Criminal Historian

Working with dead people

Tag: newspapers (page 1 of 3)

Jolly Jane: (mis)understanding a female serial killer

A ghost sign in modern Boston

I’ve just returned from a fantastic trip to Massachusetts, and while there, of course, thought to research some of the crime and news stories from the state’s history. Here’s one I found which is interesting both because it has parallels with elements of the story of Amelia Dyer in Britain around the same time, but also because it shows that, throughout history, ‘experts’ (usually male) have struggled to explain female criminality, and in particular the relative few cases of female serial killers. It seems that we seek explanations for female deviancy to a far greater extent than with male criminals – even when, sometimes, there might not be a coherent explanation at all, however hard we look.

She was born Honora Kelley, and like many residents of Massachusetts in the mid 19th century, she was the child of Irish parents – of course, many Irishmen and women had fled the Great Famine of their homeland in the 1840s and both New York and Boston, on America’s east coast, had seen an influx of migrants as a result.

Although these Irish people had fled famine, many of them found that life in America was not much of an improvement. Life was a struggle, and many found it hard to feed their families and keep a roof over their heads. Sickness and disease was ever present, and Honora’s own mother, Bridget, soon died of consumption.

Jane Toppan, the former Honora Kelley

She and her siblings were left to be brought up – dragged up – by her father Peter, an abusive man who was regarded as mad by his neighbours. Within a few years of his wife’s death, it became clear that Peter could not father his children effectively. He abandoned his youngest two – Honora, then six, and her eight-year-old sister Delia – at a local female orphanage, and never saw them again.

At the age of eight, Honora was sent out to work by the orphanage, becoming a servant in the household of Ann Toppan in Lowell, north of Boston.

Although her miserable start in life should not be used to excuse her later offences, it is clear that Honora had the odds stacked against her. She was from a poverty-stricken immigrant family; her mother was dead and her father absent. She had no chance of a happy childhood, and her working life started when she was still a young child.

In later life, she targeted others who were themselves vulnerable, as though angered by memories of her own childish vulnerability, and the failure of her parents to give her a secure start to life. The fact that she took on the surname of her Toppan employers suggests a desire to become part of a family – yet she would later try and destroy it.

It could have been so different for Honora, though. She had chances which others in her situation did not; at 21, she started training to be nurse, and at work was well-liked. As she had become known as Jane Toppan, others nicknamed her Jolly Jane because of her friendliness. But underneath, there were darker thoughts going round Jane’s head.

Like Amelia Dyer in Britain at the end of the 19th century, Jane used her nursing as a cover to kill, and started to kill whilst working in a hospital. Curious about life and death – remember, this is a woman who had lost her own mother to tuberculosis when she was young – she started fiddling with the dosage of medicines to see what happened to patients when they were given too much of a drug.

She would get into bed with them to see what the effect was, and to watch them fall unconscious. Eventually, while working at the Massachusetts General Hospital, she was sacked for administering drugs ‘recklessly’.

The 1893 city directory for Cambridge, MA, shows Jane working as a private nurse there

She no longer had access to hospital patients, but still had the desire to poison individuals and monitor the effect of the poison on them. She started working as a private nurse when her hospital job ended so prematurely, and found other opportunities to injure or kill individuals, too. In 1895, she killed her landlord and his wife; four years later, Elizabeth Toppen Brigham, daughter of her first employer, was killed with strychnine.

She killed Mattie Davis, and then moved in with her widower, Alden, to ‘look after’ him. In 1901, she killed Alden, as well as his daughters Genevieve Gordon and Minnie Gibbs. Her preferred poisons were morphine and atropine.

Jolly Jane had got careless in trying to kill an entire family rather than an individual. A toxicology test was ordered for Minnie Davis Gibbs, and it showed that she had been poisoned. Jane was duly arrested for murder, and later confessed to over 30 murders.

Most of her known victims were women – the youngest victim was Minnie, aged 40; the oldest was her landlord Israel Dunham’s 87-year-old wife. The majority of the victims, however, were in their sixties or seventies.

When she was arrested, Jane had objected to her being described as ‘morally insane’. She argued, “I can read a book intelligently, and I don’t have bad thoughts, so I don’t see where moral degeneracy comes in.”

Although she insisted she was sane and knew what she was doing when she poisoned so many people, the jury clearly could not comprehend how a sane woman could do such awful things, and found her not guilty by reason of insanity. She was ordered to be sent to a local asylum – the Taunton State Hospital.

Once in there, Jane claimed to be ‘haunted by the horrible fear that all around her are seeking to serve her as she served her numerous victims.’ She embarked on a hunger strike out of a fear that her own food would be poisoned, and had to be force fed with a tube.

Meanwhile, continuing press coverage of Jane’s offences were as confused by her as the jury at her trial had been. This was clearly an intelligent woman, and appeared ‘mentally, physically, and morally’ normal; yet she must clearly be insane, for why else would a woman kill? Despite this insistence of her madness, one newspaper had to admit that this was a ‘peculiar’ mental illness that seemed to have left her ‘intellectual faculties unimpaired’.

Jane is listed as an inmate of the Taunton State Hospital in the 1930 US census (image via Ancestry)

There was clearly a doubt as to what Jane’s motives were, and what could explain the actions of a female serial killer. This was not a common story – the victims had not done anything to Jane, and she was not an ‘angel of death’ seeking to stop people from going through pain by ending their suffering herself.

She was an ordinary woman, a trained nurse, and the experts of the time queued up to try and understand what she had done. As a British paper noted, ‘Criminologists, alienists and the public generally are aghast at her crimes. She alone is unconcerned.’

Jane was asked to explain her actions, and simply said that she could not control her impulse to kill – but ‘when the paroxysm passed, I was myself again. I cared no longer for the patients to die.’ In 1904, she was interviewed in the asylum that was now her home, and she attempted again to explain her thought processes:

“I do not know the feeling of fear, and I do not know the feeling of remorse, although I understand perfectly what these words mean. I do not seem to be able to realise the awfulness of the things I have done, although I realise what those awful things are. I seem incapable of realising the awfulness of it. Why don’t I feel sorry, and grieve over it? I don’t know.”

Unlike her own mother, Jane lived a long life. Unlike her victims, she died of natural causes. She died at the Taunton State Hospital in Massachusetts in September 1938, 36 years after she was committed to that establishment, remaining something of an enigma to those investigating female criminality.

 

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Sources:

Northampton Mercury, 27 June 1902, p.8); Lancashire Evening Post, 3 September 1938, p.8; Dundee Evening Telegraph, 26 June 1902, p.4, St James’s Gazette, 26 June 1902, p.8, Leominster News, 2 September 1904. Do note that the relationship and names of some known victims of Jane Toppan varies from site to site (and within sites, on occasion!).

An Edwardian bicycle advert

I love looking through newspaper reports of court cases, but some Edwardian examples I’ve found recently make me feel quite sorry for the individuals named, as they seem to have been fined for simply trying to have fun, or keeping fit. In just one newspaper from 1909, I’ve found:

  • Morris Keen, of 8 Kilburn Square, Kilburn, fined a shilling for playing cricket at Kilburn Square
  • Edward Baker, of Kensington, fined 2s 6d for riding his bike at night without lights
  • Nelson Gowlett, of 38 Mora Road, Cricklewood, fined 2s 6d for playing football in the street
  • Harold Peacock, William Mudge and Leonard Andrews, all of Kilburn, and Reginald Travers of Willesden Green, fined 2s 6d each for cycling on a footpath leading to a park

Some of these named men, at least, were in their teens at the time of these offences – Nelson Gowlett, for example, from what I can see on Ancestry, was only 17 at the time, and Harold Peacock and William Mudge were both 15.

Of course, rules and regulations had to be obeyed; but it all seems a bit trivial and sour-faced to me – but it also conjures up an image of Edwardian London, where local youths spent their time playing cricket or football, and cycling with their mates. Maybe the past isn’t a different country after all?

Source: Kilburn Times, 18 June 1909

Super Spooner and the Witchcraft Murder

A unsolved murder in 1945 haunted Superintendent Alec Spooner of the Warwickshire police force for the rest of his life…

Superintendent Alec Spooner (from the Birmingham Daily Post, on the British Newspaper Archive)

Superintendent Alec Spooner, who joined the Warwickshire force in the 1930s after an earlier career as a Staffordshire miner, had conducted many murder investigations prior to his retirement in 1964. However, one stayed with him long after it had been given up as unsolved, and unsolvable. This was the so-called ‘Witchcraft Murder’ at Meon Hill, near Upper Quinton, in 1945, when a crippled hedge-cutter – 74-year-old labourer Charles Walton –  was killed by what newspapers described as ‘methods suggesting a ritual sacrifice’, with a cross carved into his chest.

Alec William Spooner was born in Amington, near Tamworth, in Staffordshire, the son of a hospital labourer. On joining the police, he served in Solihull and Sutton Coldfield, before being appointed as head of the county CID as a detective superintendent in May 1939, based in Stratford. One might expect Stratford to be a nice, gentle, patch for a policeman, but this was not the case.

On 14 February 1945, a cold, misty night in the middle of the muckspreading season, Charles Walton had been found in a field on the slope of Meon Hill, with his throat cut and a pitchfork thrust through his body. The murder weapon, Charles’ own trouncing hook, was still embedded in his neck.

Charles had married relatively late in life, aged 44, but had been widowed just 13 years later, and for the past 18 years, he had been living just with his niece, Edith Walton, in Lower Quinton. He was a harmless individual who spent time talking to the birds and animals he came across, and who was currently employed by Alfred Potter, whose farm, The Firs, had required extra labour.[1] There were signs of eccentric behaviour, for sure; he was once seen harnessing a toad to a toy plough and watching it drag the plough across a field. But that was the strangest thing that happened to Charles – until his death.

However, something odd had happened to Charles as a child. He was living then with his parents, Charles – an agricultural labourer – and Emma, and his siblings – Harriet, Mary, Martha, George and Richard – in Upper Quinton.  As was common amongst labouring families, the children were expected to start work young, and Charles was working as a ploughboy. On nine nights running, he saw a big black dog run across Meon Hill; on that final night, a headless woman walked past him in a silk dress, and the day after that he heard that his sister had died.

Coverage of the murder, from the following day, 15 February 1945 (Gloucestershire Echo, on the British Newspaper Archive)

Superstition and a belief in ghosts was rife in the area at the time of Charles’ childhood, and it seems to have continued: shortly after Charles’ death, the famous Scotland Yard detective Robert Fabian, drafted in to help the local police with the case, saw the same black ‘ghost’ dog; and a few days later, locals found a black dog, dead, hanged from the branch of a bush by its collar, close to where Charles’ body had been found. This time of the year, it was noted, was the Roman Feast of Lupercalia, when dogs were sacrificed to ensure good crops.

Despite the victim being old and frail – facts one would have thought would make local people want to help the police, and think of clues – they in fact avoided participation; another police superintendent, Bob Fabian commented that when he tried to interview local people, they displayed, “Lowered eyes, [a] reluctance to speak, except to talk of bad crops or a heifer that died in a ditch.” The detectives were ‘baffled’ by this reluctance to speak, and a decided ‘attitude’ on the part of locals.

Mediums were keener to help, however, with several holding séances on subsequent Valentine’s Days in the hope that they might uncover information that would help the police; however, their involvement might help explain the villagers’ reluctance to speak out. Far later on in time, they said that ‘they have never ceased to be pestered by occultists, psychic researchers, writers, the morbidly curious and others’ when all they wanted to do was to ‘live out their lives quietly in one of the most attractive corners of the county.’

Alec Spooner continued to work on other cases – in 1948, for example, he received acclaim for breaking up a nationwide gang of car thieves, who were so numerous that their case had to be held at a special Assize court in Warwick. But the case of the Witchcraft Murder continued to haunt him. In 1954, the Birmingham Daily Gazette reported that Spooner ‘probably saw a murderer yesterday – the man he has sworn to catch for killing an old hedger at Upper Quinton on St Valentine’s Day nine years ago.’

This story focused on a visit Spooner had just made to the village; he spent six whole hours walking round it, talking to men and women he had talked to nine years earlier. “I have sworn to solve this murder, and I am not going to give up,” he told reporters, stating that he intended making such regular ‘sudden’ visits to the village in order to spook the killer, who he suspected lived, and still lived, in the village. He believed the murder was a ritual killing, as it was committed on a day regarded as ‘the witches’ Sabbath’.

The baptism of Charles Walton in 1870, from Ancestry

In 1959, Spooner, who had been in charge of the Warwickshire CID for 20 years, was transferred to Nuneaton as the Divisional Superintendent. This change was ordered by PE Brodie, the fairly new Chief Constable of Warwickshire (a former Scotland Yard inspector, he had become the Chief Constable in 1958), as part of a ‘routine’ personnel change. On then retiring from the police in 1964, Spooner continued to live in Nuneaton, working as a security officer for the National Coal Board. He died in the town’s George Eliot Hospital in December 1970, aged 66 and two months, after an operation.

At his funeral, policemen acted as pallbearers. It sounded like as lovely a service as funerals can be; as it was Christmas time, Sylvia Spooner, Alec’s widow, asked for carols to be sung, and Christmas decorations lit at the location, Nuneaton’s parish church. His obituaries in the Birmingham and Coventry newspapers still recorded him as ‘CID’s witchcraft hunt man’.

Sadly, the ‘witchcraft’ case remained unsolved; in 1975, an article to mark the 30th anniversary of the crime stated that Charles Walton’s murder had ‘passed into Warwickshire folklore’. Was the killer still alive in the village, or elsewhere? ‘Most probably, the vicious murderer’s secrets died, or will die, with him or (less likely) her.’

Today, Charles Walton’s body remains buried in St Swithin’s Churchyard in Lower Quinton, across the road from a large house that was, in his time, a row of old thatched cottages named Meon Cottages – one was his home. In 1975, one female resident of the village had told a Coventry Evening Telegraph reporter that “it’s time they closed the book” – but in 2018, the case of Charles Walton is still very much open.

Sources: Coventry Evening Telegraph, 19 December 1970; Coventry Evening Telegraph, 24 December 1970; Coventry Evening Telegraph, 14 February 1975; and other issues of the Coventry Evening Telegraph and Birmingham Daily Gazette, all on British Newspaper Archive; plus census returns for Upper and Upper Quinton and Tamworth, all on Ancestry.

[1] Although some sources stated that Charles was an elderly bachelor, he was, as his Wikipedia entry states, a widower. His wife had died on 9 December 1927 – this information was taken from Edith Walton’s police interview about her uncle. Charles married Isabella Caroline Walton – perhaps a cousin – in 1914, and FreeBMD records her death aged 45 in October-December 1927 (vol 6d, page 866). The National Probate Calendar on Ancestry shows that ‘Isabel Caroline Walton, otherwise Isabella Caroline, of 15 Lower Quinton’ left effects of £297 4s 3d to ‘Charles Walton, cowman’. Isabella was born in 1882 in Binton, Warwickshire, but her father George, a carpenter, was a native of Quinton; Charles Walton Sr was baptised at Quinton on 28 April 1844, the son of William and Mary Walton; in the 1851 census for Lower Quinton, both Charles Walton, 7, and George Walton, 1, are listed as the sons of William and Mary Walton, so Isabella could well have been the younger Charles’s first cousin.

The 1939 Register on Findmypast also clearly records Charles as a widower. It states that he was born on 12 May 1870, and was living at Lower Quinton with Edith Walton, born 23 May 1911, who later married a man named Goode.

A shorter version of this piece appears in the March issue of the Stratford Herald‘s Focus magazine.

Mrs Bryant’s execution: a study in class, sex and gender

Early coverage of the case in the Sunderland Daily Echo of 1 January 1936

Many murder cases of the late 19th and early 20th centuries continue to be famous – or infamous – today, with books devoted to them, and television programmes salivating at titillating facts surrounding the cases. In many cases, the attraction of these murders perhaps lies, at least partly, in the fact that photographs survive of the protagonists in these stories. Photos of murderers and their victims bring a case to life, helping us picture who these individuals were, and why they might have done what they did.

Perhaps that also helps explain the relative obscurity of one case that grabbed the headlines in 1936. In the case of Charlotte Bryant, the case should have had a lasting impact on our consciousness. She was young – 33 – when she was hanged for murder on 15 July. She was that rare thing, a female murderer, and she had killed her husband after becoming dissatisfied with her marriage and starting an affair with her lodger.

And yet, she does not feature in many books or television programmes today – there is only the odd local newspaper story that occasionally brings up her story, and even Wikipedia remains silent when it comes to her.

In part, I think, that is because there are no photos of Charlotte; during her trial, it was noted that she turned her head away, or covered it up, when she saw the press photographers gathering like vultures; and also, her trial was not at the Old Bailey, but in the relatively isolated south-west, at the Dorchester Assizes, her hanging taking place at Exeter Gaol. There may have been fewer resources, fewer available photographers, or fewer willing to travel to Dorset and to Devon to attempt an image of this murderess than in London.

The other factor in this case that may have affected press coverage then and now was class. Charlotte was an illiterate, working-class woman, married to a humble cowman, and having an affair with a traveller – a gypsy, in the contemporary parlance. She was a mother of five young children, having been married young, and without a decent education.

As a working-class, poorly educated woman from south-west England, she was not a romantic figure, but a rather plain one to the press and public. Unlike Alma Rattenbury, acquitted of her husband’s murder a year earlier, pictured emerging from court in full length fur coat, she was not moneyed or glamorous. She was what she was: a poor woman who had poisoned her husband with weedkiller when the romance – if there had ever been any – had died, and she felt stifled by the monotony and grinding poverty of her life.

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It was on 5 October 1922 that Charlotte McHugh married Frederick John Bryant in Somerset. She was just 19 years old, a migrant from Derry in Northern Ireland, now making a home in south-west England. Left at home in Derry were her parents, John and Sarah; now she was taking on Frederick’s family, who were based in the Sherborne area of Dorset. Her new husband, born in Sherborne, was a few years older than her, being 25 at the time of their marriage. He would be dead before 40.

Children soon arrived: Ernest Samuel in the winter of 1923; Lily Elizabeth two years later, George Alfred in 1928, William John in 1931, and Edwin Frederick in the winter of 1934.

My sympathies at this point are very much with Charlotte; a girl born in Northern Ireland in the early 20th century, good looking but without an education, who was brought up in a society where women were supposed to look good and get married, raise children, and to not expect much more than that.

She was brought up in an area where British soldiers – who may have represented something ‘exotic’ to local girls – roamed near Republicans; and where a young, attractive girl who got the attention of the soldiers might also cause resentment amongst others.

Modern coverage of Charlotte’s case has focused on her sexuality; Richard Clark, who runs the Capital Punishment UK website, has described her as having capturing the heart of her husband while he was serving as a military policeman in the Dorset Regiment. He is described positively as a ‘simple country lad’, yet Clark describes Charlotte, after their marriage, in the following terms:

Charlotte was very highly sexed and soon became bored with village life [in Dorset], compared to the excitement of life around the Londonderry barracks, with plenty of attentive and free spending soldiers and a good sex life. She didn’t work as such and spent her days drinking and indulging in a little prostitution – one feels as much for the sex as for the money.

This echoes coverage both in the early years of the 20th  century and since in terms of ascribing to any criminal behaviour on the part of women as being due to excessive and thus dangerous sexuality. There is also clearly a double standard; many men of the time would have engaged in casual sex – indeed, they were encouraged to sow their seed young, before marrying – but women were castigated for any similar behaviour, and it is often used later to demonstrate early signs of criminality or deviancy.

Charlotte is here described as spending her days drinking, when authors such as Clark freely admit that social life in a Dorset village at this time would have centred around the local pub, and so drinking would have been a common occupation for both men and women, and certainly not just for Charlotte.

Charlotte’s husband does not seem the epitome of respectability either, in terms of his alleged approval of possible casual prostitution; according to Clark, he told a neighbour that her earnings this way were substantially better than his own wages as a cowman.

And money must have been fairly tight for them (which suggests that Charlotte was not regularly soliciting, if at all); they took in lodgers, and in 1933, a horse trader and gypsy named Leonard Parsons became the family lodger. Charlotte started an affair with Leonard, and the menage a trois caused, unsurprisingly, occasional conflict, and suggestions that the relationship was one-sided, with Charlotte far more interested in Parsons than he was in her.

Headline in the Coventry Evening Telegraph of 27 May 1936

Whatever the truth of this relationship, Frederick Bryant died on 23 December 1935, after several suspicious spells of illness over the course of the previous six months. He was found to have been poisoned by arsenic – a popular ingredient in weedkiller.

Charlotte was charged with murder, whilst she was being housed in the Sturminster Newton Poor Law Institution (workhouse), where she and her children had been taken after Frederick’s death to help avoid public and press attention – although it seems that this move would have been inevitable anyway, given her and her husband’s meagre household income.

Her trial, at the Dorset Assizes in May 1936, saw Leonard Parsons commit the ultimate betrayal of his former lover, detailing their sex life, and encouraging the jury to see her as a woman who had committed adultery and thus was disloyal towards her husband. Two of her children – Ernest and Lily – were also called to give evidence against their own mother; evidence that damned in describing how their mother may have owned and used bottle of poison.

Charlotte was convicted of murder, and sentenced to death. An appeal failed, and she was sent to Exeter jail to await her execution. During the six weeks she spent here, she received more of an education than she had ever been given before, being taught to read and write by female warders. She was finally hanged on 15 July 1936.

There were no winners in her case; she only left five shillings to her children, and they were now left orphaned and destitute. They were taken into the care of the county council, becoming the legal wards of the Dorset Public Assistance Committee. (Sheffield Independent, 18 July 1936) At this time, they were aged between 18 months old and 12 years.

Richard Clark has stated that Charlotte’s ‘lowly status and acknowledged promiscuity’ may have influenced the decision to carry out the death sentence against her, rather than commute it or allow her appeal. But he then goes on to write,

Sadly, Britain was very much a class ridden society in 1936 and Charlotte was virtually at the bottom of the social pile – an illiterate, immoral slut.

No trial report described her as an ‘illiterate, immoral slut’ and I feel this is Clarke’s own interpretation of how he thinks 1930s England would have seen her, rather than actually what did happen. In describing her thus, however unintentionally, he reiterates the view that being interested in sex makes a woman a ‘slut’.

No press coverage of the trial or its aftermath that I can find refers to Charlotte as engaging in promiscuity or prostitution; indeed, the focus is on her status as a mother, desperate to see her children and check that they are being looked after, as she awaits first her trial, and then her execution.

Looking at the coverage of Charlotte’s case from the time, then, there is a more sympathetic, more nuanced, tone than Clarke takes. For example, on the morning of her execution, she was described as making a ‘despairing last-minute plea to the King’ via telegram, repeated in full in the Birmingham Daily Gazette, in which she refers to herself as the King’s ‘lowly, afflicted subject’. Rather than being depicted as a ‘slut’, she is simply ‘Mrs Charlotte Bryant, the 33-year-old mother of five children’. (Birmingham Daily Gazette, 15 July 1936)

Even when allegations were made about Charlotte’s life, it was as a transcription of what someone had said in court – for example, when the Sheffield Independent stated that Parsons ‘was the father of the appellant’s [Charlotte’s] last child’, it was directly quoting Lord Hewart, in announcing that Charlotte’s appeal was being dismissed, when he summed up what the murder case was about. (Sheffield Independent, 30 June 1936) There was a factual tone, rather than a condemning one.

In addition, when, in court, attempts had been made to highlight that Charlotte had been Parsons’ mistress, the Solicitor General had stopped them, ascerbically commenting, “You are not a court of morals.” (Coventry Evening Telegraph, 27 May 1936)

Although Charlotte’s affair was brought up in court, it was not done so to depict her as a slut, or as an evil woman, but mentioned as part of a prosecution case to suggest that because Charlotte was in a relationship with Parsons, in love with him, and wanted to marry him, she was motivated to kill her husband. Killing him would enable her to marry her lover. This would be a common motive for murder, and thus an obvious approach for the prosecution to take. (see Coventry Evening Telegraph, 27 May 1936)

Charlotte’s class is, to me, more of a factor in how she was treated. She was unable to read or write; she had to have it explained to her what an ‘inquest’ was.  During her trial, she had to ask the prison wardresses to help explain procedure to her.

She suffered from a lack of education that gave her no prospects, and yet she was clearly an intelligent woman in that she wanted more than she knew she could get within the confines of Northern Irish or Dorset rural society; when given the opportunity to improve herself in jail, she made the most of it, taking only a short amount of time to learn to write letters; and she surprised the court when she appeared on the stand and gave a coherent, strong account of her actions.

The coverage of her execution in the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette made no mention of her sex life, but focused on her lack of education; in the hour before her death, she had received the Sacraments in her cell:

‘During those last moments on earth, this uneducated and illiterate woman, who had never been taught to read or write or spell, recalled the faith which she learned when a child attending the Roman Catholic Sunday School in her native Ireland, and she murmured the responses to the Litanies in a low voice.’ (Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 17 July 1936)

My conclusion is that Charlotte had indeed killed her husband; she had made comments to friends that she disliked her husband, and was in love with Parsons – but could not face simply running away with her lover because she did not want to leave her children. If her husband lived, he would keep the children; so he had to die, in order for her to have both lover and loved children.

Her honesty and straightforward nature, however, hanged her:  she made it obvious that she was ‘forcing’ her husband to drink poisoned Oxo, at one point, and telling people, “I hate Fred” before bemoaning her plight, saying about another local woman, “She is lucky. She has not got a husband.” (Leeds Mercury, 28 May 1936).

But it’s not true that the jury convicted Charlotte because she was immoral, or a slut, or because they thought she was a prostitute. The most they appear to have heard in court was that she was the mistress of Parsons, who may have fathered her youngest child, if gossip was to have been believed. This appears to have been the only sexually-related gossip about Charlotte that was heard in court.

She was convicted, though, because the evidence against her was overwhelming. She had talked about her hatred of her husband, and her wish to not be married to him. She had spoken of her desire to run away with Parsons; she also feared that his feelings towards her had cooled. She was known to have had bottle of what could be weedkiller and arsenic; even her children said so. And she had been insistent on her husband drinking and eating certain food and drink even when he was ill and reluctant to do so. It was evidence such as this that convicted Charlotte, and the jury had even been warned not to act as a court of morals, but as a court of law.

Charlotte’s case frustrates me, because it seems that where it is written about in recent times, it focuses on rumours or speculation about her sex life, and assumes bias or prejudice on the part of her contemporaries towards her sexuality. In fact, in looking  at press coverage from the actual time, it appears that her life may not have been as salacious as some sources might suggest, or if it was, then that was not something that was brought up in court, covered in the press, or used to convict her of murder. It was one specific relationship that was focused on, and that was in order to build a convincing motive as to why she might have killed.

So it seems that some of the biases against female murderers such as Charlotte are not necessarily of their time, but of our own; we assume that our forebears must have demonstrated prejudice against certain lifestyles, and we assume that those convicted of crime must be more interesting than, perhaps, they were. Charlotte may have been a working-class woman who took a drastic, ill thought out action because she thought she was in love; but that did not make her a slut or a prostitute, then or now.

 

CHARLOTTE’S CHILDREN

The wealthy London anti-capital punishment campaigner Mrs Violet Van Der Elst was reported as being keen to adopt all five children, although it seems that she only wanted to send them to a convent abroad for their education. She was concerned that going into council care would condemn the children to the same lowly life as their mother: ‘The County Council have no right to take these children. They are going to be taken to awful homes, and there is nothing worse.’ (Sheffield Independent, 18 July 1936).

She later told a reporter that she would find the children foster parents, and would pay for their maintenance and education; in addition, she would start a fund, giving it an initial £50,000, to ‘provide for the children of people who have been murdered or executed’ (Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 17 July 1936).

Before Charlotte had been executed, there had been an attempt by the NSPCC to take the children to one of their homes, but Charlotte had refused permission via her solicitor, wanting them to stay near to her geographically. She had presumably hoped, at this point, that she would be freed to take back the care of her family. (Gloucestershire Echo, 11 February 1936)

After Charlotte’s death, an inquest was carried out to ensure that she had been ‘judicially and humanely executed’. The prison governor had suggested that the coroner’s jury might wish to donate their fees to the Discharged Prisoners’ Aid Society; when the jurors expressed a wish, instead, to give their fees to Charlotte’s five children, they were discouraged; the coroner stated that the fees were only small, and that ‘provision had already been made for the care of the children’. (Northern Whig, 16 July 1936)

Mrs Van Der Elst had stated that she wanted the children to be educated abroad ‘to that the circumstances of their parents’ death with never be known to them’, although the eldest children must have known about what had happened; especially as Charlotte had requested to see them whilst being held in prison, and that request had been granted.

 

 

Sources:

Marriages, 1922, 5c 971; deaths Jun 1936, Sherborne – Frederick J Bryant, 39 – 5a 367; born Dec 1897 Sherborne, 5a 319).  [births for Ernest S Bryant, Frome, Dec 1923, 5c 585; Lily E Bryant, Frome, 5c 533; George A Bryant, Sherborne 5a 474; William J Bryant, Sherborne, 5a 467; Edwin F Bryant, Sherborne, 5a 426, all listed as having a mother whose maiden name was McHugh or MacHugh).

The Mysterious Murder of Florrie Little

Another 1920s murder case this week; and although all murders are upsetting, this one is particularly so, as it involves a young girl from Wales, and her killer was a boy who was himself still a child. I originally found this case in an issue to the Nottingham Journal (22 July 1921), that headlined its story ‘The Mysterious Murder of Florrie Little’.

**

Harold Jones, aged 15 (from the Dundee Courier, 22 July 1921)

Florence Irene Little, 11, was from Abertillery in Wales, and known as Florrie. Born in the early months of 1910, she disappeared on the night of 8 July 1921, and her body was later found in the attic of a neighbour’s house. She had been hit over the head, and her throat had been cut.

Her funeral was held less than a week after her disappearance and murder, on the afternoon of Wednesday 13 July. The funeral was said to have been the ‘largest ever seen in Wales’, with hundreds of schoolchildren following the small coffin tots grave. The entire student body from Florrie’s school had gone to the funeral.

The inquest  into her death was opened on 21 July, and adjourned until the following day. On its opening day, it was an unusual inquest, for in the coroner’s court sat a boy, wearing a brown tweed suit and an open-necked shirt, concentrating hard, taking notes of the witnesses’ statements. This boy was not just interested in crime and coroners – rather, he was suspected of committing the murder.

Harold Jones was a 15 year old boy who had a chequered past. In February 1921 he had appeared in court charged with the murder of a little girl named Freda Burnell, aged eight, who had been found strangled in a lane in Abertillery. Her screams had been heard coming from a nearby shed the night before.

Harold had been working in a poultry shop at that time, and Freda had been sent by her father, a popular member of the Salvation Army, to buy some ‘poultry spice and grit’ on the morning she disappeared. That evening, Harold had called round to the Burnell house, and asked her father if she had been found; Freda had been known to go to the Jones house to play.

Although Harold had admitted lying about various aspects of the evidence he had given, at the next Monmouth Assizes, he was acquitted of Freda’s murder, emerging from court to a hero’s welcome by locals. However, by that summer, he was at the Abertillery police court, being accused of another girl’s murder, before being remanded to Usk Gaol.

**

The 1911 census entry for the Little family in Abertillery

He now sat in on the inquest, and heard Florrie’s father, Arthur George Little, detail how on the night of Florrie’s death, the Little family had sat down to supper together late, finishing around 9.20pm. The children then went out of the front door to play.

At 9.45, Florrie’s mother, Elsie, had called out to her children, asking, “Where is Florence?”, but got no response. She then went to her neighbours, at number 10, as the girls had been seen playing on the pavement opposite that house, and another daughter Lillie, then aged eight, believed that was where Florrie had gone – but she returned without her eldest daughter.

Elsie Little gave evidence at the inquest that when she had gone to the Jones house, the door was, unusually for the place and time, locked, and it took a full two minutes for Harold to answer the door. When he did, he was wearing just his navy serge trousers, with his braces hanging down. He was holding a hairbrush in his hand, and told Mrs Little that he had been having a bath when she called. Smiling, he said to her, “Florrie’s been here, but went through the back way.”

Mr Little then started to search the streets, and at 10.35pm he had talked to Jones’ parents and sisters, who said they had not seen Florrie. Then Little and his friends and neighbours took their Davy lamps up into the mountains, searching the area until daylight.

Coverage of the murder in the Leeds Mercury, 12 July 1921

This was a close-knit community, where the local children were in and out of each other’s houses, and where families had relatives living close by – one child witness at the inquest, Ivy Davey, referred to visiting her ‘granda’ at number 13; her mother, Mabel, knew the Jones family well and had been to see Mrs Jones before it was known that Florrie was missing. The Jones’ had a lodger, William Greenway, who stated that “usually, if there was anyone in the house, the door was not locked.”

The children therefore had quite a lot of freedom, for their parents believed the community to be safe – and that other parents would help keep an eye out for them. The children also acted in ways that, to us, are rather adult; they kept late hours, they wandered around on their own – Harold Jones’s eight-year-old sister, Flossie, stated that she had gone to buy ‘some “pop” and cigarettes’ on the way to meet her parents on the evening in question.

But it wasn’t a wealthy community either, and families shared resources. Many of the local men were miners, and it was stated that in 1921, many of them were ‘idle’ – the context being that work was rather slack at that time, rather than it being meant in the more pejorative sense of being lazy. Florrie’s father was, like most of them, employed  at the local Vivian Pit – in 1923, there were nearly 900 men employed there.

When Harold Jones shouted to his mother on the evening of Florrie’s disappearance, claiming that his shirt had fallen in the bath, got soaked, and so he needed a clean one, Mrs Jones responded, “I’ve not got another one. You will have to have one of mine.”

When it was known that Florrie was missing, Harold tried to go out. His mother tried to prevent him, but Harold responded, “Give me a scarf and let me go out. We have had enough trouble lately.” Meanwhile, his father, Philip, was out drinking at the Bell Hotel; he claimed to have returned home by 10pm, and to have been home when Mrs Little called at the door, but she believed he was not there by that point.

**

Gaol records show Harold’ being accused of Freda Burnell’s murder in February 1921 (via Ancestry)

After Florrie’s funeral, police had dug up the back garden of the Jones house, but found ‘nothing of importance’. Despite this, however, on Thursday 28 July, after a two day hearing at the Children’s Court in Abertillery, Harold Jones was committed to the Monmouth Assizes to stand trial for Florrie’s murder. At the hearing, when asked if he wished to say anything, he ‘sprang to his feet, and stood erect. “Not guilty,” he said loudly and clearly.’

The facts, however, were against Harold. Florrie’s body had been found in his house, and she had been hit over the head with a piece of wood, before being stabbed with a knife that Harold had been given by his own brother. He had last used it, he said, to ‘kill a chicken’. Whilst doing this, he had cut his finger, and the blood had got on the knife. He had tried to clean it, but the blood wouldn’t come off. Or so he said.

There was blood both on Harold’s clothing, and on Florrie’s. The stains were fresh, and looked similar. There were bloodstains on the knife blade that were not from a chicken; on a saucepan in the kitchen; and on a wall of a passage in the house. Florrie had, in fact, died from a loss of blood.

**

By the time Harold arrived for the first day of his trial, in November 1921, he had realised that the evidence against him was overwhelming. His plea now changed from not guilty, to guilty. Not only that, but he now admitted that he had also killed the little girl whose murder he had been acquitted of – Freda Burnell.

After his acquittal for that crime, public opinion had made ‘some sort of hero’ out of Jones; it was now felt that this had given Jones such a sense of vanity that he killed Florrie in order to maintain that ‘fame’ he had experienced at the start of the year.

His father stated that at the time of his arrest, Harold had been about to “start writing the story of his life, with a view to selling it… Only a week ago, he had a photograph taken, which was intended to be used as an illustration” (presumably the illustration used at the top of this blog post). Jones, however, simply said he killed out of a simple “desire to kill”.

Jones, whose desire to kill and become famous resulted in the tragic deaths of two young girls – girls who trusted him as a local and as a friend – was ordered to be detained during His Majesty’s pleasure.

The charge against Harold Jones in the Freda Burnell case (from Ancestry’s gaol records)

Other sources used: Londonderry Sentinel, 12 February 1921; Nottingham Evening Post, 24 February 1921; Western Times, 26 February 1921; Derby Daily Telegraph, 11 July 1921; Birmingham Daily Gazette, 13 July 1921; Motherwell Times, 15 July 1921; Dundee Courier, 22 July 1921; The Scotsman, 29 July 1921; Lichfield Mercury, 4 November 1921; FreeBMD births, Bedwellty district, Jan-Mar 1910 (vol 11a page 93); deaths, Bedwellty district, Jul-Sep 1921 (vol 11a page 69). Newspaper reports list Harold Jones’s first victim as Freda Burnell and Freda Burnett; gaol records list her as Elsie Maud Burnell; however, FreeBMD shows that her full name was Freda Elsie Maud Burnell (FreeBMD deaths, Bedwellty district, Jan-Mar 1921 (vol 11a page 104).

*At least one paper referred to May Little as being older than Florrie; but the 1911 census for Penrhiw Garreg, Abertillery, lists Florence Irene as being the only child of her parents, aged 1; Arthur George Little and Elsie Jane Weeks had only married in 1909 (1911 census on Ancestry; FreeBMD for Bedwellty, Apr-Jun 1909, vol 11a page 206). Her other siblings were, as the birth records for Bedwellty show, younger – Cyril was born in 1912, Lillie in 1913, Harold in 1915, and Elsie in 1918.

Why criminal ancestors sound so much more fun

Actor Lytton Grey, on the right in this image, was married to one of my ancestors; and attended her 18-year-old sister’s illegal marriage (© Criminal Historian)

Who would you rather be descended from – a worthy notable of a provincial town, whose munificence or moral rectitude resulted in a glowing obituary, or a city wide-boy whose exploits were recorded in newspapers and trial reports?

A few generations ago, you may well have said the former. Many people I’ve spoked to have grandparents who were horrified at the idea of having a criminal forebear, and who would have eagerly covered up the crimes – metaphorically, of course – with a focus on someone more deserving.

But times change, and now, it seems we all want to have a naughty ancestor caught stealing ladies’ underwear or even killing someone in a pub brawl. As long as it’s sufficiently in the past, it becomes a thing of interest, something that makes your family – and you – stand out.

I’ve been researching my family tree for years, and so far, it’s brought up a big, fat nothing in terms of trial reports or criminal records. On my father’s side, I am descended from generations of Dorset farmers, who were asked to be on juries, determining the fate of local miscreants, but who were law-abiding, middle-class individuals.

The worst thing I have found out about a member of this family is that the obituary of one of them insinuated that he was a bit annoying. That’s not really interesting enough, is it?

Gough Square – home of Samuel Johnson, and my ancestors (© Criminal Historian)

On my mother’s side, again, there’s little evidence of criminality, but much of being upstanding members of a community. One ancestor was one of the first policemen in Gloucester; he took on the job to help look after his aged, widowed mother financially (bless). Another was a neighbour of Dr Johnson‘s, living in Gough Square in the City of London. This ancestor is certainly listed on the Old Bailey Online website – but only as a jury member. A third represented his Oxford ward as a Poor Law Guardian, and had a keen interest in the welfare of the poor and conditions in the local workhouse.

The exploits of criminals – such as this 1936 murderer – are better remembered than the quiet achievements of the majority

I should be proud of having public-minded individuals as ancestors, who wanted to be involved in their local areas, and who helped ensure not only that local administration processes worked as smoothly as possible, but who helped put criminals behind bars. I am, honestly. Perhaps the problem is that these men, all good and true, do not have their achievements recorded to the same extent as criminals do with their offences.

Obituaries are key to remembering the achievements of local worthies, but mine were minor in their achievements, and of the two obituaries I’ve found for my Dorset lot, one is short and makes that slightly disparaging comment as though it is the most significant thing it can record about the individual; and the other exists mainly to note that my ancestor died in 1852, at the age of 96, from a ‘visitation of God‘.

So, weirdly to some, but perhaps inevitable given my research interests in crime, I’ve been really trying to find some evidence of criminality amongst my ancestors. As those who have read my book, Life on the Victorian Stage, will know, my great-grandfather had three sisters, all of whom were on the stage, and two of whom died at tragically early ages.

They sound good company: one eloped with an already married actor, the two marrying in an illegal ceremony in front of one of the other sisters and her (legal) husband; and one had an illegitimate child who she created a made-up father for, but who was given the name of her sister’s husband, making me wonder if he was actually the natural father of her child. But although fascinating, they weren’t ‘criminals’ in the sense that we usually mean it.

Their grandfather, though, shows more promise. He claimed to have been born in Hanwell, west London, but there’s no trace of his birth of baptism either there or anywhere, in fact. There’s no record of him existing prior to his marriage at a fairly advanced age. He claimed to be a captain in the British army, but The National Archives has no army records relating to him at all.

His wife had a substantial amount of money, and her family took steps to ensure that her husband wouldn’t receive a penny of it, instead passing it down to her daughters. Did they suspect him of only marrying for the cash?

And, most intriguingly, are two stories in the press that seem to refer to him, both later in life: in one, his wife is charged with assault after going after a woman she believes is having an affair with him; and in the other, he is charged with fathering a child by his gentry neighbour’s far younger servant. The newspaper reports how the court thought it hilarious that this elderly man could have possibly got up to anything with a young girl, let alone fathered a daughter; more intriguingly, it states that this man ‘calls himself a Captain’, as though they also doubted his origins and his claims of army employment.

The latter stories help flesh out this unknown ancestor – he appears to have been a ladies’ man, at least. The lack of records relating to him, his lack of family, mean that I can speculate that he was a fraudster, a man with an assumed identity, someone who desired money, and sex, and had affairs.

The reality might be more prosaic: the relevant records might not have been digitised; he may have been born in one place but baptised somewhere different, or been told he was born in a certain place when he wasn’t…. and so, perhaps, the unknown is sometimes better than the known, for with the former, you can create the person you hope your ancestor was; whereas, in truth, all I know for sure is that he, like so many of my other ancestors, was also another blooming Poor Law Guardian.

 

Crime reporting and moral panics – what’s changed?

This 1891 article refers back to the moral panic caused by the Ratcliff Highway murders 80 years earlier

A couple of people on my Twitter timeline posted this earlier today – it’s an article on The Daily Beast about an app, Citizen, that is designed to highlight the crimes currently underway in your neighbourhood, and to enable individuals to discuss it (you can also receive alerts ‘every time a significant incident or emergency happens near you’, according to the app’s promo statement).

It sounds, at first glance, to be an app serving the public interest. You can avoid places where trouble is underway; if you’re brave (or foolhardy), you can intervene; or you can talk about it with others in your vicinity, perhaps reassuring each other about it.

But, as writer Taylor Lorenz states in the Daily Beast article,

“Do I need to know about every carjacking in sight of my office to remain personally safe? Probably not. Using Citizen, in fact, made me more paranoid and probably stoked a lot of my latent irrational fears about violent crime and axe murderers.”

In this, Taylor is no different to newspaper readers in the 18th and 19th centuries, who were both terrified of crime, yet drawn to stories of crime at the same time. Newspapers fed into their fears by increasingly publishing crime stories, drawn from court cases, gossip, and imagination. Reading the Victorian newspapers on the British Newspaper Archive, it’s hard to miss the reams of murders, assaults, thefts, and more bizarre or unusual crimes with their dramatic headlines and breathless tones.

The Whitechapel Murders created huge panic, not just in 1888, but for years afterwards (and perhaps even today). This example is from the Illustrated Police News in 1905.

These stories often used what appears to modern eyes to be a standard narrative – in many cases, the perpetrator of the crime is male, working-class, from a poor or slum area. He may be a drunkard; he may be Irish (many crimes were associated with Irish immigrants, with drink, or with class, betraying Victorian xenophobia and class-consciousness, as well as later efforts by temperance advocates to associate drink with criminality).

Moral panics were created or fed by these newspapers; an isolated case, or a couple of unrelated offences, might be seized upon and magnified, a link being made between disparate offences in order to create the impression of a crime wave. A particular group within society might then be associated with this offence, or group of offences, with the press and/or legislators then seeking to make an example of this group.

This ‘deviancy amplification spiral’, as criminologists and sociologists have termed it (1), could either make it appear more serious an offence than it was; or have the unintended result of readers, the public, then romanticising the criminal and his actions, making a folk-hero of him if he wasn’t feared instead. There were, then, two possible over-reactions – fear, or the adoption of a romantic narrative that may not have reflected the crime or the criminal (see the romanticisation of highwaymen in some quarters).

Elements of the press had some consciousness of what was happening here; in 1874, the Sheffield Daily Telegraph noted that:

‘happiness and goodness, because they are common-place conditions of life, do not make anything like the same impression on men’s minds that is made by the exceptional instances of vice and misery. We hear of a horrid murder… of some pitiable scene of domestic discord or moarital violence, and compare men with brutes…and are tempted to despair of human nature.’ (2)

The paper argued that such crime stories attracted public attention (and that of the press) because of their relative rarity – that is why they were newsworthy. Its comment also suggested that an aspect of human nature was – and is – inclined to use such relatively isolated cases to think about wider philosophical issues about life and death. Yet it failed to acknowledge its own role in magnifying these ‘rare’ offences and to create a panic amongst the public that crime was more prevalent than it really was.

Moral panics, of course, have never gone away, as the prevalence of books discussing contemporary examples show (3). The Citizen app suggests that there are simply more ways today to disseminate crime news and to create a moral panic; it originally started as an app that was deemed to encourage vigilante action, and so hastily rebranded and relaunched – but now, it appears that it serves a more voyeuristic than useful purpose, thus highlighting its similarity to crime reporting throughout the last few centuries.

SOURCES:

  1. Leslie T Wilkins, Social Deviance (Tavistock, 1964); Stanley Cohen, Folk Devils and Moral Panics (Routledge, 2002); Tim Newburn, Criminology (2017)
  2. Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 16 July 1874, p.2
  3. See, for example, Julian Pettley (ed), Moral Panics in the Contemporary World (Bloomsbury Academic, 2016); Erich Goode, Moral Panics (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009, 2nd ed); Chas Critcher, Moral Panics and the Media (OUP, 2003). All discuss modern examples of moral panics. In terms of work on earlier moral panics, David Lemming and Claire Walker (eds), Moral Panics, the Media and the Law in Early Modern England (2009) is highly recommended.
  4. The two newspaper excerpts used as illustrations in this post come from the Homeward Mail of 16 March 1891, and the Illustrated Police News of 23 December 1905, both via the British Newspaper Archive.

 

Peppermints on the beach: the murder of Mrs McLennan

A depiction of the discovery of Mrs McLennan’s body, from the Illustrated Police News (found in the British Newspaper Archive)

It was December 1914; the smell of war was well and truly in the air, as Britain had commenced its involvement in what would be a four year war that would initially be known as the Great War before, decades later, becoming World War 1.

But in the community of Cockenzie, on the east coast of Scotland, the war must have felt a world away. However, their own peace was to be shattered by the discovery of the body of a young, blonde woman one Thursday morning, found on nearby Seton Sands. Her throat had been cut, and she had been dead for several hours.

Initially, her identity was not known – the police had simply described her as in her early 20s, good-looking, and, rather strangely, ‘possibly a shop assistant’. She was found clothed, and in the pocket of her skirt was a ha’penny, and a small bag of peppermint sweets marked with the name of a confectioner in Edinburgh.

The East Lothian police sent three bloodhounds on the scent of the murderer for the following 48 hours, but nothing was found except for a blood-stained razor – presumably the murder weapon. Even the sweet bag turned out to be almost useless as a clue, as it was one of thousands in existence with the name of a major wholesale sweet manufacturer on it – a manufacturer that, it was said, supplied almost every shop on the Scottish east coast.

However, although the murderer could not be found, the woman herself was soon identified. She was Mrs McLennan, aged 23, and she had been married just two years. Her marriage was already over in all but name, however, and she and her husband had separated, each returning to their own parents’ house to live. Mrs McLennan had returned home with a child, born in May 1913.

Mrs McLennan now lived with her parents in Bangor Road, Leith, and had left there on the Wednesday evening – she had not been seen again, although her death was estimated to have not occurred until four o’clock the next morning.

Her mother said that her daughter had spent the early part of the evening looking frequently at the clock, as though she had an appointment, and at six o’clock had put her hat on and opened the door. Her mother asked her why she was ‘going out on a cold night like that’, but she didn’t give a reason.

She had already had a brush with a violent man, though; she had, in fact, met her husband a couple of years earlier when, as she was crossing the Leith park, she had been ‘insulted’ by a man. She had called for help, and it was William McLennan who ran to her rescue. The insulting man had then assaulted McLennan, as he tried to protect the young woman – then known as Miss Howie.

The result of the assault was that William asked her out, and they were soon married.

The Nottingham Journal’s headline got the story slightly wrong – or at least, had the potential to be misconstrued…

It was not until February 1915 that anyone appeared in court in relation to Mrs McLennan’s death – and it was her valiant rescuer of a few years previously: William McLennan appeared in the Edinburgh High Court, charged with the murder of his wife.

William, described as a ‘man of weak appearance’, pleaded guilty to culpable homicide, and the Crown accepted this plea. It was stated that William had been ‘mentally deficient’ since his childhood, and his faculties had been further impaired by an accident shortly after marrying, and due to his ‘unhappy home circumstances’ with his wife. He was also severely epileptic, and had spent periods incarcerated in a lunatic asylum due to this, which had not helped his mental state.

He had arranged to go for a walk with his estranged wife on that Wednesday evening in December 1914, and at some point the following morning, he took a razor to her throat and killed her in what the court heard was a motiveless attack.

Although society had failed to treat him humanely for his epilepsy, his alleged mental deficiencies were treated more sympathetically. He received a relatively lenient sentence of seven years’ penal servitude for killing the girl he had rescued from another attacker in Leith park. Her rescuer had become her murderer.

NOTE: Sadly, although perhaps not unexpectedly, the press coverage of this murder failed to name the murder victim, apart from referring to her as Mrs McLennan – it was her marital status that was seen as important, not her own identity. However, a search on ScotlandsPeople would suggest that her name prior to marriage was Jemima Dawson Howie – a girl of this name married William McLennan in the Leith South district in 1912 (ref 692/2 312), which would match the information that WAS provided in the newspapers. The birth of Jemima Dawson Howie was registered in 1892 in Leith South (ref 692/2 213), which would again make her around the right age to have been the murder victim in this case.

Locating Lydia: Tracing the life of a female convict

An 1879 image of Lydia Lloyd

I’ve been spending a bit of time delving into the Digital Panopticon’s many cases recently, and trying to find out information about them outside of their criminal records, to see how much of a life can be reassembled from this distance in time.

These men and women were more than their criminal career – what did they do outside of this, who were their families, who were their friends?

Unfortunately, of course, you can find out more about some individuals than others. With women, matters get more complicated – they might state that they were married, but you can’t locate a husband; they might go by one name, but was this their maiden name or married name, or even an alias?

They might claim to have been born in a particular place, in a particular year – but they may have had reason to fudge this to the authorities, perhaps not wanting to be traced, or for their families to face ignominy.

In some cases, most of what you know about them is from their criminal record – and it serves to remind us how that criminal record might actually be all that prevents them from becoming forgotten.

A small part of Lydia’s long record on the Digital Panopticon website (although the top entry appears to be for a different individual)

One such case is that of Lydia Lloyd. Her presence in the Digital Panopticon is an extensive one; she was regularly recorded as a criminal from 1865, when she claimed to be 22 years old, to 1886, when she was released from Woking Women’s Convict Prison, aged 43.

She is certainly present in the 1881 census, as an inmate of Woking Prison, and she is also present on the Old Bailey Online website. But outside of her criminal record, and that one census, I’ve struggled to locate her – or locate her with any confidence.

Lydia Lloyd claimed to have been born in 1843 in Wolverhampton. During her criminal career she described herself as a widow, a laundress, who had one child – in 1873, this daughter was said to be aged 15, so born around 1858.

No censuses prior to 1881 list a Lydia Lloyd born at around the right time in the Wolverhampton district. There seems to be no marriage of a Lydia to a Mr Lloyd; she would have been 15 when she had her daughter, so the marriage – if it had, in fact, taken place – presumably couldn’t have been much earlier than that, although it could, of course, have been later.

The births of seven Lydias were registered in the Wolverhampton district between the first quarter of 1842 and the last quarter of 1843. None, that I can find, married a man by the name of Lloyd. The 1861 census has no Lloyd family that could be Lydia’s.

In July 1873, Lydia Lloyd was charged with being drunk in Banbury, Oxfordshire, on the evening of 14 July, a local police constable stating that she had been so ‘very drunk’ that ‘quite a crowd’ had started following her round.

She was fined 5s and 6s costs, but failed to pay, and so was sent to prison for a week, according to the Banbury Advertiser of 17 July 1873. The Oxford Journal of two days later described her as being a widow, living in Calthorpe Street, in the centre of Banbury.

In October 1873, described as a laundress, she was charged with stealing a sack and skirt, worth 4s, from Oxford on 23 July and on the same day, also stealing underwear from a man on the Woodstock Road.

As with the previous offence, she was described as having been drunk at the time, and she had also struck a man across his back with the sack. When she had been questioned by police, she claimed to have ‘brought the sack and its contents from the Potteries in Staffordshire’.

The record of two charges against Lydia, from Ancestry

Lydia’s defence was described as ‘rambling’ – she said she had gone to a public house to get some drink, and afterwards went to sleep.

On waking up, ‘she was told to be off and take the sack with her’. She was convicted of one of the offences, and when sentence was passed, she was described as ‘an old offender’. She was given five years in prison, and a further five years under police surveillance (Oxford Journal, 11 October 1873).

Her most serious offence was heard in March 1879 at the Central Criminal Court. She was described as being aged 36, of no fixed abode, and a laundress. She was charged with stealing a shawl worth £1 from the Railway Hotel in Finchley, having been found hiding under a bed.

The press noted that she had several previous convictions, and was currently on a ticket-of-leave; she was convicted of theft and sentenced to ten years in prison (Hendon & Finchley Times, 8 March 1879).

Asked to explain the theft, all she could say, according to the papers, was “I came down from London and was drinking at the bar with a man, but how I came in the house, I don’t know.” She did not say where she had come to London from (Hendon & Finchley Times, 1 March 1879).

The Old Bailey Online records her as saying she had lost the train home from Finchley ‘and a young man gave her some whisky, stating that his father was the landlord of the hotel, and offered to pay for a bed for her; she drank several times, and remembered nothing till she found herself on the bed next morning’.

After her release from prison in 1886, Lydia disappears from the record. Searching for her both on ancestry websites and in the press leaves names but no corroborating evidence that it’s her.

Is Lydia the same Lydia Lloyd who ran a coffee house on Walsall’s High Street in 1893, and who prosecuted a 16-year-old for obtaining 6s by false pretences from her? Another newspaper disproves it, describing her as the wife of the coffee or cocoa house’s manager – not a widow, and not a previous convict who had made a new life for herself (Walsall Advertiser, 25 February 1893).

Perhaps she married again; perhaps she had never been married in the first place, but adopted a name and a marital status that made her daughter a respectable legitimate child. But we just don’t know.

What we do know is that this was a Midlands woman who had problems with drink; she stole, not just once, but frequently, as her numerous trials for theft attest. She was around 5 feet 2 inches; she was Catholic; she had grey eyes.

We can see her photograph; although she was convicted of thefts, the Digital Panopticon team record that she engaged in prostitution as well as thieving.

As a prisoner, she fought with others, was regarded as quarrelsome and insolent, struck an officer, refused to do what she was told, and spent time in solitary confinement. She slammed her cell door in a fit of temper;  she laughed in chapel; she disliked the rules of prison life.

She moved around; she caught trains; she lived not only in Wolverhampton, but in Banbury – a provincial market town in north Oxfordshire – and in London.

Was she moving in search of work, or had she moved to live with a partner? Could she not make a living as a laundress, and had to seek money by stealing, or was it her drink that ended her legitimate work?

What seems clear is that if it wasn’t for her unsuccessful but fairly extensive criminal career, Lydia Lloyd would be forgotten about, like so many other Victorian women from the lower echelons of society. Thanks to the Digital Panopticon and other online sources of criminal records, however, a timeline of part of her life, at least, can be assembled and remembered.

 

 

Thieving at the theatre doors

London’s Adelphi Theatre in 1840

In his memoirs, the famous, Glasgow-born detective Allan Pinkerton noted that in his adopted America in the 19th  century, there were very few thieves who worked ‘in all fashions and in all places’ – instead, they tended to specialise, focusing in on a particular type of theft, or a preferred location.

He noted that one class of thieves were mainly juveniles, and known as ‘theatre thieves’. They would hang around outside the doors of theatres, and pickpocket theatre-goers – undetectable in the ‘ingoing and outgoing rush’.

Allan Pinkerton, photograph from the Library of Congress

These young pickpockets knew that the risks were relatively small; if their victims noticed their losses, they would be reluctant to report them to the police, because they might have to appear as witnesses in subsequent trials, and this was not something they wanted to do. In addition, the generally young age of theatre thieves meant that their punishment, if caught and convicted, might be more lenient than that meted out to older thieves.

Although Pinkerton had been referring to the situation in the US, the congregation of pickpockets outside theatres was common on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1892, the Illustrated Police News commented on the ‘gangs’ of pickpockets who hung around the theatres on the Strand, particularly at the time when shows were ending, and audiences would be coming out of the theatre doors – usually between 11pm and midnight.

They took advantage of the crowds, and of the weather, for when it was raining, cabs could take some time to reach the theatres to take theatregoers home, and they would be forced to huddle outside the theatres. They tended to work in groups, surrounding individuals and ‘hustling’ them until a watch, chain or purse had been snatched from a pocket.

Men were particularly at risk if they were escorting a female relative or friend along the road towards a cab; thieves would assume that his attention was distracted by looking after his companion, and mark him as a ‘fit victim’.

The police were constantly on the alert for these offenders, but they were reactive rather than proactive, and this caused complaint; it was suggested that they should monitor the local area prior to the shows ending, and ‘warn off obviously suspicious characters’ who were hanging around the exit doors.

A depiction of the Strand in the 19th century

The prevalence of these characters, standing around on the Strand, was described not only as a scandal, but also ‘a disgrace to London, a danger to residents and visitors, and a matter of wonder to the foreigner from every other civilised capital in Europe.’

However, the thieves were not to be deterred by the police, because theatre-goers were seen as easy targets. They were dressed up; they had money; they were easily distracted not only by the performance but by the company they were with – friends, relatives or partners who they were either deep in conversation with during intervals or on leaving the theatres, or busy escorting home on foot or to a cab. They weren’t looking out for the thieves, and the thieves knew it.

Plays about thieves might be popular in both the metropolis and the provinces – but the reality wasn’t as entertaining…

Therefore, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that newspapers continued to report cases of theft relating to theatre audiences, such as when 23-year-old bookbinder William Brown, a ‘notorious’ West End theatre thief, was sentenced to two years’ hard labour in 1906, and even in 1930, theatre-goers were still being singled out by pickpockets.

One ‘new ruse’ reported that year involved thieves dressing up in evening clothes and attending the theatre during intervals. They would follow an audience member to the cloakroom, where they would squirt flour and water onto his coat, and then call his attention to the mark left.

The victim would take off his coat, find a clothes brush and try to clean off the mark – it would only be when he put on his coat again that he would find his wallet missing from it. Several identical thefts were reported to Scotland Yard, and it was said that pickpockets were making ‘good hauls’ from the theatres every night.

Therefore, throughout the 19th century and beyond, the theatre was a place of entertainment – but also of criminal activity. The targeting of theatre-goers by thieves was just one example.

You can read more about crimes relating to the theatre – as well as about the professional and private lives of Victorian entertainment professionals – in my new book, Life On The Victorian Stage, which is out now, published by Pen & Sword.

It is available from the publisher’s website, Amazon, and all good booksellers.

 

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