Criminal Historian

Working with dead people

Tag: child

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

 

Did this murder case really change the law?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

When the Wild Woman of the Mountains stole a child

From William Blake's illustrations for Dante's Inferno

From William Blake’s illustrations for Dante’s Inferno

Harriet Haines, or Hayes, was a ‘notorious’ character, known as the Wild Woman of Wales or the Wild Woman of the Mountains, who, since the late 1850s, had chosen to isolate herself from her community, living at the top of a mountain in Caernarfonshire.

She was originally from Ireland, and nobody knew how long she had lived in Wales. What was known, though, was that during summer, she camped at the top of the mountain, and at night, when everyone was in bed, she would climb down to the lowlands to steal fruit and vegetables from local people’s orchards, and milk their cows, thus enabling her to live for free – although at cost to those who were growing food and rearing cows for their own families’ sustenance.

In winter or cold weather, she would wander into other people’s houses – which were rather remote from each other- and ‘pretend’ to be mad. If she came across anyone weak-minded or old in the house, she would demand ‘the best food in the house’ and only exit when other family members came in.

One Wednesday morning in February 1866, it being very cold and wet, Harriet made her way down the mountain to Ty Newydd, Dolwyddelan, to warm herself in someone else’s house. She heard the family return, and hurriedly left the building – but on seeing a toddler playing at the door, grabbed it and made her way back towards the hilltop. Luckily, the child’s mother soon realised it was missing, and ran out to look for her two year old.

She found Harriet with the stranger’s child 200 yards away, but had to struggle with her to get the child from her. She immediately went for the police – which must itself have taken some time – and the nearest police constable located the Wild Woman at Bryn Eithin, near Capel Curig. She was taken to the lock-up at Llanrwst, ‘where she was safely lodged’.

Why did Harriet steal the child? Nobody seems to have asked this question – it was simply assumed that it was the kind of thing a mad hermit would do. Perhaps Harriet saw it as a bargaining tool – if the family gave her food, she would return the child – or maybe she was even lonely, and wanted someone to keep her company on her isolated mountain-top.

However, it seems that up to that point, there had been a fair amount of tolerance towards this woman, who refused to be part of the local community, yet needed its resources. It was only when she abducted a young child that she was finally seen to have crossed the line.

Tolerance was now in shorter supply. The following year, Harriet was described in the press as ‘an awful creature’ who illustrated the barbarity of Wales as a country (ironically, this was in a story repeated verbatim in an Irish newspaper – which completely missed the point that Harriet was herself Irish, not Welsh).

The area the Wild Woman was walking in 1867

The area the Wild Woman was walking in 1867

It was noted that she had twice been ‘captured’  and that she had now ‘been finally run down’ by the local community. A large group of locals got together after having spotted Harriet near Llanfairfechan, and attempted to chase her. A police constable was at the head, and he eventually found this dangerous and awful woman… fast asleep on a mountain that led from Caerhun to Rowen.

The constable woke her up, and at 2am one Friday morning in late July 1867, brought her to the lock-up. At this point, she told him that she thought she had been excommunicated by the Pope and ordered to live a solitary life on the mountain for ten years. However, she now found herself ordered to live in the confines of Caernarfon Gaol for the next month.

On her release, Harriet returned to her former ways, but was still not left alone. In 1881, now ‘aged and decrepit’, she was discovered by another police constable, PC Humphreys, sleeping in an outbuilding on the side of the Llanfairfechan mountain. It was January, and she was half-covered in snow.

She was charged with this offence, and PC Humphreys’ superior, Inspector Hughes, said at Bangor Police Court that to his knowledge, she had been ‘wandering about the mountains’ for years, and that in November 1879, she had been sent to gaol for 14 days for again sleeping in an outbuilding. Apparently, even though she was now an old woman, she usually slept in ‘holes’ on the mountainside, and only ventured down when the weather was simply too bad to stay outside.

When asked to explain herself, she said,

“When I’m up in the mountains, I am almost as far as God; but they won’t let me be near God. They bring me down to this earth again.”

The newspapers felt that this simple statement was evidence that Harriet was of weak intellect; the magistrate, Reverend D Evans, said that it was clear that Harriet would be ‘better off’ in gaol, dispatching her there for another 14 days. Perhaps this was a sympathetic approach – for in gaol, Harriet would at least be warmer (if not warm – Victorian gaols not being known for their luxuries) and out of the snow.

Sources: Carnarvon Herald, undated, but repeated in Freeman’s Journal, 16 February 1866 and Wrexham and Denbighshire Advertiser, 17 February 1866; Oswestry Advertiser, undated, but repeated in Saunders’s News-Letter, Dublin, 5 August 1867; North Wales Chronicle, 15 January 1881.

 

 

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