Criminal Historian

Working with dead people

Month: August 2017

Book Review: Tracing Villains and their Victims

Part of Pen & Sword’s guides for family historians, exploring and analysing a variety of sources, Jonathan Oates’ latest book, Tracing Villains and their Victims (Pen & Sword, 2017) is not to be confused with Stephen Wade’s Tracing Your Criminal Ancestors (Pen & Sword, 2012) – as Oates himself makes clear.  Wade looked at specific offences, whereas Oates focuses more on types of record.

Oates, who like Wade has written several previous books for the publisher, is an archivist and local history librarian, but his P&S books show two clear areas of interest – Jacobean history and early 20th century true crime.

His interest in the latter is obvious in the majority of case studies he uses in Tracing Villains and their Victims. It would, however, have been good to have more case studies from a wider range of eras, to demonstrate the problems and limitations of sources over the centuries, and how these have changed.

Oates writes well, and has obviously done a good amount of research. There is, perhaps, not enough recognition either of change over time or of regional differences (he states at one point that JPs were ‘amateur’ without looking at the increasing professionalisation of magistrates over time, or the existence of stipendiary magistrates; there is little exploration of the fact that Quarter Sessions were held more frequently in the metropolis due to a greater number of cases needing to be heard – he simply notes that ‘in the 19th century, some counties had intermediate sessions which met in between these four times’ (p.6) without looking at the unique pressures of London courts and magistrates).

He also writes about advertorial trials and how the accused and defendant are represented by barristers – but there is no mention of how this hasn’t always been the case, or of the impact of the economic status of the accused and how this might have affected their representation.

The assumption here seems to be that readers will be researching late 19th/early 20th century trials – but what of earlier eras? It would have been nice to have a reference, too, of how the onus was previously on the victim to pursue a case, and how the founding of the modern police gradually changed that.

There are a few generalisations that aren’t backed up with sources – ‘the occupation of the defendant, until the late 18th century, will be “labourer”‘, we are told, in relation to Assize level indictments – which is a very assertive comment, and it would be good to know how wide a range of Assize indictments were used to make this very broad assertion.

Elsewhere, Oates tells us that the term ‘police court’ was:

‘a common term used in the press and an erroneous one. It actually means a magistrates’ petty sessions court – the police do not operate courts’ (p.97).

In fact, it is the older, former term for a magistrates’ court (the London Metropolitan Archives refers to it as such, so does The National Archives, and so too do crime historians such as Drew Gray, my former PhD supervisor, who really knows his onions in this area), so it is not correct to say it is a ‘press’ term. Neither does the name mean that the police operated such courts – but they were normally housed alongside the magistrates in or near the court, such as in the case of the Bow Street Police Court.

My main gripe with the book comes towards the end, however. The chapter on ‘Books’ as a resource states that it will refer both to contemporary books and more recent books written by historians, but ‘both should deal with criminals and their victims’ – why ‘should’? Some don’t, they’re still useful, but they may reflect an interest in the psychology of perpetrators, for example, rather than crimes.

Instead, though, Oates focuses on the usefulness of ‘True Crime’ books – such as his own (even including a helpful photo of him holding one of his previous books, taken by his unnamed wife)! – and Pen & Sword‘s books, even though he then criticises his publisher’s Foul Deeds series of books for ‘tend[ing] to repeat what has been written in other books’. As the author of one of the books in this series, I can assure Oates that I undertook my own research and did not just ‘repeat’ what has been written elsewhere.

More academic history books are dismissed in a sentence as useful to ‘”read around the topic” as history teachers at A-level and university lecturers are forever (optimistically) exhorting their students to do’ (p.119), which is neither a good advert for historians, nor for his opinion of students’ abilities either. To ignore the brilliant work being done by crime historians recently, which can be very helpful in understanding both individual cases and the wider social, economic and political context of crimes and criminality, seems a bit short-sighted.

Despite arguing that ‘the bibliography, if there is one, can be the best part of the book’ (p.140), Oates only includes a single-page bibliography in his own book, which primarily focuses on similar types of book to his own, with no academic history included – again, a shame given the work currently being, or recently, done by historians. He also notes that ‘books inevitably focus on well-known crime and criminals’ (p.140) but if he’d ventured beyond True Crime books, and into the academic world, he’d find this wasn’t the case.

Old Bailey Online – a valuable resource

More problematically, Oates also notes that he wasn’t brought up with ‘the internet as a key research tool’ and therefore ‘remains sceptical of its use as a primary research mechanism’; and that the British Newspaper Archive is limited in its use for researching cases from the past half century, perhaps highlighting his own research interests.

Personally, I’ve found the BNA to be incredibly helpful in researching 19th century crime, and in being ‘sceptical’ about the internet, Oates fails to recognise the usefulness of such sites as Old Bailey Proceedings Online, and the soon-to-launch Digital Panopticon; the former is invaluable in researching historic cases at the Old Bailey, and also has research guides by academics; the latter will make it easier to research those sentenced to transportation.

In summary, then, this is a book with some helpful background and ideas for research, written generally well, but let down slightly by the author’s own interests and beliefs, and hampered by the need to write generally about history, rather than fully recognising the changes over time, and differences and quirks from area to area. This is perhaps also reflected in the ‘catchy’ title – a more nuanced approach would recognise that sometimes there aren’t just villains and victims; the situation may be more complicated than that.

However, for an individual researching crime in their family history for the first time, they will find plenty of suggestions for primary research here, and information on the courts and criminal justice system that they might like to follow up elsewhere.

 

 

A Tale From Bleeding Heart Yard

Bleeding Heart Yard in the 1870s

In the early to mid 19th century, Bleeding Heart Yard was the beating heart of working class life in London. It was synonymous with the slums, with criminality, and with poverty. In the 1850s, Charles Dickens wrote about it in Little Dorrit, as a place ‘inhabited by poor people’  and reduced in fortune – a fact that alerted the press to its horrors.

When journalists wrote about the precursors of benefits cheats and scammers, they wrote about the inhabitants of Bleeding Heart Yard, who they accused of being prolific writers of begging letters and adverts in the press that proclaimed their own poverty and hardship in order to get financial help.

They pondered how people who claimed to be ‘utterly destitute’ could afford to pay for newspaper adverts that set out their distress, and commented:

‘You may assist them to emigrate to Australia half a dozen times, but they are always to be heard in Bleeding Heart Yard…imprisonment and hard labour have been tried in vain with these incorrigible rogues.’

These ‘rogues’ lived in a crowded yard within Saffron Hill, part of Clerkenwell, within the district of Holborn. Its notoriety stemmed as much from its name as from its inhabitants; there was much speculation about where the name derived from, but it was commonly believed that it stemmed from a murder.

One such story was that the Devil threw Lady Elizabeth Hatton, from a second-floor window in nearby Hatton Gardens in 1626, ‘dashing her to pieces’ and causing a water-pump to pump blood rather than water every year on the anniversary of her death. It was said that Bleeding Heart Yard was so named because it the violence of her death led to her heart being flung out of her body, landing in the yard.

The Bleeding Heart Tavern today

Other, more prosaic, people knew that the yard was simply named after the Bleeding Heart Tavern next door, and that the name was either the result of a pre-Reformation Catholicism that presented the ‘mystery’ of the rosary as the Virgin Mary’s heart being pierced by five swords, or a misspelling of ‘hart’, the pub name therefore denoting a wounded deer in some bucolic rural past.

This rural idyll was, by the 1860s, well and truly past. As the comments from contemporary newspapers suggest, it was now a rough, poor, urban area; it was also a centre for Italian migrants. There was antagonism from both the English-born residents, and from earlier Irish immigrants, towards these ‘strangers’, and even when some of these individuals had lived in London for some years, the resentment towards them by the English and Irish failed to abate.

The Italian men tended to work hard and play hard – but they had respectable jobs, and worked to keep their families afloat. Yet it was reported that the English residents regarded every ‘foreigner’ as ‘a knife-bearing, commandment-breaking scoundrel’ and therefore meted out harsh treatment towards these individuals.

On Boxing Day 1864, this antagonism between English-born locals and the Italian arrivals spilled over – and in turn, blood was also spilled. Around 20 Englishmen, resident in the area, had gone to the Golden Anchor pub in Saffron Hill in the late afternoon, seemingly intent on trouble. A small group of Italian men then arrived, arguments started, and a mass brawl then erupted in the bagatelle room. By the end of it, one man, Michael Harrington, was dead.

A man was arrested at the scene, and taken into custody, where he was charged with murder. The arrested man was one of the Italians, 32-year-old Seraphini Polioni. On 30 January 1865, he appeared in the Central Criminal Court on an indictment of murder.

An early C19th trial at the Old Bailey, later the Central Criminal Court

The landlord of the Golden Anchor, Frederick Shaw, told the court that Polioni had been known to him for around three months, but that around 6pm on Boxing Day, he had come to the bar of the “very busy” pub, and said something along the lines of “I could settle any such six Englishmen as Shaw”. He then wandered off.

Shaw then said he was hit by someone who then walked off to the taproom; Shaw went to follow and noticed that “there were several foreigners in the taproom” before he was pushed into the bar’s parlour by several others. When he looked out of the door, he saw ‘some of the Italians rushing out of the house.’

It was clear that the pub landlord saw the entire affair as being the fault of ‘the Italians’. He later said that Polioni had said he could kill six Englishmen, and was pulled up on it in court – causing him to splutter, “I might have made the mistake in the confusion – I should think it is to the same effect!”

He had no idea how many Italians there were in the pub; there were around 12 to 15 men in the bagatelle room, all English, and no Italians, yet he was clear that “Italians were distributed about the room, they go in and out of the taproom very freely…there were only Italians in the taproom, no English at all to my knowledge”, but was then forced to admit that he hadn’t actually gone into the taproom so really had little clue as to who was in there, and of what nationality.

His potman, Alfred Rebbeck, was also called to give evidence, where he stated that he saw “a great many Italians all together” in the taproom, including an Italian “named John”. He saw one Italian knock a woman down; and was clear that it was Seraphini who drew a knife and stabbed him, Rebbeck, with him. Rebbeck then hit him on the head with a broom-handle.

Rebbeck was clear that the English were in the bagatelle room, and the Italians gathered in the taproom. The pub was clearly segregated, albeit by the drinkers themselves rather than the landlord’s orders. There was also an Irish contingent – Alfred Rebbeck noted that there were ‘one or two Irishmen’ including one perhaps inevitably, given the racism present within this society, as ‘Pikey’.

Several witnesses with English names stated that Seraphini had been the man responsible for Harrington’s murder, and that they had seen no other Italians who could have been able to stab the man.

A statement by another Italian man, Pietro Mazzneli, who stated that another Italian at the pub that night, named Gregorio, looked very like Seraphini, seems to have been almost ignored; in fact, other Italian witnesses also put the blame onto this Gregorio with one, Pietro Maralizzi, who gave evidence through an interpreter, stating that he had seen this man with a knife in his hand, and that he had said to him, “For God’s sake, Gregorio, put away that knife.”

The trial also heard gossip from a woman at the pub that she had heard “three or four” of the Italians were using their knives – but this evidence was dismissed as ‘hearsay’. Reading the account of the trial, it seems a mish-mash of different stories being put forward by different people, but there seems little concrete evidence that Seraphini was involved in Harrington’s death. And yet he was convicted, and sentenced to death.

Seraphini now languished in Newgate Prison, awaiting his execution. Conditions were dire, and he soon began to lose his health. The end of this story seems clear.

Polioni sentenced to death (from Ancestry)

But things were not so straightforward.

The man named by several in Seraphini’s trial, his doppelganger Gregorio, had been in the pub that fateful night, and had fled to Birmingham. Henry Negretti – either a police constable or perhaps another member of the Italian community in London – had tracked him down to accuse him of having actually committed the murder for which Seraphini had been convicted – and Gregorio voluntarily surrendered to him, confessing to the murder of Michael Harrington.

On 27 February, 41-year-old Gregorio Mogni appeared at the Central Criminal Court.  He was asked if he was guilty or not guilty, and responded:

“It is my misfortune. I am guilty; but I did it in my self-defence.”

The first witness called at this new trial was the man who had been referred to as ‘John’ the Italian in the former trial – who was, in fact, Gregorio’s brother, Giovanni Mogni, a picture frame maker who stated that he had lived in England for the past ten years.

Contrary to much of the evidence heard at Seraphini’s trial, Giovanni said that he was in the bagatelle room of the Golden Anchor, together with his brother and another Italian, Pietro Marazzi – a looking glass maker who lived in Bleeding Heart Yard. They were outnumbered by nearly 20 Englishmen in the room.

Gregorio had an argument with Shaw, the landlord, and then the Englishmen started to beat Giovanni. His brother then drew a knife, shouting “They are beating my brother!” Marazzi saw the knife, and cried, “Gregorio, for God’s sake, put away that knife!”, grabbing him, but Gregorio demanded to be let go, “Otherwise we shall not go out of this room alive.”

After the melee ended, and the men had fled, Marazzi saw Gregorio in a nearby street. The latter put his arms around Pietro’s neck, and said,

“My dear Marazzi, what have I done? I stabbed three or four. Goodbye, I am going home.”

The greatest shock for Gregorio at his trial was the calling of Seraphini Polioni as a witness. He was ill and frail from his stay in Newgate, and his appearance in the witness box caused Gregorio to weep – realising, perhaps, what his prior silence had done to his countryman.

Now, Polioni gave his evidence, starting by saying that he was under sentence of death in Newgate, but had previously lived for some time in England. He said that he had been at another inn, Pietro Bordessa’s Three Tuns, the evening of 26 December, when another Italian had come in to tell him an argument had broken out at the Golden Anchor “between my two cousins” – perhaps simply a reference to fellow Italians rather than to actual relatives. Polioni had gone there to try and stop the fight between two of his countrymen, but instead found himself charged with murder.

Now, Gregorio found himself convicted – but of manslaughter rather than murder, with the jury believing that he acted in self-defence. The jury asked for mercy, and he was sentenced to five years in prison, a far more lenient punishment than poor, innocent Seraphini had received. He, in turn, was now tried for the felonious wounding of Alfred the potman, but was found not guilty.

Although Polioni and Gregorio Mogni remain elusive, I have found Giovanni – or John – Mogni on the 1901 census for Clerkenwell. He died in 1903 (via Ancestry).

A drunken fight between a couple of Italian men and a larger group of territorial Englishmen had led to one innocent man being put on trial twice, and once being convicted of a murder he didn’t commit. The man who actually committed that crime only received a five year prison term. Michael Harrington’s death shows how the Victorian criminal justice system could be flawed, and that anti-immigrant feeling caused violence and misperceptions about individuals, just as it still does today.

And what of the notorious Bleeding Heart Yard? By the 1880s, many of the tenants had been moved out, and the yard stood almost deserted, neglected, and waiting to be demolished. A couple of costermongers’ barrows stood there as remnants of the lives of those who previously peopled the area; a few petty criminals used the yard as a place to hide. But the Italian picture frame makers, one of whom gave evidence after the Golden Anchor death, and the advert-placing destitute ‘conners’ were no longer there.

Sources include: Glasgow Evening Post, 6 January 1885; Cheshire Observer, 8 August 1891; Newcastle Journal, 3 March 1865; Islington Gazette, 30 August 1897; Bristol Mercury, 2 January 1885; London Evening Standard, 3 May 1866; Old Bailey Online (refs t18650130-218; t18650227-333; t18650410-454; t18650410-455).

Distracted by a criminal past

One of the perhaps inevitable side-effects of being a crime historian is that wherever I go, I get distracted by a place’s criminal history.

Recently, I’ve been to both Hereford and Worcester on work trips, and both times, I’ve come across parts of its darker history by complete accident, with no knowledge beforehand of what I was walking towards.

In Hereford, Gaol Street is in the city centre, and is home to a building that is immediately obvious as a place related to law and order. This is the ‘new gaol’, built in 1841, but which only served as a gaol for some 30 years.

Most of it was subsequently demolished, but that which remained became part of the old city magistrates’ court (thanks to Herefordshire Past for this information).

Meanwhile, in Worcester, I stopped to take a photograph of the pretty Laslett’s Almshouses, only to spot a sign on the gate stating that these were built on the site of the old city gaol. British History Online notes that in the 17th century, Greyfriars was used as the gaol, before being pulled down and replaced by the almshouses.

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However, Greyfriars still exists today and is run by the National Trust; is this building what BHO describes as ‘a fine two-storied building of timber’ that was possibly the Greyfriars’ guest house? I’m not sure, as the NT describes ‘its’ Greyfriars as a medieval merchant’s house built by Thomas Grene, but perhaps a local reader could clarify this for me!

Lastly, there is a rather lovely building tucked away on Copenhagen Street in Worcester; this served as the police headquarters for the city from 1862 to 1941.

‘Police station’ is still clearly inscribed above the door, but there is also a plaque to the right hand side marking the formation of the City of Worcester Police Force in 1833 (info from Elliott Brown on Flickr).

Today, these sites are architecturally interesting and part of the ‘dark tourism’ that can be undertaken in many towns and cities in England; but it’s also possible to imagine these places, not so long ago, being busy and dramatic buildings, full of action and movement – where our ancestors may have spent time, whether as law enforcers or law breakers.

 

When Swedish Anna was beheaded

The beheading of Anna Mansdotter, as depicted in the Illustrated Police News of 23 August 1890 (via the British Newspaper Archive)

‘The beheading of a woman is, fortunately, a very rare occurrence in Sweden,’ the article in the Illustrated Police News started, with an unusual degree of restraint for the publication.

It was detailing the death of Anna Månsdotter in the summer of 1890, and it was not surprising that the salacious and gossipy IPN sounded so shocked in its report. Anna had apparently kept her eyes open right until the point of her death, refusing to look away from the axe.

Anna was convicted, with her son, of killing her daughter-in-law Hanna Johansdotter – her son Per’s wife – in Yngsjö. Per was sentenced to life in prison, being sent to Karlskrona Gaol, but Anna received the sentence of death after she confessed to taking the larger role in the crime. She took on the ‘whole guilt’ of the crime, in order to ensure that her son survived.

King Oscar II, who voted -twice – for Anna to be beheaded

Her offence and confession shocked Sweden; it had been some 30 years since a woman had died on the scaffold, but in this case, it was universally believed that Anna should suffer the ultimate fate for her crime.

Even the king, Oscar, who was allowed two votes in court as to her punishment, voted for the death sentence to be applied. From the start of the trial process, it was widely believed that Anna’s case was hopeless, and that there would be no chance of mercy.

Anna’s refusal to express emotion after her sentence was passed was seen as a sign of her inhumanity rather than of fear – one of the motives given for the murder was that she may have been in a sexual relationship with Per, and killed Hanna out of sexual jealousy.

She spent her time in prison, prior to being executed, being very still; she refused to express any remorse, and similarly refused to take Holy Communion the nighght before her death. The prison chaplain attempted to speak with her; she refused to listen, or to respond to him.

On the day of her death, the executioner, Albert Gustaf Dahlman, and his assistant prepared outside the jail in Kristianstad. Unfortunately for Anna, she was the executioner’s first professional job, but there was no evidence of nerves as the large, muscly man, in his military-style uniform and white silk tie, prepared the scaffold. He looked confident, as he held his large axe in his hands.

At 8am, the magistrate read the judgement inside, before Anna, and then the prison doors were opened and she started to walk towards the scaffold, clad in a white belted dress. At 47, she still presented a striking figure, walking erect and lady-like, icy calm apart from the nervous twitching of her hands.

A depiction of Anna about to be executed, with her executioner shown on the left.

On the scaffold, the chaplain, who had accompanied her on her short walk, read the Lord’s Prayer. Anna then lay down and uttered a single moan as the executioner swung his axe, severing her head from her body in one motion. His assistant then lent down to pick the head up, displaying it to prove that justice had been served.

It was noted that Anna’s eyes remained open for several seconds after her death, and that her heart continued to pump blood; however, she was certainly dead, and the romantic retelling of her death ended with the more prosaic news that a professor from Lund claimed her body to use for the benefit of his medical students.

Anna was the last woman to be executed in Sweden; her son, Per, was released from prison in 1913, and died five years later.

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