‘Her Majesty’s most gracious pardon is all that I crave or look for’: a man confesses to murder

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A curious case today, of a man confessing to being involved in a crime that happened some eighteen years before he presented himself in court. John Lane was about 40 years of age and when he stood in the dock at Marylebone he gave the impression of being from a military background. He looked tall and physically strong, but also worn down by life and ‘not altogether sane’ (as the court reporter noted).

PC Transom (226S) explained that  at 10 o’clock that morning (the 15 January 1850) Lane had walked into the police station at Portland Town and declared:

“I have something particular to communicate to you’.

Fighting to control  what seemed to be almost overwhelming emotion the man went on to say:

‘About eighteen years ago I was engaged in a smuggling affair at Eastbourne, Sussex, and in the affray one of the Coast Guard was killed. I think he was shot’.

Lane said that while he wasn’t directly involved, and didn’t see the man fall, he was pretty sure the killing had happened while his comrades were hauling away several casks of spirits. He said he’d always wanted to confess but was afraid of what might happen to him.

This fear might have been of being convicted and hanged as an accessory or may also have been a genuine concern that had he given evidence against his fellow smugglers he would have been targeted by them. The history of smuggling in Sussex is peppered with fights between the revenue and smugglers and tales of intimidation, violence and murders are not uncommon.

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The most notorious case was probably that of the Hawkhurst gang (right) who terrorized the southern coastline of England in the 1730s and 40s. They were only brought to book in 1748 when two of their leaders were hanged and their bodies displayed on a gibbet as a warning to others.

The sitting magistrate at Marylebone, Mr Broughton, wanted to know why he was confessing now, so many years after the event. Lane said he’d tried to confess (in 1842) to the man in the charge of the case but had been unable to find him. That officer was Lieutenant Hall of the Coast Guard and it seems Lane was in some way desperate to unburden himself of his guilt, regardless of the consequences now.

What did he want, the magistrate asked? ‘Her Majesty’s most gracious pardon is all that I crave or look for’ Lane stated, before he was led away so further enquiries could be made.

For the magistrate it was a difficult case; if Lane was telling the truth then he was confessing not to murder but to a serious crime, which didn’t seem to have ben solved. There was no record, he was told, of anyone being prosecuted for the coast guard’s death (or even clarity that a revenue man had died). It was also evident to anyone watching that Lane was ‘not quite sane’ and so might be confessing to something he hadn’t done. Nevertheless Mr Broughton ordered Inspector Chambers of S Division to investigate the truth of the man’s testimony so he could decided what to do with him.  Lane was remanded in custody until the following Tuesday and I will reveal what happened next on the 23 January.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, January 16, 1850]

The customer that no one wants

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In the week before Christmas 1848 a young man named Thomas Pheny walked into a coffee house near Euston Station. He asked the proprietor, Mrs Humphries, for a coffee and paid her with a crown coin. Mrs Humphries was tired and worried about her rent, which was almost due, so she dropped the crown into her counter bag and gave the man his coffee and his change.

On the following night Pheny was back; this time he called for a cup of tea with some bread and butter. He handed over a half sovereign and he got back 9s9dchange. For those of you unfamiliar with pre-decimal currency a sovereign was worth 10s (or 120d) and a crown 5s.

On the Friday of the same week the man came back into the coffee shop, but this time he was dressed differently, perhaps not wishing to be easily identified. He bought a coffee and paid with a half sovereign, receiving three half-crowns amongst his change. One of these he held up and gave back to Mrs Humphries, telling her it ‘was bad’ (in other words, it was counterfeit). She checked, agreed, and exchanged it.

After he had left the coffee house the owner examined the contents of her till bag and discovered that one of the crowns and four half-sovereigns were all ‘bad’. Now she suspected that Pheny had been deliberately using her coffee house to ‘utter’ false coin – changing larger fake coins for smaller legitimate ones by spending small amounts on coffee and tea. She alerted the police and waited.

Sure enough the next day, Saturday 23 December 1848 in walked Thomas Pheny and he ordered a coffee. When he tried to pay with a counterfeit half-sovereign Mrs Humphries grabbed him and called out for help. Pheny was arrested and in the ensuing investigation a number of the coins were directly traced back to him. Moreover it was quickly established that he was supposedly connected to a gang of coiners that had been defrauding tradesmen ‘in various parts of the town’ for some time. He was taken to Marylebone Police court where he was remanded in custody for further investigation.

Uttering was hard to prove even with a fairly reliable witness like Mrs Humphries. A good lawyer would be able to sow doubt in the minds of the jury that anyone could prove that the bad money produced came from Pheny and wasn’t already in the bag. After all Pheny himself had handed back a coin that the coffee house lady had attempted to give him in change. If other members of the gang could be caught then there was a chance the police could get a successful prosecution and take the criminals off the streets: those convicted could expect a prison sentence of anything from six months to several years.

But there seems to be no record of Thomas Pheny at the Old Bailey so on this occasion he may have been lucky. Or he may have been using a false name as well as his false coins, and have slipped by unnoticed by history. We can be sure Mrs Humphries would  be taking greater care with her money in future however.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, 27 December, 1848]

A pantomime villain is hissed out of court

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Horace Moore was a blackguard. He was the sort of character that might have  appeared in a Dickens novel and, at the end of his court appearance in December 1887, the watching public treated him accordingly.

Moore wasn’t in court for anything criminal he had done, in fact he wasn’t in the dock at all. He had chosen to go to court to prosecute a man that had assaulted him but it was the circumstances surrounding the assault – and the reason for it – that earned him the opprobrium of the public gallery.

Horace Moore was the son of a hay and straw dealer and lived at home on the Harrow Road. From this we might ascertain that he was a young man, probably in his early twenties. In November 1887 he was ‘walking out’ with a young lady named Miss Battrum. Horace’s brother was engaged to the girl’s sister and the couple had met at Yarmouth earlier that year.

As Horace and his companion strolled together on the 27 November Mrs Battrum (the young woman’s mother) came up behind and overtook them. She stopped, raised her umbrella, and struck Horace repeatedly over the head with it. Words were exchanged and Mrs Battrum led her daughter away.

The very next day Horace was having his shoes cleaned by a shoeblack on the Harrow Road when Mr Thomas Battrum marched up to him. He said he had insulted his wife the previous day and then hit him on the head with his fist, ‘which knocked his hat off and sent him staggering’. It was this assault which prompted the summons to Marylebone Police court.

So what had merited this seemingly unprovoked attack on a young man walking out with his girlfriend? Under cross examination by Battrum’s lawyer the truth gradually began to emerge that Horace Moore was the sort of person that enjoyed the company of women but was very far from being any father’s ideal son-in-law.

At the time Moore had met Miss Battrum at Yarmouth he had just the subject of a civil prosecution in which he had lost. He had been found to have seduced a young woman named Miss Bosher who was under 16 years of age. For that he was made to pay compensation of £250.

This was not his first offence although it may have been the first one for which he was successfully prosecuted. Miss Bosher had testified that Moore had told her he had been accused of seducing a Miss Goddard but added that ‘nothing came of it so it would be all right’.

Moore denied this and also denied ‘having ruined a Miss Taylor or any one of the name’. He wasn’t engaged to Miss Battrum he explained to Mr Cooke (the sitting magistrate) ‘he was simply walking out with her as a friend’.

The assault had been violent and he had lost the sight in one eye as a result of it. The court could not ignore the violence but Mr Cooke was not about to let a father’s defense of his daughter’s reputation earn him anything more than a slap on the wrist. What he had done was simply what any man might have done faced with the revelation that his daughter was dating such a dishonest and predatory young man.

The magistrate told Buttram that ‘no man had any right to commit an assault, no matter what the misconduct of another might be’, and then fined him sixpence, an entirely nominal sum for the builder to pay, and refused to award any compensation to Horace Moore. As the young man left the court ‘he was hissed’ like the villain in a Victorian melodrama. With a bit of luck the publication of his name by the papers would alert his future victims (or at least their fathers) to steer clear of his romantic advances.

[from The Standard, Friday, 9 December, 1887]

The magistrate tells a mentally ill mother to ‘remember to the end of her life what disgrace and danger she brought upon herself’.

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Today the British government has decided to mark World Mental Health Day by appointing a government minister to prevent suicide. The Health Secretary has admitted that under successive governments there has been too little focus of resources on tackling the problems of mental illness but, speaking on BBC Radio’s Today programme he stopped shorted of promising more money or specifying exactly how he intended to address the issue of mental health in the coming months and years.

The PM said this: ‘We can end the stigma that has forced too many to suffer in silence and prevent the tragedy of suicide taking too many lives’. They have pledged £1.8 to the Samaritans to help them run their free helpline. That is certainly something of course, but then we spend £38 billion on defence and about £45m on the Queen. The costs of mental health care do come out of the NHS budget of course and that budget is £124.7 billion and about 10% of that goes towards treating mental illness.

What all of these figures show is that mental illness is a massive problem in modern society and helps explain why upwards of 4,500 people take their own lives every year. Anyone visiting this blog over the last couple of years will probably have come across one or more story of attempted suicide prosecuted at the Metropolitan Police courts.  London was just as unforgiving and uncaring in the 1800s as it has proved to be in the 1900s and early 2000s. Policemen frequently prevented suicides simply by being on the streets (and bridges) at the right times.

Beat bobbies rescued men and women from the river, pulled them from canals, and cut them down from railings where they found them hanging. On more than one occasion a quick thinking guard or passenger saved a life on the overground or underground railways. Unlike today few of those attempting to end their lives received any help afterwards and all of them ended up facing prosecution for their ‘crime’.

Take the example of Maria Ford, a 28 year old married woman from Henry Street in Marylebone. She was charged before Mr Mansfield with attempting to murder her baby boy and then take her own life with poison. The magistrate was told that Maria was a drunkard with a history of being found incapable in the streets. After numerous appearances before  the courts she had recently promised to refrain from alcohol and had ‘signed the pledge’.

As a convert to the Temperance movement Mr Mansfield was prepared to give her the benefit of the doubt. The chaplain of the house of detention had written to him to attest to Maria’s attempt at reformation and he was keen to encourage her. He decided to treat the attempt on her son’s life as an accident occasioned by her being drunk but warned her against slipping ‘off the wagon’ in future:

‘He did not think she intended to injure her child’ he said, ‘but in her drunken madness she might have killed both the child and herself’.

He would therefore discharge her but now she had signed the pledge she had best keep it and ‘remember to the end of her life what disgrace and danger she brought upon herself by her drunken habits’.

I’m not sure anyone asked her why she drank or why there was no husband in court to support her. At least in that respects our society has made some significant strides forward even if, as Matt Hancock admits, there is still plenty of distance to travel.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, October 10, 1883]

for other cases that touch on attempted suicide see:

A man is driven to attempt suicide because of his ‘reduced circumstances’

‘She has been very low spirited lately’: The early casebook of the ‘Ripper’ surgeon reveals the extent of mental illness in London

A bad week in London, full of personal tragedy

‘Leather Apron’ at Marylebone Police court?

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As London woke up to the news that two women had been murdered in one night of horror in the East End the search for the murderer known to history as ‘Jack the Ripper’ continued. The police pursued all the leads they got, some of which were clearly red herrings.

In the immediate aftermath of Catherine Eddowes’ murder a policeman found a piece of bloodied cloth in Goulston Street. Above it was a chalked message which seemed to infer the murders were being committed by a member of the Jewish immigrant community.

The idea that the killer was Jewish had surfaced soon after Annie Chapman’s inquest when one witness said the man she had seen with Annie just before her death ‘looked foreign’. Anti-alienism (racism) was endemic in Victorian society and it was easy to point the finger of blame at local Jews.

One man in particular felt the pressure of this local xenophobia. John Piser was arrested and questioned when he was thought to be a suspect. The Star newspaper even ran with the story, claiming that the mysterious character ‘leather apron’ was in custody for the killings. leatherapron

‘Leather Apron’ was the name given to a local Jewish man who had a reputation for violence against women. He may well have been an unpleasant character and he may have attacked women but that hardly made him unique in Whitechapel. As for whether Piser and ‘Leather Apron’ were one and the same person, the jury is out’.’

In the end Piser was able to provide Sergeant Thicke for an alibi to cover his movements at the time of the murders so he was released. Many local Jews ran the gauntlet of being arrested by the police or chased through the streets by lynch mobs. It is always much easier to pin the blame for something awful that happens on an outsider, rather than look for the suspects within your own community.

On the day that news of Stride and Eddowes’ murders hit the newsstands a man appeared at Marylebone Police court seeking compensation. The complainant was ‘a man of the artisan class’ and if accused a ‘gentleman’ of injuring him while making a citizen’s arrest. No names were given but the court heard that the man had been working on repairs to the organ at St Saviour’s church  in Paddington. As he walked home a stranger ran up to him and declared that he was ‘Leather Apron’ and tried to take him into custody.

He was dragged to the nearest police station, held for three and half hours, and then released. He wanted compensation for the hurt done to him but the magistrate was unable to help him. Mr De Rutzen explained that he would have to take his claim to a county court.

I wonder how often men were chased, abused, arrested and falsely accused in that ‘autumn of terror’? The press whipped up a storm with their wall-to-wall coverage of the story and the wild speculation as to the murderer’s identity must have caused dozens or more men to be looked on with suspicion.

In reality the killer was probably must closer to home and to the community within which all the victims lived and worked. It is highly unlikely that he was a ‘champagne Charlie’ or a ‘mad doctor’, or even a ‘desperate foreigner’. I believe he was a local Gentile who had grown up in Whitechapel and knew its streets like the back of his hand.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, October 02, 1888]

An open window is an invitation to thieves

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Ellen Dunn was sitting at her desk in the evening, doing her household accounts. She had her receipts and an account book open in front of her, and a bag containing around £12 in cash on the floor beside her chair. The widow lived at 68 Warden Road in Kentish Town and her daughter was in a room upstairs.

At about eight o’clock Mrs Dunn heard a noise in the room. Looking up she watched with horror as the window ‘was thrown open’ and someone entered the room. Ellen ran out of the room to the front door to see who was breaking in but couldn’t get out; someone or something was preventing her from opening her own front door.

She went back into the room and leaned out of the open window and yelled ‘police!’ This brought her daughter running downstairs to see what the matter was. There was no one visible in the street but Mrs Dunn’s bag of money was missing. The next morning the empty bag was found in the front garden – Mrs Dunn realized had been burgled.

Fortunately the police had a witness from within the Dunn’s own household. Amy Sefton was a 14 year-old serving girl, probably very junior, but she proved to be a very capable young woman. She said she had seen a group of lads watching the house just before the robbery had taken place. She saw a boy she recognized as someone who lived locally run away from the house clutching a bag that seemed very similar to the one found that morning.

He took the bag to his mates who were clustered around a lamppost. Using the light it offered the boys peered inside. ‘Here is a go: there is some money!’ one of them cried, clearly delighted with the prize.

Then they removed the cash, stuffed it in their pockets and dashed off. One of them was dispatched to throw away the bag and this is when they spotted Amy watching them. They swore at her but she held her ground and made sure she got a good look at them. This resulted in the police picking up a lad one 17 named William Hine, who was produced at Marylebone Police court on the following day.

Hine was charged (along with several others in absentia) with entering a dwelling house and stealing £12. It was a serious property crime and the magistrate remanded William in custody so the police investigation could continue. The justice made a point of commending Amy for her quick thinking and bravery.

This would be a hard case to prove however; Amy said she would be able to identify William and one or other of the lads but without forensics or any of the money being found on them the police may have struggled to build a case against them. Hine doesn’t feature in the Old Bailey records or in the Digital Panopticon. His absence from both doesn’t mean he wasn’t prosecuted further but without a clear trail I wonder if, on this occasion, the lads got away with it. On thing is likely however: Mrs Dunn would have been careful not to leave her windows open in future.

[from The Standard, Thursday, September 28, 1893]

A quick-thinking signalman saves an impatient commuter at Swiss Cottage.

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Anyone who travels regularly on London’s underground and overground railway system will have seen people risking injuring themselves and others by rushing to catch trains just before the doors close. People get shoved, bumped into, pushed aside and generally manhandled as impatient commuters attempt to barrel their way through crowds or squeeze onto carriage as the closing ‘beeps’ sound to announce ‘this rain is now ready to depart, mind the closing doors’.

Sometimes the late arrival gets stuck in the doors, which open and close again while the assembled passengers glare at them. On more than one occasion I’ve heard the driver (often with heavy sarcasm) offer a few words of advice for the future to whomsoever has just boarded his or her train.

We’ve all done it and we’ve all seen it done.

George Sorrell was tired and his wife was unwell. In fact she was ‘dangerously ill’ and after a very long day at work for the General Omnibus Company (14 hours in fact) all George wanted to do was get home to her. So when he arrived at Swiss Cottage station late one evening and saw a train departing he ran to catch it.

The doors then were manual and swung open so he reached up and grabbed the handle and hauled himself aboard. However, the train was moving and he got stuck half in and half out. This was perilous because in a matter of seconds the train would enter a tunnel and the bus employee risked being thrown from the carriage and mangled under its wheels.

Fortunately for him a signalman had noticed him and the danger he was in – apparently it had been become all too common for commuters to risk life and limb in this way – and rushed out of his box and pushed Sorrell bodily into the compartment and safety.

At the next station Sorrell was reprimanded by the guard and asked for his name and address. George gave a false address in Chelsea but the company were persistent and eventually traced him. He was summoned to appear at Marylebone Police court in September 1873 where the charge against him – that ‘of entering a train in motion’  – was heard by Mr Mansfield, the sitting police magistrate.

Mr Gooden, the chief inspector leading the case, explained that incidents of this type were becoming commonplace and so the railway company had decided to prosecute each and every one, in an attempt to deter passengers from carrying on with this dangerous behaviour.

The magistrate listened to Sorrell’s excuse but agreed with the railway that this needed to be stopped before anyone was killed. He also noted that the defendant had put the company to considerable expense and trouble by lying about where he lived. So he fined him 10with an additional 2costs and sent him on his way with a flea in his ear.

[from The Standard, Monday, September 08, 1873]

PS. Swiss Cottage underground station had opened just 5 years before George Sorrell had his brush with death. It was the norton terminus for the Metropolitan and St John’s Wood Railway so Sorrel would have realised that his ride into central London was disappearing fast. A new station opened in 1939 so the one he used closed in 1940 and the old station building was demolished 20 years later.