Tears in the dock as a young pickpocket tries to win hearts and minds

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What is the purpose of pockets? Today it seems that they have become a semi-practical part of fashion, not always that useful and sometimes there just for show. In the eighteenth century ‘pocket picking’ was made a capital offences, which suggests that it had become a serious problem. The actual law refers to ‘stealing privately from the person’ – in other words stealing without the victim being aware of it.

It was also one of the earliest forms of theft to be removed from the threat of hanging, along with shoplifting. Both forms of larceny were often committed by women and children and so prosecutors were less inclined to bring a charge and juries reluctant to convict when they knew that it might result in an execution. Today it is unlikely that someone would be sent to prison for picking pockets unless they were a serial offender for whom alternative measures had been tried and had failed.

But let’s return to the pocket.  In the 1600s women used pockets as they might use handbags today. They were usually concealed under their dresses or petticoats, so not as decorative fashion accessories. Men also had pockets and these were sewn into the linings of their clothes, again with the intention that they were not visible.

This meant they were a good place to keep valuables (money, jewelry, papers etc.) It also meant they were targeted by thieves. Pockets would have been of no use if a woman had to take off her outer garments to access her pockets so openings in the outer ware enabled her to reach her concealed pockets. It was through these ‘hidden’ opening that pickpockets were able to strike.

Of course that took skill and an ability to get close to the person for long enough to ‘dip’ their pockets, either removing items or cutting the strings that attached it to your clothes. Women and children were especially good that this because the possessed the manual dexterity to secretly invade another’s clothing and were not seen as of much of a threat when close to you in a crowd.

Pockets went out of fashion for ‘ladies of quality’ in the 1790s, being gradually replaced by the handbag, but remained part of working class clothing and male fashion. I was interested by the following short report of a pickpocketing case from 1859 because the nature of pockets is specifically referred to.

William Burke was brought before Mr Corrie at Clerkenwell Police court accused of picking a man’s pocket. The victim said that he had been walking along the Goswell Road when he felt a tug at his pocket. Looking down he saw Burke – with his handkerchief in his hand – making his escape. The prosecutor rushed after him and caught him up, handing him over to a policeman.

The court was told that several victims had lost handkerchiefs to pick pockets in the area recently and the victim stated that as a result he had started to ask his tailor to make his pockets inside his coat.  Mr Corrie didn’t think that would stop the thieves: he had been having pockets made inside for a while but ‘but still he had his handkerchief taken from his pocket’.

William Burke began to cry – he was only 10 years old after all – but the magistrate (and reporter it seems) dismissed this as a act; an attempt to gain sympathy and ward off a more severe punishment.

Did it work? Well Mr Corrie sentenced the lad to 3 months in the house of correction with hard labour. That seems pretty harsh for a 10 year-old found guilty of stealing a hankie but young William took it well, smiling at the magistrate as he sentenced him.  Perhaps he feared worse.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, August 9, 1859]

An execution brings out the crowds – and the pickpockets

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A public execution on the roof of Horsemonger Lane prison 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good-bye, Tom, I have done for my missis, and I am going to do for myself”; murder in the East End 1888

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The Isle of Dogs, 1899 (Manchester Road runs south-east parallel to Blackwall Reach)

In early October 1888 London was gripped by the ‘Ripper’ murders. As far as the press and public were concerned an unknown assassin had brutally murdered six women in a small area of East London and the police had no clue as to his identity. Police patrols had been stepped up and the newspapers were becoming inundated with fake letters from people purporting to be the murderer, and correspondence offering advice on how to catch him. Between the end of September (when both Elizabeth Stride and Katherine Eddowes were murdered on one night) and the 9th November (when Mary Kelly’s body was found in Miller’s Court) the killer seems to have lain low, avoiding the redoubled attentions of the police.

Meanwhile over at the Thames Police Court Mr Lushington was hearing the case of a man accused of murdering his wife. Levi Bartlett was a 57 year-old general dealer who lived and worked in Poplar. He and his wife, Elizabeth, ran a small shop on Manchester Road on the Isle of Dogs, selling mostly milk. He had been held on remand since the incident had happened back in August, because after killing his wife he had attempted to cut his own throat with a razor.

Even by October he was a weak man and was allowed to sit in court rather than stand through the evidence. Elizabeth’s sister, Emma Mears, testified that Levi and her sister had live together for many years before they married, and had now been married for about five years. During all of that time, she said, the dealer was ‘nearly always drunk’.

By all accounts when he was sober, Levi was a good man but that was rare. When in his cups he was abusive and violent and dipped into the shop’s till to feed his drinking habit.  Not surprisingly then quarrels between him and Elizabeth were frequent and loud.

On the 18th August 1888 Emma visited Elizabeth and found her sitting crying. When she asked what the matter was her long suffering sibling said:

‘Can’t you see the old villain is drunk again, and hasn’t been to bed since two this morning’. This was punctuated by the dealer’s loud denials, ‘don’t you believe her’ he shouted. He then asked for 2d for gin.

‘No, you villain, you have had enough now’ was his wife’s response. This provoked Bartlett to threaten her: ‘I will mark you for this tonight’, he declared.

More abuse was exchanged and before she left Emma told her her sister to fetch a policeman if her husband hit her again. Perhaps because Levi was so frequently drunk and abusive no one really expected what was to happen next, although the sights were there. At some point on Sunday morning (19 August) the former stevedore attacked his wife with a hammer, fatally wounding her,  before admitting his crime to George Jones who he had employed as a milk delivery man.

Jones later related the dramatic scene to the Old Bailey court as he was woken up by his master:

‘between 4 and 5 in the morning I was awoke by the prisoner coming into my room—he asked French if he had got any drink—French said no, he had forgot to bring any; the prisoner shook hands with French and said “Good-bye, you won’t see me no more alive”—he then went back to his own room, he seemed sober then—in about twenty minutes he came into our room again, and again bid French good-bye; he then came to me and said “Good-bye, Tom, I have done for my missis, and I am going to do for myself”—he shook hands with me and went out of the room’.

Bartlett then visited his old friend Benjamin French who had lodged with the Bartlett’s for 14 years. He also bids him ‘goodbye’ which left the dock labourer perplexed and not a little concerned. It was French that finally fetched a policeman, police sergeant Doe (30KR), who found Bartlett sitting on his bed ‘in his shirt, bleeding from the throat; the front of his shirt was covered with blood—he had a razor in his right hand’. Having taken the razor from him he summoned a doctor and then took him to hospital.

Bartlett, who had earned the nickname ‘Mad Dick the jockey’ (his middle name was Richard) was fully committed for trial at the Old Bailey. There, on the 22nd October 1888 he was convicted of murdering Elizabeth. Elizabeth’s sister testified to the years of abuse that she had suffered at Levi’s hands while the former dock worker’s best friend Benjamin said he had never heard a cross word between them. Drink was Bartlett’s downfall and it seems he simply could not function with it or without it. Ultimately this cost both him and his wife their lives; having recovered from his own suicide attempt Levi Richard Bartlett was hanged at Newgate Gaol on 13 November 1888.

Such a tragic event may well have created many more ‘headlines’ than it did in 1888 had there not been a supposedly crazed serial killer on the loose. This was, of course, a much more typical homicide for nineteenth century London than the series that has occupied the attention of researchers for over 120 years. Most murderers are men, and most of their victims (many of whom are women) are close to them – as wives, partners, lovers and acquaintances. The ‘Ripper’ killed strangers, and that made him all the more difficult (indeed almost impossible) to catch.

[from The Standard, Saturday, October 06, 1888]