A wary theatre man avoids the ‘dippers’ and H H Holmes is linked to London

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Distraction theft is still one of the commonest forms committed by pickpockets in London. There are frequent warnings on the underground of ‘thieves operating’ and crowded areas like Oxford Street, Camden Town and Covent Garden are happy hunting grounds for ‘dippers’. If someone stops and asks you the time, says they know you from somewhere, or points out that you’ve dropped something – maybe even just brushes against you in the street and apologies – check your pockets!

Edward Walpole was pretty clued up and had his wits about him as he strolled along Shaftesbury Avenue one morning in July 1894. The concert agent lived in Pimlico and was presumably in the West End for work. He knew the area, was no stranger and certainly no wide-eyed tourist.

Two men approached him and one of them started to talk to him. ‘We’ve met before’, he said, ‘in Chicago, at the exhibition’. Walpole had never seen the pair before in his life, and had never been to the USA. He was suspicious, and uncomfortable as one of the men had got very close to him.

He looked down and saw that the chain of his watch was hanging loose from his waistcoat pocket and the watch itself was in the other man’s hand. As soon as they realized they’d been rumbled the other man told his companion to give Walpole his watch back and began to move away.

Edward seized the thief and the two of them struggled, falling to the pavement in the process. The fracas alerted a policeman and having ascertained that a theft had been attempted he arrested the stranger. The man gave his name as Henry Saunders but he was also known to the police as Henry Reginald Mason. He was charged before Mr Hannay at Marlborough Street Police court and sentenced to a month’s imprisonment.

The Chicago Exhibition that the men mentioned was the World Fair (or the ‘World’s Columbian Exposition’) that took place in 1893 and drew people from all over the globe to Illinois. Many locals profited from this influx of business but one man allegedly, exploited the event for a much darker purpose. Dr Henry Howard Holmes (or HH as he is almost always referred to) had built a hotel to accommodate gests for the fair but rumours soon circulated that several individuals, mostly women, had disappeared whilst staying there (although he never traded as a hotelier). HHH

Holmes (right) was a serial fraudster, coming money out of businesses and making false insurance claims and eventually when the going got too hot he quit Chicago. He was tracked down to the east coast where it was suspected he’d killed his business partner Benjamin Pitezel for the insurance money.  Meanwhile agents operating on behalf of companies Holmes had defrauded searched the hotel in Chicago. The property was very odd, with secret passageways, trap doors and windowless rooms.

Holmes was convicted of the murder of Pitezel and admitted killing many more (some of which were false claims, as the people concerned were still alive!). The hotel (dubbed ‘the castle by locals) was searched more thoroughly and human remains were found there. HH Holmes was executed in 1896 and remains a mysterious figure and possibly America’s first serial killer. Indeed, some people have suggested that he might have come to London to commit the Whitechapel murders, but having studied that case I think it unlikely. In fact if you want to know who I believe was ‘Jack the Ripper’ you might find my latest book interesting. Holmes, however, will form a small part of my next one.

[from The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, July 21, 1894]

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:

Forced aboard a merchant ship in New Orleans: an echo of modern slavery on the high seas

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New Orleans, c.1841

John Burns was a steward on board a merchant ship named the Rio Grande. He’d sailed with it to New Orleans in 1849 where he’d gone ashore with a fellow crew member who had been taken ill. He took temporary lodgings in a boarding house and made plans to collect his pay packet in the morning. This was normal: sailors often collected their pay onshore, being paid at a shipping agent’s office.

However, this was also when they were vulnerable to thieves and fraudsters who knew they were likely to have been carrying fairly large amounts of cash. In London the Ratcliffe Highway and its associated dockland was notorious as an area where prostitutes would inveigle seaman into bars, get them drunk, take them upstairs and rob them (or assist others in their robbery). I’m fairly New Orleans presented very similar hazards to the unwary.

As Burns left his lodgings to collect his money two men seized him and forced a drink down his throat, which ‘rendered him insensible’. Having dragged him they manhandled him on board a ship called the Ashley, which was run by Alfred Greg. The two men were what were known as ‘runners’ or ‘crimps’; in effect they acted as a press gang for merchantmen, forcing men to serve as seaman against their will.

We are probably all familiar with the concept of the press gang as it operated in the eighteenth century, forcibly enlisting men and boys into the Nelsonian navy but this was nearly half a century later and in a foreign country. In 1849 New Orleans was, as it is today, the largest city in Louisiana, the 18th state of the USA. In 1849 something like half of Louisiana’s population were enslaved and it is hard to think of what happened to Burns as anything other than enforced labour by kidnapping.

Burns tried to explain to the master (Greg) that he was no sailor, just a steward with no experience of seamanship but he was ignored and set to work. He was promised $35 and the ship sailed to England, docking in London in April. When he asked for his pay he was told he’d already been paid, but he’d never seen ‘a halfpenny of it’. Instead the master had paid all the money to the two men that had pressed him.

Perhaps this was a common scam, akin it seems to me, to modern slavery where men and women and kidnapped and forced to live and work in terrible conditions by criminal gangs. The steward had the sense to get away from the ship and present him himself at the Thames Police court where he obtained a summons against Greg. A few days later the master was in court to hear Burns testify against him. Two other crew members turned up to confirm his evidence and Mr Yardley (the magistrate) said it was evident that a ‘gross and scandalous fraud’ had been committed.

However, it doesn’t seem like he was able to do much about it, perhaps because the crime (of kidnapping) had happened outside his jurisdiction. He could – and did – insist that John Burns was paid however, and would remand the master in custody if necessary until the sum was handed over.

The story served as a cautionary tale for others travelling to ‘foreign’ parts to not get taken unawares by unscrupulous captains in search of a crew.

[from The Standard, Monday, April 23, 1849]

A young mind is turned by the dream of emulating Buffalo Bill’s wild Wild West

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In 1887 ‘Buffalo’ Bill Cody brought his travelling Wild West Show to Europe. The show featured wild animals, reenactments of historical events from American history (such as the Civil War and the Indian wars), feats of horsemanship and skills such as sharpshooting and rodeo. It was a form of  circus with a peculiarly American frontier theme. Cody (below right, with Sitting Bull) was a master showman and thousands flocked to see performances in London, Manchester and Birmingham and even Queen Victoria took in a show as part of an American Exhibition in West London in what was her golden jubilee year.

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The touring show made a big impression on one young boy, 14 year-old Cecil James Eugene Harvey, who saw it in London. His head filled with cowboys and Indians (which were also the stuff of many of the cheap ‘penny dreadfuls’ that youngers consumed) Cecil struggled to concentrate on his work as a City office errand boy. His fantasy world overtook reality and soon he settled on a plan that would allow him to follow his dreams.

As an errand boy he was trusted to run money around the City as part of his duties and young Cecil realized it would be fairly easy to top up his rather poor weekly wages with some ‘extras’ from under his employer’s noses. On the 6 April he was sent out by Mr C. R. Bonne of Eastcheap to cash a cheque for £5 but he never returned.

His absence was noted however, and the police were informed. They sent out telegrams to alert other forces and Cecil was arrested in Salford by the local police. They sent him back to London in the custody of an officer from the met and on 21 April 1888 he was set in the dock at Mansion House Police to be quizzed by the Lord Mayor.

In keeping with his romantic ideas of the Wild West Cecil played the part of an outlaw in court. He told the magistrate that he had intended to go to America to start a new life but when he realized that he didn’t have the money for the passage he went up to Manchester, where Cody’s show was playing, so he could take it in daily instead. He was still determined to get to the States and even the Lord mayor sent him to prison for 10 years for this crime, ‘he would go afterwards’.

Young Cecil was unlikely to get 10 years penal servitude for embezzling £5 but he would have lost his employment. The Lord Mayor remanded hi in custody as is so many of the reports of the newspapers we don’t get to find out what happened to him. I suspect that he spent an uncomfortable few nights in a cell before being formally reprimanded by the Lord Mayor and sent home to a thrashing from his father (if he had one).

I like to think that one day he made it to America, although once there who knows if it would have lived up to his expectations. The world looks very different when you are 14, especially if that world is reflected through the pages of comic books or in the fantasy world of the circus or theatre.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, April 22, 1888]

In June this year my new book – which offers up a new suspect for the ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders of 1888 – is published by Amberley Books. If you are interested in pre-ordering a copy you can find the details here.

The ‘gospel according to the nineteenth century moralists’ brings the end of a popular entertainment

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I have often wondered what the Victorians would make of our society should a character like H G Wells’ ‘time traveller’ actually manage to create a machine to visit the future. While one imagines that he would probably find some things to be predicable (motorized transport, even airplanes), others largely unchanged (like Parliament and the judiciary), it would be the leveling of daily life and the permissive nature of relationships that might give cause for shock.

Victorian society was not as buttoned up and prudish as it has sometimes been perceived. In fact, as Matthew Sweet argues in Inventing the Victorians (2001) even that oft repeated suggestion that they covered up the legs of their pianos is a myth; a joke aimed at themselves and at Americans (whom they felt were more obsessed with suppressing sexuality).

Nevertheless vice and obscenity were prosecuted in the courts and their definitions of what constituted ‘obscene’ were certainly narrower than our own. This is where I think the ‘time traveller’ would struggle to make sense of society: when he viewed television, looked at a tabloid newspaper, causally searched the internet, or simply walked down a busy London street, he would have been assaulted by images of (in his mind) semi-nudity everywhere.

In 1872 Frederick Shore was summoned to Bow Street Police court to answer accusations that he had published an indecent periodical. Shore, who was represented by a barrister, Mr Laxton, was the publisher of Days Doings and short-lived sensational magazine that carried all sorts of stories, romances, gossip, sports and entertainment news. The prosecution, brought by the Society for the Suppression of Vice, alleged that it was obscene.

Shore had been in court three months previously and had then promised that ‘all nude pictures and matters suggestive of indecency’ would be removed from all future editions of the paper. This then was a hearing designed, in part, to ensure he had kept his word.

Mr Bealey, the barrister instructed by the Society, argued that he had not. He produced a copy of the latest edition and read a selection of it to the court before showing the magistrate (Sir Thomas Henry) a nude image. The defense argued that the image in question was ‘a well known picture’ and that the editors had ‘added drapery to it’ to ‘decrease its nudity’. Sir Thomas said this only made it worse, it was now ‘even more obscene’.

He concluded that the proprietors of Days Doingshad  ‘not kept good faith’. ‘There was no doubt’ he declared, ‘that the proprietors of the periodical pandered to a depraved taste’. He bound the witnesses form the Society over to prosecute and accepted bail of £150 from the defendant. The whole sorry issue would now have to go before a higher court.

Just how ‘obscene’ was  Days Doings?Well not very would be the conclusion of a modern audience. It was risqué certainly, and humorous, catering for  amiddle-class decadent readership. On its May 1871 cover it featured ‘Derby Night at Cremorne’ [Gardens] with a sensational scene of well dressed gentlemen drinking with women that might well have been prostitutes. Cremorne Gardens enjoyed a reputation as a lively and disreputable entertainment venuewhere the classes could mix. The 1871 article in the Days Doings supported Cremorne in the face of a sustained attack by organisations like the Society for the Suppression of Vice and the Cheslea Vestry who wanted it closed down.

This brought Shore into the cross hairs of anti-vice campaigners who saw his periodical as part of the problem. In early 1872 Days Doings was (as this case shows) under constant attack and eventually caved in. It remerged as ‘Here and There’ a much milder version of itself but it still had room to comment on the attempts to close down Cremorne Gardens. It condemned the threats to popular entertainment ‘by the prudery of aldermen, ministers and police inspectors. Dancing is banned at Cremorne’ and other venues it stated, ‘for this “is the gospel according to the nineteenth century moralists”.*

Goodness knows what those same moralists would have made of most Britain today.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, February 02, 1872]

*quoted in Lynda Nead, Victorian Babylon (2005), p.139

A lucky escape (or just a delayed one?)

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Catherine Johnson was a fortunate thief. Fortunate that is, because the mid nineteenth-century criminal justice system and police was unable to build a tight enough case to send her to trial.

In early January 1853 she was brought before the magistrates at Marlborough Street to be examined as a suspect in a series of jewel thefts in New Bond Street. She was remanded for further enquiry twice before finally being discharged for lack of evidence.

Catherine was initially charged as an accessory, the main culprit being her husband who had seemingly fled the country. Mr Johnson (no first name was given) was an American citizen and following a raid on Hunt & Roskell’s jewelers where items valued at £1,500 were stolen, he evaded the police search and escaped to France leaving Catherine to face the music.

The only evidence that the police had was that Johnson had pledged two rings at a pawnbrokers in Newington Causeway before he fled and that ‘some articles of jewelry resembling some of the stolen propriety’ had been seen in Catherine’s possession. Crucially however, nothing had been found on her by the police, so that evidence was, at best, circumstantial.

At the hearing on the 7 January Mr Bingham was told that no new evidence had emerged that would justify pursuing a case against Catherine for the theft.  Since Mr Hardwick had dealt with case initially he had asked his opinion but his fellow justice agreed that little could be done. The real villain was somewhere on the Continent by now and unlikely to return so, on this occasion, Catherine would walk free from court.

Neither Catherine  nor Johnson are unusual names for the mid 1800s but in 1853 a Catherine Johnson was sent to gaol for stealing a earthenware pint pot. Later, in 1855, a Catherine Donovan (alias Johnson) was sentenced to penal servitude for picking the pocket of a man and taking his watch. I wonder…

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, January 08, 1853]

The old ‘money changing’ scam on the Docks

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For many people arriving in London in the 1880s the capital was a stopover en route to somewhere else; for many European Jews that ‘somewhere else’ was the golden medina, the United States of America. This had been the case for thousands of Irish migrants in the 1840s, fleeing famine and poverty after potato blight devastated their lives. Very many settled in London, Liverpool and Birmingham but plenty had the ambition to make a fresh start outside of the British Empire, an empire that had palpably failed to support them when they needed it.

London’s docks must have heaved with people looking for a passage across the Atlantic in the 1800s and a similar scene would have played out at Liverpool. Men like Messers, Koosch and Schack, two German travellers, asked around to find a berth on a steamer bound for Ellis Island. These two had struck lucky and secured a place on the Etna which had been built and launched in Greenock in August 1854.

However their luck was soon to run out when they were taken in by a fairly straightforward conman. John Louis befriend the pair and explained that he was a provisons dealer and was also travelling on the Etna. They had plenty of English money but no American dollars. That was no problem, Louis assured them, he was in an ideal position to change the money for them so they’d welcomed on to US soil with open arms.

Delighted, the two friends handed over all their money (about £10)  and arranged to meet Louis the following day. Of course he never showed up and they soon realised they’d been scammed and  robbed.

With the help of the local police Koosch and Schack traced Louis and he was arrested and brought before the Lord Mayor at Mansion House Police court. He was represented by a solicitor and he promised to return every penny that his client had taken. This must have been a relief for the two Germans whose chances of making a new life in America would have been devastated before they’d even arrived had they been force to travel with nothing.

But for the Lord Mayor this wasn’t enough; he needed to demonstrate to the public that anyone behaving in such a ‘villainous and disgraceful way’ could expect no mercy in his court. He sent Louis to prison for four months with hard labour.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, September 18, 1883]