Criminal Historian

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Tag: murderess

Death at Drybank: The sad case of Rees Brandish

In 1897, the discovery of a little boy’s body in a Warwickshire village laid bare the problems that could face single mothers in Victorian England. I wrote about this case for my monthly history column in the Stratford Herald, but here, I’ve spent a bit more time looking at the detail, as there was much more to the story than I could fit into a single page article!

It was Saturday 13 November 1897, a day that the residents of Ettington, Warwickshire, would remember. The peacefulness of the village was broken by the Stratford police, arriving in force to dig the  grounds of Drybank Farm. They had a woman in custody who, it was believed, had murdered her son: their enquiries had brought them to this rural farm.

It was not until they had dug almost the whole of the farmhouse garden up, to a depth of around two feet, that they found the naked body of a little boy buried in the soil, doubled up, and covered in lime. That boy was Rees Thomas Yelves Brandish, aged just two-and-a-half.

As further details emerged, the horror of Rees’ short life became apparent, and highlighted the problems faced by single mother in the Victorian era. For Rees was illegitimate, the son of a 33-year-old unmarried nurse, Elizabeth Brandish. Elizabeth, a blue-eyed, good-looking woman, could not look after her son as she needed to work – and work could be lost if employers found out their female workers had had a child out of wedlock.

Therefore, Elizabeth paid an elderly woman named Mrs Post, who lived at Wye, near Ashford in Kent, five shillings a week to look after her son. Thoughout the late 19th century, and even into the 20th, there were unscrupulous women who would advertise their desire to have a baby to adopt or look after, in return for either a one-off upfront fee or a weekly charge.

The notorious baby farmer Amelia Dyer

They really wanted the money rather than the child, though, and would either neglect the child, use  laudanum to suppress their appetites, starve them, and see them die – or, alternatively, in the case of Amelia Dyer, for example, simply murder them.

Elizabeth, though struck lucky. Although Mrs Post had advertised for a child to look after, she was one of the genuine women who actually wanted to help others. From the age of nine weeks old, she and the rest of the Posts became the only family Rees knew – one he bonded with and was at home with – while his mother found work in Clent, in north Worcestershire.

However, it appears that Elizabeth may have actually have been hoping that she was answering an advert from a baby farmer. It was later claimed that she had got into a conversation with a woman one day who had advised her about such acts. Had Elizabeth been annoyed that she instead got a woman who cared about her son, and who looked after him well – costing his mother five shillings a week for the past two and a bit years?

This may be why, on 9 September 1897, Elizabeth announced that she was retrieving her son from the Post house. She arrived in Wye, saying she was going to take Rees to her brother’s farm at Ettington – it was not, in fact his farm, but he was employed to work there by the farm’s bailiff. He also had no idea that his sister had been pregnant, let alone given birth.

Suspicions were aroused in Kent when Elizabeth quickly left with her child, but without any of his spare clothes. It was also noted by Mrs Post and her family that Elizabeth did not display any love for Rees when she came to take him away.

Rees was said to have been ‘weary, tired and sad at being taken away from those he had come to regard as his only friends,’ and the Posts turned out to be far more solicitous of his well-being than Elizabeth. Mother and son were found the next night by a police sergeant in London, wandering around the capital’s streets.

Concerned, the policeman took them to a local police station, for Elizabeth to be treated by a doctor, and then transferred to the Euston area, where they stayed the rest of the night in a hotel. Finally, on the morning of 11 September, they travelled on a train bound for Bletchley, changing at Blisworth for a second train for Banbury, and then getting off at Towcester at 4.50pm.

What would have been the entrance to Euston station when Elizabeth and Rees Brandish went there to catch their train

On embarking at Euston, Elizabeth and Rees had got into a third-class compartment, which they shared with other travellers; it was observed that Nurse Brandish had with her a large tin trunk.

When the train stopped at Towcester, she had got off with her trunk and her son, and tried to get into the stationmaster’s office to buy a second-class ticket on the 7.19pm train leaving that station. She appeared so strange and excited that the stationmaster wouldn’t let her in, instead selling her an excess ticket outside to enable her to travel second-class for the rest of the journey.

The mother and child were seen entering an empty second-class carriage. However, by the time she got off the train at Ettington, at 8pm, Elizabeth was alone: but she was carrying a large bundle under her arm, in addition to the tin trunk. Two months later, Rees’ body was found buried in a farmhouse garden in that village.

Suspicions about Elizabeth were relayed to the police, and they didn’t take long to find her, back in Clent. When she was arrested, a letter was found in her pocket, where she noted that she would probably be hanged, and asked for forgiveness, writing, ‘whatever wrong has been done in my life has not been of my own seeking.’

She claimed that she had been seduced by a man on a train three years earlier, he having ‘taken advantage of my loneliness’; when she told him she was pregnant, he had denied having had anything to do with her. She had given birth on her own in London, and been very ill for some time afterwards. Her luck then improved, as a ‘kind lady’ paid for her to train as a nurse.

She had since been working in Clent, where the community knew her and respected her; those she worked for regarded her with great esteem. But more significantly, it appears that she was being courted by a policeman in Clent, and he was thinking about proposing: had Elizabeth been worried that he would end the relationship if he found out that she had had an illegitimate child – a child she had failed to mention to him previously?

While Elizabeth was being arrested, taken to the Stratford police station, and then on by train to Warwick Gaol – a large crowd gathering at Stratford station in the hope of catching a sight of this allegedly murderous mother – there was little attention being paid to the life of the little boy whose life had been cut short. The emphasis was on this pretty woman who was so caring in her profession, yet was accused of having killed her own child.

Ettington Church, by John Holmes, on Geograph

On Rees’ body being discovered, this lack of attention towards the little boy continued. His body was covered loosely in some sacking and dumped in a wheelbarrow to be taken to the local pub for an inquest. Later, the vicar of Ettington being away, Rees received no religious funeral service; instead, his remains were put into a cheap, rough elm coffin, with no inscription on it, and taken on ‘an ordinary truck’ to be buried in the churchyard.

It was a pauper’s burial, paid for by the parish and organised by the parish overseer. The only people present for the burial were the undertaker and his son, and two ladies who took pity on this poor, unloved child. Once interred, it was reported that Rees’ grave was ‘hastily shovelled in’ with soil.

As the Leamington Spa Courier sadly noted:

“Seldom has the truth and the force of the lines, ‘Rattle his bones, over the stones, he’s only a pauper who nobody owns’ been more clearly illustrated than at Ettington.”

Villagers were said to have been deeply upset by the lack of respect granted to this small child who ‘was in no way responsible either for the circumstances of his birth, or death’, but they weren’t upset enough to arrange a better service, or to attend the burial.

The trial of Elizabeth Brandish for the wilful murder of her son started in March 1898 at the Warwick Assizes. After three days of debating, the jury was unable to reach a verdict, and so was discharged. A second trial then began at the following, summer, Assizes, but with an unexpected result.

Because so much of the evidence against Elizabeth was circumstantial, they had found her not guilty – despite there being no obvious alternative reason for Rees’ death and subsequent burial at the farm where his uncle worked, and despite Elizabeth’s confessional-style letter. The judge at the trial was stunned, and ended up leaving the court having failed to tell Elizabeth that, after nine months in prison awaiting a trial and verdict, she had been acquitted and was now, again, a free woman.

Teh Leamington Spa Courier noted that never had so much interest been taken in the ‘peaceful little hamlet’ of Ettington, whose only other distinction was its ‘proximity to the birth town of the Immortal Bard’.

 

 

 

Discussing ‘The Cult of the Criminal’ in Victorian England

Coverage of the Richmond Murder, from the Illustrated Police News of 26 April 1879

I was in London yesterday, firstly to do some research at the London Metropolitan Archives (my visit there being slightly later than originally intended, both due to an impromptu lunch with a friend in Chelsea, and due to the lovely autumnal weather meaning I made the perhaps rash decision to walk from Chelsea to Clerkenwell rather than getting the tube, which would have been quicker).

However, I had also booked to listen to Anne-Marie Kilday give a talk on a female criminal ‘celebrity’ later at the Guildhall Library. Anne-Marie, who is professor of criminal history at Oxford Brookes University, has been conducting some fascinating research into the ‘cult of the criminal’, using criminology professor Yvonne Jewkes‘ research into contemporary cases to see if this ‘cult’ is really a modern phenomenon, or whether Jewkes’ categorisation of what makes a case ‘newsworthy’ can be equally applied to 19th century cases.

Kilday has been focusing on one particular historic case, that of Kate Webster, the ‘Richmond murderer’ who killed her female employer in 1879, to assess why she received so many column inches compared to other contemporaneous cases.

A chapter on Kate Webster appears here, and I highly recommend the book as a whole

Although I won’t spoil her research by detailing it too much here – if you want to read more about it, get Law, Crime and Deviance since 1700, edited by both Kilday and David Nash, as it contains a chapter about the case (which is a great read) – it’s clear that the Webster case had several elements that made it particularly attractive for the press, and an attention-grabber for the rather gory-minded Victorian public.

It involved both a female perpetrator and a female victim, and a level of violence that was unusual in a woman (or certainly perceived as being unusual). As Kilday noted last night, there was little press focus on the victim, Julia Martha Thomas – she was a widow, there was a hint that she may not have been a particularly great employer, but otherwise, she was sidelined in favour of hundred of articles focusing on Webster’s past and present.

And so this focus on Webster created an image of her as a (somewhat warped) kind of celebrity. It helped that she was an outsider in more than one way – she was an Irish immigrant during a time of significant anti-Irish sentiment; she was a woman; she was working-class. She was a complex individual – in some ways, something of a mystery, with a disputed backstory.

The attendance for Anne-Marie’s talk – and the many questions from the audience afterwards – shows the enduring interest we have in criminals and criminality

After she was hanged for murder, souvenir editions of newspapers relating to the case, and to her, were published, full of illustrations showing her in various parts of her own story. She even became a Madame Tussaud’s waxwork.

In researching Kate Webster’s case so thoroughly, Anne-Marie has convincingly shown that the cult of the criminal – the turning of such a criminal into a celebrity – is not a modern phenomenon. From gaol-breaker Jack Sheppard, whose exploits were lapped up in the early 18th century, and who continues to be written about today, we have always been grimly fascinated by those who transgress (in relation to studies of 18th century ‘criminal celebrities’, look at the work of Bob Shoemaker and Heather Shore in this area).

The difference by late Victorian times was that there was an expanding press with more and more pages to fill, a rise in sensationalism (from sensation novels and penny dreadfuls, to an increasingly tabloid-style of reporting in the press), and a love of the Gothic. These factors helped create the modern criminal celebrity, of which Kate Webster was an enduring example.

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.

Death of the Veiled Murderess

A depiction of the Veiled Murderess at her trial, taken from an account of her ‘life and confessions’ – from the Yale Law Library Flickr page

The British press in the 19th and early 20th centuries eagerly detailed accounts of women who killed. Unfortunately for them, there were relatively few British women convicted of more gruesome murders, so they had to look further afield for cases that were sufficiently gory or numerous to attract and entertain their readers. Cases from Rome and Paris were covered in depth, for example, and in 1905, the death of a particularly notorious American murderess was written about.

This was Mrs Henrietta Robinson, who had been convicted back in 1853 of poisoning two people with arsenic. Timothy Lanigan had been a neighbour of hers in Troy, New York. One night, he and his wife had hosted a dinner party at which both Mrs Robinson and a Catherine Lubin had attended. Their one guest had responded to their hospitality by killing both the male host and the other female guest.

Mrs Robinson attracted, and continued to attract, press attention not only because of her beauty and her refusal to behave by contemporary standards for women, but also because she consistently refused to tell anyone who she really was. Even during her trial, she had refused to remove her thick veil, leading to her becoming known as ‘The Veiled Murderess’. She was said to have only agreed to remove the veil once – and then only in a private cell, so that the jury could come and look at her.

Her argument had been, perversely, that she didn’t want any publicity – and that she would prefer death to having her face shown to others, including the press:

‘She was very handsome, but neither persuasion nor coercion could prevail upon her to unveil in open court.’

Even when she had agreed to show her face to the jury, she had first made efforts to thwart them, by  dressing a dummy as her and placing it in a chair. The jury came to see this ‘Veiled Murderess’ but when one of the jury members took offence at ‘her’ silence, he lifted the veil, to be greeted with a chuckle from underneath the cell’s bed. Mrs Robinson had hidden herself there to play a joke on the jury.

Her identity had long been the subject of much speculation, with the American ‘yellow press’ (as the British provincial press sniffily referred to it as) attempting to prove that she was the wife of a member of the British peerage.

The British press, in turn, argued that this ‘suggestion was entirely groundless’. It was one thing to eagerly report on this example of American lawlessness, but quite another to find a link to a member of the British peerage! Mrs Robinson, meanwhile, simply agreed that her name was an assumed one, but steadfastly refused to reveal her real name, even to her defence counsel.

Four decades after her conviction, a woman came forward to claim that Mrs Robinson was really Charlotte Wood, a schoolfriend of hers from New York State, the daughter of a Canadian merchant named William Wood, and one of four sisters, who spoke seven languages fluently.

The rest of the Wood family had a pact to deny that Charlotte was really a murderess, she claimed, but when rumours started swirling, got one of the other sisters to pose as Charlotte to ‘prove’ she couldn’t be a killer and be both in public and in jail at the same time.

The story was let down firstly by the inclusion of the ‘groundless’ story that the Veiled Murderess was married to an English peer – and the second fact that the informant hadn’t seen Charlotte Wood for a substantial amount of time, and had been told her ‘facts’ as a story from another friend. She even admitted that she had no idea how the Woods’ deception could have been achieved.

A view of Sing Sing prison

Although one other rumour was that Mrs Robinson had previously lived in Philadelphia, she had been convicted at Troy, and sent initially to Sing Sing prison – although one paper noted that two years after her conviction, Mrs Robinson had to be sent to the Matteawan lunatic asylum. Her identity continued to be a secret there, and she  also refused to say who the two people she had killed were – their names remained unknown to the authorities.

In prison, she had been allowed certain privileges not open to other convicts, such as being able to eat in private in her cell. It was only in 1873 that this privilege was revoked, on the grounds that it was ‘detrimental to discipline’ – presumably, other prisoners understandably took offence at this lady being treated better than them.

Some 44 years after her conviction, the Dundee Evening Telegraph reported that she had turned up in Troy in 1852, a ‘woman of wondrous beauty’ with lots of money, but no husband, children or friends. Yet it is clear that what had been ‘established’ was no more than the fact that this ‘strange, beautiful woman’ was something of a hermit, and had no desire for company.

When, a few days before her death in May 1905, it became clear that Mrs Robinson wasn’t going to recover, a curious physician at the asylum tried to find out the truth about this now elderly woman, but she refused to give him any information, ‘saying it should go to the grave with her.’

However, it was clear to the asylum staff that Mrs Robinson had some curious talents, as one obituary of her made clear:

‘In her old age, Mrs Robinson exhibited remarkable ingenuity in making exquisite lace, some good gloves, a pair of shoes, and even a set of false teeth out of buttons, which she wore for a long time.’

The Veiled Murderess died, presumably with her button-teeth in place, at the age of 89, her ability to generate headlines no less than fifty years earlier, when she was convicted of a double murder.

 

Sources: Huddersfield Chronicle, 13 September 1873; Dundee Evening Telegraph, 25 December 1897;  Cambridge Independent Press, 19 May 1905, p.5; The Salisbury Times, 19 May 1905

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