Criminal Historian

Working with dead people

Tag: murder (page 1 of 4)

Unnatural conduct: the murder of Elizabeth Peers

Elizabeth Peers was not missed.

She had been gone all night, and most of the following day, but still she was not missed.

This is not to say that her parents had not noticed she had gone; more that they knew, but didn’t care. They didn’t miss her.

William Peers was a Liverpudlian labourer, a brick-setter, with a drink problem. His wife Elizabeth wasn’t much better. On the evening of Saturday. 28 October 1905, the couple had been arguing.

They paused for long enough to send their youngest daughter Elizabeth, then aged 10, out from their house in Wendell Street, Toxteth, to buy ‘some pork’. Either they had a strange urge for meat at 12.30am on a Saturday night, or they simply wanted a pretext to get their daughter away from them.

Even though it was absurdly late to send a 10-year-old out on errands – she should have been safely in bed – they sent her anyway. And then they failed to notice when she didn’t come back.

Instead, they went to bed. The next day, they failed to notice Elizabeth’s absence for some time – or at least, they failed to tell the police that their young daughter was missing. Eventually, Mr Peers asked some local relatives if Elizabeth was with them, and found out that she wasn’t.

The 1901 census for Toxteth, Liverpool, showing the Peers family (from Ancestry)

Elizabeth wasn’t with them, because she had been found that day in Back Cullen Street, an alleyway off Smithdown Road, and just two roads away from her home, dead. She had been sexually assaulted before being killed, and had probably been killed shortly after leaving her home on that Saturday night. Her father, obviously, didn’t find her, as he hadn’t looked. Instead, someone – presumably police – had to go to him to tell him his neglected daughter had been found dead in an alley, and removed to the mortuary.

Her cause of death was uncertain – some papers said she was throttled, others that she had been suffocated. All agreed that she had been ‘violated’ – raped. One paper went further and said that she died as a ‘result of the shock and violence to which she was subjected’ during the sexual assault; another that she had been gagged during her ordeal. This was a girl who was still little, who should have been tucked up in bed at home – but who was sent out by drunken parents who failed to protect her or ensure that she was safe.

The inquest shed light on the nature of Elizabeth’s family and associates. One man, a dock labourer named George Amos Wolstenholme, gave evidence that he had seen a man running from the alley at around 1.30 that morning, sweating, with his clothes ‘disarranged’ – but his evidence was dismissed as ‘unreliable’.

Elizabeth’s movements could not be traced – unsurprising given the antisocial hour that she had been out on her errands – and her assailant couldn’t be identified. The press criticised the police as having ‘no clue’, but there being a verdict of wilful murder against persons unknown was returned, the coroner and the jury knew who should really be blamed for this poor girl’s murder.

The jury approached the coroner, and asked him to say something to the public. He willingly agreed, and, as clear as he could, ‘severely censured the parents for the child for their unnatural conduct.’

Elizabeth may not have been noticed in life, but she was in death. When she was buried, it was said that more than 30,000 people came to stand on the Liverpool streets to see her hearse and three mourning carriages make their way to the Smithdown Cemetery. Streets were crowded; the blinds were drawn in the houses on the route; and women cried out for justice as the hearse went past them. The funeral procession was headed by three mounted police and a large number of policemen; perhaps out of respect for the child, but more likely to prevent the crowds turning nasty on the chief mourners, the parents.

There was some form of divine retribution for Elizabeth’s negligent parents. On Hallowe’en, 31 October, Mrs Peers – said to have been suffering greatly from shock, to the extent that the ‘poor creature can scarcely be held responsible for her acts’, spilt a paraffin lamp in the Peers home, setting the furniture on fire. Dazed, she was dragged out of the house by neighbours, and once in the street, fell, and hurt her face quite badly. This was the same woman who on being told a child had been found dead, commented, “God help some poor mother” before going to get some more drink.

The murder reinforced what many newspapers saw as the criminality of Liverpool’s residents, and in particular, of its slum areas. They eagerly covered the case, noting the poor area in which Elizabeth lived, and how children were neglected there. One article was headlined ‘Child life in a Liverpool slum’ and noted how one witness had said that it was not unusual for children to be out playing at midnight in the neighbourhood, and so it would not have been thought strange for Elizabeth to be out at that time.

Elizabeth was a ‘slum child’, given independence far beyond what we give our children today. She was sent on errands, forced to be older than her years as her parents dealt with their lives by numbing their feelings with alcohol.

It is not surprising that the press blamed her death on these parents, and on her location, as it enabled them to highlight concerns about the slums, and to argue for their destruction. It’s a shame they didn’t argue as forcibly for Elizabeth’s murderer to be caught, and for anyone with suspicions to report them. As it is, Elizabeth’s killer remained at large, and probably within the community the press criticised so harshly.

 

 

Sources: Dundee Courier, 23 November 1905, Lancashire Evening Post, 22 November 1905, Portsmouth Evening News, 1 November 1905, Derby Daily Telegraph, 4 November 1905, Gloucester Citizen, 22 November 1905, Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 23 November 1905, Dundee Evening Telegraph, 31 October 1905, Manchester Courier, 1 November 1905, Yorkshire Post, 16 November 1905

 

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).

 

 

Review: making music from murder – Lizzie, The Musical

Much has been written about the rise in dark tourism, where we visit historic sites that were once associated with crime and punishment.

From former prisons to the homes of past murderers, it seems we can’t get enough of imagining ourselves in the lives of past convicts and criminals, murderers and monsters.

I’m one of these people; I’m fascinated by these sites, and studying how people in the past lived and were punished by visiting those places where they resided.

And it’s undeniable that we are fascinated with murder not only as it is presented in these tourism sites, but in other forms too. Jack The Ripper, of course, has lent itself to tours and recreations; but what about a musical about a real-life murderer? Would we feel less comfortable about a singalong featuring a real case?

if you’re quick, you can find out. Lizzie, a musical about a notorious American double murder, is currently showing at the intimate Greenwich Theatre in London. Originating in Denmark, but having also played in the US, it is on a limited season in the capital, and is well worth a trip.

Lizzie Borden, photographed around two years prior to the murders

It is set in a scorchingly hot August in 1892, in Fall River, Massachusetts, where 32-year-old Lizzie Borden and her older sister Emma live with their frugal father, Andrew, and his second wife (their stepmother), Abby.

The tale itself is well-known; one morning, someone attacks Andrew and Abby with an axe, murdering them both. Lizzie is the prime suspect, but acquitted at trial, returning to live in the locality until her death in 1927.

The case was such a horrific one, and captured the attention of the public and press, to the extent that the famous rhyme is still repeated today:

Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.

So how does a musical attempt to show the murders, and cover Lizzie’s motives and guilt? Not in a conventional way, it has to be said. This is basically a punk rock musical, starring four women, who play Lizzie, Emma, their maid, Irish Bridget, and Lizzie’s friend Alice (presented here as her lesbian lover – various theories have been presented over the years to suggest that Lizzie and Alice were more than just friends). So it’s loud and furious; irreverent and aimed clearly at a modern audience.

But it is also rooted in historical fact. Lizzie and Emma are concerned that their stepmother only married their father for his money; Andrew Borden kills the pigeons in his barn with an axe, ignoring the fact that Lizzie has befriended them, thereby greatly upsetting her. The claustrophobia of late 19th century life for single women is portrayed well; one senses Lizzie’s  frustration with her life and the limited options open to her.

It is also significant, perhaps, that the four characters are all female, representing Lizzie’s small circle of confidantes, and that the murder victims are largely absent from the story (and even when they do appear, it is not in the form that you might expect). This is very much about putting Lizzie and her life at centre-stage; but it creates a picture of four strong women trying to make their way in a patriarchal society.

Lizzie Borden’s house in Fall River, where her father and stepmother were killed

There are two acts; in the first, the women are all in fairly conventional 1890s dress, thus representing the outward conventionality of their lives, until the moment that closes the act – the sudden violence of the two deaths.

After the interval, there is freedom, of sorts, from convention, and thus the girls are now in gaudy burlesque fashions, their hair a riot of colour and styles, singing profanities, screaming. Lizzie’s trial is presented as a trial of four people, as the women line up behind their microphones to give evidence – before the “Not guilty” verdict is shouted out (appearing in large scrawled letters behind them at the same time).

The choreography, lighting and design of the show are great here, and Bjørg Gamst (Lizzie), Eden Espinosa (Emma), Bleu Woodward (Alice) and Jodie Jacobs (Bridget) put their all into their roles, singing with gusto and panache.

Obviously, a musical has to simplify events and characters. Lizzie turns the maid into a stock Irish comedy character, and the main character loses the complexity she looked like having in the first half once her father and stepmother are dead.

But overall, it’s an imaginative approach to depicting not only a famous crime, but also the life of the woman who is still widely believed – despite the verdict of her jury – to have killed two in that hot little house in Massachusetts over a century ago.

Lizzie continues at Greenwich Theatre until 12 March – buy tickets here. The musical’s UK website is here.

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.

Mad murder: A crime for which there was no reason

A depiction of the murder in the Illustrated Police News

A depiction of the murder in the Illustrated Police News

It was regarded as one of the most cold-blooded murders that had ever been committed in Somerset. It was a Friday in the third week of March, 1868, when, around six o’clock in the evening, the body of a 13-year-old boy named John Wilkins was found just inside a gate, about ten yards from the main road in Winscombe.

The corpse was said to have presented a ‘most sickening spectacle’; the head was ‘beaten almost to the jelly’, and the throat cut so deep that the head was also almost severed from the body.

John was employed by local farmer Henry Hancock to keep his birds; he was only young, and minding his own business – who would want to see him dead?

Locals didn’t have long to wait to find out. Soon after the body was discovered, a young man by the name of Alexander Holmes called at the house where the Banwell policeman, Acting-Sergeant Hancock, lived. The constable was out on duty, so Holmes, who was himself only 18 years old, told the elderly landlady what he wanted to get off his chest instead:

“I have just killed a lad.”

The rather brave landlady stayed with the stranger, until the parish constable arrived, and promptly took him into custody. He was then taken to the Axbridge police station by PC Barrington.

Holmes told the policeman that he was the son of a retired army officer, Colonel Holmes, who had been with the 12th Lancers but now lived at Cloughjordan, near Roscrea, in County Tipperary, Ireland. Holmes had been living with turf dealer Edwin Godfrey at Edington, near Bridgwater, for the previous three years – an arrangement between Godfrey and Colonel Holmes – and appeared to have had a quiet life.

Yet behind his calm façade, he apparently  hid a desire to kill. He said:

“I felt I must kill someone, and it is a great wonder to me how it is I have not killed more.”

This comment was because he had passed several more people on the road to where he came across young John, who was at work in a field. He had seen the boy, entered through the gate to that field, bludgeoned him to the ground, and then tried to cut his head off.

This was a horrific, unplanned murder in a small community; but as was common with Victorians, they were both fascinated and repelled by the case. Soon, they were flocking to the scene of the crime – it was said that at one point there were ‘hundreds’, not just from Winscombe but from the surrounding villages.

The police searched the area, and found a heavy, bloodied stick just ten yards from where the body had been found; six yards further, they found a knife by the side of a small brook that ran through the meadow – Holmes stated that it was here that he calmly washed his hands after killing John Wilkins.

At the trial, at the Somerset Assizes, the pointlessness of the murder was reiterated.

“The prisoner had never seen the boy before – they were perfect strangers to each other – would any man in his senses have gone and belaboured a poor boy about the head and then cut his head from his body?”

There was no premeditation. No accomplice. Holmes had lived 20 miles from Wilkins, and had never seen him before; and he had confessed almost as soon as he had committed the murder.

There were two hypotheses as to why Holmes had killed. The first was simply that he had voices in his head demanding that he kill – it didn’t matter who, he was just told to attack someone.

But the second was that he was of ‘extremely weak intellect’, and to further this argument, Holmes’ old teacher, the Reverend F Howse, was called before the coroner, and noted that:

“He had a master to instruct him in Latin, French, and drawing, but he was incapable of learning these things.”

He also added that boys on the street used to ‘call’ after Holmes; a key part of testimony in Victorian court cases was to show that an individual was ‘simple’ by demonstrating that he or she had been publicly teased by other children.

Colonel Holmes’s friend, an army surgeon, was asked to visit his friend’s son; he asked him why he killed the boy and ‘he said he could not help it. I asked him if he knew the consequences of such an act, and he laughed like an idiot’.

Unsurprisingly, the proprietor of a lunatic asylum near Taunton was asked to examined Holmes; he noted that although he was clearly of weak intellect, he was able to answer every question put to him ‘quite rationally’. He now stated that he had been motivated by reading an account of another, very recent, murder, at Todmorden*, and this had given him the idea.

This has clear echoes of the fears many Victorians had that reading murder accounts, particularly those in penny dreadfuls, might motivate readers to commit similar crimes (Kate Summerscale’s discussion of penny dreadfuls, and perceptions of them, in The Wicked Boy is well worth a read).

It was found that Holmes was clearly a disturbed young man, and after only two minutes of consultation, the jury decided that Holmes was not guilty of murder, by reason of insanity. He was ordered to be kept in custody ‘until her Majesty’s pleasure be known.’

Alexander Holmes' entry in the prison registers for Somerset, 1868 (from Ancestry)

Alexander Holmes’ entry in the prison registers for Somerset, 1868 (from Ancestry)

It later emerged that Colonel Holmes knew his son was insane; being in straitened circumstances following his retirement on half-pay, he had arranged for Edwin Godfrey to look after his son as though Godfrey was running a lunatic asylum.

Edwin Godfrey's entry in the 1871 Edington census - he was no longer running an unlicensed asylum... (image via Ancestry)

Edwin Godfrey’s entry in the 1871 Edington census – he was no longer running an unlicensed asylum… (image via Ancestry)

Unfortunately, though, Godfrey did not have the order or medical certificates required under the Lunacy Acts to run an asylum – but he was cheap, only asking for 7s a week to look after the troubled boy. Colonel Holmes’ defence was to the point:

“In placing him out, I thought it was for my own son’s good.”

Both Colonel Holmes and Edwin Godfrey were bound over in the sum of £40 each, and Godfrey was bailed until the next Assize.

This had a negative impact on the Wilkins family, for Colonel Holmes had previously promised to give them an annuity of £20 a year, a very small reparation for his son’s act.

However, once Alexander was moved to the Lunatic Asylum for Criminals, the Secretary of State sent his father notice that he would have to pay 14s a week maintenance for him. He then had to pay for his defence and that of Godfrey, in the forthcoming trial on the charge of unlawfully keeping a lunatic without license to do so.

Already feeling the pinch of his reduced income, Colonel Holmes immediately dropped his plans to help John Wilkins’ relatives.

Sources:

Belfast Morning News, 18 March 1868, Bristol Times, 28 March 1868, Taunton Courier, 25 March 1868, Bristol Times & Mirror, 11 April 1868, Taunton Courier, 29 April 1868, Potter’s Electric News, 18 March 1868 (via the British Newspaper Archive)

*The Todmorden murder was the murder of Jane Smith, at Todmorden Parsonage, by Miles Weatherill. Jane had given information that Weatherill was illicitly ‘walking out with’ Sarah Bell, a 16-year-old servant of the Todmorden vicar, the Reverend Plow, that resulted in Sarah losing her job. Weatherill took his revenge, and also shot Mrs Plow, the vicar’s wife, although she survived. Weatherill was convicted of murder, and given the death sentence.

 

The condemned miner with a Jesus complex

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

gordon_hewart_1st_viscount_hewart

Lord Hewart, the Lord Chief Justice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

Western Daily Press, 16 November 1927

Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail, 13 December 1927

Durham Chronicle, 16 December 1927

Fife Free Press, 7 January 1928

 

 

 

A Tale of Two Sisters: The poisoners of Victorian Liverpool

Road to Versailles, by Camille Pissarro

Road to Versailles, by Camille Pissarro

It was a snowy morning in Lancashire, as the two women were brought out to the scaffold in the prison yard. They showed no sign of the cold, though, as they climbed up onto it, and were pinioned. Displaying a little nervousness, they stood there, eyes closed, their mouths moving silently as they repeated prayers over and over, over and over. Then their white caps were pulled over their pale faces, and, as the snow fell, their executioner pulled back a lever, and they fell to their deaths.

There they hanged, motionless, as the snow continued falling around Kirkdale Gaol, a gentle, floating snow that was at odds with the violent scene that had taken place in its midst.(1)

**

The women were not strangers, or even friends. They were sisters. Catherine Flanagan and Margaret Higgins both lived in Liverpool, but there was considerable debate about where they were originally from. In the xenophobic, anti-Irish late 19th century, it was speculated that they were both Irish born; but other sources said that they were Scottish, from Dumfries, where their relatives still lived.

Some reports, though, had Higgins admit to being from a village near Belfast, and having migrated to Liverpool with her parents and sister when she was ten. What was known was that Catherine was the elder sister, being around 55 years old; Margaret was some 14 years her junior.

Mrs Flanagan had one trait that in other circumstances would have been commended – she was rather frugal. She spent little, to the extent of being regarded as miserly, and it was said that her favourite occupation was that of acquiring money.

Late 19th century Liverpool

Late 19th century Liverpool

With savings she had accumulated when young, she opened a beer house near Liverpool’s docks – a poor area but one that would guarantee good custom from the local workers. However, she did not like rules and regulations, and soon came to the attention of the police for opening on Sundays, and for the illicit activities that took place in her tavern. After several convictions, she was forced to close her beer house down.

She then put her financial skills to better use by setting up as a money lender. She borrowed money from local loan offices, and then lent it to her hard-up neighbours, in small sums, but charging interest of fourpence in every shilling. She then started dealing with burial societies – with rather a grim result.

The most noteworthy thing about her sister Margaret was that she had had two husbands – her first was a labourer, an Orangeman from Northern Ireland. He died under suspicious circumstances, and it was rumoured that she may have murdered him. She then married again – one Thomas Higgins. He soon died, after insurance policies had been taken out on him.

Suspicions were aroused, and in a dramatic fashion, his funeral was halted by police in order for his body to be examined. At this point, Flanagan disappeared – it took a week for her to be apprehended. An inquest was duly held on Thomas Higgins’ body, starting just after Christmas in 1883. On 4 January 1884, the coroner’s jury returned a verdict of wilful murder against both sisters.

It then emerged that Flanagan had previously taken in a young lodger at her home on Skirvin Street – 18-year-old Margaret Jennings, who had also died under suspicious circumstances (2). Once the sisters had been charged with Thomas’s death, an order was submitted for Margaret’s body to be exhumed. It was believed that the women had killed both in order to get their life insurance.

Two more charges came; one that they had also poisoned Catherine’s son John, and the other, that they had also killed Margaret’s step-daughter, Mary Higgins. John, aged 22, had been buried four years earlier (3); his body was exhumed from its grave at Ford Cemetery, near Liverpool, and was found to be ‘wonderfully’ preserved. His corpse was found to be full of arsenic. John had been insured with a number of burial societies and insurance agents for a total of £71.

Madame Lafarge - another woman accused of using arsenic to kill

Madame Lafarge – another woman accused of using arsenic to kill

Mary Higgins (called Sarah in some reports) had died in November 1882, aged 12 (4),  shortly after Margaret had taken out various death insurance policies on her. Her body was exhumed towards the end of January 1884, and again found to contain arsenic. Both Sarah’s and John’s bodies were reinterred after their post-mortems; no inquests were allowed to be held as more than a year had passed since their deaths.

Faced with the evidence of the insurance policies, Catherine now turned against her sister, offering to give evidence against her, and admitting that she had used arsenic from fly-papers to poison the insured. The Crown, however, refused to let her become a witness.

The two women went on trial at the Liverpool Assizes in February 1884. Both women were charged with the wilful murder of Thomas Higgins, Margaret Jennings, and John Flanagan; Margaret was additionally charged with murdering Mary Higgins (sic). Crowds attended the trial, eager to hear the details of the two middle aged sisters’ alleged offences.

One of the witnesses was Margaret Jennings’ father Patrick, who confirmed that he and his daughter had lodged with Catherine, and had known her son John. In court, he had to describe not only John’s agonising death, over two days – which both the accused women had watched –  but his own daughter’s.

The two women murdered him by poisoning; and were sentenced to death on Saturday 16 February 1884 for doing so. Realising there was no chance of their sentences being commuted, they freely admitted their guilt. They were sent to the nearly 70-year-old Kirkdale Gaol to await their execution, and were said to have been ‘dejected’; because they were both completely illiterate, ‘the time has hung more heavily on their hands than it would have done had they been possessed of any education’.

Kept in separate cells, they had little to keep them occupied, apart from thinking about their impending deaths. They ended up asking the female warders who watched them 24 hours a day to read to them, and were said to have ‘much appreciated’ the stories.

Their own stories, however, were about to end.

**

It is 3 March, a bitterly cold Monday morning. It’s early, and barely light, but even so, a crowd has gathered in the snow in front of the gaol. They cannot see the execution itself, for hangings have been held away from the public gaze for nearly two decades now. (5) Yet there they stand, blowing on their hands, stamping their feet, to keep warm; the women are huddled into their shawls. They have their eyes gazing upwards; not to the sky, but to the spot where, shortly after 8am, a black flag will be hoisted to tell them that the murderers are dead.

Behind the gaol walls, they know that Binns, the executioner, is finalising arrangements, assisted by Samuel Heath, a man from the other side of the Pennines. They have sorted the drop – nine feet six for Flannagan, and two inches more for Higgins. Now they are waiting for the two women to walk the steps to the scaffold… they are adjusting the ropes, placing the nooses under the women’s chins…

And on the outside, as the snow continues to fall, a black flag climbs into the air, watched silently by the crowd. (6)

Report of the execution in the Illustrated Police News

Report of the execution in the Illustrated Police News

 

NOTES

  1. Press reports of the day stress the cold and snowy conditions of the morning the execution took place – see, for example, the Illustrated Police News of 8 March 1884.
  2. Death of Margaret Jennings: BMDs, Liverpool, March quarter of 1883, vol 8b, page 17.
  3. Death of John Flannigan: BMDs, Liverpool, December quarter of 1880, vol 8b page 40.
  4. Some reports said that she was 10, but BMD records state that she was 12 (BMDs for Liverpool, December quarter of 1882, vol 8b, page 30).
  5. Public executions in Britain ended in 1868 (see Capital Punishment UK).
  6. Press coverage taken from: Yorkshire Gazette, 10 November 1883, Dundee Evening Telegraph, 18 February 1884, Stamford Mercury, 8 February 1884, Dundee Courier, 22 February 1884, Cornubian and Redruth Times, 25 January 1884, Dundee Courier, 19 February 1884, Dublin Daily Express, 5 January 1884, Portsmouth Evening News, 29 December 1883, Fife Herald, 5 March 1884.

Book review: Charlie Peace: Murder, Mayhem and the Master of Disguise

614-5PESbKL._SX346_BO1,204,203,200_“A devil once lived in God’s own county,” states the blurb to this new book on the Victorian burglar and murderer Charlie Peace, and this sets up the style of the book well. First-time author Ben W Johnson proudly proclaims his journalistic credentials on the book’s cover, . has a journalistic background which does, perhaps, help explain the style in which he writes.

So what could be a grim, bleak tale of life in 19th century Sheffield becomes, in Johnson’s writing, a romanticised story of a boy who saw his father injured in the course of work and who was also injured young, ending his legitimate career hopes. A tale of a physically and morally repugnant man, who treated his wife appallingly badly, and had little thought as to other people’s feelings, becomes, in this account, almost heroic in places.

Although the author has clearly spent time on his research, the book is occasionally problematic in terms of facts; for example, Johnson states unequivocally that Peace married his wife, Hannah (on page 30, he says that Charlie and Hannah married ‘in a small ceremony in nearby Rotherham’, and on page 137 he notes that she was a woman who ‘took her wedding vows seriously’), but he then refers to her, later in the book, as his ‘common-law wife’ (p.114) – which would mean they were not married.

He frequently refers to Peace’s ‘athleticism’ – despite the fact that Peace was lame and had a pronounced limp. He states that Beverley was a ‘town in North Yorkshire’ (p.85) – it is, and was at the time of the events described in the book, in the East Riding. Peace’s stepson, Willie, is given two different surnames (Willie Ward on p.120 – Ward being briefly one of Pearce’s pseudonyms, but there is no sign that anyone else adopted that name –  and Willie Haines in the illustrations insert) during the course of the book.

More problematically, Johnson also ascribes feelings to Peace and the members of his family, where I am not certain he can possibly know what they were – it is not clear whether he has got them from historical sources or has simply put his modern day sensibilities onto these very different Victorian figures.

So on p.19, we are told that Peace’s parents ‘glowed with pride’ when he played an instrument, and on p.21 that he had visits in hospital from ‘his loving family’ and that he ‘thanked his lucky stars each day’ that he had not had a leg amputated (although on the same page, and the following, we are also told that he had a ‘sense of hopelessness’ about his predicament). His wife is his ‘soulmate and lover’ (p.30); his mother is said to have been ‘alarmed’ by the changes she saw in her son (p.22).  If these feelings are based on archival sources, I would have liked to have been told that, as it instead gives the impression that Johnson has got confused as to whether he is writing a history book or a work of historical fiction.

It’s certainly a great story – Peace moved around the country evading police for quite a while; he may (or may not) have had an affair that led to him becoming what we would call today an obsessive stalker, and murdering his (possible) lover’s husband. He also had the ability to dislocate his jaw at will, changing his appearance, and could feign being different characters through his use of dress and walnut oil.

But he was also, clearly, an unattractive, repugnant character, and the sympathy of readers may well be with the women he came into contact with, as well as the unfortunate lover’s husband and also a Manchester constable who ended up dead at Peace’s hand. He was not the romanticised American-style gangster that Johnson appears to want him to be (the description of a Manchester pub as being ‘more akin to a rowdy Wild West saloon’ on p.55 is one suggestion of this); he was a petty criminal from Sheffield whose committed murders appear to have been more the result of fluke than of plan.

Perhaps the hyperbole and odd similes and metaphors that Johnson clearly loves contribute to this strange attempt to make Peace more of a man than he was. One victim is described as dropping to the ground and lying ‘as still as a carved statue’ while Charlie ‘scampered into the night like a wily urban fox’ (p.72); at another point, Charlie disappears into the darkness ‘like an unwelcome gust of icy wind’ (p.83). Johnson refers to the ‘first green shoots of criminality rising to the surface’ in the young Peace (p.24); elsewhere we are told that ‘the talons of crime had buried themselves too deep into the flesh of this wretched villain’. (p.30). I ended up getting distracted looking for the next example of this unnecessarily flowery language, which is not what a reader wants to do, or should do!

Basically, Johnson has a good story here, but needs to reign in his tendency to over-egg his language in order to tell it effectively. There’s nothing wrong with paring back, rather than adding to, the words. He also needs to decide whether he wants to write a factual history of crime, or whether his enthusiasm is really for historical fiction. Trying to combine two different genres, as he appears to do here, can occasionally jar, as can the propensity to ascribe modern emotions about the family to 19th century characters who may have lived differently, or had different motivations, to those he, in the 21st century, assumes. However, it is still a readable romp through Charlie Peace’s life.

Charlie Peace: Murder, Mayhem and the Master of Disguise by Ben W. Johnson (Pen &Sword, 2016) is available now from Pen & Sword, Amazon and other retailers.

Book Review: Mary Ann Cotton: Dark Angel

mary_ann_cotton

Mary Ann Cotton, suspected serial killer

Mary Ann Cotton has gone into the history books as ‘Britain’s first serial killer’ – something reiterated by a line on this new book‘s front cover. However, as the author, Martin Connolly, sets out to explore, there is doubt as to how many murders she committed – and the author in fact is not sure that she committed any, which makes the unequivocal cover a bit of an odd decision.

The first part of this book, looking at Mary Ann Cotton’s life prior to her trial in 1873, is a bit confusing. Connolly, who lives in the area Cotton was from, assumes that the reader has a knowledge of her life and crimes and therefore fails to explain events properly from the beginning, so the feeling is that the reader is being thrown into situations they are assumed to already know about.

There is also a bit of a confusing chronology and use of sources, and I had to refer back a few times to work out what was happening, and who was who.  In this sense, and in the way the author is confused as to how to refer to poor relief (and his argument that Mary Ann couldn’t have been a prostitute because she had always earned a living – despite prostitution being, by its nature, paid work in itself), the book could have done with more stringent editing by Pen & Sword.

However, once Connolly starts to explore the trial itself, the book becomes far more satisfactory. He relates the trial using archival sources and statements, and so here, we read a straightforward account of what people said, and the suspicions of the neighbourhood relating to Mary Ann. The fundamental unfairness of a trial in which the defendant had little defence or ability to understand what was going on and how to respond to it is made clear, and Connolly explores how such a trial, if held today, would be unlikely to result in a guilty verdict.

12947This is not to say that 40-year-old Mary Ann was innocent; although Connolly makes a good argument as to doubts in her case, my feeling remains that she was guilty of multiple murders. However, the key issue is the lack of defence, and the relegation of Mary Ann almost to a bit-player in her town trial, and this the author explores well.

I also liked the fact that Connolly had researched what had happened to others involved in Mary Ann’s life and trial, particularly her surviving children, which gave a sense of closure to the book, and the inclusion of Mary Ann’s prison letters, in her own spelling and language, which gave a real impression of the woman and how she communicated.

So for an interesting account of how the legal system operated in late 19th century England, and how it was stacked against poorer defendants, Mary Ann Cotton: Dark Angel is recommended.

Mary Ann Cotton: Dark Angel, by Martin Connolly, is published by Pen & Sword books, and can be bought here.

Abandoned lives: concealed births and abandoned babies in Victorian England

There was a movement in the bushes as she walked down the path that led from her house to the road. Why she stopped to look, she wasn’t sure; perhaps because it was not a breezy day – it was simply cold, and still – or perhaps because the movement seemed unusual.

But stop she did, and stoop down to look more closely. It’s just as well she did, for there, lying amongst the foliage, yet not well hidden – as though somebody wanted it found – was a small bundle of cloths. She picked it up, and it moved; for there, well wrapped up against the cold, was a baby.

Lawford's Gate House of Correction, where Elizabeth Pratt was first sent. © Trustees of the British Museum

Lawford’s Gate House of Correction, where Elizabeth Pratt was first sent. © Trustees of the British Museum

The child was just three months old, and had not been there, in the garden in Stapleton, very long. At the Gloucestershire Assizes in February 1888, 21-year-old servant, Elizabeth Pratt, was found guilty of unlawfully abandoning it, but she refused to admit that it was hers, and even the judge in her case stated that he didn’t know whether the child was hers, or belonged to someone else.

Stapleton – now a suburb of Bristol – was only a village at that time, yet it already had a reputation for child related offences. In 1875, for example, a 33-year-old laundress, Charlotte Gingell, had been found guilty of the lesser charge of concealing the birth of her child after a naked baby girl had been found at the bottom of her well in Stapleton.

When questioned about it, she had tried to stab herself. Her case was deemed to be novel; many concealment cases were the result of young single women who had been seduced, and who hid the bodies of their illegitimate children to ‘hide their shame’ – according to the judge at Charlotte’s trial. Her case was seen to be far worse, as she was a married woman with two older children. She had been found guilty and sentenced to 18 months’ hard labour; but she was not found guilty of murder, despite evidence that the child had been born alive, and died due to either asphyxiation or drowning.

Charlotte appears to have been pregnant with a child by a different father to that of her elder children – then aged three and eight – and her brother and sister-in-law, who she lived with, had told her she would have to go and live somewhere else if she was pregnant. She was worried about her situation, and what would happen with regard to her work and her home if she gave birth to another child.

Like Charlotte Gingell’s, Elizabeth Pratt’s was seen to be a ‘very unusual case’. Usually, if a woman like Elizabeth had an illegitimate child and could not or would not take care of it, it might be looked after elsewhere – or she might even kill it, as the numerous infanticide cases in the 19th century show. There was, to some degree, sympathy with mothers in such a plight, and those charged with infanticide were often found guilty of a lesser offence, or reprieved if convicted.

But Elizabeth had not abandoned her child in the hope that the cold might kill it; she had not drowned it; she had not appeared to want it dead. Instead, she had wrapped it up warmly and left it in a woman’s garden, where it would be quickly and easily found. She could not keep her child, but she wanted it to survive and be cared for. This was recognised when her case was heard at the Assizes, the judge stating that ‘she had done nothing but abandon the child, and it was immediately afterwards found and taken care of.’

Prison register entry for Elizabeth, from Ancestry.

Prison register entry for Elizabeth, from Ancestry.

Elizabeth was from a labouring family, and poverty may have helped to explain her offence. Her father, William, was a labourer in Cromhall, a village in south Gloucestershire, around 11 miles from Stapleton; his wife, Elizabeth, worked as a washerwoman. Neither were well-paid or secure occupations. The 1871 census shows that at that time, William and Elizabeth were maintaining seven children, aged between two and 13. Cromhall was a rural parish, and work was predominantly agricultural labouring.

By the age of 13, Elizabeth was working away from home as a servant, acting as nurse to a family in Berkeley. At the age of 18, she received her first criminal conviction. At the Coleford Petty Sessions on 8 January 1884, she was found guilty of stealing money, and sentenced to a month in prison.

In 1887, she became pregnant, and gave birth in the September of that year. She appears to have been able to look after her child initially – but what happened three months later to make her abandon her child? Could her parents no longer support her, or had she been in a relationship that ended? The records do not record more than the cursory details; we know that Elizabeth was just 4 feet 11 in height, had dark brown hair and could read and write imperfectly; but we do not know the motive for her abandoning her child after three months of looking after it. The records also fail to record whether the child was male or female, or what happened to it after it was discovered.

What is known is that poverty impacted on the lives of those around her. The record of her conviction is on a page full of petty offences – drunken behaviour, begging, hawking without a licence. They are offences committed by those at the bottom of the social ladder, who are trying to either eke out a living or drink when they have nothing else.

Elizabeth was initially sent to Lawford’s Gate, a House of Correction in Bristol. Then, at the Gloucestershire Assizes, Elizabeth was sentenced to 14 days’ hard labour in prison. She was discharged on 1 March 1888. She then returned to service, and in 1891 was working for the Reverend Gerald N Jackson at Tytherington vicarage (Tytherington being a village near Cromhall), acting as the family’s cook. Did the Jackson family offer her a bit of Christian charity? It seems unlikely that in a small community, near her birthplace and where her family lived, that they would have been unaware of her history and convictions.

Prison register entry for Elizabeth, from Ancestry.

Prison register entry for Elizabeth, from Ancestry.

In Tytherington, Elizabeth seems to have made a life for herself. She met a new partner, a labourer named Thomas Creed, four years her junior, and on 5 August 1893, at the parish church in Tytherington, aged 26, she married him. The wedding ceremony was conducted by her employer, vicar Gerald Jackson. She then had three children – Beatrice, born in 1894, Lucinda Emily Maud, born in 1898, and John, born 1900 – before the family relocated to Caldicot, Monmouthshire, where Thomas found work as a fireman. In 1911, the family was living there, seeing their two younger children through school.

What happened to the poor child who was abandoned in a garden in Stapleton? Absent from the censuses, and not referred to by name in either press reports or prison registers, it is hard to tell. However, a William Stevens Pratt was born in the autumn of 1883 in the Thornbury district of Gloucestershire – which included Cromhall – and died there three years later. William was of course Elizabeth’s father’s name; and it was fairly common for illegitimate children to take their natural father’s surname as their middle name. Perhaps Elizabeth had fallen pregnant to a Mr Stevens’ child, and abandoned the baby, only for him to die aged three.

The abandoning of her first child, and her prior conviction for theft, indicate a troubled spell for Elizabeth as a young woman, living in a community with a limited range of options for a girl from a labouring family. It also shows that living in the Gloucestershire countryside was not a rural idyll, but one fraught with hardship, the struggle to find and maintain work, to get money, and to cope when difficult situations arose. The criminal registers and newspaper reports suggest that Elizabeth’s life was not, in this respect, an unusual one.

Based on records from the British Newspaper Archive and Ancestry. One of the criminal records for Elizabeth states that she was born in Lydbrook, in the Forest of Dean; although this is feasible, as it is not too far away, I suspect that this is an admin error, for there are no other records relating to a woman of this name being born in that area at the right time, and other records give her birthplace as Cromhall.

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