Criminal Historian

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Mrs Bryant’s execution: a study in class, sex and gender

Early coverage of the case in the Sunderland Daily Echo of 1 January 1936

Many murder cases of the late 19th and early 20th centuries continue to be famous – or infamous – today, with books devoted to them, and television programmes salivating at titillating facts surrounding the cases. In many cases, the attraction of these murders perhaps lies, at least partly, in the fact that photographs survive of the protagonists in these stories. Photos of murderers and their victims bring a case to life, helping us picture who these individuals were, and why they might have done what they did.

Perhaps that also helps explain the relative obscurity of one case that grabbed the headlines in 1936. In the case of Charlotte Bryant, the case should have had a lasting impact on our consciousness. She was young – 33 – when she was hanged for murder on 15 July. She was that rare thing, a female murderer, and she had killed her husband after becoming dissatisfied with her marriage and starting an affair with her lodger.

And yet, she does not feature in many books or television programmes today – there is only the odd local newspaper story that occasionally brings up her story, and even Wikipedia remains silent when it comes to her.

In part, I think, that is because there are no photos of Charlotte; during her trial, it was noted that she turned her head away, or covered it up, when she saw the press photographers gathering like vultures; and also, her trial was not at the Old Bailey, but in the relatively isolated south-west, at the Dorchester Assizes, her hanging taking place at Exeter Gaol. There may have been fewer resources, fewer available photographers, or fewer willing to travel to Dorset and to Devon to attempt an image of this murderess than in London.

The other factor in this case that may have affected press coverage then and now was class. Charlotte was an illiterate, working-class woman, married to a humble cowman, and having an affair with a traveller – a gypsy, in the contemporary parlance. She was a mother of five young children, having been married young, and without a decent education.

As a working-class, poorly educated woman from south-west England, she was not a romantic figure, but a rather plain one to the press and public. Unlike Alma Rattenbury, acquitted of her husband’s murder a year earlier, pictured emerging from court in full length fur coat, she was not moneyed or glamorous. She was what she was: a poor woman who had poisoned her husband with weedkiller when the romance – if there had ever been any – had died, and she felt stifled by the monotony and grinding poverty of her life.

*

It was on 5 October 1922 that Charlotte McHugh married Frederick John Bryant in Somerset. She was just 19 years old, a migrant from Derry in Northern Ireland, now making a home in south-west England. Left at home in Derry were her parents, John and Sarah; now she was taking on Frederick’s family, who were based in the Sherborne area of Dorset. Her new husband, born in Sherborne, was a few years older than her, being 25 at the time of their marriage. He would be dead before 40.

Children soon arrived: Ernest Samuel in the winter of 1923; Lily Elizabeth two years later, George Alfred in 1928, William John in 1931, and Edwin Frederick in the winter of 1934.

My sympathies at this point are very much with Charlotte; a girl born in Northern Ireland in the early 20th century, good looking but without an education, who was brought up in a society where women were supposed to look good and get married, raise children, and to not expect much more than that.

She was brought up in an area where British soldiers – who may have represented something ‘exotic’ to local girls – roamed near Republicans; and where a young, attractive girl who got the attention of the soldiers might also cause resentment amongst others.

Modern coverage of Charlotte’s case has focused on her sexuality; Richard Clark, who runs the Capital Punishment UK website, has described her as having capturing the heart of her husband while he was serving as a military policeman in the Dorset Regiment. He is described positively as a ‘simple country lad’, yet Clark describes Charlotte, after their marriage, in the following terms:

Charlotte was very highly sexed and soon became bored with village life [in Dorset], compared to the excitement of life around the Londonderry barracks, with plenty of attentive and free spending soldiers and a good sex life. She didn’t work as such and spent her days drinking and indulging in a little prostitution – one feels as much for the sex as for the money.

This echoes coverage both in the early years of the 20th  century and since in terms of ascribing to any criminal behaviour on the part of women as being due to excessive and thus dangerous sexuality. There is also clearly a double standard; many men of the time would have engaged in casual sex – indeed, they were encouraged to sow their seed young, before marrying – but women were castigated for any similar behaviour, and it is often used later to demonstrate early signs of criminality or deviancy.

Charlotte is here described as spending her days drinking, when authors such as Clark freely admit that social life in a Dorset village at this time would have centred around the local pub, and so drinking would have been a common occupation for both men and women, and certainly not just for Charlotte.

Charlotte’s husband does not seem the epitome of respectability either, in terms of his alleged approval of possible casual prostitution; according to Clark, he told a neighbour that her earnings this way were substantially better than his own wages as a cowman.

And money must have been fairly tight for them (which suggests that Charlotte was not regularly soliciting, if at all); they took in lodgers, and in 1933, a horse trader and gypsy named Leonard Parsons became the family lodger. Charlotte started an affair with Leonard, and the menage a trois caused, unsurprisingly, occasional conflict, and suggestions that the relationship was one-sided, with Charlotte far more interested in Parsons than he was in her.

Headline in the Coventry Evening Telegraph of 27 May 1936

Whatever the truth of this relationship, Frederick Bryant died on 23 December 1935, after several suspicious spells of illness over the course of the previous six months. He was found to have been poisoned by arsenic – a popular ingredient in weedkiller.

Charlotte was charged with murder, whilst she was being housed in the Sturminster Newton Poor Law Institution (workhouse), where she and her children had been taken after Frederick’s death to help avoid public and press attention – although it seems that this move would have been inevitable anyway, given her and her husband’s meagre household income.

Her trial, at the Dorset Assizes in May 1936, saw Leonard Parsons commit the ultimate betrayal of his former lover, detailing their sex life, and encouraging the jury to see her as a woman who had committed adultery and thus was disloyal towards her husband. Two of her children – Ernest and Lily – were also called to give evidence against their own mother; evidence that damned in describing how their mother may have owned and used bottle of poison.

Charlotte was convicted of murder, and sentenced to death. An appeal failed, and she was sent to Exeter jail to await her execution. During the six weeks she spent here, she received more of an education than she had ever been given before, being taught to read and write by female warders. She was finally hanged on 15 July 1936.

There were no winners in her case; she only left five shillings to her children, and they were now left orphaned and destitute. They were taken into the care of the county council, becoming the legal wards of the Dorset Public Assistance Committee. (Sheffield Independent, 18 July 1936) At this time, they were aged between 18 months old and 12 years.

Richard Clark has stated that Charlotte’s ‘lowly status and acknowledged promiscuity’ may have influenced the decision to carry out the death sentence against her, rather than commute it or allow her appeal. But he then goes on to write,

Sadly, Britain was very much a class ridden society in 1936 and Charlotte was virtually at the bottom of the social pile – an illiterate, immoral slut.

No trial report described her as an ‘illiterate, immoral slut’ and I feel this is Clarke’s own interpretation of how he thinks 1930s England would have seen her, rather than actually what did happen. In describing her thus, however unintentionally, he reiterates the view that being interested in sex makes a woman a ‘slut’.

No press coverage of the trial or its aftermath that I can find refers to Charlotte as engaging in promiscuity or prostitution; indeed, the focus is on her status as a mother, desperate to see her children and check that they are being looked after, as she awaits first her trial, and then her execution.

Looking at the coverage of Charlotte’s case from the time, then, there is a more sympathetic, more nuanced, tone than Clarke takes. For example, on the morning of her execution, she was described as making a ‘despairing last-minute plea to the King’ via telegram, repeated in full in the Birmingham Daily Gazette, in which she refers to herself as the King’s ‘lowly, afflicted subject’. Rather than being depicted as a ‘slut’, she is simply ‘Mrs Charlotte Bryant, the 33-year-old mother of five children’. (Birmingham Daily Gazette, 15 July 1936)

Even when allegations were made about Charlotte’s life, it was as a transcription of what someone had said in court – for example, when the Sheffield Independent stated that Parsons ‘was the father of the appellant’s [Charlotte’s] last child’, it was directly quoting Lord Hewart, in announcing that Charlotte’s appeal was being dismissed, when he summed up what the murder case was about. (Sheffield Independent, 30 June 1936) There was a factual tone, rather than a condemning one.

In addition, when, in court, attempts had been made to highlight that Charlotte had been Parsons’ mistress, the Solicitor General had stopped them, ascerbically commenting, “You are not a court of morals.” (Coventry Evening Telegraph, 27 May 1936)

Although Charlotte’s affair was brought up in court, it was not done so to depict her as a slut, or as an evil woman, but mentioned as part of a prosecution case to suggest that because Charlotte was in a relationship with Parsons, in love with him, and wanted to marry him, she was motivated to kill her husband. Killing him would enable her to marry her lover. This would be a common motive for murder, and thus an obvious approach for the prosecution to take. (see Coventry Evening Telegraph, 27 May 1936)

Charlotte’s class is, to me, more of a factor in how she was treated. She was unable to read or write; she had to have it explained to her what an ‘inquest’ was.  During her trial, she had to ask the prison wardresses to help explain procedure to her.

She suffered from a lack of education that gave her no prospects, and yet she was clearly an intelligent woman in that she wanted more than she knew she could get within the confines of Northern Irish or Dorset rural society; when given the opportunity to improve herself in jail, she made the most of it, taking only a short amount of time to learn to write letters; and she surprised the court when she appeared on the stand and gave a coherent, strong account of her actions.

The coverage of her execution in the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette made no mention of her sex life, but focused on her lack of education; in the hour before her death, she had received the Sacraments in her cell:

‘During those last moments on earth, this uneducated and illiterate woman, who had never been taught to read or write or spell, recalled the faith which she learned when a child attending the Roman Catholic Sunday School in her native Ireland, and she murmured the responses to the Litanies in a low voice.’ (Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 17 July 1936)

My conclusion is that Charlotte had indeed killed her husband; she had made comments to friends that she disliked her husband, and was in love with Parsons – but could not face simply running away with her lover because she did not want to leave her children. If her husband lived, he would keep the children; so he had to die, in order for her to have both lover and loved children.

Her honesty and straightforward nature, however, hanged her:  she made it obvious that she was ‘forcing’ her husband to drink poisoned Oxo, at one point, and telling people, “I hate Fred” before bemoaning her plight, saying about another local woman, “She is lucky. She has not got a husband.” (Leeds Mercury, 28 May 1936).

But it’s not true that the jury convicted Charlotte because she was immoral, or a slut, or because they thought she was a prostitute. The most they appear to have heard in court was that she was the mistress of Parsons, who may have fathered her youngest child, if gossip was to have been believed. This appears to have been the only sexually-related gossip about Charlotte that was heard in court.

She was convicted, though, because the evidence against her was overwhelming. She had talked about her hatred of her husband, and her wish to not be married to him. She had spoken of her desire to run away with Parsons; she also feared that his feelings towards her had cooled. She was known to have had bottle of what could be weedkiller and arsenic; even her children said so. And she had been insistent on her husband drinking and eating certain food and drink even when he was ill and reluctant to do so. It was evidence such as this that convicted Charlotte, and the jury had even been warned not to act as a court of morals, but as a court of law.

Charlotte’s case frustrates me, because it seems that where it is written about in recent times, it focuses on rumours or speculation about her sex life, and assumes bias or prejudice on the part of her contemporaries towards her sexuality. In fact, in looking  at press coverage from the actual time, it appears that her life may not have been as salacious as some sources might suggest, or if it was, then that was not something that was brought up in court, covered in the press, or used to convict her of murder. It was one specific relationship that was focused on, and that was in order to build a convincing motive as to why she might have killed.

So it seems that some of the biases against female murderers such as Charlotte are not necessarily of their time, but of our own; we assume that our forebears must have demonstrated prejudice against certain lifestyles, and we assume that those convicted of crime must be more interesting than, perhaps, they were. Charlotte may have been a working-class woman who took a drastic, ill thought out action because she thought she was in love; but that did not make her a slut or a prostitute, then or now.

 

CHARLOTTE’S CHILDREN

The wealthy London anti-capital punishment campaigner Mrs Violet Van Der Elst was reported as being keen to adopt all five children, although it seems that she only wanted to send them to a convent abroad for their education. She was concerned that going into council care would condemn the children to the same lowly life as their mother: ‘The County Council have no right to take these children. They are going to be taken to awful homes, and there is nothing worse.’ (Sheffield Independent, 18 July 1936).

She later told a reporter that she would find the children foster parents, and would pay for their maintenance and education; in addition, she would start a fund, giving it an initial £50,000, to ‘provide for the children of people who have been murdered or executed’ (Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 17 July 1936).

Before Charlotte had been executed, there had been an attempt by the NSPCC to take the children to one of their homes, but Charlotte had refused permission via her solicitor, wanting them to stay near to her geographically. She had presumably hoped, at this point, that she would be freed to take back the care of her family. (Gloucestershire Echo, 11 February 1936)

After Charlotte’s death, an inquest was carried out to ensure that she had been ‘judicially and humanely executed’. The prison governor had suggested that the coroner’s jury might wish to donate their fees to the Discharged Prisoners’ Aid Society; when the jurors expressed a wish, instead, to give their fees to Charlotte’s five children, they were discouraged; the coroner stated that the fees were only small, and that ‘provision had already been made for the care of the children’. (Northern Whig, 16 July 1936)

Mrs Van Der Elst had stated that she wanted the children to be educated abroad ‘to that the circumstances of their parents’ death with never be known to them’, although the eldest children must have known about what had happened; especially as Charlotte had requested to see them whilst being held in prison, and that request had been granted.

 

 

Sources:

Marriages, 1922, 5c 971; deaths Jun 1936, Sherborne – Frederick J Bryant, 39 – 5a 367; born Dec 1897 Sherborne, 5a 319).  [births for Ernest S Bryant, Frome, Dec 1923, 5c 585; Lily E Bryant, Frome, 5c 533; George A Bryant, Sherborne 5a 474; William J Bryant, Sherborne, 5a 467; Edwin F Bryant, Sherborne, 5a 426, all listed as having a mother whose maiden name was McHugh or MacHugh).

Discussing ‘The Cult of the Criminal’ in Victorian England

Coverage of the Richmond Murder, from the Illustrated Police News of 26 April 1879

I was in London yesterday, firstly to do some research at the London Metropolitan Archives (my visit there being slightly later than originally intended, both due to an impromptu lunch with a friend in Chelsea, and due to the lovely autumnal weather meaning I made the perhaps rash decision to walk from Chelsea to Clerkenwell rather than getting the tube, which would have been quicker).

However, I had also booked to listen to Anne-Marie Kilday give a talk on a female criminal ‘celebrity’ later at the Guildhall Library. Anne-Marie, who is professor of criminal history at Oxford Brookes University, has been conducting some fascinating research into the ‘cult of the criminal’, using criminology professor Yvonne Jewkes‘ research into contemporary cases to see if this ‘cult’ is really a modern phenomenon, or whether Jewkes’ categorisation of what makes a case ‘newsworthy’ can be equally applied to 19th century cases.

Kilday has been focusing on one particular historic case, that of Kate Webster, the ‘Richmond murderer’ who killed her female employer in 1879, to assess why she received so many column inches compared to other contemporaneous cases.

A chapter on Kate Webster appears here, and I highly recommend the book as a whole

Although I won’t spoil her research by detailing it too much here – if you want to read more about it, get Law, Crime and Deviance since 1700, edited by both Kilday and David Nash, as it contains a chapter about the case (which is a great read) – it’s clear that the Webster case had several elements that made it particularly attractive for the press, and an attention-grabber for the rather gory-minded Victorian public.

It involved both a female perpetrator and a female victim, and a level of violence that was unusual in a woman (or certainly perceived as being unusual). As Kilday noted last night, there was little press focus on the victim, Julia Martha Thomas – she was a widow, there was a hint that she may not have been a particularly great employer, but otherwise, she was sidelined in favour of hundred of articles focusing on Webster’s past and present.

And so this focus on Webster created an image of her as a (somewhat warped) kind of celebrity. It helped that she was an outsider in more than one way – she was an Irish immigrant during a time of significant anti-Irish sentiment; she was a woman; she was working-class. She was a complex individual – in some ways, something of a mystery, with a disputed backstory.

The attendance for Anne-Marie’s talk – and the many questions from the audience afterwards – shows the enduring interest we have in criminals and criminality

After she was hanged for murder, souvenir editions of newspapers relating to the case, and to her, were published, full of illustrations showing her in various parts of her own story. She even became a Madame Tussaud’s waxwork.

In researching Kate Webster’s case so thoroughly, Anne-Marie has convincingly shown that the cult of the criminal – the turning of such a criminal into a celebrity – is not a modern phenomenon. From gaol-breaker Jack Sheppard, whose exploits were lapped up in the early 18th century, and who continues to be written about today, we have always been grimly fascinated by those who transgress (in relation to studies of 18th century ‘criminal celebrities’, look at the work of Bob Shoemaker and Heather Shore in this area).

The difference by late Victorian times was that there was an expanding press with more and more pages to fill, a rise in sensationalism (from sensation novels and penny dreadfuls, to an increasingly tabloid-style of reporting in the press), and a love of the Gothic. These factors helped create the modern criminal celebrity, of which Kate Webster was an enduring example.

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.

Where Dr Crippen’s nemesis lies

Dr Crippen, from Wikimedia Commons

At the top of a windswept hill in Somerset, overlooking Brean Down one way, and the built-up bay of Weston-super-Mare to the right, is the small, appropriately-named, church of St Nicholas Uphill. It can be seen from the marshes, an isolated little building clinging to its hilltop like lichen.

The churchyard is small; on a bitingly cold, windy, January day it takes some time to reach, clambering up a muddy path (not a formal route, but one trodden into the grassy hill by previous ramblers) and slipping back a few times, while the wind forces tears from one’s eyes.

One might expect the relatively few graves here to be of Somerset folk who lived fairly quiet lives, but, in fact, there are several fascinating ones, from a man ‘killed’ (the gravestone fails to record how) to another who failed to come back from the battle of Passchendaele in World War 1.

But this is the most interesting find for a criminal historian, set near the back of the churchyard, with a vista of sea and marsh behind.

This is the final resting place of Frank Castle Froest, a former superintendent of CID at Scotland Yard. His obituary, on 7 January 1930, summarises why his achievements belie his quiet grave:

“Mr Froest was one of the most famous officers of his time, and established for himself an international reputation. It was while Mr Froest was Superintendent of the CID of Scotland Yard that the North London Police under his direction began the inquiries which led to the discovery of the few human fragments, which were subsequently identified as part of the body of Mrs Crippen.

Later [in 1910], Mr Froest received information from a liner in mid-Atlantic that Dr Crippen, with the young woman, Miss [Ethel] Le Neve, dressed as a boy, was believed to be on board, this being the first occasion that wireless had been used to effect the arrest of a criminal.

Mr Frost immediately communicated with the Canadian police, and he sent a detective-inspector by a faster boat, and Dr Crippen and Miss Le Neve were brought back to England, the former being tried at the Old Bailey, and hanged for the murder of his wife by the administration of a deadly poison, hyoscine.” (Lancashire Evening Post, 7 January 1930)

Froest, a Freemason, was also famous for arresting politician and fraudster Jabez Balfour in the early 1890s, having smuggled him onto a British ship in South America, and then charging him with fraud. He ‘specialised’ in dealing with confidence tricksters, including ‘Continental gangs of swindlers’, and on retiring, he became a magistrate and county alderman.

He retired two years after Crippen’s execution, the king, George V, commenting:

“Goodbye, Mr Froest, and Godspeed. The detective and police organisation in which you have served so long is, in my opinion, the best in the world.” (Western Gazette, 10 January 1930)

Frank moved to Weston-super-Mare, although he continued to travel – including trips to Algeria and Indonesia in the 1920s, by which time he was living at 2 Uphill Road, near the church where he would be buried in 1930. The records of the Old Bailey record his frequent presence

Frank was 73 when he died; his gravestone, placed at the top of the hill by his daughter [possibly Mabel, named in his will], ends with words that sum up his busy, exciting, dangerous, work for the CID in the late 19th and early 20th centuries:

“Fight the good fight.”

For more on Frank Froest’s career at Scotland Yard, the Old Bailey Online website records him as a witness in several trials from the 1880s onwards.

The condemned miner with a Jesus complex

From press coverage of Dunn's speech at the Durham Assizes

From press coverage of Dunn’s speech at the Durham Assizes

John Thomas Dunn, a 52 year old miner, was not looking forward to the new year. He knew that once 1927 turned into 1928, his days were literally numbered, for on Friday 7 January, he would die.

It was the peak of the Roaring Twenties; flappers were frenetically dancing the Charleston, and the bright young things were enjoying life. Many were enjoying the glamour of the movies, watching the silent film stars pout and preen on cinema screens – perhaps with a bit of awareness that, for some, their careers would not last much longer, for The Jazz Singer, a ‘talkie‘ had been released in October 1927, and once sound arrived for good, those whose voices were deemed unattractive would have to find other careers.

But this was all a world away for Dunn. He was an unemployed  miner in the north-east, living at Sacriston in Co Durham. Sacriston had been home to a colliery since 1838; by the end of the 19th century, it had employed 600 local men. In 1903, it had seen a mining disaster, when water flooded the mine, killing two men.

Dunn, who had previously worked at this colliery, had married Ada Elizabeth Stokes in her hometown of Gateshead back in 1903, and the couple had had several children over the next two decades. Ada was eight years her husband’s junior, having only been around 20 years old when she married.

On 25 September 1927, though, Dunn had raised the alarm, shouting that his 44-year-old wife had committed suicide. However, during a subsequent trial, it was argued that he had actually strangled Mrs Dunn and then hanged up her body up with a rope to make it look like she had killed herself.

It was widely known that the Dunns had not been happily married, and, in fact, a week before her death, Ada Dunn had left her husband and returned home to her mother in Gateshead. But at his trial, which took place at the Durham Assizes, damning evidence came from two of the Dunns’ children.

Richard Dunn, aged 11, stated that when he had gone to bed on the night of the death, he heard his parents quarrelling, a stool overturning, and then a choking noise. The couple’s married daughter, Ada Walsh, then stated that John had tried to strangle her mother some years earlier.

When he was found guilty, on 15 November, Dunn had lost his usual self-control (it was noted that he had spent the trial watching what was going on with ‘keen attentiveness’, and often making notes that he would then pass to his counsel). He shouted out, passionately, making an emotional and sometimes manic speech, that started with his former chequered career in the army:

“I did not intend to go only to protect my country, but to protect my family. I was discharged under a false colour; I went back again, and said I had never been in. That was the courage of a man. I left the army twice with a character. It is easy for a man to get a bad name; it is easy for a dog never to carry a name of goodness once its name is bad.

“I have carried the burden of my children. I had a little girl blind. No one could have done more for her, and I thank God today through hard work and toil she can see. If she was standing beside me now she would give me a kiss of joy. I do not say I had a deceitful wife all through my life. She carried, like me, a weakness. It is a pity we ever met. She was led by other women, and she found that her friends were her enemies. Many times I suffered weakness, and when I went to the doctor with my suffering, I never told him the thing I was suffering from. I said to him, ‘For God’s sake, do not put down heart complaint, or else I will be done for work.'”

He then started talking of God, in an increasingly disjointed way, before ending:

“My children, I appeal for you today. When Christ was crucified He looked up and said, ‘Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.’ I forgive my children because they know not. God help them; God help me.”

The death sentence was then passed against him. A woman in the gallery immediately fainted and had to be carried out; one of Dunn’s sons, a little boy, ran out of the court into the street outside, shouting, “My father is to be hanged!” A policeman had to run after him and bring him back to the court.

gordon_hewart_1st_viscount_hewart

Lord Hewart, the Lord Chief Justice

Dunn had appealed his conviction, before the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Hewart, asking to call further evidence, but this appeal was dismissed at the Court of Appeal on 12 December. He had been trying to claim a defence of insanity; however, Lord Hewart, in giving judgement, pointed out that the original defence had been that no murder had been committed, and that Mrs Dunn had killed herself – so how could Dunn now be claiming insanity as a defence?

One newspaper stated that the execution was originally set for 29 December; however, another stated that it would ‘probably take place in the first week of January’, and this, in the event, is what happened.

On the evening of Thursday 5 January, members of the Dunn family arrived at Durham Gaol to visit their condemned relative. Somewhat surprisingly, they found him upbeat – in fact, one later said, he was ‘the most cheerful member of the party’.

He was still declaring his innocence, using the common excuse that his memory of the night his wife died was ‘blank’ – he had no memory, apparently, of anything that had happened prior to cutting his wife’s body down from behind his kitchen door.

“I would prefer death to a living tomb,” he commented, hating the idea of a long sentence in jail; his family commented that he “betrayed not the slightest concern as to his fate”.

Instead, he told them about a ‘curious experience’ he had had during his time in the condemned cell.

“A thrush fell through the window, and I found it had a broken wing. I tended it and healed the wing. The bird stayed in the cell for about a week, then one morning it flew away, leaving me feeling very lonely.”

Dunn was soon to feel lonely again, as his relatives were told to leave. They were not allowed to shake his hand as they left, and so left feeling somewhat aggrieved. Dunn, though, simply sat in his cell after their departure, writing letters.

A press headline regarding Dunn's 'wounded bird' story

A press headline regarding Dunn’s ‘wounded bird’ story

On the morning of Friday 6 January, he woke early, and had a light breakfast. He then ‘walked firmly to the scaffold’, which had been built only a few paces from his cell. A small crowd had gathered outside the prison, and keenly read the official notice of his execution when it was put up; executioner Pierpoint had done an efficient job.

There one particularly interesting point about this particular case. Dunn was a working-class man, unemployed, and poor; when he first appeared on remand in court charged with wilful murder, he had to ask for legal assistance, and was granted it under the terms of the Poor Persons Act. A local firm of solicitors, Ferens, Burrell, Carpenter and Swinburne, offered to take on the case. He was certainly keenly interested in how the trial progressed, and wanted to contribute to his solicitors’ work; yet how aware was he really as to the danger he was in, and did Mr Ferens, who represented him, employ the right defence at the original trial?

For Dunn’s passionate speech after conviction  – and his tale about the wounded bird – could also be read as the rambling speeches of an insane man. The press clearly saw his trial speech as an unusual occurrence, but focused in on his forgiveness of his children for giving evidence against him. Yet by comparing himself to Jesus in such a rambling way, by talking about parts of his former life that did not present himself in a good light, or that were not relevant, his speech departed from being simply about forgiving others, and went into stranger territory.

It seems not only that insanity should have been used as his initial defence, but that it might have succeeded. Instead, whether on his solicitor’s advice, or because he insisted on it, John Dunn continued to maintain that his wife had killed herself – and once the jury had decided otherwise, Dunn had, in effect, tied that noose around his neck himself.

Sources:

Western Daily Press, 16 November 1927

Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail, 13 December 1927

Durham Chronicle, 16 December 1927

Fife Free Press, 7 January 1928

 

 

 

On the trail of Amelia Dyer

I’m delighted to welcome Angela Buckley back to Criminal Historian, for a guest post about the subject of her new book…

Amelia Dyer, photographed on arrest in April 1896 (Credit: Thames Valley Police Museum)

Amelia Dyer, photographed on arrest in April 1896 (Credit: Thames Valley Police Museum)

After living in Manchester and London, I finally settled for a quieter life in the leafy village of Caversham, on the edge of Reading. However, little did I know that I was living close to the spot where a Victorian serial killer had disposed of the bodies of her tiny victims in the river Thames. The story of infamous baby farmer Amelia Dyer is tightly woven into Reading’s history and so I set out to piece together the details of her gruesome crimes.

I began my investigation from the first shocking discovery on this tranquil stretch of the Thames in the spring of 1896. On 30 March, a bargeman was towing a boat of ballast up the river when he spotted a brown paper parcel near to King’s Meadow, a recreation ground near to the Huntley and Palmer biscuit factory. He and his mate dragged the package towards the shore. They unravelled the damp parcel and cut through layers of flannel to reveal a child’s foot. The victim was a baby girl aged between six months and one year. She had been strangled with a piece of white tape that was tied around her neck and knotted under her left ear. Faint writing on the sodden package led the Reading Borough Police to local baby farmer, Amelia Dyer. I followed the story through the sensational headlines and graphic descriptions in the Berkshire Chronicle, just as the horrified Victorian residents would have done.

After running her baby farming business for some 30 years in Bristol, Amelia Dyer moved to Reading in 1895. Advertising in the local papers, she offered to look after children for a fee, usually five shillings a week, or £10 for a one-off adoption. Throughout her time in Reading she received a number of infants and older children into her household, which she shared with Jane ‘Granny’ Smith, an elderly woman whom she had met in the workhouse.

Nurse children were often neglected, drugged with laudanum and even starved to death, but Dyer was an even more heartless practitioner. When the bodies of babies Doris Marmon and Harry Simmons were found strangled in a submerged carpet bag, Chief Constable Tewsley of the Reading Police had enough evidence to build a case against her.

The Clappers Bridge, near Caversham weir, where the infants’ bodies were found.

The Clappers Bridge, near Caversham weir, where the infants’ bodies were found.

It has been an emotional experience following the trail of one of Britain’s most prolific serial killers. I have re-traced her steps along the pathways of the Thames, which have barely changed in just over a century. Overgrown with bushes and with dark, shady spots, it’s easy to imagine Dyer making her way after dark to the Clappers bridge to drop the babies’ bodies in the weir.

I have passed the two houses where she lived and I’ve been into Reading Prison, where she was held during her trials at the police court. I have discovered new information about the police officers investigating the case, including the invention of a special telescope that they used to scour the riverbed for bodies.

I have read some of Dyer’s original letters, in which she paints a picture of a cosy home waiting to receive a much-wanted adopted child. And even more chillingly, I have seen the photographs taken in 1896 of Dyer and her accomplice, son-in-law Arthur Ernest Palmer, as well as the images of the two fragile corpses of Doris Marmon and Harry Simmons.

This case, together with the convictions of other Victorian baby farmers, contributed to the gradual implementation of child protection legislation for fostered and adopted children. It is not known how many infants perished at Dyer’s hands, but it is likely to have been hundreds. Despite the tragic aspects of this dark story, I have been grateful for an opportunity to shine some light into the sinister world of Victorian baby farming and the plight of its tragic victims.

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Amelia Dyer and the Baby Farm Murders by Angela Buckley is available in ebook and paperback via Amazon and other online retail outlets.

You can find out more about Angela’s work on her website, angelabuckleywriter.com.

My review of Amelia Dyer and the Baby Farm Murders will be published in the June issue of Your Family History magazine (on sale 10 May).

Torture and the ‘Travelling Hangman’

Photo 28-03-2016, 12 46 41In the 1730s, an inventory of items in the care of gaolers Richard Hoey and Thomas Manning was taken at Wicklow Gaol. Amongst the items recorded were 11 pairs of handcuffs, two neck yokes, five yoke shackles, and six pairs of manacles (source: Lane Poole Collection, National Library of Ireland). These items do not fully illustrate the extent to which torture was employed at the gaol, however.

Wicklow Historic Gaol records that the torture of its prisoners was ‘very common’ in the 18th century, and included flogging, mutilation, ironing, the stocks and branding. Men and women, adults and children, were all subject to torture.

Another grotesque method of torture was ‘half-hanging’, whereby a rope would be tightened around a victim’s neck and then, when the individual lost consciousness, the rope would be loosened. Once the prisoner had regained consciousness, the rope would again be tightened. Anne Devlin, the housekeeper of rebel leader Robert Emmet, was subject to this in 1803.

Wicklow also employed a notorious character known as ‘The Walking Gallows’ or ‘The Travelling Hangman’. This was Lieutenant Hempenstall, a seven foot tall militiaman who was employed by various gaols as an executioner. However, he was also a torturer – he was famed for taking an instant dislike to certain members of the local poor, and would put a noose around their necks and ‘merely fling them over his shoulder and hang them across his back until they were dead’.

Photo 28-03-2016, 12 49 02Hempenstall was particularly feared as he refused to accept bribes  – so condemned prisoners knew that he was their executioner, they had no chance of bribing him to avoid their deaths.

Torture was considered so much a part of prison life at Wicklow that today, one cell has been recreated as a torture cell; here, visitors can ‘watch’ a prisoner being flogged, whilst blood splatters across the walls both inside and outside the cell. In a neighbouring cell, instruments of torture are laid out, making it clear how barbaric the treatment of prisoners in the past could really be.

The third of my blog posts on Wicklow Gaol, on life for female prisoners, will be published on Friday. For more information on the Gaol, see its website here.

 

 

Killing off the pirates – ‘dead, dead, dead’

I’ve written before about pirates – and posted a short video-slideshow thingy on Vimeo about them. I’m fascinated by piracy, and by the history of Execution Dock in Wapping and its association with piracy. For anyone wanting to know about about this area of history, I’d heartily recommend the Museum of London Docklands‘ exhibition (complete with gibbet); but here’s another fascinating piece of history on Twitter today:

Naval and maritime historian Sam Willis posted this 18th century death warrant – dated 5 April 1722 – that condemns eight men to be ‘hanged by the neck till you are Dead, Dead, Dead’.

Black Bart's memorial stone, photographed by John Baiden.

Black Bart’s memorial stone, photographed by John Baiden.

These men were Bartholomew Roberts‘ crew members. Roberts (1682-1722) was a Welsh pirate who, after his death, became known as Black Bart.

Roberts died in a battle between two ships – HMS Swallow and the pirates’ ship, the Royal Fortune. His men were still drunk from an earlier victory over the Neptune ship, and may not have been much help to the Welshman. Whilst stood on deck, he was killed by grapeshot, and thrown overboard by his crew – Bart had wanted to be buried at sea.

As a result of the battle, 54 men were condemned to death – two were reprieved, but the other 52 were hanged. One crew member, John Philips (not the pirate John Phillips, who was hanged in Boston two years later), had tried to blow the pirates’  ship up by lighting the magazine with a match, but was prevented by two other men.

The warrant pictured was signed at Cape Coast Castle, a Swedish-built castle in Ghana. It was a commercial fort, which became capital of British possessions on the Gold Coast in the late 17th century. However, it was also a ‘slave castle, used for slave trading. Of the men captured by the Royal Navy after Black Bart’s death, 65 were black and sold into slavery.

However, the death of the ‘unbeatable’ Black Bart was seen as the beginning of the end of the Golden Age of Piracy. Although pirates continued to be hanged, it could be argued that none captured the imagination in quite the same way as Black Bart.

Sam Willis’s new series, Britain’s Outlaws: Highwaymen, Pirates and Rogues, continues on BBC Four tonight.

 

Where an executioner’s experiment was laid to rest

Fred's resting place (© Criminal Historian)

Fred’s resting place (© Criminal Historian)

In the shadow of the Lucy Tower of Lincoln Castle – site of the city’s Georgian and Victorian prisons – is what looks like a peaceful garden. Enclosed by medieval walls, with several trees casting shade over the grass, it is a peaceful environment.

Yet look closer, and you’ll see several small stone markers dotted around. Some are bare, their inscriptions having never existed, or being erased by the wind and rain over time. Others are still clear, though; initials, and a date. For this is the final resting place of many of the criminals who were hanged at the castle in the 19th century.

One of the most clear stones records the initials WFH, and marks the grave of William Frederick Horry. Fred Horry was a nasty character, who has gone down in history as the first person to be hanged by Victorian executioner William Marwood.

Born in 1843 in Boston, Lincolnshire, he was married at the age of 23 to Jane, but the marriage was not happy. They ran a Staffordshire hotel together, but within five years of the marriage, they had separated amidst allegations of alcoholism (on Fred’s part) and adultery (on Jane’s part).

Jane returned to Boston with their children, whilst William stayed in Staffordshire. He tried to see his family, but was abusive, and forbidden from seeing his children. He sold the hotel, moved to Nottingham, and kept trying to see his family.

After one final attempt in 1872, when he was again refused, he bought a revolver in Nottingham, and then travelled to Boston.

He made his way to his father’s house, where his family were staying, and, at 3pm, as Jane walked into the dining room, he raised the revolver and shot her dead.

Horry's Assize record (via Ancestry)

Horry’s Assize record (via Ancestry)

At the Spring Assizes on 11 March 1872, held at Lincoln, he was sentenced to death. On 1 April, he was executed at the castle by William Marwood, using, for the first time, the new ‘long drop’ method of hanging that was seen as more civilised, as it resulted in a quicker death.

Horry may have died quickly, but he lives on, part of the tourist trail at Lincoln Castle, and remembered in the history of the famous executioner.

Fred Horry's final resting place (© Criminal Historian)

Fred Horry’s final resting place (© Criminal Historian)

Murdered by a travelling showman

The Illustrated Police News' depiction of the murder (via British Newspaper Archive)

The Illustrated Police News’ depiction of the murder (via British Newspaper Archive)

Robert West was a travelling showman, running a coconut shy at the fairs that toured around England. Originally from Oxford, he was around 44 years old, and was used to a peripatetic life.

He had arrived, in his caravan, at the village of Handsworth Woodhouse near Sheffield at 11.30pm on Friday night, 23 August, his intention being to remain and set his shy up at the village feast that weekend.

He started quarreling with his wife Emma, which often happened as the result of Robert’s tendency to drink. Their son – one of their six children – realised Robert was drunk, and was arguing as a result of jealousy over his wife’s perceived behaviour. The son went off for a walk to get away from them.

While he was out, at 1am, West went running up to Police Sergeant Ford of the West Riding constabulary, as he was passing the caravan on his patrols.

“I’ve murdered my wife!” West shouted, and PS Ford ran with him to the van, where he found Emma lying on the floor, almost decapitated. By her side was a large knife, and the floor was covered in blood.

West was taken into custody at Sheffield, and immediately made a written confession. However, he had, in front of PS Ford, first said that he was “satisfied” with the murder, and “regretted that he had not also murdered the man whom he alleges to have been intimate with his wife”.

In the police court, Robert cross-examined Emma’s mother himself. She had got very upset, and shouted, “You bad, bad man, you murderer, you villain!”

Robert responded, “You can talk, but you are as bad as every one of them.”

“Am I, you bad villain? You murderer of my poor daughter!” screamed his mother-in-law.

Robert muttered,

“I am very glad I did it, and I am only sorry I did not do both of them. All I want is to die now, and the sooner the better. I shall then be out of the way. I told her I should do it, and I am glad I did it. I wish I’d done the other one as well.”

PS Ford then explained that as he had walked Robert to the police station after the murder, he had said,

“This thing has been brewing, it will be 12 months next Sunday, When we was here at the feast last year I began to find out of her tricks. There’s another I intended to do first; that’s Leicester Jack, and then her, but he kept out of the way, else I should have done him first.”

Robert West was committed to the Leeds Assizes on the charge of leaving murder. As he left the dock to be committed to Wakefield Prison, he said, “Goodbye, all of you!”

The travelling showman travelled no more. He was found guilty of murder at the Assizes and was executed at Armley Prison in Leeds, on 31 December 1889.

Webb's entry in the Wakefield Prison register, from Ancestry.

Webb’s entry in the Wakefield Prison register, from Ancestry.

Sources: Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sun 25 August 1889, Illustrated Police News, 31 August 1889, Capital Punishment UK, Ancestry, British Newspaper Archive.

 

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