Criminal Historian

Working with dead people

Tag: history (page 1 of 4)

New crime website: Our Criminal Ancestors

A new website aimed at helping people research their family’s criminal history was launched last weekend in Hull.

The website, Our Criminal Ancestors, is a project that aims to help people explore the criminal past not only of their families, but also their community – whether a specific town, or a wider region.

Stemming from a public engagement project by academics at Leeds Beckett and Hull universities, those behind it hope that people will submit their stories and events from history, focusing on the years from 1700 to 1939. You can submit the story of your ancestor’s career in the police, for example, or, conversely, their criminal record!

However, the website also aims to help individuals learn about the history of crime, offering advice and features about crime, policing and punishment, through blog posts and case studies.

The website is currently divided into a couple of primary strands – Getting Started (looking at key sources and archives), Criminal Lives (featuring stories from the archives), and Timelines (divided into themes, such as youth justice, policing and punishments) – with maps, blogs, events and resources all highlighted as well. Another strand, Join In, points readers towards the History Pin website, where you can submit your own stories.

Although the website has only just been launched, and is fairly small scale at the moment, it has huge potential for those researching crime history, and its collaborative outlook, encouraging the public to help build a repository of stories and information about crime history in different communities, is great. Do get involved in submitting stories to the site, as this is crucial to its future success – and you never know what you may learn from it yourself.

You can also keep in touch with the project on Twitter, via @OurCriminalPast.

 

 

Jolly Jane: (mis)understanding a female serial killer

A ghost sign in modern Boston

I’ve just returned from a fantastic trip to Massachusetts, and while there, of course, thought to research some of the crime and news stories from the state’s history. Here’s one I found which is interesting both because it has parallels with elements of the story of Amelia Dyer in Britain around the same time, but also because it shows that, throughout history, ‘experts’ (usually male) have struggled to explain female criminality, and in particular the relative few cases of female serial killers. It seems that we seek explanations for female deviancy to a far greater extent than with male criminals – even when, sometimes, there might not be a coherent explanation at all, however hard we look.

She was born Honora Kelley, and like many residents of Massachusetts in the mid 19th century, she was the child of Irish parents – of course, many Irishmen and women had fled the Great Famine of their homeland in the 1840s and both New York and Boston, on America’s east coast, had seen an influx of migrants as a result.

Although these Irish people had fled famine, many of them found that life in America was not much of an improvement. Life was a struggle, and many found it hard to feed their families and keep a roof over their heads. Sickness and disease was ever present, and Honora’s own mother, Bridget, soon died of consumption.

Jane Toppan, the former Honora Kelley

She and her siblings were left to be brought up – dragged up – by her father Peter, an abusive man who was regarded as mad by his neighbours. Within a few years of his wife’s death, it became clear that Peter could not father his children effectively. He abandoned his youngest two – Honora, then six, and her eight-year-old sister Delia – at a local female orphanage, and never saw them again.

At the age of eight, Honora was sent out to work by the orphanage, becoming a servant in the household of Ann Toppan in Lowell, north of Boston.

Although her miserable start in life should not be used to excuse her later offences, it is clear that Honora had the odds stacked against her. She was from a poverty-stricken immigrant family; her mother was dead and her father absent. She had no chance of a happy childhood, and her working life started when she was still a young child.

In later life, she targeted others who were themselves vulnerable, as though angered by memories of her own childish vulnerability, and the failure of her parents to give her a secure start to life. The fact that she took on the surname of her Toppan employers suggests a desire to become part of a family – yet she would later try and destroy it.

It could have been so different for Honora, though. She had chances which others in her situation did not; at 21, she started training to be nurse, and at work was well-liked. As she had become known as Jane Toppan, others nicknamed her Jolly Jane because of her friendliness. But underneath, there were darker thoughts going round Jane’s head.

Like Amelia Dyer in Britain at the end of the 19th century, Jane used her nursing as a cover to kill, and started to kill whilst working in a hospital. Curious about life and death – remember, this is a woman who had lost her own mother to tuberculosis when she was young – she started fiddling with the dosage of medicines to see what happened to patients when they were given too much of a drug.

She would get into bed with them to see what the effect was, and to watch them fall unconscious. Eventually, while working at the Massachusetts General Hospital, she was sacked for administering drugs ‘recklessly’.

The 1893 city directory for Cambridge, MA, shows Jane working as a private nurse there

She no longer had access to hospital patients, but still had the desire to poison individuals and monitor the effect of the poison on them. She started working as a private nurse when her hospital job ended so prematurely, and found other opportunities to injure or kill individuals, too. In 1895, she killed her landlord and his wife; four years later, Elizabeth Toppen Brigham, daughter of her first employer, was killed with strychnine.

She killed Mattie Davis, and then moved in with her widower, Alden, to ‘look after’ him. In 1901, she killed Alden, as well as his daughters Genevieve Gordon and Minnie Gibbs. Her preferred poisons were morphine and atropine.

Jolly Jane had got careless in trying to kill an entire family rather than an individual. A toxicology test was ordered for Minnie Davis Gibbs, and it showed that she had been poisoned. Jane was duly arrested for murder, and later confessed to over 30 murders.

Most of her known victims were women – the youngest victim was Minnie, aged 40; the oldest was her landlord Israel Dunham’s 87-year-old wife. The majority of the victims, however, were in their sixties or seventies.

When she was arrested, Jane had objected to her being described as ‘morally insane’. She argued, “I can read a book intelligently, and I don’t have bad thoughts, so I don’t see where moral degeneracy comes in.”

Although she insisted she was sane and knew what she was doing when she poisoned so many people, the jury clearly could not comprehend how a sane woman could do such awful things, and found her not guilty by reason of insanity. She was ordered to be sent to a local asylum – the Taunton State Hospital.

Once in there, Jane claimed to be ‘haunted by the horrible fear that all around her are seeking to serve her as she served her numerous victims.’ She embarked on a hunger strike out of a fear that her own food would be poisoned, and had to be force fed with a tube.

Meanwhile, continuing press coverage of Jane’s offences were as confused by her as the jury at her trial had been. This was clearly an intelligent woman, and appeared ‘mentally, physically, and morally’ normal; yet she must clearly be insane, for why else would a woman kill? Despite this insistence of her madness, one newspaper had to admit that this was a ‘peculiar’ mental illness that seemed to have left her ‘intellectual faculties unimpaired’.

Jane is listed as an inmate of the Taunton State Hospital in the 1930 US census (image via Ancestry)

There was clearly a doubt as to what Jane’s motives were, and what could explain the actions of a female serial killer. This was not a common story – the victims had not done anything to Jane, and she was not an ‘angel of death’ seeking to stop people from going through pain by ending their suffering herself.

She was an ordinary woman, a trained nurse, and the experts of the time queued up to try and understand what she had done. As a British paper noted, ‘Criminologists, alienists and the public generally are aghast at her crimes. She alone is unconcerned.’

Jane was asked to explain her actions, and simply said that she could not control her impulse to kill – but ‘when the paroxysm passed, I was myself again. I cared no longer for the patients to die.’ In 1904, she was interviewed in the asylum that was now her home, and she attempted again to explain her thought processes:

“I do not know the feeling of fear, and I do not know the feeling of remorse, although I understand perfectly what these words mean. I do not seem to be able to realise the awfulness of the things I have done, although I realise what those awful things are. I seem incapable of realising the awfulness of it. Why don’t I feel sorry, and grieve over it? I don’t know.”

Unlike her own mother, Jane lived a long life. Unlike her victims, she died of natural causes. She died at the Taunton State Hospital in Massachusetts in September 1938, 36 years after she was committed to that establishment, remaining something of an enigma to those investigating female criminality.

 

*

Sources:

Northampton Mercury, 27 June 1902, p.8); Lancashire Evening Post, 3 September 1938, p.8; Dundee Evening Telegraph, 26 June 1902, p.4, St James’s Gazette, 26 June 1902, p.8, Leominster News, 2 September 1904. Do note that the relationship and names of some known victims of Jane Toppan varies from site to site (and within sites, on occasion!).

In a rather self-publicising post (sorry), I’m pleased to say that I have an article published in the new issue of the Law, Crime and History journal (vol 8, issue 1).

This is a special issue of the journal, devoted to a conference I attended last yearn Liverpool –  Lives, Trials and Executions. I spoke there about the Hampstead murder – when Mary Eleanor Piercey killed her lover’s wife and baby daughter, a crime she was executed for. My article follows on from that conference paper, looking at how the press depicted both Piercey and her victim, in ways that subverted the usual tropes of crime reporting.

My article can be accessed here; but the whole issue of this journal is, I think, great, and really shows the fascinating work being done by crime historians at the moment.

 

Raising the next generation of historians

The current exhibition at LMA incorporates a recreation of what it would have been like in the Old Bailey for defendants

One of the great things about being a historian in the 21st century is the many different ways in which you can both learn about, and disseminate, the history you’re interested in. Big data and digital history are two terms you may already be familiar with, with some historians – who I have to say I am in complete awe of – managing to crunch numbers and play with technology in a way I fear I will never be able to.

Other historians may team up with creative agencies and other non-historian individuals to find new ways to present aspects of our history – such as with the agency responsible for the Grim London interactive map and website (read an article about it here) – whereas others learn the skills themselves to push the field of Digital Humanities further.

Just a couple of the historians whose work is worth looking at are Adam CrymbleMelodee Beals and Tim Hitchcock; it’s also worth looking at Tim’s recent work on ‘recreating’ the experience of being at the Old Bailey in the past, based on written records, currently on display at London Metropolitan Archives.

But sometimes, there can be simpler, but still absorbing, ways of presenting history. Creative Histories (see the blog at Storying The Past), led by Will Pooley and Helen Rogers, has been a great way of learning about how historians, writers and artists have been seeking to find new ways of presenting history to us – from Ruth Singer’s Criminal Quilts project to Anthony Rhys’s artworks of ‘Upset Victorians’.

I am not throwing away my shot… etc.

Last year, I experienced history through the genre of the musical: firstly, with Lizzie – a punk rock retelling of the Lizzie Borden case in 19th century America (see my review of it here)- and then, this Christmas, getting to watch the much hyped Hamilton, where an incredibly enthusiastic London audience probably learned more about 18th century American history than they had at school. By subverting the traditional dry retelling of history by using different musical styles, from rock to hip-hop, history is made both interesting and universal.

The musicals share with recent books a desire both to write about history but also to understand it. Books such as Sarah Schmidt’s See What I Have Done attempt to get inside the heads of those involved in crime cases, and in doing so, they get the reader involved in a way in which some traditional history books fail to do.

Purists argue that they play fast and loose with the facts, but the overall picture they give is still valuable. In Hamilton, the problem of Eliza Hamilton having destroyed her letters from Alexander, her husband, and her views being absent from the archival record, are actually foregrounded, both to show how we can never know her exact views, but have to guess at them, but also to highlight that women’s lives tend to be less recorded than men’s in history.

So what am I saying? I think that, as someone who was resolutely disinterested in history at school, due to a surfeit of royals and war – whereas I have always been more interested in the experiences of ordinary people in ordinary life – I would have welcomed these different approaches to history, and they would have both gained my interest and maintained it.

If we can get children interested in history, they’ll be interested in adulthood – and perhaps even create new presentations of history to get the next generation interested, too. And that’s got to be a good thing, in a time when our government seems resolutely disinterested in the value of the arts at both school and university level.

Event: Crime focus at SAFHS Annual Conference

If you’re into your crime history, it’s well worth signing up to this year’s Scottish Association of Family History Societies’ Annual Conference and Fair in April.

The theme of this year’s conference is ‘Was Your Ancestor A Convict?’, and there will be sessions on the making of the Fife Kalendar of Convicts (including the launch of a Convict CD and digital download) and on banishment and transportation, among other talks.

The conference takes place at The Rothes Halls, Kingdom Shopping Centre, Glenrothes, Fife on 21 April, from 10am until 4.30pm. There is a £20 conference delegate fee, but it costs just £2 to enter the family history fair (accompanied under 12s are free). This includes workshops, stalls, exhibits and ask-the-expert sessions. You can book online for the conference at SAFHS2018.fifefhs.org.

Review: West Indians – Forefathers of the Metropolitan Police?

The Museum of London at Docklands

This month, a new display appeared at the Museum of London Docklands looking at the history of the Thames River Police. Judging by the description of it on the museum’s website, it sounded like a major new exhibit –  and this would be appropriate, given the long history of the Thames River Police, or Marine Police, which was founded in Wapping in 1798.

However, if you’re expecting a lot, like I was, you might be disappointed. After immediately visiting usual ground floor exhibition space only to find it dark and empty, I was redirected by a member of staff to the second floor – but I had already visited this, and hadn’t spotted anything about the police. On looking round the floor again, twice, I found the display, and understood why I missed it. There is nothing directing you to it; and it comprises a single display board (albeit a fairly large one) and one artefacts display case at the side of it.

The artefacts include a copy of the Metropolitan Police Act of 1829; a copy of Patrick Colquhoun’s treatise, which inspired the creation of the police (he first published it in 1796, although the copy here is from the 6th edition); a police seal, hangar, scabbard, tipstaff, rattle and handcuffs, all dating from the first quarter of the 19th century,

Sources for these artefacts are the Thames Police Museum, the Metropolitan Police Heritage Centre and the West India Committee (the latter having curated the display); but placed separately like this, they actually lose something – I felt I understood more about the Marine Police from my visit to the Thames Police Museum, where the curator talked me through the history and artefacts, in the police’s actual base.

A map of the Port of London, focal point of the display

The display board is nicely designed, with its focal point being a map of the Port of London, from the city, out east to the mouth of the Thames. But understandably, given its size, it has to limit the amount of information it tells you: so there’s a brief mention of the 1798 Dung Wharf riot, and the inevitable paragraph on the Ratcliff Highway murders of 1811.

There’s better mention of Patrick Colquhoun than of John Harriott, the JP who devised a plan to police Thames shipping in 1797. It was Harriott’s plan that led Colquhoun to convince the West India merchants’ and planters’ committees to finance a year’s trial of this new police force, initially known as the West India Merchants Company Marine Police Institute – a trial which became a two year one, before, in 1800, government made the Marine Police a public police force under the control of the Home Secretary (see here for more on its early history).

I understand that this display is part of a larger project by the West India Committee to uncover the ‘little known shared heritage of the Caribbean and police services today’, and utilises its own archival resources. Yet given the Thames Police Museum’s own collection and expertise, it just feels like a wasted opportunity to publicise the history of the River Police to a wider audience, and to go into more detail about why it was set up, and the relationship between the police and the men they dealt with.

Patrick Colquhoun, founder of the Thames Marine Police

The West India Committee, meanwhile, claims on its website simply that it ‘founded… the Thames Police’ and that ‘West Indians ran, staffed and funded the force’, with its phrasing suggesting that West Indians were doing so prior to 1839. These claims (and potential differentiation between initiating an organisation, founding it, and funding it) deserved more detail than the limited information provided on the display board (I would have particularly have liked more detail on the Committee’s involvement with Colquhoun) – and the artefacts displayed fail to make any link to the West India Committee outside of them being simply police artefacts.

The Museum acknowledges that most people assume that the Metropolitan Police was the start of ‘modern’ policing in London, when actually, the Thames River Police is the longest, continuously serving police force not only in London, but in the world. I’m not sure the display is clear enough about its remit, and because of this, it frustrates by the bite-size pieces of information it offers visitors.

West Indians: Forefathers of the Metropolitan Police? runs at the Museum of London Docklands until 14 January 2018

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When female prisoners helped create a museum

The V&A Museum of Childhood

Many of us know that prisoners were often put to work on meaningless, soul-destroying tasks, from the treadwheel to picking oakum- but did you know that they also created beautiful things on occasion?

Next time you visit the architecturally lovely V&A Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green, London, don’t just look up and around – look down, too.

For the floor you walk on – featuring marble fish-scales – was made by female convicts at Woking Prison in the 19th century.

They might not have been able to see their finished handiwork, but you can: and it’s good to see that the Museum acknowledges their contribution, too. See my slideshow below for a look at the prisoners’ floor…

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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.

 

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