Criminal Historian

Working with dead people

Category: 20th century (page 1 of 3)

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.

Announcing a week of corset crimes

Yes, corset crimes.

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

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

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

Where Dr Crippen’s nemesis lies

Dr Crippen, from Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fight the good fight.”

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

Did this murder case really change the law?

There was an interesting article on the BBC website today, looking back at the murder of a 10-year-old girl, Mona Tinsley, from Newark, in 1937.

It’s always interesting to read about old cases, and how they were investigated; but here, something more is being alleged. The headline of the piece states that it was a ‘murder that changed the law’, and includes a long quote from a legal historian, Benjamin Darlow, about the principle of ‘no body, no murder’ in English law.

Darlow states that after a man who had thought to have been murdered in 1660 turned up two years later, there would be no murder conviction based on a case where no body had been located for the following 294 years – i.e. until 1956.

The implication, though, is that Mona Tinsley’s case was the one that changed this situation, suggesting that a murder conviction was obtained in her case, despite her body not being found.

Yet that is not the case, as the article later states. The former Tinsley family lodger – who, it is suggested, was having an affair with Mona’s aunt – was charged and tried prior to Mona’s body being found… but only with abduction.

Although he was suspected of killing her, without a body, he could not be tried with murder, and so was convicted of abduction alone. It was only when Mona’s body was found, six months after her disappearance, that he could then be charged with her murder.

But this isn’t what the article seems to be trying to argue. There may have been public calls for the law to be changed given the suspicion attached to one individual; but nowhere in the article does it state that this was the case, or that it was the murder of Mona Tinsley that led to the law being changed some 20 years later.

Legal history and criminal history are fascinating areas for research and many are interested in reading about historic cases – but it would be useful to have a clearer exposition of what this case was – and indeed, wasn’t – about. I was left confused by what the article was purporting to say, and I don’t think I will be the only one.

 

The lamplighter’s wife: a dark tale from Edwardian London

A hysterical woman yawning, c.1890, by Albert Londe (Wellcome Images, used under Creative Commons)

A hysterical woman yawning, c.1890, by Albert Londe (Wellcome Images, used under Creative Commons)

It was just after 8pm on 8 July 1907 – a Monday night in north London. Lamplighter Harry Mitchell, aged 33, had just left his home in Stoke Newington to light his lamps for the night. He lived in a top floor flat in what were somewhat euphemistically called artisan’s dwellings at 34 Garnham Street, with his wife, Clarissa Maria, and three children – a six-month-old girl, 18-month-old boy, and a seven year old girl.

Left behind, Clarissa was seen to open the front window at the top of the building – and to onlookers’ horror, push through her seven-year-old daughter, Clarissa Alice, who fell and became impaled on the spikes of railings that separated the building from the pavement. Mrs Mitchell then looked through the window to check that her daughter had fallen, before rushing back into the front room.

George Tilley, a mill foreman, was walking down the street when he saw the first child impaled on the railings. He ran over and gently lifted her off, before a movement above made him raise his eyes. To his horror, he saw the middle child, known as Frederick, only 18 months old, clinging onto the sill of the second floor window. As he watched, this child too fell ‘with a thud’ into the space between the railings and the flats, lying there clearly severely injured.

Jessie Abrahams, a local woman who was also passing by at the time, said there was a gap of around two or three minutes between the two children falling out of the window. She had also seen Clarissa Mitchell ‘very deliberately’ open the window wider, before throwing herself out – as though tumbling through space, it was later said. Her body was impaled on the railing spikes with such force that several men were needed to lift her off the railing.

The three Mitchells were carried by shocked onlookers to the nearest dispensary, on the High Road, where much to everyone’s amazement, Frederick was found to be still alive, although critically injured, and was immediately rushed to the Metropolitan Hospital. It was initially believed that both the mother and elder daughter were dead – but a more thorough investigation found signs of life in both, and they were taken to the German Hospital in Dalston. Although both were conscious, they were said to be in a ‘very critical’ condition.

The Mitchell family’s neighbours, hearing the shouts and thuds, and learning what had happened, were obviously concerned about the fate of the younger daughter. They broke into the flat, and there found the baby sleeping peacefully in bed.

What had caused this woman to take such an awful course of action? Mr and Mrs Mitchell were said to be highly respected residents of their local community, members of the Salvation Army, and hard working.

However, the 30-year-old Mrs Mitchell, who worked as a servant, but who when not at work was confined to a small flat with three small children to look after, had been said to have been ‘low spirited for some time’. This was another way of saying that she suffered from depression.

On her husband leaving for work one summer’s evening, she had decided she could take life no more, and had tried to take her children with her on a journey to a better world. Her only comment on being lifted from the railings was that her head hurt; her oldest child, however, told onlookers:

“Mother threw me out. I clutched the curtains, but they broke.”

The following day, it was reported that Mrs Mitchell had spent a restless night in the German Hospital, and had been screaming ‘almost continuously’. The little girl impaled on the railing had been far quieter, despite having been impaled through her groin; but her brother was in a far worse state.

It took a month for the woman to be charged with wounding her children – she was also charged with attempting suicide. The time lapse was due, simply, to her injuries; she was in hospital for weeks following the event. At the North London Police Court, she was committed to the Central Criminal Court for trial; she had only spoken once, asking, “Can I see my children?”

The Asylum for Criminal Lunatics, Broadmoor. (Wellcome Images, used under Creative Commons) Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

The Asylum for Criminal Lunatics, Broadmoor.
(Wellcome Images, used under Creative Commons)

But her children were, a month later, still in hospital, and she was not permitted to see them. A doctor called to give his opinion remarked that he thought she was insane, and so the gaol doctor was asked to keep her under observation. Clarissa Mitchell duly appeared at the Central Criminal Court on 10 September 1907.

Here, new light was shed on Clarissa’s past. Harry Fullarton, the assistant medical officer at Holloway Prison, where she was held pending her trial, gave evidence that she was mentally ill, and had been for some time – ‘she is quite unfit to understand the present proceedings or instruct solicitor or counsel’.

He said that he had found out that she had previously been detained as a lunatic between August 1901 and March 1903, before being released in the belief that she was ‘cured’. At the time of her incarceration, she was already married and was caring for baby Clarissa; on being released, she returned to her husband and quickly had two more children.

To modern eyes, it seems highly possible that Clarissa was suffering from post-natal depression that may have turned into psychosis; the timing of her two severe bouts of mental illness both came when she had very young children in her care.

It was found that Clarissa Mitchell was insane and unfit to either plead or to take her trial on a charge of wounding. She was ordered to be detained at His Majesty’s pleasure.

And what of the family she tried to destroy? The baby, sadly – the one child Clarissa had not tried to kill – may have died; but the two she had thrown from the window both survived. The 1911 census shows Clarissa Alice, now 11, and Harry Frederick William Mitchell, now aged five, living with their father at 100 Rendlesham Road in Clapton.

Harry Mitchell, aged 37, was still working as a lamplighter for the Gas Light and Coke Company; in the census return, he had recorded the fact that he had been married for 12 years, and had had four children, of whom, one had died (I have not been able to ascertain whether this was the sleeping baby of 1907, or a child who had died prior to this).

Another hand had scrawled a red line through the details of his marriage, denying Clarissa her existence as the lamplighter’s wife, and thus, albeit unknowingly, denying her existence, too, as her children’s mother.

*

Sources: Belfast Weekly News, 11 July 1907; Portsmouth Evening News, 9 July 1907, Wells Journal, 11 July 1907, London Daily News, 9 August 1907, Diss Express, 16 August 1907, Old Bailey Online (ref t19070910-21). Birth of Clarissa Alice Mitchell, Edmonton, Mar 1900 (vol 3a 374); 1911 census on Ancestry.

Clarissa Maria Mitchell died in 1941, aged 65 (FreeBMDs, Windsor district, Dec 1941, vol 2c, page 869 – the location suggests that she may have died in Broadmoor, which was in Crowthorne and thus came under the Windsor district for registration purposes); Clarissa Alice, unlike her mother, never married; she died, a spinster, in her 80s (source: Civil Registration Death Index, on Ancestry).

 

 

 

The condemned miner with a Jesus complex

From press coverage of Dunn's speech at the Durham Assizes

From press coverage of Dunn’s speech at the Durham Assizes

John Thomas Dunn, a 52 year old miner, was not looking forward to the new year. He knew that once 1927 turned into 1928, his days were literally numbered, for on Friday 7 January, he would die.

It was the peak of the Roaring Twenties; flappers were frenetically dancing the Charleston, and the bright young things were enjoying life. Many were enjoying the glamour of the movies, watching the silent film stars pout and preen on cinema screens – perhaps with a bit of awareness that, for some, their careers would not last much longer, for The Jazz Singer, a ‘talkie‘ had been released in October 1927, and once sound arrived for good, those whose voices were deemed unattractive would have to find other careers.

But this was all a world away for Dunn. He was an unemployed  miner in the north-east, living at Sacriston in Co Durham. Sacriston had been home to a colliery since 1838; by the end of the 19th century, it had employed 600 local men. In 1903, it had seen a mining disaster, when water flooded the mine, killing two men.

Dunn, who had previously worked at this colliery, had married Ada Elizabeth Stokes in her hometown of Gateshead back in 1903, and the couple had had several children over the next two decades. Ada was eight years her husband’s junior, having only been around 20 years old when she married.

On 25 September 1927, though, Dunn had raised the alarm, shouting that his 44-year-old wife had committed suicide. However, during a subsequent trial, it was argued that he had actually strangled Mrs Dunn and then hanged up her body up with a rope to make it look like she had killed herself.

It was widely known that the Dunns had not been happily married, and, in fact, a week before her death, Ada Dunn had left her husband and returned home to her mother in Gateshead. But at his trial, which took place at the Durham Assizes, damning evidence came from two of the Dunns’ children.

Richard Dunn, aged 11, stated that when he had gone to bed on the night of the death, he heard his parents quarrelling, a stool overturning, and then a choking noise. The couple’s married daughter, Ada Walsh, then stated that John had tried to strangle her mother some years earlier.

When he was found guilty, on 15 November, Dunn had lost his usual self-control (it was noted that he had spent the trial watching what was going on with ‘keen attentiveness’, and often making notes that he would then pass to his counsel). He shouted out, passionately, making an emotional and sometimes manic speech, that started with his former chequered career in the army:

“I did not intend to go only to protect my country, but to protect my family. I was discharged under a false colour; I went back again, and said I had never been in. That was the courage of a man. I left the army twice with a character. It is easy for a man to get a bad name; it is easy for a dog never to carry a name of goodness once its name is bad.

“I have carried the burden of my children. I had a little girl blind. No one could have done more for her, and I thank God today through hard work and toil she can see. If she was standing beside me now she would give me a kiss of joy. I do not say I had a deceitful wife all through my life. She carried, like me, a weakness. It is a pity we ever met. She was led by other women, and she found that her friends were her enemies. Many times I suffered weakness, and when I went to the doctor with my suffering, I never told him the thing I was suffering from. I said to him, ‘For God’s sake, do not put down heart complaint, or else I will be done for work.'”

He then started talking of God, in an increasingly disjointed way, before ending:

“My children, I appeal for you today. When Christ was crucified He looked up and said, ‘Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.’ I forgive my children because they know not. God help them; God help me.”

The death sentence was then passed against him. A woman in the gallery immediately fainted and had to be carried out; one of Dunn’s sons, a little boy, ran out of the court into the street outside, shouting, “My father is to be hanged!” A policeman had to run after him and bring him back to the court.

gordon_hewart_1st_viscount_hewart

Lord Hewart, the Lord Chief Justice

Dunn had appealed his conviction, before the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Hewart, asking to call further evidence, but this appeal was dismissed at the Court of Appeal on 12 December. He had been trying to claim a defence of insanity; however, Lord Hewart, in giving judgement, pointed out that the original defence had been that no murder had been committed, and that Mrs Dunn had killed herself – so how could Dunn now be claiming insanity as a defence?

One newspaper stated that the execution was originally set for 29 December; however, another stated that it would ‘probably take place in the first week of January’, and this, in the event, is what happened.

On the evening of Thursday 5 January, members of the Dunn family arrived at Durham Gaol to visit their condemned relative. Somewhat surprisingly, they found him upbeat – in fact, one later said, he was ‘the most cheerful member of the party’.

He was still declaring his innocence, using the common excuse that his memory of the night his wife died was ‘blank’ – he had no memory, apparently, of anything that had happened prior to cutting his wife’s body down from behind his kitchen door.

“I would prefer death to a living tomb,” he commented, hating the idea of a long sentence in jail; his family commented that he “betrayed not the slightest concern as to his fate”.

Instead, he told them about a ‘curious experience’ he had had during his time in the condemned cell.

“A thrush fell through the window, and I found it had a broken wing. I tended it and healed the wing. The bird stayed in the cell for about a week, then one morning it flew away, leaving me feeling very lonely.”

Dunn was soon to feel lonely again, as his relatives were told to leave. They were not allowed to shake his hand as they left, and so left feeling somewhat aggrieved. Dunn, though, simply sat in his cell after their departure, writing letters.

A press headline regarding Dunn's 'wounded bird' story

A press headline regarding Dunn’s ‘wounded bird’ story

On the morning of Friday 6 January, he woke early, and had a light breakfast. He then ‘walked firmly to the scaffold’, which had been built only a few paces from his cell. A small crowd had gathered outside the prison, and keenly read the official notice of his execution when it was put up; executioner Pierpoint had done an efficient job.

There one particularly interesting point about this particular case. Dunn was a working-class man, unemployed, and poor; when he first appeared on remand in court charged with wilful murder, he had to ask for legal assistance, and was granted it under the terms of the Poor Persons Act. A local firm of solicitors, Ferens, Burrell, Carpenter and Swinburne, offered to take on the case. He was certainly keenly interested in how the trial progressed, and wanted to contribute to his solicitors’ work; yet how aware was he really as to the danger he was in, and did Mr Ferens, who represented him, employ the right defence at the original trial?

For Dunn’s passionate speech after conviction  – and his tale about the wounded bird – could also be read as the rambling speeches of an insane man. The press clearly saw his trial speech as an unusual occurrence, but focused in on his forgiveness of his children for giving evidence against him. Yet by comparing himself to Jesus in such a rambling way, by talking about parts of his former life that did not present himself in a good light, or that were not relevant, his speech departed from being simply about forgiving others, and went into stranger territory.

It seems not only that insanity should have been used as his initial defence, but that it might have succeeded. Instead, whether on his solicitor’s advice, or because he insisted on it, John Dunn continued to maintain that his wife had killed herself – and once the jury had decided otherwise, Dunn had, in effect, tied that noose around his neck himself.

Sources:

Western Daily Press, 16 November 1927

Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail, 13 December 1927

Durham Chronicle, 16 December 1927

Fife Free Press, 7 January 1928

 

 

 

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