A murder confession, 13 years too late

The "Rookery", St. Giles's, 1850

Nineteenth-century St Giles

The reporter from Reynold’s newspaper, or his editor, captioned George Skinner’s behavior as ‘EXTRAORDINARY CONDUCT’.

Skinner, a 39 year-old resident of south London was brought before Mr Chance at Lambeth Police court charged with being drunk. It wasn’t his first appearance in court and had only recently been released from prison where he’d served a month inside for being an ‘habitual drunkard’.

On this occasion Skinner had presented himself at the desk of Gypsy Hill Police station, telling the sergeant that he was responsible for a murder that took place 13 years earlier. The station inspector sat him down and took a statement from him. He confessed to killing a ‘woman named Jackson’ in 1863 but when he was handed the statement to sign, he refused.

He was ‘very drunk’ when he spoke to the police and subsequent enquiries had ‘ascertained that the prisoner had before given himself up at Bow Street in a similar manner’.

But had a woman named Jackson been murdered in 1863, the magistrate asked? Indeed they had.

Sergeant 4ER gave evidence that a woman named Jackson had been murdered in George Street, Bloomsbury in 1863 and that in 1870 George Skinner had confessed to the crime. The police had investigated his confession however, and found it to be false.

Whoever had killed Ms Jackson the police didn’t believe it was Skinner, even if he seemed to. Mr Chance turned to the prisoner and told him that he had acted in a ‘most disgraceful manner’, presumably by being drunk and wasting police time. What had he to say for himself?

‘Commit me for trial’, Skinner replied. ‘I don’t care what you do. Let it go for trial’.

‘Let what go for trial?’, the magistrate demanded to know.

‘Send me for trial as an habitual drunkard. You know you can do it if you like. That’s the law’.

Mr Chance may well have had considerable discretionary power in 1880 but he could hardly send someone before a jury for being a drunk, however annoying the man’s behaviour was. Instead he was able to send him back to prison and/or fine him and this is what he did. Skinner, described as an able if ‘lazy’ shoemaker, was fined 20s  and told if he did  not pay up he would go to prison for 14 days at hard labour.

‘Only fourteen days for confession of a murder?’ Skinner quipped, ‘All right’.

In April 1863 a carpenter was charged at Bow Street with the murder of an Emma Jackson in St Giles. The court was crowded as the locals clearly felt this was the killer. They were mistaken however, as the police quickly established that the man confessing to murder, John Richards (a 31 year old carpenter) was, like Skinner, a drunken fantasist. He had confessed whilst drunk but later retracted and the magistrate, a Mr Broddick, warned him but let him go without further penalty.

The murder of Emma Jackson excited ‘intense interest in the miserable neighbourhood in which it took place’, Reynold’s  had reported at the time. As a result the tavern where the inquest was held was as crowded at the police court where Richards was examined a few days later. St Giles was a notoriously poor area (below), on a par with Whitechapel and Southwark in the 1800s, and a byword for degradation and lawlessness.

A_Scene_in_St_Giles's_-_the_rookery,_c._1850

Emma was murdered in a brothel, although it was also described as a lodging house; in some respects it was hard to discern much difference between the two. Jackson had arrived there with a client (a man wearing a cap was all the description the landlady could manage) and asked for a room for two hours.

It was a very brutal murder, there was blood everywhere, but no sign of the killer. Perhaps it was intensity of this murder and the lack of a suspect that prompted some disturbed individuals to confess to it, just as several people confessed to being the Whitechapel murderer in 1888.  That they were drunk when they did so might also indicate that they ware suffering from a form of mental illness, understood today but not in the 1800s.

Skinner had confessed to a murder in 1863 in Bloomsbury, Jackson was killed in St Giles, which is near enough to allow it to be the same murder.

[from Reynold’s Newspaper, Sunday 7 March 1880; Daily NewsThursday 23 April, 1863; Reynold’s Newspaper, Sunday 19 April 1863 ]

One young man’s attempt to escape the horrors of Norfolk Island and exile to Australia

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In late January 1852 a man calling himself George Parker was placed in the dock at Lambeth Police court charged with returning from transportation. George (not his real name it seems) had a colourful story to tell and one that gives us a glimpse into the realities of convict transportation to Australia in the 1840s and 50s, and one that involved one of the most famous detectives of the nineteenth century.

Whilst some convicts did return from exile in Australia at the end of their sentences it was extremely rare for anyone to escape from the colony. After all, as the historian Robert Hughes wrote, from 1787 onwards:

An unexplored continent would become a jail. The space around it, the very air and sea, the whole transparent labyrinth of the South Pacific, would become a wall 14,000 miles thick’.1

Australia was a penal colony for much of the period between 1788 (when the First Fleet arrived) and 1868 when the convict system ended. It made the perfect prison: thousands of miles and more than half a year’s sailing away, sparsely populated and largely uncultivated, and surrounded by dangerous seas. If you could escape the military and civil guards where would you go? Into the bush to die of starvation or be killed by aborigines or the wildlife? Or into the sea to take your chances with the sharks and treacherous currents?

It wasn’t much of choice and so hardly anybody attempted it.

However, it seems that George Parker did, and survived to tell the tale.

He was brought to court at the behest of Sergeant Jonathan Witcher ‘of the detective force’ at the Metropolitan Police. Jonathan – better known as ‘Jack’ – Witcher is famous as one of London’s first members of the Detective Branch that was founded by Scotland Yard in 1842.

In 1851 Witcher (pictured below right) had courted controversy when he and another officer had been accused of entrapment when they caught two bank robbers red handed in St James’ Square. Witcher and Inspector Lund had been watching John Tyler (himself a returnee from transportation) and William Cauty case the London and Westminster Bank and drew criticism because they allowed them to carry out the raid on the bank rather than preventing it.

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Witcher had a stellar career as a detective and his investigation and arrest of Constance Kent for the murder of her 3 year-old half brother Francis, was later immortalised by Kate Summerscale in her 2008 book The Suspicions of Mr. Witcher which was dramatised for television.

In 1852 Witcher was on the hunt for an escaped convict named James Punt Borritt and had teamed up Inspector Shaw of P Division. Acting on information received Witcher and Shaw took up positions on the Blackfriars Road. At midday they spotted their quarry and moved in to arrest him. Borritt (who was using the name Parker) was taken to a station house where he denied being the man they wanted.

He could deny it all he liked but Witcher found marks on his person that corresponded with those in his prison record: ‘namely a scar under his left ear, and an anchor [tattoo] on the right arm’. He was charged about brought before Mr Norton at Lambeth.

There the magistrate was addressed by Inspector Shaw who testified that he had arrested Borritt for a burglary and robbery in the Ratcliffe Highway in June 1839. He’d been convicted at the Old Bailey and received a sentence of 15 years’ transportation.  Somehow Barrett had escaped and in 1844 Shaw had been summoned to Liverpool to identify him. Tried for returning from transportation before his sentence was up, Barrett’s penalty was increased to exile for life.

Now Inspector Shaw explained that the man had escaped again and returned to England after being sent to Norfolk Island, a penal colony where the ‘worst description of convicts’ were sent between 1824 and 1856.   In a story with echoes of Hugo’s Les Miserables Borritt, (a sailor by trade) had been dispatched with a small crew of others to help rescue a ship in distress in the seas off the island. According to Inspector Shaw’s evidence:

‘The boat and the crew disappeared, and none of the latter, with the exception of the prisoner and another desperate fellow named Sullivan, had afterwards been heard of, and there were strong reasons to suspect that the prisoner and Sullivan had despatched their comrades and by this means effected their own escape’.  

Mr Norton granted the police request to remand Borritt in custody while they sought witnesses to testify against him.

The record of Borritt’s trial in July 1839, where he was accused alongside three others for burgling a premises in Shadwell and stealing a large quantity of clothes, is in the Digital Panopticon database. Borritt was 25 and arrived in New South Wales on 27 April 1840, five months after leaving England on the convict ship the Mangles.

A further record, from 1852, records his second trial at the Bailey for returning from transportation before his time. He pleaded guilty and was sent back to Australia to finish his sentence. After he was sent back from Liverpool on the Hyderbad in 1844 the authorities chose to send him to Norfolk Island for two years but this record suggests he was back in VDL when he escaped again. Shaw’s story might be true or it could have been an invention to impress on the magistrate the need to keep him custody as a dangerous criminal. This source suggests he stowed away on a merchant ship, a much less colorful tale than the one told to the Lambeth magistrate by Inspector Shaw.

Whatever the case it was end of Borritt’s attempt to escape the fate the English justice system had handed him. He made a plea for mercy at his trial in which James admits the charge of returning from transportation but says he has already paid for his crimes several times over. It also reveals how he escaped.

‘The condition of a convict at a penal station is too horrible to be voluntarily endured’ he wrote to the Common Sergeant in his petition for mercy. He goes on to explain why he turned to crime in the first place as a teenager in desperate poverty.

he went on, (in a petition that was published the Juvenile Companion as a cautionary tale for its young readership) to say:

Dire necessity, created by a want of employment, once goaded me to the commission of an offence against the laws of property, but it was not aggravated by personal injury or cruelty. For that offence, I was sentenced to fifteen years’ transportation. I was conveyed to the most penal settlement, Norfolk Island, which, from the horrible personal sufferings to which all prisoners there are exposed, is commonly designated the “Ocean Hell”.

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Here, my lord, I endured almost incredible misery for eighteen months. At the end of that period I and eight other convicts effected our escape in an open boat. For eight days and nights we were beaten about at sea without chart or compass, with death from exhaustion and shipwreck staring us in the face’.

They made land at the Caledonian Islands (or New Caledonia, now owned by the French) about 750 miles east of Australia.  There he says they were set upon by ‘savages’, stripped and locked. They escaped again and made it to Star Island in the New Hebrides where, after resting for seven months they came back to England, only to be arrested and sent back to Norfolk Island.

His second escape was from Van Dieman’s Land (modern Tasmania) as a stowaway in a merchant ship.

In that situation I was concealed sixteen days, in the most miserable plight, being almost dead from suffocation and want of food’.

He clearly felt he’d paid his dues for the robbery on the Ratcliffe Highway. Unfortunately for him the judge thought otherwise.

[from Lloyd’s Illustrated Newspaper, 25 January 1852]

  1. Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore: A History of the Transportation of Convicts to Australia, 1787-1868, (London, Harvill Press, 1987), p.1

A case mistaken feline identity

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Alfred Mackness was insistent that Robert Couldry had stolen his prize-winning show cat. So convinced was he that he took out a summons to bring the other man to court at Lambeth to answer his charge.

The case was heard before a Police Court magistrate and Mackness attempted to prove that Couldry had somehow obtained the cat illegally after it had won a 25s  prize and had been ‘highly commended’ at a show at Birmingham.

He said he’d seen the cat, a striking white female with distinctive blue eyes, at cat shows at Alexandra Palace and Crystal Palace and had challenged Couldry about it.  Couldry denied any wrongdoing and insisted by turn that the cat – who he called (ironically perhaps) ‘Charcoal’ – was and had always been his.

The court then witnessed the curious spectacle of a number of white cats being brought before the bench for inspection. Three cats were taken out of baskets and examined by Mackness but none could he identify as his own. C

ouldry swore on oath that the cat he had exhibited at the shows in question were his property and, without any clear evidence to the contrary, the justice agreed.

The summons was dismissed and poor Alfred went home empty handed.

[from The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, November 25, 1876]

‘Take that you _____!’: a pickpocket loses her cool

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Amongst the most common crimes that women were accused of at the summary courts was picking pockets. Female offenders appear in greater numbers (and larger proportions) for these property offences than nearly all others – shopflifting being the obvious other one.

Picking pockets is an indirect, non-violent crime, one that involves dexterity and stealth, rather than strength and bravado. It required the perpetrator to get close to his or her victim and, to some extent at least, to not seem like a threat. Pickpockets chose crowds or tightly packed spaces like omnibuses or train carriages,  and victims that were unsuspecting, like drunks in bars.

Female thieves were also often, like Elizabeth Smith, prostitutes who were well connected with the criminal networks they either needed to sell on stolen items or to retreat within to hide when the law was after them. Picking pockets was risky; if you were caught and it could be proved you’d stolen items of value you could be sent to prison. If you had previous convictions that could mean a lengthy sentence.

However, there was also a reasonable chance that you would get away with it, especially if you had an accomplice. It was pretty standard practice for a thief to ‘dip’ a pocket and pass the stolen items on to a nearby assistant who’d make away wit them. When the thief was apprehended a search would reveal nothing at all making it hard to gain a conviction.

Not all pickpockets were subtle however, and not all eschewed violence.

In late October 1860 Elizabeth Smith was brought before the magistrate at Lambeth Police court charged with robbery with violence, a much more serious offence than pickpocketing. By all accounts Smith had been picking pockets in a beer shop in Lambeth, Walker’s on the Marshgate.

Edwin Oliver, a master boot and shoemaker was enjoying a glass of stout after work when he saw Smith trying to separate a drunken man from his possessions. He strode over to the couple and intervened, getting a mouthful of abuse from Elizabeth for his pains.

Some time later he left the shop and was making his way towards hoe when he felt a blow on his head and was knocked to the ground. The blow was accompanied by a woman’s voice (Elizabeth’s he believed) saying:

‘There you ______, take that!’

Oliver passed out and when he was helped up later his head was bloody and his pockets had been rifled. He reckoned he had lost between 15 and 18 shillings in coin.

It took a day but the police picked up Elizabeth and she was remanded while Oliver recovered from his wounds. When she came before the magistrate she said little. The justice established from Oliver that she might have had a male accomplice, perhaps her ‘bully’ (or pimp), and so it may have been him that thumped the shoemaker. Elizabeth was committed for trial by jury.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Monday, October 29, 1860]

‘I’m a teetotaller and don’t like to see him drink spirits’ says a thieving 14 year-old poisoner

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In early September 1888, just before real panic set in across London as a result of the Jack the Ripper (or Whitechapel) murders, a 14 year-old lad was brought before the Lambeth police court charged with theft and poisoning.

John Voisey accused the lad, Alfred Ellis, who was employed alongside him at  a cabinet makers in Peckham, of drugging his drink and stealing a sovereign from his pocket. He said that on the 29 August he’d entered the workshop on Victoria Road, and hanged his waistcoat in the ‘back shop’. In the pockets were three sovereigns, worth around £80 each in today’s money.

At half twelve he sent Alfred off to fetch him a quartern of gin (a quarter of a pint), and gave him one of the sovereigns to pay for it with. The boy soon returned with the gin and the change. However, when he checked his money one of the sovereigns in his waistcoat was missing.

Moreover when he tasted the gin it wasn’t right, and he suspected something else had been added to it. That something, he resumed, was ‘spirits of salts’ which were used in the workshop and a bottle of which was kept in the backroom, where he’d stored his waistcoat. Spirits of salts was actually hydrochloric acid, a dangerous poison but one with a quite distinctive smell.

Fortunately Voisey hadn’t imbibed much of it but he clearly thought  Alfred was responsible and collared him. Had the boy stolen his money and tried to distract him by making him ill? This was what Mr Chance at Lambeth had to decide.

The magistrate asked for medical evidence, which was provided by a chemist named Barithwaite. He declared that the gin was indeed adulterated with spirits of slats but not to degree that would kill. It could give the victims severe stomach cramps however. More seriously even for Alfred was the fact that a police search found that he had 17s6on his person that he couldn’t account for.

Alfred denied stealing but confessed to poisoning John Voisey’s drink. He didn’t mean any harm he said, but didn’t approve of him drinking. ‘I am teetotaler’ he declared (mindful perhaps of winning magisterial approval) ‘and don’t like to see him drink spirits’. Mr Chance said he would consider the case for a day or so and wanted a second opinion on the poisoning from the police surgeon. He remanded Alfred in custody in the meantime.

The remand was not good news for little Alf; on the 17 September 1888 he was tried at the Old Bailey and pealed guilty. The jury strongly recommended him to mercy on account of his youth and this probably saved him from further punishment. Judgment was respited by the judge and I can find no record of him ending up in prison.

[from The Standard, Saturday, September 08, 1888]

It was on Saturday 8 September 1888 that Annie Chapman’s mutilated body was discovered in the rear of a property in Hanbury Street, off Brick Lane in Spitalfields. 29 Hanbury Street was home at the time to Harriet (sometimes ‘Annie’) Hardiman, who ran a cat’s meat shop from a room on the ground floor. In my recent study of the Whitechapel murders I suggest that Harriett was even more closely linked to the ‘Ripper’ murders than being living on the premises where one of the victims was found.

The book, (co-authored by Andy Wise) is published by Amberley Books. It is a new study of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 which offers up a new suspect, links the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings to the unsolved ‘Thames Torso’ crimes, and provides the reader with important contextual history of Victorian London.

The book is available on Amazon

Violence: its time we listened to the experts and not the politicians

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The Phoenix in East Smithfield

Yet again this week we have witnessed some terrible examples of violence in the domestic news. Yesterday a policeman was killed while investigating a burglary, last week an officer was hacked with a machete when stopping a suspected stolen vehicle. Knife crime is reportedly on the rise in several smaller provincial towns and there have been some horrific stories about two different mothers killing their children (one because her husband had left her, the other simply because they interfered with her social life). In one incident an immigrant was nearly killed in his car by a racist right wing thug who wanted to emulate the murderous actions of a terrorist in New Zealand. It is hard to listen to the news then, without wondering what on earth has happened to our society.

Sadly history tells us that the answer to that question is that this is actually pretty normal for British society; violence is part of life and vicious, uncaring and cruel individuals exist today as they have always existed. Moreover, while we have made important advances in treating mental illness we have not been able to prevent some of those so affected from causing harm to others in the community.

This case from Lambeth Police court in 1839 (fully 220 years ago) was labeled by the press as ‘Disgraceful conduct’ and by witnesses who saw what occurred as ‘the most unmanly and disgraceful they had ever beheld’. On Friday 16 August that year two young women were having a drink of porter at the Phoenix pub in East Smithfield, in Aldgate. As Mary Ann Ryan and Catherine Kitton left they noticed stall selling artificial flowers, and stopped to have a look.

A sailor was also perusing the stock and was holding a stem in his hand. Catherine stood next to him and leaned in to look at his flower, touching it as she did so. The man exploded with rage, completely overreacting to this contact and punched her in the face, knocking her over, and then kicking her while she lay on the ground. Catherine managed to crawl away, rise and stumble towards the pub but fainted clean away.  It took some time before she could be revived.

Mary now remonstrated with the seaman, telling him he was ‘most unmanly’, shaming him in public. The man didn’t like this and turned on her, threatening to ‘serve her ten times worse’. When she continued to berate him he struck her in the mouth, almost knocking her unconscious. Recovering her wits she ran away and up a nearby alley but he chased her. He hit on the temple, drawing blood and forcing her to fall to the ground. Now he kicked her in the side as she curled up to protect herself.

It was horrific and several people saw it happen and so the police were called and the sailor arrested. The man was brought before Mr Coombe at Lambeth and said he was a sailor attached to a ship docked at St Katherine’s Dock near the tower. He gave his name as James Boardman and his vessel as the President American.

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Both young women were in court to give evidence but Mary was in such a state that the magistrate ordered her to be sent to the London Hospital to have her injuries treated. She’d been waiting in the ‘outer office’ and had fainted several times from the loss of blood she’d sustained as a result of the head wound. Amazingly she’d been able to tell some of her story which was corroborated by Catherine and a number of witnesses. Mr Coombe ordered the prisoner to be taken down to the cells while the court waited for news of Mary Ann’s condition from hospital.

A little while later a policeman returned with a  note from the house surgeon at the London. It read:

‘I hereby certify that Mary Ryan, just brought to the hospital laboring under a fractured rib, a cut to her forehead, and several contusions on different parts of her body, is in great danger’.

Boardman was once more set at the bar of the court and the magistrate glowered at him. Mr Coombe told him that he would be remanded in custody for the assault but that if Mary died ‘he would be placed on his trial for her murder, and in all probability hanged’.

I can’t see a trial for Boardman and so I am hopeful that Mary survived. If that was case then I suspect Boardman would have been sent to gaol for a while and then released back to go to sea again. It is remainder though that senseless brutality is not a new thing or a product of ‘modern’ society and so all the bleating about tougher sentences and threats to make criminals ‘feel afraid’ ring pretty hollow. Education, proper levels of street policing, and zero tolerance for violence , weapons, intimidation (online and in person) and hate speech are the only ways to stamp out violence in society.

Locking violent offenders up for even longer in prisons which entirely fail to rehabilitate them is a very expensive waste of time and does absolutely no good for the poor individual who has been critically injured or killed. talking tough on crime is the easiest thing in the world, actually doing something useful about it is much harder and will cost real money. Its time we demanded that our politicians stopped paying lip service to the issues and listened to the experts in policing, law, probation, psychoanalysis, and yes, even history.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Saturday, August 17, 1839]

  1. It is possible that the President was the same ship lost at sea two years later in 1841 with all hands. The packets were equipped with paddles and entirely unsuited to the Atlantic crossing.

A man offers a free ride and gets more than he bargained for

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Mr Savory Moriston had been out in the Haymarket, dining with friends during one of his regular visits to London. Moriston was a Hamburg based merchant and in a couple of days time he was bound for Australia, once more on business. As we waited for a cab at one on the morning two young women sidled up to him. Introducing themselves they said they lived ‘over the Waterloo Bridge’ and, since Moriston was heading to Lambeth, they entreated him to give them a lift. When a cab arrived all three got in.

If Moriston was familiar with the Haymarket in the 1850s then it is fairly likely that despite their ‘well-dressed’ appearance he would have realized that Emily Morton and Susan Watson were prostitutes. The Haymarket was notorious for the sex trade in the 1800s and the girls had probably been working the bars and theatres around the West End all evening. Now they saw the opportunity of a free ride home and another possible punter, perhaps one a little the worse for drink.

The girls bided their time and it was only when they were crossing the Thames that Moriston felt a hand in his coat pocket and then realized his handkerchief was missing. I remained silent at this point but decided to check his money. He reached into his trouser pocket and took out 13 sovereigns to count them.

It was probably not the most sensible move because it alerted the women to the fact that he possessed a much bigger prize than a silk hankie. Soon afterwards Susan leaned in and began to whisper in his ear, all the time stroking his breast with one hand. Meanwhile her other hand was heading for his trousers. Within seconds she had pinched two sovereigns.

Moriston was aware however and kept his cool. As the cab approached a policeman the merchant hailed him and the women were taken into custody at Tower Street Police station. There they were searched and the sovereigns were found, one in Watson’s glove the other in a pocket concealed in her dress. The handkerchief had been dropped as soon as the policeman was seen, it was found on the floor of the cab.

It was a serious theft and one that warranted a jury trial. Moriston was reluctant to go to court however, as his business commitments required him to leave London in a few days. He said he was content to have the young women dealt with summarily. Mr Norton presiding said that while he would not normally approve of such leniency he accepted that the German visitor to London was committed to be elsewhere and so agreed. He sent Susan Watson to gaol for two months and discharged Emily Morton, as nothing had been found to incriminate her.

[fromThe Morning Post, Thursday, August 11, 1853]