Procrastination, distraction and unexpected discoveries: the Coppetts Wood murder of 1882 (part one)

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There are moments in historical research when you discover something that distracts you from your core purpose and sends you in a different direction. One of the most famous examples of this (in academic history terms anyway) was Vic Gatrell’s Hanging Tree which examines in detail the history of public execution in England in the period 1770 to 1868. Gatrell wasn’t intending on writing a history of hanging, instead he made ‘a chance discovery’ whilst ‘working on something quite different’.

This led him to start browsing through a set of judges’ reports in the National Archives at Kew and he came across the story of the rape of Elizabeth Cureton and the petitions for mercy made on behalf of the man found guilty of assaulting her. The Hanging Tree is one of the seminal works in the history of crime and the idea that it was the product of a momentary desire to of break the ‘tedium’ of archival research (something I’m sure very many historians can empathise with) is enlightening.

I am (slowly) finishing a book on eighteenth-century homicides. It is a project which started life about 9 or 10 years ago when I began researching a murder in Northamptonshire. It had odd elements to it, but mostly it was interesting because it seemed to offer an opportunity to explore the system by which convicted criminals might avoid the death penalty, even for a crime as heinous as murder. Working with my PhD supervisor, a very eminent historian of crime, we published an article on the case in a historical journal. I then went on and started work on other articles and books.

There was something about that case that always niggled with me and made me want to see if other examples could be found where convicted murderers had tried to avoid the noose in the 1700s. Cutting a long story short I found four cases (including the Northamptonshire one) that seemed worth exploring. One involved two brothers murdering a watchman, the next concerned the public stoning to death of an informer in Spitalfields, and the last was a prostitute who was accused of killing a minor celebrity musician. I pitched the project to a publisher and they were kind enough to give me a contract.

In the meantime one of my former undergraduates approached me and told me he had ‘solved’ the Ripper murders. He believed he had uncovered the identity of the Whitechapel murderer of 1888 and had linked him to a second series of contemporary murders. I was skeptical, but intrigued. Over the course of the next few years I worked with Andy on this project alongside my other one until, in the summer of last year, we had the bulk of a manuscript to pitch to publishers. It wasn’t easy to sell because the market for Ripper books is pretty well saturated, but in the end we found a home for it with Amberley. A note here: if you are an author who wants to get something published, keep trying – if it’s good enough someone will take a chance on it, eventually.

While all this was going on I decided to start this blog. Daily writings on the police courts of the Victorian metropolis, a way of keeping me focused on writing and research every day. It was also born of my desire to return to a study of the magistracy, the subject of my original PhD research back in the early 2000s. My intention (after the homicide and Ripper books) was and is to write academic and more popular histories of the magistracy in England.

So, where is this rambling blog going right now? Well, this morning I’ve found a report of a 24-year-old man named Frederick Cheekly who was set in the dock at Southwark Police court in late April 1884 charged with stealing a watch. Cheekly lived at 113 the Borough in south London with his common-law partner Maud Norton. She was older, 29 years of age, and appeared in the dock with him as an accessory to the theft. A second charge was preferred against the pair, also for stealing, and this time a third person – Minnie Lewis – was also charged. The solicitor for the Treasury brought the charges and the trio were committed for trial.

What happened to them after that is unclear but I doubt it would necessarily have resulted in convictions. I suspect the house in Borough was a brothel and the two women acted as prostitutes and/or madams. The men robbed were risking their property simply by entering a house of ill repute and I doubt the Surrey jurors would have had much sympathy for them.

But what struck me was a comment made by the Police News’ reporter who stated that Checkley was ‘said to be a companion of the Finchley-wood murderer’. Given that I grew up in Finchley and I hadn’t heard of this case I thought I’d do some quick digging this morning.   I soon found a report form March 1882 which describes the discovery a the body ‘of a young man’ in woods near Finchley. A little bit more research established that these were Coppetts Wood, near Colney Hatch. At first the police thought they’d found the body a dead gispy since the woods were a popular transit point for travelling people. But the hair on the corpse was fair, not dark like most gipsies. The papers now speculated that the victim might have been part of a criminal gang operating in the area, committing burglaries and street robberies.

Suffice to say, for now at least, that I think I have worked out what happened and how this case unfolds but it is going to take me some time to unpack it all. So, if you would like to know what happens in the Finchley Wood murder mystery stayed ‘tuned’ for further articles over the week as I get to the bottom of who was left buried in Coppetts Wood and who put him there.

In between, that is, finishing off the book I’m supposed to be writing!

[The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, April 26, 1884; Daily News , Tuesday, March 7, 1882]

A row over the adulteration of the great British banger (and its got nothing to do with the EU!)

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What percentage of a pork sausage should be made up of meat? It’s a good question now and it was a good question in 1882 when Henry Newman was dragged before the magistrate at Southwark by the sanitary officer of the Bermondsey vestry.

The officer, a Mr Thomas, testified that he had bought a pound of sausages from Newman’s shop on Southwark Park Road for nine pence. He told the butcher he was ‘going to have them analyzed’ (which seems a waste for a packet of well made bangers). He took them to a Dr Muter who issued a certificate  that declared they were made from 82 per cent meat and fat and 12 per cent bread. The doctor confirmed however, that while the sausages contained bread they were not in any way ‘injurious to health’.

In court the vestry’s legal team contended that the bread was used ‘so that inferior parts of meat could be used’ to manufacture the sausages. Newman’s  brief challenged that and brought along two other sausage makers to explain to Mr Slade (the justice) that it was impossible to make proper sausages without adding bread to the mix.

The magistrate agreed that bread was an essential part of the process and said the question turned on whether 18 per cent constituted adulteration under the act. In his opinion it didn’t and so he dismissed the summons and two further similar cases that the overeager vestry had brought against other butchers. In the end the vestry were required to pay costs of £2 2sand Mr Thomas probably chose to buy his supper somewhere else in future.

So is 18 per cent too much bread in a sausage? I don’t know. Why don’t you have a look at the next packet you buy from a supermarket or ask your local butcher (if you still have one).

[from The Standard, Thursday, March 23, 1882]

Murder in Wales but business as (depressingly) usual in London

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In mid March 1866 the trial of Robert Cox was concluding in Swansea. The body of John Davis had been discovered by police in Dyffryn Wood a long time after his disappearance. The body had been decapitated and the evidence led the police to Cox (or Coe). The jury had convicted Cox after deliberating for 12 hours and the judge, Justice Blackburn, ‘passed sentence of death in the usual manner’. The so-called ‘Mountain Ash murder’ resulted in the execution of Cox outside Swansea gaol on 12 April 1866. Cox confessed to killing his workmate after they had both been drinking. His was the last public execution in Wales.

Meanwhile the reports of the London Police courts reminded readers that most crime in the country was much more mundane. At Marlborough Street  Henry Baynes, a publisher’s clerk, was brought up again on a charge of defrauding his employers. He was accused of obtaining cheques by false presences from a number of publications including The Morning Post, the Owl, and Notes and Queries.  The prosecuting counsel was a Mr Wontner who was to go on to become a magistrate later in the century. On this occasion he managed to persuade the sitting justice that there was sufficient evidence against Baynes to send him for a jury trial.

At Southwark Mary Ann Vanna was accused to stealing a clock, coat and ‘other articles of wearing apparel’ from a house in Cole Street. She pleaded guilty in the hope of having the case heard summarily (and therefore getting a reduced sentence) and said it was the first time she’d been before a magistrate. The justice said he doubted that as she was a ‘well known character’ who lived with a ticket-of-leave man. He sent her to prison for six months at hard labour.

Over at Worship Street Mary Ann Taylor appeared in the dock charged with destroying her clothes in the casual ward at Shoreditch workhouse. She raised eyebrows in court because of the state of her dress:

‘beneath a dark wrap of a shawl and old bonnet she wore what was immediately recognizable as having been long since a nipped counterpane, but perfectly white and carefully patched and darned so as to exclude the clemency of the weather’.

When the magistrate asked the poor law officers why she was dressed like that they told him that when paupers destroyed their own clothes, with the expectation that the house would give them new, better ones, they supplied one of these ‘nice white dresses’ instead.

The effect was to humiliate the wearer and it seemed to have worked on Mary Ann who looked miserable and wept openly as she explained that she’d cut up her own clothes because they were ‘so filthy’. The magistrate sent her to prison for 14 days.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, March 16, 1866]

A ‘frantic’ young woman attempts to ‘destroy herself’.

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Alongside petty crime, disorderly behaviour and violence the Police magistrates of the capital heard a considerable number of cases of distress and desperation. None more so than charges levelled against people (mostly women) who had attempted suicide by throwing themselves into the River Thames to drown.

It seems to have been a regular occurrence in the 1800s and featured in the BBC’s drama Taboo, where James Delany’s half-sister (Zilpha Geary, played by Oona Chaplin) leaped to her death. From the thirteenth century up to 1961 ‘self-murder’ was a crime, perhaps more importantly to some, a sin in the eyes of the church. As a result those accused of attempting to ‘destroy’ themselves frequently came before the metropolis’ magistracy.

While it was a largely accepted ‘truth’ that the ‘weakness’ of women’s minds was more likely to drive them to take their own lives, the reality was that men ‘committed’ (or attempted) suicide more frequently. However, gendering suicide in this way to make it a ‘female malady’ (as Elaine Showalter has dubbed madness in the 1800s) fitted contemporary tropes more closely. While men do feature in newspaper reports of attempted suicide it is more common for the examples to be of young women, like Zilpha and for the act to be one of drowning rather than hanging or other forms of self-harm.

So when Sarah Keyworth tried to jump off Westminster Bridge she was providing the Morning Post’s reporter with exactly the copy he needed to reinforce the weakness of the ‘fairer sex’ in the minds of his readership.

Sarah, ‘a respectable-looking young woman’ was seen running along Westminster Bridge by a gentleman named Houghton. Mr Houghton told the court at Southwark that she was ‘calling out in  a frantic manner’ before she ‘suddenly stopped and climbed over the railings of the bridge’.

He must have feared that she was about to jump so he reacted quickly and grabbed hold of her. She struggled, saying ‘let me go, let me go!’ but he held on until a policeman arrived to help. Sarah was taken to the local police station and brought up before the magistrate in the morning.

At her first hearing she was ‘sullen’ and said she had fully intended to have ‘destroyed herself and was sorry the gentleman had interfered’. The magistrate (Mr Woolrych) had remanded her and instructed the prison chaplain to visit her.

A week later and she was back up in court and this time her sister appeared with her to support her. Now Sarah was in repentant mood, through floods of tears she said ‘she was very sorry for such an attempt on her life. She knew the wickedness of it, and promised never to do it again’. Her sister told Mr Woolrych that she could only imagine she had been driven to it after ‘words with her young man’. She promised to look  after her and so the magistrate admonished Sarah and let them both go.

Sadly, attempting to drown oneself in the Thames is still one of the favoured options for those who feel that life is something they can no or longer wish to cope with. In 2014 over 100 calls were made to the City of London police on account of people trying to jump from one of the five bridges along the stretch of river covered by the City’s jurisdiction. Given that London has over a dozen more bridges (not including railway ones) that pedestrians can access the numbers of places where potential human tragedies could occur probably raises that figure considerably.

A 2016 report from the City noted that there were 20-25 suicides by drowning alone in the Thames and attempts have been made to prevent further deaths by installing information boards with the Samaritans phone number and even patrols on some bridges to look out for those in need. London can be a lonely place and it would seem that it always has been.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, March 11, 1865]

Child murder, suicide, neglect, and petty theft: just an average day in London

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This is the last in this series of posts from one week in 1884 and I’m going to finish it with a summary of the reports that appeared in the Morning Post under the heading ‘Police Intelligence’ which again show the diversity of business the police magistrate courts of the Victorian capital dealt with.

The most serious case was at Clerkenwell where Mr Hosack fully committed Sidney Clay to trial at the Central Criminal Court (at Old Bailey). Clay, a 30 year-old tobacconist from Holloway Road, was accused of ‘having encouraged and endeavoured to persuade Eustace de Gruther, doctor of medicine, to kill and murder’ a baby boy who was just two months old.

Clay’s lawyer argued that the doctor, as the only witness, was trying to implicate his client but the magistrate decided that the case needed to be heard by a jury and bailed Clay for £200.  In late February Clay was tried and convicted at the Bailey but it was recognized that the whole thing might not have been as intentional as it seemed at first. The jury recommended Clay to mercy and the judge gave him just six months hard labour. Interestingly here his age was given as just 21, not 30, so perhaps the reporter got it wrong at the original hearing – a reminder that we should always treat historical sources carefully.

Another tragedy of life was played out in Southwark Police court where Elizabeth Brockett was prosecuted for trying to kill herself. The 31 year-old (if we are to believe the report at least) was seen on London Bridge by a  wharf labourer. John Flanaghan was alerted by a woman’s scream and looked up to see Elizabeth who had just discarded her bonnet and shawl and was about to launch herself into the Thames. He rushed to save her, and, with the help of a policeman, managed to drag her back from the brink.

In court the woman told Mr Slade that she was ‘in great distress of mind, owing to the loss of two children’. She’d been very ill but promised never to try to do anything like this again. She was released back into the care of her husband.

At Hampstead John Redworth didn’t appear when his case was called. He’d been summoned by an officer of School Board for neglecting to send his daughter, Justina (9) to school. This was a common enough sort of hearing but was very rarely reported so what made this one special? Well it was that perennial issue around travelling people. Redworth was a member of a community of ‘gipsies’ who had been camping on Hampstead Heath. Apparently Redworth’s was the only family that had children of school age and so his was the only summons made.

He turned up in the end but too late for the magistrate (Mr Andrews) who had already adjourned the case for a month. The encampment had moved on the magistrate was told, so perhaps the court would decide to leave the girl’s education for someone else to deal with.

At Marylebone William Bliss (a footman) was charged with theft and receiving a china vase. He appeared in the dock with his accomplice and fellow servant Catherine Churchyard. The pair worked for a family in Chelsea and claimed the case had just been broken and they’d hidden the evidence to save Catherine getting into trouble. Mr De Rutzen didn’t buy this version of events and remanded them for a week to see what the police could find out about the case. I fear that at best the couple would have been dismissed from service, at worst they might have to spend some time behind bars.

So in just four reports that day we have a child murder, an attempted suicide, servant theft, and a case of truancy involving travellers. If we added a fraud, a case of domestic violence, and some drunk and disorderly behaviour on the streets in the West End we would have a very normal day at the Police courts of Victorian London.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, 31 January, 1884]

An execution brings out the crowds – and the pickpockets

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A public execution on the roof of Horsemonger Lane prison 

Until 1868 executions – the hanging of criminals for murder – took place in public. There had been calls for this practice to end in the previous century but while capital punishment had been removed from nearly all crimes by the late 1830s, the public element was retained.

Critics (including novelists like Dickens and Thackeray) argued that the spectacle of seeing a man or, more rarely a woman, being hanged before a large crowd had a negative effect on those watching. Instead of learning the lesson that crime didn’t pay, or sharing in the collective shame of an offender the crowd drank, laughed, mocked the police and the condemned, and generally behaved as if they were at a carnival.

The large crowds that gathered were also the targets of thieves, who willfully picked the pockets of those whose attention was focused on the events taking place on the raised platform before them. This had worried William Hogarth 100 years earlier and in his final engraving for his ‘Industry and Idleness’ series he had included a pickpocket amongst the crowd that watched a thief being ‘turned off’ at Tyburn. His message was clear: the gallows was hardly an effective deterrent if thieves robbed those watching their fellow criminals being executed for the very same offence.

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William Hogarth’s image of an execution at Tyburn (modern Marble Arch) you can see the pickpocket on the left, next to the man on crutches, two small boys are pointing him out. 

Detective William Cummings of M Division, Metropolitan Polce, was on duty at 8 in the morning outside Horsemonger Lane prison. A gallows had ben erected to hang Samuel Wright. Cummings was in plain clothes and was there to watch the crowd for any disturbances or criminality. Wright had been convicted of murdering his lover, Maria Green, by cutting her throat after they had both been drinking heavily. He had handed himself in three days after the murder and there were public pleas for clemency in his case. Maria was known to have a temper and it was suggested that she had threatened him on more than one occasion. Despite this the home secretary remained unmoved and Wright’s execution was set to go ahead as planned.

His case was compared at the time with that of George Townley who also killed a woman close to him. In Townley’s case it was his ex-fiancé, Bessie Godwin, who had rejected him. Townley stabbed Bessie in the throat and then helped carry her home, declaring to her father: She has deceived me, and the woman who deceives me must die’. He too was convicted and sentenced to death but reprieved by the home office after his legal tram effectively fabricated evidence that he was insane.

So in 1864 we had two murderers with very different outcomes and the fact that the man left to swing was working class while the man saved was ‘respectable’ was not lost on the public outside Horsemonger Gaol. I suspect that is partly why the detective inspector was there.

However, he had not been there long when he saw when he saw two rough looking men trying to push their way through the crowds. They seemed to be being pursued by a more smartly dressed man. The man was loudly accusing them of robbing him, so the policeman intervened and collared the pair.

In court at Southwark James Walter Fisher (a commercial traveller) told the sitting magistrate (Mr Burcham) that he’d been waiting for the execution and had seen the tow defendants (John Jones and Richard Johnson) pick the pockets of a man standing in front of them. The pair moved off and he didn’t see what they’d taken but he quickly alerted the victim. The man checked his pocket and declared his handkerchief was missing. Fisher went off in pursuit and pointed them out to inspector Cummings.

Whilst John Jones was being searched at the local police station PC Reed (235M) said he noticed Johnson pull out something from his own pocket and chuck it away. It was a silk pocket-handkerchief. Johnson denied ever having one and said it must have been planted there by the copper. PC Reed said other officers were ready to give evidence that they had seen Johnson throw it away. Inspector Cummings told the court that the victim, a gentleman, had identified the item as his own but was unable to come to court today. He would, however, be able to attend on Friday. Mr Burcham therefore remanded the two men until then.

At this point both of them disappear from the records. John Jones is such a common name that it would be difficult to trace him anyway but while there are a number of men with the name Richard Johnson in the records of the Digital Panopticon I’m not convinced any of them are this man.

So perhaps the gentleman that lost his handkerchief decided that a few nights in a cell was suitable punishment for the pair of opportunistic thieves. He had got his property back by then and maybe chose not to give up a day taking them through the justice system. Equally Mr Burcham may well have chosen to punish them as reputed thieves using the powers given to him under the terms of the Vagrancy Act (1824) that allowed him to punish those merely suspected of doing something wrong.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, January 13, 1864]

Two young chaps ‘go snowing’ in Southwark.

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One of my favorite possessions is a 1961 edition of Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of the Underworld (1949) that has the wonderful subtitle:

 Being the Vocabularies of Crooks, Criminals  Racketeers, Beggars and Tramps, Convicts, The Commercial Underworld, The Drug Trade, The White Slave Traffic,  and Spivs.

It catalogues both British and American slang terms for all sorts of criminal activities from an A C coat (one that has many pockets to hide stuff in) to ‘zombie’ (a less than affectionate term for police women, which arose in the 1950s).

One phrase I’ve always liked is ‘going snowing’, which refers to the deliberate theft of linen from a washing line. In December 1870 that is what brought two teenagers before the magistrate at Southwark Police court, who sentenced them spend Christmas and the New Year behind bars.

PC George Stent (186M) was on duty in Rockingham Street at about 10 in the evening of the 14 December when he heard a noise. It seemed to have come from an entrance which led to Messrs. Ned and Hunter’s workshop so the alert constable went off to investigate.  As he walked through the gateway he saw a wagon and a young lad balancing himself of the wheel. Underneath he noticed another boy who was now trying to hide.

The bobby tugged the lad down and hauled the other one from under the vehicle. There had been a spate of robberies in the vicinity and he suspected he might have discovered the cause. A quick look under the wagon revealed a stash of linen that the lads had been stowing away having filched it from a nearby garden.

Using the powers he had under the Vagrancy Act (1824) he arrested them both on suspicion and took them into custody to be questioned further.  While the boys were locked up at the police station he returned to the scene with a pair of their boots and compared it to footprints in the garden where washing had been drying. They fitted exactly and the two were formally charged with theft.

Their final examination before the courts took place on the 23 December 1870 and Mr Partridge (the ‘beak’) decided against letting them take their chances with a jury. He used the vagrancy act to send John Turner and John Smith (both lads of 17 years) to prison with hard labour for three months.

Happy Christmas!

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, 24 December, 1870]