A teenage girl gets the benefit of the doubt

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Since 1908 we have had separate courts for juvenile defendants and even before then there was a recognition that young children at least needed to be dealt with differently when they were caught up in the criminal justice system.

Today we wouldn’t think of placing a child of 13 in the dock of a magistrate’s court. Instead they would be brought before a youth court (if they are aged 10-17) and a parent or guardian would have to be present. The public are excluded from youth courts (but allowed in Magistrates’ courts) and defendants are called by their first name, and the presiding magistrates are specially trained.

The emphasis is on the welfare of the child, rather than their supposed criminality or deviant behaviour. Serious charges (murder for example) will potentially  end up before a judge and jury but nearly all other youth crime is heard in a Youth court where the legal process is more relaxed and less intimidating.

In the mid nineteenth century things were a little different. Welfare was not uppermost in the minds of the penal authorities and children were routinely imprisoned and even transported for a whole series of offences. Earlier in the century children (those aged below 16) could still end up on the gallows if they were convicted of murder, although this was extremely rare. So in 125 John Smith was hanged for burglary, he was 15; more infamously John Any Bird Bell was executed in 1831 for murdering a 13 year-old child, John was only a year older himself.

So when Anne Mabley appeared in the dock at Southwark Police court it’s no wonder she sobbed through her entire hearing. Anne was 13 and was accused of stabbing a younger child, nine year-old Richard Sparrowhall in the face.

The court was told that as Richard had passed Anne at ten that morning (the 19 September 1847) in Bermondsey she called to him. As he turned she asked him ‘how he should like to have his head cut off!’

Not surprisingly Richard replied that he wouldn’t like it, not at all!

But Anne produced a knife and tapped him on the shoulder with it. He pushed her roughly away, presumably in defence, and she stabbed him in the face. The blade cut his cheek below his eye and, very fortunately,  did little damage. Anne panicked and ran away but several witnesses saw what happened and caught hold of her.

While the lad was taken to have his wound looked at Anne was questioned by a policeman. She denied do anything and swore she had no knife but PC 159M soon found it and arrested her. He brought her straight to court as a day charge and her mother was sent for.

In between her tears Anne swore it was an accident, a joke that went wrong and said she’d been using the knife to trim her nails. The magistrate was inclined to believe and since Richard had escaped serious injury common sense prevailed and Anne was released into the care of her mother. So this story has a happy ending but on another day the 13 year-old girl could have faced a custodial sentence, of several weeks or even months, in an adult prison. The consequences of that experience may well have mentally scarred her for life, just as her attack on Richard might have scarred him physically.

[from The Standard, Monday, September 20, 1847]

September 1888: A killer in the East overshadows the everyday reality of domestic abuse in Victorian London    

Catching Jack

I have just completed the final draft of my ‘Ripper’ solution book and its now off with my co-author for his last amendments. We have to do a little work on the images and maps but it looks like we will comfortably meet our end of September deadline. Having put down my pen (so to speak) on the project I thought I’d return to Whitechapel in 1888 to see what was going on in the Police Courts of the capital in the midst of the most infamous murders London has ever known.

For context, by Wednesday September 18 1888 the murders of four women were being investigated by the police: Emma Smith (4/4/88), Martha Tabram (7/8/88), Mary Ann Nichols (31/8/88), and Annie Chapman (8/9/88). Within  less than two weeks both Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes would be added to that list, their murders occurring within an hour of each other.

Very few people (including me) believe Smith to have been a ‘Ripper’ victim and some dispute whether Tabram was. Either way, by this time 130 years ago the police were desperate to catch a murderer who was mutilating defenseless women in the heart of the East End.

Meanwhile over the river at Lambeth Henry Baker (alias Williams) was being charged with the attempted murder of Mary Cowen. The attack had taken place in mid July but Mary was dangerously ill in St Thomas’ Hospital, and was too weak to attend court until early September. However, on the day of the first committal hearing she failed to appear in court to prosecute the case against Henry.

The policeman in charge of the case, Chief Inspector Chisholm, had then told the magistrate at Lambeth Police court that he was convinced that friends of the prisoner had conspired to prevent Mary giving evidence that day. Mr Biron had granted the police a warrant to force her to attend at a subsequent date, and therefore she was in court on the 18 September to start the case against her attacker.

Mary Cowen was still suffering the effects of the assault: ‘she appeared very ill, and evidently was most reluctant to give evidence against the prisoner’, the paper reported. The case was opened by the Treasury solicitor Mr Pollard. He ascertain (‘with some difficulty’) that Mary had lived with Henry in Birmingham but they had been separated ‘for some time’. As was the case much more frequently than we might imagine today, many working class couples lived as man and wife without ever formally marrying.

In July the couple had met in London and had a violent argument. She admitted striking her ex-partner in the face with her bag and calling him ‘foul names’. That was the 10 July 1888 and on the following Monday, the 16th, he found her again and this time he attacked her, stabbing her two or three times with a knife. Mary collapsed and lost consciousness. Someone must have helped her because she woke up in hospital.

Henry Baker denied the attack and objected when the solicitor played his trump card and produced a written statement, from Baker, admitting his guilt. Baker said no one could prove it was his handwriting but Mr Pollard begged to differ. The crucial witness was Mary however, and having finally persuaded (or forced) her to testify against her former lover the police must have ben relatively confident of securing a conviction. Mr Biron now fully committed the man to trial at Old Bailey for the attempted murder of his common-law wife.

The trial did take place, on 22 October 1888 and ‘Harry’ Baker was convicted, not of attempted murder but of the lesser offence of wounding. The court report stated at the end that:

the prisoner, ‘in his defence stated that he had been subjected to great annoyance by the prosecutrix, whose habits were very intemperate, and that he pleaded guilty to assaulting her after great provocation’.

An all male jury clearly agreed with him and even when he’d admitted having a previous conviction (from 1887 in Chester) the judge merely sent him away for a year’s imprisonment.

This is the surgeon’s report of the injuries Mary had sustained (and that Baker admitted inflicting):

The prosecutrix was brought there [St Thomas’ Hospital] with a deep incised wound on the right side of the chest, penetrating into the cavity of the chest, between 3 and 4 inches long and 1 inch deep or more, and another wound in her back behind the right shoulder blade an inch and a half long and half or three-quarters of an inch deep; there was considerable bleeding from the wound in front, a large artery was divided—she was in very great danger for some time—she remained in the hospital till September 3rd and after having recovered to some extent was allowed to go—her life was in danger till July 22nd

When juries were prepared to accept as mitigation the accusation that a ‘wife’ was ‘intemperate’ and that being called ‘foul names’ and slapped in the face with a bag counted as ‘provocation’ it is quiet easy to understand why women were so reluctant to prosecute their husbands and partners in the late Victorian period.

We should also see the actions of a misogynistic serial killer in the context of the way women were treated everyday in the 1880s, and not view him as an aberration (a ‘monster’) or some sort of criminal mastermind. Women were beaten up, stabbed, abused, raped and murdered on a very regular basis in the nineteenth century and ‘Jack’ wasn’t the only one to get away with it.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, September 19, 1888]

A suggestion of Police brutality in Limehouse as a porter is attacked.

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Deal porters on the London Docks

There was plenty of violence in nineteenth-century London. Much of it was drunken and most of the perpetrators and women were often the victims. Policemen were also assaulted, not infrequently when they tried to move on drunks in the street or intervened to stop a crime, but it was relatively rare for them to be charged with violence.

So this then is a rare example of a summons being issued against a serving Victorian policeman. In September 1865 Thomas Marshall, a porter, appeared at Thames Police court in the East End of London to complain about being assaulted the previous night.

Marshall looked pale, he’d lost a great deal of blood and the top of his head was covered by a large ‘surgical plaister’. He told Mr Paget  (the presiding magistrate) that he’d been to the Five Bells pub in Three Colt Street, near Limehouse church.

That was at about nine in the evening. Thomas was a deal porter who worked on the docks. This was a physically demanding occupation requiring considerable skills in ferrying and stacking softwood into tall stacks on the quays. It is quite understandable that Thomas quickly fell asleep in a corner of the pub  after a few pints.

However, at midnight the landlord, Mr Wright, woke him gently and said: Now, York [which was his nickname] you must leave’.

For whatever reason Marshall refused and the landlord called in a passing policeman. The copper was heavy handed, dragged him out on the street and then, according to the porter:

struck him on the tip of his nose, hit him on the arm, and nearly broke it, and then struck him on the head with his truncheon. He received a dreadful wound, and the people who looked out of the windows called out “shame”.’

Why did he do this the magistrate wanted to know. Because he was drunk, the porter explained.

He didn’t know his name but he had got his number. Mr Paget turned to the policeman who’d appeared that morning to represent the force, sergeant Manning (15K). Would there be any difficulty in identifying the officer Mr Paget asked him.

None, sir, if he had mentioned the right time and place’, the sergeant replied.

The magistrate agreed to issue a summons and ordered the sergeant to speak to the station inspector to ascertain exactly whom the summons should be issued for. While the magistracy generally backed up the police, cases like this, where an officer appeared to have overstepped his authority and, more importantly even, had allegedly been drunk on duty; they were quite capable of siding with the public.

Whether this policeman was summoned to appear, let alone convicted of assault, remains unknown however, as I can’t easily find any reference to the case in the next couple of weeks at Thames. It doesn’t mean he wasn’t of course, the newspapers rarely followed up all the stories they printed and perhaps they felt they’d said all they needed to here.  Quite possibly however, the police simply closed ranks and protected their own, concluding that it would be quite hard for the porter to prove anything.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, September 15, 1865]

Unhappy patient bites porter at one of London’s finest hospitals

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On Wednesday the 6 September 1883 the assistant medical officer at the Highgate Infirmary on Dartmouth Park Hill ordered that Eli Sparksman be discharged. The 20 year-old gardener had no home to go to however, and seemed reluctant to leave. The assistant MO ordered one of the porters to find him and escort him off the premises but this seemingly simple instruction resulted in a court case at Highgate Police court.

Highgate Infirmary had opened in 1870 and quickly established itself; none other than Florence Nightingale described it as ‘the finest metropolitan hospital’. Until 1893 it was part of the Central London Sick Asylum district, thereafter reverting to the St Pancras Poor Law Union. It served the poor of north London and in 1930 became the Highgate Hospital. In 1948 it was incorporated into the Whittington (where I was born) as its Highgate wing, close to the cemetery at Highgate.

Sparksman had reacted badly to be told to change his clothes and leave the institution, and refused, demanding instead to be seen by Dr McCann the head of the hospital. Acting on the instructiosn he’d been given Walter Bowen went looking for Eli Sparksman, and the porter eventually found the young patient wandering in the infirmary’s garden.

He tried to lead Sparksman back inside the building but as they were climbing the steps up from the garden Eli became ‘very violent’, and threw himself to the ground. As Bowen tried to drag him to his feet the patient attacked him, biting his hand ‘in a very savage manner’.

Despite his injury the porter got his charge back inside to the ward where Sparksman threatened to ‘knock his head off with a stone’ if he got him outside again. Hospital staff today continue to be attacked and abused by patients, some of them drunk and disorderly others, like Eli I suspect, suffering from a form of mental illness. In this instance the police were called and PC Deeks arrived to take the man into custody. The policeman later testified that Sparksman was both violent and verbally abusive towards him as he took him back to Kentish Town nick.

The case came up before the magistrates at Highgate where no account seems to be taken of Eli’s mental health. The police knew him as ‘a very bad boy’ (which given that he was 20 and not 12 suggests again that this was a person who today would be diagnosed with a learning difficulty or mental illness and not treated as a criminal).  The bench had no truck with violence towards medical or police officials and sent Eli to prison for a month at hard labour.

[from The Morning Post , Tuesday, September 11, 1883]

A mother’s cruelty and a son’s desperate violence as news of the latest Whitechapel ‘horror’ emerges.

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On the 9 September 1888 London was still digesting the news of Annie Chapman’s murder in Hanbury Street, Spitalfields. The full details of this latest ‘horror’ wouldn’t become public knowledge until after the inquest on the 13 September but there was sufficient rumour and speculation to throw the capital into a panic in the meantime.

There was no mention of Chapman’s killing in Lloyd’s Weekly’s daily summary of the police courts of the metropolis but there was plenty of reference to violence. Frederick Percival was charged at Lambeth Police court with shooting at his own father with a revolver. The incident had followed an argument during which Fred, a clerk, had thrown a cup and then ran out of the room, turning once to fire his weapon at the door. It seems that suicide was actually uppermost in the young man’s thoughts and he was remanded so the doctors could examine him.

Also at Lambeth Henry Baker was fully committed to trial for the attempted murder of Mary Cowan whom, it was alleged, he had stabbed in the chest and back in July. The case had taken so long to come before a magistrate because Mary had been dangerously ill in hospital.

At Woolwich PC Williams (127R) reported that he had been called to an incident in the High Street where a woman was mistreating her child. It was late at night and when he arrived he found Mary Sullivan, quite drunk, in the processing of dashing her baby’s head against a wall. He intervened to stop her and told her to go home. She had no home, she replied. A few onlookers had gathered and one offered to pay for bed for the night, something Mary indigently declined.

PC Williams moved her on but when his beat brought him round again he found her ‘sitting on a doorstop with the child exposed’. A crowd had gathered and was berating her for her conduct, and some ‘threatened to lynch her’. As she should probably have done on the first occasion he now took her into custody and escorted her back to the station. After being checked out by the police surgeon her child was taken to the workhouse. Mary was brought before the magistrate in the morning and sent to prison for 14 days.

There were a number of other assaults, acts of cruelty, and an attempted suicide by a woman throwing herself into the Thames. All of this was recorded as part and parcel of everyday life in the city. So we should consider the Whitechapel murders in context; they were exceptionally brutal killings but their victims – poor working-class women – were the usual recipients of casual violence in late Victorian London.

This violence was frequently punished and often condemned but little if anything was done to prevent it, or to prevent the associated causes of violence, or improve the environment in which so many Londoners lived. The ‘Ripper’ shone a spotlight on East London in the autumn of 1888, and so is credited with forcing the ruling class to act to clean up the appalling poverty and housing conditions of the East.

That this ‘improvement’ was both half-hearted and temporary is less often reported. Inequality, unemployment and want continued and within a few years the authorities turned their attention elsewhere; it took two world wars and a socialist government to really tackle the endemic problems of poverty in British society and, some might say, even that progress has largely been lost given the prevalence of food banks and homelessness in modern Britain today.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, September 9, 1888]

A man lays about his wife with an iron poker, ‘saying he would have her life’: an everyday domestic trauma in Mile End

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Nowadays we have a number of organizations (state run and charitable) that look out for the interests of women and children, especially those caught up in abusive relationship or poverty. The laws protecting women are also much more stringent and the support mechanisms (if nowhere near perfect) much better than they were in the nineteenth century. Any regular (or even causal) readers of this blog will have seen that domestic violence was a daily event in Victorian London and something many of the Police Court magistrates railed against.

Charities did exist to help, one of which was the Associate Institute for Enforcing the Laws for the Protection of Women and Children (AIELPWC). Organizations such as this were often run by well-meaning members of the middle class, who saw it as their mission to intervene in the ‘savage’ lives of the working class. The AIELPWC were run by Henry Newman and based at 30 Cockspur Street, just off Trafalgar Square. In September 1869 William Moore, a member of the charity, followed a case that was of interest to them at the Worship Street Police court in Stepney.

Benjamin Briggat, a ‘looking-glass frame maker’ from Mile End was up in court, accused of a violent assault on his wife. Mrs Briggat appeared in the witness box swathed in bandages. She was able to give chapter and verse on her husband’s serial abuse of her in the five years they had been married.

Many women suffered for months or years before they built up the courage to take their spouse before a magistrate as Mrs Briggat had done. It took determination and resignation in equal measure, and the outcomes were rarely positive anyway. At best the husband would be locked up and the household deprived of the principal bread-winner, or he was fined (reducing the family budget even further), and worse he’d be reprimanded and she’d have to go back home with him, angered and embittered.

Mrs Briggat told the bench what had happened on the previous Saturday when Benjamin had come home late from work, clearly ‘three sheets to the wind’ (i.e. drunk). She’d made him a stew but he said he didn’t want it.

They argued and he started to kick at her as she was bent over the stove. At this she tried to get away, running to the bed but Briggat ‘seized the iron pot off the fire and beat her about the head with it’.

There was more, she said:

She was soon covered with blood and fell to the floor. The prisoner again kicked her repeatedly while she was down, He also got the poker from the fire-place, and struck her over the back and arms with it, saying he would have her life’.

She must have been terrified and with good reason, most homicide victims in the nineteenth century were wives, children or in some other way relatives or friend of their killers. Her neighbours were too scared of Benjamin too come to her aid but they did call for the police and she was then able to escape from the room. Her husband’s last act was to throw a pail of water over her as she ran out of their home.

It took PC 187H a long time to contain Briggat and get him to the station. It took Mr Newton a few moments to send him to gaol for four months at hard labour. Presumably Mr Moore made a point of recording the incident in his notebook to discuss with his colleagues. Would it make a difference? Sadly, I doubt it.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, September 07, 1869]

One in the eye for a foreign national in London

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Mr (or perhaps Monsieur)  Goughenheim was strolling along Bear Street near Leicester Square in mid August 1839 with an English friend (named Richardson) when he noticed a man across the road that he recognised. Goughenheim was a translator and he’d spotted one of his former clients, Jean Jaques Covin, who happened to owe him money for his services.

Crossing the road, Goughenheim hailed the man and demanded he honour his debt. Covin was literally taken aback, and took a moment to step backwards before lifting his cane and aiming an attack at the translator. It was a vicious assault and caught Goughenheim in the eye, seemingly popping it.

Richardson grabbed hold of the assailant and he was quickly given into he custody of the police with the help of some passers-by. It took some time to come to court (because of the victim’s injuries) but eventually the case was heard before the Marlborough Street Police magistrate in early September, 1839.

There several witnesses gave evidence but were unable to comment on what was factually said because the entire exchange had been in French.  One was able to testify however, that:

as he ‘was passing a portion of the aqueous humour [from Gugenheim’s eye] fell upon his clothes, and at first he thought the prisoner had squirted water over the prosecutor, until he saw that his eye was totally destroyed‘.

The justice, Mr Dyer, was pretty clear that this was too serious a case for him to deal with  summarily. Covin, through his solicitor, denied any attempt to injure the other man, saying he thought he’d been assaulted himself when Gougenheim placed his hand on his shoulder to get his attention in the street. He accepted he’d raised his stick but never meant to hurt Gougenheim. His solicitor asked Mr Dyer to be lenient and to fine his client rather than send it up through the system.

Gougenheim challenged Covin’s version of events and insisted he’d not acted aggressively himself. Probably on the strength of this and the seriousness of Gougenheim’s injury, the magistrate decided he would commit the Frenchman for a full jury trial. There would still be an opportunity for this to be settled however, if Covin offered to pay the translator what he owed him and added compensation for the injury he might have escaped an embarrassing public trial and a potential prison sentence.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, September 3, 1839]