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:

The customer that no one wants

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In the week before Christmas 1848 a young man named Thomas Pheny walked into a coffee house near Euston Station. He asked the proprietor, Mrs Humphries, for a coffee and paid her with a crown coin. Mrs Humphries was tired and worried about her rent, which was almost due, so she dropped the crown into her counter bag and gave the man his coffee and his change.

On the following night Pheny was back; this time he called for a cup of tea with some bread and butter. He handed over a half sovereign and he got back 9s9dchange. For those of you unfamiliar with pre-decimal currency a sovereign was worth 10s (or 120d) and a crown 5s.

On the Friday of the same week the man came back into the coffee shop, but this time he was dressed differently, perhaps not wishing to be easily identified. He bought a coffee and paid with a half sovereign, receiving three half-crowns amongst his change. One of these he held up and gave back to Mrs Humphries, telling her it ‘was bad’ (in other words, it was counterfeit). She checked, agreed, and exchanged it.

After he had left the coffee house the owner examined the contents of her till bag and discovered that one of the crowns and four half-sovereigns were all ‘bad’. Now she suspected that Pheny had been deliberately using her coffee house to ‘utter’ false coin – changing larger fake coins for smaller legitimate ones by spending small amounts on coffee and tea. She alerted the police and waited.

Sure enough the next day, Saturday 23 December 1848 in walked Thomas Pheny and he ordered a coffee. When he tried to pay with a counterfeit half-sovereign Mrs Humphries grabbed him and called out for help. Pheny was arrested and in the ensuing investigation a number of the coins were directly traced back to him. Moreover it was quickly established that he was supposedly connected to a gang of coiners that had been defrauding tradesmen ‘in various parts of the town’ for some time. He was taken to Marylebone Police court where he was remanded in custody for further investigation.

Uttering was hard to prove even with a fairly reliable witness like Mrs Humphries. A good lawyer would be able to sow doubt in the minds of the jury that anyone could prove that the bad money produced came from Pheny and wasn’t already in the bag. After all Pheny himself had handed back a coin that the coffee house lady had attempted to give him in change. If other members of the gang could be caught then there was a chance the police could get a successful prosecution and take the criminals off the streets: those convicted could expect a prison sentence of anything from six months to several years.

But there seems to be no record of Thomas Pheny at the Old Bailey so on this occasion he may have been lucky. Or he may have been using a false name as well as his false coins, and have slipped by unnoticed by history. We can be sure Mrs Humphries would  be taking greater care with her money in future however.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, 27 December, 1848]

A young lad is ‘too sharp for his prosecutors’, and swallows the evidence

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Mrs Sarah Cameron ran a tobacconist shop on the Broadway in Westminster, central London. One evening in November 1840 a young man  called William Meeton entered the ‘snuff and tobacco’ shop and asked for a cigar. He handed over half a crown and she gave him the cigar and his change (which consisted of ‘two shillings and four pennyworth of halfpences’).

Meeton scraped up the coin but after examining carefully it ‘threw down a shilling alleging it was bad’. He accused the tobacconist of trying to fob him off with forgeries but Mrs Cameron was sure the coins she had handed over were fine, and she said so. Now she suspected him of committing a crime and called for a policeman who soon arrived and arrested the lad.

William Meeton was charged at Queen’s Square Police Court with uttering – a variant of the wider crime of coining and forgery. While forging meant making false notes (and coming, fake coins), uttering described the practice of using or distributing counterfeit money.

The magistrate demande to see the coin in question. Sadly Mrs Cameron didn’t have it. Why not, Mr Burrell asked?

The young man had swallowed it she told him, along with several other shillings he had in his possession. It was a common enough ploy to get rid of the evidence (albeit temporarily). The chief usher of the Police Court informed his worship that that the accused was ‘well known’ to the court, which would have counted against him. However, without the proof that the shillings were bad there was little the justice could do. After some conferring Mr Burrell and his clerk agreed that no case could be made without the coins as evidence.

He turned to Meeton and told him that while today he ‘had been too sharp for his prosecutors’ his card was marked, and warned him about his future conduct. He was discharged, presumably to find the nearest privy!

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, November 18, 1840]

NB a half-crown was worth 2 shillings and 6 pence so you can work out for yourselves just how much Mrs Cameron was selling her cigars for. No age is given for Meeton but this wouldn’t matter anyway in the context of the 19th century. There was no age restriction on buying or selling tobacco to minors until 1933. It still isn’t illegal for children to smoke but under 16 it is subject to parental control. 

The man who was flogging a dead horse

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I start teaching my third year module on London in the late nineteenth century, which looks at crime, popular culture and social history in the 1880s. It will be the 10th year since I devised this module and its run in 9 of those. Over the years it has evolved and I’ve developed the context and assessments but the focus remains the same: using the ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders of 1888 as a prism through which to explore a range of contemporary topics. It prompted my 2010 book (London’s Shadows) and my continuing interest in the ‘Ripper’ case.

While the Ripper case dominated ‘crime news’ in 1888 the police courts continued almost as if nothing was happening in the East End. The same range of petty thefts, domestic and public violence, fraudulent scams, drunks, disorderly prostitutes, and vagrants continued to be the stock of most lower court reports.

So take today in 1888 for example, the first case (from Bow Street) featured an elderly man who had tried to pass counterfeit currency in a central London pub. He was caught along with two accomplices and remanded in custody. Over at Westminster Police court two newspaper sellers were prosecuted for robbing a man in the street. Francis Hoare (a pub landlord on a visit to the capital) had fallen over in the street.  William Turner and Edward Lynch rushed to help but then used that as cover to lift his pocket watch; both men were ‘known’ to the police and the magistrate remanded them for further enquires.

Across the river Thames at Greenwich Police court Thomas Pettitt was accused of mistreating a horse. Mr Sheil was told that Pettitt, a potato dealer, had been working a horse that was clearly ill. The case was brought by an officer of the RSPCA who testified that the beast was ‘suffering from several sores and partly fractured fetlocks’.

Pettitt’s poor defence was that he had only taken up dealing in potatoes recently; he was previously a draper, and didn’t understand horses. Mr Shiel countered that excuse with:

‘any fool must have known the horse was not fit for work’.

He added – the RSPCA’s officer – that in future individuals shouldn’t be summoned but instead they should be arrested and the animal impounded so a magistrate could look at it and come to an opinion about its state of health. That, he said, was ‘better than the evidence of the whole College of Veterinary Surgeons’ (which I doubt went down well with that august body of men).

Any inspection of the horse was now impossible as Pettitt told Mr Sheil he thought it was dead. The magistrate fined him £3 with 2s costs and gave him a week to find the money or he would send him to prison for a fortnight. London was served by thousands of horses in the Victorian period, and very many of them were simply worked till they dropped.

At that point their masters called for a horse slaughterer to dispatch them and this usually meant someone from the firm of Harrison & Barber, who held a virtual monopoly in the capital. Not surprisingly, as men used to cutting up animals, some of the first people the police questioned in the aftermath of Polly Nichol’s murder in August 1888 were slaughterer’s from the nearby Barber’s yard.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, October 05, 1888

Dodgy coins and an echo of the Titheburn Street Outrage

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Miss Philips was a barmaid working at Victoria Railway Station, in the London, Brighton and South Side refreshment bar. One of her customers had already raised her suspicions that day and when she handed over a florin that looked a little dodgy she called her manager’s attention to it.

Mr Sweeting looked ay the coin and compared it with a few others that the bar had taken that day. He was pretty sure they were counterfeit and moved quickly to have the elderly woman that had paid for her brandy with it arrested. Sweeting also noticed a man in the station who had been seen with the prisoners earlier making a hasty exit and sent the police after him as well.

The next day Laura Deane (an 80 year-old ‘disorderly woman’) and Thomas Shoster (a ‘well-dressed, middle-aged man’) were both brought before Mr Woolrych the sitting magistrate at Westminster. Shoster hailed from Liverpool and had been seen conversing with Deane at several points at Victoria. When he was searched at the police station a ‘shilling was found in an old glove’ along with several pieces of paper which had evidently been used to wrap coins in.

The suggestion was that Shoster was sending Deane out to ‘utter’ (to pass the counterfeit coin) and so change it for ‘good’ money. As for Laura Deane, she was found to have a string of pockets that she wore under her dress, seemingly to conceal coins on her person. But for the sharp eyes of the barmaid and her boss the criminal pair might have gotten away with more sharp practice that afternoon. Instead they were both remanded in custody so that the police had more time to investigate.

Interestingly Thomas Shoster gave his Liverpool address as Titheburn Street. Historians of crime will recognise this as the scene of Liverpool’s first recorded gang murder, in August 1874, just seven months before this news report in London. Richard Morgan was beaten to death by John McGrave and other members of the notorious ‘cornermen’ that infested the area.

The ‘Titheburn Street Outrage’ made national news and provoked much soul-searching about the state of Britain’s urban centres and the problem of gangs, something that has never really gone away. As for Deane and Shoster this may have been the end of their story. They leave no record in the Old Bailey or in the related records of the Digital Panopticon.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, March 21, 1875]

A young dressmaker emerges with her reputation untarnished

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October 21 1855 was the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar and the death of Nelson but the England that emerged from the long wars with France looked quite a different place from the world Horatio Nelson was born into. By the 1850s his Norfolk descendants would have been able to take the train to the capital rather than the bone-shaking stage coach, and the Navy office might have been able to summon the admiral by telegraph instead of a despatch rider.

Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory was the largest ship of the line in the Royal Navy in 1805 but it was powered by sail and built of oak. In 1859 the very first ironclad warship was launched in France, and in the American Civil War (1861-65) floating ironclads helped usher in a new sort of warfare that had more in common with the Great War of 1914-18 than the battlefields of Austerlitz, Salamanca or Waterloo.

Britain had demonstrated its military might during the Napoleonic wars but the much less ‘glorious’ Crimean War (1853-56) had exposed the extent of disease in the army and poor command and infrastructure of the British forces, despite its victory. Nelson (and Wellington) would most probably have been horrified that the nation’s armed forces had been allowed to reach such a parlous state by mid century.

Meanwhile of course the business of fighting crime and dealing with the everyday regulation of the capital continued despite the nation being at war with Russia. Nelson would never had seen a ‘bobby’ on the beat nor been very family with a Police Court Magistrate. Nor it seems was young Miss Eliza Greaves, yet she found herself in the dock at Marlborough Street accused of a very serious offence.

At about 7.30 in the evening of 16 October 1855 Eliza, a ‘respectable’ dressmaker who resided 11 Bruton Street, near Berkley Square – a fashionable address – entered a haberdasher’s shop at 272 Regent Street.  She asked the assistant for some ‘riband and blonde’ and paid with two half-crowns and coated for her change. However, when the assistant  handed the money to the cashier he immediately declared they were ‘bad’ (i.e they were counterfeit).

The cashier, John Wilson, took the coins over to where the young woman was seated and asked her where she had got the coins from. She told him they came from her sister, who lived in Hanover Square. Wilson then enquired whether she had any other money and she handed over a shilling which he again realised was counterfeit.

Poor Eliza was now in some difficulty because she was seemingly committing the offence of passing (or ‘uttering’) false coins. The police were called and Eliza was taken away by PC 27 of E Division. On the next day Eliza was produced in court to answer a charge of trying to pass ‘bad’ coins and so defraud Messers. Sowerby &. Co of the value of their property.

Enquiries were made and Eliza’s sister was consulted about the money she had given her her sibling. It transpired that she ‘had put a small packet of quicksilver [mercury] in her pocket, in which was her purse, and some silver’. It was this that had caused the discolouration of the coins. The magistrate’s chief clerk examined the coins carefully and declared that he ‘very much doubted if they were bad’. Mr Bingham (the magistrate) sent a police inspector off to have them properly tested and he returned to state for the record that the coins were ‘good’. To everyone’s relief (not least Eliza’s) she was cleared of any wrongdoing and set at liberty to return with her friends, who were people of ‘the greatest respectability’.

Just what her sister was doing with mercury in her pocket is far less clear. Mercury was used to treat syphilis and other forms of venereal disease but I hardly think the other Miss Greaves bought it for that purpose. It had some use in making dental fillings, and of course was used in thermometers, but why Miss Greaves needed it remains a mystery to me. Please enlighten me if you know!

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, October 21, 1855]

Did a ‘wife’ take poison to escape her abuser? Or did her cry for help go unnoticed?

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On Wednesday this week I related the story of a man who was woken by his wife hitting him. In hitting her back too hard he caused her death. He was sent to face trial at the Old Bailey and convicted of manslaughter. The culprit seems to have had a history of domestic violence and so while he was treated gently by the court (since his wife was a drunk and a sloven, in the eyes of the society they lived in I hasten to add) we should not be quite so understanding. As one correspondent to me on Twitter noted, ‘domestic violence is tragedy’.

Today’s case, from 1862 (some 27 years earlier) also involves a man being accused of causing the death of his partner, and he too seems to have gotten away with what must have been deemed routine and ‘normal’ violence.

John Lemon made ‘base coin’. Now whether this was a legitimate trade or a variation on illegal coining I’m unsure at the present. However, the Bow Street Police court where he appeared in May 1862 was interested in the death of his common law wife, not his occupation.

Lemon lived with Ann Gedling in a property on White Hart Street, off Drury Lane. When he got home late one evening, possibly the worse for drink, he and Ann argued. Lemon hit her ‘a severe blow on the head with a flat iron’ before staggering off to bed.

In the morning, in an echo of Charles Mills’ case from Wednesday, Ann was feeling sick and she called for him to help her. He found that she had swallowed a quantity of poison; namely cyanide, which they pair used in the coin manufacturing process. He told the magistrate it was used in extra-plating coins.

Whether Ann had taken it in an attempt to end her life (and rid herself of an abusive partner) is unknown but it saved Lemon from further prosecution for her death. A doctor was unable to help her as she passed away the moment he stepped through the door.

In court expect testimony was provided by a surgeon called Lovett. He pronounced that death was due to the ingestion of cyanide of potassium and that effectively trumped the blow that Lemon had landed. She may have died from the abuse she had received, and indeed her death could certainly be attributed to the coin maker, at least in terms of him provoking her to kill herself.

But the law, in the person of Mr Corrie the Bow Street magistrate, didn’t see it like that. Since he had not directly killed her Lemon was discharged.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, June 02, 1862]