‘A Reckless Blackguard’ in the dock for a murder on the Isle of Dogs

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Today’s case took up almost the entirety of the Morning Chronicle’s  crime news coverage when it was published in April 1838. The story concerned a murder and, if that was not sensational enough for the paper’s readers, a murder that had taken place nearly a year earlier. The case had surfaced on the previous Monday when it had been brought before the magistrates at Greenwich, but when it was determined that the victim had been murdered by the banks of the River Thames, they transferred it to the Thames Police Court.

The victim was an engine smith named Duncan Crawford and he had met his death opposite Greenwich, on the Isle of Dogs on the 9 April 1837. His killer had remained unknown and at liberty ever since but on 10 April 1838 Thomas Paul (alias Scott) was placed in the dock at Thames to be formally examined by two justices: Mr Ballantine and Mr Greenwood.

Paul looked rough but the paper wanted to show him as suitable murder suspect. He was bruised and battered from some recent scuffle (suggestive of his violent tendencies) but he still cut a ‘tall, athletic’ figure in the courtroom. However the reporter was at pains to point out that the prisoner at the bar had the appearance of ‘a reckless blackguard’. He was clearly agitated by his public examination:

‘he betrayed considerable emotion, and his legs and arms frequently crossed and re-crossed each other, and his countenance underwent several changes’.

Here was a man ill at ease with himself, was his failure to control his emotions and sign of inner turmoil and his guilt? I think that is what the writer wanted his audience to think. Murderers had to look different from the rest of civilised society; a monster amongst us and Paul’s inability to keep control over his own body was surely a sign of his animalistic nature desperately trying to break out.

The arrest had been made by PS Benjamin Lovell (15R) who’d picked him up at his lodgings in Deptford. He had given the name Paul but apparently this was  alive, his ‘real name was Scott’ and he went by the nickname locally of ‘Scottey’. It seems as if ‘Scottey’s downfall was that after attacking Crawford and robbing him, he sent a female friend off to pawn the gold watch seals he’d  stolen. She took them to a pawnbroker but this had been discovered by the police and the watch identified as the victim’s. When sergeant Lovell arrested Paul/Scott he admitted giving a woman a watch to pawn.

Mr Ballantine wanted to be sure that Lovell had not tricked his man into revealing what he’d done. He hadn’t the policeman assured him. He had arrested him (on a tip off from a woman – the woman who pledged the watch perhaps?) and when he’d searched him he’d found a number of suspicious items including one or two more duplicated for items pledged at Mr Perry’s pawnshop in Flagon Row.

All of this evidence was backed up by James Cooper (191R) another police officer who’d been present at the arrest and presumably involved in the Greenwich police’s investigation. The court now heard from Anna Philips who lived in the same street where Paul had lodged, Dock Street.

Anna recalled that a year earlier a young woman named Jane McCarthy had popped in to ask her advice. Jane had three gold watch seals and she wanted to find out if they were genuinely gold, of just fake. Jane was Thomas Paul’s lover, the pair cohabited Anna explained, and so it must have been her (Anna Philips) who’d given the information that led to Paul’s arrest.

Why had it taken her a year though? Well it seems she had quarrelled with Thomas Paul a few weeks after the seals were brought to her house. Paul had thrown a jug at her and in her rage she’d said she knew that the watch seals were stolen and had heard they came from a  man that had been murdered. Paul then seized her and ‘swore he would murder her if she said so again’, so she said she’d keep her thoughts to herself.

Two other women had been involved with Paul: Mary Davis had taken the watch to Perry’s (where the pawnbroker had ‘stopped it’ – in other words seized it because he thought it to be stolen). She reported this to Paul. Elizabeth Tiller had lived with Jane McCarthy and so knew her side of the story. Paul had told her he’d found the seals in the river, she had nothing to do with the robbery. Not that it mattered much anyway, since Jane had died four months earlier, how or of what Elizabeth didn’t reveal in court (although we do discover this later).

Possibly the most dramatic moment in court was when the next witness came forward. She was Mrs Charlotte Johnson, a respectable woman that lived in Rotherhithe Street with her elderly father. Duncan Crawford had lodged with them for seven months, so she knew him well. Mr Ballantine handed her a silver watch case inscribed with the initials ‘J.R.K’.

‘Now look carefully at this watch-case’ the magistrate told her, ‘and don’t let me mislead you. Tell me whether this is the deceased’s watch-case or not’.

The case produced was that detained at the pawnbrokers and so it could be traced back to Paul and the murder. The public in court must have held their collective breath.

‘That is it, sir’ replied Mrs Johnson, ‘He had it on the day he left my father’s house’.

She was handed several other items found at the ‘brokers and believed to be Crawford’s. She identified some of them but couldn’t swear to everything there. There seemed to be enough evidence though that these things were Crawford’s, but that didn’t mean that Paul/Scott had killed him. He had claimed he’d found the items in the river and Crawford had ben found dead in a pond by the river, maybe Paul had simply robbed an already dead body? Callous yes, but criminal? Not clearly.

The magistrate asked what the coroner’s verdict had been. After some hesitation he was informed that the victim had ‘been found drowned, with marks of violence on his person, but how or by what means they were caused was unknown’. This was long before effective forensics remember.

Mrs Johnson’s father had identified Crawford’s body in the Poplar dead house. He aid he ‘had no doubt he’d been robbed and murdered’.

‘He had received a tremendous blow under the left ear, another on the forehead, and the legs were bruised from the ankles up to the knees, as if they had been trodden upon’.

Mr Ballantine thanked him and turned to the prisoner. Did he wish to say anything at this stage? The matter was serious and ‘affected his life’. Paul was well aware of that and declined to offer a defence at this point. Mr Ballantine remanded him to appear again, with all the witnesses and the pawnbroker Mr Perry, on the following Wednesday.

It was left for the reporter to paint his readers a picture of the discovery of Crawford’s body and reflect on what was known about the murder (if that’s what it was, and the Morning Chronicle had no doubt it was). Crawford’s body had been found ‘in a lonely spot’ on the island, covered in mud close to the muddy pond.

‘It was extraordinary’ the report continued, ‘that the facts relating to the murder of Crawford have not come to light before’. Scott (Paul) had many quarrels with his neighbours, and with Jane McCarthy and it was said that his violent outbursts ‘hastened her death’. Two days before Jane died she told one of the women who gave evidence that day that Scott had confessed to the murder.

In the end however, the magistrates must have decided there was insufficient evidence to charge Paul with Crawford’s murder. He was indicted instead for simply larceny and tried at the Old Bailey in mid May of that year. The jury convicted him and the judge sentenced him to be transported to Australia for seven years. He was 36 years old and, if the records are accurate, he did ok ‘down under’ living to the ripe old age of 88. As for Duncan Crawford, he must go down as one of thousands of murder victims in the Victorian period whose killers escaped ‘justice’ as contemporaries would have understood it.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, April 11, 1838]

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