Criminal Historian

Working with dead people

Category: 20th century (page 1 of 4)

The men who decided a desperate mother’s fate

I am used more to writing about Victorian crime than more modern offences, and as part of my writing, I’ve often read the work of others on infanticide, and the impact of illegitimacy on women – aside from the possibility of being regarded as ‘immoral’ for having had sex outside of marriage (unlike men), women had to worry about how they would cope economically: would they be able to provide for a child? Would they be able to find and keep a job, if their employers knew they were an unmarried mother? What help was there for them if they struggled?

In Victorian times, infanticide might be the answer, the last resort, although sympathy towards such women can be sometimes detected in the decision to find them guilty of the lesser charge of concealing the birth of a child, rather than in the capital offence of infanticide; or in the increasingly common decision not to carry out the death penalty but to imprison these women instead.

Even well into the 20th century, it was not unheard of for the mother of an illegitimate child to try and kill her offspring; however, there was a more obvious sympathy towards the woman expressed by the courts, and greater time and effort made to understand why she had committed such a crime. In 1939, one case was heard in Rosyth, Fife,  that was duly reported in The Scotsman.

Although the individuals involved in the case were named in press reports at the time, I’m choosing not to here, as there is a possibility that the children involved are still alive today (although the original sources are listed at the end of this post).

The case centred around a young woman who was accused of having thrown or dropped her two-year-old daughter from a train in the Inverkeithing tunnel the previous autumn, with the aim of killing her. By some miracle, the child not only survived, but was said to have survived unharmed. The advocate in the case described it as ‘very exceptional, very difficult and very sad’.

The woman was actually married, but her husband was in the navy, and so she rarely got to see him as he was posted abroad. She had had a son by the husband while he was home; but she found it increasingly difficult to cope with a young child on her own.

She was a nervous woman who worried a lot, even about small things. She needed a bit of love and attention – and in 1936, she found it with another man, although apparently only for a brief spell. This caused her more worry, however, when she found out she was pregnant – not by her absent husband, but by this brief fling. In early 1937, she gave birth to her daughter.

The husband duly found out, but stayed with his wife; however, she felt that he had never completely forgiven her for her ‘fall’, and she could therefore not forgive herself, either. In November 1938, while her husband was again away, her son became ill; she was nursing him, looking after her daughter, getting very little sleep, and she was short of money.

She wrote to her husband asking for money, and he immediately sent her a pound. As she hadn’t acknowledged receipt of it, a week later, he wrote asking whether she had received the money – she gained the impression that he was cross with her for asking for financial help.

Already struggling, she became increasingly upset, the lack of sleep causing her to lose whatever equilibrium she had had. Yet she was seen by her neighbours and family as a good mother, always ensuring that her children were fell fed and clothed.

On the evening of the train incident, she had made both her children their tea, before taking her daughter out. They got on the local train; but then she made the sudden decision to throw her child out.

There was no attempt to portray the mother as insane; however, it was recognised that on the night of the train journey, she was struggling so much from a lack of sleep and emotional problems, that she hadn’t been fully responsible for her actions.

A doctor was called as witness, who described the mitigating factors: the birth of her daughter, the ‘feeling of shame’ about her affair and its result (as in Victorian times, the birth of an illegitimate child was often viewed by authority as ‘shameful’, and mothers were almost expected to feel shamed by their actions), and her worries about her husband’s views.

The mother had thought that the little girl was coming between her and her husband; that he thought less of her as a result of her human fallibility; she was short of money and living in straitened circumstances in ‘unpleasant conditions’; she was worried about her son’s illness, and about the ‘unkindness’ she thought she saw in her husband’s latest letter.

Her action was a spontaneous one, an impulse reaction to the thoughts going round her head. As soon as she had thrown the child, she seemed to regain awareness, desperately trying to ‘recover’ her daughter.

Although she pleaded guilty at the start of her trial, her fate was determined by a group of men, of a different status to her, with little personal knowledge of the circumstances under which she laboured.

The High Court of Justiciary (© Criminal Historian)

Different medical men differed in their opinions of her sanity; even the Lord Justice-Clerk and the advocate-depute, James Walker, disagreed over whether she was insane or sane, and whether she needed to be freed or made to undergo some kind of supervision – whether in an asylum or at home.

The advocate stated that ‘the case was left in a most unsatisfactory condition’. In the end, she was sentenced to three months in prison; however, after sentencing, the Lord Justice-Clerk added that ‘if the prison authorities thought that the woman’s case was one more suitable for hospital treatment than for ordinary prison treatment, they would have an entirely free hand to do what they thought right.’

And as for the little girl who was thrown out of the train, the court was told that she would be either adopted or looked after by her grandparents – she would not be returned to her mother.

So this was both a sympathetically heard case, but one that had no winners. The mother had pleaded guilty to assault with intent to murder, which should have led to a severe sentence – but she had only received three months, out of recognition for her ‘great mental distress’ at the time.

However, that sympathy did not extend to giving her the benefit of the doubt regarding the care of her daughter: she was to be removed from her parent, for good.

Sources:

The Scotsman, 18 January 1939, p.8; The Scotsman, 19 January 1939, p.14; Aberdeen Press & Journal, 19 January 1939, p.7. Images, unless otherwise stated, are from the Illustrated Police News (via British Newspaper Archive) and used for general illustrative purposes.

Peppermints on the beach: the murder of Mrs McLennan

A depiction of the discovery of Mrs McLennan’s body, from the Illustrated Police News (found in the British Newspaper Archive)

It was December 1914; the smell of war was well and truly in the air, as Britain had commenced its involvement in what would be a four year war that would initially be known as the Great War before, decades later, becoming World War 1.

But in the community of Cockenzie, on the east coast of Scotland, the war must have felt a world away. However, their own peace was to be shattered by the discovery of the body of a young, blonde woman one Thursday morning, found on nearby Seton Sands. Her throat had been cut, and she had been dead for several hours.

Initially, her identity was not known – the police had simply described her as in her early 20s, good-looking, and, rather strangely, ‘possibly a shop assistant’. She was found clothed, and in the pocket of her skirt was a ha’penny, and a small bag of peppermint sweets marked with the name of a confectioner in Edinburgh.

The East Lothian police sent three bloodhounds on the scent of the murderer for the following 48 hours, but nothing was found except for a blood-stained razor – presumably the murder weapon. Even the sweet bag turned out to be almost useless as a clue, as it was one of thousands in existence with the name of a major wholesale sweet manufacturer on it – a manufacturer that, it was said, supplied almost every shop on the Scottish east coast.

However, although the murderer could not be found, the woman herself was soon identified. She was Mrs McLennan, aged 23, and she had been married just two years. Her marriage was already over in all but name, however, and she and her husband had separated, each returning to their own parents’ house to live. Mrs McLennan had returned home with a child, born in May 1913.

Mrs McLennan now lived with her parents in Bangor Road, Leith, and had left there on the Wednesday evening – she had not been seen again, although her death was estimated to have not occurred until four o’clock the next morning.

Her mother said that her daughter had spent the early part of the evening looking frequently at the clock, as though she had an appointment, and at six o’clock had put her hat on and opened the door. Her mother asked her why she was ‘going out on a cold night like that’, but she didn’t give a reason.

She had already had a brush with a violent man, though; she had, in fact, met her husband a couple of years earlier when, as she was crossing the Leith park, she had been ‘insulted’ by a man. She had called for help, and it was William McLennan who ran to her rescue. The insulting man had then assaulted McLennan, as he tried to protect the young woman – then known as Miss Howie.

The result of the assault was that William asked her out, and they were soon married.

The Nottingham Journal’s headline got the story slightly wrong – or at least, had the potential to be misconstrued…

It was not until February 1915 that anyone appeared in court in relation to Mrs McLennan’s death – and it was her valiant rescuer of a few years previously: William McLennan appeared in the Edinburgh High Court, charged with the murder of his wife.

William, described as a ‘man of weak appearance’, pleaded guilty to culpable homicide, and the Crown accepted this plea. It was stated that William had been ‘mentally deficient’ since his childhood, and his faculties had been further impaired by an accident shortly after marrying, and due to his ‘unhappy home circumstances’ with his wife. He was also severely epileptic, and had spent periods incarcerated in a lunatic asylum due to this, which had not helped his mental state.

He had arranged to go for a walk with his estranged wife on that Wednesday evening in December 1914, and at some point the following morning, he took a razor to her throat and killed her in what the court heard was a motiveless attack.

Although society had failed to treat him humanely for his epilepsy, his alleged mental deficiencies were treated more sympathetically. He received a relatively lenient sentence of seven years’ penal servitude for killing the girl he had rescued from another attacker in Leith park. Her rescuer had become her murderer.

NOTE: Sadly, although perhaps not unexpectedly, the press coverage of this murder failed to name the murder victim, apart from referring to her as Mrs McLennan – it was her marital status that was seen as important, not her own identity. However, a search on ScotlandsPeople would suggest that her name prior to marriage was Jemima Dawson Howie – a girl of this name married William McLennan in the Leith South district in 1912 (ref 692/2 312), which would match the information that WAS provided in the newspapers. The birth of Jemima Dawson Howie was registered in 1892 in Leith South (ref 692/2 213), which would again make her around the right age to have been the murder victim in this case.

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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A journey round HMP Shepton Mallet

A bit of publicity on the local news always helps, and it was an item on the television about a ghost being spotted by staff at a former Somerset prison that got me in the car to go and visit it. Now, I have to say upfront that I don’t believe in ghosts in any way, shape or form (I annoy anyone I watch Most Haunted with by hooting with laughter for much of it), but it was the mention that the prison was open to visitors for a limited time before being redeveloped that made me drop my work and travel down to the south-west.

HMP Shepton Mallet, located near the centre of the Somerset town, closed in 2013 after a four-century history, and is due to be developed into flats (the BBC has covered consultations into its future). However, until works begin next year, the prison is being opened on a regular basis for public tours. These are run by Jailhouse Tours, which bills itself as providing the ‘most immersive tours’ of recently closed jails (it also runs similar tours of Shrewsbury and Gloucester prisons).

Don’t be concerned about the word ‘immersive’, however. Although the company offers a fully-guided two hour trip round the prison, accompanied by a former prison officer, you can also wander round on your own, if you prefer – and in this case, ‘immersive’ simply means wandering round wherever you want, in a prison where few concessions have been made for the dark tourist, which is, in my opinion, a good thing.

Those former prisons that have been permanently opened up to visitors inevitably shape, curate and present a certain narrative, with various levels of success. For every Kilmainham Gaol – where, although there are exhibitions and guides, you still get a clear sense of the bleakness and tedium of life inside – there is a Littledean Jail (porn and titillation in a former House of Correction). But here, you see a prison in varying levels of decay, abandoned and left as it was, with different stages of its history exposed.

There is damp and mould; peeling walls and smells emanating from the urinals and showers. You can crawl into a 17th century cell – rediscovered years after being boarded up – or visit the 20th century gymnasium. You see the changing nature of criminal justice, the inhumanity of aspects of prison life, and sense how horrific it must have been to be in the exercise yard, in the fresh air, yet surrounded by the high walls and barred windows of the prison on all sides.

It’s not cheap to visit; and if you want everything explained to you via flashy interpretation boards, don’t go (here, things to look at are pointed out on laminated sheets of A4 stuck on doors, due to the temporary nature of the tour). But the staff are both welcoming and genuinely interested in the site, and there’s free tea and coffee in the old visiting rooms… and, more importantly, it’s a rare opportunity to see so many centuries of criminal history before the developers take over.

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Thieving at the theatre doors

London’s Adelphi Theatre in 1840

In his memoirs, the famous, Glasgow-born detective Allan Pinkerton noted that in his adopted America in the 19th  century, there were very few thieves who worked ‘in all fashions and in all places’ – instead, they tended to specialise, focusing in on a particular type of theft, or a preferred location.

He noted that one class of thieves were mainly juveniles, and known as ‘theatre thieves’. They would hang around outside the doors of theatres, and pickpocket theatre-goers – undetectable in the ‘ingoing and outgoing rush’.

Allan Pinkerton, photograph from the Library of Congress

These young pickpockets knew that the risks were relatively small; if their victims noticed their losses, they would be reluctant to report them to the police, because they might have to appear as witnesses in subsequent trials, and this was not something they wanted to do. In addition, the generally young age of theatre thieves meant that their punishment, if caught and convicted, might be more lenient than that meted out to older thieves.

Although Pinkerton had been referring to the situation in the US, the congregation of pickpockets outside theatres was common on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1892, the Illustrated Police News commented on the ‘gangs’ of pickpockets who hung around the theatres on the Strand, particularly at the time when shows were ending, and audiences would be coming out of the theatre doors – usually between 11pm and midnight.

They took advantage of the crowds, and of the weather, for when it was raining, cabs could take some time to reach the theatres to take theatregoers home, and they would be forced to huddle outside the theatres. They tended to work in groups, surrounding individuals and ‘hustling’ them until a watch, chain or purse had been snatched from a pocket.

Men were particularly at risk if they were escorting a female relative or friend along the road towards a cab; thieves would assume that his attention was distracted by looking after his companion, and mark him as a ‘fit victim’.

The police were constantly on the alert for these offenders, but they were reactive rather than proactive, and this caused complaint; it was suggested that they should monitor the local area prior to the shows ending, and ‘warn off obviously suspicious characters’ who were hanging around the exit doors.

A depiction of the Strand in the 19th century

The prevalence of these characters, standing around on the Strand, was described not only as a scandal, but also ‘a disgrace to London, a danger to residents and visitors, and a matter of wonder to the foreigner from every other civilised capital in Europe.’

However, the thieves were not to be deterred by the police, because theatre-goers were seen as easy targets. They were dressed up; they had money; they were easily distracted not only by the performance but by the company they were with – friends, relatives or partners who they were either deep in conversation with during intervals or on leaving the theatres, or busy escorting home on foot or to a cab. They weren’t looking out for the thieves, and the thieves knew it.

Plays about thieves might be popular in both the metropolis and the provinces – but the reality wasn’t as entertaining…

Therefore, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that newspapers continued to report cases of theft relating to theatre audiences, such as when 23-year-old bookbinder William Brown, a ‘notorious’ West End theatre thief, was sentenced to two years’ hard labour in 1906, and even in 1930, theatre-goers were still being singled out by pickpockets.

One ‘new ruse’ reported that year involved thieves dressing up in evening clothes and attending the theatre during intervals. They would follow an audience member to the cloakroom, where they would squirt flour and water onto his coat, and then call his attention to the mark left.

The victim would take off his coat, find a clothes brush and try to clean off the mark – it would only be when he put on his coat again that he would find his wallet missing from it. Several identical thefts were reported to Scotland Yard, and it was said that pickpockets were making ‘good hauls’ from the theatres every night.

Therefore, throughout the 19th century and beyond, the theatre was a place of entertainment – but also of criminal activity. The targeting of theatre-goers by thieves was just one example.

You can read more about crimes relating to the theatre – as well as about the professional and private lives of Victorian entertainment professionals – in my new book, Life On The Victorian Stage, which is out now, published by Pen & Sword.

It is available from the publisher’s website, Amazon, and all good booksellers.

 

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

 

 

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