‘She’s a bad woman and no wife of mine’: the man with five wives finally meets his match

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‘Trial for Bigamy’ by Eyre Crowe A.R.A. (1897)

On Christmas day 1890 Ann Riley married Charles Valentine Smith, a 40 (or possibly 36) year-old saddle and harness maker in North London. It wasn’t a great success; the couple quarreled constantly until in the middle of April 1891 they agreed to separate.

Ann had her doubts about Charles from the start and suspected he’d been married before. She had asked him (it may well have been one of the things they argued about) and he denied it, but admitted living with a woman for a few years before he met Ann.

On the 28 April, while Ann was out, Charles visited his old familial home and retrieved a silver pocket watch which he said he’d been given as a wedding present. When Ann discovered the watch was missing however, she flew into a rage and determined to get even with him.

Acting on her hunch that the saddler was a bigamist she took herself to Somerset House to consult the marriage registers. After some searching she found him. Her suspicions confirmed, Ann now took her husband to court, for the theft of the watch and for deceiving her into believing he was free to marry her.

The detective that arrested Smith, DS Couchman, testified that the prisoner had admitted that he’d been married previously but said that his ex-wife was ‘a bad woman’ and ‘no wife’ to him.  It didn’t excuse the reality that they were still legally wed however, divorce being a much harder (and more expensive) process in 1891 than it is today.

The magistrate quizzed Ann on whether she knew her new husband was already attached to someone else. This was the line that Smith took, claiming he’d told her very early on so she knew what she was getting into. Ann said he had initially told her he was married but had later denied it. I guess she ended up choosing to believe her own marriage was legitimate, when it clearly was not. Charles was remanded in custody for week while investigations continued.

On 4 July he was back before the beak at the North London Police court and now it was revealed that Charles was a repeat offender. He had been successfully prosecuted for bigamy by the family of Ann Connolly who he’d married over 20 years earlier. At that time he’s already been married to another woman for five years. He got nine month’s in prison but didn’t learn his lesson from it.

After he got out of gaol he joined the army (that would have been in 1870 probably) and he married once more. This new wife quickly discovered his history, left him, and married someone else. His first wife died and in October 1882 he married his fourth, at St Mary’s, Islington.

The justice, Mr Haden Corser, having listened to this disreputable man’s story, sent him back to the Central Criminal Court to be tried for bigamy once more. At his trial, on 28 July 1891, the jury was told that not only had he married five women, he had fathered at least two children who he had left destitute when he abandoned their mother. The common sergeant sitting as judge sent him to prison for 15 months at hard labour.

By modern standards his record of relationships might not seem too bad. It is not uncommon for someone to have multiple monogamous relationships or even to marry several times. What Smith did wrong (very wrong in fact) was to neglect to divorce one wife before he married the next. For women in the Victorian period this was a particularly callous and uncaring crime because it robbed them of the respectability that legitimate marriage ensured. It meant they had no rights and their children were rendered illegitimate.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, June 22, 1891; The Morning Post, Monday, July 6, 1891]

For many working class women living in the roughest parts of late Victorian London marriage was an unaffordable luxury. Nevertheless women were keen to demonstrate that they were in a  serious relationship and so common law marriages – recognised but he community if not by church and state – normalised things. Women like Catherine Eddowes (who sometimes used the name Kelly) or Annie Chapman (who was occasionally Sivvy) would use their partner’s name just as a bonafide spouse would. For more on the reality of life in 1880s Whitechapel and the two sets of murders that dominated to news stands of the time why not try Drew’s new history of the Jack the Ripper case, published by Amberley Books this June.

This new study of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 offers up a new suspect, links the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings to the unsolved ‘Thames Torso’ crimes, and provides the reader with important contextual history of Victorian London. The book is available to order on Amazon here

 

‘Brutal in the extreme’: one woman’s courage to stand up for herself against the odds

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It is probably fair to say that the marriage of Albert and Martha Sykes was doomed to fail. Albert was a labourer when the couple first got together and began to cohabit. Getting married may have been desirable, especially for working class women keen to uphold their reputations, but it was not always an inevitable consequence of cohabitation.

At some point in 1887 Martha gave birth to a baby girl but by then Albert was nowhere to be seen. Like many men he’d decided to shirk his responsibilities and deserted his partner. Martha though was a strong woman and insistent that her daughter should have a father to support her, so she went to law and obtained a summons to bring Albert to court.

When next she saw him in the dock at Marylebone Police court he was dressed as a sailor and stated that he was now an able seaman in the navy. The court determined that as he was  girl’s father he was obliged to pay towards her keep. However, Albert attempted to dodge this responsibility as well and never paid a penny. Martha stuck to her guns and summoned him for non-payment, so Albert found himself back in front of a magistrate in October 1889.

He promised to make good on the arrears and the case was adjourned for him to make a first payment. That never materialized (surprise, surprise) and so back to Marylebone he and Martha went. This time she had new offer for her estranged sailor: if he would agree to marry her and return home she would ‘forgive him the amount he was in arrears’. I think this tells us something about Martha, if not more about the reality of some working-class relationships in the late Victorian period. She had a small child and limited opportunities to bring in income. Therefore, as unreliable as Albert was he was of use to her. His wages would put food on the table and pay the rent and marriage would give Martha the respectability she felt she needed having born a child out of wedlock.

Albert agreed and the couple were married but they didn’t live happily ever after. Within months he’d deserted her again and she had summoned him back to court. That forced him to return to the marital home but he was a reluctant husband and things only got worse.

In May 1890 Albert was brought up before Mr De Rutzen at Marylebone and charged with assaulting Martha, who was pregnant again. He was serving with navy at Chatham, attached to H.M.S Forte (which was under construction)¹, but was brought in on a warrant that Martha had taken out against him. Once again we can admire her determination to use the law to  prosecute her husband and to try to bring him to book, however futile it seems to have been.

Martha testified to his cruelty saying that she had putting her daughter’s boots on in the morning at their rented rooms at 3 Dickenson Street, Kentish Town when the little girl had started crying that she was hungry. Albert was annoyed at the noise and hit the child. Martha told him he had no right to strike the girl and an argument flared. The couple was poor despite Sykes’ navy salary and Martha was often obliged to pawn items. It seems she’d recently pawned a firearm belonging to Albert simply so she could pay the rent.

The argument escalated and he grabbed her by the throat and began to strangle the life out of her. Martha managed to fight back and free herself but he pushed her to the floor and knee’d her in the stomach. She screamed, in pain and in fear of losing her unborn baby, and the landlady came running upstairs. But Albert was already on his way out, running away from trouble as he always did.

He was back that night though and the fight started again. He took the hat she was wearing and threw it in the fire; Martha had to run from the house, in fear of her life, taking her little girl with her. It was a sadly typical example of male violence in the late 1800s but here we can see it escalate over time. Most women killed in the period were killed by their spouse or partner and often after years of non-fatal attacks. Abused women rarely went to court early in the cycle, choosing instead to believe they could calm or amend violent behavior. In reality once a man started hitting his wife he didn’t stop until the pair were separated by legal means or by the woman’s death.

In this case Martha was a strong woman who stood up for herself and her daughter in court, refuted the counter claims of antagonizing Albert which were leveled by his lawyer, and she convinced the magistrate that he was guilty as charged. Mr De Rutzen described Albert Sykes (who seemed destined to live down to the behaviour of his fictional namesake) as ‘brutal in the extreme’. Albert was sentenced to two months in prison, an outcome that seemed to surprise him. As he was led away he was heard to ask to see his mother.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, May 11, 1890]

¹ HMS Forte was launched in 1893, one of eight cruisers commissioned by the navy in the 1890s. She saw service off the coast of Africa but was decommissioned in 1913 as the navy needed a very different class of warship for the coming fight with Imperial Germany. 

Procrastination, distraction and unexpected discoveries: the Coppetts Wood murder of 1882 (part one)

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There are moments in historical research when you discover something that distracts you from your core purpose and sends you in a different direction. One of the most famous examples of this (in academic history terms anyway) was Vic Gatrell’s Hanging Tree which examines in detail the history of public execution in England in the period 1770 to 1868. Gatrell wasn’t intending on writing a history of hanging, instead he made ‘a chance discovery’ whilst ‘working on something quite different’.

This led him to start browsing through a set of judges’ reports in the National Archives at Kew and he came across the story of the rape of Elizabeth Cureton and the petitions for mercy made on behalf of the man found guilty of assaulting her. The Hanging Tree is one of the seminal works in the history of crime and the idea that it was the product of a momentary desire to of break the ‘tedium’ of archival research (something I’m sure very many historians can empathise with) is enlightening.

I am (slowly) finishing a book on eighteenth-century homicides. It is a project which started life about 9 or 10 years ago when I began researching a murder in Northamptonshire. It had odd elements to it, but mostly it was interesting because it seemed to offer an opportunity to explore the system by which convicted criminals might avoid the death penalty, even for a crime as heinous as murder. Working with my PhD supervisor, a very eminent historian of crime, we published an article on the case in a historical journal. I then went on and started work on other articles and books.

There was something about that case that always niggled with me and made me want to see if other examples could be found where convicted murderers had tried to avoid the noose in the 1700s. Cutting a long story short I found four cases (including the Northamptonshire one) that seemed worth exploring. One involved two brothers murdering a watchman, the next concerned the public stoning to death of an informer in Spitalfields, and the last was a prostitute who was accused of killing a minor celebrity musician. I pitched the project to a publisher and they were kind enough to give me a contract.

In the meantime one of my former undergraduates approached me and told me he had ‘solved’ the Ripper murders. He believed he had uncovered the identity of the Whitechapel murderer of 1888 and had linked him to a second series of contemporary murders. I was skeptical, but intrigued. Over the course of the next few years I worked with Andy on this project alongside my other one until, in the summer of last year, we had the bulk of a manuscript to pitch to publishers. It wasn’t easy to sell because the market for Ripper books is pretty well saturated, but in the end we found a home for it with Amberley. A note here: if you are an author who wants to get something published, keep trying – if it’s good enough someone will take a chance on it, eventually.

While all this was going on I decided to start this blog. Daily writings on the police courts of the Victorian metropolis, a way of keeping me focused on writing and research every day. It was also born of my desire to return to a study of the magistracy, the subject of my original PhD research back in the early 2000s. My intention (after the homicide and Ripper books) was and is to write academic and more popular histories of the magistracy in England.

So, where is this rambling blog going right now? Well, this morning I’ve found a report of a 24-year-old man named Frederick Cheekly who was set in the dock at Southwark Police court in late April 1884 charged with stealing a watch. Cheekly lived at 113 the Borough in south London with his common-law partner Maud Norton. She was older, 29 years of age, and appeared in the dock with him as an accessory to the theft. A second charge was preferred against the pair, also for stealing, and this time a third person – Minnie Lewis – was also charged. The solicitor for the Treasury brought the charges and the trio were committed for trial.

What happened to them after that is unclear but I doubt it would necessarily have resulted in convictions. I suspect the house in Borough was a brothel and the two women acted as prostitutes and/or madams. The men robbed were risking their property simply by entering a house of ill repute and I doubt the Surrey jurors would have had much sympathy for them.

But what struck me was a comment made by the Police News’ reporter who stated that Checkley was ‘said to be a companion of the Finchley-wood murderer’. Given that I grew up in Finchley and I hadn’t heard of this case I thought I’d do some quick digging this morning.   I soon found a report form March 1882 which describes the discovery a the body ‘of a young man’ in woods near Finchley. A little bit more research established that these were Coppetts Wood, near Colney Hatch. At first the police thought they’d found the body a dead gispy since the woods were a popular transit point for travelling people. But the hair on the corpse was fair, not dark like most gipsies. The papers now speculated that the victim might have been part of a criminal gang operating in the area, committing burglaries and street robberies.

Suffice to say, for now at least, that I think I have worked out what happened and how this case unfolds but it is going to take me some time to unpack it all. So, if you would like to know what happens in the Finchley Wood murder mystery stayed ‘tuned’ for further articles over the week as I get to the bottom of who was left buried in Coppetts Wood and who put him there.

In between, that is, finishing off the book I’m supposed to be writing!

[The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, April 26, 1884; Daily News , Tuesday, March 7, 1882]

‘I will go faster to ruin if I go with my mother’: teenage defiance as tensions run high in Westminster

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I am not sure what Margaret Brown hoped to achieve when she prosecuted Matthew Max Plimmer for an assault at Westminster Police court. Margaret (a 32 year-old woman who lived in a property on the Brompton Road), explained that her daughter had run off with Plimmer, who was already married, and had been living in sin with him. Anxious to ‘rescue her’ as she put it, Margaret turned up at the house and demanded that her daughter come home with her. Plimmer refused to allow this, remonstrated with the woman and then assaulted her. According to the prosecutrix he ‘seized her, and bit her wrist so it bled’.

The daughter was in court and was interviewed by the magistrate, Mr Paget. She told him she had left Plimmer (a Belgian national who had apparently worked, briefly it seems, for the C.I.D) and had set herself up at digs on the Marylebone Road. She wasn’t doing very well however, and was surviving only by pawning her own clothes.

Mr Paget advised her to go back home to her mother but the headstrong nineteen year-old refused. She would ‘do as she liked’ she told him. In that case ‘she was going fast to ruin’, the magistrate said; why on earth would she not return home?

The young woman offered an ‘insolent’ (but unrecorded) response and said ‘she would go to ruin faster if she went with her mother’.

Ouch.

That was a telling comment on Mrs Brown’s character and her relationship with her daughter. If she had hoped to use the leverage of the court to separate her daughter from a married man (and a foreigner to boot) in an effort get her to return to the fold she had failed. Plimmer was initially remanded for further examination but then released on sureties of £50 to reappear if required.

Mother and daughter went their separate ways.

[from The Standard, Friday, April 11, 1879]

Jealousy, divorce and vitriol throwing in late Victorian Paddington

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Divorce was a not at all an easy thing to obtain in the nineteenth century. This meant that many couples either stayed together long after relationships had broken down or separated to live with someone else, but were then unable to remarry. For women this was a particular problem as it was harder for them to be seen as ‘respectable’ if they lived, unmarried, with a man. It was even worse should they have children by him, and that, in age before effective contraception, was fairly likely.

The breakdown of any relationship is traumatic and rarely entirely mutual so there is almost always an ‘injured party’. This sometimes leads today to long drawn out divorce cases, to jealousies, feuds, and even violence. So I imagine this might have been even worse in a society where divorce was much rarer than it is today. In the Victorian period then, there was much more scope for long lasting jealousies between jilted and abandoned wives and husbands and their new paramours.

This was the situation that Margaret White, a 44 year-old shopkeeper found herself in in March 1886. Margaret was married but her husband had left her 11 years previously, complaining about her ‘immorality’.  This may have referred to an affair or simply her behaviour (perhaps her drinking and staying out late in the evening). Of course it may have been a false accusation, we have no proof that Mrs White was in any way ‘immoral’.

Whether White left his wife for another woman in 1875 or not by 1886 he was living with Rose Simpson in her rooms at Burlington News in Paddington. Margaret had discovered this and on more than one occasion in 1886 she had confronted Rose and, supposedly threatened her. On the 3 March she had visited the property and called on Rose.

When she opened the door she allegedly produced  a small bottle which she claimed contained ‘vitriol’ (acid) and said she would throw it in the face of her rival if she ever stepped out of the house. She then stood outside for three hours while Rose cowered inside.

As this was the culmination of a series of threats to her, Rose decided to go to law to get protection or redress. On 13 March Margaret was brought, by warrant, to the Marylebone Police court to answer a charge of threatening her husband’s lover with an acid attack. Margaret pleaded not guilty and claimed that she’d never threatened Rose. She did admit that she had met her husband at open of their daughter’s house, by accident not design, and that he had told her he would never go back to her. This may have prompted her to  confront Rose but she steadfastly rejected claims that she had produced a bottle or vitriol or had ever ‘had anything to do with it’ in her life.

Rose Simpson, perhaps persuaded by her husband,  told Mr Cooke that she didn’t want to press charges and would be content so long as her rival was bound over to keep the peace towards her. She merely wanted, she said, for the threatening behavour to stop. The magistrate agreed, noting that there was no evidence that Margaret ever owned let alone threatened to throw acid at her. He accepted Mrs White’s sureties of £20 for six months but warned her that she faced a month in prison if there was any further intimidation of Ms Simpson.  Throughout this case involving his previous and his current object of affection, Mr. White was nowhere to be seen.

Acid throwing was not unusual in the 1800s and has resurfaced in modern Britain, as this report from the Guardian in February 2017 shows. If you would like to read more about this disturbing phenomena I can suggest no better source than Dr Katherine Watson at Oxford Brookes University.

[from The Standard, Monday, March 15, 1886]

A vicar refuses to baptise a woman’s ninth childi

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As an example of how the London Police courts were used for all manner of business and as a one-stop advice bureau I present this case from October 1861. A woman named Evans (I cannot call her ‘Mrs Evans’ because she declared herself to be Unmarried) at Wandsworth Police court to ask for Mr Dayman’s advice.

Ms Evans had recently given birth to her ninth child, each of whom she had taken to be christened at Battersea Church, most of them by Reverend Jenkinson the presiding minister. However, on this occasion when she showed up with her infant he refused either to christen the baby or to ‘church’ her after her confinement.

Churching refers to the blessing given to mothers soon after they have given birth and is even performed if the child had died or the mother chose not to baptize it. So it was strange that the reverend refused both to christen her newborn or offer his blessing on the mother.

Ms Evans thought she knew why Rev. Jenkinson had refused her:

‘I suspect the reason of his objecting is because I am not married’, she told the magistrate.

‘That would not be a reason’ Mr Dayman responded.

‘I asked him the reason and he said that as I was not married he would neither church me nor christen my child. I went again on Sunday, and I could not have it done’.

The justice wasn’t sure what to do in this case. He wasn’t familiar with ecclesiastical (church) law but had never heard of a clergyman refusing to baptize a child, regardless of whether it was legitimate or not. Thousands of babies were born illegitimate in London every year since marriage amongst the working classes was not as common as we might think.

Ms Evans had gone along with two godfathers and was angry and upset that the vicar had refused her. All the magistrate could suggest was that she went over the vicar’s head and complained to the Bishop  (in this case the Bishop of Winchester). The court clerk furnished her with the bishop’s address and she thanked his worship and left.

Perhaps the vicar was trying to make a point about marriage and legitimacy; having blessed eight previous products of a relationship unordained by God however, it seems a little churlish of him to refuse the ninth however.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, October 23, 1861]

September 1888: A killer in the East overshadows the everyday reality of domestic abuse in Victorian London    

Catching Jack

I have just completed the final draft of my ‘Ripper’ solution book and its now off with my co-author for his last amendments. We have to do a little work on the images and maps but it looks like we will comfortably meet our end of September deadline. Having put down my pen (so to speak) on the project I thought I’d return to Whitechapel in 1888 to see what was going on in the Police Courts of the capital in the midst of the most infamous murders London has ever known.

For context, by Wednesday September 18 1888 the murders of four women were being investigated by the police: Emma Smith (4/4/88), Martha Tabram (7/8/88), Mary Ann Nichols (31/8/88), and Annie Chapman (8/9/88). Within  less than two weeks both Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes would be added to that list, their murders occurring within an hour of each other.

Very few people (including me) believe Smith to have been a ‘Ripper’ victim and some dispute whether Tabram was. Either way, by this time 130 years ago the police were desperate to catch a murderer who was mutilating defenseless women in the heart of the East End.

Meanwhile over the river at Lambeth Henry Baker (alias Williams) was being charged with the attempted murder of Mary Cowen. The attack had taken place in mid July but Mary was dangerously ill in St Thomas’ Hospital, and was too weak to attend court until early September. However, on the day of the first committal hearing she failed to appear in court to prosecute the case against Henry.

The policeman in charge of the case, Chief Inspector Chisholm, had then told the magistrate at Lambeth Police court that he was convinced that friends of the prisoner had conspired to prevent Mary giving evidence that day. Mr Biron had granted the police a warrant to force her to attend at a subsequent date, and therefore she was in court on the 18 September to start the case against her attacker.

Mary Cowen was still suffering the effects of the assault: ‘she appeared very ill, and evidently was most reluctant to give evidence against the prisoner’, the paper reported. The case was opened by the Treasury solicitor Mr Pollard. He ascertain (‘with some difficulty’) that Mary had lived with Henry in Birmingham but they had been separated ‘for some time’. As was the case much more frequently than we might imagine today, many working class couples lived as man and wife without ever formally marrying.

In July the couple had met in London and had a violent argument. She admitted striking her ex-partner in the face with her bag and calling him ‘foul names’. That was the 10 July 1888 and on the following Monday, the 16th, he found her again and this time he attacked her, stabbing her two or three times with a knife. Mary collapsed and lost consciousness. Someone must have helped her because she woke up in hospital.

Henry Baker denied the attack and objected when the solicitor played his trump card and produced a written statement, from Baker, admitting his guilt. Baker said no one could prove it was his handwriting but Mr Pollard begged to differ. The crucial witness was Mary however, and having finally persuaded (or forced) her to testify against her former lover the police must have ben relatively confident of securing a conviction. Mr Biron now fully committed the man to trial at Old Bailey for the attempted murder of his common-law wife.

The trial did take place, on 22 October 1888 and ‘Harry’ Baker was convicted, not of attempted murder but of the lesser offence of wounding. The court report stated at the end that:

the prisoner, ‘in his defence stated that he had been subjected to great annoyance by the prosecutrix, whose habits were very intemperate, and that he pleaded guilty to assaulting her after great provocation’.

An all male jury clearly agreed with him and even when he’d admitted having a previous conviction (from 1887 in Chester) the judge merely sent him away for a year’s imprisonment.

This is the surgeon’s report of the injuries Mary had sustained (and that Baker admitted inflicting):

The prosecutrix was brought there [St Thomas’ Hospital] with a deep incised wound on the right side of the chest, penetrating into the cavity of the chest, between 3 and 4 inches long and 1 inch deep or more, and another wound in her back behind the right shoulder blade an inch and a half long and half or three-quarters of an inch deep; there was considerable bleeding from the wound in front, a large artery was divided—she was in very great danger for some time—she remained in the hospital till September 3rd and after having recovered to some extent was allowed to go—her life was in danger till July 22nd

When juries were prepared to accept as mitigation the accusation that a ‘wife’ was ‘intemperate’ and that being called ‘foul names’ and slapped in the face with a bag counted as ‘provocation’ it is quiet easy to understand why women were so reluctant to prosecute their husbands and partners in the late Victorian period.

We should also see the actions of a misogynistic serial killer in the context of the way women were treated everyday in the 1880s, and not view him as an aberration (a ‘monster’) or some sort of criminal mastermind. Women were beaten up, stabbed, abused, raped and murdered on a very regular basis in the nineteenth century and ‘Jack’ wasn’t the only one to get away with it.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, September 19, 1888]