Criminal Historian

Working with dead people

Author: Criminal Historian (page 1 of 24)

How little Sarah’s murder may have been a serial killer’s act

It was 120 years ago today that a little girl was found murdered in a field close to her home – a crime that shocked her local community. This was a little girl who felt safe, who was close to her family, yet who had her life taken from her just nine days before Christmas.

The Ravenhead Colliery in St Helens (public domain, via St Helens Library & Archives)

The Flaherty family lived at 6 Blackhorse Street in St Helens, which was then in Lancashire. They were not a wealthy family: Mr Flaherty* worked hard as a collier, supporting his wife and children, but they had the support of family members living close by, and a good sense of community.

Little Sarah Flaherty was just six years old in 1898, and used to running from her house to those of friends and family in order to play with other children, or to see if her relatives had food to nibble, or activities she could watch with big eyes.

On the evening of Saturday 10 December, she had, as usual, gone to her relatives’ house to play. At about 9.15 in the evening – a dark, dark evening – she had realised it was time her parents would be expecting her, and the little girl left on her own.

She was very young, very small, and it was very dark on that winter’s night – but she was making a journey she did regularly, only a short distance – 200 yards – and it was a busy area, and everyone, included her, just took it for granted that she would be alright.

Only she wasn’t: she never made it home. The next day, her dead body was found in the nearby football field, raped and suffocated.

On Monday, two men were arrested by police, but they were able to give good alibis and had to be set free. A postmortem was carried out that shockingly revealed bruises on her left arm where her assailant had grabbed her to lead her away. She had been suffocated simply by an adult hand being placed over her mouth and nose until she stopped breathing.

By the time of the inquest into her death, a week after her death, it was being reported that the police had no clues as to who the murderer could be, although they said she must have been ‘decoyed’ away by her attacker. All her nearby relatives were called as witnesses at the inquest, but none could shed any light on what had happened, and the inquest was adjourned.

On 15 December, a little coffin was taken from the Flaherty’s home – where it had been brought from the mortuary two days earlier – to St Helens Cemetery, for a Catholic funeral. The coffin had been kept on the kitchen table, which, the press reported, was ‘almost the only furniture in the front room of the house.’

On the top of the coffin was a plate, reading:

Sarah Flaherty. Died December 10 1898, aged six years. “His lambs shall not perish.”

Even as the coffin was taken away for its sad burial, the neighbours were whispering. They all believed the killer to be local, and had every confidence that before the inquest restarted, ‘the affair may take a turn of the most sensational and startling description, which will, if possible, add to the horror.’

In the event, their speculation amounted to nothing, and no suspect was identified in December.

Christmas that year must have been awful for the Flahertys. They had lost a child under the worst circumstances, but had no closure: nobody had been charged, and not even the inquest had concluded. They had to hunker down and just get through Christmas the best they could.

Michael Davitt, MP

Eventually, the inquest was resumed on 29 December, and the verdict was never in any doubt: the jury ‘returned the verdict of wilful murder against some person or persons unknown’. The case seemed destined to go cold.

By early February, Irish MP Michael Davitt was asking the Home Secretary what steps the police had actually taken to try and identify the murderer, and whether ‘any clue of any kind has been obtained up to the present’.

The Home Secretary, Sir Matthew White Ridley (later the 1st Viscount Ridley), was unable to help:


“I have not had any information whatever on the subject of the question, but I am making inquiries, and if the honourable gentleman will put his question down for a later date I may be able to answer it.”

But still nobody was identified.

Life in St Helens continued. In April, another girl was found dead in the area; but this one was a baby, naked and partly decomposed, who, it was determined, had been asphyxiated and thrown in the canal.

In June, attention was brought to an earlier murder case, when, in July 1876, eight-year-old Sarah Swire, daughter of St Helens clog maker William Swire, had disappeared. She had last been seen playing with another child her own age in the street next to her parents, but since then, there had been no sigh of her.

St Helens in the early 20th century (public domain, via St Helens Library & Archive)

Her father had died five years later, leaving his property to be shared between his children, and the authorities needed to determine whether Sarah Swire was alive or dead.

When the issue was raised at the Chancery Court in Liverpool it was determined that the child ‘must have been kidnapped, in which case she had probably been removed to a distance, or in some way made away with.’

The following month, it was ordered that it could be ‘reasonably assumed’ that Sarah – who, by 1899, would have been 32 years old – was dead, and her inheritance of £700 would be shared by others.

Was it possible that there had been a serial killer loose in St Helens in the late 19th century? The baby was a separate case, more likely the result of a desperate mother committing infanticide; but there are similarities between the two local girls that the press doesn’t seem to have connected.

Both involved young girls, living locally, who disappeared in innocuous circumstances. One was walking home from relatives; the other presumably heading home after playing with a friend. Both were in places they knew well, travelling short distances, in well populated areas of St Helens. Neither reached home.

William Swire never found out what happened to his daughter; Flaherty did, although perhaps, when he saw that little coffin on his kitchen table, he wished that he had never found out either. Whoever made sure that the two Sarahs never got home safely – whether one person or two – will be dead now too, having been able to live the long life that two little girls never got to.


*Postscript: Although the newspapers did not name other members of Sarah’s family, I think her father was Martin Flaherty, listed as a coal hewer in the 1901 census – my only slight reservation being the address given as Sarah Flaherty’s in 1898 (Martin lived most of his married life on Park Road in St Helens, although at various addresses, but I can’t corroborate that he ever lived at Blackhorse Street – however, Blackhorse Street was right off Park Road, so it’s very possible that he did live in both roads). Martin would have been 41 at the time of his daughter’s murder. Martin was born in Macclesfield, and was married to St Helens local Ellen Cottom.

The couple married at St Helens in 1877, when they were both around 20 years old. The 1881 census records them as a couple, living on their own at 124 Park Road, St Helens – the house where Ellen had been brought up by her parents James – another coal miner, who is recorded elsewhere as William – and Ellen (the 1871 census records them here).

They were living at Hebburn Colliery in Jarrow in 1891; Martin was a coal miner, and they had five children living at home at that time –Rebecca (15), Thomas (9), Mary (7), Ellen (2), and Margaret (2 months). The children’s birth locations showed how and when the couple had moved around the country, presumably for Martin to find work: Rebecca and Thomas were both born in St Helens, Mary in Chester le Street, Co Durham, Ellen back in St Helens, and Margaret at Hebburn.

Sarah, of course, is noticeable by her absence. Being born in 1892 and killed in 1898, if you went by the censuses alone, you would miss her existence entirely. But she was very much real. It is likely that she, like her sister Margaret, was born in Hebburn; there is the birth of a Sarah Flaherty in 1892 in the same district – South Shields – where Margaret’s birth was registered the year before. Her death is recorded in the October quarter of 1898 in the Prescot district of Lancashire that included St Helens.

In 1901, three years after Sarah’s death, the family I believe was hers was at 138 Park Road, St Helens, with five surviving children at home  – Thomas (19), Mary (17), Ellen (12), Margaret (10) and James (2). In 1911, they were on the same road, but now at number 159, and only with James living at home. He noted that he had been married for 33 years, and that Ellen had had 12 children, of whom half – six – had died.

Ellen died in 1928, aged 71. Martin, though, lived an even longer time after his daughter died. He is recorded as a widower and retired colliery hewer in the 1939 register, living at St Helens – still in Park Road, as he had lived, on and off, since at least 1881, and still, as 30 years earlier, at number 159. With him was his son James, a builder’s labourer, with his family. Martin died in St Helens in 1944.


Sources: Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, 18 December 1898, p.18; Globe, 29 December 1898, p.5; North Devon Gazette, 3 January 1899, p.2;  Dundee Evening Telegraph, 15 December 1898, p.3; Aberdeen Evening Express, 8 February 1899, p.4; Aberdeen Evening Express, 9 February 1899, p.4; Aberdeen Evening Express, 26 April 1899, p.4; Western Daily Press, 6 June 1899, p.7; Lancashire Evening Post, 18 July 1899, p.5

Daisy, Daisy, the Cycling Countess

I’ve recently been researching petty offences in the early part of the 20th century, and tracking how changing technology and transportation affected what offences tended to be committed – in particular, how there is a shift from cycling offences (particularly cycling without lights) to driving offences over time.

As I was looking at cases in the British Newspaper Archive, I saw a small piece about one such motor accident – but it was accompanied by the arresting image of a young, very glamorous, very modern woman. I thought it was unusual for a minor piece of local news to be illustrated in this way, and had saved the image – but forgot to attach the story, or the source. Many thanks to Stephen Carver on Twitter, who identified the woman (a rather more newsworthy woman than I had realised!) for me and thus enabled me to find the details I had been looking for.

In the 1930s, one local newspaper printed a ‘nostalgia’ piece, noting how ‘queer’ it must have been to see the first ‘boneshakers’ – bicycles – on the streets in the 19th century. They were seen as ‘juggernauts banishing the peace of the countryside’, being primitive vehicles with no lamps, just tallow candles stuck at the front, if that.

But by the end of the Victorian period, the bicycle boom occurred, and the elite took up cycling in their droves. The American actress Lillian Russell had a gold-plated bicycle that cost her £400, while the Countess of Warwick had her bicycle regularly enamelled to match her dresses. [1]

The image of Daisy Greville that accompanied the press story relating to her car accident

The Countess of Warwick, born Frances Evelyn Maynard, but known as Daisy, was always an unconventional woman, and so her extravagance with her bike – and, indeed, her trendsetting in being at the forefront of bicycle riding – should not come as much of a surprise.

This was the older daughter of the Honourable Charles Henry Maynard, who at the age of 20, in 1881, had married Lord Brooke, as Francis Richard Charles Guy Greville was then, and moved into Warwick Castle – his family’s home. When he became the fifth Earl of Warwick, Daisy became his Countess.

Daisy’s cuckolded husband, the Earl of Warwick

Daisy had previously come to attention after having an affair with Lord Charles Beresford, who was probably the father of two of the three children she had during her marriage; when she discovered that his wife was pregnant in 1889, she sent him an angry letter that Lady Beresford intercepted and placed with her solicitor.

When Daisy got in touch with the Prince Of Wales (later Edward VII) to intervene, he started an affair with her instead. During this time, Daisy bought a bicycle, and her riding would become a hobby she loved. However, this does not mean she was either a good cyclist, or safe towards other cyclists.

Still married to her husband, the Earl of Warwick, in May 1896, she was cycling on her bicycle down Smith Street in Warwick. It was a narrow road, and unfortunately for her, her husband was walking down the road at the time, meaning she did not have a straight path. Then, to her horror, a vehicle tried to drive past her. In order to avoid being hit, she cycled straight into her husband, causing him to fall over. There was admiration, of sorts, from others that she managed to keep herself in her seat. [2]

Daisy’s baptism in London, 1861

Her affair with the prince ended in 1898. Two years later, Daisy was to be found in Chelmsford, Essex, where she presented the prizes at the ‘Great Bicycle and Athletic Race Meeting’ on 14 July, obviously still keen on bikes. [3]

Another image of Daisy, during the time she was cycling – c.1899

Then her interests moved from cycling to driving – and, just as nine years earlier, her skills were not perfect. In May 1905, she was driving her car through Epping when she collided with a cyclist.

She immediately stopped her car, and put the cyclist – who wasn’t seriously injured – into  the back of it, then driving him to a hotel, where she called for a doctor. Daisy was nothing if not generous; she knew the accident was her fault, paid for the bicycle to be repaired, and also paid for the injured man’s doctor’s bill. [4]

By the time of this second accident, Daisy had had another two children, who despite having the Earl of Warwick’s surname – Greville – were probably actually fathered by Joe Laycock, a millionaire who was also having an affair with Kitty Hill, wife of the 6th Marquess of Downshire.

They ended up getting married (after Kitty’s divorce), leaving Daisy to try and sell her letters from her prince and to try and avoid grinding poverty, she having managed to spend her inherited fortune. In 1928, she narrowly avoided being sent to Holloway Prison as a result of her debts, and had to publish some rather racy memoirs to make money.

Daisy died in Essex in 1938, one obituary of her rather euphemistically headlined “Friend of King Edward”. Although the press commented on her relationships, her socialism, and her schemes to help train girls in various subjects, there was no mention of her bicycling. But perhaps that is just as well.

More on her glamorous life can be found at


[1]  Lancashire Evening Post, 18 December 1933, p.4; repeated in Nottingham Journal of 1939, p.6; the story seems to have originally been reported in the Coventry Herald of 21 August 1896, p.5.

[2] Banbury Guardian, 21 May 1896, p.5

[3] Anglian Daily Times, 14 July 1900, p.4

[4] Dundee Evening Post, 16 May 1905, p.3

The title of this post relates to the popular Victorian song Daisy, Daisy [give me your answer, do], inspired by the Countess of Warwick.

The man who trained the Met’s fingerprint detectives

The late 19th century saw increased efforts to solve crimes and apprehend criminals using scientific methods. In France, the criminologist Alphonse Bertillon developed an anthropometric system of identifying criminals, whilst in Britain, Francis Galton sought to introduce a system of fingerprint analysis. In 1893, the Home Secretary appointed a committee to consider the ‘best means of identifying criminals’, requesting that the systems of Bertillon and Galton were particularly investigated.

The Illustrated Police News covered the Mask Murders and their aftermath in its usual inimitable style (IPN, 27 May 1905). The prosecution case involved fingerprint identification.

At this stage, the identification of criminals was largely based on photography, but there were increasing concerns that ‘identification by photographs is notoriously fallacious’. Although the presence of birthmarks or scars were also noted on a record, those responsible for identifying criminals from these photos and descriptions were ‘not infallible’, and they could make mistakes.

Local newspapers explored the methods of identifying criminals in the late 19th century press

In the spring of 1894, the committee’s report was published, and it recommended that photography should still be employed, but that it should now be supplemented ‘by certain measurements on the Bertillonage system, with fingerprints as a final scientific means of identity’.

The Sheffield Evening Telegraph was broadly in favour of the proposals, as it would ‘be a great advance on the unreliable methods which have served us so long’, although it noted that ‘it is questionable whether this mixture will in practice work so easily as would the out-and-out adoption of one system’. [1]

Meanwhile, the Shields Gazette in the north-east, stressed that Bertillon’s system was seen as very accurate, for ‘Monsieur Bertillon claims that not a single case of mistaken identity, or of failure to identify, has occurred under his regime at Paris.’ [2]

There had long been concerns about mistaken identity – unscientific methods of crime detection resulting in the wrong person being apprehended for a crime they had not committed. Therefore, the adoption of a more scientific approach was seen as vital for justice.

In the autumn of 1894, it was confidently reported that ‘the new system of criminal identification is expected to be in full swing at Scotland Yard within a sfew weeks.’

The Home Secretary duly appointed Dr John George Garson (1855-1932) – a Scots born physician and anthropologist who had worked at the Anatomical Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh – as the first superintendent of Scotland Yard‘s Anthropometric Office. His job would be to oversee the new method for measuring criminals, and to train prison warders in the principles of practical anthropometry. [3]

Scotland Yard was similarly taught about how anthropometry worked, with Dr Garson taking police officers to Pentonville Prison to give them further training in Bertillonage. He was deemed so successful in his education of others that in 1902, when he became general secretary of the British Association* , it was reported that the Home Office had abolished his post as:

‘owing to Dr Garson’s labours, the prison warders and others are now so well instructed in the scientific principles of the system that the authorities do not consider it necessary to give him a successor.’ [4]

However, Dr Garson continued to act as an advisor in this area, and was called on to give evidence relating to identification.

In 1905, as an expert witness in the ‘Mask Murders’ trial – where brothers Alfred and Albert Stratton were accused (and subsequently convicted) of murdering 71-year-old Thomas Farrow and his wife Ann, 65, at the Deptford oil shop he managed. The name ‘Mask Murders’ was given due to the brothers having been masked when they broke into the shop.

Dr Garson gave more details into his job and how it had helped identify Alfred Stratton as a suspect, and although he was criticised in court for offering his services to any side that wanted to employ him, it has to be remembered that he was no longer working fro the police, and that he emphasised that he used scientific methods that would not be affected by implied conflicts of interests.

He stated that he had been engaged in 1894 to organise a department both for fingerprint identification and to train both police and prison officers in Bertillonage and fingerprint measurements. An inspector investigating the Mask Murders was Charles Stockley Collins, of what had, in 1901, become the Scotland Yard Fingerprint Bureau.

Garson had taught Collins how to examine ‘resemblances’ in thumb-prints, and Collins later used these to identify one Alfred Stratton’s thumb prints on a cash tray in the Farrows’ shop. Dr Garson then wrote to the defence solicitor in the case, stating that fingerprint analysis was ‘a splendid means of identification when employed under the advice of a medical authority’.

In court, Inspector Collins detailed how he had identified Stratton, using a chart with black line drawings of the fingerprints in question. He pointed out 11 separate points of resemblance, between then print found in the shop, and one taken from Stratton.

He then took a fingerprint from one of the jury members, inking a copperplate before getting the man to put his thumb on it with different degrees of pressure. He then demonstrated to the jury how there were ‘obvious’ differences to Stratton’s own print. [5]

It was this fingerprint analysis that helped convict Alfred Stratton and condemn him to death. [6] Interestingly, of course, by this time – 1905 – it was the fingerprinting that was seen as the ‘science’ behind the identification of criminals, with Bertillonage becoming somewhat old-fashioned and out of favour, and the four-year-old fingerprint department reflected this change in priorities.

What was clear from this murder trial, though, was the increasing importance being placed on scientific methods of identifying suspects in criminal cases; and Dr John Garson was key in ensuring that Scotland Yard’s detectives knew how to employ these methods – and argue their benefits in court.

Dr Garson and his household, as listed in the 1901 census for St John’s Wood Road in London (from TheGenealogist)


[1] Sheffield Evening Telegraph, 22 March 1894, p.2

[2] Shields Gazette, 7 September 1894, p.3

[3] The Lancet, 28 July 1894, p.208

[4] Cambridge Daily News, 22 July 1902, p.4

[5] Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 8 May 1905, p.9

[6] The Stratton brothers were hanged at Wandsworth Prison on Tuesday 23 May 1905. Albert’s last words, said to his brother as they were walking to the scaffold, were, “Alfred, has God forgiven you?” There was no discernible answer. (Mid Sussex Times, 30 May 1905, p.6)

*His position was referred to as general secretary of the British Association’s anthropology branch. This does not seem to have been part of what is now the Royal Anthropological Institute  – although he gave talks there. It seems more likely to have been a branch of the British Science Association, but I can’t corroborate this. If you can help me confirm this, do let me know in the contact form on this site!

Book review: Justice in Plain Sight

“This story transports readers back to a pre-internet Golden Age when newspapers enjoyed handsome profits and were the major provider of in-depth news.”

So writes Dan Bernstein, setting the scene for his book, Justice in Plain Sight, which does indeed take his reader back to a time when newspapers were not perceived to be on a fight to the bottom, with journalists being laid off or expected to be a jack-of-all trades, and executives encouraging free content from readers at the expense of professional (ie paid for) reportage and photography.

As news of the Johnston Press entering into administration hit the UK news, I was reading Bernstein’s account of just one case (well, actually two) where the press has shown its importance, by making a difference and showing its value not only within its community, but to the nation as a whole.

At its centre, the book covers the legal fight conducted by a local Californian newspaper, the Press-Enterprise, to open up America’s courtrooms to the press.

Bernstein, a former member of the Riverside newspaper’s staff, gives a detailed account not only of the history of this fight, but also the cases that impacted on it – including the horrific rape and murder of a teenage girl, Susan Jordan, on her way to school, and the subsequent trial of her attacker.

The book charts how this one newspaper, its staff and lawyers, took on the Supreme Court twice in order to make press (and therefore public) access to court proceedings a US constitutional right, with Bernstein recreating scenes from notes, interviews and original news reports to retell the story of a legal fight that took place over the 1970s and 1980s.

This is, then, a hybrid of a book, covering crime history, legal history, and media history in one. It’s a fairly recent history, in terms of its focus, but it is significant: it takes in issues covering a wider span of history, both American and English (for American law derives much from the laws of its English settlers in the 17th century, as the book discusses).

There is, at times, a tendency to get a little bogged down in the legal technicalities and formalities that some readers might find off-putting, and the criminal cases are more of an aside, whereas I got quite involved in them and would have liked to read more. However, the book is fundamentally about the law and many will enjoy learning about the intricacies of the legal fight, as well as about the newspaper characters who fought to open up the courts and enable the better reporting of cases.

Others will want to debate one of the questions raised by the book further – that of what is more important: a jury member’s right to privacy, and the accused’s right to a fair trial, or the right of a newspaper to cover a trial and its pre-trial procedures as fully as possible?

If you’re interested in 20th century US history, whether in terms of the law, the media, or crime, this book is highly recommended, giving an insight into how much the press have had to fight to tell us the stories that matter.

Justice in Plain Sight, by Dan Bernstein, will be published by the University of Nebraska Press in January 2019. It can be pre-ordered from Amazon here.

Book review: Criminal Children

The publisher Pen & Sword appears to be increasingly publishing books by academic crime historians – a move that I heartily approve of, perhaps unsurprisingly. There is a wealth of research being done in universities across the country that deserves an audience outside of academia, and there are many, from family historians to the general reader, who find much of interest in the crime archives.

The University of Liverpool’s Barry Godfrey is one of the more prolific of these academics writing for a wider audience, and has previously published with Pen & Sword (such as Victorian Convicts: 100 Criminal Lives (2016), co-authored with Helen Johnstone, and the recent Criminal Women 1850-1920 (2018) with Lucy Williams). Now, with co-author Emma Watkins, he has yet another book out – Criminal Children: Researching Juvenile Offenders, 1820-1920.

The latter two books have emerged out of the Digital Panopticon project, with all the authors being involved with it. Emma herself completed a PhD as part of her work with the project, entitled Life-Courses of Juvenile Convicts, and so it’s great to see her publish a book based on her research.

As much of the Digital Panopticon project saw the creation of ‘life-histories’ of various individuals, using different data sets and sources to cross-reference mentions of them, and track their criminal careers, it’s unsurprising that this book takes a similar tack. It is split into two sections; the second comprises 26 individual life stories. 12 women are featured, which I’m pleased about as too many texts focus on men, as they tend to be better represented in some archival records.

Luckily, what could have been a dull list of individuals and their crimes avoids simple fact-regurgitation; there are distinct efforts to place the characters not only within their wider social context, but also to relate them to issues brought up in the first part of the book, which looks at the concept of juvenile delinquency and how they were dealt with (such as by transporting them, or sending them to reformatories and industrial schools).

Most usefully for the lay reader and family historian, there are sections on the resources open to people wanting to research their own criminal forebears, looking at various records from criminal petitions to school records and newspaper reports. There’s also some good legal context, which tells the reader what they need to know in plain English.

The only caveat I would note is that although the book refers to ‘Britain’, it is vague about what this encompasses, and the book – both the history and the case studies – is centred on England (for example, on p.34, statistics are provided only for ‘English prisons’). Of course, sections on transportation and life in Australia are exceptions!

Nowhere on the front page or back cover blurb does it mention that the research only covers what happened to English juvenile offenders, nor does it explain this in the introduction. I think it would have been useful to flag this up, so that those researching offenders elsewhere in Britain would immediately know its remit.

To those of us who know the Digital Panopticon project, this omission becomes clearer, as that only looked at convicts sentenced at the Old Bailey – but, as the authors state on p.53 about the DP:

‘while London is the hub of this resource, there is a multitude of records relating to offenders from all of Britain’.

So although the book, being based on the Digital Panopticon research, focuses on English systems and offenders, I still believe that either the book should have widened its remit to cover ‘Britain’ rather than ‘England’, or it should have made the omission clearer, and explained the reasons for it at the start of the book – for example, by making it clear in the title or subtitle that the book has come out of the Digital Panopticon project, or changing the subtitle to ‘researching juvenile offenders in England, 1820-1920′.

Otherwise, readers may be frustrated by the choice of resources they flag up, which centre on the Old Bailey Online website, The National Archives (in Kew), the Newgate Prison Calendars and the London prison registers, and the London Metropolitan Archives.

In summary, this will be an interesting book to anybody who wants to know more about juvenile offenders in England and how they were dealt with, particularly those with an interest in London records. Next, it would be good to see Pen & Sword commission a book looking at juvenile offenders elsewhere – in Wales, Scotland, and Ireland – to complement Emma and Barry’s useful work.

“Oh, Lacey, don’t!”: a Welsh murder and how the press watched the killer die

One of the most notorious murder cases in 20th century Wales came in the first year of that century, as the reign of Queen Victoria approached its end, to be replaced the following year by the start of Edward VII’s relatively short spell as king.

The case involved, as was all too common, domestic violence. It ended in the deaths of both husband and wife; the wife at the hands of her new husband, and the husband at the end of a rope.

The South Wales Echo’s depiction of Pauline Lacey, nee Joseph

To begin at the beginning, to quote a famous Welshman. (1) Pauline Joseph was a 19 year old girl, born in Swansea in 1881. Her father, Charles, was not a native of the city, however; he had been born in Belgium and worked as a spelterman at the Port Tennant Smelting Works.

He had, however, married a native of Swansea – Jane – and they had had several children, all born locally. (2) In 1881, the family was living at 89 Danygraig Road, but by 1891, they were living at 11 Wern Terrace.

In the June quarter of 1900, Pauline married a man named William Augustus Lacey. He was a collier, nearly ten years her senior, which was not noteworthy for the time – but he was also a black man, and this raised a few more eyebrows amongst the Victorian inhabitants of Swansea.

What would have also raised eyebrows was the fact that Pauline married in secret. Her sister had, the previous Christmas, married a West Indian man and through him, Pauline had met William. (3) They married secretly in the Swansea register office, and the same day left the city for Pontypridd, where William worked in the Tymawr Colliery.

Eleven weeks after her marriage, Pauline would be dead. The marriage, it had soon become clear, should not have taken place. Pauline and William had moved to a house at 21 Barry Terrace in Pwllgwaun, some eight or nine weeks after their marriage, and for the next two weeks, they were heard frequently quarrelling, the series of rows becoming increasingly violent.

On the morning of Thursday 5 July 1900, the couple’s neighbours were having breakfast. Shortly afterwards, they heard a terrifying female scream: “Oh, Lacey, don’t!” – and William Lacey was shortly afterwards seen to leave the house and run away.

One neighbour immediately went to the house and peered through the front window. Pauline could be seen lying on her back, her throat cut from ear to ear. A blood-stained razor lay near her body.

A drawing of William Lacey that appeared in the South Wales Echo

There was little doubt about who had committed the awful crime, and William, in fact, had left the house to surrender himself to the Pontypridd police. He made little sense to them when he made a statement, however, and at one point tried to claim he had been trying to slit his own throat, but the razor had “slipped”. He then claimed he hadn’t done it of his free will, that it was the fault of Pauline’s sister, who had come to live in Pontypridd, that he had loved his wife, and was not guilty because he had not killed her “wilfully”.

When William was tried at the Swansea Assizes for murder, he insisted again that he had loved Pauline, and that “she had desired him to do the deed.” He therefore attempted to absolve himself of blame for her death – she was the guilty one, she had wanted him to kill her. He then claimed that she had wanted to leave him – and then that she wanted to live with another man she had had a child with. He was found guilty nonetheless.

On 21 August 1900, Lacey was hanged by James Billington at Cardiff, and said to have walked “with a firm step to his doom”. Three members of the press were permitted to watch the execution; one of them, a reporter for the South Wales Echo, full wrote a detailed account of the events of that morning.

It was made clear to the journalists that they should stay as much in the background as possible, being advised by the under-sheriff that he did not want the prisoner to see them, and that on the orders of the High Sheriff of Glamorgan, Sir Robert Armine Morris, they should “avoid anything in the nature of sensational writing”.

The three were made to wait in the gateway of Cardiff Prison until 7.45am, when a white-haired warder appeared to toll a bell. The gateway opened, and the men were led by another warder along a gravel path, through a ‘gaol-bound garden’.  On the left-hand side was a narrow door, and the group passed through into a narrow, triangular yard.

In the yard was a small brick building with large, locked, folding doors at one end. At 7.50, a door opened in a building at one end of the yard, and out walked two short men, followed by a doctor, JD Williams. One of the men – “short and sturdy”, saluted the journalists and as he walked across the yard and unlocked the brick building’s doors.

Executioner James Billington, who died the year after he hanged William Lacey

“That’s Billington”, commented the warder, and the men realised that the other man with him was his son, then aged about 20 – presumably John Billington – “who went about his work, as did his father, in the most unassuming yet business like manner.”

Once the folding doors had been opened, the journalists could see a whitewashed interior, with a beam stretching the entire length of the building. At one end was a rope, dangling down with a noose covered in leather. Underneath was a large trap door, marked with chalk.

On the left was lever that the South Wales Echo reporter thought looked like one you would see in a railway signal-box. At one side was a long ladder that would be used to climb down into the pit below the scaffold, as the pit was ten feet deep.

Billington took some pinioning straps from his pocked, and played with them “much as a conjuror does with a tumbler of water and a watch”.

“What is the time now?” asked Billington to a warder.

“It’s just five minutes to eight.”

The reporter commented that the next five minutes “seemed like ages”. The Billingtons went back into the prison, while two warders took up position either side of the open scaffold doors.

Eventually, at two minutes to eight, the prison doors opened, and the Under-Sheriff, solicitor David Isaac, walked slowly towards the execution building, followed by his son George, and then Alderman Jacobs, a visiting magistrate. Then Father Alphonsus Van Den Heuvel appeared, and then, finally, William Lacey, walking firmly, with head up and eyes looking even further upward, out of the doorway and across the yard.

The journalist watched his face, and noted that there was no sign of despondency on it; “indeed, the expression was one indicative of submission and content.”

As he walked, however, his lips could be seen moving, as he quietly recited prayers to himself.

Lacey’s hands were already pinioned behind him by the time he left the prison, and so as soon as he reached the scaffold, Billington told him where to stand, as his assistant pinioned his legs. As the legs were being done, Billington “deftly slipped” the noose over Lacey’s head, before “whipping” a white cap out of his left-hand coat pocket and putting it over the man’s head.

“Almost in the same movement, [he] jumped to the side of the shed and pulled the lever.”

The death was quick.

“In less time than it takes to tell, the trap doors fell, and the condemned man passed from view. There followed a jerk, as the fatal rope went taut, and poor Lacey had passed from time into eternity.”

The officials present then drew as one to the pit edge, and gazed down into it. Roman Catholic prayers were then recited by the Father, before the officials turned to leave. It was noted that from  Lacey leaving his prison cell to the lever being pulled, just 30 seconds had passed; and at 8.01am, the reporters were leaving the prison precinct, and seeing the black flag flying outside.

The reporter’s later account of the execution seems to suggest his disquiet with execution as a means of punishment, and sympathy with Lacey for undergoing such a horrific death. Yet it also notes Billington’s experience and speed, noting that “if capital punishment must be, then surely there can be no death more humane and instantaneous.”

It also later notes that Lacey appeared to be more indifferent than penitent, although cautioned that indifference should not be confused with being callous, as Lacey did not appear to be that.

And what of Lacey himself? He had eaten a full breakfast of eggs just an hour before he died, and had asked to smoke a cigarette – permission for which was given. At his inquest – which, again, the reporter was present at – it was noted that he was dressed in his own clothes (“and that the same care had been exercised with the body as would have been the case had he died among well-to-do relatives”).

He was also reported as being a man of almost perfect constitution, his body being that of someone “who must have been possessed of herculean strength. At no point did the journalist link this ‘herculean strength’ with a violent husband who slit his wife’s throat one morning after breakfast.

Instead, he noted, probably with curled lip, the fact that some 4,000 people had been gathered outside the prison walls as Lacey had been hanged, mainly “to their discredit, composed of young girls, though women with babies in arms were numerous.” It was seen as inappropriate for women and girls to come to an execution, even though they could not see anything, and even though it was a man killed for killing one of their own.

The ‘onlookers’ were also, the reporter saw, primarily white women. There only seemed to be one black woman there, and she was the only one who was seen to demonstrate any empathy towards the condemned man, breaking the silence of the crowd by sighing “God help him!” at intervals. This woman kept well to the background, perhaps fearful of the crowd’s response to her race or her sympathy.

The report in the local paper is fascinating as it gives an insight into one late Victorian hanging some thirty years after the spectacle of a public execution in England and Wales had ended. It is a sober account, where it is clear that for the members of the press invited to attend, time dragged as they waited for a man to come and die, and where they were worried about what they would witness – and relieved that the hanging itself was quieter and quicker than they expected.

Yet it is also evident that there was misgiving about capital punishment, and recognition of the complexities involved in deciding that someone deserved to die, rather than be given the opportunity for rehabilitation or repentance.

The underlying issue of race is also evident; the desire to see Lacey as just another mine worker in Swansea or Pontypridd contrasted with a description in the newspaper of Pauline’s sister also marrying ‘a negro’, almost as to draw attention to the girls of this one family being wayward in marrying ‘outsiders’; the sympathetic depiction of the black woman attending the execution but who has to be cautious in how she expresses sympathy towards the condemned man, knowing that she is a minority both in her views and her colour as she waits outside the prison walls.

Therefore, the press reporting of this murder and its aftermath tell us more than the simple facts: they bring to life certain aspects of life in South Wales in 1900, attitudes both changing and unchanging. (4)


The excellent Race, Racialisation and the Death Penalty in England and Wales, 1900-1965 research project at the University of Sussex has previously covered the Lacey case as part of its Black History Month posts on its blog, so I’d really recommend a read. The post on William Lacey can be found here.


(1) Famous Swansea man Dylan Thomas, of course, at the start of Under Milk Wood.

(2)  The censuses record the Joseph children as Charles (b.c.1871), John (c.1875), Mary Ann (c.1876), Elizabeth (1878), Pauline (1881), Victorine (1885) and Julias Charles (1888).

(3) There is a marriage of a Mary Annie Joseph in Swansea in the December quarter of 1899 (11a 1448), but I’ve not been able to corroborate that this is Pauline’s sister Mary Ann, as there were separate individuals called Mary Ann Joseph and Mary Annie Joseph, born around the same time in Swansea.

(4) The reporter’s account of the execution is taken from the South Wales Echo of 21 August 1900, at the British Newspaper Archive.

What I’ve read about crime this month

I thought it might be useful to detail the books and publications I’ve read this month, for anyone who fancies a bit of crime reading! Thanks to train journeys and commissions, I’ve been able to read a few fascinating true crime books in the last few weeks, covering both UK and US crimes.

Rex v Edith Thompson, by Laura Thompson

I reviewed this book elsewhere on this site (see review here), but in short, this is a detailed and imaginative retelling of the life of Edith Thompson, and the murder that saw her hanged in the early 1920s. You really get a feel for the claustrophobia both of women’s lives and of outer London suburbia, and how Edith’s attempts to overcome this through her imagination and her writing later helped convict her.

It’s good to see a female presented in such a three-dimensional way here.


Mrs Holmes, by Brad Ricca

I was asked to review this by Real Crime magazine, so you’ll have to read that to find out exactly what I thought!

Although there are flaws in the writing, it is the story of an undoubtedly fascinating woman – Grace Humiston, a lawyer turned investigator working in New York in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. At its heart is the shocking murder of a young woman, and how Grace helped to solve the case.




Evidence of Love, by John Bloom and Jim Atkinson

This is an American classic, retelling the case of Candy Montgomery, who killed her fellow churchgoer Betty Gore in rural Texas in 1980. Although it is clear from the start who the murderer is, the authors then go back in time to show how both women were not as they seemed, building a good psychological portrait of Candy whilst never leaving you sure about whether that psychological background was really to blame for the violence she later showed. The authors interviewed most of the people involved in this case, and the level of detail is impressive.


BBC History: The Story of Crime & Punishment

This is one of BBC History’s bookazines – a collection of articles commissioned mainly from academics working in the history of crime (as well as the ubiquitous Lucy Worsley – I’d rather have seen Judith Flanders featured instead, but that’s a different story… *coughs*). Some at least I remember seeing in the magazine before, so I’m not sure how many have been newly commissioned for this, and how many have been repurposed.

There are a couple of pieces by Alyson Brown and Lizzie Seal, both of whose research I always find interesting (and Alyson’s also in the current issue of BBC History magazine as well), and others by Clive Emsley, Oxford Brookes‘ own David Nash and Anne-Marie Kilday, and my former PhD supervisor Drew Gray. Also well worth reading for the interview with Kate Summerscale on Victorian matricide (her book, The Wicked Boy, is highly recommended, too).


If you’ve recently read a new true crime or crime history book (or you’ve published one) and you think I should be reading and reviewing it, do let me know via the contacts form. I’m always keen to get my fix of the latest books and research.


The Camden Town Tragedy: Class and titles in coverage of the Crippen case


An IPN headline from 23 July 1910

The past is a different place: sometimes, this does not seem to be the case when analysing crime coverage in the newspapers of the 19th century or early 20th century.

The human instinct is to be drawn to tales of murder and mayhem; to find ourselves gripped by some horrible case, and to carry on reading about victims’ deaths – the manner of it, the weapons used, even the fear catalogued in offenders’ testimony about their offences, or implied in defence wounds, and so on.

We may not ever desire to commit a crime ourselves, and we may not have an ounce of sympathy towards the offender, but there is certainly something present in human psychology that makes us want to know, to understand, the nature of crime and why humans do things that our criminal and legal systems have declared to be offences.

If this interest in crime is part of our psychology, then it is no wonder that it transcends time, and why reading, say, coverage of the Whitechapel Murders in the Illustrated Police News during late 1888 feels familiar to those of us who would otherwise be reading stories of other cases in today’s tabloids (and, of course, today’s papers continue to write about the crimes of the past, most notably those same Whitechapel Murders – just one example being this Sun piece from earlier this year).

The basic tenets of crime reporting have not changed that much, although the law might have changed in some respects (I recently researched a post-World War 2 story for a local paper, for example, where the victim of an attempted rape was not only named, but her address and other details happily reported, both prior to her attacker’s identification and apprehension, and following his trial).

The fundamentals are the same: setting the scene, detailing the shocking crime, giving information that the police want made public in order to locate and arrest an alleged perpetrator.

In this way, crime reportage is like a crime novel – both are written to draw the reader in and to keep them reading. In the 19th century, just as now, we fear the unknown, and in particular the unknown attacker. We scare ourselves by reading these stories that transcend time and place, and it makes little difference to us where a crime took place.

I’ve been reading about the Karla Homolka case this week; it may be a Canadian case, but it still raises issues about the ‘faces’ presented by a violent, possibly psychopathic woman, and whether she managed to dupe the predominantly male authorities, that are pertinent in a wider context (and if you want to send me a copy of this new book about Homolka, Routledge, I wouldn’t object!).

But one way in which some crime coverage of the past appears to differ from today is in the implied respect for class and title that some newspapers employed. Of course, Victorian society was always preoccupied with social position, and title was a way of presenting one’s social position, or of signifying respect for an individual.

Crippen and Le Neve on trial

This, though, presents some interesting reading. Take, as the most obvious case, that of Hawley Harvey Crippen.

Even today, he is more commonly referred to as Dr Crippen, despite his US homeopathic qualifications not being sufficient for him to practise as a doctor in his adopted country of England. This differs from, say, the more recent murders committed by GP Harold Shipman – we tend to refer to him as ‘Harold Shipman’ rather than ‘Dr Shipman’.

Crippen married his second wife, Cora, in 1894, but murdered her in 1910, having started an affair with typist Ethel Le Neve. As the police closed in on him and his made-up stories about what had happened to Cora, Crippen and Le Neve fled, making their way across the Atlantic.

Walter Dew

They were arrested thanks to recognition by the ship’s captain, a wireless telegram, and a chief inspector – Walter Dew – who travelled on a ship that was quicker than Crippen’s, enabling him to capture the couple when their ship approached port in Canada.

The murder, and the exciting chase across the Atlantic, was obviously a major story, and eagerly covered by the press – both at the time, and long after.

The Illustrated Police News, known for its over-excited coverage of crime, and its gory illustrations, duly engaged in columns of newsprint to detail the case.

At the time of the inquest into Cora’s death, through the attempt to flee, the arrests, and the subsequent trial, the parties were largely referred to by their titles: Dr, Mrs, Miss.

Yet even a quarter century later, the Illustrated Police News still obeyed the conventions by how it referred to the parties (in a page looking at ‘notable crimes of the past’ – IPN, 30 January 1936, p.5).

The IPN’s depiction of Crippen and a disguised le Neve on board their ship to Canada

When it recounted Crippen and Le Neve being arrested, the story not only referred to ‘Mrs Crippen’, the victim, but referred to the accused as ‘Dr Crippen’ and ‘his typist, Miss Le Neve’. There were, admittedly, some mentions simply of ‘Crippen’, but these were vastly outnumbered by ‘Dr Crippen’, otherwise referred to as ‘the doctor’.

There is, though, another reason why their titles were so important. Crime was associated with the lower classes: they were seen to be rather lawless, immoral, prone to drinking and to violence. If Cora’s murder had been by a labouring man, it may have been seen as less of an interesting case.

This murder, though, was committed by a doctor. He had a title, he was middle class. His occupation and his title made the crime even more newsworthy than it would otherwise have been.

The women’s titles had also got significance. Miss Le Neve – the unmarried woman having an affair with the husband of Mrs Crippen, the married woman. Their titles implied not respect so much as a stressing of their roles in Crippen’s life and their roles in this drama. It was a shorthand for what had been going on, highlighting the relationships between the parties whilst.

Therefore, although on the surface, the use of titles appears to be a remnant of a past that was very focused on respect for class, and for titles, underneath, there are other reasons to highlight people’s positions, and they add to, rather than distract from, the crime story in question.

Book review: Rex v Edith Thompson

Freddy Bywaters, Edith Thompson, and Edith’s husband Percy Thompson

On 9 January 1923, a 29-year-old woman and a 20-year-old man fell to their deaths at the end of two ropes. The events that had led to their deaths had been endlessly debated in the press and in court during the previous three months, and as we approach the centenary of their executions, there is still discussion about whether the woman in question deserved to die.

The woman, Edith Jessie Thompson, a married woman from the eastern outskirts of London who dared to dream of a more exciting life than marriage to a dull man who may have been violent towards her, of more than life in the new suburbs of the London/Essex border. The man was Freddy Bywaters, someone she had known since his childhood, a family friend who she embarked on a passionate affair with.

Edith is a fascinating woman, even from this remove: she worked full-time in London, and seems to have enjoyed having a career that enabled her to pay her fair share towards her marital home, unusual at the time. She was ambitious, independent, and loved books and writing. This love of writing, combined with a vivid imagination and desire for romance, was her downfall.

In her book on the case, out today in paperback, Laura Thompson explores how Edith Thompson was condemned by her own letters to her lover – or rather, by the perceptions others, primarily men, formed about her based on these texts. She was hanged even though she had not killed her husband – it was her lover, everyone agreed (including him), who had stabbed Percy Thompson to death as he walked home with his wife following an evening at the theatre.

But Edith had been a prolific letter writer, and in a way, she was failed by the young lover who ignored her requests to burn her correspondence (she, however, burned most of his), which led to them being used as evidence against her. Her letters are a mix of reality and fantasy, of dreams and desires, and so the odd references to doing something to her husband – a man who would not agree to a separation, even though he was aware of his wife’s affair – were seen to be attempts to poison him, or requests for her lover to do so.

She was condemned for having an affair, for being too open about her feelings, and for trying to communicate in an imaginative way to her lover. She was, as Laura Thompson suggests, punished for being too modern a woman, trying to live a life beyond that which society dictated she should be happy with. And yet. There remains doubt as to whether she had actually tried to kill her husband, about how complicit she was in the murder.

Her lies immediately following Percy’s death – claiming to have not seen an attacker, that Percy simply collapsed, that she saw no blood – did not help her cause. And her letters can certainly be read in different ways, according to how you feel about her.

Edith Thompson

This is, to her credit, something acknowledged by Thompson, who seems to herself fluctuate in her feelings towards Edith. She distinguishes as well between what Edith wrote, how Edith saw events, and how others perceived them. Therefore, the book is a book of two halves: most of it recreates Edith’s life from her own letters, using her own words, before the book changes focus (the ‘Rex’ part) by looking at events subsequent to the murder, written up by others – by Home Office officials, by lawyers, by newspaper journalists.

True crime books can vary in quality and in terms of their writing and analysis. This is one of the hardest I’ve found to read, because of its ambitious approach – it makes you concentrate, to read everything carefully in case you miss something.

It’s imaginatively written, but complex, weaving in social and gender history, and constructing a three-dimensional picture of the stifling nature of lower middle class life in Ilford in the early 1920s, as women’s lives were changing, but not yet changed. As Laura Thompson stresses, Edith was caught between two generations, and was before her time. Had she been a generation later, she would have enjoyed more freedom, more opportunities, and might have been happier.

It is to Laura’s credit that she makes no attempt to simplify the case, or Edith’s background. Freddy Bywaters is perhaps more two-dimensional, although she does try to get beyond the picture of him we might get from Edith’s letters, to present a perhaps unworthy lover, one who had a tendency to violence, a darker side underneath the striking good looks. Percy is, inevitably, more of a cipher – the reader never gets a good look at him, which is a reflection again on Edith’s letters and their focus, but acknowledged by the author.

The author never seems sure of the level of Edith’s complicity, but one thing is certain: she should not have been convicted of murder, and hanged, as the murderer was never in doubt, and there was no evidence against Edith. She was convicted of having an affair, of writing explicit letters, of living in a fantasy that went horribly wrong. Her letters were read out in court by men, and judged by men. She never had a chance, despite having not committed the crime she was charged with.

Ultimately, the book presents a strong case against the death penalty, and the depiction of Edith’s time in the condemned cell, and her hanging, is the most harrowing I’ve come across. If you want a simplistic true crime book that sees crime as an entertainment, do not read this; however, if you want a deeper consideration of the gendered nature of crime and punishment, and attitudes towards women’s sexuality and desires between the wars, I can’t recommend this highly enough.

Rex v Edith Thompson: A Tale of Two Murders, by Laura Thompson, is published by Head of Zeus.Thanks to the publisher for giving me a review copy of the book.




The Leytonstone Murder: how a merchant’s madness over money led to a horrific death

It was an ordinary weekend in the autumn of 1904,  and the Dover police were about to have the relative peace broken by William Hoffman.

“I wish to surrender myself,” he said to one of the police officers, an Inspector Lackwood, as he entered the police office. Lackwood looked the man up and down. He appeared very depressed, and Lackwood wondered whether he had been drinking, but there was no sign of it. He was not drunk, and neither was he hallucinating.

He did, however, appear familiar. Lackwood remembered a note circulated by the Metropolitan Police recently, which featured the description of a man they wanted to question: this stranger in Dover matched that description.

Lackwood immediately got in touch with his fellow officers in Hackney, east London, prompting Detective Inspector George Wallace to make the slow journey down to the south coast. It was the following morning when he walked into the police office, and saw Hoffman.

“I am a police officer,” he told the stranger, “and I should arrest you for wilful murder.”

“I will say nothing,” responded Hoffman: “I have said all I wish to say.”

But Hoffman had not said everything; although he had also talked extensively to Inspector Lackwood, prior to Wallace turning up, on the train from Dover back to London, he once more gave a full statement, confessing to a heinous crime. He had, as the Met strongly suspected already, murdered his own housekeeper, Helen Walden, in the cellar of 11 Park Grove Road in Leytonstone.

William Hoffman was aged around 41, and was originally from Chesham in Buckinghamshire. He had been living in the house for around five years, and with his brother, Thomas, ran a business from there, as coal, coke and wood merchants (although the 1901 census actually records them at the address as greengrocers). Helen had started work for them as a servant in around 1901, when she would have been around 16.

Hoffman was an unlikely looking murderer. He wore a neat blue reefer coat, and had a well-trimmed, albeit long and bushy, black beard.

He looked, it was said, like a ‘rather quiet-looking man’ with a ‘peaceful state of mind’, although his quietness could have been due to his partial deafness.

The peaceful attitude he displayed to police and, later, to a judge and jury, belied the crime with which he was soon charged. Helen Walden, who was just 19 years old,  had been discovered in the cellar with her throat ‘cut from ear to ear’.

It later emerged that Thomas Hoffman had gone out on a coal round at 8am on the morning of the murder, leaving Helen and William alone at home. The Hoffmans’ shop was on the ground floor, and William had worked there in the morning, as several customers laters attested. Helen, meanwhile, was starting the week’s washing in the cellar, which was directly underneath the shop.

At around 11am, William was seen leaving the shop, carrying a black bag. When his brother arrived home two hours later, he found that both the shop and the side entrance were locked, and he couldn’t get in. He knocked at both doors, then on the windows, but the house seemed empty. Eventually, he broke open the side entrance, and started calling for William and Helen. No answer. The house was, it was later said, ‘as silent as the grave’.

Thomas searched the rooms for his brother and servant. Eventually, he came to the cellar – and found the body of Helen Walden, lying on her back in a pool of blood. A horrified Thomas immediately ran to the local police station, and soon he was running back, this time accompanied by two detectives.

Two doctors arrived shortly after, and found that Helen had been dead for several hours, although her body was still warm. There was no doubt about the cause of death – her throat had been cut from right to left, ‘in a jagged fashion’ – but her face was also covered with fingerprints, grey with coal dust.

Later, William confessed that he had gone down into the cellar, where Helen was working, and asked her for money she owed him. This amounted to around £19, and William had previously accused her of stealing it, a charge that she had furiously denied.

Yet it seems that she had a history: nine months earlier, as it emerged later, she had admitted to stealing 30s from one of the Hoffman brothers, but had been allowed to repay it in weekly instalments of 2s – still quite a sum, as her wages were only 5s a week.

William obviously had some sympathy with the young woman, to the extent that Thomas Hoffman had told his brother they should turn her out of the house, ending her employment, after she had admitted the earlier theft; William refused, because she had no parents still alive and he was concerned about what would happen to her if she left.

It may, then, have been understandable that when a further sum went missing, William suspected Helen – and it seems that she had received the money, but perhaps thought William had given it to her, or at least lent it to his long-serving servant. In his account, anyway, she admitted having had the money; but she no longer had it in her possession.

“I can’t get it,” she responded, “I have given the soldier £10 and Madge Harrington [a friend] £9, and they won’t give it me back.”

The ‘soldier’ was her young man, who was in the 2nd Battalion of the Buffs (the Royal East Kent Regiment), stationed at Dover.

“If that is so,” answered Hoffman, “I shall have to do something.”

Helen was not scared off. “If you want anything out of that, you will have to take my life,” she napped, and then lay down on the floor, on her back, and put her arms up. “Come on, cut my throat!”

This, at least, was Hoffman’s version of events. Taking Helen’s words literally, he immediately cut her throat with a white-handled knife, before wiping it clean of blood on Helen’s own clothes. William even claimed, rather ruining his story, that as he cut Helen’s throat, she helped him: “she turned over on her face and then on her back again. I didn’t struggle with her at all, as there was no occasion to do it.”

After committing the murder, Hoffman had calmly walked away from the house, and to the train station, where he caught a train down to Dover. He checked into the Standard pub on Commercial Quay, and there he had stayed from Wednesday to Friday, when he first walked to the police station, with the aim of confessing.

On getting there, however, his courage failed him, and he had returned to the pub. Eventually, though, that weekend, he succeeded in telling the police what he had done. He argued that his main reason for coming to Dover was to find Helen’s soldier, and to either get the money she had given him back – or kill him.

Hoffman appeared at Stratford Police Court immediately after reaching London again, on a charge of murder. Although his appearance attracted crowds outside the court, the public were not allowed to come in and watch proceedings. His appearance was brief, and ended with him being remanded into custody.

He was eventually tried at the Central Criminal Court in December 1904, and, despite medical evidence – from Dr Scott, medical officer at Brixton Gaol, where Hoffman had been held  – that he was insane at the time of the murder, was convicted. William’s comment in court, shortly before being sentenced, was said calmly:

“I think it is a great shame, after a man has been robbed of over £300 [sic], that he should have his life taken away. I have treated this girl to the best of everything.”

William Hoffman was sentenced to death; however, after a medical examination by Home Office doctors – ordered, perhaps, in part because of a protest there had been after his conviction by those against the death penalty being carried out against a man who had been declared insane – he was granted a respite. William may have felt that Helen had got away with theft, but he had, in a way, got away with murder.


Illustrations from the Illustrated Police News of 5 November 1904, p.3 and the Clifton and Redland Free Press, 4 November 1904, p.4, accessed via the British Newspaper Archive.

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