A sad confession at Bow Street

woodenleg

At ten past eleven on Friday March 1 1883 PC Pilling (428 City) was patrolling his evening beat on the Victoria Embankment. A rough-looking man with a wooden leg approached him and made a startling declaration:

‘I want to give myself up for murder’.

The policeman accompanied the man back to Bow Street Police where he supposedly made the following statement to Inspector Husted, the inspector on duty that night.

‘My name is Dennis Driscoll. About 5 or 6 years ago, at Christmas time, I killed a man named Brennan, at a lodging-house in New Church Court, Strand, by hitting him on the head with a piece of iron – the iron frame of my wooden leg. I went away for some weeks, and he died.  At times I have been very unhappy about it, and so I have given myself up’.

It was a dramatic confession and Driscoll was taken before the Bow Street magistrate the following day, Saturday 2 March, to be formally indicted for the murder. However, once he was there Driscoll claimed that the confession had been fabricated; he’d never said any such thing.

Mr Flowers was told that Driscoll was well known in the area as an aggressive and unpleasant individual. He had been ‘repeatedly charged and convicted for violent assaults’ many of which involved him taking off his false leg and using it as weapon. Thus the idea that he had murdered someone in 1877 was not implausible despite his physical disability. The magistrate decided that since this was all very odd and the prisoner was acting ‘in a very strange manner’ he would at least remand him in custody so that further enquiries could be made.

Driscoll was back before Mr Flowers on the 10 March where a few more details emerged. The Inspector Hustead confirmed that a man named Brennan had died following a quarrel in 1879 (not 1877) and that it was believed that Driscoll was the other party. However, Brennan had not been at all badly injured and went back to work as a flower seller straight away. It was only a few weeks later that he fell ill and was admitted to St Giles’ Infirmary where he died soon afterwards. His death was attributed to his destitution (flowers sellers were often, in effect, beggars) and it was formally registered as death by ‘natural causes’.

Driscoll then was off the hook. He may have believed he’d caused another man’s death but there was no proof to take him to trial for it. He was however, quite destitute himself and so Mr Flowers ordered him to be discharged but offered to recommend him as a suitable candidate for the workhouse.

It is a very sad case and indicative I think of the lack of care in Victorian society for the disabled poor. Clearly Dennis Driscoll struggled with life and may well have been a violent person who struck out at those around him. He quite probably drank and if, as is likely, he found work hard to come by then he must have supported himself by begging in the streets. Evidently he was in and out of the justice system, regularly turning up in the Police Courts and quite likely spending small amounts of time locked up. We have no idea how he’d lost his leg but an accident, or an injury sustained in the forces are possible explanations.

His confession may have been the result of guilt, of a drunken urge to get something off his chest, or even of a fatalistic desire to end his miserable existence. Convicted killers were still executed in Victorian England and while that is unlikely to have been Dennis’ fate he might have thought that was a way out of his misery.

[from The Standard, Monday, March 05, 1883; The Standard , Monday, March 12, 1883]

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