Criminal Historian

Working with dead people

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The original Psycho

The inventor of Psycho – John Nevil Maskelyne

If I said the word ‘psycho’, what would be the first thing that came into your head? The Alfred Hitchcock movie? Or one of the many more recent serial killers who have been dubbed a psycho by the tabloid press? Would you immediately think of it as contraction of psychopath?

In reality, ‘psycho’ simply means relating to the soul or the mind, and in the late 19th century, psychiatry was concerned with issues around the psyche, using the older term psychalgia to describe mental pain, or melancholy.

But alongside such explorations of the mental state of individuals came the term psychopath. This was frequently used by Victorians to describe not an individual suffering from psychopathic behaviour, but as a description of doctors who specialised in the treatment of mental disorder.

It gradually changed to become the term for a person who exhibited psychopathic behaviour, rather than the person treating him or her (the OED gives the first written evidence for this as being 1885).

We’ve certainly witnessed stories involving psychopathic behaviour leading to criminal activity, yet in the 1870s and 1880s, the term ‘psycho’ did not have the negative connotations that we now see with it.

In fact, during this decade, perhaps the most famous psycho wasn’t a human at all. During the recent research I’ve been doing into the history of the theatre, I’ve been studying the life and work of Victorian magician John Nevil Maskelyne.

An advert for Psycho from the Scotsman, 20 March 1884

Together with John Algernon Clarke, Maskelyne created an automaton who they named Psycho – not because he was mentally disturbed, but because he was perceived by contemporary audiences to have human qualities – he could play whist, for example(!)

A newspaper advert for Psycho

Psycho intrigued and fascinated Victorian audiences, and appeared in over 4,000 performances at London’s Egyptian Hall alone. Maskelyne was a master of self-publicity; in one paper of February 1875, no fewer than seven adverts were placed, all promoting Maskelyne and Cook at the Egyptian Hall.

Readers were told that at 3.20 precisely, the ‘wonderful’ Psycho would perform, and that anyone wishing to see ‘him’ perform should buy tickets in advance or face disappointment. (Morning Post, 5 February 1875)

Psycho was described by his inventors as ‘the Great Mystery of 1875’ who would play whist with ‘any three gentlemen who may volunteer from the audience…and perform other astounding feats requiring the exercise of memory and skill of no ordinary character.’

Nine years later, reviews of Psycho were still glowing – ‘There can be no doubt whatever that Psycho is the most clever piece of mechanism that has ever been produced’ (The Scotsman, 20 March 1884)

So when we describe someone as a ‘psycho’, we’re actually using a term that has become a pejorative one over a relatively recent period of years – having, with Maskelyne’s automaton, been a positive term denoting cleverness and skill, yet today being used by parts of the press to denote evil and madness.

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 Canadian Seaman and the Telephone Operator

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

The Commercial Docks at Rotherhithe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Plagium: how stealing a child in Victorian Scotland was punished

from the Morning Chronicle, 3 August 1855

In 1855, the Morning Chronicle in London published a list of capital punishments in Scotland (see above). The English media often covered Scottish affairs in a similar way to how it would publish stories about mainland Europe – highlighting its difference and ‘foreignness’ rather than claiming common ground with it.

So here, the list of Scottish capital crimes included several ones specific to Scottish law, with the speechmarks round them emphasising their ‘un-English’ nature. So we have hamesucken – a felony relating to a premediated assault, whereby a person was attacked in his own home – for example, and notour adultery.

Notour adultery, as opposed to the other offence of simple adultery, was, according to Henry Tebbs’ Essay on the Scripture Doctrines of Adultery and Divorce and on the Criminal Character and Punishment of Adultery (1821) , ‘the conduct of open and incorrigible adulterers, unreformed by the censures of the church, where they keep company publicly together, and procreate issue’ – in other words, adultery that resulted in the birth of children.

Stouthrief, also mentioned in the article, was a form of theft committed by force – so where a person was threatened with violence, or had violence committed against him, during a housebreaking.

Whereas hamesucken was where assault was the primary motive for a housebreaking, stouthrief suggested that the assault was incidental, or a secondary motivation, to the actual theft.

Furtum grave was an aggravated theft, deriving from the Latin ‘furtum’ (theft), where the amount of goods stolen might be particularly high.

The lack of understanding about Scots law was clear in the inclusion of ‘flagium’ as an offence; this was actually plagium, which was again a form of theft, but this time the theft of a person!

Detail from ‘French peasants finding their stolen child’ by P Calderon (Illustrated London News, 15 October 1859)

Akin to modern-day abduction, it commonly involved children, such as a case in 1844, when Helen Wade was charged with plagium at Glasgow when she ‘did, wickedly and feloniously, steal and theftuously carry away’ three-year-old Catherine Hamilton.

Catherine, an illegitimate child, had been living with her mother (although possibly another relative), hand-loom weaver Betty Hamilton, renting rooms with Helen Fleming on the Main Street of Camlachie; she was snatched from that road on 5 April 1844.

The next day, Helen Wade inquired for a ticket to board a ship to Liverpool. Viewed with suspicion by the ticket agent, she was asked about the child with her, and ‘declared that the child was her own, and told a false story about its father’.

They were still given a ticket, though, and it was only in Liverpool that Catherine Hamilton was retrieved and returned to her mother in Scotland.

Helen Wade was found guilty of plagium, but it was noted that in several previous cases of its type, the death sentence had been commuted to transportation for life.

Helen’s case was considered not as serious as others, and this, plus the rarity of convictions for plagium by the 1840s, meant that this defendant was ‘lucky’ enough to receive seven years’ transportation instead (case reported in Archibald Broun, Reports of Cases before the High Court and Circuit Courts of Justiciary in Scotland during the years 1844 and 1845, vol 2 (T & T Clark, Edinburgh, 1846)).

The types of capital offence listed by the Morning Chronicle show the continuing importance placed on property by the law. Although this article tried to make Scots criminal law sound alien, it actually reflected concerns both in Scotland and the rest of Britain, about looking after one’s goods, one’s livelihoods – and one’s relatives, too.

 

NB: Sir George Mackenzie’s 1699 book, The Laws and Customs of Scotland in Matters Criminal, is a fascinating read if you’re interested in criminal offences in Scotland, and available for free on Google Books.

Announcing a week of corset crimes

Yes, corset crimes.

Starting tomorrow, and running every day this week, I’m going to be blogging about corsets, and their connection to crime.

There’s literally no reason for this, apart from the fact that it gives me the excuse to use some great images of corsets that I’ve found in on the British Newspaper Archive website, and it also might get you thinking differently about an item that some women saw as a form of punishment, an inflictor of pain.

So welcome to Corset Week on Criminal Historian, and stop in each day to hear, and see, some historical corsets in action…

Happy Christmas from the Criminal Historian!

The Illustrated Police News keeps it festive in 1896

While you’re eating your turkey at the weekend (unlike me – I’ll be munching a nut roast or something equally interesting), spare a minute for those who have had more miserable times at Christmas.

This would include Thomas Gundry, a brewer’s manager from Caversham, near Reading, who managed to get shot on Christmas Day in 1895.

It was 8pm, and, after lots of eating and drinking at home, Gundry was playing a game of bagatelle in his dining room, when he heard the firing of a gun, and, at the same time, saw a bullet ‘crashing’ through his window and shutters. The bullet passed over his head and shattered some plate glass over his mantlepiece.

The shot came from outside the Gundry house; a man named Henry Hinde had been passing by, and saw another man standing before the window with a gun in his hand. He immediately chased the offender, but instead of being scared, the strange man turned and pointed the gun at Hinde.

The brave Hinde, though, knocked his assailant’s arm, and although the gun fired, the bullet was sent into the air. Hinde was momentarily shocked – as would be expected – and taking advantage, the gunman again ran off.

On being eventually captured by police some distance away, at Goring railway station, he was disarmed, and it was found that the gun was a revolver that had indeed been fired twice.

It emerged that the prisoner was Arthur Haslam, also known as Thomas Clayton, a homeless 58-year-old. He was also Thomas Gundry’s brother-in-law, although the two men had never previously met – both Haslam and Gundry had married daughters of Mrs Pittman, ‘of Pittman Brewery, Goring’, and Gundry was the manager of that brewery.

Gundry’s marriage was happier than Haslam’s; the latter man had separated from his wife in 1885, after 15 years of marriage, and he had been made to give up all right to live with his wife, and ‘all control’ of their daughter. He was bitter, and – following an unsuccessful career mining in the Transvaal – struggling financially.

From this point on, he had started to ‘annoy’ various relatives for money. Earlier on Christmas Day, Haslam had sent a note to Gundry, asking him to see him at Sloane Square, but his request had been denied. He said he was angry that his relatives had failed to give him funds, and intended to ‘terrify’ them into agreeing to his future demands.

He may have intended to kill Gundry and then kill himself; he had threatened suicide before, and when apprehended by the police, had strychnine on him. He was desperate, and the fact that his relatives – including his estranged wife and daughter – would be celebrating Christmas while he struggled alone, had ‘irritated’ him.

In February 1896, Arthur Haslam was found guilty of attempting to cause grievous bodily harm, and was sentenced to three years’ penal servitude.

Here’s hoping you all have a calmer Christmas Day than was experienced in Caversham in December 1895!

Sources: Illustrated Police News, 4 January 1895; Berkshire Chronicle, 8 February 1896 , accessed via the British Newspaper Archive

 

Book review: The Murder of the Century

51AXXHMDNsL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_It always concerns me a little bit when I see a title that looks intriguing, but then the author’s previous works – listed at the start of the book – suggest a lack of knowledge of the specific subject of the book. Paul Collins has previously written works on subjects as diverse as Shakespeare and autism, so I was a bit concerned that this book, The Murder of the Century, which recounts a notorious American murder case from the 1890s, and uses it to explore the newspaper wars of the era, would display a lack of expertise about the subject, or a somewhat flighty attitude towards it.

My fears were groundless, though, as Collins here proves a great storyteller and to have a good grasp of the history of which he writes. He is able to bring to life the existences of the working class in New York’s poorer areas, from the children whose main entertainment is in fishing objects out of the river from the pier side overlooking Brooklyn, to the women eking out a living in slum neighbourhoods through a variety of occupations – including the carrying out of illegal backstreet abortions.

The Murder of the Century starts with the discovery of a torso, found by the aforementioned boys of the East 11th Street area. Another parcel is later found elsewhere, containing another part of the same body. Whose body is it, and who was responsible for killing the man who this body once was?

But the book is about far more than this. It tells the story of the tensions between members of New York’s immigrant community, and centres on German-born Augusta Nack, claiming to be a licensed midwife when New York had no such things. Although depicted by the press as a passionate, rather ‘unwomanly’ creature, who turns her lodgers into her lovers, she is also an unhappily married individual and worthy of sympathy after the deaths of all her children.

A satirical depiction of the media war between Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst

A satirical depiction of the media war between Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst

An investigation into her and two of her lovers creates a picture of immigrant life in New York, and also shows how she became the means by which the New York newspapers and their proprietors – particularly Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst – competed and pushed for supremacy, at no matter what the personal cost to others.

The characters here are well drawn, from Augusta to William F Howe, the showy defence lawyer at the subsequent murder trial. The story is also meticulously researched, and it shows. If you want a good example of how to write a real life, 19th century murder history that draws you in and keeps you reading, this is well worth a try.

 

Who was Robert the Devil?

A scene from Meyerbeer's Robert the Devil, by Degas

A scene from Meyerbeer’s Robert the Devil, by Degas

In 1886, a man appeared before the magistrates of the Marlborough Street Police Court in London, charged with drunk and disorderly behaviour.

The man had been on Oxford Street shortly after midnight the previous night, and his behaviour had gathered such a crowd around him that a policeman walking down the street had gone over to see what was going on. The man was using ‘filthy language’, was obviously very drunk, and refused to leave the area when the policeman requested him to. He was therefore charged with the above mentioned offence.

He was a black man, according to the newspapers, who refused to give his real name to the magistrate, instead stating that he was called ‘Robert the Devil’.

The magistrate asked what he had to say, and Robert answered, “Oh! Nothing at all, Boss.”

The local gaoler, Sergeant Vine, told the court that Robert was a frequent offender, and had appeared in the police court several previous occasions. Robert was told he would have to pay a 10 shilling fine or go to prison for seven days. Robert’s response was to say,

“That will be all right, Boss; the Prince of Wales will pay that for me.”

Robert evidently had long term alcohol abuse or mental health issues. His naming of himself as ‘Robert the Devil’ may not have had racial allusions, though, despite the devil’s likeness being a black goat in some 19th century literature, and there being increasingly negative depictions of black men and women in England during the latter half of the 19th century.

Robert_the_Devil_(horse)

Robert the Devil: a horse, not a man

Robert the Devil was a medieval legend; later, in 1831, Giacomo Meyerbeer created a romantic opera of the same name that saw great success in London in the 1830s and 1840s, and a resurgence in popularity in the 1890s. The name referred to Robert, Duke of Normandy, who was the father of William the Conqueror – but also, in some stories, said to be the son of the devil.

Did the defendant see himself as a devil, a character incapable of redemption? Or was he a romantic hero? The truth is probably somewhat more mundane. In the 1880s, there was a racehorse named Robert the Devil, whose career was eagerly followed in the English press. This drunken man may simply have adopted the horse’s name to avoid giving his own. The racehorse died at Bernham Paddocks ‘somewhat suddenly’, in 1889, aged 12; but what happened to his namesake is not known.

(Sources: Dundee Evening Telegraph, 13 September 1886; Dublin Daily Express, 28 October 1880; South Wales Echo, 2 May 1889; Saunders’s News-letter, 8 June 1832; The Graphic, 4 December 1886)

The Victorian bakehouse – a useful means of disposing of bodies

Illustration of the second 'revolting oven tragedy' in the Illustrated Police News

Illustration of the second ‘revolting oven tragedy’ in the Illustrated Police News

There were at least two murders in the 1890s that were perceived as particularly abhorrent by the Victorian press – although only one was reported by them in great, gruesome, detail. This, the first, was known, rather unoriginally, as ‘the oven tragedy’, and the second as ‘another revolting oven tragedy’. Both involved local bakehouses, and demonstrated the ingenuity of some Victorian domestic murderers.

The first murder occurred in London in November 1898. The murderer, ideally for a somewhat xenophobic press, was a German immigrant baker named Johann Schneider. For reasons never given, he also went by the unlikely pseudonyms of Richard Montague and Richard Mandekow , as well as the simple anglicised John Schneider.

Johann was 36 years old, married, and a father. The only likely person of this description in the 1891 census was a John J Schneider, listed as a baker living in Clerkenwell with his English wife Elizabeth and their two young daughters, Carolina and Elizabeth Jane. In 1898, Carolina would have been 12 and Elizabeth 9.

The census stated that ‘John’ was a native of Felsberg, a town in the Schwalm-Eder area of Hesse, a central region of modern Germany. However, this John’s wife and children were all from the St George East district of London, and the only marriage of an Elizabeth to a Schneider in this district at around the right time involved a Max Schneider, so the census entry may well be wrong. Schneider himself described himself to police as a Russian, living at 150 Regent’s Park Road.

What was true was that Schneider, then going by the name of Richard Montague, had been employed by baker William Ross some two years earlier as an assistant baker. Ross kept a baker’s shop at 82 William Street, off the Hampstead Road. The shop was at street level, and accessed via a door from the street. The private rooms where the Ross family lived were accessed via a staircase from the back of the shop, with the bakehouse based in the basement.

'Bread baking' by Anders Zorn (1889)

‘Bread baking’ by Anders Zorn (1889)

The bakehouse itself consisted of a long baker’s oven, and two troughs in front of it for kneading the bread. The walls were whitewashed, with a clock on one wall, and clear glass windows at the top of one wall looking out into the street. An iron grating in the pavement outside would be lifted up to take the flour when it was delivered, but was otherwise kept fastened – Ross checked it every night.

Ross was successful, and employed another baker to help him – he was a live-in employee who slept in the spare room on the second floor of the building. He began work at 7pm to make the dough, and then go back to bed.

At 11.30pm, he would again be called and would cut the dough until 1am, when he would make the next batch of dough, and then heat the oven. At 3.45am, he would put the dough in the hot oven. Ross in turn slept from 11.30pm until 3am, when he would go down to the bakehouse to help his employee.

In 1876, this employee had been ‘Richard Montague’, and he had stayed, living and working with Ross, for around six months, despite being married. He had absconded from work after that time, saying one day that he was not well, and never returning.

It was a rash move from Schneider, who then found it impossible to get another job. He asked Ross for his job back, but Ross said no – although he gave him two loaves for his children, recognising that it was Schneider’s family who were likely to be suffering. He left his address – 144 Sewards Street Buildings on the Goswell Road – in case Ross later needed work doing.

In the meantime, Ross had employed another German man, Conrad Berndt, a journeyman baker who was only around 19 years old – to take over the role of assistant baker.

Ross later described him as a ‘dark man, with almost black hair, a very good workman’ who wore ‘a soft cap, shirt and a pair of trousers, and a blue-striped canvas belt round his waist with two buckles in it’ as his work uniform. He also had a silver watch and chain, but refused to take these valuable items into the bakehouse in case he damaged them.

Van Gogh's 'The Bakery in Noordstraat' (1882)

Van Gogh’s ‘The Bakery in Noordstraat’ (1882)

On 10 November, around 11pm, Johann Schneider knocked on the door of the bakeshop, wearing a round hat and carrying a green bag in his hand. Ross opened the door, and Schneider asked if he could sleep at Ross’s home overnight, as he needed to be at Grummell’s baker’s shop in Soho by 6am the next morning.

“All right, Richard, I know you – you can come in”, responded the kindly Ross. Schneider entered, and went down to the bakehouse to sleep. Ross went to give Berndt, still in his room, his instructions for the night, and then left him to go to bed himself.

Ross was woken at around 3.15am by knocking and footsteps on the stairs. He lit a candle and went to investigate. He saw Schneider on the bakehouse steps, with his coat on but not his hat. “Where’s Conrad?” asked Ross; Schneider said he had been sick and had to go to lie down.

Ross thought this was odd; not only was Schneider speaking unnaturally quietly, but Conrad had never been ill before, in the whole seven months he had been working there. As he turned away to go to Conrad’s room to check he was alright, Schneider struck his former employer on the back of the head, stunning him. He then tried to stab Ross in the chest.

A depiction of Schneider's surroundings in Holloway prison, from Lloyd's Weekly Newspaper, 20 November 1898

A depiction of Schneider’s surroundings in Holloway prison, from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, 20 November 1898

“Police!” called Ross, and his wife and servant woke and started shouting. Schneider opened the grate outside the shop window and jumped out, running towards the Hampstead Road. He was spotted by a policeman, who, in a very English fashion, thought a man walking outside without a hat on must be suspicious, and who caught him.

The oven had been lit, and was later searched. A piece of charred cloth from a pair of trousers, another piece of cloth from a shirt, and part of a belt were found in it – together with some smoking human remains.

The skull was exposed, and had a clear fracture on the right hand side; a piece of brain was later found on a large stone underneath the oven. Nearby was a hatchet, covered in blood and human hair. Conrad’s room had also been trashed, and items – including money, the watch and the chain – were missing.

Conrad had been killed as a result of a blow to the head, but it was believed he would have lived for around half an hour before a fractured skull and haemorrhaging eventually had their fatal effect. He had been placed in the baker’s oven while unconscious – but probably still alive.

Schneider was believed to be insane, and after being remanded at Marylebone Police Court, was sent to Holloway prison to be examined. During his later trial, one witness, Samuel Feldt, who knew Schneider as a German man named Richard Mandekow, lodging with him at 14 Bartholomew Buildings, described him as ‘morose, downcast, and absent minded – he was depressed because of his poverty and because he could not find work, and he has three children and a wife’.

Others, including those who examined him at Holloway, found him to be ‘emotional’ but sane, the judge found him to be ‘clever and cunning’, and he was therefore found guilty of murder at the Old Bailey, and sentenced to death. He was hanged at Newgate on 3 January 1899.

The murder had a wider impact. William Ross, unsurprisingly, found his business negatively impacted by the news that his assistant had been burned alive in his own bakehouse oven. He also found his own good name besmirched in the press. It was reported in Lloyd’s Weekly News that he had ‘resolved to build a new oven to retain his customers, and that a waxwork show proprietor has offered a large sum of money for the original’.

The newspaper later had to acknowledge that this was very much not the case – and that, in fact, the London Master Bakers’ Protection Society and the Baker’s Record publication had been fundraising in order to enable Ross to start a new business elsewhere, thus letting him escape the stigma of the murder.

Oh, and the second ‘revolting’ tragedy? That was a case in the village of Signa in Tuscany, where a baker named Brogelli, and his wife, murdered their two young sons – the elder being only seven years old – by putting them in their bakehouse oven (or, as the Illustrated Police News put it, ‘Parents roast their two boys in a bakehouse’). Only a few charred remains were ever found.

In the single paragraph that the British papers gave to this ‘foreign’ case, it was reported that ‘The accused absolutely refuse to say how and why the crime was committed’, but in this case, the villagers took the matter into their own hands and tried to lynch the Brogellis.

One case merited whole columns of excited reporting; the other only a brief mention (although also an illustration). But both were tragedies, and both were truly revolting.

Sources: Old Bailey Online, ref t18981212-85; Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, 27 November 1898; Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, 20 November 1898; Capital Punishment UK; Leicester Daily Mercury, 16 December 1898; Cheltenham Chronicle, 17 December 1898; Illustrated Police News, 1 April 1899

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