On the last day of August 1881 Private John Evans of the 2nd Battalion Scots Guards was set in the dock at Westminster Police Court to face a charge of causing the death of a prostitute. The case gleaned considerable column inches in the next day’s paper which reported that both prosecution and defence lawyers were present, as was Inspector Baker of A Division and Henry Ward from CID. This was no ordinary case of homicide however, as the victim had apparently hurled herself off Westminster Bridge, to drown in the water below.
Private Evans was accused of murder and Montagu Williams prosecuting declared that he would, on behalf of the Treasury, be asking the magistrate to ‘commit the prisoner on the capital charge’. The case had already been before the coroner where the inquest jury had determined that the woman – Emily Thompson, aged 25 – had died from falling off the bridge. The jury may have been able to say how she died, Mr Williams argued, but they could not comment of why or how she had come to do so. In his view the prisoner was in some way culpable even if the poor woman had taken her own life.
[Even while] ‘Putting the most favourable construction upon the prisoner’s conduct’, the prosecution brief argued, ‘the law was quite clear that where a person knew another was about to commit suicide and did not prevent him or consented, he was a principle in the capital offence’.
If Evans knew Emily was about to throw herself off the bridge and did nothing, then he was guilty of ‘causing death’ by his inaction.
To lend weight to his argument Montague Williams turned to case law and precedent. He recounted the example of ‘Regina v. Dyson’ where the said Dyson had been accused of ‘pushing, forcing, and throwing’ Eliza Anderson into the Thames after the pair had made what amounted to a suicide pact. Dyson has ended up in the water (by accident of design, it was not clear) and despite his best attempts to save her Eliza had died.
Dyson was convicted but the case was referred to a panel of nine judges, who considered particularly difficult cases of law. They ruled that while it was possible that Dyson had encouraged her to commit suicide (which would render him guilty), it was also plausible that it had been an accident, and so they recommended him for a pardon.
The principle, Mr Williams was at pains to stress remained: if Private Evans had encouraged Emily Thompson to kill herself or had merely stood by and let her do so, he was guilty of a capital crime.
It was then established that Evans was a frequent visitor to Miss Thompson’s home. This seems to indicate that the pair were courting at least, and perhaps had an even more established relationship. Had Evans told her he was ending it? Was Emily pregnant?
No clues about their relationship were offered at the short court hearing before Mr D’Eyncourt the Westminster magistrate. Instead, the court next heard from H Division’s police surgeon, George Bagster Phillips. Phillips (who was to enter the historical record much more solidly in 1888 when the Whitechapel or ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders occurred) reported that he had examined Emily’s body at Poplar mortuary.
In his opinion Emily had either died during her fall or on contact with the water. Such cases ‘were not uncommon’ he told Mr D’Eyncourt. Her ‘lungs were in a very unhealthy condition’ he stated, ‘and in such a state in the act of falling suddenly the air would arrest the heart’s action’. So she hadn’t drowned, she had died of a heart attack.
The court also heard from a female ‘French witness’ named ‘Flamot’ [sic] who claimed to have seen Evans holding Emily over the edge of the bridge, just before he fell. This witness’ evidence was challenged by the guardsman’s counsel Mr Rymer who said it was unlikely his client would have had the strength to hold her like that. Emily weighed nine stone he said and there was no evidence of any marks on her body that suggested ‘such a grasp’.
Had Evans been dangling Emily over the parapet of the bridge to threaten her? Had he lost his grip? Or was he saying a long goodbye before allowing her slip away and then planning to jump in after her, as Dyson had supposedly done?
Despite Mr Rymer pleading that his client had already been exonerated by the coroner’s jury Mr D’Eyncourt had heard enough to satisfy him that the case should go before a jury. He committed the unfortunate soldier to the Central Criminal Court to face a trial for his life.
The trial took place just under two weeks later on the 12 September 1881. Montagu Williams prosecuted with a Mr Poland while Evans was defended by Horace Avory. Avory (seen in a later cartoon, below left) was to gain a reputation as a ‘hanging judge’ in later life and was nicknamed ‘acid drop’ as a result of his ‘caustic wit’ in court. He prosecuted Oscar Wilde and sent Roger Casement to his death. Here his task was to save Private Evans from the noose and he appears often in the record of the trial cross-examining witnesses.
The first of these was Louise Flutant (presumably the ‘Flamot’ reported in the press report if the summary hearing). Madame Flutant spoke little English so an interpreter translated for her and the court. She testified that in the early hours of 17 August she had been alone on Westminster Bridge and had seen Evans talking with a woman, under a gas lamp. The pair were ‘a little drunk’ she said, and ‘playing’ (her words, possibly meaning they were ‘fooling about’). She passed them and then looked back to see Emily climb onto the parapet with the soldier’s help.
At first she thought they were still playing but then Evans, who had the young woman by the waist and then the arms seemed to let go and she tumbled down to the river and vanished. Evans said nothing; and didn’t cry out, he just bent down to pick up a stick and a shocked Mdme Flutant hurried off to find a policeman.
Charles Townsend saw the couple as well, a little before the first witness. Townsend was travelling over the bridge in his cab, towards Parliament when he noticed the pair. Emily was sat on the parapet facing the guardsman, his arms were around her waist. She had no bonnet or shawl and as the cab passed them, he saw Evans pull her and her hit him in the chest, seemingly playfully. In answer to the defence counsel’s question, he said it looked as if Evans had the secure to stop her falling off. When he looked back at them, they were both standing safely on the pavement.
Another cabbie, Henry Cudd, was going in the opposite direction that morning. He saw a soldier and a woman ‘having a lark’. He noted that the man had his hand up the woman’s skirts and called out to him as he passed:
‘If you are going to do the job do the job at once, don’t play with the girl’, he told him before pointing him out to his fare, who was in a hurry and not interested in the couple’s antics.
He noticed the girl on her own on the parapet and then, several yards further on, realised that she was ‘missing’. He then saw Evans stroll towards Westminster. Having dropped his fare on the Surrey side he made his way back and saw that a small crowd had gather. He told the court he hadn’t suspected that the guardsman was going to do the girl any harm.
Fanny McGregor ran a coffee stall just near the Westminster end of the bridge. She knew Emily Thompson as an ‘unfortunate’ (a prostitute). She had seen Evans and Emily at 12.45 seemingly arguing by Westminster Abbey. They were both a little ‘the worse for drink’. She watched them both head off towards the bridge but only saw Evans return, walking quickly towards the Embankment. Just before he appeared Mdme Flutant had rushed up to her in a very excited state trying to tell her what she had seen. It was McGregor that identified Emily’s body in the mortuary.
PC Edwin West (A196) was first to react when he heard ‘screaming’ from the bridge. The screaming came from the French woman as she realised what had happened and set off towards McGregor’s coffee stall. PC West was very soon joined by another guardsmen John Sheldon (from the Coldstreams). He knew Evans to speak to but they were not friends, the men were in different regiments but the same battalion.
West and Sheldon stopped Evans and asked him what had happened. Evans, who appeared sober if a little ‘drowsy’ from drinking earlier that night, admitted being with the woman who had jumped. He denied pushing her over the parapet but did admit that when she had asked him ‘shall I jump in or not?’ he had said ‘yes’.
West arrested him and the pair accompanied him to King Street police station.
Rose Daniels also knew Emily. They had known each other for nine years and both sold sex. Rose said her friend had talked about killing herself ‘a great many times’ and Rose was aware of at least two previous attempts. ‘I am going to make a hole in the water’, Emily had once told her as they strolled over Westminster Bridge. On that occasion Rose had stopped her. She and another witness testified that Evans and Emily were often seen together, but that Emily still kept company with other men.
Mr Poland was asked by the judge to clarify the prosecution position. Was this deliberate murder? No, Poland agreed, he argued instead that Evans had ‘encouraged and assisted in the act of self-destruction, and so was a principal in the second degree to that act’. Avory countered that there was no evidence that his client had instigated Emily’s suicide or persuaded her to jump. He had ‘merely acquiesced’ in her death. Justice Lopes was not sure he agreed with Avory but sent the jury away to determine guilt or innocence.
In the end Private Evans was acquitted, presumably because there was insufficient evidence to convict him as charged. He was a soldier in uniform, one of her majesty’s guards no less. Emily Thompson was a prostitute, one of thousands in late Victorian London. The outcome was hardly in doubt, as ‘unfortunate’ girls like Emily threw themselves into the Thames (or attempted to do so) with alarming regularity.
One final observation: Dr Phillipps gave evidence in court as he had before Mr D’Eyncourt on the case of death. He added her that her ‘lungs were very much diseased’ which, in his opinion, meant that the fall killed her. Was Emily suffering from TB, the disease that killed so many in the 1800s? If Rose Daniels had known Emily for nearly a decade it suggests Emily had both been selling sex on the streets since she was 15 or 16. That life would take a toll on the body and the mind. Her personal tragedy is revealing of the awful lives that so many of London’s ‘unfortunates’ suffered. John Evans, who apparently calmly walked away after she had fallen to her death, was either indifferent to her suffering or an assistant to her suicide.
[from The Morning Post, Thursday 1 September, 1881]