Criminal Historian

Working with dead people

Tag: murder (page 1 of 4)

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).

When Swedish Anna was beheaded

The beheading of Anna Mansdotter, as depicted in the Illustrated Police News of 23 August 1890 (via the British Newspaper Archive)

‘The beheading of a woman is, fortunately, a very rare occurrence in Sweden,’ the article in the Illustrated Police News started, with an unusual degree of restraint for the publication.

It was detailing the death of Anna Månsdotter in the summer of 1890, and it was not surprising that the salacious and gossipy IPN sounded so shocked in its report. Anna had apparently kept her eyes open right until the point of her death, refusing to look away from the axe.

Anna was convicted, with her son, of killing her daughter-in-law Hanna Johansdotter – her son Per’s wife – in Yngsjö. Per was sentenced to life in prison, being sent to Karlskrona Gaol, but Anna received the sentence of death after she confessed to taking the larger role in the crime. She took on the ‘whole guilt’ of the crime, in order to ensure that her son survived.

King Oscar II, who voted -twice – for Anna to be beheaded

Her offence and confession shocked Sweden; it had been some 30 years since a woman had died on the scaffold, but in this case, it was universally believed that Anna should suffer the ultimate fate for her crime.

Even the king, Oscar, who was allowed two votes in court as to her punishment, voted for the death sentence to be applied. From the start of the trial process, it was widely believed that Anna’s case was hopeless, and that there would be no chance of mercy.

Anna’s refusal to express emotion after her sentence was passed was seen as a sign of her inhumanity rather than of fear – one of the motives given for the murder was that she may have been in a sexual relationship with Per, and killed Hanna out of sexual jealousy.

She spent her time in prison, prior to being executed, being very still; she refused to express any remorse, and similarly refused to take Holy Communion the nighght before her death. The prison chaplain attempted to speak with her; she refused to listen, or to respond to him.

On the day of her death, the executioner, Albert Gustaf Dahlman, and his assistant prepared outside the jail in Kristianstad. Unfortunately for Anna, she was the executioner’s first professional job, but there was no evidence of nerves as the large, muscly man, in his military-style uniform and white silk tie, prepared the scaffold. He looked confident, as he held his large axe in his hands.

At 8am, the magistrate read the judgement inside, before Anna, and then the prison doors were opened and she started to walk towards the scaffold, clad in a white belted dress. At 47, she still presented a striking figure, walking erect and lady-like, icy calm apart from the nervous twitching of her hands.

A depiction of Anna about to be executed, with her executioner shown on the left.

On the scaffold, the chaplain, who had accompanied her on her short walk, read the Lord’s Prayer. Anna then lay down and uttered a single moan as the executioner swung his axe, severing her head from her body in one motion. His assistant then lent down to pick the head up, displaying it to prove that justice had been served.

It was noted that Anna’s eyes remained open for several seconds after her death, and that her heart continued to pump blood; however, she was certainly dead, and the romantic retelling of her death ended with the more prosaic news that a professor from Lund claimed her body to use for the benefit of his medical students.

Anna was the last woman to be executed in Sweden; her son, Per, was released from prison in 1913, and died five years later.

Capturing a Police Killer

 To mark the release of her latest book, Who Killed Constable Cock?, I’m very pleased to have a guest post from writer Angela Buckley today. Here, she takes us through the night a Manchester policeman tragically lost his life…

PC Cock

At midnight on 1 August 1876, 21-year-old PC Nicholas Cock was doing his nightly rounds in the quiet suburb of Chorlton-cum-Hardy, Manchester. The night was dark, with very little moonlight and the young police officer was almost at the end of his beat, at a junction of three main thoroughfares, known as West Point. As he was walking along, he was overtaken by a law student, John Massey Simpson, who was returning home after an evening out. The two men chatted as they neared the junction, where they were joined by another officer, PC James Beanland. After a few minutes, they all went their separate ways.

John Simpson had only walked a few yards when he heard two shots ring out, as if from a firearm. They were followed by cries of ‘Murder!’ He rushed back to West Point, where he found PC Cock lying on the ground in a pool of blood. He had been shot in the chest. PC Beanland had also run back and between them they managed to get the injured officer into a passing night soil cart to take him to a local surgery. An hour later, despite the doctor having tried to revive him with brandy, Nicholas Cock died.

The news of the shooting reached Old Trafford police station within minutes, and PC Cock’s superior officer Superintendent James Bent sent out his men immediately to arrest the culprits. He was convinced that the three Habron brothers were responsible for his officer’s death and now all he had to do was find the evidence to build his case against them.

Originally from Ireland, John, aged 24, Frank, 22, and William Habron, 18, worked in a garden nursery close to the spot where PC Cock was killed. Superintendent Bent and his officers surrounded the outhouse where they lived. On his command they rushed into the building, which was in darkness. The three brothers were in bed.

The crime scene

Bent ordered them to get dressed, after which he handcuffed them and charged them with the murder of PC Cock. The eldest brother, John, claimed that he had been in bed at the time, although the police hadn’t mentioned when the event had taken place. The younger brothers hung their heads down and looked ‘very nervous’.

Superintendent Bent observed that their boots were muddy and the candle on the table was soft, as if recently extinguished. Bent ordered for them to be taken to the police station while he went to West Point to examine the crime scene.

At the junction, near where PC Cock had been shot, Bent found several sets of footprints. Covering them with a cardboard box, as it had started to rain, he sent to the police station for the Habrons’ boots. He made impressions with them in the cinders next to the prints and found that William’s left book was a match – the rows and patterns of nails corresponded exactly. William Habron became his prime suspect.

Back at the police station, a search of the prisoners’ clothing yielded two percussion caps from a firearm, which were discovered in William’s waistcoat pocket. There were also the key eyewitnesses, John Simpson and PC James Beanland, who had spotted a man on the corner of the junction, as they were standing with PC Cock.

PC Beanland described the stranger as about 22 years old, of medium stature and dressed in dark clothing. He had walked quickly ‘in an ordinary way’. However, John Simpson thought that the man had been older and that he had stooped, walking ‘in a faltering, loose kind of way’. When the law student saw William Habron at the police station, he couldn’t say with certainty that he was the man he had seen on the night of PC Cock’s murder.

Despite the circumstantial nature of the evidence against him, 18-year-old William Habron was convicted of the murder of Nicholas Cock. Due to his youth, his death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. However, three years later, a startling confession by a notorious burglar, who was facing the gallows for the murder of his lover’s husband, challenged the foundation of the case and Constable Cock’s real killer was finally revealed.

Find out what really happened to PC Cock in Who Killed Constable Cock? by Angela Buckley, out now in ebook and paperback. There is more information about Angela’s work on her website, http://www.angelabuckleywriter.com/ and on her Facebook page Victorian Supersleuth.

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.
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