A baby on the tracks and a child in a dustbin; two horror stories from the 1880s

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Lloyd’s weekly round up of ‘Police intelligence’ on Sunday 13 July 1884 contains a fascinating variety of human greed, misery and criminal artfulness. There are possibly a dozen or more cases from a betting scam in the City of London to an assault in Highgate, and the stories reveal the diversity of life in the Victorian capital. Two cases stand out amongst the petty thefts, domestic violence, fraud and juvenile crime reported. Both involve some form of child abuse, and both are quite shocking examples.

Clara Wardle was prosecuted at Thames Police court in the East End of London in very strange circumstances. Clara was seen to place a small child, her own baby, on the tram lines on Commercial Road and then run away. Luckily for the infant John Kerr saw what happened and rushed over and snatched up the child before a rapidly approaching hose and van crushed it under its hooves and wheels. The young lad handed the baby over the police.

Meanwhile another man who had seen what Clara had done chased after her and caught her in a side street. He marched her off to find a policeman and PC Newport (44H) took her into custody and ensured she appeared before Mr Lushington in court the next day.

Clara stood in the dock clutching her baby to her breast and listened as the evidence against her was read out. She told the magistrate that she never intended to hurt the child. She was ‘merely laid the child down to frighten her husband, who she thought would have picked the baby up’.

A report of the incident in a provincial newspaper gives us a little more insight into the case. John Kerr (the rescuer) is reported as telling the magistrate that he saw Clara and a man (presumably her husband) ‘running after a tram-car in Commercial Road’ at about 6 o’clock in the evening. The man boarded the tram ‘leaving the prisoner [Clara] standing in the road. She then deliberately laid her baby on the rails and ran away’.

So her action was part of an argument between her and her husband that almost led to the death of a baby. Perhaps he was leaving her, or simply had had enough of the row and saw an opportunity to escape quickly. Lushington remanded her for further inquiries, presumably to bring her husband in to see what he had to say about the matter.

South of the river, at Lambeth, two young boys were placed in the dock once more having been remanded a few days earlier by Mr Chance. Their crime was arguably even worse than Clara, since they acted deliberately and with malice. The lads were about 10-12 years of age and they were accused of having taken away a boy of 7 or 8 and forcing him inside a dustbin.

George Steeden and Stephen Murphy had taken Henry Douglas to a house in Penge and imprisoned him in a dustbin by loading bricks on the lid so he couldn’t climb out again. They’d trapped him in the 4 ½ foot deep bin at around five in the evening and by their own confession had left him there ‘to be found dead, so they might afterwards get a reward for the discovery of the body’.

Young Henry was locked into his intended tomb for nearly 17 hours, being discovered around one in the afternoon of the following day. It must have been a terrifying and traumatizing experience for the child. The magistrate said it was one of the ‘most serious cases he had ever had before him with regard to boys’. Steeden had been in trouble with the law before so Mr Chance ordered that he be given ‘six strokes of the rod’ before being sent to an Industrial School until he reached 16. Murphy was sent back to the workhouse where he’d been held on remand while the court decided what to do with him.

Despite the newsworthiness of both of these stories the papers seemed to have lost interest at this point. I’ve therefore no idea whether Stephen Murphy was considered the lesser of the two ‘evils’ and allowed to go home or if he too was sent to a reformatory or industrial school. Clara clearly needed help or at least a reconciliation with her husband. The court might have had her examined to determine the state of her mental health; if she was found to be insane then she risked being sent to an asylum. If her husband had abandoned her then the 28 year-old women might end up destitute and in the workhouse. Either way her future looked uncertain at best.

For many of those reading the ‘Sundays’ over their breakfast or supper these were the lives ‘others’; part of the world outside their comfortable homes and about people that they did not know, nor wanted to know. They would have been shocked certainly, disgusted and angered probably, but amused and entertained as well, such was the purpose of the ‘crime news’ in the nineteenth century.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, July 13, 1884; The Hampshire Advertiser, Saturday, July 12, 1884]

A self confessed murderer? A or a case for the asylum?

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Smugglers, by G. Morland

Readers last week will hopefully remember that I left you on a cliffhanger as we waited to see what would happen to a man that confessed to a murder carried out 18 years previously. John Lane had walked into a police station and admitted having been involved in the murder of a coast guard at Eastbourne in 1832. The magistrate at Marylebone had remanded in custody for a week so S Division’s finest could see what information they could discover about Lane, his confession, and his mental state.

On Tuesday 22 January 1850 he was back in court before Mr Broughton and the newspaper reporter rehashed the story with a few additions. It seems that in 1842 Lane had traveled to Brighton to seek out Lt. Hall (the officer in charge of the investigation into the smuggling case he claimed to be involved in). He never found him and that was why he’d gone back to ground.

As he stood in the dock a second time to hear the details of the case restated Lane looked miserable. He ‘seemed in a very low and desponding state’ the report continued, ‘and the impression upon most of those in court was that his intellects were impaired’.

Two men from the customs appeared and asked lots of questions of Lane but he wasn’t able to provide them with kind of detail for the events he had originally described. They, and a religious man in attendance, (described as ‘a missionary’) were of the ‘opinion that the man was not sane’.

Mr Broughton concurred and said that given the rambling nature of his confession and the failure of anyone to reveal any details of this supposed crime there was ‘not the slightest chance of a conviction’ before a jury. He discharged John into the care of his wife, a laundress working from premises in Portland Grove. Hopefully she would be able to look after him but what he really needed was specialist mental health treatment and in 1850 that simply wasn’t available to the likes of him, unless he wanted to take his chances with the workhouse  or Bedlam.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, January 23, 1850]

“The last descendant of the Bruce”?: madness and the magistracy in mid Victorian London

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This is another example of mid-nineteenth century attitudes towards mental illness. At the time mental health was not as well understood as it is today but it seems to have been, if not as prevalent, then still quite significant as a societal problem.

Ms Wetherall (if indeed that was her real name) was quite well know to the staff and magistracy at Marlborough Street Police court. The respectably dressed middle-aged woman had appeared at the court to ask the magistrates’ advice on more than one occasion.

On her previous visit she had told the bench that she was about to be married to Earl of Carlisle and had been summoned by ‘various tradesmen’ upon she had imposed in order to get herself the necessary wedding outfit on credit, something they had declined to do.

In a separate incident  she apparently declared she was ‘the last descendent of the Bruce’ (meaning Robert the Bruce, the victor of the battle of Bannockburn and a Scottish national hero). She had made this extraordinary assertion outside the gates of Buckingham Palace and was led away by a policeman. The magistrate then had sent her to be assessed by the medical authorities in St Martin’s to see if she was quite in her right mind.

Now she appeared before Mr Hardwick (the parish officials at St Martin’s clearly not wanting anything to do with her) to make an application to retrieve some property that she claimed her former landlady was withholding from her. It was a common enough application for a magistrate to decide on but given her history Mr Hardwick chose to fob her off. He said that as she had previously applied for similar things to his colleague Mr Bingham, she would have to direct this application to him on the following Monday.

Ms Wetherell was unhappy with this decision as she said she may not be able to make Monday. She told the justice she was sailing to Australia on Monday and may well have already sailed by the time the court opened. Having stated her case she upped and left the court leaving everyone wondering what her story would be when she next appeared.  She was clearly suffering with some form of mental illness which Victorian society was unable to help. However, she was not abusive or dangerous, the nineteenth-century’s equivalent of the early modern ‘village idiot’ perhaps, so off she went, no doubt with the laughter of the court ringing in her ears.

[from The Morning Chronicle, 15 November, 1849]

Officer down! Two policemen are stabbed with a sword stick by a crazed revolutionary

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Giuseppe Mazzini

A crowd had gathered outside 7 Hardington Place, Portman Market in Marylebone. It was about 10.30 at night and a man was at a first floor window in a highly agitated state. He was hurling ‘bricks and missiles in all directions’ and several policemen were soon on the scene.

Two officers, PC Robert Dobell (237D) and PC Thomas Tice (40D) entered the building and rushed upstairs accompanied by some others, possibly from the ‘mob’ outside. The door to room in which the man had been seen was locked so they put their shoulders to it, and broke it down.

At this the man came charging towards them brandishing a walking cane which he thrust at them. PC Dobell cried ‘I am stabbed’ and then fell in front of his colleague. PC Tice was also wounded but in the chaos and with his adrenaline pumping he didn’t realise this at first.

The policemen shouted for help and the man was soon overpowered. The weapon, a sword stick, was picked up from the floor where the attacker had dropped it. PC Dobell was taken to hospital and the prisoner to the station. When he removed his uniform top coat PC Tice discovered his injury, a stab wound to the ‘fleshy part of my right arm, between the elbow and the shoulder’.

The following morning PC Tice was in court at Marylebone to give his evidence in front of Mr Long, the sitting magistrate. He showed the court his bloody coat and testified that PC Dobell was still gravely ill, and not yet out of danger.

Their attacker was also in court and gave his name as John Phillips, occupation – painter. He’d been brought to court in a cab, handcuffed with two other officers guarding him. He was clearly a dangerous man.

Not only was he dangerous it was also evident that he was suffering from a mental illness or, as the court reporter described him, demonstrating ‘unsoundness in his intellect’. He raved in court, shouting out:

‘Kossuth, Mazzini, let me have justice. It was not a Roman dagger or a poisoned dagger, and I stand upon the liberties of my country. Had Prince Albert have been there at the time his blood would have flowed, and so would yours (alluding to the magistrate), had you been there’.

Lajos Kossuth was a Hungarian revolutionary who briefly ruled his nation in the tumultuous period of 1848-9, he was widely revered amongst British radicals and so may have been an inspiration for Phillips. Similarly Giuseppe Mazzini was a well known Italian political activist who was driving force in Italian Unification.

Philips was eventually sent for trial at the Old Bailey but his ‘madness’ was deemed too great and the jury found him unfit to plead. He was therefore found not guilty by dint of being non compos mentis. I believe that PC Doble survived the attack but he was lucky if he did, because the stab wound was very close to his heart. Philips, one imagines, was confined to an asylum.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, April 14, 1853]

‘A dangerous imposter’ on Rosslyn Hill spells trouble for DS Fox

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The Victorian criminal justice had been developing a much more effective means of keeping records on those that passed through it doors than had been the case in the Georgian period. As a result criminals routinely gave false names to the police and magistrates in the hope that their previous convictions would not dog their footsteps for ever. Being ‘known to the police’ or the courts was dangerous; a magistrate or trial court judge was very likely to hand down a much stiffer sentence if he knew you’d failed to learn your lesson in the past.

I some cases of course the problem ran much deeper and this is particular true in cases of those that committed offences in part because they were suffering from mental illness. The law recognised that mental health was a factor and the principal of acting with ‘diminished responsibility’ had been debated throughout the nineteenth century following a handful of high profile cases that shocked society. In 1863 the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum had opened in 1863 to take those convicted as being guilty but insane.

This would have been too early for John Gough. He had been convicted of ‘assault with intent to murder’ at Exeter Assizes in 1856 and had sentenced to life imprisonment. In 1873 he was freed on a ticket of leave (effectively parole) and had then been admitted (or admitted himself, it is not clear) to a lunatic asylum. Gough must also have moved from the south west to London because in 1883 he turned up at the Marylebone Police Court charged with assaulting a police detective.

Detective Sergeant Fox saw Gough wandering at Rosslyn Hill in Hampstead in late February 1883. Gough looked in serious trouble and was soliciting for charity, as Fox described in court:

‘The prisoner was bandaged about the the head and arms, as though suffering from injuries, and while walking along praying aloud begged for alms of people’.

Begging was illegal and so DS Fox arrested him, only to attacked and verbally abused (with ‘profane language’) by his charge. Back at the station Gough was examined and it was found that there was nothing whatsoever wrong with him; his show of injury was just that, a show. The man was ‘an imposter’ Mr De Rutzen (the magistrate) was told and the police added the information regarding Gough’s previous conviction.

While Gough was clearly suffering from mental illness he had checked out of the asylum in 1877 and hadn’t been in contact with the police either. This was a breach of his release license and this, coupled with the assault on the detective sergeant, earned him a another spell inside. De Rutzen declared Gough was ‘a dangerous man’ and sentenced him to two months at hard labour. It might have bene more sensible to send him to Broadmoor or even to the Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum which had opened in 1851 which held over 2000 patients in the 1880s, including (just possibly) a candidate for Jack the Ripper.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, March 07, 1883]

Midsummer ‘madness’ at Marlborough Street

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There was much less understanding of mental health in the Victorian period than there is today. Public asylums were largely used as dustbins for the unwanted mentally ill poor, while private ones attempted to treat the ‘mad’ relatives of the better off. Some families simply locked their disturbed relatives away in the attic, too embarrassed to be seen to have insanity ‘in the family’.

But of course there was probably just as much mental illness in the 1800s as there is today, but while modern society has slowly become more accepting of it our ancestors saw sufferers as objects of pity, danger or ridicule. Just as casual racism is evident in reading the Victorian press, so are jokes at the expense of the mentally ill.

Jane Roderick (also known as Jane Waddy) was brought up before the Marlborough Street police magistrate charged with being drunk and disorderly. She had been arrested in Leicester Square a few nights before, proclaiming the health of the Queen and Royal family loudly to anyone in the vicinity.

She was still quite loud when she stood in the dock as she explained her behaviour to him. Jane told the justice that the reason she had undertaken her own public celebration was because she had heard the good news that the sons of Her Majesty ‘had been admitted into the House of Parliament to assume their rights as the Royal family without the consent of Parliament’, which she deemed a good thing.

It was such a good thing, she continued, that she felt duty bound to drink a toast (or two) in port wine.

She then entered into an elaborate story: she was, she said, born in Kent and was a ‘woman of Kent’. Her uncle worked in the Queen’s gardens, she claimed, and so she had brought a rose for him to plant for the Queen. Her father had made a communion table at Chislehurst, and now she heard the Queen was ‘ready to support her sons’. Finally she added that she was widowed and one of her sons lived in a vicarage at Greenwich under the Queen’s care.

It was probably a mix of fact and fantasy, but it was delivered in a chaotic manner that suggested that the poor woman was not in full control of herself. That is certainly how the press depicted her.

Mr Vine, the court’s gaoler, now appeared to give evidence to the fact that the same woman had been up in court on the same charge four months earlier, and had given exactly the same story in her defence.

At this Jane either affected deafness or really was unable to hear what the man said. On it being repeated to her she admitted to having been drinking: ‘I had a “little drop” then, of course, and unfortunately I have been given to it since my husband’s death’.

Mr Cooke, the magistrate, turned to her and asked her if she had any friends locally. She had claimed to have been born in Poland Street (which prompted titters of laughter in court, but why is not clear). In the 1880s it was quite a respectable place in Soho with a number of artisans and tradesmen living there. Jane replied that her sister-in-law lived nearby, and then told him (somewhat randomly) that she was the daughter of a carpenter, and that one of the guardians of the poor in Lambeth had a mortgage on her fathers house.

Again, this may well all have been true but it didn’t really answer the magistrate’s questions.

He declared: ‘I think you are not right in your mind. You will be sent down to..’

‘Sent down! Where?’ interrupted Jane.

‘To the House of Detention for a week; but they will not put you in the cell’.

She thanked him and added, ‘I shall charge you 13s for this; and if you have not money to pay, why, spout your ticker!’

This last remark brought the house down in laughter, clearly amusing the court reporter who added that she then left ‘with a  jaunty air’, calling the gaoler to ‘order her brougham [her carriage] to drive her to Hanwell’.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, June 21, 1885]

Happy solstice everyone!

‘Mischievous’ or ‘evil’? An 11 year-old before the Guildhall Police Court

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In the nineteenth century the age of criminal responsibility was just 7 (today it is 10). It had been set at 7 for centuries and was not raised (to 8) until 1933. However, there was an understanding in law that while a 7 year-old could be tried for a crime the courts had to prove (up until the age of 14) that the child understood that what they had done was serious and not merely ‘mischievous’. This principle in law is termed doli incapax and in the wake of the murder of James Bulger in 1993 the Labour government abolished it.

Not only was it harder to prove that a child had committed an offence under the age of 14 it was also difficult to build a case if that was based on the evidence of children as well. There seems to have been no restrictions on children giving evidence or being cross-examined but in many historical cases where young people appear at the Old Bailey the court asks them to declare that they understand the consequences of lying on oath. This was not something that adult witnesses were asked to affirm.

Today child witnesses are protected in court and often give their testimony behind a screen or via a video link. The latter was not available in the 1800s of course, but in this case we do get a sense of the courts recognising the need to shield young victims and witnesses from the harsh reality of the operation of the criminal law, or at least a recognition that any testimony they gave might be suspect.

In May 1839 William Henry Browning, a child of 11 years of age, was brought up again at the Guildhall Police Court. He had appeared there at least one before in the past few days, on a charge of trying to kill an infant boy.

Two smaller boys appeared to give evidence against him. One was the victim, a three year-old, the other his older brother who was 5 or 6. They made a statement to the effect that William had placed a rope around the younger boy’s neck, ‘pulled him down, and then loosened the cord and ran away’.

The child still bore the marks of the attack, which revealed that ‘some force’ had been used and the court was told that ‘the little fellow had been in considerable danger of being choked’.

No adult seemed to have witnessed the event but a couple of women (including the victim’s mother, a Mrs Birbeck) turned up to testify that William was a naughty child. He had apparently been ‘saucy’ to Mrs Birbeck and her servant, and threatened to break her windows. She also accused him attempting to steal her chickens.

The boy’s father appeared to make a counter complaint about Mrs Birbeck for accusing his child of theft and attempted murder, and picking on him unfairly. He added that his family were in desperate circumstances, which may have affected the boy’s mental health, and this may explain his son’s erratic behaviour:

Mr Browning, a shoemaker, was ‘in very ill-health’. His son had ‘not been out of his sight for above half an hour, and he complained of Mrs Birbeck having given the boy into custody. instead of bringing him home to be corrected. A reverse of fortune, and the loss of his wife, obliged him to live in this low neighbourhood, and he should be glad if the alderman would get the boy into some asylum’.

Alderman White, the presiding magistrate at Guildhall Police Court, rather unnecessarily conceded that ‘the mother very naturally felt some exasperation’ when she saw that her little boy had nearly been strangled, but it was going to be hard to prove it in court. Mr White told her that he had to consider the ‘tender age of the accused as well as the two witnesses’. Turning to Mr Browning however, he added that the boy could not be let off scot free. Instead of sending him to an ‘asylum’ (whether the shoemaker meant this literally or not) he was going to send him to prison for a short, sharp, shock.

William was sent down for 14 days ‘lest impunity should encourage repetition’.

At 11 years of age William Browning was just a year older than Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, the killers of James Bulger (who was 2).

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, May 23, 1839]