Criminal Historian

Working with dead people

Category: 19th century (page 1 of 15)

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! 🤨

 

 

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!).

Raising the next generation of historians

The current exhibition at LMA incorporates a recreation of what it would have been like in the Old Bailey for defendants

One of the great things about being a historian in the 21st century is the many different ways in which you can both learn about, and disseminate, the history you’re interested in. Big data and digital history are two terms you may already be familiar with, with some historians – who I have to say I am in complete awe of – managing to crunch numbers and play with technology in a way I fear I will never be able to.

Other historians may team up with creative agencies and other non-historian individuals to find new ways to present aspects of our history – such as with the agency responsible for the Grim London interactive map and website (read an article about it here) – whereas others learn the skills themselves to push the field of Digital Humanities further.

Just a couple of the historians whose work is worth looking at are Adam CrymbleMelodee Beals and Tim Hitchcock; it’s also worth looking at Tim’s recent work on ‘recreating’ the experience of being at the Old Bailey in the past, based on written records, currently on display at London Metropolitan Archives.

But sometimes, there can be simpler, but still absorbing, ways of presenting history. Creative Histories (see the blog at Storying The Past), led by Will Pooley and Helen Rogers, has been a great way of learning about how historians, writers and artists have been seeking to find new ways of presenting history to us – from Ruth Singer’s Criminal Quilts project to Anthony Rhys’s artworks of ‘Upset Victorians’.

I am not throwing away my shot… etc.

Last year, I experienced history through the genre of the musical: firstly, with Lizzie – a punk rock retelling of the Lizzie Borden case in 19th century America (see my review of it here)- and then, this Christmas, getting to watch the much hyped Hamilton, where an incredibly enthusiastic London audience probably learned more about 18th century American history than they had at school. By subverting the traditional dry retelling of history by using different musical styles, from rock to hip-hop, history is made both interesting and universal.

The musicals share with recent books a desire both to write about history but also to understand it. Books such as Sarah Schmidt’s See What I Have Done attempt to get inside the heads of those involved in crime cases, and in doing so, they get the reader involved in a way in which some traditional history books fail to do.

Purists argue that they play fast and loose with the facts, but the overall picture they give is still valuable. In Hamilton, the problem of Eliza Hamilton having destroyed her letters from Alexander, her husband, and her views being absent from the archival record, are actually foregrounded, both to show how we can never know her exact views, but have to guess at them, but also to highlight that women’s lives tend to be less recorded than men’s in history.

So what am I saying? I think that, as someone who was resolutely disinterested in history at school, due to a surfeit of royals and war – whereas I have always been more interested in the experiences of ordinary people in ordinary life – I would have welcomed these different approaches to history, and they would have both gained my interest and maintained it.

If we can get children interested in history, they’ll be interested in adulthood – and perhaps even create new presentations of history to get the next generation interested, too. And that’s got to be a good thing, in a time when our government seems resolutely disinterested in the value of the arts at both school and university level.

Event: Courts, crime and punishment at the SoG

The Society of Genealogists is holding a half-day course on crime records.

The course, hosted by professional genealogist Antony Marr, will take place on 3 March, from 10.30am until 1pm, and will look at the records of courts, criminals, police, prisons and punishments throughout the 19th century.

Taking place at the SoG HQ – 14 Charterhouse Buildings, Goswell Road, London EC1M 7BA – the course costs £20, and you can book online via this link.

Why criminal ancestors sound so much more fun

Actor Lytton Grey, on the right in this image, was married to one of my ancestors; and attended her 18-year-old sister’s illegal marriage (© Criminal Historian)

Who would you rather be descended from – a worthy notable of a provincial town, whose munificence or moral rectitude resulted in a glowing obituary, or a city wide-boy whose exploits were recorded in newspapers and trial reports?

A few generations ago, you may well have said the former. Many people I’ve spoked to have grandparents who were horrified at the idea of having a criminal forebear, and who would have eagerly covered up the crimes – metaphorically, of course – with a focus on someone more deserving.

But times change, and now, it seems we all want to have a naughty ancestor caught stealing ladies’ underwear or even killing someone in a pub brawl. As long as it’s sufficiently in the past, it becomes a thing of interest, something that makes your family – and you – stand out.

I’ve been researching my family tree for years, and so far, it’s brought up a big, fat nothing in terms of trial reports or criminal records. On my father’s side, I am descended from generations of Dorset farmers, who were asked to be on juries, determining the fate of local miscreants, but who were law-abiding, middle-class individuals.

The worst thing I have found out about a member of this family is that the obituary of one of them insinuated that he was a bit annoying. That’s not really interesting enough, is it?

Gough Square – home of Samuel Johnson, and my ancestors (© Criminal Historian)

On my mother’s side, again, there’s little evidence of criminality, but much of being upstanding members of a community. One ancestor was one of the first policemen in Gloucester; he took on the job to help look after his aged, widowed mother financially (bless). Another was a neighbour of Dr Johnson‘s, living in Gough Square in the City of London. This ancestor is certainly listed on the Old Bailey Online website – but only as a jury member. A third represented his Oxford ward as a Poor Law Guardian, and had a keen interest in the welfare of the poor and conditions in the local workhouse.

The exploits of criminals – such as this 1936 murderer – are better remembered than the quiet achievements of the majority

I should be proud of having public-minded individuals as ancestors, who wanted to be involved in their local areas, and who helped ensure not only that local administration processes worked as smoothly as possible, but who helped put criminals behind bars. I am, honestly. Perhaps the problem is that these men, all good and true, do not have their achievements recorded to the same extent as criminals do with their offences.

Obituaries are key to remembering the achievements of local worthies, but mine were minor in their achievements, and of the two obituaries I’ve found for my Dorset lot, one is short and makes that slightly disparaging comment as though it is the most significant thing it can record about the individual; and the other exists mainly to note that my ancestor died in 1852, at the age of 96, from a ‘visitation of God‘.

So, weirdly to some, but perhaps inevitable given my research interests in crime, I’ve been really trying to find some evidence of criminality amongst my ancestors. As those who have read my book, Life on the Victorian Stage, will know, my great-grandfather had three sisters, all of whom were on the stage, and two of whom died at tragically early ages.

They sound good company: one eloped with an already married actor, the two marrying in an illegal ceremony in front of one of the other sisters and her (legal) husband; and one had an illegitimate child who she created a made-up father for, but who was given the name of her sister’s husband, making me wonder if he was actually the natural father of her child. But although fascinating, they weren’t ‘criminals’ in the sense that we usually mean it.

Their grandfather, though, shows more promise. He claimed to have been born in Hanwell, west London, but there’s no trace of his birth of baptism either there or anywhere, in fact. There’s no record of him existing prior to his marriage at a fairly advanced age. He claimed to be a captain in the British army, but The National Archives has no army records relating to him at all.

His wife had a substantial amount of money, and her family took steps to ensure that her husband wouldn’t receive a penny of it, instead passing it down to her daughters. Did they suspect him of only marrying for the cash?

And, most intriguingly, are two stories in the press that seem to refer to him, both later in life: in one, his wife is charged with assault after going after a woman she believes is having an affair with him; and in the other, he is charged with fathering a child by his gentry neighbour’s far younger servant. The newspaper reports how the court thought it hilarious that this elderly man could have possibly got up to anything with a young girl, let alone fathered a daughter; more intriguingly, it states that this man ‘calls himself a Captain’, as though they also doubted his origins and his claims of army employment.

The latter stories help flesh out this unknown ancestor – he appears to have been a ladies’ man, at least. The lack of records relating to him, his lack of family, mean that I can speculate that he was a fraudster, a man with an assumed identity, someone who desired money, and sex, and had affairs.

The reality might be more prosaic: the relevant records might not have been digitised; he may have been born in one place but baptised somewhere different, or been told he was born in a certain place when he wasn’t…. and so, perhaps, the unknown is sometimes better than the known, for with the former, you can create the person you hope your ancestor was; whereas, in truth, all I know for sure is that he, like so many of my other ancestors, was also another blooming Poor Law Guardian.

 

Death at Drybank: The sad case of Rees Brandish

In 1897, the discovery of a little boy’s body in a Warwickshire village laid bare the problems that could face single mothers in Victorian England. I wrote about this case for my monthly history column in the Stratford Herald, but here, I’ve spent a bit more time looking at the detail, as there was much more to the story than I could fit into a single page article!

It was Saturday 13 November 1897, a day that the residents of Ettington, Warwickshire, would remember. The peacefulness of the village was broken by the Stratford police, arriving in force to dig the  grounds of Drybank Farm. They had a woman in custody who, it was believed, had murdered her son: their enquiries had brought them to this rural farm.

It was not until they had dug almost the whole of the farmhouse garden up, to a depth of around two feet, that they found the naked body of a little boy buried in the soil, doubled up, and covered in lime. That boy was Rees Thomas Yelves Brandish, aged just two-and-a-half.

As further details emerged, the horror of Rees’ short life became apparent, and highlighted the problems faced by single mother in the Victorian era. For Rees was illegitimate, the son of a 33-year-old unmarried nurse, Elizabeth Brandish. Elizabeth, a blue-eyed, good-looking woman, could not look after her son as she needed to work – and work could be lost if employers found out their female workers had had a child out of wedlock.

Therefore, Elizabeth paid an elderly woman named Mrs Post, who lived at Wye, near Ashford in Kent, five shillings a week to look after her son. Thoughout the late 19th century, and even into the 20th, there were unscrupulous women who would advertise their desire to have a baby to adopt or look after, in return for either a one-off upfront fee or a weekly charge.

The notorious baby farmer Amelia Dyer

They really wanted the money rather than the child, though, and would either neglect the child, use  laudanum to suppress their appetites, starve them, and see them die – or, alternatively, in the case of Amelia Dyer, for example, simply murder them.

Elizabeth, though struck lucky. Although Mrs Post had advertised for a child to look after, she was one of the genuine women who actually wanted to help others. From the age of nine weeks old, she and the rest of the Posts became the only family Rees knew – one he bonded with and was at home with – while his mother found work in Clent, in north Worcestershire.

However, it appears that Elizabeth may have actually have been hoping that she was answering an advert from a baby farmer. It was later claimed that she had got into a conversation with a woman one day who had advised her about such acts. Had Elizabeth been annoyed that she instead got a woman who cared about her son, and who looked after him well – costing his mother five shillings a week for the past two and a bit years?

This may be why, on 9 September 1897, Elizabeth announced that she was retrieving her son from the Post house. She arrived in Wye, saying she was going to take Rees to her brother’s farm at Ettington – it was not, in fact his farm, but he was employed to work there by the farm’s bailiff. He also had no idea that his sister had been pregnant, let alone given birth.

Suspicions were aroused in Kent when Elizabeth quickly left with her child, but without any of his spare clothes. It was also noted by Mrs Post and her family that Elizabeth did not display any love for Rees when she came to take him away.

Rees was said to have been ‘weary, tired and sad at being taken away from those he had come to regard as his only friends,’ and the Posts turned out to be far more solicitous of his well-being than Elizabeth. Mother and son were found the next night by a police sergeant in London, wandering around the capital’s streets.

Concerned, the policeman took them to a local police station, for Elizabeth to be treated by a doctor, and then transferred to the Euston area, where they stayed the rest of the night in a hotel. Finally, on the morning of 11 September, they travelled on a train bound for Bletchley, changing at Blisworth for a second train for Banbury, and then getting off at Towcester at 4.50pm.

What would have been the entrance to Euston station when Elizabeth and Rees Brandish went there to catch their train

On embarking at Euston, Elizabeth and Rees had got into a third-class compartment, which they shared with other travellers; it was observed that Nurse Brandish had with her a large tin trunk.

When the train stopped at Towcester, she had got off with her trunk and her son, and tried to get into the stationmaster’s office to buy a second-class ticket on the 7.19pm train leaving that station. She appeared so strange and excited that the stationmaster wouldn’t let her in, instead selling her an excess ticket outside to enable her to travel second-class for the rest of the journey.

The mother and child were seen entering an empty second-class carriage. However, by the time she got off the train at Ettington, at 8pm, Elizabeth was alone: but she was carrying a large bundle under her arm, in addition to the tin trunk. Two months later, Rees’ body was found buried in a farmhouse garden in that village.

Suspicions about Elizabeth were relayed to the police, and they didn’t take long to find her, back in Clent. When she was arrested, a letter was found in her pocket, where she noted that she would probably be hanged, and asked for forgiveness, writing, ‘whatever wrong has been done in my life has not been of my own seeking.’

She claimed that she had been seduced by a man on a train three years earlier, he having ‘taken advantage of my loneliness’; when she told him she was pregnant, he had denied having had anything to do with her. She had given birth on her own in London, and been very ill for some time afterwards. Her luck then improved, as a ‘kind lady’ paid for her to train as a nurse.

She had since been working in Clent, where the community knew her and respected her; those she worked for regarded her with great esteem. But more significantly, it appears that she was being courted by a policeman in Clent, and he was thinking about proposing: had Elizabeth been worried that he would end the relationship if he found out that she had had an illegitimate child – a child she had failed to mention to him previously?

While Elizabeth was being arrested, taken to the Stratford police station, and then on by train to Warwick Gaol – a large crowd gathering at Stratford station in the hope of catching a sight of this allegedly murderous mother – there was little attention being paid to the life of the little boy whose life had been cut short. The emphasis was on this pretty woman who was so caring in her profession, yet was accused of having killed her own child.

Ettington Church, by John Holmes, on Geograph

On Rees’ body being discovered, this lack of attention towards the little boy continued. His body was covered loosely in some sacking and dumped in a wheelbarrow to be taken to the local pub for an inquest. Later, the vicar of Ettington being away, Rees received no religious funeral service; instead, his remains were put into a cheap, rough elm coffin, with no inscription on it, and taken on ‘an ordinary truck’ to be buried in the churchyard.

It was a pauper’s burial, paid for by the parish and organised by the parish overseer. The only people present for the burial were the undertaker and his son, and two ladies who took pity on this poor, unloved child. Once interred, it was reported that Rees’ grave was ‘hastily shovelled in’ with soil.

As the Leamington Spa Courier sadly noted:

“Seldom has the truth and the force of the lines, ‘Rattle his bones, over the stones, he’s only a pauper who nobody owns’ been more clearly illustrated than at Ettington.”

Villagers were said to have been deeply upset by the lack of respect granted to this small child who ‘was in no way responsible either for the circumstances of his birth, or death’, but they weren’t upset enough to arrange a better service, or to attend the burial.

The trial of Elizabeth Brandish for the wilful murder of her son started in March 1898 at the Warwick Assizes. After three days of debating, the jury was unable to reach a verdict, and so was discharged. A second trial then began at the following, summer, Assizes, but with an unexpected result.

Because so much of the evidence against Elizabeth was circumstantial, they had found her not guilty – despite there being no obvious alternative reason for Rees’ death and subsequent burial at the farm where his uncle worked, and despite Elizabeth’s confessional-style letter. The judge at the trial was stunned, and ended up leaving the court having failed to tell Elizabeth that, after nine months in prison awaiting a trial and verdict, she had been acquitted and was now, again, a free woman.

Teh Leamington Spa Courier noted that never had so much interest been taken in the ‘peaceful little hamlet’ of Ettington, whose only other distinction was its ‘proximity to the birth town of the Immortal Bard’.

 

 

 

Murder at the Adelphi

William Terriss (© Criminal Historian)

Today, 16 December, is the 120th anniversary of a murder that shocked the theatre-going world of Victorian Britain, and the general public. It was on this day that the eminent and popular actor William Terriss was killed, just outside the stage door of the Adelphi Theatre on London’s Strand.

Terriss was murdered by a less successful actor, Richard Archer Prince, who had fixated on the idea that Terriss was responsible for his lack of success.

The 50-year-old actor had been about to enter the theatre on the evening of 16 December, using the stage door at the rear of the theatre, which opens out onto Maiden Lane, parallel to the Strand. He was due on stage that night, appearing in the play Secret Service. Before he could get into the theatre, however, he was accosted by the younger Richard Prince, who had been waiting for him, and was stabbed to death.

Prince was not unknown to his victim. The two men had previously been in a production together – Prince in a minor role – and Terriss had, on one occasion, been so offended by something the struggling actor had said to him that he was said to have had him dismissed. This was said to have caused lasting resentment to Prince; although Terriss had subsequently tried to find him work, and had ensured he was sent small sums of money via the Actors’ Benevolent Fund, Prince had been unable to find any security in his chosen profession.

The case, understandably, caused pages and pages of sensationalised press coverage; the theatrical newspaper The Era described the murder in the following terms:

“A great blow has fallen upon the dramatic profession and the playgoing public – a blow so sudden and so terrible that even after the lapse of two nights and a day they have scarcely recovered from the stunning, overpowering, effect of the awful news.” (The Era, 18 December 1897)

The murder was newsworthy for several reasons. It was an incredibly rare offence – no English actor had been murdered in the country by one of his profession before, certainly not during the Victorian era.

The stage door of the Adelphi Theatre, where William Terriss was murdered (© Criminal Historian)

The offence had taken place in the heart of London’s theatre land. It had been witnessed by others; and the victim was both well-known and well-loved (The Era noted that Terriss was liked by all classes, from those in the ‘mansions of the West End’ to the residents of the ‘slums of the East’). It was also, though, the culmination of the increasingly obsessive behaviour evinced by individuals towards successful actors and actresses.

There had been spates of what we today call stalking throughout the Victorian era, with both men and women being targeted by ‘fans’, who would send love letters, demand to see the actors after their performances, or follow them. The press had reported instances of actresses being followed home from performances and assaulted, and of one actress being sent a bullet by an obsessed man who decided he would kill her if she wouldn’t have a relationship with him.

Part of The Era’s coverage of Terriss’s murder

In these instances, though, the stalkers involved did not kill their obsessions, although they may have threatened to, or have injured them. Part of the huge reaction to Terriss’s murder, then, was due to its rarity: perhaps it foretold of a more dangerous age to come, when stalking, and deaths as the result of them, would cease to be so unusual.

The murder was also significant because of the focus on Prince’s mental health. He clearly had issues, as evinced in his desire to blame Terriss for his employment and financial difficulties – and he had previously turned up at the Adelphi to argue his case with Terriss.

He was found guilty but insane at his subsequent trial, but his punishment caused debate about the status of actors in British society, and whether the murder of an actor was perceived as a lesser offence than anyone else’s murder. This was because of the insanity judgement; rather than being sent to prison, or even hanged, Prince was ordered to be sent to Broadmoor, where he lived a long life (and a more comfortable than in a Victorian prison), dying there in 1936.

 

For more on the death of William Terriss, and the incidences of stalking involving actors and actresses in Victorian Britain, read my book, Life On The Victorian Stage (Pen & Sword, 2017).

 

 

Crime reporting and moral panics – what’s changed?

This 1891 article refers back to the moral panic caused by the Ratcliff Highway murders 80 years earlier

A couple of people on my Twitter timeline posted this earlier today – it’s an article on The Daily Beast about an app, Citizen, that is designed to highlight the crimes currently underway in your neighbourhood, and to enable individuals to discuss it (you can also receive alerts ‘every time a significant incident or emergency happens near you’, according to the app’s promo statement).

It sounds, at first glance, to be an app serving the public interest. You can avoid places where trouble is underway; if you’re brave (or foolhardy), you can intervene; or you can talk about it with others in your vicinity, perhaps reassuring each other about it.

But, as writer Taylor Lorenz states in the Daily Beast article,

“Do I need to know about every carjacking in sight of my office to remain personally safe? Probably not. Using Citizen, in fact, made me more paranoid and probably stoked a lot of my latent irrational fears about violent crime and axe murderers.”

In this, Taylor is no different to newspaper readers in the 18th and 19th centuries, who were both terrified of crime, yet drawn to stories of crime at the same time. Newspapers fed into their fears by increasingly publishing crime stories, drawn from court cases, gossip, and imagination. Reading the Victorian newspapers on the British Newspaper Archive, it’s hard to miss the reams of murders, assaults, thefts, and more bizarre or unusual crimes with their dramatic headlines and breathless tones.

The Whitechapel Murders created huge panic, not just in 1888, but for years afterwards (and perhaps even today). This example is from the Illustrated Police News in 1905.

These stories often used what appears to modern eyes to be a standard narrative – in many cases, the perpetrator of the crime is male, working-class, from a poor or slum area. He may be a drunkard; he may be Irish (many crimes were associated with Irish immigrants, with drink, or with class, betraying Victorian xenophobia and class-consciousness, as well as later efforts by temperance advocates to associate drink with criminality).

Moral panics were created or fed by these newspapers; an isolated case, or a couple of unrelated offences, might be seized upon and magnified, a link being made between disparate offences in order to create the impression of a crime wave. A particular group within society might then be associated with this offence, or group of offences, with the press and/or legislators then seeking to make an example of this group.

This ‘deviancy amplification spiral’, as criminologists and sociologists have termed it (1), could either make it appear more serious an offence than it was; or have the unintended result of readers, the public, then romanticising the criminal and his actions, making a folk-hero of him if he wasn’t feared instead. There were, then, two possible over-reactions – fear, or the adoption of a romantic narrative that may not have reflected the crime or the criminal (see the romanticisation of highwaymen in some quarters).

Elements of the press had some consciousness of what was happening here; in 1874, the Sheffield Daily Telegraph noted that:

‘happiness and goodness, because they are common-place conditions of life, do not make anything like the same impression on men’s minds that is made by the exceptional instances of vice and misery. We hear of a horrid murder… of some pitiable scene of domestic discord or moarital violence, and compare men with brutes…and are tempted to despair of human nature.’ (2)

The paper argued that such crime stories attracted public attention (and that of the press) because of their relative rarity – that is why they were newsworthy. Its comment also suggested that an aspect of human nature was – and is – inclined to use such relatively isolated cases to think about wider philosophical issues about life and death. Yet it failed to acknowledge its own role in magnifying these ‘rare’ offences and to create a panic amongst the public that crime was more prevalent than it really was.

Moral panics, of course, have never gone away, as the prevalence of books discussing contemporary examples show (3). The Citizen app suggests that there are simply more ways today to disseminate crime news and to create a moral panic; it originally started as an app that was deemed to encourage vigilante action, and so hastily rebranded and relaunched – but now, it appears that it serves a more voyeuristic than useful purpose, thus highlighting its similarity to crime reporting throughout the last few centuries.

SOURCES:

  1. Leslie T Wilkins, Social Deviance (Tavistock, 1964); Stanley Cohen, Folk Devils and Moral Panics (Routledge, 2002); Tim Newburn, Criminology (2017)
  2. Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 16 July 1874, p.2
  3. See, for example, Julian Pettley (ed), Moral Panics in the Contemporary World (Bloomsbury Academic, 2016); Erich Goode, Moral Panics (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009, 2nd ed); Chas Critcher, Moral Panics and the Media (OUP, 2003). All discuss modern examples of moral panics. In terms of work on earlier moral panics, David Lemming and Claire Walker (eds), Moral Panics, the Media and the Law in Early Modern England (2009) is highly recommended.
  4. The two newspaper excerpts used as illustrations in this post come from the Homeward Mail of 16 March 1891, and the Illustrated Police News of 23 December 1905, both via the British Newspaper Archive.

 

Rogues Gallery – Faces of Crime

Highly recommended this month is the free exhibition Rogues Gallery: Faces of Crime, 1870-1917, which is at the National Records of Scotland in Edinburgh until 1 December.

The centre of the small, but perfectly formed, exhibition is five photograph albums that survived from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, detailing some of the many Scottish criminals who were photographed after committing offences. Alongside these are historical trial records from the NRS.

Individuals whose stories are covered in the exhibition include Eugene Chantrelle, the French-born teacher who poisoned his wife Elizabeth in Edinburgh in 1878, and who is said to have been the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson‘s Mr Hyde, as well as lesser-known characters such as Margaret Reid, a servant convicted of theft and fraud in 1899, and thief George Anderson, who worked as a miner and watchmaker but who was convicted in 1901, at the age of 36.

More details can be found here; visit the exhibition Monday to Friday, 9.30am until 4.30pm, at the NRS, General Register House, 2 Princes Street, Edinburgh. There is also a great-sounding series of talks arranged to tie-in with the exhibition, and details of these can be found online here.

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Reckless turnip throwing – a Hallowe’en crime

A seasonal turnip, by Geni at Wikipedia

It was Hallowe’en – 31 October – in 1899, and a group of men and boys were celebrating the night in Yell – one of the Shetland islands in the north of Scotland. They were full of the joys of autumn – and possibly alcohol – but one man was not enjoying the pumpkin season, and had no desire to join in the fun.

This was Gilbert Tulloch, who lived at New House near the Yell Sound. He had no wish to be annoyed by the lively individuals outside, and so remained obstinately in his house, bolting his door against intruders. However, he had forgotten to bring his dog in, and the poor animal, stuck outside, started to bark.

Something then struck the door, and Gilbert, reluctantly, opened the door to quickly let the dog back in. However, he immediately saw a group of youths around 60 feet away, with one, Arthur Robertson, near the door. Gilbert spoke to him, presumably to ask him to keep further away from his house, or to request that he not strike his door. Robertson took offence and threw the nearest thing to hand at Mr Tulloch. That thing turned out to be a turnip.

The turnip struck Gilbert full in the face, and it was so heavy that it broke his nose, loosened five of his teeth, and struck him deaf in his right ear. Blood coursed down his face, making him appear as though he was a Hallowe’en creature rather than a persecuted householder.

Arthur Robertson was prosecuted, and duly convicted of a rather unusual-sounding offence: that of recklessly throwing a turnip. Because Gilbert had been so badly injured by it, the local sheriff decided that although Robertson had no prior convictions, he could not be convicted of this offence under the First Offenders Act. The sheriff further said that although he had ‘no objection to boys having larks’, in this case, it had led to both annoyance and injury to another man.

Robertson was fined 10 shillings – if he couldn’t, or refused to, pay, he would have to go to prison for four days instead. The sheriff noted that he hoped this punishment ‘would be taken as a warning by the youths of the county, and prevent them carrying their larks beyond the degree of moderation.’

 

Source: Shetland Times, 16 December 1899, p.5

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