Criminal Historian

Working with dead people

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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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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.

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.

 

A Tale From Bleeding Heart Yard

Bleeding Heart Yard in the 1870s

In the early to mid 19th century, Bleeding Heart Yard was the beating heart of working class life in London. It was synonymous with the slums, with criminality, and with poverty. In the 1850s, Charles Dickens wrote about it in Little Dorrit, as a place ‘inhabited by poor people’  and reduced in fortune – a fact that alerted the press to its horrors.

When journalists wrote about the precursors of benefits cheats and scammers, they wrote about the inhabitants of Bleeding Heart Yard, who they accused of being prolific writers of begging letters and adverts in the press that proclaimed their own poverty and hardship in order to get financial help.

They pondered how people who claimed to be ‘utterly destitute’ could afford to pay for newspaper adverts that set out their distress, and commented:

‘You may assist them to emigrate to Australia half a dozen times, but they are always to be heard in Bleeding Heart Yard…imprisonment and hard labour have been tried in vain with these incorrigible rogues.’

These ‘rogues’ lived in a crowded yard within Saffron Hill, part of Clerkenwell, within the district of Holborn. Its notoriety stemmed as much from its name as from its inhabitants; there was much speculation about where the name derived from, but it was commonly believed that it stemmed from a murder.

One such story was that the Devil threw Lady Elizabeth Hatton, from a second-floor window in nearby Hatton Gardens in 1626, ‘dashing her to pieces’ and causing a water-pump to pump blood rather than water every year on the anniversary of her death. It was said that Bleeding Heart Yard was so named because it the violence of her death led to her heart being flung out of her body, landing in the yard.

The Bleeding Heart Tavern today

Other, more prosaic, people knew that the yard was simply named after the Bleeding Heart Tavern next door, and that the name was either the result of a pre-Reformation Catholicism that presented the ‘mystery’ of the rosary as the Virgin Mary’s heart being pierced by five swords, or a misspelling of ‘hart’, the pub name therefore denoting a wounded deer in some bucolic rural past.

This rural idyll was, by the 1860s, well and truly past. As the comments from contemporary newspapers suggest, it was now a rough, poor, urban area; it was also a centre for Italian migrants. There was antagonism from both the English-born residents, and from earlier Irish immigrants, towards these ‘strangers’, and even when some of these individuals had lived in London for some years, the resentment towards them by the English and Irish failed to abate.

The Italian men tended to work hard and play hard – but they had respectable jobs, and worked to keep their families afloat. Yet it was reported that the English residents regarded every ‘foreigner’ as ‘a knife-bearing, commandment-breaking scoundrel’ and therefore meted out harsh treatment towards these individuals.

On Boxing Day 1864, this antagonism between English-born locals and the Italian arrivals spilled over – and in turn, blood was also spilled. Around 20 Englishmen, resident in the area, had gone to the Golden Anchor pub in Saffron Hill in the late afternoon, seemingly intent on trouble. A small group of Italian men then arrived, arguments started, and a mass brawl then erupted in the bagatelle room. By the end of it, one man, Michael Harrington, was dead.

A man was arrested at the scene, and taken into custody, where he was charged with murder. The arrested man was one of the Italians, 32-year-old Seraphini Polioni. On 30 January 1865, he appeared in the Central Criminal Court on an indictment of murder.

An early C19th trial at the Old Bailey, later the Central Criminal Court

The landlord of the Golden Anchor, Frederick Shaw, told the court that Polioni had been known to him for around three months, but that around 6pm on Boxing Day, he had come to the bar of the “very busy” pub, and said something along the lines of “I could settle any such six Englishmen as Shaw”. He then wandered off.

Shaw then said he was hit by someone who then walked off to the taproom; Shaw went to follow and noticed that “there were several foreigners in the taproom” before he was pushed into the bar’s parlour by several others. When he looked out of the door, he saw ‘some of the Italians rushing out of the house.’

It was clear that the pub landlord saw the entire affair as being the fault of ‘the Italians’. He later said that Polioni had said he could kill six Englishmen, and was pulled up on it in court – causing him to splutter, “I might have made the mistake in the confusion – I should think it is to the same effect!”

He had no idea how many Italians there were in the pub; there were around 12 to 15 men in the bagatelle room, all English, and no Italians, yet he was clear that “Italians were distributed about the room, they go in and out of the taproom very freely…there were only Italians in the taproom, no English at all to my knowledge”, but was then forced to admit that he hadn’t actually gone into the taproom so really had little clue as to who was in there, and of what nationality.

His potman, Alfred Rebbeck, was also called to give evidence, where he stated that he saw “a great many Italians all together” in the taproom, including an Italian “named John”. He saw one Italian knock a woman down; and was clear that it was Seraphini who drew a knife and stabbed him, Rebbeck, with him. Rebbeck then hit him on the head with a broom-handle.

Rebbeck was clear that the English were in the bagatelle room, and the Italians gathered in the taproom. The pub was clearly segregated, albeit by the drinkers themselves rather than the landlord’s orders. There was also an Irish contingent – Alfred Rebbeck noted that there were ‘one or two Irishmen’ including one perhaps inevitably, given the racism present within this society, as ‘Pikey’.

Several witnesses with English names stated that Seraphini had been the man responsible for Harrington’s murder, and that they had seen no other Italians who could have been able to stab the man.

A statement by another Italian man, Pietro Mazzneli, who stated that another Italian at the pub that night, named Gregorio, looked very like Seraphini, seems to have been almost ignored; in fact, other Italian witnesses also put the blame onto this Gregorio with one, Pietro Maralizzi, who gave evidence through an interpreter, stating that he had seen this man with a knife in his hand, and that he had said to him, “For God’s sake, Gregorio, put away that knife.”

The trial also heard gossip from a woman at the pub that she had heard “three or four” of the Italians were using their knives – but this evidence was dismissed as ‘hearsay’. Reading the account of the trial, it seems a mish-mash of different stories being put forward by different people, but there seems little concrete evidence that Seraphini was involved in Harrington’s death. And yet he was convicted, and sentenced to death.

Seraphini now languished in Newgate Prison, awaiting his execution. Conditions were dire, and he soon began to lose his health. The end of this story seems clear.

Polioni sentenced to death (from Ancestry)

But things were not so straightforward.

The man named by several in Seraphini’s trial, his doppelganger Gregorio, had been in the pub that fateful night, and had fled to Birmingham. Henry Negretti – either a police constable or perhaps another member of the Italian community in London – had tracked him down to accuse him of having actually committed the murder for which Seraphini had been convicted – and Gregorio voluntarily surrendered to him, confessing to the murder of Michael Harrington.

On 27 February, 41-year-old Gregorio Mogni appeared at the Central Criminal Court.  He was asked if he was guilty or not guilty, and responded:

“It is my misfortune. I am guilty; but I did it in my self-defence.”

The first witness called at this new trial was the man who had been referred to as ‘John’ the Italian in the former trial – who was, in fact, Gregorio’s brother, Giovanni Mogni, a picture frame maker who stated that he had lived in England for the past ten years.

Contrary to much of the evidence heard at Seraphini’s trial, Giovanni said that he was in the bagatelle room of the Golden Anchor, together with his brother and another Italian, Pietro Marazzi – a looking glass maker who lived in Bleeding Heart Yard. They were outnumbered by nearly 20 Englishmen in the room.

Gregorio had an argument with Shaw, the landlord, and then the Englishmen started to beat Giovanni. His brother then drew a knife, shouting “They are beating my brother!” Marazzi saw the knife, and cried, “Gregorio, for God’s sake, put away that knife!”, grabbing him, but Gregorio demanded to be let go, “Otherwise we shall not go out of this room alive.”

After the melee ended, and the men had fled, Marazzi saw Gregorio in a nearby street. The latter put his arms around Pietro’s neck, and said,

“My dear Marazzi, what have I done? I stabbed three or four. Goodbye, I am going home.”

The greatest shock for Gregorio at his trial was the calling of Seraphini Polioni as a witness. He was ill and frail from his stay in Newgate, and his appearance in the witness box caused Gregorio to weep – realising, perhaps, what his prior silence had done to his countryman.

Now, Polioni gave his evidence, starting by saying that he was under sentence of death in Newgate, but had previously lived for some time in England. He said that he had been at another inn, Pietro Bordessa’s Three Tuns, the evening of 26 December, when another Italian had come in to tell him an argument had broken out at the Golden Anchor “between my two cousins” – perhaps simply a reference to fellow Italians rather than to actual relatives. Polioni had gone there to try and stop the fight between two of his countrymen, but instead found himself charged with murder.

Now, Gregorio found himself convicted – but of manslaughter rather than murder, with the jury believing that he acted in self-defence. The jury asked for mercy, and he was sentenced to five years in prison, a far more lenient punishment than poor, innocent Seraphini had received. He, in turn, was now tried for the felonious wounding of Alfred the potman, but was found not guilty.

Although Polioni and Gregorio Mogni remain elusive, I have found Giovanni – or John – Mogni on the 1901 census for Clerkenwell. He died in 1903 (via Ancestry).

A drunken fight between a couple of Italian men and a larger group of territorial Englishmen had led to one innocent man being put on trial twice, and once being convicted of a murder he didn’t commit. The man who actually committed that crime only received a five year prison term. Michael Harrington’s death shows how the Victorian criminal justice system could be flawed, and that anti-immigrant feeling caused violence and misperceptions about individuals, just as it still does today.

And what of the notorious Bleeding Heart Yard? By the 1880s, many of the tenants had been moved out, and the yard stood almost deserted, neglected, and waiting to be demolished. A couple of costermongers’ barrows stood there as remnants of the lives of those who previously peopled the area; a few petty criminals used the yard as a place to hide. But the Italian picture frame makers, one of whom gave evidence after the Golden Anchor death, and the advert-placing destitute ‘conners’ were no longer there.

Sources include: Glasgow Evening Post, 6 January 1885; Cheshire Observer, 8 August 1891; Newcastle Journal, 3 March 1865; Islington Gazette, 30 August 1897; Bristol Mercury, 2 January 1885; London Evening Standard, 3 May 1866; Old Bailey Online (refs t18650130-218; t18650227-333; t18650410-454; t18650410-455).

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).

 

 

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