Criminal Historian

Working with dead people

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Tracing convicts with the Digital Panopticon

The DP homepage

A few days ago, I was in the grand surroundings of Liverpool’s St George’s Hall to be at the official launch of the Digital Panopticon. This huge project has been undertaken by researchers at the universities of Liverpool, Sheffield, Oxford, Sussex and Tasmania over the past couple of years.

The team has gathered together over four million records, aimed at letting users of its free website find out how punishment affected the lives of 90,000 individuals who were convicted of offences at the Old Bailey between 1780 and 1925. These include people who were transported to Australia.

St George’s Hall – former home of crown and civil courts, and so an appropriate venue for the DP launch and conference

The website is invaluable for crime, social, and family historians – it contains a huge amount of information about individuals, which can include not only their basic details and criminal record, but also their eye and hair colour.

In many cases, a ‘life archive’ has been assembled that enables users to see how an individual’s criminal career progressed, and what happened to them. This takes in data from other sites, such as Ancestry, Findmypast and The National Archives, as well as from Australian record collections.

At a more general level, researchers have found out that British convicts who were transported to Australia tended to refrain from offending once they had married and become parents; and that children born to transported convicts tended to be healthier and taller than those born to convicts in British prisons.

The website includes a ‘life of the week’, where an individual case study is looked at. One example is Mary Ann Hall, who was born around 1840. Like many other female offenders who can be found in the Digital Panopticon, she was first mentioned in terms of offending in her late 20s, but came before the courts on several occasions for both thefts and assaults. Her varied jobs, physical state (including syphilitic welts!) and relationships with family members can all be ascertained – as well as her criminal record and the places where she was incarcerated.

I can see this website being a much-used resource for many historians and researchers, and look forward to seeing what research comes out of it. Its launch came during the three-day Digital Panopticon conference this week, where several of the DP team gave papers looking at various aspects of crime and punishment, and it was clear just how much fascinating research is being done into this area.

Professor Robert Shoemaker officially launching the Digital Panopticon at St George’s Hall

Some is looking at ‘big data’ – such as Richard Ward‘s paper on the misrecording of prisoner ages, where several sources were compared to see just how accurate (or otherwise) ages were in written records, and Sharon Howard‘s analysis of the speech of defendants at the Old Bailey (where it seems that the less you said, the better your chances were – unless, conversely, you were articulate and spoke A LOT).

Others, however, are focusing on micro-histories from which we can gain an understanding of law and order at a particular time, and how it impacted on certain individuals. Several are looking at juvenile crime, and I’m following this research with interest.

The study of the history of crime is clearly thriving, and both the packed conference and the launch of the Digital Panopticon website are evidence of this. It will be interesting to see what research now follows from users of the site, now it has been launched. Watch this space!

 

Dr Lucy Williams, from the Digital Panopticon team, has written a great feature on the Digital Panopticon – an intro to the website, what it contains and how to use it – for Your Family History, the magazine I edit . This will be in the October issue, published on 26 September.

 

 

 

Crime sites open for Heritage Days

The Bramhall stocks in Cheshire – image from the Stockport Image Archive, taken from Wikipedia

This weekend sees the annual Heritage Open Days take place across Britain, and it’s a great opportunity for everyone who’s interested in the history of crime to access sites relevant to our history of crime and punishment.

The Illingworth stocks – photo by Alexander P Kapp, from Geograph

For example, if you’re near Illingworth in Yorkshire, you can visit the town’s Regency-era gaol and 17th century double (two-seater) stocks (see here for details), and find out more about plans to restore the gaol, together with stories of those who were once held in the gaol.

The gaol is open on both Saturday and Sunday, with tours taking place every 20 minutes (and see here for more details of how one group is trying to preserve both the gaol and stocks).

Unfortunately, unless you’re very quick, you’ll be too late for this afternoon’s walk round Leeds, to find out about the Victorian police constable’s beat (why wasn’t this on at the weekend?!).

Warrington police station, by Richard Vince, on Geograph

However, you can visit the Museum of Policing in Cheshire – located in Warrington – where you can look at the Victorian cells at Warrington Police Station, and find out about the history of policing in Cheshire since 1883. This is open on Saturday, from 10am until 4pm.

Throughout the weekend, there are walks taking place in Hexham, Northumberland, focusing on the town’s House of Correction, with its separate exercise yards and accommodation for each gender.

In Oxfordshire, you can visit the County Police Station in Abingdon, which was built in the 1850s, and see the original police cells. The station is only open on Saturday, from 10.30 until 4pm.

There are undoubtedly lots of other sites to visit; have a search on the Heritage Open Days website, or search local listings, to find out more.

A journey round HMP Shepton Mallet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thieving at the theatre doors

London’s Adelphi Theatre in 1840

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

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

Allan Pinkerton, photograph from the Library of Congress

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

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

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

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

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

A depiction of the Strand in the 19th century

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Book Review: Tracing Villains and their Victims

Part of Pen & Sword’s guides for family historians, exploring and analysing a variety of sources, Jonathan Oates’ latest book, Tracing Villains and their Victims (Pen & Sword, 2017) is not to be confused with Stephen Wade’s Tracing Your Criminal Ancestors (Pen & Sword, 2012) – as Oates himself makes clear.  Wade looked at specific offences, whereas Oates focuses more on types of record.

Oates, who like Wade has written several previous books for the publisher, is an archivist and local history librarian, but his P&S books show two clear areas of interest – Jacobean history and early 20th century true crime.

His interest in the latter is obvious in the majority of case studies he uses in Tracing Villains and their Victims. It would, however, have been good to have more case studies from a wider range of eras, to demonstrate the problems and limitations of sources over the centuries, and how these have changed.

Oates writes well, and has obviously done a good amount of research. There is, perhaps, not enough recognition either of change over time or of regional differences (he states at one point that JPs were ‘amateur’ without looking at the increasing professionalisation of magistrates over time, or the existence of stipendiary magistrates; there is little exploration of the fact that Quarter Sessions were held more frequently in the metropolis due to a greater number of cases needing to be heard – he simply notes that ‘in the 19th century, some counties had intermediate sessions which met in between these four times’ (p.6) without looking at the unique pressures of London courts and magistrates).

He also writes about advertorial trials and how the accused and defendant are represented by barristers – but there is no mention of how this hasn’t always been the case, or of the impact of the economic status of the accused and how this might have affected their representation.

The assumption here seems to be that readers will be researching late 19th/early 20th century trials – but what of earlier eras? It would have been nice to have a reference, too, of how the onus was previously on the victim to pursue a case, and how the founding of the modern police gradually changed that.

There are a few generalisations that aren’t backed up with sources – ‘the occupation of the defendant, until the late 18th century, will be “labourer”‘, we are told, in relation to Assize level indictments – which is a very assertive comment, and it would be good to know how wide a range of Assize indictments were used to make this very broad assertion.

Elsewhere, Oates tells us that the term ‘police court’ was:

‘a common term used in the press and an erroneous one. It actually means a magistrates’ petty sessions court – the police do not operate courts’ (p.97).

In fact, it is the older, former term for a magistrates’ court (the London Metropolitan Archives refers to it as such, so does The National Archives, and so too do crime historians such as Drew Gray, my former PhD supervisor, who really knows his onions in this area), so it is not correct to say it is a ‘press’ term. Neither does the name mean that the police operated such courts – but they were normally housed alongside the magistrates in or near the court, such as in the case of the Bow Street Police Court.

My main gripe with the book comes towards the end, however. The chapter on ‘Books’ as a resource states that it will refer both to contemporary books and more recent books written by historians, but ‘both should deal with criminals and their victims’ – why ‘should’? Some don’t, they’re still useful, but they may reflect an interest in the psychology of perpetrators, for example, rather than crimes.

Instead, though, Oates focuses on the usefulness of ‘True Crime’ books – such as his own (even including a helpful photo of him holding one of his previous books, taken by his unnamed wife)! – and Pen & Sword‘s books, even though he then criticises his publisher’s Foul Deeds series of books for ‘tend[ing] to repeat what has been written in other books’. As the author of one of the books in this series, I can assure Oates that I undertook my own research and did not just ‘repeat’ what has been written elsewhere.

More academic history books are dismissed in a sentence as useful to ‘”read around the topic” as history teachers at A-level and university lecturers are forever (optimistically) exhorting their students to do’ (p.119), which is neither a good advert for historians, nor for his opinion of students’ abilities either. To ignore the brilliant work being done by crime historians recently, which can be very helpful in understanding both individual cases and the wider social, economic and political context of crimes and criminality, seems a bit short-sighted.

Despite arguing that ‘the bibliography, if there is one, can be the best part of the book’ (p.140), Oates only includes a single-page bibliography in his own book, which primarily focuses on similar types of book to his own, with no academic history included – again, a shame given the work currently being, or recently, done by historians. He also notes that ‘books inevitably focus on well-known crime and criminals’ (p.140) but if he’d ventured beyond True Crime books, and into the academic world, he’d find this wasn’t the case.

Old Bailey Online – a valuable resource

More problematically, Oates also notes that he wasn’t brought up with ‘the internet as a key research tool’ and therefore ‘remains sceptical of its use as a primary research mechanism’; and that the British Newspaper Archive is limited in its use for researching cases from the past half century, perhaps highlighting his own research interests.

Personally, I’ve found the BNA to be incredibly helpful in researching 19th century crime, and in being ‘sceptical’ about the internet, Oates fails to recognise the usefulness of such sites as Old Bailey Proceedings Online, and the soon-to-launch Digital Panopticon; the former is invaluable in researching historic cases at the Old Bailey, and also has research guides by academics; the latter will make it easier to research those sentenced to transportation.

In summary, then, this is a book with some helpful background and ideas for research, written generally well, but let down slightly by the author’s own interests and beliefs, and hampered by the need to write generally about history, rather than fully recognising the changes over time, and differences and quirks from area to area. This is perhaps also reflected in the ‘catchy’ title – a more nuanced approach would recognise that sometimes there aren’t just villains and victims; the situation may be more complicated than that.

However, for an individual researching crime in their family history for the first time, they will find plenty of suggestions for primary research here, and information on the courts and criminal justice system that they might like to follow up elsewhere.

 

 

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).

Distracted by a criminal past

One of the perhaps inevitable side-effects of being a crime historian is that wherever I go, I get distracted by a place’s criminal history.

Recently, I’ve been to both Hereford and Worcester on work trips, and both times, I’ve come across parts of its darker history by complete accident, with no knowledge beforehand of what I was walking towards.

In Hereford, Gaol Street is in the city centre, and is home to a building that is immediately obvious as a place related to law and order. This is the ‘new gaol’, built in 1841, but which only served as a gaol for some 30 years.

Most of it was subsequently demolished, but that which remained became part of the old city magistrates’ court (thanks to Herefordshire Past for this information).

Meanwhile, in Worcester, I stopped to take a photograph of the pretty Laslett’s Almshouses, only to spot a sign on the gate stating that these were built on the site of the old city gaol. British History Online notes that in the 17th century, Greyfriars was used as the gaol, before being pulled down and replaced by the almshouses.

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However, Greyfriars still exists today and is run by the National Trust; is this building what BHO describes as ‘a fine two-storied building of timber’ that was possibly the Greyfriars’ guest house? I’m not sure, as the NT describes ‘its’ Greyfriars as a medieval merchant’s house built by Thomas Grene, but perhaps a local reader could clarify this for me!

Lastly, there is a rather lovely building tucked away on Copenhagen Street in Worcester; this served as the police headquarters for the city from 1862 to 1941.

‘Police station’ is still clearly inscribed above the door, but there is also a plaque to the right hand side marking the formation of the City of Worcester Police Force in 1833 (info from Elliott Brown on Flickr).

Today, these sites are architecturally interesting and part of the ‘dark tourism’ that can be undertaken in many towns and cities in England; but it’s also possible to imagine these places, not so long ago, being busy and dramatic buildings, full of action and movement – where our ancestors may have spent time, whether as law enforcers or law breakers.

 

When Swedish Anna was beheaded

The beheading of Anna Mansdotter, as depicted in the Illustrated Police News of 23 August 1890 (via the British Newspaper Archive)

‘The beheading of a woman is, fortunately, a very rare occurrence in Sweden,’ the article in the Illustrated Police News started, with an unusual degree of restraint for the publication.

It was detailing the death of Anna Månsdotter in the summer of 1890, and it was not surprising that the salacious and gossipy IPN sounded so shocked in its report. Anna had apparently kept her eyes open right until the point of her death, refusing to look away from the axe.

Anna was convicted, with her son, of killing her daughter-in-law Hanna Johansdotter – her son Per’s wife – in Yngsjö. Per was sentenced to life in prison, being sent to Karlskrona Gaol, but Anna received the sentence of death after she confessed to taking the larger role in the crime. She took on the ‘whole guilt’ of the crime, in order to ensure that her son survived.

King Oscar II, who voted -twice – for Anna to be beheaded

Her offence and confession shocked Sweden; it had been some 30 years since a woman had died on the scaffold, but in this case, it was universally believed that Anna should suffer the ultimate fate for her crime.

Even the king, Oscar, who was allowed two votes in court as to her punishment, voted for the death sentence to be applied. From the start of the trial process, it was widely believed that Anna’s case was hopeless, and that there would be no chance of mercy.

Anna’s refusal to express emotion after her sentence was passed was seen as a sign of her inhumanity rather than of fear – one of the motives given for the murder was that she may have been in a sexual relationship with Per, and killed Hanna out of sexual jealousy.

She spent her time in prison, prior to being executed, being very still; she refused to express any remorse, and similarly refused to take Holy Communion the nighght before her death. The prison chaplain attempted to speak with her; she refused to listen, or to respond to him.

On the day of her death, the executioner, Albert Gustaf Dahlman, and his assistant prepared outside the jail in Kristianstad. Unfortunately for Anna, she was the executioner’s first professional job, but there was no evidence of nerves as the large, muscly man, in his military-style uniform and white silk tie, prepared the scaffold. He looked confident, as he held his large axe in his hands.

At 8am, the magistrate read the judgement inside, before Anna, and then the prison doors were opened and she started to walk towards the scaffold, clad in a white belted dress. At 47, she still presented a striking figure, walking erect and lady-like, icy calm apart from the nervous twitching of her hands.

A depiction of Anna about to be executed, with her executioner shown on the left.

On the scaffold, the chaplain, who had accompanied her on her short walk, read the Lord’s Prayer. Anna then lay down and uttered a single moan as the executioner swung his axe, severing her head from her body in one motion. His assistant then lent down to pick the head up, displaying it to prove that justice had been served.

It was noted that Anna’s eyes remained open for several seconds after her death, and that her heart continued to pump blood; however, she was certainly dead, and the romantic retelling of her death ended with the more prosaic news that a professor from Lund claimed her body to use for the benefit of his medical students.

Anna was the last woman to be executed in Sweden; her son, Per, was released from prison in 1913, and died five years later.

Death of the Veiled Murderess

A depiction of the Veiled Murderess at her trial, taken from an account of her ‘life and confessions’ – from the Yale Law Library Flickr page

The British press in the 19th and early 20th centuries eagerly detailed accounts of women who killed. Unfortunately for them, there were relatively few British women convicted of more gruesome murders, so they had to look further afield for cases that were sufficiently gory or numerous to attract and entertain their readers. Cases from Rome and Paris were covered in depth, for example, and in 1905, the death of a particularly notorious American murderess was written about.

This was Mrs Henrietta Robinson, who had been convicted back in 1853 of poisoning two people with arsenic. Timothy Lanigan had been a neighbour of hers in Troy, New York. One night, he and his wife had hosted a dinner party at which both Mrs Robinson and a Catherine Lubin had attended. Their one guest had responded to their hospitality by killing both the male host and the other female guest.

Mrs Robinson attracted, and continued to attract, press attention not only because of her beauty and her refusal to behave by contemporary standards for women, but also because she consistently refused to tell anyone who she really was. Even during her trial, she had refused to remove her thick veil, leading to her becoming known as ‘The Veiled Murderess’. She was said to have only agreed to remove the veil once – and then only in a private cell, so that the jury could come and look at her.

Her argument had been, perversely, that she didn’t want any publicity – and that she would prefer death to having her face shown to others, including the press:

‘She was very handsome, but neither persuasion nor coercion could prevail upon her to unveil in open court.’

Even when she had agreed to show her face to the jury, she had first made efforts to thwart them, by  dressing a dummy as her and placing it in a chair. The jury came to see this ‘Veiled Murderess’ but when one of the jury members took offence at ‘her’ silence, he lifted the veil, to be greeted with a chuckle from underneath the cell’s bed. Mrs Robinson had hidden herself there to play a joke on the jury.

Her identity had long been the subject of much speculation, with the American ‘yellow press’ (as the British provincial press sniffily referred to it as) attempting to prove that she was the wife of a member of the British peerage.

The British press, in turn, argued that this ‘suggestion was entirely groundless’. It was one thing to eagerly report on this example of American lawlessness, but quite another to find a link to a member of the British peerage! Mrs Robinson, meanwhile, simply agreed that her name was an assumed one, but steadfastly refused to reveal her real name, even to her defence counsel.

Four decades after her conviction, a woman came forward to claim that Mrs Robinson was really Charlotte Wood, a schoolfriend of hers from New York State, the daughter of a Canadian merchant named William Wood, and one of four sisters, who spoke seven languages fluently.

The rest of the Wood family had a pact to deny that Charlotte was really a murderess, she claimed, but when rumours started swirling, got one of the other sisters to pose as Charlotte to ‘prove’ she couldn’t be a killer and be both in public and in jail at the same time.

The story was let down firstly by the inclusion of the ‘groundless’ story that the Veiled Murderess was married to an English peer – and the second fact that the informant hadn’t seen Charlotte Wood for a substantial amount of time, and had been told her ‘facts’ as a story from another friend. She even admitted that she had no idea how the Woods’ deception could have been achieved.

A view of Sing Sing prison

Although one other rumour was that Mrs Robinson had previously lived in Philadelphia, she had been convicted at Troy, and sent initially to Sing Sing prison – although one paper noted that two years after her conviction, Mrs Robinson had to be sent to the Matteawan lunatic asylum. Her identity continued to be a secret there, and she  also refused to say who the two people she had killed were – their names remained unknown to the authorities.

In prison, she had been allowed certain privileges not open to other convicts, such as being able to eat in private in her cell. It was only in 1873 that this privilege was revoked, on the grounds that it was ‘detrimental to discipline’ – presumably, other prisoners understandably took offence at this lady being treated better than them.

Some 44 years after her conviction, the Dundee Evening Telegraph reported that she had turned up in Troy in 1852, a ‘woman of wondrous beauty’ with lots of money, but no husband, children or friends. Yet it is clear that what had been ‘established’ was no more than the fact that this ‘strange, beautiful woman’ was something of a hermit, and had no desire for company.

When, a few days before her death in May 1905, it became clear that Mrs Robinson wasn’t going to recover, a curious physician at the asylum tried to find out the truth about this now elderly woman, but she refused to give him any information, ‘saying it should go to the grave with her.’

However, it was clear to the asylum staff that Mrs Robinson had some curious talents, as one obituary of her made clear:

‘In her old age, Mrs Robinson exhibited remarkable ingenuity in making exquisite lace, some good gloves, a pair of shoes, and even a set of false teeth out of buttons, which she wore for a long time.’

The Veiled Murderess died, presumably with her button-teeth in place, at the age of 89, her ability to generate headlines no less than fifty years earlier, when she was convicted of a double murder.

 

Sources: Huddersfield Chronicle, 13 September 1873; Dundee Evening Telegraph, 25 December 1897;  Cambridge Independent Press, 19 May 1905, p.5; The Salisbury Times, 19 May 1905

Petition regarding proposed archive charges

Further to my earlier post regarding Northamptonshire Archives‘ proposed restriction of ‘free access’ to its records, and a punitive charge of £35 per hour to visit it in the afternoon, Mary Ann Lund has set up a petition asking Northamptonshire County Council to reverse this decision.

You can sign the petition here – if you’re a historian, archivist or genealogist, or you are simply interested in our history and heritage and believe that everyone should be able to access archive documents regardless of their finances, do consider signing.

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