Representing the Ripper: some lessons from Whitechapel and West Yorkshire

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If, like me, you watched the BBC’s recent three-part documentary on the Yorkshire Ripper case you might have been left pondering some of the conclusions that might be drawn from that awful episode in our recent history.  Tonight the BBC offers a less in-depth and more problematic documentary, which has already been criticized for its approach. At 9 o’clock Silent Witness star Emilia Fox presents a forensic reexamination of the  ‘Jack the Ripper’ with the help of criminologist Professor David Wilson. So the question I’d like to ask is what, if anything, can we learn from this sudden flurry of serious television aimed at two of the most high profile serial murder cases of the last 150 years?

Haille Rubenhold tweeted that documentaries like the one Fox will front this evening:

‘only feed the exploitative Ripper industry’, adding: ‘Trying out modern tech on some of the most defamed women in history just for the sake of entertainment is pretty low’.

So if exploiting the murders of five or more women in 1888 was ‘pretty low’ can we accuse Liza Williams of doing something similar in her recent series on Peter Sutcliffe’s crimes? I don’t think we can; Williams’ documentary was very careful not to ape some of the voyeuristic tendencies of modern ‘true crime’ programmes. The victims were placed centre stage and considered as real people (somebody’s mother, daughter, or friend) not as bodies to be dissected yet again. She stressed that all of Sutcliffe’s victims (the 13 he killed and the seven or more he attacked) left behind families that were and still are being affected by his casual inhumanity. It was extremely moving to hear interviews with Olive Smelt’s daughter, Wilma McCann’s son, and one of his earliest victims,  Tracey Browne who was just 14 when he hit her five or more times with a hammer in a country lane at Silsden.

Williams also focused her study on the police investigation and its failure to catch Sutcliffe. Although the investigation, led by Assistant Chief Constable Godfrey Oldfield and DCS Dennis Hoban, did eventually take credit for catching the killer Williams shows that Sutcliffe was caught despite the police team chasing him not because of it.

West Yorkshire police questioned Sutcliffe on no fewer than nine occasions and five times in the context of following up a lead directly linking him to one of the murders.  They ignored Tracey Browne’s description of her attacker as they didn’t believe the man they were hunting could have attacked her. This was because Oldfield and Hoban were convinced the murderer was only targeting prostitutes (despite him killing six women with no connection to the sex industry) and then because they believed that a tape sent to them was from the killer, and he had a Sunderland accent not a Yorkshire one.

In 1888 the police failed to catch the killer of five or more women (I believe the number he murdered was certainly in double figures, and that there were at least three non-fatal assaults). Again this might have been because the Victorian police were focusing on the wrong sort of killer, someone from outside of the community he terrorized. In this they were ably abetted by the media, just as the West Yorkshire force were in the late ‘70s and early 1980s. What Williams’ revealed was the way in which the British press (local and national) helped create an image of a monster – a master criminal with supernatural powers that helped him avoid capture.

When Sutcliffe appeared in the dock at Number One Court, Old Bailey in 1981 several journalists commented that he didn’t look or sound like the character they had imagined him to be. Instead Sutcliffe was a very ordinary sort of man, not larger than life at all.

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In 1888 the terror created by the original ‘Ripper’ was fueled by the intense press coverage of his attacks and the speculation as to his identity and his motives. Whitechapel and Spitalfields was overrun by journalists all searching for angles on the case and, just as the media did 100 years later, all intent of finding witnesses to interview, regardless of how it might undermine any future case the police might be trying to build against the culprit.

Moreover the press played its part in judging the victims by the prevailing standards of the day. In 1888 The Timespretty much stated that since the women killed by ‘Jack’ were ‘unfortunates’ (a contemporary euphemism for  prostitutes) they were culpable in their own demise. As Ripperologist Donald Rumbelow  has sometimes stated the Ripper killings were viewed as ‘so much street cleaning’ by some sections of Victorian society. Liza Williams’ documentary on the Yorkshire case reveals that a very similar mindset persisted there; the women killed by Sutcliffe were divided into ‘respectable’ and ‘immoral’ women when, after all, they were all simply innocent women.

Rubenhold’s new book on the victims (which has its flaws, be in no doubt) champions the lives of the women the Victorian Ripper murdered, just as Williams tries to do in her work. Both remind us that in every murder the killer is only one small part of the story. His name (and it is usually a ‘he’) is often the one that best remembered however, even if that name is often confused and (as with ‘Jack’) mythologized.

So what can we take from these two cases and the way they’ve been presented recently? I would say this: both reveal how hard it is to catch someone who preys on the most vulnerable in society. All of the victims of the Victorian killer were very poor women found out on the street at night, some of them intoxicated or at least befuddled by drink. Many of Sutcliffe’s victims were engaged in prostitution for the simply fact that society had failed them and they believed it was the only way they had to feed their families. Inequality and poverty runs through both these cases.

Moreover, the way these women were viewed also coloured the way the press reported their deaths and the police investigations that tried lamely to catch their killers. Frankly then society let these women down in the first place and then compounded that failure by blaming them for becoming victims.

We need to get away from the societal condemnation of anyone who sells sex for whatever reason. Prostitution is rarely a positive life choice; it is born of desperation, poverty, and (usually male) exploitation of women. A woman that is forced (by circumstances or someone else) to prostitute herself is no less of a woman than anyone else. She deserves the right to live every bit as much as we all do; no one has the right to take away her life and the sooner society recognizes this the better. Where I disagree with Rubenhold’s thesis that the five ‘canonical’ victims of the Whitechapel murderer were not all prostitutes is this: why does it even matter?  That there is evidence for or against them being prostitutes is immaterial in my view; they were all innocent regardless.

Finally what Liza Williams reminded me was that Peter Sutcliffe was no mythological demon possessed of supernatural abilities to evade capture. He was an ordinary nonentity – someone you’d not look at twice in the street. A quiet neighbour who lived with his wife and went to work each day driving a lorry. No one suspected him, not even the police when they interviewed him.

This very much fits the profile of the man Andy Wise and I think responsible for the Whitechapel series of murders between 1887 and 1891. A man we think hid in plain sight and melted away into the alleys and courts of the East Ed which knew like the back of his hand.  The police may have arrested and questioned him as they did many others, but they let him go off to kill again because he didn’t fit the false profile of the monster they were hunting.

‘Jack and the Thames Torso Murders’, by the author and Andy Wise, is published by Amberley in June 2019

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]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

for other cases that touch on attempted suicide see:

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

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

A bad week in London, full of personal tragedy

Little help (and no sympathy) for Heroes

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In October 2007 the charity Help for Heroes was launched. On its front page its makes this powerful statement:

‘Today, seven people will be medically discharged from the Armed Forces and their lives will change forever. In an instant, these highly-trained individuals will lose the camaraderie, purpose and career which has been their life’.

This is not a new phenomenon of course, but has perhaps been given greater focus and attention since the Gulf War and growing number of related experiences of men and women who have served in the armed forces and come home with both physical and mental injuries. This has permeated all levels of society, and become a topic for film and TV dramas (such as the most recent BBC series, The Bodyguard ).

Between October 1853 and March 1856 Britain was at war in the Crimea, battling with France and Turkey against the Russian Empire and its allies. Ultimately Britain and France prevailed but there was a high cost in lives lost and others altered forever. This war is often remembered as one in which more soldiers died of disease than of wounds sustained by enemy action; its symbolic ‘hero’ is Florence Nightingale, the ‘lady with the lamp’ and not Lord cardigan, the officer that led the doomed charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava.

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During the Crimean War the island of Malta served as a hospital base for British casualties returning from the front. Given the huge numbers of men needing care the Valletta Station Hospital (one of four military hospitals on Malta) was quickly overrun and deemed inadequate. Sadly the necessary reform and rebuilding required to upgrade Malta’s institutions to cope with the numbers wounded in ‘modern’ conflicts  didn’t open until after the Crimean war was over.

Nor was there adequate support for veterans who returned from the Crimean carrying the scars of their involvement with them. When Henry Arlett was discharged from the Royal Artillery at Christmas 1857 he had been given a sovereign and sent on his way. Henry had served in the Crimea and had been invalided home after spending  time at a military base on Malta  recuperating.

Back in Lambeth he had struggled to find work as his back pain continued to make manual work all but impossible. Without an obvious trade and deprived of the support of his regiment all Henry could rely on for money was his wife. She took in laundry, one of the lowest paid domestic trades, and in the summer of 1858 even that work was scarce.

Faced with grinding poverty Henry donned his uniform (which he’d kept in pristine condition) and went out on to the streets to beg. He did quite well by comparison to the usual run of vagrants that infested the capital. According to an officer of the Mendicity Society (which campaigned against begging and brought private prosecutions against  those that practised it) ‘in a short time he got as much as half-a-crown in coppers’.

The officer had him arrested and brought before Mr Norton at Lambeth Police court where the magistrate asked the former artilleryman to explain himself. Henry told him of his service and his discharge, of his family’s troubles and his reasons for begging but instead of sympathy or charity he received only the scorn of the man on the bench.

Mr Norton told him that if he was unable to support himself through work then he should go to the workhouse to be relieved. On discovering that Arlett was born in the City and had no settlement elsewhere he instructed him to return there with his wife; in effect washing Lambeth’s hands of any responsibility for his care.

You must be a mean-spirited person to disgrace the uniform of the finest corps in her Majesty’s service by begging in it’, he told him. ‘I shall give you a light sentence of seven days and on the termination of your imprisonment you must go to your parish, and if you are caught begging again your punishment will be much more severe’.

Arlett was unfazed by the magistrate’s condemnation of him:

This uniform suit is mine, and while there is a single shred of it together I shall not cease to beg’,

he declared before he was led away.

Just over 100,000 British and Imperial troops went to the Crimea. Of these 2,755 were killed in action and a further 1,847 died of their wounds. A staggering 17,580 died of disease. Henry Arlett was one of 18,280 British troops wounded in the conflict. In total then, of the 107,865 on the British strength 22,182 didn’t come home (around 22%) and another 18% were directly wounded in some way. That means that 40% of those sent to fight the Russians were casualties in some way or another.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, September 10, 1858]

Fishy goings on at South Kensington

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Between May and October 1883 thousands of visitors flocked daily to South Kensington to see what was the largest ever ‘special event’ to staged anywhere in the world ever. In total some 2.6 million people crowded in to the Royal Horticultural Society’s grounds (behind the Natural History museum) to see the International Fisheries Exhibition.

The exhibition housed a huge collection of marine life from all over the globe so we might think of this as the Victorian equivalent of modern Britons tuning in (also in their millions) to watch David Attenborough’s Blue Planet television series on Sunday nights. The Spectator’s report of the exhibition gives a flavour of the event:

there is the tetradon, a knobbly, bladder-shaped creature, used by the Chinese as a lantern, when he has been scooped ; a collection of beautiful shells, and a hammer-headed shark from Formosa’.

The International Fisheries Exhibition, London, 1883

It cost just a shilling to enter the exhibition and there was so much to see that many must have made multiple visits in the five months during which it ran.

One pair of visitors certainly seem to have thought the outlay was worth it but they were engaged in a very different sort of  ‘fishing’.

William Williams and John Nesbett were well-established members of London’s criminal fraternity. It is quite likely that they had been involved in crime in some way of another for the entirety of their lives. Now, heading for the twilight of their lives, they were still at it.

The crowds at South Kensington provided easy pickings for the pair of practised thieves. As men and women pressed themselves up close to the glass of the aquariums to gawp at the strange creatures within Williams and Nesbett took advantage of the cramped conditions to dip pockets and lift purses and jewellery.

However, when they attempted to steal an old gentleman’s watch and chain they were seen. Realising their peril they tried to beat a hasty escape but now the packed halls worked against them and they were nabbed as they tried to escape. On the next day they were presented before Mr Sheil at Westminster Police court.

The men denied doing anything and nothing was found to incriminate them. This was quite normal of course; pickpockets were adept at ditching stolen items so that they could appear ‘clean’ if arrested. A detective appeared to give evidence that they were known offenders and the ‘associates of thieves’, and that was enough for the magistrate to remand them. If they could be shown to have previous convictions that would probably be enough to earn them some more time in prison.

Indeed it was, because we find William Williams in the Middlesex House of Detention records convicted as an ‘incorrigible rogue’ in early July. He was sent to Wandsworth Prison for three months having been committed by Mr Shiel’s colleague Mr Partridge at Westminster on the 27 June. He was 62 years of age. I can’t find Nesbett but he may have given a false name or simply been lucky on this occasion.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, June 07, 1883]

Two ‘ungovernable’ girls smash up the workhouse to get a change of scenery.

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Over Easter I’ve been enjoying bingeing on the BBC’s Dickensian series (via Netflix). While Inspector Bucket hunts for the killer of Jacob Marley, a variety of characters created by Dickens interact with act other in a  number of subplots. 1842 was the year the Detective Department was created (and Bucket presumably is meant to represent them when he refers to himself as ‘the detective’).

One of the subplots in Dickensian is the attempt by Mrs Bumble (the workhouse keeper’s wife) to ingratiate herself and her husband with the Board of Guardians of the Poor so they can secure a better paid position running a workhouse in ‘the Midlands’. She forces the inept and overweight Bumble to apply with a mixture of threats and false promises and we know, of course, they’ll eventually succeed because that is how Bumble comes to feature in Oliver Twist’s early life.

The Bumbles run the local workhouse (which we rarely see) with little care for the young charges trapped within. At his interview before the Guardians Bumble promises to thrash each and every one of them to instil the ‘Christian discipline’ they so badly require.

Dickens drew on real life. As a journalist his attention to detail gives his characters – even the gross parodies like Mr and Mrs Bumble – genuine authority. Life in the workhouse was very hard for all inmates, no less so for the children of the poor, orphans like young Oliver. There was little food, a basic education and the only family they had was each other. So it would be surprising if the children of the workhouse didn’t rebel from time to time.

Sarah Shaddock and Mary Tighe were two young women on a mission. The mission  they had, it seems, was to infuriate the keeper and matron of the Bishopsgate workhouse in the City of London. The girls (now 18 years old) had been born in the workhouse – they had known no other home outside. Growing up in the institution they had not only rebelled, they had tried to make it impossible for the matron and keeper to control them.

This was the only freedom they had of course; the only ‘agency’ available to them was to refuse to do as they were told. This choice however, had consequences, and in early April 1842 they found themselves standing in the dock at Mansion House Police Court facing Alderman Gibbs, the sitting magistrate, charged with theft.

The assistant matron explained that the pair had only just returned to the workhouse, having been previously confined in the bridewell for damaging property and being disorderly. On their return they’d robbed an elderly pauper of her entire savings (which amounted to just a few pennies).

The alderman was told that the girls, who stood at the bar ‘as quiet as mice’ had ‘frequently distinguished themselves by breaking windows and pelting the elderly residents with bread’. Mr Booker, one of the parish officers, added that when the pair were bored of the workhouse they:

‘committed violence of some kind, and the contrived to have a little variety to their taste’, adding that ‘they had been for a length of time ungovernable’.

What was the alderman to do with these two ‘ungovernable’ girls? Sanctions were clearly having little effect on them. He decided to give them two months in prison at hard labour but with the following stipulations as to their regime.

The pair were ‘to be locked up locked up every alternate week during that period in a solitary cell’. In addition, he said, care should be taken that ‘the diet of the prisoners should be as low as could be consistent with the preservation of their health’.

In other words, he was putting them on a starvation/subsistence diet which would serve both to break their spirit and weaken any attempt at resistance, and remind them that life in the workhouse – however awful – was much preferable to gaol.

This is unusual, I’ve not encountered such detailed sentencing from the court reports but it reveals the limits of the system to really effect change in the persons brought before them. As they had reached 18 both Mary and Sarah could presumably also expect to be able to leave the workhouse at some point soon and make their own way in the world. Given that they had been institutionalised since birth I doubt that transition was going to be easy and we may find both women appearing before the London Police Courts in the future.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Saturday, April 2, 1842]

Exposed – a profitable trade in stolen dogs in Victorian London

 
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In June 2016 the BBC reported that the theft of pet dogs was on the rise. Figures showed that over 100 dogs were being stolen in England and Wales each month, an increase in the past two years of around 22%. The loss of a pet is distressing and the Ministry of Justice told the BBC that this is taken into account by the courts, presumably in sentencing. Like many things of course, there is nothing new in animals being pinched, nor in the close relationship between the British and our pets.

In April 1873 the editor of the Morning Post chose to feature two dog thefts as part of his paper’s coverage of the metropolitan police courts.

At Marlborough Street a young man named Walter Handley, who said he was  a poulterer, appeared in court accused of stealing a French poodle. The dog belonged to Captain Randolph Stewart, who had a fashionable address at 85 Eaton Place, Pimlico. The dog was a pedigree and valued at the princely sum of £50 (or over £2,000 today).

The captain told Mr Knight, the sitting magistrate, that the dog had gone missing on the 17 March. He had reported it stolen to the police at Vine Street but 10 days later it had come home on its own. Meanwhile Sir John Sebright, a broker in Bond Street was sold a dog at Leadenhall Market. The man selling it was identified as the prisoner, Handley, who had asked £20 for it. Sir John paid him just £10 and took the dog home with him, giving it into the care of his butler.

That was on the 21st March but in less than a week the animal had escaped and made it way back to its original owner. The captain then visited Sir John to explain that the dog was his and that it had returned home. The mystery of how Captain Stewart came to visit the man that had bought his dog is explained by the actions of the police.

Today it is very unlikely that the police will give over much if any time to investigating the theft of family pets unless it is connected to a more serious case of dog smuggling. In 1873 however a detective was assigned to look for the captain’s missing poodle. Did the fact that this was an expensive pedigree dog belonging to a bona fide ‘gentleman’ influence their actions? Or was it because the theft of digs was often connected to an illegal dog fighting and betting circle that involved more serious forms of criminality?

Detective-sergeant Butcher of C Division investigated the theft and presumably introduced Captain Stewart and Sir John. When the latter explained how he had come by the dog he accompanied him to Leadenhall Market and they found Walter Handley. Sir John told him he had sold him a stolen dog and asked him for his money back. Walter panicked and tried to run off, unsuccessfully.

In court he told Mr Knight that he had bought the dog himself from another man (who, of course, he could not identify). The poor animal had been shaved to make it harder to trace, and when Handley was searched at Vine Street the police had found a piece of liver on him. This was termed ‘pudding’ DS Butcher told the magistrate, and was commonly used to tempt dogs into the clutches of thieves. The detective added that Handley had been seen ‘in the company of dog-stealers, one of who had only just come out of prison after being their for 18 months’. Dogs were often stolen to be used in fights or for rat baiting, he said. This one was not destined for the pits however, its value was as a luxury pet.

Captain Stewart had been determined to prosecute he said, because several of his friends had lost animals to thieves in recent months, and he wanted to stop the trade in stolen dogs. So did the magistrate, he found Handley guilty and sent him to prison for six months at hard labour.

Over at Westminster Police Court another serial offender was produced, but he had a much better outcome than Walter Handley. Charles Burdett was well known to the police and the courts; the court reporter even described him as ‘an old dog stealer’.  Burdett, who was from Bethnal Green, was accused of stealing a ‘valuable Russian retriever dog’ from a gentleman in South Kensington.

A few days after the dog disappeared a note was delivered to the owner’s house at 7 Cromwell Road. The missive was opened by the butler on behalf of his employer, Mr Reiss, and he followed the instructions which were to pay £10 for the safe return of the animal. Accordingly the butler went to a pub in Bishopsgate Street, met with Burdett and handed over the money. Burnett vanished almost immediately while the dog just as miraculously appeared.

The police soon caught up with Burdett and he was, like Walter Handley, accused of theft. The court was told he had a string of convictions and had served time in prison. This time, however, the magistrate was uncomfortable with the procedure. He suggested that the previous convictions appeared to be suspect, and he could not proceed against Burdett under the charge that had been laid. He decided to convict him under the Police Act which allowed him to level a fine £20 or 3 months imprisonment. Burnett ‘heartedly thanked his worship’, paid his fine, and ‘left the dock smiling at his lucky escape and rubbing his hands’.

It would seem then, that dog stealing was just as prevalent in the 1800s as it is today and that it was a lucrative industry; so lucrative in fact that a criminal like Burdett could afford to pay the odd hefty fine.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, April 18, 1873]