Criminal Historian

Working with dead people

Category: urban (page 1 of 4)

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.

 

A Tale From Bleeding Heart Yard

Bleeding Heart Yard in the 1870s

In the early to mid 19th century, Bleeding Heart Yard was the beating heart of working class life in London. It was synonymous with the slums, with criminality, and with poverty. In the 1850s, Charles Dickens wrote about it in Little Dorrit, as a place ‘inhabited by poor people’  and reduced in fortune – a fact that alerted the press to its horrors.

When journalists wrote about the precursors of benefits cheats and scammers, they wrote about the inhabitants of Bleeding Heart Yard, who they accused of being prolific writers of begging letters and adverts in the press that proclaimed their own poverty and hardship in order to get financial help.

They pondered how people who claimed to be ‘utterly destitute’ could afford to pay for newspaper adverts that set out their distress, and commented:

‘You may assist them to emigrate to Australia half a dozen times, but they are always to be heard in Bleeding Heart Yard…imprisonment and hard labour have been tried in vain with these incorrigible rogues.’

These ‘rogues’ lived in a crowded yard within Saffron Hill, part of Clerkenwell, within the district of Holborn. Its notoriety stemmed as much from its name as from its inhabitants; there was much speculation about where the name derived from, but it was commonly believed that it stemmed from a murder.

One such story was that the Devil threw Lady Elizabeth Hatton, from a second-floor window in nearby Hatton Gardens in 1626, ‘dashing her to pieces’ and causing a water-pump to pump blood rather than water every year on the anniversary of her death. It was said that Bleeding Heart Yard was so named because it the violence of her death led to her heart being flung out of her body, landing in the yard.

The Bleeding Heart Tavern today

Other, more prosaic, people knew that the yard was simply named after the Bleeding Heart Tavern next door, and that the name was either the result of a pre-Reformation Catholicism that presented the ‘mystery’ of the rosary as the Virgin Mary’s heart being pierced by five swords, or a misspelling of ‘hart’, the pub name therefore denoting a wounded deer in some bucolic rural past.

This rural idyll was, by the 1860s, well and truly past. As the comments from contemporary newspapers suggest, it was now a rough, poor, urban area; it was also a centre for Italian migrants. There was antagonism from both the English-born residents, and from earlier Irish immigrants, towards these ‘strangers’, and even when some of these individuals had lived in London for some years, the resentment towards them by the English and Irish failed to abate.

The Italian men tended to work hard and play hard – but they had respectable jobs, and worked to keep their families afloat. Yet it was reported that the English residents regarded every ‘foreigner’ as ‘a knife-bearing, commandment-breaking scoundrel’ and therefore meted out harsh treatment towards these individuals.

On Boxing Day 1864, this antagonism between English-born locals and the Italian arrivals spilled over – and in turn, blood was also spilled. Around 20 Englishmen, resident in the area, had gone to the Golden Anchor pub in Saffron Hill in the late afternoon, seemingly intent on trouble. A small group of Italian men then arrived, arguments started, and a mass brawl then erupted in the bagatelle room. By the end of it, one man, Michael Harrington, was dead.

A man was arrested at the scene, and taken into custody, where he was charged with murder. The arrested man was one of the Italians, 32-year-old Seraphini Polioni. On 30 January 1865, he appeared in the Central Criminal Court on an indictment of murder.

An early C19th trial at the Old Bailey, later the Central Criminal Court

The landlord of the Golden Anchor, Frederick Shaw, told the court that Polioni had been known to him for around three months, but that around 6pm on Boxing Day, he had come to the bar of the “very busy” pub, and said something along the lines of “I could settle any such six Englishmen as Shaw”. He then wandered off.

Shaw then said he was hit by someone who then walked off to the taproom; Shaw went to follow and noticed that “there were several foreigners in the taproom” before he was pushed into the bar’s parlour by several others. When he looked out of the door, he saw ‘some of the Italians rushing out of the house.’

It was clear that the pub landlord saw the entire affair as being the fault of ‘the Italians’. He later said that Polioni had said he could kill six Englishmen, and was pulled up on it in court – causing him to splutter, “I might have made the mistake in the confusion – I should think it is to the same effect!”

He had no idea how many Italians there were in the pub; there were around 12 to 15 men in the bagatelle room, all English, and no Italians, yet he was clear that “Italians were distributed about the room, they go in and out of the taproom very freely…there were only Italians in the taproom, no English at all to my knowledge”, but was then forced to admit that he hadn’t actually gone into the taproom so really had little clue as to who was in there, and of what nationality.

His potman, Alfred Rebbeck, was also called to give evidence, where he stated that he saw “a great many Italians all together” in the taproom, including an Italian “named John”. He saw one Italian knock a woman down; and was clear that it was Seraphini who drew a knife and stabbed him, Rebbeck, with him. Rebbeck then hit him on the head with a broom-handle.

Rebbeck was clear that the English were in the bagatelle room, and the Italians gathered in the taproom. The pub was clearly segregated, albeit by the drinkers themselves rather than the landlord’s orders. There was also an Irish contingent – Alfred Rebbeck noted that there were ‘one or two Irishmen’ including one perhaps inevitably, given the racism present within this society, as ‘Pikey’.

Several witnesses with English names stated that Seraphini had been the man responsible for Harrington’s murder, and that they had seen no other Italians who could have been able to stab the man.

A statement by another Italian man, Pietro Mazzneli, who stated that another Italian at the pub that night, named Gregorio, looked very like Seraphini, seems to have been almost ignored; in fact, other Italian witnesses also put the blame onto this Gregorio with one, Pietro Maralizzi, who gave evidence through an interpreter, stating that he had seen this man with a knife in his hand, and that he had said to him, “For God’s sake, Gregorio, put away that knife.”

The trial also heard gossip from a woman at the pub that she had heard “three or four” of the Italians were using their knives – but this evidence was dismissed as ‘hearsay’. Reading the account of the trial, it seems a mish-mash of different stories being put forward by different people, but there seems little concrete evidence that Seraphini was involved in Harrington’s death. And yet he was convicted, and sentenced to death.

Seraphini now languished in Newgate Prison, awaiting his execution. Conditions were dire, and he soon began to lose his health. The end of this story seems clear.

Polioni sentenced to death (from Ancestry)

But things were not so straightforward.

The man named by several in Seraphini’s trial, his doppelganger Gregorio, had been in the pub that fateful night, and had fled to Birmingham. Henry Negretti – either a police constable or perhaps another member of the Italian community in London – had tracked him down to accuse him of having actually committed the murder for which Seraphini had been convicted – and Gregorio voluntarily surrendered to him, confessing to the murder of Michael Harrington.

On 27 February, 41-year-old Gregorio Mogni appeared at the Central Criminal Court.  He was asked if he was guilty or not guilty, and responded:

“It is my misfortune. I am guilty; but I did it in my self-defence.”

The first witness called at this new trial was the man who had been referred to as ‘John’ the Italian in the former trial – who was, in fact, Gregorio’s brother, Giovanni Mogni, a picture frame maker who stated that he had lived in England for the past ten years.

Contrary to much of the evidence heard at Seraphini’s trial, Giovanni said that he was in the bagatelle room of the Golden Anchor, together with his brother and another Italian, Pietro Marazzi – a looking glass maker who lived in Bleeding Heart Yard. They were outnumbered by nearly 20 Englishmen in the room.

Gregorio had an argument with Shaw, the landlord, and then the Englishmen started to beat Giovanni. His brother then drew a knife, shouting “They are beating my brother!” Marazzi saw the knife, and cried, “Gregorio, for God’s sake, put away that knife!”, grabbing him, but Gregorio demanded to be let go, “Otherwise we shall not go out of this room alive.”

After the melee ended, and the men had fled, Marazzi saw Gregorio in a nearby street. The latter put his arms around Pietro’s neck, and said,

“My dear Marazzi, what have I done? I stabbed three or four. Goodbye, I am going home.”

The greatest shock for Gregorio at his trial was the calling of Seraphini Polioni as a witness. He was ill and frail from his stay in Newgate, and his appearance in the witness box caused Gregorio to weep – realising, perhaps, what his prior silence had done to his countryman.

Now, Polioni gave his evidence, starting by saying that he was under sentence of death in Newgate, but had previously lived for some time in England. He said that he had been at another inn, Pietro Bordessa’s Three Tuns, the evening of 26 December, when another Italian had come in to tell him an argument had broken out at the Golden Anchor “between my two cousins” – perhaps simply a reference to fellow Italians rather than to actual relatives. Polioni had gone there to try and stop the fight between two of his countrymen, but instead found himself charged with murder.

Now, Gregorio found himself convicted – but of manslaughter rather than murder, with the jury believing that he acted in self-defence. The jury asked for mercy, and he was sentenced to five years in prison, a far more lenient punishment than poor, innocent Seraphini had received. He, in turn, was now tried for the felonious wounding of Alfred the potman, but was found not guilty.

Although Polioni and Gregorio Mogni remain elusive, I have found Giovanni – or John – Mogni on the 1901 census for Clerkenwell. He died in 1903 (via Ancestry).

A drunken fight between a couple of Italian men and a larger group of territorial Englishmen had led to one innocent man being put on trial twice, and once being convicted of a murder he didn’t commit. The man who actually committed that crime only received a five year prison term. Michael Harrington’s death shows how the Victorian criminal justice system could be flawed, and that anti-immigrant feeling caused violence and misperceptions about individuals, just as it still does today.

And what of the notorious Bleeding Heart Yard? By the 1880s, many of the tenants had been moved out, and the yard stood almost deserted, neglected, and waiting to be demolished. A couple of costermongers’ barrows stood there as remnants of the lives of those who previously peopled the area; a few petty criminals used the yard as a place to hide. But the Italian picture frame makers, one of whom gave evidence after the Golden Anchor death, and the advert-placing destitute ‘conners’ were no longer there.

Sources include: Glasgow Evening Post, 6 January 1885; Cheshire Observer, 8 August 1891; Newcastle Journal, 3 March 1865; Islington Gazette, 30 August 1897; Bristol Mercury, 2 January 1885; London Evening Standard, 3 May 1866; Old Bailey Online (refs t18650130-218; t18650227-333; t18650410-454; t18650410-455).

Capturing a Police Killer

 To mark the release of her latest book, Who Killed Constable Cock?, I’m very pleased to have a guest post from writer Angela Buckley today. Here, she takes us through the night a Manchester policeman tragically lost his life…

PC Cock

At midnight on 1 August 1876, 21-year-old PC Nicholas Cock was doing his nightly rounds in the quiet suburb of Chorlton-cum-Hardy, Manchester. The night was dark, with very little moonlight and the young police officer was almost at the end of his beat, at a junction of three main thoroughfares, known as West Point. As he was walking along, he was overtaken by a law student, John Massey Simpson, who was returning home after an evening out. The two men chatted as they neared the junction, where they were joined by another officer, PC James Beanland. After a few minutes, they all went their separate ways.

John Simpson had only walked a few yards when he heard two shots ring out, as if from a firearm. They were followed by cries of ‘Murder!’ He rushed back to West Point, where he found PC Cock lying on the ground in a pool of blood. He had been shot in the chest. PC Beanland had also run back and between them they managed to get the injured officer into a passing night soil cart to take him to a local surgery. An hour later, despite the doctor having tried to revive him with brandy, Nicholas Cock died.

The news of the shooting reached Old Trafford police station within minutes, and PC Cock’s superior officer Superintendent James Bent sent out his men immediately to arrest the culprits. He was convinced that the three Habron brothers were responsible for his officer’s death and now all he had to do was find the evidence to build his case against them.

Originally from Ireland, John, aged 24, Frank, 22, and William Habron, 18, worked in a garden nursery close to the spot where PC Cock was killed. Superintendent Bent and his officers surrounded the outhouse where they lived. On his command they rushed into the building, which was in darkness. The three brothers were in bed.

The crime scene

Bent ordered them to get dressed, after which he handcuffed them and charged them with the murder of PC Cock. The eldest brother, John, claimed that he had been in bed at the time, although the police hadn’t mentioned when the event had taken place. The younger brothers hung their heads down and looked ‘very nervous’.

Superintendent Bent observed that their boots were muddy and the candle on the table was soft, as if recently extinguished. Bent ordered for them to be taken to the police station while he went to West Point to examine the crime scene.

At the junction, near where PC Cock had been shot, Bent found several sets of footprints. Covering them with a cardboard box, as it had started to rain, he sent to the police station for the Habrons’ boots. He made impressions with them in the cinders next to the prints and found that William’s left book was a match – the rows and patterns of nails corresponded exactly. William Habron became his prime suspect.

Back at the police station, a search of the prisoners’ clothing yielded two percussion caps from a firearm, which were discovered in William’s waistcoat pocket. There were also the key eyewitnesses, John Simpson and PC James Beanland, who had spotted a man on the corner of the junction, as they were standing with PC Cock.

PC Beanland described the stranger as about 22 years old, of medium stature and dressed in dark clothing. He had walked quickly ‘in an ordinary way’. However, John Simpson thought that the man had been older and that he had stooped, walking ‘in a faltering, loose kind of way’. When the law student saw William Habron at the police station, he couldn’t say with certainty that he was the man he had seen on the night of PC Cock’s murder.

Despite the circumstantial nature of the evidence against him, 18-year-old William Habron was convicted of the murder of Nicholas Cock. Due to his youth, his death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. However, three years later, a startling confession by a notorious burglar, who was facing the gallows for the murder of his lover’s husband, challenged the foundation of the case and Constable Cock’s real killer was finally revealed.

Find out what really happened to PC Cock in Who Killed Constable Cock? by Angela Buckley, out now in ebook and paperback. There is more information about Angela’s work on her website, http://www.angelabuckleywriter.com/ and on her Facebook page Victorian Supersleuth.

The tale of the indecent actor on a Victorian omnibus

A London omnibus

William Alfred Elliott was a 40-year-old actor with a bit of a problem. A pornography problem. Of course, it being the 1890s, this was not porn as we would know it – William’s penchant was for indecent photographs, that he carried around with him. They weren’t of nubile young Victorian women – but of a naked William himself.

William was not ashamed of his predilection. In fact, he got particular enjoyment from getting his images out in public (although, luckily, he doesn’t appear to have got anything else out in public), and seeing people’s reactions to them.

One night in October 1897, Elliott got on a District Railway omnibus in central London, and sat on one side, at the top. The bus travelled along Regent Street, picking up passengers as it went. Joining William Elliott upstairs were two 16-year-old girls, who sat in front of another passenger, the wonderfully named Henry Le Butt Boss, a hotel keeper, who was in turn opposite Elliott.

After a while, the girls noticed something odd in the seat opposite, and became increasingly distressed. Henry Le Butt Boss noticed their distress, which seemed to be result of ‘suspicious movements’ being made by Elliott. Out of the corner of his eye, he started to watch the actor.

“He had something in his hand,” Boss later told a court, “which he thrust forward many times, evidently with the object of the ladies seeing it.”

The bus turned into Cavendish Place, and Boss leaned over to the extent that he could now see what Elliott had in his hand – he was exhibiting some indecent photos that he regarded as being ‘of a very gross character’.

Boss wondered what to do. He continued on the bus for a while, but when it reached Marylebone Lane, he got off, with the intention of finding a policeman. Elliott got off at the same stop, and immediately starting running, ‘as fast as he could’.

Boss got the attention of a police constable, who set off in chase, and caught Elliott at Queen Anne Street. As he was grabbed, the actor starting tearing something up and throwing bits away. As the constable took him into custody, another one was dispatched to pick up the discarded items. They were duly pasted together, and, as the magistrate who later heard the case commented, ‘I call them filthy’.

In court, Elliott’s counsel admitted that his client was ‘very foolish’ for looking at naked pictures of himself in public, but argued, rather unfeasible, that ‘he had no intention of showing them to the ladies’ because ‘Mr Elliott was most respectably connected’. Apparently, posh men couldn’t be perverts too.

The counsel went on to insist that Elliott had a ‘large circle of friends’ and therefore Boss must have been ‘mistaken’ in his belief that the actor had displayed such images. Victorian logic was a wonderful thing. Elliott had simply been indiscreet, and had already been punished sufficiently as a result of the ‘mental anguish’ he had suffered being taken first to a police station, and then to Holloway Gaol to await his appearance before the magistrate.

Luckily, this absurd defence was viewed dimly by the JP. Although he believed that it was nobody’s business if Elliott wanted to photograph himself in indecent poses, it was not much of a stretch to believe that someone who did this kind of thing might then want to show others the photographs too.

In conclusion, the magistrate said, this middle aged actor had been ‘guilty of an act of a very odious character’, and should be fined 40 shillings. Elliott promptly paid his fine, and made his ignominious exit.

If you’d like to know more about the private and professional lives of Victorian actors, my book, Life On The Victorian Stage, will be published on 30 August. You can pre-order it from Amazon now.

Sources: The Illustrated Police News, 16 October 1897; Reynolds’s Newspaper, 17 October 1897

 

 

A case for the Fingerprints Department

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unnatural conduct: the murder of Elizabeth Peers

Elizabeth Peers was not missed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

The Canadian Seaman and the Telephone Operator

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

The Commercial Docks at Rotherhithe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

The old lady who was killed with an axe

This tale of murder from the East End of London, only a couple of years after the Whitechapel murders, inevitably grabbed my attention, as the victim shared her surname with me (although, I hasten to add, it wasn’t a relation of mine)!

It was a Wednesday morning in February in Poplar, and Mrs Ann Charlotte Darby, aged 81*, was getting ready to visit her daughter, named later in the press as Mrs Cummings. Ann lived in lodgings at 14 Sophia Street, her ‘home’ being one back room on the ground floor of the building; she had only lived there for three months, but had been in Poplar itself for at least two decades.

This elderly lady had been born Ann Charlotte Osborne at Welch’s Buildings, Shoreditch, on 30 July 1812, the daughter of William and Ann. She was baptised at St Leonard’s Church on 12 October that year. At the age of 17, on Christmas Day 1829, she married William Darby, a rigger from Bethnal Green and at least a decade her senior, in his home parish.

The marriage of William and Ann Darby in 1829

The couple had several children, including Anne, Thomas, Eliza, Martha, Sarah, Elizabeth, and Charlotte, all born in Limehouse. In 1851, the family were living at 31 Eastfield Street, Limehouse; they were a labouring class family, and both Anne and her eldest daughter, 18-year-old Anne, worked as comb makers.

Ten years later, Anne, Eliza, Martha and Sarah were all working as chair caners, living at the family home at 30 Star Street. This was part of a notorious slum area off Commercial Road – Paul Daniel has stated that this was known as Planet Street at the time, but a check of neighbouring streets in the 1861 census suggests that the Darbys definitely lived at this location, in one of the many two-up, two-down houses on the street, which were regarded as being both small in size and with low ceilings

After her husband’s death in 1866, Anne continued to work as a chair caner for a while, and lived in various locations in the wider Tower Hamlets area, remaining close to her surviving family. In 1893, her one daughter Mrs Cummings was only minutes away, as she lived in Sherbutt Street, off Sophia Street; back in 1871, Ann had been living at 3 Duff Street, with another daughter, Eliza, and Eliza’s three young children, George, William and Elizabeth, visiting her.

Her financial status, never great, reduced over the years, until in 1881, she was living at 76 Kerby Street in Poplar, which was a rag shop. There, still eking out a living caning chairs, she was sharing the building with another family, although at the time of the 1881 census, she was being visited by her married daughter Charlotte, now Charlotte Jones.

Although Ann was over 80, she was in good health and regarded as being a high-spirited woman. On 22 February 1893, she had stayed with her daughter a while, but then, it being about midday, she went to the Poplar Poor Law Union to receive her outdoor relief money – she was poor and relied on this money for her food and rent. She received three shillings a week, and went to Hodgson Craig, the Relieving Officer for the west district of Poplar, every Wednesday to get her money.

In the evening, one of her granddaughters, Martha Cummings, aged 16, went to visit her grandmother and found her in a jolly mood; she stayed until around 8pm. It is testimony to Ann’s personality that she was seen as good company – after Martha had left, one of Ann’s other daughters, Eliza Mitchell, then called round and stayed with her mother until 9.45pm, making up her elderly mother’s bed for her as she was now getting tired.

Later, before the coroner, Eliza said that she was ‘under the impression’ that a niece, Martha Johnson, came to sleep with Ann at night, as she had done so in her previous lodgings at Grundy Street; if so, however, there would have been no reason to prepare Ann’s bed for her that night.

There was apparent quiet now at Sophia Street until the next morning, on 23 February. One of the other lodgers at number 14 had gone to visit Mrs Cummings, but realised that she hadn’t repaid Ann for sixpence she had lent her neighbour the day before. Martha was duly despatched to her grandmother’s lodgings to give her the sixpence, the women knowing the old lady would need money that day.

Martha, on reaching number 14, found her grandmother’s door open. She went in and found her grandmother apparently asleep in bed. But on getting nearer, she saw that there was something not right – Ann’s face was an ashen colour, and, frightened, Martha ran back to her mother, and cried,

“I believe there is something wrong with grandmother. She is still in bed, and her face is quite white!”

Her mother and the other woman ran back to the house, and on pulling back the neatly drawn bedclothes from Ann’s body, found that she had been gruesomely murdered – a bloodstained butcher’s cleaver still lying on her pillow. She had been struck behind the right ear, a blow that caused the sheets underneath her to become saturated with blood. The only relief to her family was that Ann had been killed while asleep.

Burglary did not appear to be the motive: Ann’s purse was found under her pillow, still containing her money (one shilling in silver and fourpence and three-farthings, all in bronze), and she was known to be on poor relief. Although one of her daughters had taken out a life insurance policy on her mother, it was only for a small amount. One mistake appeared to have been made by the killer – a clue lay in the thumbprint found on the inside of the door to Ann’s room, but the print was unfortunately rather faint.

An inquest was held on Ann’s body at the Poplar Town Hall the day after her death, presided over by Mr Wynne Baxter. At this inquest, it was heard that although Ann had been friendly with her neighbours, her friends did not regard it as a terribly salubrious place to live, and the day prior to her death, had been discussing moving her to a ‘more respectable’ house.

Honora’s entry in the Colney Hatch admission registers

Then a suspect was named – or rather, this person was seen as dodgy enough to be fingered by the police, without much evidence. The coroner mentioned that another lodger of 14 Sophia Street was Honorah or Honora Driscoll, known as Norah. She was known to have previously been an inmate of Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum, ‘suffering form mental affliction’.

‘The facts given in evidence showed that the crime must have been committed by someone in the house,’ said the coroner; and Eliza Mitchell stated that Norah Driscoll had been home when she had gone to visit Ann, and had still been at number 14 when Eliza left. The next morning, Norah had apparently come to stand at Ann’s bedside with the other women, and she was the one who put her hands on the body to check if it was cold.

Others living at number 14 – Mrs Sweeney, presumably the woman who had borrowed sixpence from Ann, and the Goss family – had alibis for the time of Ann’s death. The coroner stated that:

“no-one in the house could have done the deed except Norah Driscoll. She had been in an asylum, and when insanity was fixed in a person it was possible for them to commit acts and be oblivious of them.”

Her period of insanity was presented as though it was recent, but the Colney Hatch Asylum records show that Honora Driscoll was actually admitted some three decades earlier, on 16 October 1867, although she was not released until 1 November 1875. **

Norah was also deemed to be guilty because she was so calm afterwards; the coroner added that she might have been “insane on Wednesday night but sane on Thursday morning”.

She was also seen as the black to Ann’s white – Norah was also reported in the newspapers as being an elderly woman (referred to as “Old Mrs Driscoll”), and also in receipt of poor relief, but whereas Ann was perceived as a jolly old lady, doing her best in straitened circumstances, Norah was seen as a mad old woman, akin to the perception of certain women as witches throughout history.

There was no substantive evidence against Norah, despite the suspicions of the police and the coroner, and the jury – although not in a unanimous decision – erred on the side of caution. Norah Driscoll was at the Town Hall when a verdict of wilful murder against person or persons unknown was returned.

As 2000 people were said to have gathered outside the court and were ‘excitable’, Norah was helped to escape from the Town Hall by the police, who made her climb down a ladder from the building’s back windows, whilst disguised.

Accompanied by the vicar of Poplar, the Hon James Adderley, she was swept through neighbouring schools, the church grounds and East India Dock Road to her lodgings, unnoticed by the crowd at the Town Hall.

 

 

SOURCES: Illustrated Police News, 4 March 1893; Tamworth Herald, 11 March 1893; Reynolds’s Newspaper, 12 March 1893; FreeBMDs – death of Ann Charlotte Darby, March 1893, Poplar vol 1c page 480; death of William Darby, Dec 1866, Stepney, vol 1c page 375; 1851-1881 censuses for Limehouse and Poplar on Ancestry; Lunacy Patients Admission Registers, 1846-1912 on Ancestry.

 

NOTE 1: The majority of press reports into Ann’s murder stated that she was 79, and this is the age given on her death certificate. However, the records show that she was born in 1812, and therefore was around 81 when she died. 81 is also the age given in a few press reports. It’s not unusual for ages to be wrongly given or reported at this time.

NOTE 2: An Honora Driscoll was admitted to Banstead Asylum in Surrey on Christmas Eve 1884, and released on 12 January 1906; she was readmitted on 10 May 1909 and released four years later, on 24 November 1913. Honora Driscoll is also recorded as being admitted to various workhouses in Tower Hamlets in the 1880s and early 1890s; although these asylum and workhouse records would emphasise the depictions of her as a woman with long-term mental health issues, and in receipt of poor relief, her name was shared with many other women of Irish descent in late 19th century London and its environs, and so it is not possible to show that these are the same woman (especially as the entries only occasionally record a year of birth, and few other details).

 

 

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.
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