Criminal Historian

Working with dead people

Author: Criminal Historian (page 1 of 22)

Book Review: The Murder That Defeated Whitechapel’s Sherlock Holmes

The Great War was still fresh in everyone’s minds when, one snowy night in Hitchin, Hertfordshire, a middle-aged shopkeeper was found murdered in her corner shop, her dog lying dead nearby.

Elizabeth Ridgley, aged 54, was a spinster who lived alone, apart from her pet. She served the local community well, and opened her shop long hours in order to cater for their every need. Who could have wanted her dead?

This is the story that Paul Stickler seeks to explore and analyse in The Murder That Defeated Whitechapel’s Sherlock Holmes, now published by Pen & Sword books. The title is something of a misnomer; there is a tendency to link Sherlock Holmes to all sorts of real-life characters to grab the attention, but the man referred to here, Detective Chief Inspector Fred Wensley, is no Sherlock Holmes, but instead a methodical and effective Scotland Yard man – and that, in my mind, is equally good!

Likewise, the Whitechapel link is somewhat tenuous: perhaps designed to make you think of the Whitechapel Murders of 1888, it is a reference to Wensley having once worked in that area of East London. Yet this book is about small-town Hertfordshire and its inhabitants, and its title should both reflect that and be proud of it. There is no need to try and link it to London: it is not about that, but about a rather claustrophobic Home Counties community.

The murder of Elizabeth Ridgley is significant because it was not originally deemed to be murder at all. The original Hertfordshire police detective assigned to the case rather bizarrely decided that Mrs Ridgley had died in a freak accident, and that her dog had been accidentally killed by her shortly before her own death.

The story, as detailed by Paul Stickler, makes you almost laugh as you read it, for to modern minds, it seems inconceivable that a woman could have an accident that involved her smearing quantities of her own blood all over the downstairs of her house, moving from room to room, and then fracture her beloved pet’s skull, again by accident. Yet that is what George Reed, of the Hitchin police, insisted had happened (as Stickler notes, he was about to retire, and perhaps didn’t want to finish with a nasty murder case).

Luckily, Scotland Yard had its doubts about this accident theory too, and brought in Wensley to reinvestigate. He believed it was murder, identified a suspect, and in due course, saw the case come to court. It’s not quite right to say, as the title does, that this murder case defeated Wensley; instead, I was left at the end of the book believing strongly that he had got the right man, but that the mess left by Reed meant that the jury had little hard evidence to go on. Stickler reaches the same conclusion; and one feels that he is far more of a Wensley than a Reed, detailing the whys and wheres and hows in careful detail.

This is obviously due to Stickler’s background in CID, investigating murders himself until his retirement in 2008. His skill in detailing crime scenes and analysing evidence are obvious in reading this book; although it takes time to get going, you soon get drawn into the events, curious to know more about the victim and her alleged attacker.

Where he falls down slightly is in his storytelling; he is prone to use lots of commas to create very long sentences, for example, where a few judicious full-stops would have made it easier to read some of what he’s trying to say. In addition, some of the characters remain – perhaps inevitably, but obstinately –  two-dimensional, including Reed himself, whose actions appear so peculiar and irrational. Finally, the jumps in time and place, particularly in the early part of the book, don’t quite work.

But these are minor quibbles. Stickler’s professional experience results in a book where you feel he has really attempted to get under the skin of the investigating police – to see what they saw, to analyse the evidence, and to point the reader in the right direction. It hints at issues around class, nationality, money, and the aftermath of war, whilst never detracting from what the book is: a study of a murder, and also of how the police operated at this time. It also, fundamentally, shows that justice is not always served, however hard the Wensleys of this world try.

The Murder That Defeated Whitechapel’s Sherlock Holmes: At Mrs Ridgley’s Corner, by Paul Stickler, is published by Pen & Sword at £14.99. Thanks to the publisher for sending me a review copy of the book.

The Female of the Species

In 1928, the Illustrated London News ran a series of articles on the science behind the detection of crime, which purported to look objectively at crime and those who committed it, citing various scientific methods of analysing crime.

In reality, it was not as scientific or objective as the series’ title suggested, and in particular, an article about the female criminal demonstrated the age old belief that women were unlikely to be ‘femme soles’ when it came to committing crime – if they were criminals, it must be because a nasty man had persuaded her to fall into such a life.

The article was written by H Ashton-Wolfe, ‘assistant investigator under Dr Georges Béround, Director of the Marseilles Scientific Police Laboratories‘ (Laboratoire de criminology de Marseille)- a title that hinted at a scientific education and experience – yet the piece could really have been written by any layman. In fact, ‘H Ashton-Wolfe’ was Harry Ashton-Wolfe, a writer of true crime adventures, and who has been described elsewhere as ‘cheerleader for “modern” scientific detection, adventurous master of disguise and shameless name-dropper’.

Women often committed crimes ‘because they dare not disobey the orders of a gang whose vengeance they fear’ or because they were in love with a male criminal and simply followed his requests ‘blindly’.  Although it was a ‘rule’ that women committed crime only because there was a man involved, Mr Ashton-Wolfe then declared that there were, in fact ‘many habitual and professional female malefactors’.

Of course, though, the ‘female brain’ being different from the male, the offences committed by women were markedly ‘feminine’ in nature They were physically weak, and so relied on their other skills – ‘guile, deception, and a flaunting of sex’. Robberies with violence, burglaries, and any murder not involving poison, were ‘the prerogative of man’, as women were incapable of committing any crime that involved ‘skilled labour’.

Women were distrustful, particularly when it came to other women, and would only work with them when they were personal friends. Male burglars and conmen would avoid working with women because she would ‘always be a slave to her more sensitive nervous system’ and tended to quarrel too much to be useful.

So much of what a woman apparently couldn’t do. What was she good at (apart from the ‘flaunting’ of sex, of course…)? She had a keen eye, for starters, and was used by criminal gangs to act as a ‘spy, decoy, and watcher’.

Burglars would use young women to divert the attention of night watchmen, sometimes encouraging girls to make the acquaintance of the local watchmen over a period of time beforehand, sometimes giving him a sob story about being poverty-stricken, or abandoned by her parents, to get sympathy. It was, of course, easier to get the attention of the watchman if ‘she was pretty’.

Women were also liars, apparently – good at lying to the police and sticking to a story if a burglary was discovered. Their skill as listeners and questioners enabled them to get valuable information regarding the habits of a building’s residents. If they were ‘trained’ properly by men, they could learn to draw pictures of windows, doors, locks and burglar alarms to help the burglars plan their sorties.

But women did not choose to do such work: she ‘very often did not become a criminal from choice’. She was, however, able to choose to take part in schemes ‘in which her powers of seduction give her an undoubted advantage, and her victims are nearly always of the opposite sex.’ They weren’t able to hide their sex from investigators, though: ‘They appear to be devoid of imagination, and leave obvious and distinctive traces which reveal their sex to the skilled observer.’ The wearing of perfumes and powder, heels, and having long nails were all seen as part of women’s inability to hide themselves from the eyes, ears and noses of the police.

Women also dressed alike. Female hotel thieves, known as ‘hotel rats’ apparently all wore black silk from head to toe, and went barefoot as they crept from hotel room to hotel room to steal money and jewellery from residents. Over their heads, they wore a cowl – like a balaclava, with nostril and eye holes cut into it. Unfortunately, for some time, women failed to realise, apparently, that if spotted dressed in such a way by hotel staff, they would immediately be outed as a hotel rat, and captured. When they realised, the fashions changed – and hotel rats started to wear purple pyjamas, to make them look more like a hotel resident.

The tale of the hotel rats and their silky clothing – designed to make it hard for any disturbed hotel-stayer to grab hold of them – is interesting, but what else does this piece tell us? Firstly, it tells us that there was little understanding, even in the 1920s, of female criminality. Women were still seen as largely incapable of committing crimes on their own initiative – they had to be under the influence of a male mastermind. They were incapable of violent crime, or of displaying physical strength.

Men and women were perceived as being fundamentally different – male and female fingerprints, apparently, were a sign of this (despite ALL fingerprints being different, regardless of gender). Men were good at crimes needing violence, strength, or physical action – but women were recognised for superior mental skills such as finding out information and planning, even if they were not ‘imaginative’.

There was little recognition of individuality, and of individual differences. Instead, men and women were put into simplistic, generalised boxes and assumed to primarily act true to their gender. Yet the attempt to try and rationalise female criminality was surely a sign that women were committing crimes that could not be easily explained or understood, and the desire to minimise their involvement in offences to the least violent ones, or to supporting roles in these offences, was an attempt to maintain out of date perceptions of what a woman was, and what she was capable of.

Images taken from the Illustrated London News, on the British Newspaper Archive

 

 

 

 

A quick post today not about criminal behaviour, but about the deaths that occurred in a single week in London. I find stats like this fascinating as much for what they don’t say as what they do; and the awful deaths of the poorest members of London’s society still make you catch your breath nearly two centuries later. In order to understand the criminal behaviour of our ancestors, we need to also understand the communities they lived in, and the pressures they faced. Reports like this play a part in helping us to gain that understanding.

It was the last week in December, 1849, and Londoners could think themselves lucky if they made it to the second half of the century, if the week’s returns of deaths in the city was anything to go by.

As reported in the Illustrated London News, during that last week, 1226 individuals were born in London, but 1162 people died, of whom, over 800 had had medical attention for various fatal diseases.  Nearly 200 inquests were carried out as a result of deaths in this week; it was found that 65 deaths were due to fractures, wounds, drowning, hanging, suffocation, burns, scalds or poison – over twice the weekly average (there was no recording how many deaths were suicides, and how many were murders).

A further 44 deaths were from apoplexy, and in 45 cases, the cause of death could not be ascertained.

Seven children had died after being suffocated in bed; five deaths were due to drinking (including the death of a 14 year old girl who drank too much gin and died 38 hours later of congestion of the brain).

Poverty was sadly in evidence, as well. One child sadly ‘died of want’ and a 40-year-old man died of exposure to cold and destitution. Another man, a former pork butcher, who was only 27 years old, had been admitted into the St Martin in the Fields workhouse, but died three days later from the effects of starvation and neglect.

Although some of these deaths were of children and young people (42 children had died of measles, 24 of scarlatina, and 24 of whooping-cough), others had a longer life. One woman was reported dead at the age of 100, having finally succumbed to inflammation of the lungs.

Eight people died of the flu, and nine of diarrhoea. On the positive side, the seven fatal cases of smallpox that week, and 31 of typhus, were lauded as showing that those diseases were ‘less prevalent than usual’. Hoorah! 🤨

 

 

New crime website: Our Criminal Ancestors

A new website aimed at helping people research their family’s criminal history was launched last weekend in Hull.

The website, Our Criminal Ancestors, is a project that aims to help people explore the criminal past not only of their families, but also their community – whether a specific town, or a wider region.

Stemming from a public engagement project by academics at Leeds Beckett and Hull universities, those behind it hope that people will submit their stories and events from history, focusing on the years from 1700 to 1939. You can submit the story of your ancestor’s career in the police, for example, or, conversely, their criminal record!

However, the website also aims to help individuals learn about the history of crime, offering advice and features about crime, policing and punishment, through blog posts and case studies.

The website is currently divided into a couple of primary strands – Getting Started (looking at key sources and archives), Criminal Lives (featuring stories from the archives), and Timelines (divided into themes, such as youth justice, policing and punishments) – with maps, blogs, events and resources all highlighted as well. Another strand, Join In, points readers towards the History Pin website, where you can submit your own stories.

Although the website has only just been launched, and is fairly small scale at the moment, it has huge potential for those researching crime history, and its collaborative outlook, encouraging the public to help build a repository of stories and information about crime history in different communities, is great. Do get involved in submitting stories to the site, as this is crucial to its future success – and you never know what you may learn from it yourself.

You can also keep in touch with the project on Twitter, via @OurCriminalPast.

 

 

Jolly Jane: (mis)understanding a female serial killer

A ghost sign in modern Boston

I’ve just returned from a fantastic trip to Massachusetts, and while there, of course, thought to research some of the crime and news stories from the state’s history. Here’s one I found which is interesting both because it has parallels with elements of the story of Amelia Dyer in Britain around the same time, but also because it shows that, throughout history, ‘experts’ (usually male) have struggled to explain female criminality, and in particular the relative few cases of female serial killers. It seems that we seek explanations for female deviancy to a far greater extent than with male criminals – even when, sometimes, there might not be a coherent explanation at all, however hard we look.

She was born Honora Kelley, and like many residents of Massachusetts in the mid 19th century, she was the child of Irish parents – of course, many Irishmen and women had fled the Great Famine of their homeland in the 1840s and both New York and Boston, on America’s east coast, had seen an influx of migrants as a result.

Although these Irish people had fled famine, many of them found that life in America was not much of an improvement. Life was a struggle, and many found it hard to feed their families and keep a roof over their heads. Sickness and disease was ever present, and Honora’s own mother, Bridget, soon died of consumption.

Jane Toppan, the former Honora Kelley

She and her siblings were left to be brought up – dragged up – by her father Peter, an abusive man who was regarded as mad by his neighbours. Within a few years of his wife’s death, it became clear that Peter could not father his children effectively. He abandoned his youngest two – Honora, then six, and her eight-year-old sister Delia – at a local female orphanage, and never saw them again.

At the age of eight, Honora was sent out to work by the orphanage, becoming a servant in the household of Ann Toppan in Lowell, north of Boston.

Although her miserable start in life should not be used to excuse her later offences, it is clear that Honora had the odds stacked against her. She was from a poverty-stricken immigrant family; her mother was dead and her father absent. She had no chance of a happy childhood, and her working life started when she was still a young child.

In later life, she targeted others who were themselves vulnerable, as though angered by memories of her own childish vulnerability, and the failure of her parents to give her a secure start to life. The fact that she took on the surname of her Toppan employers suggests a desire to become part of a family – yet she would later try and destroy it.

It could have been so different for Honora, though. She had chances which others in her situation did not; at 21, she started training to be nurse, and at work was well-liked. As she had become known as Jane Toppan, others nicknamed her Jolly Jane because of her friendliness. But underneath, there were darker thoughts going round Jane’s head.

Like Amelia Dyer in Britain at the end of the 19th century, Jane used her nursing as a cover to kill, and started to kill whilst working in a hospital. Curious about life and death – remember, this is a woman who had lost her own mother to tuberculosis when she was young – she started fiddling with the dosage of medicines to see what happened to patients when they were given too much of a drug.

She would get into bed with them to see what the effect was, and to watch them fall unconscious. Eventually, while working at the Massachusetts General Hospital, she was sacked for administering drugs ‘recklessly’.

The 1893 city directory for Cambridge, MA, shows Jane working as a private nurse there

She no longer had access to hospital patients, but still had the desire to poison individuals and monitor the effect of the poison on them. She started working as a private nurse when her hospital job ended so prematurely, and found other opportunities to injure or kill individuals, too. In 1895, she killed her landlord and his wife; four years later, Elizabeth Toppen Brigham, daughter of her first employer, was killed with strychnine.

She killed Mattie Davis, and then moved in with her widower, Alden, to ‘look after’ him. In 1901, she killed Alden, as well as his daughters Genevieve Gordon and Minnie Gibbs. Her preferred poisons were morphine and atropine.

Jolly Jane had got careless in trying to kill an entire family rather than an individual. A toxicology test was ordered for Minnie Davis Gibbs, and it showed that she had been poisoned. Jane was duly arrested for murder, and later confessed to over 30 murders.

Most of her known victims were women – the youngest victim was Minnie, aged 40; the oldest was her landlord Israel Dunham’s 87-year-old wife. The majority of the victims, however, were in their sixties or seventies.

When she was arrested, Jane had objected to her being described as ‘morally insane’. She argued, “I can read a book intelligently, and I don’t have bad thoughts, so I don’t see where moral degeneracy comes in.”

Although she insisted she was sane and knew what she was doing when she poisoned so many people, the jury clearly could not comprehend how a sane woman could do such awful things, and found her not guilty by reason of insanity. She was ordered to be sent to a local asylum – the Taunton State Hospital.

Once in there, Jane claimed to be ‘haunted by the horrible fear that all around her are seeking to serve her as she served her numerous victims.’ She embarked on a hunger strike out of a fear that her own food would be poisoned, and had to be force fed with a tube.

Meanwhile, continuing press coverage of Jane’s offences were as confused by her as the jury at her trial had been. This was clearly an intelligent woman, and appeared ‘mentally, physically, and morally’ normal; yet she must clearly be insane, for why else would a woman kill? Despite this insistence of her madness, one newspaper had to admit that this was a ‘peculiar’ mental illness that seemed to have left her ‘intellectual faculties unimpaired’.

Jane is listed as an inmate of the Taunton State Hospital in the 1930 US census (image via Ancestry)

There was clearly a doubt as to what Jane’s motives were, and what could explain the actions of a female serial killer. This was not a common story – the victims had not done anything to Jane, and she was not an ‘angel of death’ seeking to stop people from going through pain by ending their suffering herself.

She was an ordinary woman, a trained nurse, and the experts of the time queued up to try and understand what she had done. As a British paper noted, ‘Criminologists, alienists and the public generally are aghast at her crimes. She alone is unconcerned.’

Jane was asked to explain her actions, and simply said that she could not control her impulse to kill – but ‘when the paroxysm passed, I was myself again. I cared no longer for the patients to die.’ In 1904, she was interviewed in the asylum that was now her home, and she attempted again to explain her thought processes:

“I do not know the feeling of fear, and I do not know the feeling of remorse, although I understand perfectly what these words mean. I do not seem to be able to realise the awfulness of the things I have done, although I realise what those awful things are. I seem incapable of realising the awfulness of it. Why don’t I feel sorry, and grieve over it? I don’t know.”

Unlike her own mother, Jane lived a long life. Unlike her victims, she died of natural causes. She died at the Taunton State Hospital in Massachusetts in September 1938, 36 years after she was committed to that establishment, remaining something of an enigma to those investigating female criminality.

 

*

Sources:

Northampton Mercury, 27 June 1902, p.8); Lancashire Evening Post, 3 September 1938, p.8; Dundee Evening Telegraph, 26 June 1902, p.4, St James’s Gazette, 26 June 1902, p.8, Leominster News, 2 September 1904. Do note that the relationship and names of some known victims of Jane Toppan varies from site to site (and within sites, on occasion!).

From dreams of Valentino to death on the beach

Rudolph Valentino, heartthrob of 1920s cinema

 

“Why is it so quiet, what are they hiding?” (Sylvia Plath, Berck-Plage)

It was 1934, and a beautiful blonde woman named Rachel Mery was about to die.

Rachel was a romantic, who fell headlong in love, and who loved grand gestures. She was now about to embark on her grandest, carrying out a suicide pact with her lover on the beach at Berck, near Le Touquet in northern France. She was only 23 years old.

She was born in Paris, the ‘youngest and prettiest’ daughter of a wealthy estate broker. She was always a dreamer – a girl whose health was deemed so delicate that she had not been sent to school, but instead kept at home to read and dream, and given an unusual amount of freedom by her doting parents.

It is no surprise that, lonely and in need of romance, she had developed a passion for the cinema, being described as ‘cinema mad’. She became obsessive, not just about the cinema, but about its stars – and in particular, about Rudolph Valentino – as had thousands of others. When he died, prematurely, in August 1926, she had joined hundreds of these other mourning women to burn candles in his memory; she had also built an altar to him.

Valentino – as he was in his films – had shown Rachel an idealised view of men and of love. Having lived her life to date in books and in films, with their often unrealistic view of life and passion, she believed this is what life was really like, and the reality would never be able to match it. For the rest of her life, Rachel seemed to be searching for the dramatic, passionate love affairs that were the mainstay of fiction.

Paris in 1934

However, ‘real’ men failed to live up to her ideals. In 1929, she had fallen ‘violently’ in love again – this time with a well-known orchestra leader, Fernand Heurteur, of the Grand Kinema in Paris. Fernand was regarded as something of a Don Juan, and it is clear that this middle-aged, successful man would never be the soulmate of a romantic young woman.

A year later, then, unsurprisingly, Rachel found out that 41-year-old Fernand had, in fact, been living with another woman, and had never mentioned this fact to her. They had initially argued at his flat, and then, on his agreeing to go for a drive, they argued again.

As they bowled along the Rue de Pyramides, she asked Fernand to leave his lover, but he responded, “Never”. She then took her father’s revolver out from her pocket, showing it to Fernand and saying, “It’s either for you or for me.” An unphased Fernand answered, “I don’t care. You may kill me or kill yourself.” So Rachel chose to kill Fernand – and he had been killed instantly, leaving the car to career along the road and crash into a lamp-post.

The police arrived, and she calmly surrendered to them, saying, “He is dead. I shot him because I loved him too much.” She continued to tell them what happened as she powdered her nose. “He wanted to abandon me – I told him so,” she sighed, before pointing with her ‘daintily-shod foot’ to the revolver on the floor of the car.

She was sent to prison to await trial, but while incarcerated, doctors discovered that she had tuberculosis, which was causing her to lose weight drastically. She was taken to her trial on a stretcher, and, due to her health, was given only two years in prison, as a first offender, and was actually released immediately, on payment of 100,000 francs in damages.

A railway poster for Berck

She then went as a patient to a sanatorium near Berck. Whilst there, a 34-year-old man named Georges Veron was admitted, also suffering from advanced tuberculosis, and fell in love with her. They spent much of their time going for rides in a pony-carriage, and writing romantic verses to each other. On Sunday, 21 January, they went out again for a ride, but never returned.

A coastguard found the lovers’ bodies, still in their pony-carriage, on the sand dunes. Rachel was lying back with her arms folded, looking as though she was asleep. Georges was lying across her body.

It was found that Rachel had first drunk a vial of a sleeping draught, and then, once she was asleep, Georges had shot her in her right temple, before shooting himself in the mouth. Their intention to carry out the pact was set out in a bundle of letters Rachel had written and posted – they arrived with their recipients nearly a week after the bodies were discovered.

Rachel’s death was as romantic as she could have wanted. She had finally found a lover who believed in a big statement as she did; neither of them had anything to lose, as they were faced with death sentences anyway. They died on a windswept beach, their deaths making the headlines just as Valentino’s had less than a decade before.

 

Details taken from British newspaper accounts, 1930-1934, of Rachel’s escapades, found on the British Newspaper Archive.

An Edwardian bicycle advert

I love looking through newspaper reports of court cases, but some Edwardian examples I’ve found recently make me feel quite sorry for the individuals named, as they seem to have been fined for simply trying to have fun, or keeping fit. In just one newspaper from 1909, I’ve found:

  • Morris Keen, of 8 Kilburn Square, Kilburn, fined a shilling for playing cricket at Kilburn Square
  • Edward Baker, of Kensington, fined 2s 6d for riding his bike at night without lights
  • Nelson Gowlett, of 38 Mora Road, Cricklewood, fined 2s 6d for playing football in the street
  • Harold Peacock, William Mudge and Leonard Andrews, all of Kilburn, and Reginald Travers of Willesden Green, fined 2s 6d each for cycling on a footpath leading to a park

Some of these named men, at least, were in their teens at the time of these offences – Nelson Gowlett, for example, from what I can see on Ancestry, was only 17 at the time, and Harold Peacock and William Mudge were both 15.

Of course, rules and regulations had to be obeyed; but it all seems a bit trivial and sour-faced to me – but it also conjures up an image of Edwardian London, where local youths spent their time playing cricket or football, and cycling with their mates. Maybe the past isn’t a different country after all?

Source: Kilburn Times, 18 June 1909

Super Spooner and the Witchcraft Murder

A unsolved murder in 1945 haunted Superintendent Alec Spooner of the Warwickshire police force for the rest of his life…

Superintendent Alec Spooner (from the Birmingham Daily Post, on the British Newspaper Archive)

Superintendent Alec Spooner, who joined the Warwickshire force in the 1930s after an earlier career as a Staffordshire miner, had conducted many murder investigations prior to his retirement in 1964. However, one stayed with him long after it had been given up as unsolved, and unsolvable. This was the so-called ‘Witchcraft Murder’ at Meon Hill, near Upper Quinton, in 1945, when a crippled hedge-cutter – 74-year-old labourer Charles Walton –  was killed by what newspapers described as ‘methods suggesting a ritual sacrifice’, with a cross carved into his chest.

Alec William Spooner was born in Amington, near Tamworth, in Staffordshire, the son of a hospital labourer. On joining the police, he served in Solihull and Sutton Coldfield, before being appointed as head of the county CID as a detective superintendent in May 1939, based in Stratford. One might expect Stratford to be a nice, gentle, patch for a policeman, but this was not the case.

On 14 February 1945, a cold, misty night in the middle of the muckspreading season, Charles Walton had been found in a field on the slope of Meon Hill, with his throat cut and a pitchfork thrust through his body. The murder weapon, Charles’ own trouncing hook, was still embedded in his neck.

Charles had married relatively late in life, aged 44, but had been widowed just 13 years later, and for the past 18 years, he had been living just with his niece, Edith Walton, in Lower Quinton. He was a harmless individual who spent time talking to the birds and animals he came across, and who was currently employed by Alfred Potter, whose farm, The Firs, had required extra labour.[1] There were signs of eccentric behaviour, for sure; he was once seen harnessing a toad to a toy plough and watching it drag the plough across a field. But that was the strangest thing that happened to Charles – until his death.

However, something odd had happened to Charles as a child. He was living then with his parents, Charles – an agricultural labourer – and Emma, and his siblings – Harriet, Mary, Martha, George and Richard – in Upper Quinton.  As was common amongst labouring families, the children were expected to start work young, and Charles was working as a ploughboy. On nine nights running, he saw a big black dog run across Meon Hill; on that final night, a headless woman walked past him in a silk dress, and the day after that he heard that his sister had died.

Coverage of the murder, from the following day, 15 February 1945 (Gloucestershire Echo, on the British Newspaper Archive)

Superstition and a belief in ghosts was rife in the area at the time of Charles’ childhood, and it seems to have continued: shortly after Charles’ death, the famous Scotland Yard detective Robert Fabian, drafted in to help the local police with the case, saw the same black ‘ghost’ dog; and a few days later, locals found a black dog, dead, hanged from the branch of a bush by its collar, close to where Charles’ body had been found. This time of the year, it was noted, was the Roman Feast of Lupercalia, when dogs were sacrificed to ensure good crops.

Despite the victim being old and frail – facts one would have thought would make local people want to help the police, and think of clues – they in fact avoided participation; another police superintendent, Bob Fabian commented that when he tried to interview local people, they displayed, “Lowered eyes, [a] reluctance to speak, except to talk of bad crops or a heifer that died in a ditch.” The detectives were ‘baffled’ by this reluctance to speak, and a decided ‘attitude’ on the part of locals.

Mediums were keener to help, however, with several holding séances on subsequent Valentine’s Days in the hope that they might uncover information that would help the police; however, their involvement might help explain the villagers’ reluctance to speak out. Far later on in time, they said that ‘they have never ceased to be pestered by occultists, psychic researchers, writers, the morbidly curious and others’ when all they wanted to do was to ‘live out their lives quietly in one of the most attractive corners of the county.’

Alec Spooner continued to work on other cases – in 1948, for example, he received acclaim for breaking up a nationwide gang of car thieves, who were so numerous that their case had to be held at a special Assize court in Warwick. But the case of the Witchcraft Murder continued to haunt him. In 1954, the Birmingham Daily Gazette reported that Spooner ‘probably saw a murderer yesterday – the man he has sworn to catch for killing an old hedger at Upper Quinton on St Valentine’s Day nine years ago.’

This story focused on a visit Spooner had just made to the village; he spent six whole hours walking round it, talking to men and women he had talked to nine years earlier. “I have sworn to solve this murder, and I am not going to give up,” he told reporters, stating that he intended making such regular ‘sudden’ visits to the village in order to spook the killer, who he suspected lived, and still lived, in the village. He believed the murder was a ritual killing, as it was committed on a day regarded as ‘the witches’ Sabbath’.

The baptism of Charles Walton in 1870, from Ancestry

In 1959, Spooner, who had been in charge of the Warwickshire CID for 20 years, was transferred to Nuneaton as the Divisional Superintendent. This change was ordered by PE Brodie, the fairly new Chief Constable of Warwickshire (a former Scotland Yard inspector, he had become the Chief Constable in 1958), as part of a ‘routine’ personnel change. On then retiring from the police in 1964, Spooner continued to live in Nuneaton, working as a security officer for the National Coal Board. He died in the town’s George Eliot Hospital in December 1970, aged 66 and two months, after an operation.

At his funeral, policemen acted as pallbearers. It sounded like as lovely a service as funerals can be; as it was Christmas time, Sylvia Spooner, Alec’s widow, asked for carols to be sung, and Christmas decorations lit at the location, Nuneaton’s parish church. His obituaries in the Birmingham and Coventry newspapers still recorded him as ‘CID’s witchcraft hunt man’.

Sadly, the ‘witchcraft’ case remained unsolved; in 1975, an article to mark the 30th anniversary of the crime stated that Charles Walton’s murder had ‘passed into Warwickshire folklore’. Was the killer still alive in the village, or elsewhere? ‘Most probably, the vicious murderer’s secrets died, or will die, with him or (less likely) her.’

Today, Charles Walton’s body remains buried in St Swithin’s Churchyard in Lower Quinton, across the road from a large house that was, in his time, a row of old thatched cottages named Meon Cottages – one was his home. In 1975, one female resident of the village had told a Coventry Evening Telegraph reporter that “it’s time they closed the book” – but in 2018, the case of Charles Walton is still very much open.

Sources: Coventry Evening Telegraph, 19 December 1970; Coventry Evening Telegraph, 24 December 1970; Coventry Evening Telegraph, 14 February 1975; and other issues of the Coventry Evening Telegraph and Birmingham Daily Gazette, all on British Newspaper Archive; plus census returns for Upper and Upper Quinton and Tamworth, all on Ancestry.

[1] Although some sources stated that Charles was an elderly bachelor, he was, as his Wikipedia entry states, a widower. His wife had died on 9 December 1927 – this information was taken from Edith Walton’s police interview about her uncle. Charles married Isabella Caroline Walton – perhaps a cousin – in 1914, and FreeBMD records her death aged 45 in October-December 1927 (vol 6d, page 866). The National Probate Calendar on Ancestry shows that ‘Isabel Caroline Walton, otherwise Isabella Caroline, of 15 Lower Quinton’ left effects of £297 4s 3d to ‘Charles Walton, cowman’. Isabella was born in 1882 in Binton, Warwickshire, but her father George, a carpenter, was a native of Quinton; Charles Walton Sr was baptised at Quinton on 28 April 1844, the son of William and Mary Walton; in the 1851 census for Lower Quinton, both Charles Walton, 7, and George Walton, 1, are listed as the sons of William and Mary Walton, so Isabella could well have been the younger Charles’s first cousin.

The 1939 Register on Findmypast also clearly records Charles as a widower. It states that he was born on 12 May 1870, and was living at Lower Quinton with Edith Walton, born 23 May 1911, who later married a man named Goode.

A shorter version of this piece appears in the March issue of the Stratford Herald‘s Focus magazine.

Mrs Bryant’s execution: a study in class, sex and gender

Early coverage of the case in the Sunderland Daily Echo of 1 January 1936

Many murder cases of the late 19th and early 20th centuries continue to be famous – or infamous – today, with books devoted to them, and television programmes salivating at titillating facts surrounding the cases. In many cases, the attraction of these murders perhaps lies, at least partly, in the fact that photographs survive of the protagonists in these stories. Photos of murderers and their victims bring a case to life, helping us picture who these individuals were, and why they might have done what they did.

Perhaps that also helps explain the relative obscurity of one case that grabbed the headlines in 1936. In the case of Charlotte Bryant, the case should have had a lasting impact on our consciousness. She was young – 33 – when she was hanged for murder on 15 July. She was that rare thing, a female murderer, and she had killed her husband after becoming dissatisfied with her marriage and starting an affair with her lodger.

And yet, she does not feature in many books or television programmes today – there is only the odd local newspaper story that occasionally brings up her story, and even Wikipedia remains silent when it comes to her.

In part, I think, that is because there are no photos of Charlotte; during her trial, it was noted that she turned her head away, or covered it up, when she saw the press photographers gathering like vultures; and also, her trial was not at the Old Bailey, but in the relatively isolated south-west, at the Dorchester Assizes, her hanging taking place at Exeter Gaol. There may have been fewer resources, fewer available photographers, or fewer willing to travel to Dorset and to Devon to attempt an image of this murderess than in London.

The other factor in this case that may have affected press coverage then and now was class. Charlotte was an illiterate, working-class woman, married to a humble cowman, and having an affair with a traveller – a gypsy, in the contemporary parlance. She was a mother of five young children, having been married young, and without a decent education.

As a working-class, poorly educated woman from south-west England, she was not a romantic figure, but a rather plain one to the press and public. Unlike Alma Rattenbury, acquitted of her husband’s murder a year earlier, pictured emerging from court in full length fur coat, she was not moneyed or glamorous. She was what she was: a poor woman who had poisoned her husband with weedkiller when the romance – if there had ever been any – had died, and she felt stifled by the monotony and grinding poverty of her life.

*

It was on 5 October 1922 that Charlotte McHugh married Frederick John Bryant in Somerset. She was just 19 years old, a migrant from Derry in Northern Ireland, now making a home in south-west England. Left at home in Derry were her parents, John and Sarah; now she was taking on Frederick’s family, who were based in the Sherborne area of Dorset. Her new husband, born in Sherborne, was a few years older than her, being 25 at the time of their marriage. He would be dead before 40.

Children soon arrived: Ernest Samuel in the winter of 1923; Lily Elizabeth two years later, George Alfred in 1928, William John in 1931, and Edwin Frederick in the winter of 1934.

My sympathies at this point are very much with Charlotte; a girl born in Northern Ireland in the early 20th century, good looking but without an education, who was brought up in a society where women were supposed to look good and get married, raise children, and to not expect much more than that.

She was brought up in an area where British soldiers – who may have represented something ‘exotic’ to local girls – roamed near Republicans; and where a young, attractive girl who got the attention of the soldiers might also cause resentment amongst others.

Modern coverage of Charlotte’s case has focused on her sexuality; Richard Clark, who runs the Capital Punishment UK website, has described her as having capturing the heart of her husband while he was serving as a military policeman in the Dorset Regiment. He is described positively as a ‘simple country lad’, yet Clark describes Charlotte, after their marriage, in the following terms:

Charlotte was very highly sexed and soon became bored with village life [in Dorset], compared to the excitement of life around the Londonderry barracks, with plenty of attentive and free spending soldiers and a good sex life. She didn’t work as such and spent her days drinking and indulging in a little prostitution – one feels as much for the sex as for the money.

This echoes coverage both in the early years of the 20th  century and since in terms of ascribing to any criminal behaviour on the part of women as being due to excessive and thus dangerous sexuality. There is also clearly a double standard; many men of the time would have engaged in casual sex – indeed, they were encouraged to sow their seed young, before marrying – but women were castigated for any similar behaviour, and it is often used later to demonstrate early signs of criminality or deviancy.

Charlotte is here described as spending her days drinking, when authors such as Clark freely admit that social life in a Dorset village at this time would have centred around the local pub, and so drinking would have been a common occupation for both men and women, and certainly not just for Charlotte.

Charlotte’s husband does not seem the epitome of respectability either, in terms of his alleged approval of possible casual prostitution; according to Clark, he told a neighbour that her earnings this way were substantially better than his own wages as a cowman.

And money must have been fairly tight for them (which suggests that Charlotte was not regularly soliciting, if at all); they took in lodgers, and in 1933, a horse trader and gypsy named Leonard Parsons became the family lodger. Charlotte started an affair with Leonard, and the menage a trois caused, unsurprisingly, occasional conflict, and suggestions that the relationship was one-sided, with Charlotte far more interested in Parsons than he was in her.

Headline in the Coventry Evening Telegraph of 27 May 1936

Whatever the truth of this relationship, Frederick Bryant died on 23 December 1935, after several suspicious spells of illness over the course of the previous six months. He was found to have been poisoned by arsenic – a popular ingredient in weedkiller.

Charlotte was charged with murder, whilst she was being housed in the Sturminster Newton Poor Law Institution (workhouse), where she and her children had been taken after Frederick’s death to help avoid public and press attention – although it seems that this move would have been inevitable anyway, given her and her husband’s meagre household income.

Her trial, at the Dorset Assizes in May 1936, saw Leonard Parsons commit the ultimate betrayal of his former lover, detailing their sex life, and encouraging the jury to see her as a woman who had committed adultery and thus was disloyal towards her husband. Two of her children – Ernest and Lily – were also called to give evidence against their own mother; evidence that damned in describing how their mother may have owned and used bottle of poison.

Charlotte was convicted of murder, and sentenced to death. An appeal failed, and she was sent to Exeter jail to await her execution. During the six weeks she spent here, she received more of an education than she had ever been given before, being taught to read and write by female warders. She was finally hanged on 15 July 1936.

There were no winners in her case; she only left five shillings to her children, and they were now left orphaned and destitute. They were taken into the care of the county council, becoming the legal wards of the Dorset Public Assistance Committee. (Sheffield Independent, 18 July 1936) At this time, they were aged between 18 months old and 12 years.

Richard Clark has stated that Charlotte’s ‘lowly status and acknowledged promiscuity’ may have influenced the decision to carry out the death sentence against her, rather than commute it or allow her appeal. But he then goes on to write,

Sadly, Britain was very much a class ridden society in 1936 and Charlotte was virtually at the bottom of the social pile – an illiterate, immoral slut.

No trial report described her as an ‘illiterate, immoral slut’ and I feel this is Clarke’s own interpretation of how he thinks 1930s England would have seen her, rather than actually what did happen. In describing her thus, however unintentionally, he reiterates the view that being interested in sex makes a woman a ‘slut’.

No press coverage of the trial or its aftermath that I can find refers to Charlotte as engaging in promiscuity or prostitution; indeed, the focus is on her status as a mother, desperate to see her children and check that they are being looked after, as she awaits first her trial, and then her execution.

Looking at the coverage of Charlotte’s case from the time, then, there is a more sympathetic, more nuanced, tone than Clarke takes. For example, on the morning of her execution, she was described as making a ‘despairing last-minute plea to the King’ via telegram, repeated in full in the Birmingham Daily Gazette, in which she refers to herself as the King’s ‘lowly, afflicted subject’. Rather than being depicted as a ‘slut’, she is simply ‘Mrs Charlotte Bryant, the 33-year-old mother of five children’. (Birmingham Daily Gazette, 15 July 1936)

Even when allegations were made about Charlotte’s life, it was as a transcription of what someone had said in court – for example, when the Sheffield Independent stated that Parsons ‘was the father of the appellant’s [Charlotte’s] last child’, it was directly quoting Lord Hewart, in announcing that Charlotte’s appeal was being dismissed, when he summed up what the murder case was about. (Sheffield Independent, 30 June 1936) There was a factual tone, rather than a condemning one.

In addition, when, in court, attempts had been made to highlight that Charlotte had been Parsons’ mistress, the Solicitor General had stopped them, ascerbically commenting, “You are not a court of morals.” (Coventry Evening Telegraph, 27 May 1936)

Although Charlotte’s affair was brought up in court, it was not done so to depict her as a slut, or as an evil woman, but mentioned as part of a prosecution case to suggest that because Charlotte was in a relationship with Parsons, in love with him, and wanted to marry him, she was motivated to kill her husband. Killing him would enable her to marry her lover. This would be a common motive for murder, and thus an obvious approach for the prosecution to take. (see Coventry Evening Telegraph, 27 May 1936)

Charlotte’s class is, to me, more of a factor in how she was treated. She was unable to read or write; she had to have it explained to her what an ‘inquest’ was.  During her trial, she had to ask the prison wardresses to help explain procedure to her.

She suffered from a lack of education that gave her no prospects, and yet she was clearly an intelligent woman in that she wanted more than she knew she could get within the confines of Northern Irish or Dorset rural society; when given the opportunity to improve herself in jail, she made the most of it, taking only a short amount of time to learn to write letters; and she surprised the court when she appeared on the stand and gave a coherent, strong account of her actions.

The coverage of her execution in the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette made no mention of her sex life, but focused on her lack of education; in the hour before her death, she had received the Sacraments in her cell:

‘During those last moments on earth, this uneducated and illiterate woman, who had never been taught to read or write or spell, recalled the faith which she learned when a child attending the Roman Catholic Sunday School in her native Ireland, and she murmured the responses to the Litanies in a low voice.’ (Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 17 July 1936)

My conclusion is that Charlotte had indeed killed her husband; she had made comments to friends that she disliked her husband, and was in love with Parsons – but could not face simply running away with her lover because she did not want to leave her children. If her husband lived, he would keep the children; so he had to die, in order for her to have both lover and loved children.

Her honesty and straightforward nature, however, hanged her:  she made it obvious that she was ‘forcing’ her husband to drink poisoned Oxo, at one point, and telling people, “I hate Fred” before bemoaning her plight, saying about another local woman, “She is lucky. She has not got a husband.” (Leeds Mercury, 28 May 1936).

But it’s not true that the jury convicted Charlotte because she was immoral, or a slut, or because they thought she was a prostitute. The most they appear to have heard in court was that she was the mistress of Parsons, who may have fathered her youngest child, if gossip was to have been believed. This appears to have been the only sexually-related gossip about Charlotte that was heard in court.

She was convicted, though, because the evidence against her was overwhelming. She had talked about her hatred of her husband, and her wish to not be married to him. She had spoken of her desire to run away with Parsons; she also feared that his feelings towards her had cooled. She was known to have had bottle of what could be weedkiller and arsenic; even her children said so. And she had been insistent on her husband drinking and eating certain food and drink even when he was ill and reluctant to do so. It was evidence such as this that convicted Charlotte, and the jury had even been warned not to act as a court of morals, but as a court of law.

Charlotte’s case frustrates me, because it seems that where it is written about in recent times, it focuses on rumours or speculation about her sex life, and assumes bias or prejudice on the part of her contemporaries towards her sexuality. In fact, in looking  at press coverage from the actual time, it appears that her life may not have been as salacious as some sources might suggest, or if it was, then that was not something that was brought up in court, covered in the press, or used to convict her of murder. It was one specific relationship that was focused on, and that was in order to build a convincing motive as to why she might have killed.

So it seems that some of the biases against female murderers such as Charlotte are not necessarily of their time, but of our own; we assume that our forebears must have demonstrated prejudice against certain lifestyles, and we assume that those convicted of crime must be more interesting than, perhaps, they were. Charlotte may have been a working-class woman who took a drastic, ill thought out action because she thought she was in love; but that did not make her a slut or a prostitute, then or now.

 

CHARLOTTE’S CHILDREN

The wealthy London anti-capital punishment campaigner Mrs Violet Van Der Elst was reported as being keen to adopt all five children, although it seems that she only wanted to send them to a convent abroad for their education. She was concerned that going into council care would condemn the children to the same lowly life as their mother: ‘The County Council have no right to take these children. They are going to be taken to awful homes, and there is nothing worse.’ (Sheffield Independent, 18 July 1936).

She later told a reporter that she would find the children foster parents, and would pay for their maintenance and education; in addition, she would start a fund, giving it an initial £50,000, to ‘provide for the children of people who have been murdered or executed’ (Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 17 July 1936).

Before Charlotte had been executed, there had been an attempt by the NSPCC to take the children to one of their homes, but Charlotte had refused permission via her solicitor, wanting them to stay near to her geographically. She had presumably hoped, at this point, that she would be freed to take back the care of her family. (Gloucestershire Echo, 11 February 1936)

After Charlotte’s death, an inquest was carried out to ensure that she had been ‘judicially and humanely executed’. The prison governor had suggested that the coroner’s jury might wish to donate their fees to the Discharged Prisoners’ Aid Society; when the jurors expressed a wish, instead, to give their fees to Charlotte’s five children, they were discouraged; the coroner stated that the fees were only small, and that ‘provision had already been made for the care of the children’. (Northern Whig, 16 July 1936)

Mrs Van Der Elst had stated that she wanted the children to be educated abroad ‘to that the circumstances of their parents’ death with never be known to them’, although the eldest children must have known about what had happened; especially as Charlotte had requested to see them whilst being held in prison, and that request had been granted.

 

 

Sources:

Marriages, 1922, 5c 971; deaths Jun 1936, Sherborne – Frederick J Bryant, 39 – 5a 367; born Dec 1897 Sherborne, 5a 319).  [births for Ernest S Bryant, Frome, Dec 1923, 5c 585; Lily E Bryant, Frome, 5c 533; George A Bryant, Sherborne 5a 474; William J Bryant, Sherborne, 5a 467; Edwin F Bryant, Sherborne, 5a 426, all listed as having a mother whose maiden name was McHugh or MacHugh).

In a rather self-publicising post (sorry), I’m pleased to say that I have an article published in the new issue of the Law, Crime and History journal (vol 8, issue 1).

This is a special issue of the journal, devoted to a conference I attended last yearn Liverpool –  Lives, Trials and Executions. I spoke there about the Hampstead murder – when Mary Eleanor Piercey killed her lover’s wife and baby daughter, a crime she was executed for. My article follows on from that conference paper, looking at how the press depicted both Piercey and her victim, in ways that subverted the usual tropes of crime reporting.

My article can be accessed here; but the whole issue of this journal is, I think, great, and really shows the fascinating work being done by crime historians at the moment.

 

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