Criminal Historian

Working with dead people

Category: 19th century (page 1 of 12)

The (court) performance of Captain Permane and his Siberian Bears

An advert in the Greenock Telegraph, from 18 December 1906

The Victorian newspapers are full of fascinating – and intriguing – crime stories, but the following short article from the Yorkshire Evening Post of 22 April 1892 particularly caught my eye.

On Thursday 21 April, Gabriel Dinell, originally from Jerusalem, appeared before Judge Meynell at the Sunderland County Court, to sue one Mr W V Permane. Mr Dinell sought £2 in damages from the defendant.

William Vincente Permane (1864-1939) was a circus performer of Spanish origin, but born in the less glamorous Birmingham (see here for a more detailed biography of him). By the 1890s, he was training, and appearing with, a troupe of animals – namely, 12 Siberian bears, who were regarded as rather ‘educated’.  On Tuesday 11 April, he had taken out his six pairs of bears to exercise them.

Unfortunately, Mr Dinell was passing by, minding his own business (as much as a man could mind his own business, whilst walking past 12 bears in Sunderland one spring day in 1892), when one of the bears took an interest in him.

Rising up on his hind legs, the bear grabbed Dinell in a hug, managing to tear his clothes and bruise various parts of his body – and, most upsettingly, apparently, crushing Dinnell’s hat.

A bear getting ready to hug…

Luckily, Dinell had been walking with a ‘companion’, who had the presence of mind to attack the bear with an umbrella. This saw the bear safely off, although Dinell later tried to assuage his masculine pride by stating that the bear was, obviously, the ‘most savage’ of the twelve being exercised that day.

He had a sympathetic judge, and the bear-exerciser was duly ordered to pay Dinell the £2 he had asked for.

But Permane was not put off his career through this appearance in court, and continued performing with his bears. Some seven years later, he was performing at the Tivoli Theatre of Varieties with his siberian bears, in a performance that was described in the press as ‘clumsy, but  shows that these cumbrous animals are capable of some degree of education’ (Manchester Courier, 28 March 1899), and his career continued well into the 20th century.

In 1900, he gave a interview to Strand Magazine, where he stated that:

“Bears are herbivorous, not carnivorous. They will attack either animal or man only after a somewhat protracted fast. There is, therefore, no necessity for giving bears any meat whatever.”

Mr Dinell might have disagreed with this statement, and might have been even more upset when, in 1910, Permane was advertising himself as Captain Permane, appearing with his ‘real live troupe of teddy bears’ (The Era, 2 April 1910).

Whether Mr Dinell would have agreed with this rather cuddly description of his attacker, who got him in a bear-hug and crushed his hat, is up for debate.

 

Review: making music from murder – Lizzie, The Musical

Much has been written about the rise in dark tourism, where we visit historic sites that were once associated with crime and punishment.

From former prisons to the homes of past murderers, it seems we can’t get enough of imagining ourselves in the lives of past convicts and criminals, murderers and monsters.

I’m one of these people; I’m fascinated by these sites, and studying how people in the past lived and were punished by visiting those places where they resided.

And it’s undeniable that we are fascinated with murder not only as it is presented in these tourism sites, but in other forms too. Jack The Ripper, of course, has lent itself to tours and recreations; but what about a musical about a real-life murderer? Would we feel less comfortable about a singalong featuring a real case?

if you’re quick, you can find out. Lizzie, a musical about a notorious American double murder, is currently showing at the intimate Greenwich Theatre in London. Originating in Denmark, but having also played in the US, it is on a limited season in the capital, and is well worth a trip.

Lizzie Borden, photographed around two years prior to the murders

It is set in a scorchingly hot August in 1892, in Fall River, Massachusetts, where 32-year-old Lizzie Borden and her older sister Emma live with their frugal father, Andrew, and his second wife (their stepmother), Abby.

The tale itself is well-known; one morning, someone attacks Andrew and Abby with an axe, murdering them both. Lizzie is the prime suspect, but acquitted at trial, returning to live in the locality until her death in 1927.

The case was such a horrific one, and captured the attention of the public and press, to the extent that the famous rhyme is still repeated today:

Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.

So how does a musical attempt to show the murders, and cover Lizzie’s motives and guilt? Not in a conventional way, it has to be said. This is basically a punk rock musical, starring four women, who play Lizzie, Emma, their maid, Irish Bridget, and Lizzie’s friend Alice (presented here as her lesbian lover – various theories have been presented over the years to suggest that Lizzie and Alice were more than just friends). So it’s loud and furious; irreverent and aimed clearly at a modern audience.

But it is also rooted in historical fact. Lizzie and Emma are concerned that their stepmother only married their father for his money; Andrew Borden kills the pigeons in his barn with an axe, ignoring the fact that Lizzie has befriended them, thereby greatly upsetting her. The claustrophobia of late 19th century life for single women is portrayed well; one senses Lizzie’s  frustration with her life and the limited options open to her.

It is also significant, perhaps, that the four characters are all female, representing Lizzie’s small circle of confidantes, and that the murder victims are largely absent from the story (and even when they do appear, it is not in the form that you might expect). This is very much about putting Lizzie and her life at centre-stage; but it creates a picture of four strong women trying to make their way in a patriarchal society.

Lizzie Borden’s house in Fall River, where her father and stepmother were killed

There are two acts; in the first, the women are all in fairly conventional 1890s dress, thus representing the outward conventionality of their lives, until the moment that closes the act – the sudden violence of the two deaths.

After the interval, there is freedom, of sorts, from convention, and thus the girls are now in gaudy burlesque fashions, their hair a riot of colour and styles, singing profanities, screaming. Lizzie’s trial is presented as a trial of four people, as the women line up behind their microphones to give evidence – before the “Not guilty” verdict is shouted out (appearing in large scrawled letters behind them at the same time).

The choreography, lighting and design of the show are great here, and Bjørg Gamst (Lizzie), Eden Espinosa (Emma), Bleu Woodward (Alice) and Jodie Jacobs (Bridget) put their all into their roles, singing with gusto and panache.

Obviously, a musical has to simplify events and characters. Lizzie turns the maid into a stock Irish comedy character, and the main character loses the complexity she looked like having in the first half once her father and stepmother are dead.

But overall, it’s an imaginative approach to depicting not only a famous crime, but also the life of the woman who is still widely believed – despite the verdict of her jury – to have killed two in that hot little house in Massachusetts over a century ago.

Lizzie continues at Greenwich Theatre until 12 March – buy tickets here. The musical’s UK website is here.

Plagium: how stealing a child in Victorian Scotland was punished

from the Morning Chronicle, 3 August 1855

In 1855, the Morning Chronicle in London published a list of capital punishments in Scotland (see above). The English media often covered Scottish affairs in a similar way to how it would publish stories about mainland Europe – highlighting its difference and ‘foreignness’ rather than claiming common ground with it.

So here, the list of Scottish capital crimes included several ones specific to Scottish law, with the speechmarks round them emphasising their ‘un-English’ nature. So we have hamesucken – a felony relating to a premediated assault, whereby a person was attacked in his own home – for example, and notour adultery.

Notour adultery, as opposed to the other offence of simple adultery, was, according to Henry Tebbs’ Essay on the Scripture Doctrines of Adultery and Divorce and on the Criminal Character and Punishment of Adultery (1821) , ‘the conduct of open and incorrigible adulterers, unreformed by the censures of the church, where they keep company publicly together, and procreate issue’ – in other words, adultery that resulted in the birth of children.

Stouthrief, also mentioned in the article, was a form of theft committed by force – so where a person was threatened with violence, or had violence committed against him, during a housebreaking.

Whereas hamesucken was where assault was the primary motive for a housebreaking, stouthrief suggested that the assault was incidental, or a secondary motivation, to the actual theft.

Furtum grave was an aggravated theft, deriving from the Latin ‘furtum’ (theft), where the amount of goods stolen might be particularly high.

The lack of understanding about Scots law was clear in the inclusion of ‘flagium’ as an offence; this was actually plagium, which was again a form of theft, but this time the theft of a person!

Detail from ‘French peasants finding their stolen child’ by P Calderon (Illustrated London News, 15 October 1859)

Akin to modern-day abduction, it commonly involved children, such as a case in 1844, when Helen Wade was charged with plagium at Glasgow when she ‘did, wickedly and feloniously, steal and theftuously carry away’ three-year-old Catherine Hamilton.

Catherine, an illegitimate child, had been living with her mother (although possibly another relative), hand-loom weaver Betty Hamilton, renting rooms with Helen Fleming on the Main Street of Camlachie; she was snatched from that road on 5 April 1844.

The next day, Helen Wade inquired for a ticket to board a ship to Liverpool. Viewed with suspicion by the ticket agent, she was asked about the child with her, and ‘declared that the child was her own, and told a false story about its father’.

They were still given a ticket, though, and it was only in Liverpool that Catherine Hamilton was retrieved and returned to her mother in Scotland.

Helen Wade was found guilty of plagium, but it was noted that in several previous cases of its type, the death sentence had been commuted to transportation for life.

Helen’s case was considered not as serious as others, and this, plus the rarity of convictions for plagium by the 1840s, meant that this defendant was ‘lucky’ enough to receive seven years’ transportation instead (case reported in Archibald Broun, Reports of Cases before the High Court and Circuit Courts of Justiciary in Scotland during the years 1844 and 1845, vol 2 (T & T Clark, Edinburgh, 1846)).

The types of capital offence listed by the Morning Chronicle show the continuing importance placed on property by the law. Although this article tried to make Scots criminal law sound alien, it actually reflected concerns both in Scotland and the rest of Britain, about looking after one’s goods, one’s livelihoods – and one’s relatives, too.

 

NB: Sir George Mackenzie’s 1699 book, The Laws and Customs of Scotland in Matters Criminal, is a fascinating read if you’re interested in criminal offences in Scotland, and available for free on Google Books.

Corset Crime Week, Final Day: Electrocution by Corset

It’s the final day of my Corset Crime Week (every blog – in fact, every newspaper, and every nation – should have one). To mark this momentous occasion, I’ve not written a post about a crime, but am offering you a product that I am surprised didn’t cause something awful to happen, and its inventor to be charged with a crime.

I give you Mr Harness’s Electric Corset for Delicate Women – the Very Thing for Ladies from 1893.

Although designed as a ‘cure’ for sleeplessness, rheumatism, bad backs and depression, it’s hard to believe that the contraption would also cure a ‘lack of appetite’ – I suspect not wearing a corset at all would help with that.

In addition, the idea of wearing an electric corset does conjure up nasty images of being electrocuted by one’s underwear. Ouch.

Announcing a week of corset crimes

Yes, corset crimes.

Starting tomorrow, and running every day this week, I’m going to be blogging about corsets, and their connection to crime.

There’s literally no reason for this, apart from the fact that it gives me the excuse to use some great images of corsets that I’ve found in on the British Newspaper Archive website, and it also might get you thinking differently about an item that some women saw as a form of punishment, an inflictor of pain.

So welcome to Corset Week on Criminal Historian, and stop in each day to hear, and see, some historical corsets in action…

How Emily, 13, got away from the Whitechapel kidnapper

One 13-year-old girl faced a double ordeal in 1885, after first being abducted, and taken across the Channel against her will – and then facing a cross-examination by her kidnapper when the case reached the Old Bailey.

Christina Fischer, known to her family as Emily, was born on 15 March 1872 in Germany. Her family had emigrated, like many other German residents, to London, where they settled at 59 Greenfield Street, off the Commercial Road in Whitechapel. Emily’s father, William, worked as a printer. The family spoke little English, and so it was understandable that many of their friends and acquaintances in the capital were other German immigrants.

One man they got to know sometime in 1883 was Julius Hahn, then aged 27, and working as a baker. On 24 October 1885, he had come to the Fischer house about 8am, with two of his own children. William Fischer’s wife, Mary, was at home and took the children upstairs.

Julius told William that he intended to travel back to Germany that day, after visiting the West End (different accounts state either that his wife was ill in hospital there, or that she had recently died there), and asked if he could leave his children there until he returned from his trip west. That was all fine, and so Julius left, returning some three hours later. He said his goodbyes, then, and went off with his children.

But shortly before his return, William had sent his daughter Emily out for a newspaper. She had returned with it, then went out again prior to Julius leaving the house. That was the last the Fischers saw of her for three days.

After she failed to return, later on that Saturday, William started to make inquiries as to her whereabouts, asking at the Blackwall Docks, where he thought Julius might have headed. He had clearly linked Emily’s absence with Julius’s departure soon after. There were no clues as to where she was, and after two sleepless nights, and two days searching, William finally went to the Thames Police Court in Stepney to obtain a warrant for Julius’s arrest.

**

So where was Emily during this weekend? As her father had suspected, she was with Julius Hahn. She had gone out the second time to meet a friend, and as she was coming back, she bumped into Hahn with his two children. “Will you come with me to carry the baby?” he asked, claiming that he could not manage the two of them on his own. Emily agreed, and carried the baby to the docks, some ten minutes’ away. Hahn then asked if Emily would come with him to his ship – “You cannot get out of this gate – you must go by a little boat on board.”

Emily went downstairs on the boat to put the baby to bed, when she realised the boat had started. Running back on deck, Hahn told her that she would now have to go with him to Rotterdam. She burst into tears, but his response, she said, was to threaten her, saying “if you tell anyone, you will see what I will give you”. Emily ran back below deck; Hahn followed her and told her he wanted a kiss. She would not let him. He tried to put his hand up her clothes; Emily, with great presence of mind, threatened to tell the captain.

Emily shouted out to a woman on board, and she reported matters to the steward. But it was too late for Emily to get back to the docks, and she ended up on board all the way to Rotterdam, arriving there on Sunday morning. Hahn then tried again, asking Emily to travel on with her to Bingen – she refused, thrust the baby back at him, ran away from the ship and leapt on board another that was travelling back to England. She reached London again the next day.

**

When Hahn was tried for abduction at the Old Bailey, he was allowed to cross-examine the 13-year-old girl he had tried to kiss. He tried to tell her that she had agreed to go with him if he paid her 20 shillings; suggested that she had wanted him to touch her, and that she had wanted to go to Bingen with him as another passenger had said it was nicer than England. She insisted that it was Hahn who had said Bingen was nicer than England, as part of a concerted effort to make her go with him.

The criminal register entry for Julius Hahn’s offence, from Ancestry

Hahn also cross-examined Mr and Mrs Fischer, suggesting that they had consented to him taking their daughter to Germany. They both indignantly denied that. But then another German man, again examined by Hahn, said that Hahn had claimed to him that Emily was his servant, employed to look after the children. Emily had gone to him saying she needed a ticket to return to England on the next boat, but said he had not seen her cry, or Hahn behave badly towards her.

Hahn also got this man, Theodore Peters, to say that Emily had never mentioned to him being touched in an indecent manner by Hahn. It would have taken some courage for a young girl to tell a male stranger that another man had been behaving indecently towards her.

Towards the end of the trial, Emily was re-examined, and asked again about the details of Hahn’s attempts to grope her. She said, clearly and calmly, that it was bedtime, and she was in the ladies’ cabin, lying down with Hahn’s five-month-old child. Hahn had come in and, despite Emily being with his own daughter, tried to put his hand up this girl’s clothes.

Hahn’s last words were “I did not touch her with any intention”, but despite his aggressive, insistent cross-examining of the young witness, and attempts to portray her and her parents as liars, Emily kept her cool. Julius Hahn was found guilty of taking Emily Fischer away without her parents’ consent – but not guilty on a charge of indecent assault.

This was a fair verdict; although Emily clearly stated that Julius had tried to put his hands up her clothes, and to kiss her, she never said he had succeeded; there had been an attempt, but not a successful one. He had certainly abducted her, though, and it was only due to her presence of mind and intelligence that she was able to see her home again.

Sources: Old Bailey Online (t18851214-84, 14 December 1885, Morning Post, 14 November 1885; South Wales Daily News, 16 December 1885, Criminal Registers on Ancestry.co.uk

Where Dr Crippen’s nemesis lies

Dr Crippen, from Wikimedia Commons

At the top of a windswept hill in Somerset, overlooking Brean Down one way, and the built-up bay of Weston-super-Mare to the right, is the small, appropriately-named, church of St Nicholas Uphill. It can be seen from the marshes, an isolated little building clinging to its hilltop like lichen.

The churchyard is small; on a bitingly cold, windy, January day it takes some time to reach, clambering up a muddy path (not a formal route, but one trodden into the grassy hill by previous ramblers) and slipping back a few times, while the wind forces tears from one’s eyes.

One might expect the relatively few graves here to be of Somerset folk who lived fairly quiet lives, but, in fact, there are several fascinating ones, from a man ‘killed’ (the gravestone fails to record how) to another who failed to come back from the battle of Passchendaele in World War 1.

But this is the most interesting find for a criminal historian, set near the back of the churchyard, with a vista of sea and marsh behind.

This is the final resting place of Frank Castle Froest, a former superintendent of CID at Scotland Yard. His obituary, on 7 January 1930, summarises why his achievements belie his quiet grave:

“Mr Froest was one of the most famous officers of his time, and established for himself an international reputation. It was while Mr Froest was Superintendent of the CID of Scotland Yard that the North London Police under his direction began the inquiries which led to the discovery of the few human fragments, which were subsequently identified as part of the body of Mrs Crippen.

Later [in 1910], Mr Froest received information from a liner in mid-Atlantic that Dr Crippen, with the young woman, Miss [Ethel] Le Neve, dressed as a boy, was believed to be on board, this being the first occasion that wireless had been used to effect the arrest of a criminal.

Mr Frost immediately communicated with the Canadian police, and he sent a detective-inspector by a faster boat, and Dr Crippen and Miss Le Neve were brought back to England, the former being tried at the Old Bailey, and hanged for the murder of his wife by the administration of a deadly poison, hyoscine.” (Lancashire Evening Post, 7 January 1930)

Froest, a Freemason, was also famous for arresting politician and fraudster Jabez Balfour in the early 1890s, having smuggled him onto a British ship in South America, and then charging him with fraud. He ‘specialised’ in dealing with confidence tricksters, including ‘Continental gangs of swindlers’, and on retiring, he became a magistrate and county alderman.

He retired two years after Crippen’s execution, the king, George V, commenting:

“Goodbye, Mr Froest, and Godspeed. The detective and police organisation in which you have served so long is, in my opinion, the best in the world.” (Western Gazette, 10 January 1930)

Frank moved to Weston-super-Mare, although he continued to travel – including trips to Algeria and Indonesia in the 1920s, by which time he was living at 2 Uphill Road, near the church where he would be buried in 1930. The records of the Old Bailey record his frequent presence

Frank was 73 when he died; his gravestone, placed at the top of the hill by his daughter [possibly Mabel, named in his will], ends with words that sum up his busy, exciting, dangerous, work for the CID in the late 19th and early 20th centuries:

“Fight the good fight.”

For more on Frank Froest’s career at Scotland Yard, the Old Bailey Online website records him as a witness in several trials from the 1880s onwards.

Happy Christmas from the Criminal Historian!

The Illustrated Police News keeps it festive in 1896

While you’re eating your turkey at the weekend (unlike me – I’ll be munching a nut roast or something equally interesting), spare a minute for those who have had more miserable times at Christmas.

This would include Thomas Gundry, a brewer’s manager from Caversham, near Reading, who managed to get shot on Christmas Day in 1895.

It was 8pm, and, after lots of eating and drinking at home, Gundry was playing a game of bagatelle in his dining room, when he heard the firing of a gun, and, at the same time, saw a bullet ‘crashing’ through his window and shutters. The bullet passed over his head and shattered some plate glass over his mantlepiece.

The shot came from outside the Gundry house; a man named Henry Hinde had been passing by, and saw another man standing before the window with a gun in his hand. He immediately chased the offender, but instead of being scared, the strange man turned and pointed the gun at Hinde.

The brave Hinde, though, knocked his assailant’s arm, and although the gun fired, the bullet was sent into the air. Hinde was momentarily shocked – as would be expected – and taking advantage, the gunman again ran off.

On being eventually captured by police some distance away, at Goring railway station, he was disarmed, and it was found that the gun was a revolver that had indeed been fired twice.

It emerged that the prisoner was Arthur Haslam, also known as Thomas Clayton, a homeless 58-year-old. He was also Thomas Gundry’s brother-in-law, although the two men had never previously met – both Haslam and Gundry had married daughters of Mrs Pittman, ‘of Pittman Brewery, Goring’, and Gundry was the manager of that brewery.

Gundry’s marriage was happier than Haslam’s; the latter man had separated from his wife in 1885, after 15 years of marriage, and he had been made to give up all right to live with his wife, and ‘all control’ of their daughter. He was bitter, and – following an unsuccessful career mining in the Transvaal – struggling financially.

From this point on, he had started to ‘annoy’ various relatives for money. Earlier on Christmas Day, Haslam had sent a note to Gundry, asking him to see him at Sloane Square, but his request had been denied. He said he was angry that his relatives had failed to give him funds, and intended to ‘terrify’ them into agreeing to his future demands.

He may have intended to kill Gundry and then kill himself; he had threatened suicide before, and when apprehended by the police, had strychnine on him. He was desperate, and the fact that his relatives – including his estranged wife and daughter – would be celebrating Christmas while he struggled alone, had ‘irritated’ him.

In February 1896, Arthur Haslam was found guilty of attempting to cause grievous bodily harm, and was sentenced to three years’ penal servitude.

Here’s hoping you all have a calmer Christmas Day than was experienced in Caversham in December 1895!

Sources: Illustrated Police News, 4 January 1895; Berkshire Chronicle, 8 February 1896 , accessed via the British Newspaper Archive

 

Top Five: Resources for the history of autopsies and coroners’ inquests

An view of a coroner's inquest, 1826. (Wellcome Library, London, used under creative commons)

An view of a coroner’s inquest, 1826. (Wellcome Library, London, used under creative commons)

Thanks to a reader of this blog, Sherry, who asked me if I could recommend any books or publications that look at 19th century autopsy procedures, I thought I’d do a short list this week of resources for those wanting to know more about historical autopsies and also the role of the coroner.

The autopsy – also known as the postmortem – is the dissection and examination of a dead body, to establish a cause of death. The role of the coroner is aligned to this in that his or her role is to inquire (with the help of a jury) into any death that appears to be unnatural, through the means of an inquest. In Victorian times, the autopsy might be carried out either in operating theatres or in private homes – and coroner’s inquests might be held in a local pub.

Many stories I have covered on this site originate with a report of a coroner’s inquest, and, in fact, one of my own family history mysteries relates to my great-great-grandfather, who died in the 1890s.

An inquest was held to see whether he had died through neglect or as a result of manslaughter – irritatingly, the inquest records for West Sussex, where he died, have not survived, and the newspapers don’t seem to mention him, so it looks like I’ll never find out what the coroner said about this case (although the death certificate duly recorded a verdict of ‘neglect not amounting to manslaughter’, so I know what the coroner’s jury decided!). But anyway – onto my list.

1 . The Victorian Medico-Legal Autopsy, by Karyo Magellan

number-1

This fascinating article first appeared in Ripperologist magazine, but is now available on the Casebook website. It looks at autopsies and forensic examinations as they existed in 1888, the year that Jack the Ripper was wreaking havoc in east London.

 

2. Short History of the Autopsy, by Jack Gulczyński, Ewa Izycka-Świeszewska and Marek Grzybiak

number-2

For an academic discussion of the history of the autopsy, try this (English language) article in the Polish Journal of Pathology. This is actually the second of two articles, and focuses on the period between the 16th and 21st centuries. It’s free to download as a pdf, which is a novelty with academic journal articles. 🙂

3. A Bite Into the History of the Autopsy, by Julian L Burton

number-6

This is another academic article, this time from the journal Forensic Science, Medicine and Pathology (1(4), December 2005, pp.277-284). Part of it looks at the development of the autopsy during the 17th to 19th centuries, although its focus is limited to Europe.

 

 

4. The Coroners’ Society

number-4

The website for The Coroners’ Society of England and Wales has a page on its history, and that of the duty of coroners throughout history. It links to the inaugural minutes of the society from 1846, and refers to legislation such as the Coroners Act of 1887 (and if your interest is well and truly piqued, elsewhere on the site, you can learn how to become a C21st coroner…).

5. The National Archives

number-5

Although The National Archives (TNA) does not have any coroners’ records available to view on its own site, it has a useful research guide as to where you can find information about coroners’ inquests. These include records held at TNA (such as CHES 18 and ASSI 66), and those found in local archives as part of Quarter Session records (coroners being required to file their inquests there until 1860).

And also, remember that historic newspapers can also shed a surprising amount of detail on the process of Victorian postmortems, particularly in prominent murder cases. In the UK, you can try the British Newspaper Archive and Welsh Newspapers Online; or in the States, Newspapers.com.

Mad murder: A crime for which there was no reason

A depiction of the murder in the Illustrated Police News

A depiction of the murder in the Illustrated Police News

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

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

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

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

“I have just killed a lad.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

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

 

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