Dead bodies dumped in a rubbish tip and a pair of Yankee fraudsters escape justice: all in a day’s business for London’s magistracy

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A pair of interesting cases for you this morning both brought before magistrates in London but neither of which ended in a conviction for any crime. Once again this is useful reminder that histories of crime that concentrate on the higher, jury courts of England will inevitably miss those cases which were dismissed much earlier in the criminal justice process.

In May 1847 two well-dressed young men were placed in the dock at Marlborough Street and accused of stealing. Their victim was a young woman named Eliza Williams who claimed to have lost a gold watch and chain and her purse. The crime was pretty standard – pocket picking – but the circumstances made it a little more unusual and, therefore, newsworthy.

Eliza claimed that she had met Robert Brownrigg Tolfrey at a ‘dancing room’ in Great Windmill Street. He’d approached her and asked her to dance. He spoke with a soft American accent and she accepted. Despite being distracted by the music and his attentions she was still aware enough to feel a tug on her watch chain. The chain broke but she quickly rescued it and the watch and place dit safely (she thought) in her pocket.

The couple parted for the next dance and Eliza instinctively checked for her watch – it was gone, as was her purse! Looking around another dancer caught her attention and pointed out Tolfrey and said they’d seen the watch chain hanging out of his pocket as he strode away. Eliza confronted him and although he vigorously denied stealing her property she had him arrested.

In court at Marlborough Street Tolfrey and his friend Robert Berkely Reynolds protested their innocence. A witness for Eliza said he’d seen Tolfrey pass the watch and purse to another man, perhaps named Nicholls, but he couldn’t be sure. There was no real evidence against either man and in this sort of case it was unlikely that the justice would be able to do anything unless previous convictions against them could be shown that would sow doubt in the mid of a jury.

That is why the men’s landlady was called I think.

Mrs Green said the men rented rooms form her at Golden Square off James Street giving their name as Berkley and passing themselves off as brothers recently arrived from America. While they were staying with her tradesmen would arrive and leave goods which soon vanished, suggesting a scam of some sort was being orchestrated there. When Mrs Green asked them to pay their rent they simply walked off leaving ‘nothing behind them except a false spring beard and mustachios’. The pair were clearly up to no good but, on this charge of ‘privately stealing from the person’, Mr Bingham could see no evidence that would stick in court, so he released them.

At Westminster a more disturbing case was heard before Mr Broderip. One of B Division’s police inspectors (named Donegan) was in court to report that ‘considerable excitement’ had been caused amongst the public in Lillington Street when human remains were discovered in a rubbish heap. He’d been called to investigate and had found bones that appeared to belong to a ‘human foot and arm’.

‘There were other bones’, he said, ‘smaller and larger, more advancing to decay, and evidently belonging to other bodies’. He had them collected for examination he explained.

In answer to a question from the magistrate Donegan said he didn’t believe the bones were recent but agreed that they might well come from a nearby medical school. A number of admission cards  from King’s College Hospital had been found amongst the rubbish and this strongly suggested a connected. The bones were probably the remains of persons whose bodies had been used in the teaching of anatomy, as the cadavers of the poor had been used for that purpose since the passing of the Anatomy Act in 1832. The act was supposed to stop the practice of grave robbing which itself had been caused by the shortage of fresh specimens taken from the gallows.

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It was a grisly business and not one the authorities wanted to be given too much publicity. Once dissected the bodies of the poor were supposed to have been buried properly even if no headstone was set to commemorate them. The idea that they might end up in a communal rubbish tip was appalling and, as the magistrate termed it, ‘indecorous’. He instructed Donegan to call upon the board at King’s to make it clear to them that any future occurrences of this sort would not be tolerated.

According to the leading historian of the Anatomy Act of 1832 in the course of the Victorian period some 125,000 corpses were sold in the ‘anatomy trade’.1 Many of those leaving the bodies of their loved ones did so by placing them outside the doors of London’s main teaching hospitals (like King’s or St. Bart’s) knowing that they had no funds to bury them. I regularly visit the local cemetery close to my home, to pay my respects to my wife’s parents, and we usually pass by a solitary stone that commemorates the thousands of people who are buried within the grounds in unmarked graves, because their families could not afford to meet the costs of a funeral.

For every grave carefully tended or left to slowly degrade there are, in small and larger graveyards and cemeteries they length and breadth of the country, hundreds of thousands of burials which are left unmarked. Something to think about when next you visit one perhaps.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, May 4, 1847]

1. Elizabeth Hurren, Dying for Victorian Medicine: English anatomy and its trade in the dead poor, c.1834-1929(Palgrave Macmillan, 2012)

If you enjoy this blog series you might be interested in Drew’s jointly authored study of the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders, which is published by Amberley Books on 15 June this year. You can find details here:

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