward to give evidence to this effect. The magistrates disagreed and duly fined Margaret the small amount of 2s 6d; however, despite this, they then stated that they believed there were ‘faults on both sides’.

The ‘impertinent’ servant, Elizabeth, then asked if she could have the wages owed to her. Margaret’s father, farmer Goodall, was in court, and he was told to pay them, and to let Elizabeth leave his service.

The small but feisty woman then left the court – ostensibly a victor in her case, but only after having been laughed at, mocked for her physical stature, and her ability to stand up for herself, and now unemployed to boot. There were clearly risks in lowly rural female servants bringing cases against their employers and their families.

 

Source: Staffordshire Advertiser, 3 May 1851

An aside: Martin Baggoley, in Derbyshire Murders (The History Press, 2012), writes of one man who was sentenced to life imprisonment for murdering a police constable in 1879 (although released in 1894); this was Gerald Mainwaring, the son of ‘the late Rev’d Mainwaring of Whitmore Hall, Staffordshire, who had served as a magistrate on the Newcastle bench’ .  Gerald’s father was Charles Henry Mainwaring (1820-1878); the Oxford University Alumni directory on Ancestry states that Charles was the third son of one Rowland Mainwaring; therefore, the laughing magistrate was the grandfather of a murderer, which seems quite ironic.

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