Criminal Historian

Working with dead people

Category: 20th century (page 1 of 5)

The Mysterious Murder of Florrie Little

Another 1920s murder case this week; and although all murders are upsetting, this one is particularly so, as it involves a young girl from Wales, and her killer was a boy who was himself still a child. I originally found this case in an issue to the Nottingham Journal (22 July 1921), that headlined its story ‘The Mysterious Murder of Florrie Little’.

**

Harold Jones, aged 15 (from the Dundee Courier, 22 July 1921)

Florence Irene Little, 11, was from Abertillery in Wales, and known as Florrie. Born in the early months of 1910, she disappeared on the night of 8 July 1921, and her body was later found in the attic of a neighbour’s house. She had been hit over the head, and her throat had been cut.

Her funeral was held less than a week after her disappearance and murder, on the afternoon of Wednesday 13 July. The funeral was said to have been the ‘largest ever seen in Wales’, with hundreds of schoolchildren following the small coffin tots grave. The entire student body from Florrie’s school had gone to the funeral.

The inquest  into her death was opened on 21 July, and adjourned until the following day. On its opening day, it was an unusual inquest, for in the coroner’s court sat a boy, wearing a brown tweed suit and an open-necked shirt, concentrating hard, taking notes of the witnesses’ statements. This boy was not just interested in crime and coroners – rather, he was suspected of committing the murder.

Harold Jones was a 15 year old boy who had a chequered past. In February 1921 he had appeared in court charged with the murder of a little girl named Freda Burnell, aged eight, who had been found strangled in a lane in Abertillery. Her screams had been heard coming from a nearby shed the night before.

Harold had been working in a poultry shop at that time, and Freda had been sent by her father, a popular member of the Salvation Army, to buy some ‘poultry spice and grit’ on the morning she disappeared. That evening, Harold had called round to the Burnell house, and asked her father if she had been found; Freda had been known to go to the Jones house to play.

Although Harold had admitted lying about various aspects of the evidence he had given, at the next Monmouth Assizes, he was acquitted of Freda’s murder, emerging from court to a hero’s welcome by locals. However, by that summer, he was at the Abertillery police court, being accused of another girl’s murder, before being remanded to Usk Gaol.

**

The 1911 census entry for the Little family in Abertillery

He now sat in on the inquest, and heard Florrie’s father, Arthur George Little, detail how on the night of Florrie’s death, the Little family had sat down to supper together late, finishing around 9.20pm. The children then went out of the front door to play.

At 9.45, Florrie’s mother, Elsie, had called out to her children, asking, “Where is Florence?”, but got no response. She then went to her neighbours, at number 10, as the girls had been seen playing on the pavement opposite that house, and another daughter Lillie, then aged eight, believed that was where Florrie had gone – but she returned without her eldest daughter.

Elsie Little gave evidence at the inquest that when she had gone to the Jones house, the door was, unusually for the place and time, locked, and it took a full two minutes for Harold to answer the door. When he did, he was wearing just his navy serge trousers, with his braces hanging down. He was holding a hairbrush in his hand, and told Mrs Little that he had been having a bath when she called. Smiling, he said to her, “Florrie’s been here, but went through the back way.”

Mr Little then started to search the streets, and at 10.35pm he had talked to Jones’ parents and sisters, who said they had not seen Florrie. Then Little and his friends and neighbours took their Davy lamps up into the mountains, searching the area until daylight.

Coverage of the murder in the Leeds Mercury, 12 July 1921

This was a close-knit community, where the local children were in and out of each other’s houses, and where families had relatives living close by – one child witness at the inquest, Ivy Davey, referred to visiting her ‘granda’ at number 13; her mother, Mabel, knew the Jones family well and had been to see Mrs Jones before it was known that Florrie was missing. The Jones’ had a lodger, William Greenway, who stated that “usually, if there was anyone in the house, the door was not locked.”

The children therefore had quite a lot of freedom, for their parents believed the community to be safe – and that other parents would help keep an eye out for them. The children also acted in ways that, to us, are rather adult; they kept late hours, they wandered around on their own – Harold Jones’s eight-year-old sister, Flossie, stated that she had gone to buy ‘some “pop” and cigarettes’ on the way to meet her parents on the evening in question.

But it wasn’t a wealthy community either, and families shared resources. Many of the local men were miners, and it was stated that in 1921, many of them were ‘idle’ – the context being that work was rather slack at that time, rather than it being meant in the more pejorative sense of being lazy. Florrie’s father was, like most of them, employed  at the local Vivian Pit – in 1923, there were nearly 900 men employed there.

When Harold Jones shouted to his mother on the evening of Florrie’s disappearance, claiming that his shirt had fallen in the bath, got soaked, and so he needed a clean one, Mrs Jones responded, “I’ve not got another one. You will have to have one of mine.”

When it was known that Florrie was missing, Harold tried to go out. His mother tried to prevent him, but Harold responded, “Give me a scarf and let me go out. We have had enough trouble lately.” Meanwhile, his father, Philip, was out drinking at the Bell Hotel; he claimed to have returned home by 10pm, and to have been home when Mrs Little called at the door, but she believed he was not there by that point.

**

Gaol records show Harold’ being accused of Freda Burnell’s murder in February 1921 (via Ancestry)

After Florrie’s funeral, police had dug up the back garden of the Jones house, but found ‘nothing of importance’. Despite this, however, on Thursday 28 July, after a two day hearing at the Children’s Court in Abertillery, Harold Jones was committed to the Monmouth Assizes to stand trial for Florrie’s murder. At the hearing, when asked if he wished to say anything, he ‘sprang to his feet, and stood erect. “Not guilty,” he said loudly and clearly.’

The facts, however, were against Harold. Florrie’s body had been found in his house, and she had been hit over the head with a piece of wood, before being stabbed with a knife that Harold had been given by his own brother. He had last used it, he said, to ‘kill a chicken’. Whilst doing this, he had cut his finger, and the blood had got on the knife. He had tried to clean it, but the blood wouldn’t come off. Or so he said.

There was blood both on Harold’s clothing, and on Florrie’s. The stains were fresh, and looked similar. There were bloodstains on the knife blade that were not from a chicken; on a saucepan in the kitchen; and on a wall of a passage in the house. Florrie had, in fact, died from a loss of blood.

**

By the time Harold arrived for the first day of his trial, in November 1921, he had realised that the evidence against him was overwhelming. His plea now changed from not guilty, to guilty. Not only that, but he now admitted that he had also killed the little girl whose murder he had been acquitted of – Freda Burnell.

After his acquittal for that crime, public opinion had made ‘some sort of hero’ out of Jones; it was now felt that this had given Jones such a sense of vanity that he killed Florrie in order to maintain that ‘fame’ he had experienced at the start of the year.

His father stated that at the time of his arrest, Harold had been about to “start writing the story of his life, with a view to selling it… Only a week ago, he had a photograph taken, which was intended to be used as an illustration” (presumably the illustration used at the top of this blog post). Jones, however, simply said he killed out of a simple “desire to kill”.

Jones, whose desire to kill and become famous resulted in the tragic deaths of two young girls – girls who trusted him as a local and as a friend – was ordered to be detained during His Majesty’s pleasure.

The charge against Harold Jones in the Freda Burnell case (from Ancestry’s gaol records)

Other sources used: Londonderry Sentinel, 12 February 1921; Nottingham Evening Post, 24 February 1921; Western Times, 26 February 1921; Derby Daily Telegraph, 11 July 1921; Birmingham Daily Gazette, 13 July 1921; Motherwell Times, 15 July 1921; Dundee Courier, 22 July 1921; The Scotsman, 29 July 1921; Lichfield Mercury, 4 November 1921; FreeBMD births, Bedwellty district, Jan-Mar 1910 (vol 11a page 93); deaths, Bedwellty district, Jul-Sep 1921 (vol 11a page 69). Newspaper reports list Harold Jones’s first victim as Freda Burnell and Freda Burnett; gaol records list her as Elsie Maud Burnell; however, FreeBMD shows that her full name was Freda Elsie Maud Burnell (FreeBMD deaths, Bedwellty district, Jan-Mar 1921 (vol 11a page 104).

*At least one paper referred to May Little as being older than Florrie; but the 1911 census for Penrhiw Garreg, Abertillery, lists Florence Irene as being the only child of her parents, aged 1; Arthur George Little and Elsie Jane Weeks had only married in 1909 (1911 census on Ancestry; FreeBMD for Bedwellty, Apr-Jun 1909, vol 11a page 206). Her other siblings were, as the birth records for Bedwellty show, younger – Cyril was born in 1912, Lillie in 1913, Harold in 1915, and Elsie in 1918.

Watched: The Unsolved Murder of Frances Buxton

Coverage of the case from the Sheffield Evening Telegraph made explicit the unlikelihood of the perpetrator being found

On 17 January 1920, Mrs Frances Buxton, landlady of The Cross Keys pub in Chelsea, was murdered.

Two days before, Mrs Buxton, aged 53, had been ‘pestered’ by a man at the bar. He was quite tall – between 5’10 and 6 foot, with a long, clean-shaven face, light hair and ‘very piercing’, close-set black eyes. He seemed respectable; he wore a bowler hat, was aged about 40, but spoke with quite a high-pitched voice for a man.

But what he said in that high-pitched voice disturbed her. He asked her intrusive questions about her love life, requested that she have supper with him, and then finally asked her if she lived at the pub on her own. She answered ‘yes’ and then immediately realised how stupid she was to do so. The man had then tried to walk into her private parlour, at which point, she pushed him out.

The incident bothered her so much that the following day, 16 January, she asked a local timekeeper, named variously as Briscoe Hervey, or Detley Driscoll Harvey, if he had noticed the man when he had been in the pub that day, but unfortunately, Hervey had not noticed him. However, he realised how concerned she was; she felt that she, and the pub, were being watched, but thought perhaps it was the police, monitoring the premises for evidence of improper conduct.

The London electoral register for 1919 records Frances in Chelsea (from Ancestry)

Frances was a married woman – but separated. She had lived apart from her husband, Frank, since about 1908, and they had not seen each other since the previous summer. Frank had relocated to Sussex, where he ran the Sussex Hotel in Bexhill-on-Sea.

Frances was not a drinker, but she had seen other men since she and Frank had separated; one of her barmaids, a Mrs Mitchell, believed that she had been seeing two men ‘at times’.

Then, on the morning of 18 January, Frances Buxton was found dead in the cellar of her pub; she had died shortly before midnight on the night of the 17th. That evening, Mrs Mitchell and her daughter had been working at the pub – the daughter was engaged to wash glasses – and had left at 10.30pm, Frances saying goodnight to them before Mrs Mitchell closed the door. Frances may then have had a late meal – in a small room behind the bar, the remains of a meal were later found, with it looking like she had been disturbed whilst eating.

Happier days? The 1891 census records Frances living with her husband Frank at 64 Fetter Lane, in the City of London

Whatever happened just before midnight that night involved violence. There was a smashed bottle and a pool of blood in the passageway, and Frances’s body had been placed on a pile of burning sacking, and covered in sawdust, with a spade lying nearby. She had not been dead long when the police found her. She had been killed from head injuries caused by the broken beer bottle, including a fractured skull – but her nose had also been broken by a blow, and it looked as though someone had attempted to strangle her with a cord of wire.

There were clues found by the police; fingerprints on Frances’s dress and the walls; two Treasury notes dropped by the perpetrator; missing money and jewellery belonging to Frances. All except the missing items (obviously) were photographed by the police, who suspected that two individuals – men – must have committed the crime.

The National Probate Calendar entry for Frances, from Ancestry. Although the date she died is given as 18 January, she was attacked the night before.

The inquest into Frances’s death had to be adjourned, but on Tuesday 3 February, it was resumed, with the coroner, HR Oswald, stating that ‘as there was no immediate prospect of the arrest of any suspected person, the jury could not in fairness continue to adjourn the inquiry on the chance of one taking place.’ The coroner’s jury soon, therefore, returned a verdict of wilful murder ‘by some person or persons unknown’.

There had, in the three weeks or so since the murder, been no arrests, and there was, as the coroner noted, no sign of there being any in the near future. This increased the fascination with the case by the press; the Globe employed a ‘special representative’ to give a gushing account of an interview Frank Buxton had with the police, together with a list of jewellery that was missing from the pub. This correspondent had made ‘inquiries from neighbours’ who frequented the pub, to build a picture of what it had been like on the night of the murder: ‘there were several couples playing dominoes’ was one of the earth-shattering things he found out.

More significant, perhaps, was the reporter’s suggestion that as Frances’s ‘exceptionally good’ watch-dog had failed to bark (or at least, was not heard to bark) when Frances was attacked, ‘the crime was probably perpetrated by someone familiar with the premises and known to the dog’. Given that the murder occurred in a popular pub, where many people would have been ‘familiar’ to the dog, though, this might not narrow the list of suspects down very much.

And so it proved. Nobody was arrested or charged with the murder, and five years later, it was being described in the press as ‘one of London’s unsolved crimes’.

 

NOTE: Five years after Frances’s death, in 1925, the case made headlines again when a man at the Tottenham Police Court suddenly declared that his niece could solve ‘the Chelsea murder mystery’. Another man had been charged with stabbing his nephew, following an argument where he had made allegations about his nephew’s wife. In court, another of the nephew’s uncles – so probably the defendant’s brother – commented about the nephew’s wife, “Our niece doesn’t want it known that she can give the information the police want to solve a Chelsea mystery of four [sic] years ago. The proprietress of a public-house was found murdered and her jewellery stolen.”

The defendant in this case was discharged, and immediately turned to the reporters in the police court, and asked them to print the family’s allegations against the nephew’s wife. Was this a baseless vendetta against the woman, or was there really a witness who could say what had happened? We don’t know, and all subsequently went quiet again – until the summer of 1926, when a Mr Creed was murdered in a Bayswater provision shop, a crime that resulted in anonymous letters being written to the police by a woman.

In coverage of this crime, it was noted that ‘the circumstances of the murder of Mr Creed are very similar to those in the case of the murder, in 1920, of Mrs Frances Buxton.’ Then, the following summer (1927), an ex-convict provided a statement to Scotland Yard that whilst serving a sentence in a French prison, he got talking to another prisoner who confessed that he had ‘taken part’ in the Chelsea crime.

Although Scotland Yard were stated to be trying to track down this confessing prisoner, there was doubt as to whether the ex-convict was telling the truth, for he was, after all, ‘well-known to the police in this country, and one who has many aliases.’

Sources: Western Daily Press, 21 January 1920, p.6; Nottingham Journal, 4 February 1920, p.5; Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, 4 February 1920, p.9; Globe, 19 January 1920, p.1; Daily Herald, 25 June 1925, p.5; Lancashire Evening Post, 25 June 1925, p.6; Nottingham Evening Post, 30 August 1926, p.1; Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 25 July 1927, p.5; Nottingham Journal, 25 July 1927, p.1; Northern Whig, 25 July 1927, p.9. Records relating to the murder of Frances Buxton are also to be found in The National Archives (ref MEPO 3/268B).

Mr Dumpig the butcher and his New Year murder

With a surname like his, it was perhaps inevitable that Adolf Dumpig would grow up to be a butcher. There was no reason, though, why he had to be a butcher of people – and, in particular, of his baby son.

However, in January 1904, Mr Dumpig, a 28-year-old German immigrant to London, was charged with the murder of eight-month-old Walter Dumpig. On the evening of 2 January, he appeared – flanked by two warders – in Islington Coroner’s Court, to hear the inquest into his son’s death. Unable to speak English – or not well enough to understand the coroner – a German-speaking Met Police officer, Constable Schneider, acted as his interpreter.

The records indicate that the Dumpigs were recent immigrants to Britain, for less than a year before the awful events of New Year’s Eve, 1903, they had married back in Berlin; Adolf Otto Louis Dumpig, aged 27, had wed Selma Ida Antonie Knobel (known as Antonie) on 2 February 1903. Antonie was then just 21 years old.

11 months after that happy even, Walter Schroeder’s poor, mourning, mother, Antonie Dumpig, was called on to detail what had happened on New Year’s Eve, 1903. She said that Adolf was generally a sober man, but on New Year’s Eve, he had been out drinking, ‘to keep up the New Year’. Antonie had been left at their home at 295 City Road to celebrate on her own, as she had to look after the baby – obviously, Adolf had not thought to stay with her and mark the night together.

The couple rented just two rooms in the building on City Road, from a clerk named William Woods. One room was on the first floor, and the other in the basement. Woods lived in other rooms in the same building.

Adolf returned home just after midnight, and made some hot rum for the couple to drink together. Combined with his earlier drinking, though, this made him very drunk – and he rapidly became violent, scaring Antonie so much that she ran from the kitchen into another room. Adolf followed her and locked her in that room, before returning to the kitchen. Their baby son Walter – asleep in a bassinet – was left in that room with his drunk, violent father.

Imagine Antonie’s desperation. She was locked in a room, unable to get out and get to her child. Meanwhile, she could hear Adolf drunkenly breaking windows, shouting, and heard signs of violence. The noise was so great that at one point, around 1am, their landlord William Woods ventured out of his room to see what the matter was; he saw Antonie crouching in a corner of the hall, outside the door, with dripping-wet clothes, while her husband stood over her, talking to her angrily in German, before hitting her as she stood to go into the room.

Woods had the courage to try and intervene, but was then himself hit by Adolf. Instead of trying to reason with this drunk, angry, butcher, he did the sensible thing and ran out to fetch a policeman (other reports, however, state that it was Antonie who herself summoned the attention of a passing policeman, by shouting out from her locked room).

Antonie managed to get out of the room before the police arrived, and headed straight back to her kitchen. There, she discovered the body of her son. His throat had been cut.

The policeman who attended the scene, Sergeant Walter Lane, said that on approaching the backyard, he had found Adolf Dumpig sitting on a wall, so drunk that he appeared asleep. His hands had been covered in blood, and Sergeant Lane’s fears had immediately been roused (apparently, he was suspicious as soon as he noticed that Dumpig was not wearing either a hat or an overcoat…). Dumpig was not coherent; he was still very drunk, vomiting, and reeked of rum.

Soon after, Inspector Laban Lynes of G Division discovered a butcher’s knife in the yard. Adolf Dumpig – a journeyman butcher, but who had been unemployed for some time – had killed his own son with his work tool. He was taken to the City Road Police Station and charged with murder; his reply, which was translated by the Worship Street Police Court’s interpreter, Aaron Lichenstein [sic] was to his wife:

“Did I do this, or did Antonie? Speak the truth, say what you did to the child; I was out last evening, I never done it; should it come that I should murder my child that I love so dearly?”

By this time, it was 4.45am, and although he was still a little bit drunk, it was thought that he had ‘recovered’ a lot from earlier, to the extent that he could understand what was being said to him.

Not surprisingly, the coroner’s jury returned a verdict of wilful murder against Dumpig the Butcher, and he was committed for trial at the Central Criminal Court. On 11 January 1904, he was found guilty and sentenced to death.

Somewhat surprisingly to modern readers, the jury ‘strongly recommended’ him to mercy. This may have been because of contemporary concerns about how drink could affect even the most law-abiding of people; or sympathy towards his unemployed status, which may have led to stress and therefore a desire for drink.

Yet this remained a man who abused his wife; who tried to shift the blame for his son’s violent death onto her – the ultimate betrayal of trust by a man towards his spouse. Dumpig was a butcher in more than one way; he killed animals for a living, his son because he was drunk; and he tried to hang his wife by accusing her of killing her child.

 

Sources:

Portsmouth Evening News, 4 January 1904, p.1; The Salisbury Times, 8 January 1904, p.2 (both via British Newspaper Archive); Berlin Marriages, 1874-1920 on AncestryOld Bailey Online, ref number t19040111-131. CapitalPunishmentUK does not list Dumpig as having been hanged in 1904, and, as this suggests, the jury’s plea for mercy was successful. The 1911 census for Dorset shows that Adolf Dumpig, born 1876 in Berlin [and described as a stone dresser], was at that time a prisoner at Portland Convict Prison.

 

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

 

 

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

 

 

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.

Older posts

© 2018 Criminal Historian

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑