Criminal Historian

Working with dead people

Category: urban (page 1 of 4)

How Emily, 13, got away from the Whitechapel kidnapper

One 13-year-old girl faced a double ordeal in 1885, after first being abducted, and taken across the Channel against her will – and then facing a cross-examination by her kidnapper when the case reached the Old Bailey.

Christina Fischer, known to her family as Emily, was born on 15 March 1872 in Germany. Her family had emigrated, like many other German residents, to London, where they settled at 59 Greenfield Street, off the Commercial Road in Whitechapel. Emily’s father, William, worked as a printer. The family spoke little English, and so it was understandable that many of their friends and acquaintances in the capital were other German immigrants.

One man they got to know sometime in 1883 was Julius Hahn, then aged 27, and working as a baker. On 24 October 1885, he had come to the Fischer house about 8am, with two of his own children. William Fischer’s wife, Mary, was at home and took the children upstairs.

Julius told William that he intended to travel back to Germany that day, after visiting the West End (different accounts state either that his wife was ill in hospital there, or that she had recently died there), and asked if he could leave his children there until he returned from his trip west. That was all fine, and so Julius left, returning some three hours later. He said his goodbyes, then, and went off with his children.

But shortly before his return, William had sent his daughter Emily out for a newspaper. She had returned with it, then went out again prior to Julius leaving the house. That was the last the Fischers saw of her for three days.

After she failed to return, later on that Saturday, William started to make inquiries as to her whereabouts, asking at the Blackwall Docks, where he thought Julius might have headed. He had clearly linked Emily’s absence with Julius’s departure soon after. There were no clues as to where she was, and after two sleepless nights, and two days searching, William finally went to the Thames Police Court in Stepney to obtain a warrant for Julius’s arrest.

**

So where was Emily during this weekend? As her father had suspected, she was with Julius Hahn. She had gone out the second time to meet a friend, and as she was coming back, she bumped into Hahn with his two children. “Will you come with me to carry the baby?” he asked, claiming that he could not manage the two of them on his own. Emily agreed, and carried the baby to the docks, some ten minutes’ away. Hahn then asked if Emily would come with him to his ship – “You cannot get out of this gate – you must go by a little boat on board.”

Emily went downstairs on the boat to put the baby to bed, when she realised the boat had started. Running back on deck, Hahn told her that she would now have to go with him to Rotterdam. She burst into tears, but his response, she said, was to threaten her, saying “if you tell anyone, you will see what I will give you”. Emily ran back below deck; Hahn followed her and told her he wanted a kiss. She would not let him. He tried to put his hand up her clothes; Emily, with great presence of mind, threatened to tell the captain.

Emily shouted out to a woman on board, and she reported matters to the steward. But it was too late for Emily to get back to the docks, and she ended up on board all the way to Rotterdam, arriving there on Sunday morning. Hahn then tried again, asking Emily to travel on with her to Bingen – she refused, thrust the baby back at him, ran away from the ship and leapt on board another that was travelling back to England. She reached London again the next day.

**

When Hahn was tried for abduction at the Old Bailey, he was allowed to cross-examine the 13-year-old girl he had tried to kiss. He tried to tell her that she had agreed to go with him if he paid her 20 shillings; suggested that she had wanted him to touch her, and that she had wanted to go to Bingen with him as another passenger had said it was nicer than England. She insisted that it was Hahn who had said Bingen was nicer than England, as part of a concerted effort to make her go with him.

The criminal register entry for Julius Hahn’s offence, from Ancestry

Hahn also cross-examined Mr and Mrs Fischer, suggesting that they had consented to him taking their daughter to Germany. They both indignantly denied that. But then another German man, again examined by Hahn, said that Hahn had claimed to him that Emily was his servant, employed to look after the children. Emily had gone to him saying she needed a ticket to return to England on the next boat, but said he had not seen her cry, or Hahn behave badly towards her.

Hahn also got this man, Theodore Peters, to say that Emily had never mentioned to him being touched in an indecent manner by Hahn. It would have taken some courage for a young girl to tell a male stranger that another man had been behaving indecently towards her.

Towards the end of the trial, Emily was re-examined, and asked again about the details of Hahn’s attempts to grope her. She said, clearly and calmly, that it was bedtime, and she was in the ladies’ cabin, lying down with Hahn’s five-month-old child. Hahn had come in and, despite Emily being with his own daughter, tried to put his hand up this girl’s clothes.

Hahn’s last words were “I did not touch her with any intention”, but despite his aggressive, insistent cross-examining of the young witness, and attempts to portray her and her parents as liars, Emily kept her cool. Julius Hahn was found guilty of taking Emily Fischer away without her parents’ consent – but not guilty on a charge of indecent assault.

This was a fair verdict; although Emily clearly stated that Julius had tried to put his hands up her clothes, and to kiss her, she never said he had succeeded; there had been an attempt, but not a successful one. He had certainly abducted her, though, and it was only due to her presence of mind and intelligence that she was able to see her home again.

Sources: Old Bailey Online (t18851214-84, 14 December 1885, Morning Post, 14 November 1885; South Wales Daily News, 16 December 1885, Criminal Registers on Ancestry.co.uk

A Tale of Two Sisters: The poisoners of Victorian Liverpool

Road to Versailles, by Camille Pissarro

Road to Versailles, by Camille Pissarro

It was a snowy morning in Lancashire, as the two women were brought out to the scaffold in the prison yard. They showed no sign of the cold, though, as they climbed up onto it, and were pinioned. Displaying a little nervousness, they stood there, eyes closed, their mouths moving silently as they repeated prayers over and over, over and over. Then their white caps were pulled over their pale faces, and, as the snow fell, their executioner pulled back a lever, and they fell to their deaths.

There they hanged, motionless, as the snow continued falling around Kirkdale Gaol, a gentle, floating snow that was at odds with the violent scene that had taken place in its midst.(1)

**

The women were not strangers, or even friends. They were sisters. Catherine Flanagan and Margaret Higgins both lived in Liverpool, but there was considerable debate about where they were originally from. In the xenophobic, anti-Irish late 19th century, it was speculated that they were both Irish born; but other sources said that they were Scottish, from Dumfries, where their relatives still lived.

Some reports, though, had Higgins admit to being from a village near Belfast, and having migrated to Liverpool with her parents and sister when she was ten. What was known was that Catherine was the elder sister, being around 55 years old; Margaret was some 14 years her junior.

Mrs Flanagan had one trait that in other circumstances would have been commended – she was rather frugal. She spent little, to the extent of being regarded as miserly, and it was said that her favourite occupation was that of acquiring money.

Late 19th century Liverpool

Late 19th century Liverpool

With savings she had accumulated when young, she opened a beer house near Liverpool’s docks – a poor area but one that would guarantee good custom from the local workers. However, she did not like rules and regulations, and soon came to the attention of the police for opening on Sundays, and for the illicit activities that took place in her tavern. After several convictions, she was forced to close her beer house down.

She then put her financial skills to better use by setting up as a money lender. She borrowed money from local loan offices, and then lent it to her hard-up neighbours, in small sums, but charging interest of fourpence in every shilling. She then started dealing with burial societies – with rather a grim result.

The most noteworthy thing about her sister Margaret was that she had had two husbands – her first was a labourer, an Orangeman from Northern Ireland. He died under suspicious circumstances, and it was rumoured that she may have murdered him. She then married again – one Thomas Higgins. He soon died, after insurance policies had been taken out on him.

Suspicions were aroused, and in a dramatic fashion, his funeral was halted by police in order for his body to be examined. At this point, Flanagan disappeared – it took a week for her to be apprehended. An inquest was duly held on Thomas Higgins’ body, starting just after Christmas in 1883. On 4 January 1884, the coroner’s jury returned a verdict of wilful murder against both sisters.

It then emerged that Flanagan had previously taken in a young lodger at her home on Skirvin Street – 18-year-old Margaret Jennings, who had also died under suspicious circumstances (2). Once the sisters had been charged with Thomas’s death, an order was submitted for Margaret’s body to be exhumed. It was believed that the women had killed both in order to get their life insurance.

Two more charges came; one that they had also poisoned Catherine’s son John, and the other, that they had also killed Margaret’s step-daughter, Mary Higgins. John, aged 22, had been buried four years earlier (3); his body was exhumed from its grave at Ford Cemetery, near Liverpool, and was found to be ‘wonderfully’ preserved. His corpse was found to be full of arsenic. John had been insured with a number of burial societies and insurance agents for a total of £71.

Madame Lafarge - another woman accused of using arsenic to kill

Madame Lafarge – another woman accused of using arsenic to kill

Mary Higgins (called Sarah in some reports) had died in November 1882, aged 12 (4),  shortly after Margaret had taken out various death insurance policies on her. Her body was exhumed towards the end of January 1884, and again found to contain arsenic. Both Sarah’s and John’s bodies were reinterred after their post-mortems; no inquests were allowed to be held as more than a year had passed since their deaths.

Faced with the evidence of the insurance policies, Catherine now turned against her sister, offering to give evidence against her, and admitting that she had used arsenic from fly-papers to poison the insured. The Crown, however, refused to let her become a witness.

The two women went on trial at the Liverpool Assizes in February 1884. Both women were charged with the wilful murder of Thomas Higgins, Margaret Jennings, and John Flanagan; Margaret was additionally charged with murdering Mary Higgins (sic). Crowds attended the trial, eager to hear the details of the two middle aged sisters’ alleged offences.

One of the witnesses was Margaret Jennings’ father Patrick, who confirmed that he and his daughter had lodged with Catherine, and had known her son John. In court, he had to describe not only John’s agonising death, over two days – which both the accused women had watched –  but his own daughter’s.

The two women murdered him by poisoning; and were sentenced to death on Saturday 16 February 1884 for doing so. Realising there was no chance of their sentences being commuted, they freely admitted their guilt. They were sent to the nearly 70-year-old Kirkdale Gaol to await their execution, and were said to have been ‘dejected’; because they were both completely illiterate, ‘the time has hung more heavily on their hands than it would have done had they been possessed of any education’.

Kept in separate cells, they had little to keep them occupied, apart from thinking about their impending deaths. They ended up asking the female warders who watched them 24 hours a day to read to them, and were said to have ‘much appreciated’ the stories.

Their own stories, however, were about to end.

**

It is 3 March, a bitterly cold Monday morning. It’s early, and barely light, but even so, a crowd has gathered in the snow in front of the gaol. They cannot see the execution itself, for hangings have been held away from the public gaze for nearly two decades now. (5) Yet there they stand, blowing on their hands, stamping their feet, to keep warm; the women are huddled into their shawls. They have their eyes gazing upwards; not to the sky, but to the spot where, shortly after 8am, a black flag will be hoisted to tell them that the murderers are dead.

Behind the gaol walls, they know that Binns, the executioner, is finalising arrangements, assisted by Samuel Heath, a man from the other side of the Pennines. They have sorted the drop – nine feet six for Flannagan, and two inches more for Higgins. Now they are waiting for the two women to walk the steps to the scaffold… they are adjusting the ropes, placing the nooses under the women’s chins…

And on the outside, as the snow continues to fall, a black flag climbs into the air, watched silently by the crowd. (6)

Report of the execution in the Illustrated Police News

Report of the execution in the Illustrated Police News

 

NOTES

  1. Press reports of the day stress the cold and snowy conditions of the morning the execution took place – see, for example, the Illustrated Police News of 8 March 1884.
  2. Death of Margaret Jennings: BMDs, Liverpool, March quarter of 1883, vol 8b, page 17.
  3. Death of John Flannigan: BMDs, Liverpool, December quarter of 1880, vol 8b page 40.
  4. Some reports said that she was 10, but BMD records state that she was 12 (BMDs for Liverpool, December quarter of 1882, vol 8b, page 30).
  5. Public executions in Britain ended in 1868 (see Capital Punishment UK).
  6. Press coverage taken from: Yorkshire Gazette, 10 November 1883, Dundee Evening Telegraph, 18 February 1884, Stamford Mercury, 8 February 1884, Dundee Courier, 22 February 1884, Cornubian and Redruth Times, 25 January 1884, Dundee Courier, 19 February 1884, Dublin Daily Express, 5 January 1884, Portsmouth Evening News, 29 December 1883, Fife Herald, 5 March 1884.

Sticking it to the sheep

Waifish_boyWe still refer today, in our industrial present, to goading people – metaphorically prodding them just to annoy them, or to make them do something. Yet the phrase ‘to goad’ comes from a far more rural implement – the goad, a stick that was either shaped to form a point at one end, or fitted with a sharp spike to its top.

The goad was used for driving cattle – usually oxen during ploughing, but also for other animals being driven to market. In 1816, Sir Walter Scott noted that countrymen were ‘armed with scythes…hay-forks…goads’ and it was clearly still a fundamental part of the rural worker’s armoury in the first half of the 19th century.

This might seem to be a world away from early Victorian London – the sprawling urban metropolis described by the likes of Charles Dickens; a world of inequality, of paupers starving in workhouses living only streets away from businessmen and industrialists, making their money and creating a recognisably modern city.

Yet some rural traditions continued to impinge on the urban modernity. In the 1840s, there were around 4000 butchers within London, and Smithfield Market was the main place where animals were sold. Farmers sent their cattle into London to be sold on; it was noted that ‘the principal supply of live cattle for the consumption of the metropolis is from the northern counties.’

There was clearly scope for mistreatment of these animals, being brought into the city to be sold on, killed, and used for feeding the residents of the metropolis. But it was not always those responsible for the cattle who were guilty of neglecting or abusing their animals. For example, in 1841, a young boy, described as a ‘ragged-looking little urchin’, by the name of Franklin, was charged by the Animals’ Friend Society – a society established by Lewis Gompertz in 1832 – with having wilfully ill-used a sheep.

He appeared in the Marlborough Street Police Court in London, where a local constable gave evidence, stating that he had watched the boy as he followed a flock of sheep, giving himself amusement by hitting the animals over their heads with a thick stick, and occasionally poking a goad into their ribs.

Franklin was not employed to help drive the sheep; in fact, the drover kept trying to get him to go away. But Franklin simply laughed at the drover, and continued to hit the sheep until the constable grabbed him and brought him to Marlborough Street.

In court, the offending stick was produced, and it had obviously seen a considerable amount of wear. Franklin seems to have made it himself, making a hole at one end to insert a goad that would wound the sheep only to a certain depth of skin and tissue.

Before the magistrate, George Long, who was shortly to transfer to the Marylebone Police Court, Franklin insisted that he had been asked to help drive the flock by a butcher – despite the drover’s claims otherwise. Mr Long asked whether he used the goad to injure the sheep – “Oh no, I never sticks the poor sheep with the goad”, answered the boy.

A surprised Mr Long responded, “What do you have it for?” to which an unperturbed Franklin answered, “Only to stick into the bullocks.”

Franklin, the bored child who probably enjoyed answering the magistrate back as much as he enjoyed goading animals, was promptly fined five shillings “for his barbarity”.

 

Sources: The Morning Post, 16 March 1841, Diana Donald, ‘Picturing Animals in Britain, 1750-1850’ (Yale University Press, 2007), p.354, OED, Oxford Dictionary of National BiographyVictorian London,

 

 

Who was Robert the Devil?

A scene from Meyerbeer's Robert the Devil, by Degas

A scene from Meyerbeer’s Robert the Devil, by Degas

In 1886, a man appeared before the magistrates of the Marlborough Street Police Court in London, charged with drunk and disorderly behaviour.

The man had been on Oxford Street shortly after midnight the previous night, and his behaviour had gathered such a crowd around him that a policeman walking down the street had gone over to see what was going on. The man was using ‘filthy language’, was obviously very drunk, and refused to leave the area when the policeman requested him to. He was therefore charged with the above mentioned offence.

He was a black man, according to the newspapers, who refused to give his real name to the magistrate, instead stating that he was called ‘Robert the Devil’.

The magistrate asked what he had to say, and Robert answered, “Oh! Nothing at all, Boss.”

The local gaoler, Sergeant Vine, told the court that Robert was a frequent offender, and had appeared in the police court several previous occasions. Robert was told he would have to pay a 10 shilling fine or go to prison for seven days. Robert’s response was to say,

“That will be all right, Boss; the Prince of Wales will pay that for me.”

Robert evidently had long term alcohol abuse or mental health issues. His naming of himself as ‘Robert the Devil’ may not have had racial allusions, though, despite the devil’s likeness being a black goat in some 19th century literature, and there being increasingly negative depictions of black men and women in England during the latter half of the 19th century.

Robert_the_Devil_(horse)

Robert the Devil: a horse, not a man

Robert the Devil was a medieval legend; later, in 1831, Giacomo Meyerbeer created a romantic opera of the same name that saw great success in London in the 1830s and 1840s, and a resurgence in popularity in the 1890s. The name referred to Robert, Duke of Normandy, who was the father of William the Conqueror – but also, in some stories, said to be the son of the devil.

Did the defendant see himself as a devil, a character incapable of redemption? Or was he a romantic hero? The truth is probably somewhat more mundane. In the 1880s, there was a racehorse named Robert the Devil, whose career was eagerly followed in the English press. This drunken man may simply have adopted the horse’s name to avoid giving his own. The racehorse died at Bernham Paddocks ‘somewhat suddenly’, in 1889, aged 12; but what happened to his namesake is not known.

(Sources: Dundee Evening Telegraph, 13 September 1886; Dublin Daily Express, 28 October 1880; South Wales Echo, 2 May 1889; Saunders’s News-letter, 8 June 1832; The Graphic, 4 December 1886)

How Victorian prisoners communicated

Robert Clibburn, a prisoner at Dorchester in 1898 (Dorset History Centre, via Ancestry). Sadly, probably not the Robert mentioned in this story...

Robert Clibburn, a prisoner at Dorchester in 1898 (Dorset History Centre, via Ancestry). Sadly, probably not the Robert mentioned in this story…

In 1898, a conspiracy case came before the Westminster Police Court, involving two prisoners. One of the interesting details it recorded involved the methods prisoners used to communicate with each other, and how these methods could be used for nefarious aims.

The case was brought against Robert Cliburn, otherwise known as Robert Harris, Robert Collins, Robert Robertson, Robert Stephenson and Robert Carew – he liked a good alias. Robert was described as a well-dressed young gentleman, a former telegraph messenger in the West End of London, but who was currently of no occupation. He was accused of conspiring with two convicts who were currently in prison on robbery and blackmailing charges.

The two convicts in question gave evidence in the case – a Mr Allen and Mr Sanders. Allen had been sent to Pentonville Prison the previous September, and Sanders was brought from Portland prison to Pentonville the following January. It was noted that from his arrival, Sanders was not allowed to communicate with Allen, and to prevent him doing so, he was not allowed to go to the prison chapel (the defendant’s counsel, Mr Geoghegan, commented, “Is preventing a man going to chapel a punishment or a reward?” to which the Pentonville warder, Mr Parkes, admitted it was “not exactly a punishment”).

An extract from the debate about prisoners' means of communication, 1898

An extract from the debate about prisoners’ means of communication, 1898. It refers to a book written by William Hamilton Thomson, who had been confined in Millbank and Dartmoor Prisons, about his experiences of the prison system.

Parkes admitted that prisoners tended to communicate with each other a lot in chapel. In places like  Lincoln Castle, the chapel had separate booths for each prisoner, thus cutting them off physically from head other, but apparently this did not stop channels of communication. Where there weren’t separate booths, prisoners talked to each other by mouthing, and even if the warden tried to stop them, they could find other means of communication. In addition, in their cells, they could also communicate with each other, even though their doors were closed. Mr Geoghegan and Mr Parkes had the following conversation:

“In some of these patent prisons they communicate with a system of raps?”

“Yes, they do. I do not say they do it in chapel; of course, it is only spirit-rapping there.” Loud laughter in the court.

“I am speaking of the cells. They use a sort of Morse telegraphic code?”

“Yes, they do; but they must be located in the same corridor. And then they can communicate through a large number of intervening cells.”

“A prisoner in no. 1 can be heard in no. 12, nine or ten cells away?”

“It is so. If they understand the telegraphic system, they can communicate from one end of the ward to the other by knocking.”

“And whatever the warders do, they can’t prevent that? It shows the march of science?”

“No, they can’t stop it.”

The case showed the ingenuity of prisoners, and their basic human desire to have conversations and interaction with others. Speech was not necessary, but a creative approach was. Where they were visible to each other, they could mouth conversations; but where they weren’t, they created an alternative system of code, fostering a sense of identity among them, and separating themselves from their warders.

Although in this case, communication between Allen and Sanders may have been used to plan further offences, it was also a means of surviving in prison, of getting ‘one over’ on the authorities by being able to forge relationships with each other through alternative forms of communication.

Robert Clibburn was a prisoner at Portland in 1901 - presumably, he was able to communicate with other prisoners there...

Robert Clibburn was a prisoner at Portland in 1901 – presumably, he was able to communicate with other prisoners there…

Source: Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, 30 January 1898

The Victorian bakehouse – a useful means of disposing of bodies

Illustration of the second 'revolting oven tragedy' in the Illustrated Police News

Illustration of the second ‘revolting oven tragedy’ in the Illustrated Police News

There were at least two murders in the 1890s that were perceived as particularly abhorrent by the Victorian press – although only one was reported by them in great, gruesome, detail. This, the first, was known, rather unoriginally, as ‘the oven tragedy’, and the second as ‘another revolting oven tragedy’. Both involved local bakehouses, and demonstrated the ingenuity of some Victorian domestic murderers.

The first murder occurred in London in November 1898. The murderer, ideally for a somewhat xenophobic press, was a German immigrant baker named Johann Schneider. For reasons never given, he also went by the unlikely pseudonyms of Richard Montague and Richard Mandekow , as well as the simple anglicised John Schneider.

Johann was 36 years old, married, and a father. The only likely person of this description in the 1891 census was a John J Schneider, listed as a baker living in Clerkenwell with his English wife Elizabeth and their two young daughters, Carolina and Elizabeth Jane. In 1898, Carolina would have been 12 and Elizabeth 9.

The census stated that ‘John’ was a native of Felsberg, a town in the Schwalm-Eder area of Hesse, a central region of modern Germany. However, this John’s wife and children were all from the St George East district of London, and the only marriage of an Elizabeth to a Schneider in this district at around the right time involved a Max Schneider, so the census entry may well be wrong. Schneider himself described himself to police as a Russian, living at 150 Regent’s Park Road.

What was true was that Schneider, then going by the name of Richard Montague, had been employed by baker William Ross some two years earlier as an assistant baker. Ross kept a baker’s shop at 82 William Street, off the Hampstead Road. The shop was at street level, and accessed via a door from the street. The private rooms where the Ross family lived were accessed via a staircase from the back of the shop, with the bakehouse based in the basement.

'Bread baking' by Anders Zorn (1889)

‘Bread baking’ by Anders Zorn (1889)

The bakehouse itself consisted of a long baker’s oven, and two troughs in front of it for kneading the bread. The walls were whitewashed, with a clock on one wall, and clear glass windows at the top of one wall looking out into the street. An iron grating in the pavement outside would be lifted up to take the flour when it was delivered, but was otherwise kept fastened – Ross checked it every night.

Ross was successful, and employed another baker to help him – he was a live-in employee who slept in the spare room on the second floor of the building. He began work at 7pm to make the dough, and then go back to bed.

At 11.30pm, he would again be called and would cut the dough until 1am, when he would make the next batch of dough, and then heat the oven. At 3.45am, he would put the dough in the hot oven. Ross in turn slept from 11.30pm until 3am, when he would go down to the bakehouse to help his employee.

In 1876, this employee had been ‘Richard Montague’, and he had stayed, living and working with Ross, for around six months, despite being married. He had absconded from work after that time, saying one day that he was not well, and never returning.

It was a rash move from Schneider, who then found it impossible to get another job. He asked Ross for his job back, but Ross said no – although he gave him two loaves for his children, recognising that it was Schneider’s family who were likely to be suffering. He left his address – 144 Sewards Street Buildings on the Goswell Road – in case Ross later needed work doing.

In the meantime, Ross had employed another German man, Conrad Berndt, a journeyman baker who was only around 19 years old – to take over the role of assistant baker.

Ross later described him as a ‘dark man, with almost black hair, a very good workman’ who wore ‘a soft cap, shirt and a pair of trousers, and a blue-striped canvas belt round his waist with two buckles in it’ as his work uniform. He also had a silver watch and chain, but refused to take these valuable items into the bakehouse in case he damaged them.

Van Gogh's 'The Bakery in Noordstraat' (1882)

Van Gogh’s ‘The Bakery in Noordstraat’ (1882)

On 10 November, around 11pm, Johann Schneider knocked on the door of the bakeshop, wearing a round hat and carrying a green bag in his hand. Ross opened the door, and Schneider asked if he could sleep at Ross’s home overnight, as he needed to be at Grummell’s baker’s shop in Soho by 6am the next morning.

“All right, Richard, I know you – you can come in”, responded the kindly Ross. Schneider entered, and went down to the bakehouse to sleep. Ross went to give Berndt, still in his room, his instructions for the night, and then left him to go to bed himself.

Ross was woken at around 3.15am by knocking and footsteps on the stairs. He lit a candle and went to investigate. He saw Schneider on the bakehouse steps, with his coat on but not his hat. “Where’s Conrad?” asked Ross; Schneider said he had been sick and had to go to lie down.

Ross thought this was odd; not only was Schneider speaking unnaturally quietly, but Conrad had never been ill before, in the whole seven months he had been working there. As he turned away to go to Conrad’s room to check he was alright, Schneider struck his former employer on the back of the head, stunning him. He then tried to stab Ross in the chest.

A depiction of Schneider's surroundings in Holloway prison, from Lloyd's Weekly Newspaper, 20 November 1898

A depiction of Schneider’s surroundings in Holloway prison, from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, 20 November 1898

“Police!” called Ross, and his wife and servant woke and started shouting. Schneider opened the grate outside the shop window and jumped out, running towards the Hampstead Road. He was spotted by a policeman, who, in a very English fashion, thought a man walking outside without a hat on must be suspicious, and who caught him.

The oven had been lit, and was later searched. A piece of charred cloth from a pair of trousers, another piece of cloth from a shirt, and part of a belt were found in it – together with some smoking human remains.

The skull was exposed, and had a clear fracture on the right hand side; a piece of brain was later found on a large stone underneath the oven. Nearby was a hatchet, covered in blood and human hair. Conrad’s room had also been trashed, and items – including money, the watch and the chain – were missing.

Conrad had been killed as a result of a blow to the head, but it was believed he would have lived for around half an hour before a fractured skull and haemorrhaging eventually had their fatal effect. He had been placed in the baker’s oven while unconscious – but probably still alive.

Schneider was believed to be insane, and after being remanded at Marylebone Police Court, was sent to Holloway prison to be examined. During his later trial, one witness, Samuel Feldt, who knew Schneider as a German man named Richard Mandekow, lodging with him at 14 Bartholomew Buildings, described him as ‘morose, downcast, and absent minded – he was depressed because of his poverty and because he could not find work, and he has three children and a wife’.

Others, including those who examined him at Holloway, found him to be ‘emotional’ but sane, the judge found him to be ‘clever and cunning’, and he was therefore found guilty of murder at the Old Bailey, and sentenced to death. He was hanged at Newgate on 3 January 1899.

The murder had a wider impact. William Ross, unsurprisingly, found his business negatively impacted by the news that his assistant had been burned alive in his own bakehouse oven. He also found his own good name besmirched in the press. It was reported in Lloyd’s Weekly News that he had ‘resolved to build a new oven to retain his customers, and that a waxwork show proprietor has offered a large sum of money for the original’.

The newspaper later had to acknowledge that this was very much not the case – and that, in fact, the London Master Bakers’ Protection Society and the Baker’s Record publication had been fundraising in order to enable Ross to start a new business elsewhere, thus letting him escape the stigma of the murder.

Oh, and the second ‘revolting’ tragedy? That was a case in the village of Signa in Tuscany, where a baker named Brogelli, and his wife, murdered their two young sons – the elder being only seven years old – by putting them in their bakehouse oven (or, as the Illustrated Police News put it, ‘Parents roast their two boys in a bakehouse’). Only a few charred remains were ever found.

In the single paragraph that the British papers gave to this ‘foreign’ case, it was reported that ‘The accused absolutely refuse to say how and why the crime was committed’, but in this case, the villagers took the matter into their own hands and tried to lynch the Brogellis.

One case merited whole columns of excited reporting; the other only a brief mention (although also an illustration). But both were tragedies, and both were truly revolting.

Sources: Old Bailey Online, ref t18981212-85; Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, 27 November 1898; Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, 20 November 1898; Capital Punishment UK; Leicester Daily Mercury, 16 December 1898; Cheltenham Chronicle, 17 December 1898; Illustrated Police News, 1 April 1899

Book review: The Thieves of Threadneedle Street

9780752493404_5A tale of audacity and chutzpah, this book, by Nicholas Booth, details the lives and escapades of two American brothers, George and Austin Bidwell, and their ‘colleagues’ as they attempt to defraud the Bank of England.

The Thieves of Threadneedle Street is reminiscent of Bonnie and Clyde in its breathless chases – criminals outmanoeuvring the cops and their victims across vast expanses of rural and urban America, and then via the Atlantic to London.

This breathlessness is the book’s main problem. Sometimes, it moves so quickly across countries and time – backwards and forwards across Victorian society – that it can be hard to keep up. The division of chapters into short sections by way of date, place and time would work well as a device, but it is used too frequently.

Likewise, although only a minor stylistic point, the use of flowery fonts and dotted lines to denote changes in time or place are actually distracting – a stylistic annoyance. Too many fonts are used, in short – one for chapter headings, one for section headings, one more for the main text – and they don’t really complement each other.

Austin Bidwell, from 'The Great Bank of England Frauds' by Edgar Wallace

Austin Bidwell, from ‘The Great Bank of England Frauds’ by Edgar Wallace

But more importantly, and on a more positive note, this is a fascinating story and the author has attempted to move it beyond the standard narrative by means of this to-ing and fro-ing, which should be commended. The central setting is the trial of the Bidwells in 1873, where their multiple aliases and prior offences were detailed; from this setting, the exploration of their past is undertaken both by prosecutors and by the author.

The Bidwells are notoriously hard to pin down, due to their habit of each taking credit for successful crimes, their various names, and the tendency of the Victorian press to be a bit slapdash with the facts. Booth fully recognises and acknowledges these problems, and the fact that he is able to create such a full account of them is an achievement in itself.

Despite the slightly hectic feel of the narrative, this is still a compelling narrative that says almost as much about the Victorian press, law and detective work as it does about the criminal themselves.

The Thieves of Threadneedle Street, by Nicholas Booth, is published by The History Press.

 

 

 

Calico Sarah, a thief who refused to die

William_Hogarth_-_Gin_Lane Sarah Wells was a woman from the parish of St Botolph without Aldgate in London. Not much is known of her life today, apart from the fact that she was a thief and a mother – but the criminal records of the early 18th century show that she was a strong woman who could hold her own against London’s men.

In January 1720, she appeared at the Old Bailey, charged with pick-pocketing. She was alleged to have stolen a silver watch from Robert Hoe on 16 December 1719.

The court heard that Hoe had spent some time drinking on board a ship on the Thames, and that afterwards, he made his way back into the city. On reaching Rosemary Lane, he asked someone the way to the Exchange; Sarah came up to him and said, “I am going that way and will show you”.

But instead, she led him a different, wrong, way – the way that led back towards her own lodgings. “I’ll put you right,” she told him, but he then felt for his watch, realised it was missing, and promptly accused her of stealing it, together with some money.

Sarah, realising that she had been rumbled, tried to put the watch back into his hand, but Hoe was having none of it. He tried to drag her towards a Justice’s house, but she cried out, “Everett! Everett!” This man, Everett, came over and started to beat poor, drunken Hoe. The high constable tried to get near, but somehow, Sarah managed to stop him helping for a whole hour, and was heard to say,

“Damn him for a son of a bitch! I wish I had not gave him his watch, it would have served to maintain me in Newgate. I would not have given him it again but that I did not know how to convey it off.”

In her defence, Sarah said she had been going to see her child, who was with a wet nurse, but Hoe had followed her and struck her several times, causing her to call “Murder!” He had then tried to run away, but she managed to hold him till a crowd of onlookers gathered.

The Old Bailey a century later

The Old Bailey a century later

The problem was that Sarah was unable to call any witnesses – not even Everett, who she claimed had only beaten Hoe out of self-defence. Because of this, and her poor reputation – being known as Calico Sarah hints at Sarah’s reputation for the theft of fabric* – she was found guilty, and sentenced to death.

But this was not the end of Sarah’s life – or not quite just yet. Exactly three years after her conviction, she was again brought before the Old Bailey. It appears that her death sentence was commuted to transportation.

One would think that might be regarded as a lucky escape, if one survived the journey to the American colonies, but not Sarah. She was now charged with having returned to England before the expiration of the time of transportation. She was now, again, sentenced to death.

This time, Sarah attempted to plead her belly – to claim that she was pregnant and should therefore not be hanged. On 8 February 1723, at the Justice Hall in the Old Bailey, she was declared quick with child, and avoided being executed with four less fortunate men. She was granted a conditional pardon in May that year.

Sarah was proactive as a thief, able to take advantage of those rendered virtually incapable through drink, and willing to take on men. She used language on the same terms, and gave as good as she got. Yet she was also willing to use her position as a woman, able to plead her belly and turn the insecurity of pregnancy into a means of prolonging her own life.

Sources: Old Bailey Online, t17200115-47 and t17230116-2; The National Archives, ref SP 44/81, f.285

*There is a brief mention of Sarah’s nickname in Lois A Chaber’s “Matriarchal Mirror: Women and Capital in Moll Flanders” (PMLA, 97:2 (1982), 212-226).

The misfortunes of a Victorian actress

punch2Laura Bentley was in dire straits. A 41-year-old Londoner, she supported her bedridden mother, who she lived with in lodgings in Delancey Street, St Pancras. In fact, their lodgings were nothing more than a single furnished room on the top floor of number 82.

Her wages were not enough to keep the pair afloat, and she had got into financial difficulties. This was mortifying to her; her father had been a gentleman with an income of £500 a year.

Laura had been ‘educated and brought up as a lady’ – but her father had absconded. He then died, and her mother had remarried, this time to a drunkard who spent all the late Mr Bentley’s money. He then seems to have left, leaving Laura and her mother in poverty.

Laura described herself as being of an ‘excitable’ personality; so excitable that at one point, she had to be taken into the insane ward of the Islington workhouse for three days. She was again admitted to the workhouse, and then to the insane or lunatic ward – the Hagar Ward – of the workhouse in 1897. Then living in Camden Town, she was admitted by her uncle, Frederick Roberts.

 

Laura Bentley's discharge to the Islington workhouse infirmary, 1897, via Ancestry

Laura Bentley’s discharge to the Islington workhouse infirmary, 1897, via Ancestry

She had originally wanted to be an actress, and had worked as such for some time, before an attack of laryngitis left her voice permanently affected. She had therefore found herself ‘disqualified’ from her profession, and so had to take on a job as a machinist. Initially she worked at Peter Robinson’s factory, and then at the Swan and Edgar premises.

But then she lost her job, due to ‘alterations made by these firms’, she said, but also, perhaps, because her health was poor. She had started drinking, and mixing with ‘women of loose character’.  She owed five weeks’ rent, and  the landlady had talked of evicting her due to her staying out all night drinking.

Her mother, who was unable to move her limbs due to chronic rheumatism, had formerly had to be helped by the charity of some local women, and the parish. Now, though, she was entirely reliant on Laura, and both women were on the verge of starving. It was also said that Laura had no friends left to call on for help.

Laura spent her days ‘tramping’ around the city trying to find work, to no avail. The combination of failure in her chosen profession, failure also in her second job as a machinist, and failure to adequately support her mother, may have led her to the drinking (although the mixing with loose women may simply have been out of loneliness and a desire for company).

It also, eventually, led to Laura becoming so ‘weary and distressed’ that she attempted to commit suicide by jumping off the York and Albany Bridge into the Regent’s Canal.

Laura's admission to the lunatic ward of the Islington workhouse, 1897

Laura’s admission to the lunatic ward of the Islington workhouse, 1897

Yet she also failed at doing this.

As she was desperately trying to clamber over the bridge in the dark – it was one o’clock in the morning – hindered by her long skirts, a local police constable spotted her. He ran up to her and grabbed her skirts, pulling her back.

“I beg you to let me do it!” she cried, “I am in fearful trouble! About 4l will save me from suicide, but if you will not let me do it, I will do it another day.”

Instead, she was arrested, and brought to Marylebone Police Court, charged with attempting suicide. She was remanded on bail, with the judge, Curtis Bennett, saying that ‘probably something would be done for her.’

What that would be, he failed to say, beyond suggesting that a gaol doctor should examine her, and that the parish overseers should be notified that her mother might need looking after.

But the records show that machinist Laura Bentley was again admitted to the workhouse – this time St Pancras – in 1903. It was stated at this point that she had ‘no home’. In 1906, again homeless, she was returned to the St Pancras workhouse. Her ‘nearest known relative or friend’ was the same uncle who had had her admitted to the lunatic ward in 1897.

It is clear that Laura’s cry for help – her attempted suicide – did not result in a happy ending. Brought before the magistrates, the only options open to her were prison or workhouse. It seems that the rest of her life was spent yo-yoing between workhouse and lodgings of some sort, between pauper wards and lunatic wards.

It was not the kind of life that an aspiring actress would have envisaged in her youth, but it showed the lack of options, open to many women in Victorian England when they fell on hard times.

Sources: Daily News, 11 July 1898; Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, 17 July 1898; workhouse admission and discharge records on Ancestry.

How Judge Maule was sent to Coventry for saying it stank

Coventry: smelly?

Coventry: smelly?

In 1845, Judge Maule was sent to Coventry – twice.

Sir William Henry Maule (1788-1858) was a Cambridge-educated lawyer from Middlesex, who was known for his ‘fine judicial sense of humour‘. However, his sense of humour appears to have failed him when he was told to go to Coventry to preside over the Assizes.

He and his fellow learned gentlemen were provided with lodgings in the town, where they would stay for the duration of the Assizes, but Maule was not impressed.

On entering the house, he was ‘struck with the intolerable stench which met him’.  The whole house smelled bad, he said; both upstairs and downstairs were so smelly that it was ‘impossible to remain’.

Someone, possibly the landlord or lady, tried to explain the smell by saying it could be a mouldy carpet; but Maule was not having it. He removed himself to the more pleasant environs of Warwick, where he promptly complained to anyone who would listen that it was both inconvenient and expensive to hold an Assize at Coventry, and that it was therefore pointless to do so.

Having been sent to Coventry once, he was now sent again – by the townspeople. Offended by his attitude, they regarded him as having insulted both them and their home.

They held protests, slandering the judge by making their opinions on his own personal character known; and then gathered together some statistics relating to local mortality, publicising them to show that ‘Coventry is in fact a delightfully salubrious region’.

In an era where cholera regularly struck urban communities, and was believed to be the result of miasma, or ‘bad air’, Maule’s comments about the ‘stench’ of Coventry had an extra significance. The protesting inhabitants argued that

“Judge Maule’s airs were not attributable to the air of Coventry, but to some other cause”

In addition, they argued that Assizes had been held at Coventry for at least 500 years; but the press noted that it was likely, due to Maule’s complaints, that ‘it is not unlikely the result will be to remove altogether the Assizes to Warwick.’

Source: Berrow’s Worcester Journal, 10 April 1845

 

Older posts

© 2017 Criminal Historian

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑