Criminal Historian

Working with dead people

Tag: London (page 1 of 5)

A Hangman at the Music Hall

James Berry, as pictured in the Shipley Times & Express, 24 October 1913

It was on this day in 1896 that the Illustrated Police news covered a story that showed what new careers former hangmen could embark on, once they had finished playing with rope.

James Berry, one such former executioner, had started a lucrative series of speaking engagements after leaving his job in 1891, the Victorian public having an appetite for stories of crime and death.

In 1896, he had been engaged by Harry Hart, the proprietor of the Marylebone Music Hall in London, to deliver lectures entitled ‘Criminals I have met’. Berry would receive six guineas a week in return for telling enthralled audiences about ‘experiences of different executions of notorious murderers’ in which – the press coyly described it ‘ ‘he had taken part’.

The initial lectures went well – the audiences, more used to other types of Victorian novelty acts as well as song and dance, being much pleased with the subject matter. However, Mr Hart suddenly dismissed his famous speaker.

Mr Hart argued that he had had to sack Berry, after he had turned up at the music hall one night in such an ‘excited’ condition (drunk) that he had been unable to give his lecture. Berry promptly brought an action against Hart to get the salary he argued was due him.

The first person to be called to give evidence was theatrical agent Mr Beesley, but instead, his wife turned up. She said that she had written the letter of engagement between Hart and Berry on Hart’s behalf, despite apparently having no authority to do so.

She said she was in Hart’s employ, but when asked if she had been in partnership with her husband as agents, she was horrified: “No! There ain’t no female agents!”, her response provoking laughter in court. She then winked at the prosecuting solicitor, and was told off.

Mrs Beesley was clearly slightly squeamish about Berry and his former occupation, referring to him as “that man – the hangman – Berry, the hangman”.

The issue of the Illustrated Police News containing details of Berry’s case against Harry Hart

Now, Harry Hart was called, and was sworn in ‘in the Christian fashion’, before the judge remembered that he was Jewish, and demanded that he be re-sworn on the Old Testament, with his hat on.

Once this was done, Hart stated that he would never have agreed to pay Berry six guineas a week – ‘his was a very small house, and the usual run of salaries was £1 a week.’ He had not, despite Berry’s allegations, paid the ex-hangman £5 at the end of his first week, but £3, and he had sacked him after Berry had turned up drunk and threatened to shoot Hart.

Berry then alleged that Mrs Beesley was lying on oath, saying that she had been engaged to perform herself at the Marylebone Music Hall, under the name of Miss Wood. She had turned to Berry and said, “I’m not going to lose my living. I’d swear anything against you.”

Another exchange then took place in court, again attracting laughter:

Judge Bacon: What was his entertainment?

Mr Hart: A lecture on his hangings.

Judge Bacon: Who is he?

Mr Hart: The late public executioner.

Judge Bacon: Was it an attractive entertainment:

Mr Hart: [shrugs shoulders]

Berry, cross-examined, denied that he was ‘speechless drunk’ on the night in question – he argued that Hart had refused to let him speak in order to avoid paying with him, this being ‘a favourite trick of his with his artists’. The defence solicitor, however, then asked, “Is it not notorious that you used to drink when public executioner?”, but Berry denied this.

The defence then asked, “Were you not dismissed by the Under-Sheriff for drunkenness?” – to which Berry responded, “Certainly not. I left honourably.”

The attempts to smear the former executioner – which included Hart’s assertion that he was not friends with Berry, because ‘he is not my class’ – failed. Two constables who Hart had called on to eject Berry from the music hall gave evidence that he had been perfectly sober, and the Judge said that despite Hart’s denials, he believed that Berry HAD been engaged for the larger sum per week, and that ‘the allegation of drunkenness had been most effectually disproved’.

Berry’s obituary in the Illustrated Police News, 30 October 1913

Berry continued to make a living sharing his experiences of life as a hangman, publishing The Hangman’s Thoughts Above the Gallows in 1905 – his second memoir, having published his first, My Experiences as an Executioner, four years before he was engaged by Hart.

It’s clear that he relied on his memoirs, and associated talks, after retiring as public executioner, and Hart’s allegations of drunkenness could have impacted both on the money he could earn, and the trust the public placed in him. He needed both his salary and his reputation, and this court case ensured that he retained both.

The tale of the indecent actor on a Victorian omnibus

A London omnibus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

A case for the Fingerprints Department

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Canadian Seaman and the Telephone Operator

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

The Commercial Docks at Rotherhithe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

The old lady who was killed with an axe

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

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

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

The marriage of William and Ann Darby in 1829

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Honora’s entry in the Colney Hatch admission registers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

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

 

 

Acting a part: the actress whose death led to a court case

In 1894, a cab driver named Harry Norton, living on Old North Street, Red Lion Square, in Holborn, was summonsed at the Clerkenwell court. A complaint had been made against him by the Holborn Board of Guardians, who believed that he had obtained parish relief by making a false statement about his circumstances.

Harry had obtained an order to remove a woman, who he claimed to be his wife, to the infirmary, stating that she was in the final stages of consumption (tuberculosis). The woman had certainly been dying – she was admitted to the hospital on 4 November, and died there three days later – but was she really his wife?

She had been admitted to the hospital under the name of Clarice Norton, and her death certificate (which listed bronchitis rather than tuberculosis as the cause of death) was duly made out in this name, too. However, what should have been a straightforward – if sad – case became more complicated when a Mr Lomax suddenly turned up at the hospital claiming that he, not Harry Norton, was the dead woman’s husband.

The Illustrated London News included details of the will of JC Lomax’s father – he left an estate worth nearly £200,000 (8 June 1889)

John Charles ‘JC’ Lomax stated that his wife had left him and their marriage some time previously, and had gone to live with Harry Norton. Unlike the cabbie, Mr Lomax was a ‘man of considerable means’, and had had a fortune of £40,000 when he married (over £2 million today), largely thanks to his wealthy father, who had died in April 1889, less than a year before his son married.

His wife had been an actress and dancer, but had a taste for extravagance. She also may have obfuscated her origins; on the 1891 census, she claimed to have been born in San Francisco, and on her marriage certificate that her father was, like her husband’s late father, a gentleman; but The Straw Plaiters website believes she may have been born in London as the more prosaically named Clara, the daughter of a printer, who had been living in a multi-occupancy house in Bloomsbury at the time of her marriage.

JC had given her half his money, together with another £4,000 in pin money (over £200,000 in today’s money), but she proceeded to ‘squander’ this, and the rest of his fortune. Once the cash was gone, she left her husband, and went to live with a man who had never had a fortune to lose. Meanwhile, JC became bankrupt on September 1893, his wealth having disappeared within three years of marrying.

Mrs Lomax got her comeuppance when she became ill. Harry Norton had no money for a doctor or hospital care, and so had to approach his parish for help – pretending that he was her husband, not just her lover. Mrs Lomax, meanwhile, apparently begged Harry not to tell her husband that she was sick. However, after she had died, Harry seems to have had an attack of guilt, and went to the Guardians to tell them the truth about his relationship. They promptly went to the magistrates.

In court, the judge told Harry it was a serious offence to lie in order to get medical help from the parish, but the circumstances had to be taken into consideration. He fined Harry two shillings and costs, and sent him on his way. Clarice’s living for the moment had resulted in one husband ending up a bankrupt – and a second ‘husband’ fined by a court. She herself ended up dead in a workhouse infirmary at the tender age of 24.

NOTE: In light of JC Lomax’s statement, Clarice Norton’s death certificate was amended to Clarice Lomax – but her husband never seems to have got back to anything like his former status, dying in 1933 after a number of years living off a small pension and with few possessions.

 

Many thanks are due to The Straw Plaiters: Luton Town Football Club in the Victorian Era website, which has a great account of JC Lomax’s life (and a photo of the man himself). The story of Harry Norton’s court case was found in the Sheffield Evening Telegraph, 28 Nov 1894 and The Times, 29 Nov 1894. Other sources are the 1891 census for 5 Cambridge Park Gardens, Richmond Road, Twickenham, on Ancestry; the marriage of John Charles Lomax and Clarice Tuson, Mar 1890, St Giles (vol 1b page 645); and the death of Clarice Lomax, Dec 1894, Islington (vol 1b page 129).

Corset Crime Week, Final Day: Electrocution by Corset

It’s the final day of my Corset Crime Week (every blog – in fact, every newspaper, and every nation – should have one). To mark this momentous occasion, I’ve not written a post about a crime, but am offering you a product that I am surprised didn’t cause something awful to happen, and its inventor to be charged with a crime.

I give you Mr Harness’s Electric Corset for Delicate Women – the Very Thing for Ladies from 1893.

Although designed as a ‘cure’ for sleeplessness, rheumatism, bad backs and depression, it’s hard to believe that the contraption would also cure a ‘lack of appetite’ – I suspect not wearing a corset at all would help with that.

In addition, the idea of wearing an electric corset does conjure up nasty images of being electrocuted by one’s underwear. Ouch.

How Emily, 13, got away from the Whitechapel kidnapper

One 13-year-old girl faced a double ordeal in 1885, after first being abducted, and taken across the Channel against her will – and then facing a cross-examination by her kidnapper when the case reached the Old Bailey.

Christina Fischer, known to her family as Emily, was born on 15 March 1872 in Germany. Her family had emigrated, like many other German residents, to London, where they settled at 59 Greenfield Street, off the Commercial Road in Whitechapel. Emily’s father, William, worked as a printer. The family spoke little English, and so it was understandable that many of their friends and acquaintances in the capital were other German immigrants.

One man they got to know sometime in 1883 was Julius Hahn, then aged 27, and working as a baker. On 24 October 1885, he had come to the Fischer house about 8am, with two of his own children. William Fischer’s wife, Mary, was at home and took the children upstairs.

Julius told William that he intended to travel back to Germany that day, after visiting the West End (different accounts state either that his wife was ill in hospital there, or that she had recently died there), and asked if he could leave his children there until he returned from his trip west. That was all fine, and so Julius left, returning some three hours later. He said his goodbyes, then, and went off with his children.

But shortly before his return, William had sent his daughter Emily out for a newspaper. She had returned with it, then went out again prior to Julius leaving the house. That was the last the Fischers saw of her for three days.

After she failed to return, later on that Saturday, William started to make inquiries as to her whereabouts, asking at the Blackwall Docks, where he thought Julius might have headed. He had clearly linked Emily’s absence with Julius’s departure soon after. There were no clues as to where she was, and after two sleepless nights, and two days searching, William finally went to the Thames Police Court in Stepney to obtain a warrant for Julius’s arrest.

**

So where was Emily during this weekend? As her father had suspected, she was with Julius Hahn. She had gone out the second time to meet a friend, and as she was coming back, she bumped into Hahn with his two children. “Will you come with me to carry the baby?” he asked, claiming that he could not manage the two of them on his own. Emily agreed, and carried the baby to the docks, some ten minutes’ away. Hahn then asked if Emily would come with him to his ship – “You cannot get out of this gate – you must go by a little boat on board.”

Emily went downstairs on the boat to put the baby to bed, when she realised the boat had started. Running back on deck, Hahn told her that she would now have to go with him to Rotterdam. She burst into tears, but his response, she said, was to threaten her, saying “if you tell anyone, you will see what I will give you”. Emily ran back below deck; Hahn followed her and told her he wanted a kiss. She would not let him. He tried to put his hand up her clothes; Emily, with great presence of mind, threatened to tell the captain.

Emily shouted out to a woman on board, and she reported matters to the steward. But it was too late for Emily to get back to the docks, and she ended up on board all the way to Rotterdam, arriving there on Sunday morning. Hahn then tried again, asking Emily to travel on with her to Bingen – she refused, thrust the baby back at him, ran away from the ship and leapt on board another that was travelling back to England. She reached London again the next day.

**

When Hahn was tried for abduction at the Old Bailey, he was allowed to cross-examine the 13-year-old girl he had tried to kiss. He tried to tell her that she had agreed to go with him if he paid her 20 shillings; suggested that she had wanted him to touch her, and that she had wanted to go to Bingen with him as another passenger had said it was nicer than England. She insisted that it was Hahn who had said Bingen was nicer than England, as part of a concerted effort to make her go with him.

The criminal register entry for Julius Hahn’s offence, from Ancestry

Hahn also cross-examined Mr and Mrs Fischer, suggesting that they had consented to him taking their daughter to Germany. They both indignantly denied that. But then another German man, again examined by Hahn, said that Hahn had claimed to him that Emily was his servant, employed to look after the children. Emily had gone to him saying she needed a ticket to return to England on the next boat, but said he had not seen her cry, or Hahn behave badly towards her.

Hahn also got this man, Theodore Peters, to say that Emily had never mentioned to him being touched in an indecent manner by Hahn. It would have taken some courage for a young girl to tell a male stranger that another man had been behaving indecently towards her.

Towards the end of the trial, Emily was re-examined, and asked again about the details of Hahn’s attempts to grope her. She said, clearly and calmly, that it was bedtime, and she was in the ladies’ cabin, lying down with Hahn’s five-month-old child. Hahn had come in and, despite Emily being with his own daughter, tried to put his hand up this girl’s clothes.

Hahn’s last words were “I did not touch her with any intention”, but despite his aggressive, insistent cross-examining of the young witness, and attempts to portray her and her parents as liars, Emily kept her cool. Julius Hahn was found guilty of taking Emily Fischer away without her parents’ consent – but not guilty on a charge of indecent assault.

This was a fair verdict; although Emily clearly stated that Julius had tried to put his hands up her clothes, and to kiss her, she never said he had succeeded; there had been an attempt, but not a successful one. He had certainly abducted her, though, and it was only due to her presence of mind and intelligence that she was able to see her home again.

Sources: Old Bailey Online (t18851214-84, 14 December 1885, Morning Post, 14 November 1885; South Wales Daily News, 16 December 1885, Criminal Registers on Ancestry.co.uk

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 lamplighter’s wife: a dark tale from Edwardian London

A hysterical woman yawning, c.1890, by Albert Londe (Wellcome Images, used under Creative Commons)

A hysterical woman yawning, c.1890, by Albert Londe (Wellcome Images, used under Creative Commons)

It was just after 8pm on 8 July 1907 – a Monday night in north London. Lamplighter Harry Mitchell, aged 33, had just left his home in Stoke Newington to light his lamps for the night. He lived in a top floor flat in what were somewhat euphemistically called artisan’s dwellings at 34 Garnham Street, with his wife, Clarissa Maria, and three children – a six-month-old girl, 18-month-old boy, and a seven year old girl.

Left behind, Clarissa was seen to open the front window at the top of the building – and to onlookers’ horror, push through her seven-year-old daughter, Clarissa Alice, who fell and became impaled on the spikes of railings that separated the building from the pavement. Mrs Mitchell then looked through the window to check that her daughter had fallen, before rushing back into the front room.

George Tilley, a mill foreman, was walking down the street when he saw the first child impaled on the railings. He ran over and gently lifted her off, before a movement above made him raise his eyes. To his horror, he saw the middle child, known as Frederick, only 18 months old, clinging onto the sill of the second floor window. As he watched, this child too fell ‘with a thud’ into the space between the railings and the flats, lying there clearly severely injured.

Jessie Abrahams, a local woman who was also passing by at the time, said there was a gap of around two or three minutes between the two children falling out of the window. She had also seen Clarissa Mitchell ‘very deliberately’ open the window wider, before throwing herself out – as though tumbling through space, it was later said. Her body was impaled on the railing spikes with such force that several men were needed to lift her off the railing.

The three Mitchells were carried by shocked onlookers to the nearest dispensary, on the High Road, where much to everyone’s amazement, Frederick was found to be still alive, although critically injured, and was immediately rushed to the Metropolitan Hospital. It was initially believed that both the mother and elder daughter were dead – but a more thorough investigation found signs of life in both, and they were taken to the German Hospital in Dalston. Although both were conscious, they were said to be in a ‘very critical’ condition.

The Mitchell family’s neighbours, hearing the shouts and thuds, and learning what had happened, were obviously concerned about the fate of the younger daughter. They broke into the flat, and there found the baby sleeping peacefully in bed.

What had caused this woman to take such an awful course of action? Mr and Mrs Mitchell were said to be highly respected residents of their local community, members of the Salvation Army, and hard working.

However, the 30-year-old Mrs Mitchell, who worked as a servant, but who when not at work was confined to a small flat with three small children to look after, had been said to have been ‘low spirited for some time’. This was another way of saying that she suffered from depression.

On her husband leaving for work one summer’s evening, she had decided she could take life no more, and had tried to take her children with her on a journey to a better world. Her only comment on being lifted from the railings was that her head hurt; her oldest child, however, told onlookers:

“Mother threw me out. I clutched the curtains, but they broke.”

The following day, it was reported that Mrs Mitchell had spent a restless night in the German Hospital, and had been screaming ‘almost continuously’. The little girl impaled on the railing had been far quieter, despite having been impaled through her groin; but her brother was in a far worse state.

It took a month for the woman to be charged with wounding her children – she was also charged with attempting suicide. The time lapse was due, simply, to her injuries; she was in hospital for weeks following the event. At the North London Police Court, she was committed to the Central Criminal Court for trial; she had only spoken once, asking, “Can I see my children?”

The Asylum for Criminal Lunatics, Broadmoor. (Wellcome Images, used under Creative Commons) Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

The Asylum for Criminal Lunatics, Broadmoor.
(Wellcome Images, used under Creative Commons)

But her children were, a month later, still in hospital, and she was not permitted to see them. A doctor called to give his opinion remarked that he thought she was insane, and so the gaol doctor was asked to keep her under observation. Clarissa Mitchell duly appeared at the Central Criminal Court on 10 September 1907.

Here, new light was shed on Clarissa’s past. Harry Fullarton, the assistant medical officer at Holloway Prison, where she was held pending her trial, gave evidence that she was mentally ill, and had been for some time – ‘she is quite unfit to understand the present proceedings or instruct solicitor or counsel’.

He said that he had found out that she had previously been detained as a lunatic between August 1901 and March 1903, before being released in the belief that she was ‘cured’. At the time of her incarceration, she was already married and was caring for baby Clarissa; on being released, she returned to her husband and quickly had two more children.

To modern eyes, it seems highly possible that Clarissa was suffering from post-natal depression that may have turned into psychosis; the timing of her two severe bouts of mental illness both came when she had very young children in her care.

It was found that Clarissa Mitchell was insane and unfit to either plead or to take her trial on a charge of wounding. She was ordered to be detained at His Majesty’s pleasure.

And what of the family she tried to destroy? The baby, sadly – the one child Clarissa had not tried to kill – may have died; but the two she had thrown from the window both survived. The 1911 census shows Clarissa Alice, now 11, and Harry Frederick William Mitchell, now aged five, living with their father at 100 Rendlesham Road in Clapton.

Harry Mitchell, aged 37, was still working as a lamplighter for the Gas Light and Coke Company; in the census return, he had recorded the fact that he had been married for 12 years, and had had four children, of whom, one had died (I have not been able to ascertain whether this was the sleeping baby of 1907, or a child who had died prior to this).

Another hand had scrawled a red line through the details of his marriage, denying Clarissa her existence as the lamplighter’s wife, and thus, albeit unknowingly, denying her existence, too, as her children’s mother.

*

Sources: Belfast Weekly News, 11 July 1907; Portsmouth Evening News, 9 July 1907, Wells Journal, 11 July 1907, London Daily News, 9 August 1907, Diss Express, 16 August 1907, Old Bailey Online (ref t19070910-21). Birth of Clarissa Alice Mitchell, Edmonton, Mar 1900 (vol 3a 374); 1911 census on Ancestry.

Clarissa Maria Mitchell died in 1941, aged 65 (FreeBMDs, Windsor district, Dec 1941, vol 2c, page 869 – the location suggests that she may have died in Broadmoor, which was in Crowthorne and thus came under the Windsor district for registration purposes); Clarissa Alice, unlike her mother, never married; she died, a spinster, in her 80s (source: Civil Registration Death Index, on Ancestry).

 

 

 

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