A lucky counterfeiter or a young man with deeper problems? Mercury and bad money at Bow Street

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William Collins was lucky. In 1841 he had a brush with the law that might have ended in a quite serious prosecution and, most likely, a prison sentence. As it was the sitting magistrate at Bow Street chose to believe his version of events over that of the police, and he walked out of court a free man. With a different magistrate, and in previous decades, he may not have been so fortunate.

Collins was charged with passing counterfeit money (‘uttering’ as it was often described). He had entered a butcher’s shop in Charles Street and attempted to pay for a ‘quarter pound of beef’ with a ‘bad’ fourpenny piece. The butcher (George Garland) rejected the young man’s coin and demanded another. Colins produced a shilling and a sixpence from the same pocket and handed them over. Garland carefully examined each, told him the shilling was also ‘bad’ but accepted the sixpence. Collins left with his supper and 2din change.

Next he went to the Anchor and Crown pub in King Street and ordered a pint of beer. When Edward Hoey the landlord asked him to pay he handed him the shilling that had been refused earlier. Hoey refused it and Collis tried another coin, a halfpenny which was fine. He drank his pint and left.

Some moments later a man approached the bar and spoke to the landlord. He asked if a person fitting Collins’ description had been in and when he was told he had said he had him under surveillance for some time. The man was an early police detective named Roberts and having been informed that his quarry was  close by he rushed off after him, arresting him soon afterwards and taking him to the nearest police station.

Detective Roberts questioned his prisoner and sent for the landlord and the butcher. On the following Saturday both men and the detective were in court to give evidence against Collins.

The young ‘strenuously denied’ knowing that the money was counterfeit and was very clear about how he had acquired it. He can’t have come across as a criminal and Mr Jardine seemed ready to believe he was innocent. The justice asked the policeman who’d searched him at the station whether any other ‘bad’ coins had been found on him. The constable replied that none had but the lad did possess a bottle of quicksilver, which he kept in the same pocket as his money. The quicksilver (mercury) would have tarnished the coins he owed. This seems to have convinced Mr Jardine of his innocence although the other witnesses were less sure that they hadn’t narrowly avoided being ripped off by a fraudster. They insisted the coins were fake.

So the magistrate sent the constable off with the coins to be tested by a nearby jeweler. The expert opinion was that the coins were indeed ‘genuine, but discolored in consequence of being placed with quicksilver’. The magistrate turned to the young man in the dock and apologized to him for having held him in custody while the facts were checked. He said he hoped he understood that while he was now cleared of any suggestion of criminal behavior the ‘affair [looked] very suspicious’ based on the witnesses produced in court.

But why might Collins have had a phial of mercury on his person? In the 1800s there were plenty of uses for a metal that we would be rather concerned to find someone wandering the streets of London with. Mercury is highly toxic. However in the Victorian period plenty of substance we would consider dangerous were readily available and used in everyday operations at home and at work.  Collins might have been self-medicating with mercury; it was used as disinfectant, diuretic and even as a laxative.

At points in history mercury was used to treat syphilis, a disease that was rife in nineteenth-century London. However, the treatment could be as bad as, worse even, than the disease itself. Mercury can induce mental illness (that was the – possibly apocryphal – story behind Lewis Carroll’s ‘Mad Hatter’ – as mercury was used in the manufacture of hats) and cause other, physical, problems for the user.

So perhaps William Collins wasn’t that lucky after all?

[from The Morning Post, Monday, May 03, 1841]

The problem of syphilis and its treatment is something I cover in my new co-authored book on the Whitechapel (‘Jack the Ripper’) murders. This is published by Amberley Books on 15 June this year. You can find details here:

‘I thought it would give a man a job’; one man’s weak excuse for breaking windows

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George Jackson had a strange way of helping the late Victorian economy. On Sunday 19 August 1883 he picked up a handful of stones in the Strand and put them in his pocket. He walked on down the Strand in the direction of what was then the Charing Cross railway and foot bridge, heading for Whitehall. In 1883 this was where the majority of the government buildings were, including the Home Office on the corner of Charles Street and parliament Street.

At ten to one in the morning he was seen by PC 31 of A Division who watched as the young man lobbed two stones at the windows of the Home Office building. As the plate glass window smashed the police officer rushed over and seized the culprit as he calmly walked away. Jackson was taken away and brought before the sitting magistrate at Bow Street on the Monday morning after.

Mr Flowers wanted to know why he had thrown the stones, telling him he ‘had acted like an idiot’. The magistrate declared that:

I cannot understand a man willfully breaking a window and walking off’, adding: ‘You are not a glazier, are you?’

No, but I thought it would give a man a job’, was Jackson’s reply.

Yes, and you a month’s imprisonment’, quipped Mr Flowers.

It was a case of willful damage to government property but not overly serious. Certainly it was something the magistrate was well within his power to deal with summarily. However, he was inclined, he said, to send Jackson for trial where he could expect a more severe sentence. The prisoner’s situation wasn’t helped by the appearance of a policeman from L Division who said that he’d previously been convicted for breaking windows in Lambeth. The justice there had sent him down for a month but he’d not learned from his experience.

Mr Flowers decided to remand his for a few more days ‘for enquiries’. George would have to sweat it out in a cell for the time being as he waited to find out his fate.

In the end Jackson turned up at the Middlesex Sessions having been committed for trial almost a year later on a separate charge by one of Flowers’ fellow magistrates, Mr Vaughan. He was tried on the 5 February 1884 for ‘maliciously damaging three panes of glass, the property of Her Majesty’s Commissioners of Works’.

George Jackson clearly had a problem with authority and government. He pleaded guilty but despite this, and probably because his previous convictions now counted hard against him, the judge sentenced him to eight years in prison. Jackson was listed as being 33 years old and a carpenter. Perhaps he was a disgruntled former government employee, now out of work (as many were in the 1880s (the decade that coined the word ‘unemployment’).

Maybe also he was suffering from some form of mental illness. Either way, eight years was a very stiff penalty for breaking windows and reflects both the harshness of the late Victorian ‘justice’ system and contemporary fears associated with terror attacks in the capital, of which there were several in the 1883-5.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, August 26, 1883]

The repercussions of the Maiden Tribute are felt in Lisson Grove

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The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon (1885) was one of a handful of scandals that rocked Victorian society in the last few decades of the nineteenth century. In an attempt to force the hand of parliament to pass legislation to raise the age of consent, the newspaper editor and scourge of government, William T Stead undertook to procure a young girl of 13. Stead, the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette,  wanted to show the world just how easy it was for wealthy elite men to obtain access to the daughters of the working classes and in doing so shock and shame MPs and lords into protecting girls under the age of 16 (the age of consent in 1885 was 13).

Stead employed the help of a retired and reformed brothel madam, Rebecca Jarrett, who obtained a girl named Eliza Armstrong, paying her mother £5 for the child. Jarrett took Eliza to a room where she was drugged (as victims would normally be) before Stead visited her. There is no suggestion that Stead went through with any rape of the girl but simply made his point. The Pall Mall Gazette then published a serialised account of the problem and Stead’s exercise in exposing it.

One of the consequences of this was that Eliza’s mother and father came in for considerable abuse from their neighbours for selling their daughter into prostitution. Mr and Mrs Armstrong claimed they had done no such thing; as far as they were concerned Jarrett was taking the child off to be trained as a domestic servant for a wealthy employer.

Regardless of whether they knew the real fate intended for Eliza or not this led (with support from those opposed to Stead and his campaign) to a court case at the Old Bailey where Stead and Jarrett were convicted of kidnapping and indecent assault. Stead went to prison for three months, Jarrett for six. There was a ‘happy ending’ in that Parliament passed the Criminal Law Amendment Act (1885) which raised the age of consent to 16 but all parties were damaged by the process. Stead never fully  recovered his former reputation as an investigative journalist; Jarrett withered in Millbank prison, and poor Eliza was badly affected by her experience.

In August 1888, just as the cycle of killings known as the ‘Whitechapel murders’ began in East London Elizabeth Armstrong (Eliza’s mother) appeared before the police magistrate at Marylebone. Elizabeth, aged 39 and resident at Charles Street, Lisson Grove, was charged with being drunk and disorderly and with assaulting one of her neighbours and a policeman.

Ellen Tuley deposed that Elizabeth had attacked her with ‘a sweep’s broom and kicked the constable’. Constable Nicholas (100D) confirmed this and so the case was fully proved against her.

Mrs Armstrong was defended in court by Mr Pain, who had been her lawyer throughout the Maiden Tribute case. He said that ‘ever since the unfortunate case of Eliza Armstrong, when it was suggested that his client had sold her daughter for £5, she had been subjected to systematic annoyance at the hands of the prosecutrix and others’. Her husband had been sent quite mad by the affair and was now living in the Marylebone infirmary.

Elizabeth Armstrong denied the assault and counter claimed that Ellen had instead attacked her. The magistrate had to deal with several other related summons from various neighbours of the Armstrongs, binding several over on their own recognisances to behave in future. The Maiden Tribute case had clearly polarised opinion in this poor district of London.

Elizabeth was sent to prison for 14 days for being drunk and disorderly and most probably for the attack on the constable, which would not be tolerated by the magistracy in the 1880s. Mr Pain noted that it was not her first appearance or her first conviction at Marylebone and that too counted against her. By 1888 Eliza Armstrong would have been 16 and free to get on with her life, if she was able. With a father in a lunatic ward and a mother in gaol one wonders if that was possible. Stead clearly believed he was doing God’s work in exposing child prostitution but not for the first time one is bound to ask whether journalists and newspaper editors fully consider the effects of their ‘higher’ actions on the ‘ordinary’ people they use along the way.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday 5 August 1888]