Criminal Historian

Working with dead people

Month: June 2017

New crime and punishment records online

The Findmypast search page for its crime collection

Findmypast added a final 68,000 records to its collection of England and Wales Crime, Prisons and Punishments records last Friday, with its collection now being the largest set of English and Welsh crime records available online.

All these new records have come from The National Archives at Kew, and are taken from five separate series:

  • Home Office (HO 8) – convict hulks, convict prisons and criminal lunatic asylums, quarterly returns of prisoners
  • Central Criminal Court (CRIM 9) – after-trial calendars of prisoners
  • Home Office (HO 140) – calendar of prisoners
  • Home Office/Prison Commission (PCOM 2) – prison records
  • Home Office/Prison Commission (PCOM 3) – male licences, 1853-1887

This image is from Findmypast’s collection, and originated in the HO8 files (HO 8/161). Part of the ‘Convict Hulks, Convict Prisons and Criminal Lunatic Asylums: Quarterly Returns of Prisoners’, it records names, ages, offences, where and when convicted, the sentence, and the convict’s health and behaviour during the quarter of the year in which the returns were compiled. So here, we can see that William Jeffs, a 22-year-old burglar, had displayed ‘bad’ behaviour, whereas another convict had shown ‘exemplary’ behaviour despite being a convicted rapist.

As you might be able to tell from this image, not all the names are written out in full – several are just initials and a surname – and the location and year are not evident from this simple search result, so you may need to do a bit of cross-referencing or scrolling back through images to give you more information.

FMP’s records have come from The National Archives at Kew

Also, do not assume that the place listed at the front of the entire document is the only one mentioned – for example, with this image, some prior pages are from the Attested List of the Convict Department, Criminal Lunatic Asylum, Broadmoor, and for the quarter ending on 30 September 1864 – but the last entries in the original book are for the Invalid Convict Prison at Woking.

But if you suspect you have a criminal ancestor, these online records may help you track them – and their crimes – down; and even if you don’t have a convict in your family tree, they make for fascinating reading!

You can access the Crime and Punishment collection on Findmypast here – a subscription is needed for full access.

A case for the Fingerprints Department

The Illustrated London News’ coverage of another burglary case – this time from 1928 – where fingerprint analysis was crucial

It was in Argentina in 1892 that Eduardo Alvarez, a police inspector, made the first criminal identification through an analysis of fingerprints. Francisca Rojas, who had murdered her two sons, denied she was responsible for the deaths, but a bloody print on a door was identified as hers.

Various 19th century individuals – such as Sir Francis Galton – had already established that fingerprints could be used for identification purposes, but it was actually fiction that first showed their use for criminal purposes, with one of the stories in Mark Twain’s Life On The Mississippi (1883) using fingerprints to identify a murderer.

In Britain, the first conviction in the UK made on the basis of fingerprint evidence came in 1902, when Harry Jackson was convicted of burglary. The first British murder case to rely on fingerprints was in 1905, when South London shopkeepers Thomas and Ann Farrow were killed.

The case that I’m looking at this week is from the same decade; just a year after the first case to depend on fingerprints. It clearly shows the novelty of this type of evidence.

It was October 1904, and 22-year-old labourer George Gage stood in the dock at the Central Criminal Court. The court heard that Gage had broken into a house in Hammersmith, and helped himself liberally to some wine he found in there. He then stole silver goods worth £15 (these seemed to have mainly been spoons), before escaping.

Mention of George Gage in the records of the Old Bailey (from Old Bailey Online)

Unfortunately for George, his desire for a drink was his downfall. He left his fingerprints all over the wine glass he had used. It was duly examined by the Fingerprints Department of Scotland Yard, and within half an hour, the prints were found to be ‘absolutely identical with the fingerprint marks of an ex-convict named Gage’.

George Gage, as the records of the Old Bailey show, had appeared in court in September 1903, charged, with another man, of being found at night with housebreaking implements in their possession.

They were both sentenced to 12 months’ hard labour – but it was also noted that Gage had a prior felony conviction dating from July 1897 (when he would have been around 15), and ten other convictions to boot. It is no wonder that the Met had his details on file.

Now, not long after being released from prison, Gage was being arrested again. The police told him he had left something behind at the Hammersmith house. He immediately replied,

“Do you mean my fingerprints?” (London Daily News, 21 October 1904)

There was no other proof of his involvement in the crime, but George promptly pleaded guilty. He was sentenced to four years in prison, with the Recorder noting, as he sentenced Gage, that:

“Finger-print identifications were most valuable, and were likely greatly to assist in the detection of crime.” (Gloucestershire Echo, 21 October 1904)

The science was so new that prior to sentencing, a discussion was had court about the history of fingerprinting, from Egyptian mummies being found to have the same fingermarks, to the tests carried out on fingerprints at Scotland Yard, where out of 600,000 examples, none had been found to be identical.

The Recorder at court noted that using fingerprints would avoid innocent men being sent to prison, although it seems that George Gage wasn’t unduly bothered by being convicted in this way. In fact, when he was told he would serve four years inside, he simply responded,

“Is that all?” (London Daily News, 21 October 1904)

Sources: DL Ortiz-Bacon and CL Swanson, ‘Fingerprint Sciences’ in Max M Houck (ed), Forensic Fingerprints (Academic Press, London, 2016), p.61; Jan Burke, ‘Mark Twain and Fingerprints: Part 1’ (2013)

The original Psycho

The inventor of Psycho – John Nevil Maskelyne

If I said the word ‘psycho’, what would be the first thing that came into your head? The Alfred Hitchcock movie? Or one of the many more recent serial killers who have been dubbed a psycho by the tabloid press? Would you immediately think of it as contraction of psychopath?

In reality, ‘psycho’ simply means relating to the soul or the mind, and in the late 19th century, psychiatry was concerned with issues around the psyche, using the older term psychalgia to describe mental pain, or melancholy.

But alongside such explorations of the mental state of individuals came the term psychopath. This was frequently used by Victorians to describe not an individual suffering from psychopathic behaviour, but as a description of doctors who specialised in the treatment of mental disorder.

It gradually changed to become the term for a person who exhibited psychopathic behaviour, rather than the person treating him or her (the OED gives the first written evidence for this as being 1885).

We’ve certainly witnessed stories involving psychopathic behaviour leading to criminal activity, yet in the 1870s and 1880s, the term ‘psycho’ did not have the negative connotations that we now see with it.

In fact, during this decade, perhaps the most famous psycho wasn’t a human at all. During the recent research I’ve been doing into the history of the theatre, I’ve been studying the life and work of Victorian magician John Nevil Maskelyne.

An advert for Psycho from the Scotsman, 20 March 1884

Together with John Algernon Clarke, Maskelyne created an automaton who they named Psycho – not because he was mentally disturbed, but because he was perceived by contemporary audiences to have human qualities – he could play whist, for example(!)

A newspaper advert for Psycho

Psycho intrigued and fascinated Victorian audiences, and appeared in over 4,000 performances at London’s Egyptian Hall alone. Maskelyne was a master of self-publicity; in one paper of February 1875, no fewer than seven adverts were placed, all promoting Maskelyne and Cook at the Egyptian Hall.

Readers were told that at 3.20 precisely, the ‘wonderful’ Psycho would perform, and that anyone wishing to see ‘him’ perform should buy tickets in advance or face disappointment. (Morning Post, 5 February 1875)

Psycho was described by his inventors as ‘the Great Mystery of 1875’ who would play whist with ‘any three gentlemen who may volunteer from the audience…and perform other astounding feats requiring the exercise of memory and skill of no ordinary character.’

Nine years later, reviews of Psycho were still glowing – ‘There can be no doubt whatever that Psycho is the most clever piece of mechanism that has ever been produced’ (The Scotsman, 20 March 1884)

So when we describe someone as a ‘psycho’, we’re actually using a term that has become a pejorative one over a relatively recent period of years – having, with Maskelyne’s automaton, been a positive term denoting cleverness and skill, yet today being used by parts of the press to denote evil and madness.

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