Criminal Historian

Working with dead people

Category: 20th century (page 1 of 4)

Death of the Veiled Murderess

A depiction of the Veiled Murderess at her trial, taken from an account of her ‘life and confessions’ – from the Yale Law Library Flickr page

The British press in the 19th and early 20th centuries eagerly detailed accounts of women who killed. Unfortunately for them, there were relatively few British women convicted of more gruesome murders, so they had to look further afield for cases that were sufficiently gory or numerous to attract and entertain their readers. Cases from Rome and Paris were covered in depth, for example, and in 1905, the death of a particularly notorious American murderess was written about.

This was Mrs Henrietta Robinson, who had been convicted back in 1853 of poisoning two people with arsenic. Timothy Lanigan had been a neighbour of hers in Troy, New York. One night, he and his wife had hosted a dinner party at which both Mrs Robinson and a Catherine Lubin had attended. Their one guest had responded to their hospitality by killing both the male host and the other female guest.

Mrs Robinson attracted, and continued to attract, press attention not only because of her beauty and her refusal to behave by contemporary standards for women, but also because she consistently refused to tell anyone who she really was. Even during her trial, she had refused to remove her thick veil, leading to her becoming known as ‘The Veiled Murderess’. She was said to have only agreed to remove the veil once – and then only in a private cell, so that the jury could come and look at her.

Her argument had been, perversely, that she didn’t want any publicity – and that she would prefer death to having her face shown to others, including the press:

‘She was very handsome, but neither persuasion nor coercion could prevail upon her to unveil in open court.’

Even when she had agreed to show her face to the jury, she had first made efforts to thwart them, by  dressing a dummy as her and placing it in a chair. The jury came to see this ‘Veiled Murderess’ but when one of the jury members took offence at ‘her’ silence, he lifted the veil, to be greeted with a chuckle from underneath the cell’s bed. Mrs Robinson had hidden herself there to play a joke on the jury.

Her identity had long been the subject of much speculation, with the American ‘yellow press’ (as the British provincial press sniffily referred to it as) attempting to prove that she was the wife of a member of the British peerage.

The British press, in turn, argued that this ‘suggestion was entirely groundless’. It was one thing to eagerly report on this example of American lawlessness, but quite another to find a link to a member of the British peerage! Mrs Robinson, meanwhile, simply agreed that her name was an assumed one, but steadfastly refused to reveal her real name, even to her defence counsel.

Four decades after her conviction, a woman came forward to claim that Mrs Robinson was really Charlotte Wood, a schoolfriend of hers from New York State, the daughter of a Canadian merchant named William Wood, and one of four sisters, who spoke seven languages fluently.

The rest of the Wood family had a pact to deny that Charlotte was really a murderess, she claimed, but when rumours started swirling, got one of the other sisters to pose as Charlotte to ‘prove’ she couldn’t be a killer and be both in public and in jail at the same time.

The story was let down firstly by the inclusion of the ‘groundless’ story that the Veiled Murderess was married to an English peer – and the second fact that the informant hadn’t seen Charlotte Wood for a substantial amount of time, and had been told her ‘facts’ as a story from another friend. She even admitted that she had no idea how the Woods’ deception could have been achieved.

A view of Sing Sing prison

Although one other rumour was that Mrs Robinson had previously lived in Philadelphia, she had been convicted at Troy, and sent initially to Sing Sing prison – although one paper noted that two years after her conviction, Mrs Robinson had to be sent to the Matteawan lunatic asylum. Her identity continued to be a secret there, and she  also refused to say who the two people she had killed were – their names remained unknown to the authorities.

In prison, she had been allowed certain privileges not open to other convicts, such as being able to eat in private in her cell. It was only in 1873 that this privilege was revoked, on the grounds that it was ‘detrimental to discipline’ – presumably, other prisoners understandably took offence at this lady being treated better than them.

Some 44 years after her conviction, the Dundee Evening Telegraph reported that she had turned up in Troy in 1852, a ‘woman of wondrous beauty’ with lots of money, but no husband, children or friends. Yet it is clear that what had been ‘established’ was no more than the fact that this ‘strange, beautiful woman’ was something of a hermit, and had no desire for company.

When, a few days before her death in May 1905, it became clear that Mrs Robinson wasn’t going to recover, a curious physician at the asylum tried to find out the truth about this now elderly woman, but she refused to give him any information, ‘saying it should go to the grave with her.’

However, it was clear to the asylum staff that Mrs Robinson had some curious talents, as one obituary of her made clear:

‘In her old age, Mrs Robinson exhibited remarkable ingenuity in making exquisite lace, some good gloves, a pair of shoes, and even a set of false teeth out of buttons, which she wore for a long time.’

The Veiled Murderess died, presumably with her button-teeth in place, at the age of 89, her ability to generate headlines no less than fifty years earlier, when she was convicted of a double murder.

 

Sources: Huddersfield Chronicle, 13 September 1873; Dundee Evening Telegraph, 25 December 1897;  Cambridge Independent Press, 19 May 1905, p.5; The Salisbury Times, 19 May 1905

New crime and punishment records online

The Findmypast search page for its crime collection

Findmypast added a final 68,000 records to its collection of England and Wales Crime, Prisons and Punishments records last Friday, with its collection now being the largest set of English and Welsh crime records available online.

All these new records have come from The National Archives at Kew, and are taken from five separate series:

  • Home Office (HO 8) – convict hulks, convict prisons and criminal lunatic asylums, quarterly returns of prisoners
  • Central Criminal Court (CRIM 9) – after-trial calendars of prisoners
  • Home Office (HO 140) – calendar of prisoners
  • Home Office/Prison Commission (PCOM 2) – prison records
  • Home Office/Prison Commission (PCOM 3) – male licences, 1853-1887

This image is from Findmypast’s collection, and originated in the HO8 files (HO 8/161). Part of the ‘Convict Hulks, Convict Prisons and Criminal Lunatic Asylums: Quarterly Returns of Prisoners’, it records names, ages, offences, where and when convicted, the sentence, and the convict’s health and behaviour during the quarter of the year in which the returns were compiled. So here, we can see that William Jeffs, a 22-year-old burglar, had displayed ‘bad’ behaviour, whereas another convict had shown ‘exemplary’ behaviour despite being a convicted rapist.

As you might be able to tell from this image, not all the names are written out in full – several are just initials and a surname – and the location and year are not evident from this simple search result, so you may need to do a bit of cross-referencing or scrolling back through images to give you more information.

FMP’s records have come from The National Archives at Kew

Also, do not assume that the place listed at the front of the entire document is the only one mentioned – for example, with this image, some prior pages are from the Attested List of the Convict Department, Criminal Lunatic Asylum, Broadmoor, and for the quarter ending on 30 September 1864 – but the last entries in the original book are for the Invalid Convict Prison at Woking.

But if you suspect you have a criminal ancestor, these online records may help you track them – and their crimes – down; and even if you don’t have a convict in your family tree, they make for fascinating reading!

You can access the Crime and Punishment collection on Findmypast here – a subscription is needed for full access.

A case for the Fingerprints Department

The Illustrated London News’ coverage of another burglary case – this time from 1928 – where fingerprint analysis was crucial

It was in Argentina in 1892 that Eduardo Alvarez, a police inspector, made the first criminal identification through an analysis of fingerprints. Francisca Rojas, who had murdered her two sons, denied she was responsible for the deaths, but a bloody print on a door was identified as hers.

Various 19th century individuals – such as Sir Francis Galton – had already established that fingerprints could be used for identification purposes, but it was actually fiction that first showed their use for criminal purposes, with one of the stories in Mark Twain’s Life On The Mississippi (1883) using fingerprints to identify a murderer.

In Britain, the first conviction in the UK made on the basis of fingerprint evidence came in 1902, when Harry Jackson was convicted of burglary. The first British murder case to rely on fingerprints was in 1905, when South London shopkeepers Thomas and Ann Farrow were killed.

The case that I’m looking at this week is from the same decade; just a year after the first case to depend on fingerprints. It clearly shows the novelty of this type of evidence.

It was October 1904, and 22-year-old labourer George Gage stood in the dock at the Central Criminal Court. The court heard that Gage had broken into a house in Hammersmith, and helped himself liberally to some wine he found in there. He then stole silver goods worth £15 (these seemed to have mainly been spoons), before escaping.

Mention of George Gage in the records of the Old Bailey (from Old Bailey Online)

Unfortunately for George, his desire for a drink was his downfall. He left his fingerprints all over the wine glass he had used. It was duly examined by the Fingerprints Department of Scotland Yard, and within half an hour, the prints were found to be ‘absolutely identical with the fingerprint marks of an ex-convict named Gage’.

George Gage, as the records of the Old Bailey show, had appeared in court in September 1903, charged, with another man, of being found at night with housebreaking implements in their possession.

They were both sentenced to 12 months’ hard labour – but it was also noted that Gage had a prior felony conviction dating from July 1897 (when he would have been around 15), and ten other convictions to boot. It is no wonder that the Met had his details on file.

Now, not long after being released from prison, Gage was being arrested again. The police told him he had left something behind at the Hammersmith house. He immediately replied,

“Do you mean my fingerprints?” (London Daily News, 21 October 1904)

There was no other proof of his involvement in the crime, but George promptly pleaded guilty. He was sentenced to four years in prison, with the Recorder noting, as he sentenced Gage, that:

“Finger-print identifications were most valuable, and were likely greatly to assist in the detection of crime.” (Gloucestershire Echo, 21 October 1904)

The science was so new that prior to sentencing, a discussion was had court about the history of fingerprinting, from Egyptian mummies being found to have the same fingermarks, to the tests carried out on fingerprints at Scotland Yard, where out of 600,000 examples, none had been found to be identical.

The Recorder at court noted that using fingerprints would avoid innocent men being sent to prison, although it seems that George Gage wasn’t unduly bothered by being convicted in this way. In fact, when he was told he would serve four years inside, he simply responded,

“Is that all?” (London Daily News, 21 October 1904)

Sources: DL Ortiz-Bacon and CL Swanson, ‘Fingerprint Sciences’ in Max M Houck (ed), Forensic Fingerprints (Academic Press, London, 2016), p.61; Jan Burke, ‘Mark Twain and Fingerprints: Part 1’ (2013)

Unnatural conduct: the murder of Elizabeth Peers

Elizabeth Peers was not missed.

She had been gone all night, and most of the following day, but still she was not missed.

This is not to say that her parents had not noticed she had gone; more that they knew, but didn’t care. They didn’t miss her.

William Peers was a Liverpudlian labourer, a brick-setter, with a drink problem. His wife Elizabeth wasn’t much better. On the evening of Saturday. 28 October 1905, the couple had been arguing.

They paused for long enough to send their youngest daughter Elizabeth, then aged 10, out from their house in Wendell Street, Toxteth, to buy ‘some pork’. Either they had a strange urge for meat at 12.30am on a Saturday night, or they simply wanted a pretext to get their daughter away from them.

Even though it was absurdly late to send a 10-year-old out on errands – she should have been safely in bed – they sent her anyway. And then they failed to notice when she didn’t come back.

Instead, they went to bed. The next day, they failed to notice Elizabeth’s absence for some time – or at least, they failed to tell the police that their young daughter was missing. Eventually, Mr Peers asked some local relatives if Elizabeth was with them, and found out that she wasn’t.

The 1901 census for Toxteth, Liverpool, showing the Peers family (from Ancestry)

Elizabeth wasn’t with them, because she had been found that day in Back Cullen Street, an alleyway off Smithdown Road, and just two roads away from her home, dead. She had been sexually assaulted before being killed, and had probably been killed shortly after leaving her home on that Saturday night. Her father, obviously, didn’t find her, as he hadn’t looked. Instead, someone – presumably police – had to go to him to tell him his neglected daughter had been found dead in an alley, and removed to the mortuary.

Her cause of death was uncertain – some papers said she was throttled, others that she had been suffocated. All agreed that she had been ‘violated’ – raped. One paper went further and said that she died as a ‘result of the shock and violence to which she was subjected’ during the sexual assault; another that she had been gagged during her ordeal. This was a girl who was still little, who should have been tucked up in bed at home – but who was sent out by drunken parents who failed to protect her or ensure that she was safe.

The inquest shed light on the nature of Elizabeth’s family and associates. One man, a dock labourer named George Amos Wolstenholme, gave evidence that he had seen a man running from the alley at around 1.30 that morning, sweating, with his clothes ‘disarranged’ – but his evidence was dismissed as ‘unreliable’.

Elizabeth’s movements could not be traced – unsurprising given the antisocial hour that she had been out on her errands – and her assailant couldn’t be identified. The press criticised the police as having ‘no clue’, but there being a verdict of wilful murder against persons unknown was returned, the coroner and the jury knew who should really be blamed for this poor girl’s murder.

The jury approached the coroner, and asked him to say something to the public. He willingly agreed, and, as clear as he could, ‘severely censured the parents for the child for their unnatural conduct.’

Elizabeth may not have been noticed in life, but she was in death. When she was buried, it was said that more than 30,000 people came to stand on the Liverpool streets to see her hearse and three mourning carriages make their way to the Smithdown Cemetery. Streets were crowded; the blinds were drawn in the houses on the route; and women cried out for justice as the hearse went past them. The funeral procession was headed by three mounted police and a large number of policemen; perhaps out of respect for the child, but more likely to prevent the crowds turning nasty on the chief mourners, the parents.

There was some form of divine retribution for Elizabeth’s negligent parents. On Hallowe’en, 31 October, Mrs Peers – said to have been suffering greatly from shock, to the extent that the ‘poor creature can scarcely be held responsible for her acts’, spilt a paraffin lamp in the Peers home, setting the furniture on fire. Dazed, she was dragged out of the house by neighbours, and once in the street, fell, and hurt her face quite badly. This was the same woman who on being told a child had been found dead, commented, “God help some poor mother” before going to get some more drink.

The murder reinforced what many newspapers saw as the criminality of Liverpool’s residents, and in particular, of its slum areas. They eagerly covered the case, noting the poor area in which Elizabeth lived, and how children were neglected there. One article was headlined ‘Child life in a Liverpool slum’ and noted how one witness had said that it was not unusual for children to be out playing at midnight in the neighbourhood, and so it would not have been thought strange for Elizabeth to be out at that time.

Elizabeth was a ‘slum child’, given independence far beyond what we give our children today. She was sent on errands, forced to be older than her years as her parents dealt with their lives by numbing their feelings with alcohol.

It is not surprising that the press blamed her death on these parents, and on her location, as it enabled them to highlight concerns about the slums, and to argue for their destruction. It’s a shame they didn’t argue as forcibly for Elizabeth’s murderer to be caught, and for anyone with suspicions to report them. As it is, Elizabeth’s killer remained at large, and probably within the community the press criticised so harshly.

 

 

Sources: Dundee Courier, 23 November 1905, Lancashire Evening Post, 22 November 1905, Portsmouth Evening News, 1 November 1905, Derby Daily Telegraph, 4 November 1905, Gloucester Citizen, 22 November 1905, Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 23 November 1905, Dundee Evening Telegraph, 31 October 1905, Manchester Courier, 1 November 1905, Yorkshire Post, 16 November 1905

 

The Canadian Seaman and the Telephone Operator

In September 1908, a Canadian seaman named John Metcalfe was charged at Tower Bridge Police Court with stabbing a telephone operator.

The Commercial Docks at Rotherhithe

Metcalfe (his name also spelled as Metcalf and Medcalfe in the newspapers) was then aged 30, and had been working on the Allan Line’s ss Sicilian, which was moored in the Surrey Commercial Docks. His victim, Annie Standen, lived in Bermondsey. Some reports stated that she was married; others referred to her as ‘Miss Standen, a young woman of attractive appearance’.

Annie had been visiting friends one night, and decided to walk home – from Trundley Road to St James Road – at 1am. Although she walked quickly, she could hear heavy footsteps behind her. She went quicker, but as she turned into Abbeyfield Road, her follower stabbed her in the back.

She wasn’t at first sure of what had happened, and turned, to see him vanishing round the corner. Then she became aware of what had happened, started screaming, and ran to the first house she saw to bang on the door to ask for help.

Luckily for Annie, a local constable had been nearby, and on hearing her scream, rushed towards the sound. He found the young woman standing against some railings by a house, with a knife – identifiable as the sort carried by sailors – still sticking out of her back, the blade ‘buried to the hilt’. The constable pulled the blade out, and blood spurted over his arm. He quickly took Annie to a local doctor, and from there to Guy’s Hospital.

When the policemen at the constable’s station looked later at the knife, they immediately recognised it as the weapon that had been used in a similar attack the week before.

In this case, Mrs Louisa Plumpton, of Rotherhithe, had been drinking in her local pub, the local Star and Garter, with her husband when she noticed two men quarrelling. One pushed against her baby, and when she retaliated by knocking him aside, he stabbed her with a sailor’s knife in her right wrist. The man was apprehended, and justified his actions by saying:

“A man asked me for money, and insulted me, and this being my first visit to England, and not knowing what was going to happen, I drew my knife to protect myself. The woman was injured by accident.”

When he appeared at the police court on this offence, he was discharged after the magistrate commented:

“Sailors, when they come ashore, are the prey of all sorts of rascals who try to extort money from them and rob them. A man who protects himself from such persons is on a different footing from the man who draws a knife to attack somebody.”

Because this attack was seen as understandable, given the man’s status as a sailor, he was released and went back home to his lodgings at Lower Road in Rotherhithe – the same road where the pub was located. It was here that the police duly returned when Annie was then stabbed. He was found fast asleep in bed, and arrested – to which he responded:

“All right, I know what you want me for. I threw the knife away this afternoon in company with a man named Nobby Taylor, and another named Dan Tracey.”

On reaching the police station, he was shown the offending knife – not thrown away, of course – and again tried to argue that he had thrown the knife away and that it must have been picked up by someone else. However, now the timing had changed – he had thrown it away “tonight, in some street”. He was placed in a police cell, where now, he sighed,

“They take no notice of doing one or two in my country.”

But this was clearly no isolated incident, and neither was it a justifiable self-defence against other men. In both cases, this sailor had attacked women, and in one case, the woman was on her own, at night. He had clearly targeted her – and it seems highly improbable that this behaviour would have been taken ‘no notice of’ back in Canada.

The Canadian sailor was duly committed for trial at the Old Bailey, charged with attempted murder, according to the press – but he eventually appeared in court on a charge of wounding. Although he had been rather vocal when arrested, on being tried, he went completely silent, refusing to speak at all, even to plead – instead, a plea of ‘not guilty’ was entered on his behalf. He was found guilty, and sentenced to 12 months’ hard labour.

 

SOURCES: South London Press, 18 September 1908; Lancashire Evening Post, 23 October 1908

 

 

New Metropolitan Police pension records released online

The National Archives has announced the release of a set of its pension records relating to Metropolitan Police officers on Ancestry.

The registers of pensions awarded to Met Police officers (MEPO 21) include personal details about the police officers that might include place of birth, marital status, parents and next of kin, service details and, from 1923, details of the officer’s spouse.

You can search the registers on Ancestry under ‘London, England, Metropolitan Police Pension Registers, 1852-1932‘.

The entry above relates to Constable John Howard of Thames Division, whose pension of £44 started in October 1852. The second page of his entry, shown above, is full of detail, from his short height and ‘nearly bald’ head, to his parents’ names, date and place of birth, and the date he entered the police service.

So if your ancestor was a Met police constable, or you’re researching former officers, have a look through this new release of documents, and enjoy!

Corset Crime Week, Day 4: How Mrs Dove is alive, thanks to a corset

In the second of this week’s stories involving a corset proving itself to be the superhero of the early 20th century, by preventing crime, a story from 1900 involved the undergarment’s key role in preventing a case of a work grievance becoming a murder case.

A Kent tailor had a grievance against his employer, a Mr Dove, of Faversham. This was Charles Dove, a 31 year old tailor, who lived with his wife Minnie, and their young children – Frederick, Gertrude and Grace – in the centre of Faversham. [1]

One morning in late September, he took his revenge – not by shooting Mr Dove, but instead, his wife, firing his revolver at her as she walked from the yard of her house into its hall. The bullet would have hit her heart (the tailor obviously being a good shot), if it had not been for the steel of her corset, which stopped the bullet still.

The tailor was arrested shortly after, and charged with attempted murder. He appeared at the Kent Assizes under his full name of Thomas Downs Collins, and he was described as a 20-year-old ‘working tailor, in the employ of Mr Dove, with prisoner at 14 East Street, Faversham.’

The court heard that he had gone to Sheerness on 23 September, where he bought the gun from gunsmith Joseph Barber. He showed it to Dove, saying he had ‘brought it to show Johnson [another of Dove’s employees], and intended to take it home.’ He and Charles then had breakfast together on the 24th.

The men had then started work; during the morning, Charles Dove had come into the tailors’ workshop and given out the day’s instructions, but did not see Collins. Others reported that Collins had later become a bit anxious; Johnson started to get concerned, thinking Collins had gone ‘queer’; Collins muttered something that could either have been “the pistol’s driving me mad” or “Dove’s driving me mad.”

When Johnson asked Collins if he was alright, his colleague retorted: “If you move I’ll shoot you,” and took the revolver from his pocket. Johnson, thinking he was just being silly, said, “Now, then, Tom.”

Collins then went to grab Johnson, who pushed him and ran through the door, bumping into Mr Dove. He told him what had happened, but then, they heard a pistol fire, and a scream. Minnie Dove had been shot, but had luckily been fully dressed, and armoured with her sturdy corset.

The two men had known each other for years; Collins had been apprenticed to Dove for five years, the apprenticeship having finished some five months before. The week before, it seems that Dove had given him ten day’s notice to leave, because he had interfered in Johnson’s work. This dismissal was presumably all the motive Collins needed to try and kill his employer’s wife.

Actually, he thought he HAD killed Minnie. He had even gone home at 10am, and when his sister Helen had spied him with pistol still in hand, he turned to her and shouted:

“Keep quiet, Nell. I won’t hurt you. I have shot Mrs Dove stone dead: thank God. I am going to swing for it. It was Mr Dove I wanted.”

He wasn’t at home for long, for the police soon found him. Although he tried to point his pistol at a hapless police constable, he was disarmed, and again stated that it was Charles Dove he had wanted to kill, not his wife.

Despite these clear admissions that he intended to murder someone, he had not actually done so. The jury at his trial found him guilty of intent to grievous bodily harm, but not to murder. He received just three years in prison.

Sources: South Wales Echo, 24 September 1900; Kent & Sussex Courier, 7 December 1900

  1. The 1901 census records the Doves as living at 14 East Street, Faversham. The 1911 census for Faversham shows the Doves still living in the town, but now at 2 Queen’s Parade. Gertrude was now 17 and helping her father, a master tailor; her sister Grace, 16, was a dressmaker’s apprentice.

 

 

Corset Crime Week, Day 3: Stealing corsets from the Berlei factory

Edward Devanny was a 50-year-old tailor from Burnham in Buckinghamshire, who came a cropper in 1938 when he broke into a bra factory and stole some ladies’ underwear.

The tailor was a serial offender in terms of theft, at least. He had been living a life of crime since he was around 10 year old, it was said, and had served a number of prison sentences. There had been sentences of three and seven years’ penal servitude before this latest offence.

It was the night of the 2 June 1938 when Duvanny had broken into the Berlei factory in Slough, stealing 121 pairs of corsets and 18 bras, valued at a total of £106. He had only been out of prison since April, and had, for those previous few months, been living ‘on the proceeds of crime’.

When he was tried, the chairman of the jury was incredulous at the offence, saying, “What would this man expect to do with 150 [sic] corsets?”

Detective-Inspector Rawlins, who was giving evidence, commented that he had “got rid” of some them – in other words, Duvanny didn’t have a fetish for women’s underwear; he simply stole in bulk in order to sell on his wares later.

He was still sent back to prison, though. It was clear the court didn’t know quite what to do with him; he had been stealing for decades, had received both small and large prison sentences, but still kept thieving. Although it was felt that prison was doing nothing to encourage him onto the straight and narrow, he was again sent there, this time for another three year stretch.

Source: Bucks Herald, 1 July 1938

 

Corset Crime Week, Day 2: Bad women are those without corsets

In 1913, the Sheffield Evening Telegraph was frank about the importance of corsets to women. It noted that when a woman lost her waistline, she lost her self-respect; and that, therefore, if she gave up wearing a corset, she couldn’t be ‘good’.

In all fairness, the Sheffield paper was merely reporting the views of a Mrs Jones, who had just given a lecture to the Illinois Women’s Reformatory League.

The lecture had been reported in the Daily Express, courtesy of its New York correspondent, and the provincial press were – as they often did – merely copying stories from the nationals rather than trying to spark a debate amongst the good women of Yorkshire as to whether they should drop their corsets or not.

But Mrs Jones’ comments were actually part of a wider discussion about female prisoners in the US, and whether prison life and incarceration destroyed their self-respect and therefore made it more likely that they would recommit after their release.

The Illinois Women’s Reformatory League discussed how the routine of Illinois‘ prison life failed female inmates by not providing corsets or ‘fine’ clothes, leaving them in ill-fitting, loose garb. As Mrs Jones commented:

“Self-respect is the first element toward the reclaiming of a woman’s soul. No woman can maintain her self-respect unless she wears a corset. Dress our women prisoners well and they will be reformed.”

Although one might raise an eyebrow at her conclusion – “Corsets would make good women out of many who are now delinquents” – the League’s comments were more valid than they might first appear. By giving female inmates a sense of pride in their appearance, they might feel valued, worth something; take the fundamentals away, and they would sag both physically and mentally, be devalued, feel like ‘just’ a prisoner.

By commending corsets, women such as Mrs Jones were not putting trying to undo the work of the suffragists; they were, instead, recognising that women inmates were just that – not just inmates, but women too, and that to get them to value themselves might lessen the chance of them reoffending once they left prison.

Sheffield Evening Telegraph, 1 April 1913

 

 

Corset Crime Week, Day 1: A crime saved by a corset

The scene is Ulverston, Lancashire,* and the year is 1907.

A young miner, William Causey, is known to keep company with a servant named Tamar Annie Wilding, who works at the Hazelwood Hydro in Grange-over-Sands. Recently, however, he has sensed a coolness between them; a feeling that Tamar is not as enamoured of him anymore as he was of her.

His feelings come to a head one Wednesday evening in September. He spots Tamar, whose 23rd birthday is coming up the following week, out walking – with another man.

Fired up with jealousy, he follows them, and continues as they wander into a dark lane, just outside of Ulverston. Causey draws a revolver, and shoots his paramour twice. Struck, she falls, senseless, to the ground.

The miner is confident he has killed the young servant, and wanting to rejoin her (as she would, of course, be without the new man in heaven), he immediately puts the gun in his mouth and blows his brains out.

The 25-year-old has not reckoned on Tamar’s undergarments, however. Her boned corset is strong, and protective. The bullets had been deflected by the boning of the corset, and she is uninjured – although, when she heard the gun fire, she had merely – in the manner of all good Edwardian heroines – swooned to the ground.

Source: Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, 20 September 1907

*Ulverston was historically in Lancashire, but is now part of the modern county of Cumbria.

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