A routine mugging reveals a Freemason connection

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John Palmer was an ordinary sort of bloke. He gave his occupation as ‘labourer’ (frequently a default term for those appearing before the courts in Victorian London, suggesting he was a casual worker). He certainly wasn’t a rich man, by any stretch of the imagination and, as he walked home one late evening in March 1870, he only had a few shillings in his pocket.

This didn’t stop him falling victim to violence and robbery however. Palmer may have enjoyed a few pints after work, which would have made him more vulnerable to being attacked. He was hardly a prize though, but to James Tyson and John Sadler that didn’t matter. Tyson was a trained boxer – a pugilist to give the contemporary term – and so was well suited to a bit of ‘rough stuff’. Sadler was a betting agent, so also probably quite able to mix it when he needed to.

The pair fell on Palmer as he made his way home; Sadler jumped him, knocking him to the ground before Tyson used his weight to hold him down. They rifled his pockets and extracted 7 shillings and ran off. Palmer reported the incident to a nearby policeman who took descriptions and set a search in motion. The culprits were caught just a few hours later, one of them by a detective.

When Sadler was searched he was found to have quite a haul. The police discovered  a number of pawn tickets (often evidence of theft) all for ‘valuable gold and silver watches’ as well as gold Albert chains and some broken watch-bows. Some of these might be able to be identified but even more significant a find was a gold locket ‘with a ruby heart at the centre’ and a Freemason’s gold medal. The medal was inscribed:

The Most Noble Augustus Frederick, Duke of Leinster, Grand Master of the order in Ireland, 3rdJanuary, 1848’.

Augustus Frederick, the Marquess of Kildare (right, below pictured in 1859) was an old man by 1870. Born in the previous century by the time his medal turned up in the pocket of a petty thief in London he was close to 80 years of age and would only live another three. He became head of the Grand Lodge of Ireland in 1813 and apparently kept a tight rein on how all Freemasonary operated on the Emerald Isle. 2911106-09

In court at Marlborough Street the police reported that both James Tyson and John Sadler were well known to them. Mr Mansfield, the sitting Police Court magistrate, was told that there were ‘frequenters of racecourses’ and known to be ‘magsmen’ and ‘welshers’.

Eric Partridge’s 1949 Dictionary of the Underworld defines a ‘magsman’ thus:

‘Swell mobites’; ‘a fashionably dressed swindler’; or ‘fellows who are too cowardly to steal, but prefert o cheat confiding persons by acting upon the cupidity’. It included ‘card-sharpers, confidence tricksters, begging letter writers, and ‘bogus ministers of religion’.

Perhaps by 1870 ‘magsmen’ was being used more broadly to apply to a member of the more fashionably dressed ‘criminal class’. As for ‘welsher’, Partridge lists:

‘passer of counterfeit money’ or (in the USA) an informer.

However the terms were being applied Mr Mansfield was pretty confident that he had two ‘bad eggs’ in his dock and he acquiesced to the police request to remand them in custody while they continued their enquiries.

Whatever results these enquiries yielded we are, sadly, in the dark about. I can find no record of either man in the higher courts in the immediate aftermath of their appearance before Mr Mansfield. This suggests the police’s evidence was thin or that they were able to buy off Palmer as a potential witness against them. They might have argued they’d ‘found’ the items discovered in their possession at the racecourse they ‘frequented’. Who knows, but like so many of the stories of the police courts carried by the London press this one lacks a conclusion.

[from The Pall Mall Gazette, Thursday 31 March 1870]

Today I have started work on my next book, which is a history of these courts, provisionally titled Nether World: Crime and the Police Courts in Victorian London.  My most recent book (Jack and the Thames Torso Murders: A New Ripper), is available on Amazon and the next one in the pipeline, Murder Maps, will be published by Thames & Hudson later this year. I’ll keep you all posted.

Take care of yourselves in these difficult times.

 ‘Silently, swiftly, and remorselessly’: the mythologising of a serial killer in the London press

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On the evening of the 1 October 1888 the Standard newspaper carried this report on page four:

Ripper

This was the infamous ‘double event’ when the killer known only as ‘Jack the Ripper’ killed twice within a matter of hours. We might it strange that it wasn’t ‘front page news’ as such a crime would be today but then nineteenth-century newspapers tended to carry adverts on the cover page, not news.

The Whitechapel murders were the news story of the day, relegating almost all other stories to ‘second best’ and bringing hoards of journalists, ‘dark tourists’, and ‘slummers’ to the East End to see where it all happened and to talk to the nervous locals.

The Standard went on to discuss the murders in a longer article on the same page. It described the killer as having an ‘absolutely demonical thirst for blood’ and dubbed him ‘a human fiend’. It also credited the murderer with ‘a swiftness, a dexterity, a noiselessness, and, we might almost say, a scientific skill’ which it suggested was a ‘very rare accomplishment in the class from which murderers are commonly drawn’.

Given that most of the murderers convicted at the Old Bailey in the nineteenth century might reasonably be described as working class and given that the Victorians blamed most serious crime on the so-called ‘criminal class’ (a class existing below the ranks of the working class), it follows that this editorial’s writer held a fairly low opinion of the ordinary working class man in the street.

The Standard launched in 1827 as an evening paper, and later a morning edition as well. It briefly challenged The Times for daily circulation and we might see it as a serious conservative organ. It was hardly likely then to be widely read by the working man.

The report of Catherine Eddowes’ murder in Mitre Square is full of quiet admiration for the ‘skill’ of the murderer:

 ‘Silently, swiftly, and remorselessly , the murderer performed operations which a practiced surgeon, working with all his appliances about him, could hardly have effected in the time; and then, as usual, disappeared, leaving not a shred of evidence behind by which he could be traced’.

The Standard was, like many of the other papers of the day, helping (albeit indirectly) to create the myth of ‘Jack the Ripper’; he was (so this rhetoric suggested) a fantastical figure who roamed the streets and attacked women at will, right under the noses of the impotent police force. He possessed almost super human skills, had a bestial nature, and an intelligence or animal cunning that far exceeded any of the other denizens of the East End or the ‘plod’ that were searching for him.

The Standard did call for calm and dismissed ideas (circulating elsewhere) that the murders were a reflection of the state of Britain in the 1880s:

‘Terrible as they are’, it said, the murders ‘do not show either that society is rotten to the core, or that human life is less safe in the centre of London than it is in the wilds of Texas. We are not all liable to be hacked to pieces in the streets, or murdered in our beds, because some diabolical maniac can decoy the outcasts of the pavement into dark corners and kill them’.

Finally the paper wrote that the killer must be caught and it urged the police to concentrate their efforts on the area in which the murders took place. The killer must be local it stated:

He was either a ‘resident of in a particular quarter of the East End, or, at any rate, an habitué there. He must have a haunt near the western portion of the Whitechapel-road, from which he issues before the commission of one of his crimes, and to which he ventures swiftly after the deed is done’.

The paper was at pains to dismiss the idea that the killer was a doctor or surgeon but it believed that he must have a working knowledge of anatomy, or at least was familiar with the dissection of ‘of the human or animal body’. He could be caught however, by persistent and determined police work, a task the Standard declared, that it had confidence the police could and would fulfil.

So, in this brief editorial from the day after the ‘double event’ we get very many of the themes associated with the Ripper murders. There is the notion of the mythical killer, the press attention, the moral panic that consumed London, the impotence (or otherwise) of the Metropolitan Police, the nature of the victims, elite attitudes towards the lower class, and the idea that the East End of London and killings there reflected in some ways the cancer at the heart of the British Empire.

This is why I continue to research and teach about the Whitechapel murders, because it is a rich source of discussion and debate about so many things in late Victorian London, and this is why so many people remain fascinated by the topic.

[from The Standard, Monday, October 01, 1888]

Drew’s new book (co-authored by Andy Wise) is published by Amberley Books. It is a new study of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 which 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 on Amazon here

Upper class boisterousness Bloomsbury Square and a reminder that double standards persist

Bullies

Police constable Fisher (32E) was on duty in Great Russell Street in the early hours of Friday morning, 26 July 1867. As he approached Bloomsbury Square on his beat he heard what sounded like gunshots, and he rushed towards the sound. Nearby PC Vindon (34E) had also heard the sounds and was hurrying to investigate.

As the two officers converged on the square they saw two young men aiming rifles at the gas lamps. They had missed more than once but had now succeeded in putting out two of the square’s lamps. When they saw PC Vindon they turned tail and ran, one of them running straight into the arms of constable Fisher.

‘That is nice conduct for a young man like you – firing off powder and putting the lamps out’, PC Fisher admonished his prisoner.

‘There you are mistaken’, the young man replied, ‘it was only caps’.

Looking down PC Fisher saw 12 exploded caps on the ground, six by each lamppost. He arrested the lad, who gave his name as Frank Hughes, and took him back to the police station to be charged.

At the station he explained that he’d just returned from Wimbledon where he’d won a prize for shooting. He claimed he didn’t know there was any powder in the rifle (which seems unlikely). However, he was clearly ‘respectable’, being described as having a ‘gentlemanly appearance’ and this probably helped him when he was brought before Sir Thomas Henry at Bow Street Police court.

There he apologize and said he hoped the magistrate might overlook his indiscretion. No, said Sir Thomas, he could not possibly do that but he only fined him. The sum was large, 40s, but not hard to find for someone with deep pockets like young Frank. He paid up at once and was released.

This is a reminder that class determined outcomes in the summary courts of the capital. Working class ruffians were mostly sent to prison (many would not have afforded such a fine anyway) because their behavior was deemed disorderly and a sign of latent criminal intent. By contrast the transgressions (however serious) of the upper class were put down to ‘youthful excess’ and deemed in some way ‘natural’.

I’d like to say we’d left those class distinctions behind but when we have our second Old Etonian and ex-Bullingdon Club Prime Minister in a decade I doubt we have.

Today my current cohort of students graduate from the University of Northampton with degrees in History. Young people, students especially, can get a very bad press but that is unfair and unjustified. I’ve taught most of these students over the past three years and while I know some better than others they are all a bright, hardworking and thoughtful bunch of young people. I wish them all the best for their future and hope they take some of the things they’ve learned forward with them, whatever they do, and stay in touch with us here.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, July 26, 1867]

Drew’s new book (co-authored by Andy Wise) is published by Amberley Books. It is a new study of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 which 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 on Amazon here

‘For aught known the contrary these women were respectable characters’. The establishment protects its own

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Great Windmill Street in the 1850s, London’s entertainment district 

Prostitution is a perennial issue for society and one which shows no signs of going away. Often described as ‘the oldest profession’ prostitution itself. of course, is not (and has never been) an offence by itself. As the Police Code for 1889 notes:

‘Prostitutes cannot legally be taken into custody simply because they areprostitutes; to justify their apprehension they must commit some distinct act which is an offence against the law’.

Police Code, (1889) p.143

They could however, be arrested under the Vagrancy Act (1824) , the Town Police Causes Act (1848) and the Metropolitan Police Act (1839) if they were causing a nuisance on the streets and this is often where police encountered them.

Police powers to deal with brothels were only really effectual from 1885 and the passing of the Criminal Law Amendment Act (which also raised the age of consent to 16 and made homosexual acts easier to prosecute). Yet well before then police divisions recognized prostitution as a public order nuisance and saw the women employed in the sex trade as part and parcel of the so-called ‘criminal class’ of Victorian London.

Thus, like so many policing agents before and since, the police in the Victorian capital engaged in periodic cleaning up operations to clear the trade from the streets, pubs and theatres.

Or at least they tried.

The problem they had was vast however and it didn’t help when the powers that supposedly operated the justice system did little to help the rank and file officers who were attempting to close down ‘houses of ill-repute’ or taverns and clubs that masqueraded as legitimate entertainment venues.

In some cases, one imagines, this was because the owners of these premises were paying for protection from prosecution; in others it may well be that the clientele were of a similar class to those before whom any miscreants would be brought. The establishment has a long track record of looking after their own.

In January 1850 Inspector Lestor and Sergeant Burney of C Division conducted a series of raids on West End hostelries.  Acting on information police raided the saloon (on Piccadilly), the Waterford Arms on the Haymarket, and the Saxe-Coburg on Windmill Street, Soho. At two in the morning the Piccadilly Saloon was still busy and the police found no less than sixty single women in the building, some in the saloon, others in upstairs rooms. There were about forty males there, all described as ‘gentlemen’.

According to the superintendent of C Division, giving evidence at Marlborough Street Police court:

‘Thirty at least of the women he knew to be common prostitutes, and he believed the remainder were of the same loose character’.

The evidence was the same for all three of the venues the police had entered. In each drinking was taking place and ‘immoral’ women could be found alongside ‘respectable’ men. It seemed a cut-and-dried piece of police work but Superintendent Beresford was to be thwarted by the clever arguments of lawyers hired by the defense and by the collusion of the police magistrate Mr. Bingham.

Thomas Beale ran the Picadilly Saloon and was represented by Mr Clarkson. He asked the police witness if  there had been any evidence of ‘drunkenness or disorderly behaviour’ in his client’s property. The police had to admit that no, there was none. Mr Parry (for Mary Ann Smith at the Waterford Arms and Harriett Ottley at the Saxe-Coburg) asked similarly and the same answer was given.

Mr Bingham now delivered the knockout punch: he said the summons against the trio had been brought under section 44 of the Police Code which made it an offence to ‘knowingly permit of suffer prostitutes to meet and assemble in houses of private report’. Not only was there no ‘disorderly behaviour, there was no proof that the venues’ owner had played any role in bringing or allowing immoral women on their premises.

Indeed ‘for aught known the contrary’, he declared, ‘the women present were respectable characters’. He dismissed the summons and the three defendants were released. The West End’s reputation as a haven for rich men to drink, gamble and buy sex was preserved, for a few more decades at least.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, January 22, 1850]

‘I can earn as much in a minute as you can in a week’, a pickpocket taunts a policeman

An Omnibus Pickpocket

By the 1860s the Metropolitan Police had been established in the capital for a little over three decades. It had been a fairly shaky start, with a large turnover of staff in the first year, and ongoing questions about their honesty, fitness, and value for money. However, once the public realised that the ‘bluebottles’ were here to stay they began to garner some grudging respect.

That respect was probably not extended to those of the so-called ‘criminal class’ who found themselves the main subject of the New Police’s attention. The men of the Met patrolled the city’s streets day and night, reassuring the public and preventing crime by their presence. Of course they couldn’t be everywhere at once and subtle thieves would always find a way to make a living. However, the police were soon able to be build up a picture of crime and its perpetrators which, when combined with later innovations – such as a list of recently released prisoners – made it harder for those ‘known to the police’ to get away with it.

Catherine Kelly was well known it seems. Using the alias ‘Margaret’ or ‘Mary’ Kelly, she had been arrested on many occasions for picking pockets. Her preferred targets were travelers on the omnibus. This allowed the smartly dressed thief to get close to her unsuspecting victims and her dexterity enabled her to filch items of value without them noticing. Kelly often worked the ‘buses with a partner; working in pairs was an effective ploy because you could pass the stolen goods to your mate meaning that if you were spotted she might get away, and when if the police searched you they would find nothing at all. It is still the way pickpockets operate in London today.

In January 1864 Catherine was arrested for picking pockets with her friend Sarah Williams while the pair were out in Regent’s Street. They had been noticed by an alert policeman, sergeant Charles Cole of C Division. He had seen them the day before on an omnibus and now watched them as they approached passers-by in Argyle Place. Kelly had tried to pick the pocket of a lady but had vanished into the crowd before the officer could catch her. Soon afterwards he found the pair again, mingling with the crowds and noticed that Kelly had her hand close to a woman’s side. He moved in and grabbed her, called for help and took Williams in as well.

The women knew the sergeant as well. ‘For God’s sake don’t take me Mr. Cole’ Kelly supposedly pleaded with him. They were both taken before Mr Tyrwhitt at Marlborough Street Police court to be examined where they offered little more than a flat denial of their alleged crimes. Sergeant Cole was keen to stress that these were known offenders. He said he’d brought Kelly in before but her victim, a lady in an omnibus, did not come to court to give evidence and so Kelly had been discharged. Her previous companion was currently serving six months in gaol for picking pockets on the ‘buses. He added that Kelly had taunted him previously, saying she ‘could earn as much in a minute as he could in a week’.

That was probably true and helps explain why women like Catherine chose crime over badly paid manual work like sewing, shop work, or domestic service. So long as you accepted that you might spend some time in prison the rewards of crime were considerably higher than the day-to-day drudgery of working-class lives in Victorian England. Arrest was an ‘occupational hazard’ (as ‘Norman Stanley Fletcher’ would surely attest).

The magistrate had nothing but circumstantial evidence to go on at this stage. One of the women was in possession of a small bag of money which the sergeant was convinced had been lifted from a passenger. Without proof that Kelly or Williams had been seen stealing it or a victim appearing to claim it there was little Mr Tyrwhitt could do at this stage beyond remanding the pair for further enquiries. It was noted that Kelly was the ‘companion of a notorious thief named Bryant’ so I expect he was keen to find something to ‘do her’ for but for the time being the women would be locked up while sergeant Cole tried to find some solid evidence against them.

Just as in the case of Jones and Johnson yesterday (two pickpockets arrested while working the crowd waiting for an execution) the evidence against Kelly and Williams was thin. If no victim came forward and nothing else emerged then sergeant Cole would have to hope that next time Kelly slipped up. Until then it was likely that both women were discharged, to take their chances once again.

Picking pockets on London’s omnibuses was risky but passengers were preoccupied and easily distracted, something modern thieves are well aware of. Keep ‘em peeled folks!

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

An unlucky thief is caught as the nation buries the hero of Waterloo

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The morning after the Duke of Wellington’s funeral was a busy time for the Guildhall Police court. By all accounts the funeral was a extraordinary affair, snaking its way through the City streets and drawing huge crowds. Whether we see Wellington as the hero of Waterloo or a deeply conservative and out of touch politician no one can deny his impact on the nineteenth century. He may not have been widely loved but he was respected, and the state gave him the biggest send off since Nelson’s.

As a consequence of the procession that accompanied the ‘Iron Duke’s cortege to St Paul’s Cathedral the court had been closed for the day so the cells had filled up with overnight charges for the aldermen to deal with later.

When the court reopened on the Friday morning Sir John Key had over 30 night charges plus the usual flow of men, women and juveniles brought in by the police and private prosecutors during the day.

Of the 30 or so night charges the magistrate sent eight of them to prison (for picking pockets or assaulting police officers), and fined others for drunkenness and damaging property. This was pretty standard fare for those swept up by the police during the small hours.

Sir John remanded Alfred Povah for further examination after he was accused of stealing clothes to the value of £3 from the Inns of Court in Holborn. When the police had searched Porch they had found a set of skeleton keys on his person, suggesting he was a ‘professional’ thief.

Povah had been spotted heading up the stairs to Mr Rotch’s chambers in Furnivall Inn by one of the clerks. He called the firm’s beadle who nabbed the thief and handed him over to the police. PC McMath (77 City) undertook the search and later told an Old Bailey court that the keys were known as ‘Bramah keys’ and were considered to be ‘more dangerous’ by the police, suggesting perhaps that they were more effective at opening locked doors.

The thief’s professionalism marked him out as a member of the ‘criminal class’ within which the burglar was considered to be the arch enemy of respectable society. The burglar had replaced the highwayman as the symbol of serious crime as the Victorians increasingly saw their homes as sacred places.

Moreover Povah had a criminal record, having appeared at the Bailey two year’s previously for a similar crime. He was just 18 at the time and the judge sent him away for three months, the leniency shown perhaps prompted by his full confession in court. This time the Common Sergeant was not so generous and ordered that Alfred, not yet 20, be transported to Australia for seven years.

He never went however, by that time the colony was resisting the continued import of Britain’s unwanted felons. Instead Alfred served three years in an English prison before being released, on 22 November 1855, at the age of  22.

Had Alfred been 19 in 1815 he might have had the chance to be a hero like the thousands of men and boys that served under the Duke at Waterloo. When they returned to England having helped defeat Napoleon they received little or no help from an indifferent state. Wellington by contrast was feted as a war hero, the savior of Europe, and (a rich man already) was granted a reward of £200,000 (possibly £11m today).

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, November 20, 1852]

The shoeblack who only wanted a chance to ‘go straight’.

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The Victorians believed that criminality was endemic in the working classes and that some offenders were beyond help. This informed a debate about the existence of a ‘criminal class’, reviewed and given impetus by the writings of Henry Mayhew at mid century. Just as there were those that ‘would not work’ there were those that lived by theft and violence. This depiction of crime had important consequences for those caught up in the justice system because by the 1870s the authorities had pretty much abandoned all attempts at rehabilitating prisoners and instead imposed ever more strict forms of discipline and penalties for breaking the rules.

The harsh nature of the penal system didn’t end when you left gaol. Under the terms of the Prevention of Crimes Act (1871) any prisoner released early on a ticket-of-leave could be arrested and presented before a magistrate on the mere suspicion (by the police) that they had done something wrong. Moreover, registers of habitual offenders were now kept which recorded previously untold details of thousands of individuals convicted of all manner of offenders by the Victorian state. Now then, a criminal record could dog your footsteps forever.

Not surprisingly this made it very hard for former convicts, like Thomas Briggs, to go straight. By March 1875 Briggs already had a  prison record. He’d served at least one term of penal servitude and had been up before the local Police magistracy on a number of occasions.

On Saturday 20 March 1875 he was there again, this time in Mr Hannay’s court at Worship Street in Shoreditch.

Briggs was an unlicensed shoeblack who  plied his trade on the streets. The 35 year-old was well known to the local police and it seems they were in no mind to let him live out an easy life. PC 250N was patrolling his beat near Shoreditch church at seven in the evening when he saw Briggs standing by his box looking for trade. According to the policeman the ‘black and his box were blocking the passage and he asked him to move along.

The real problem here was that Thomas didn’t have a license to clean shoes in the street and this was because the police refused to give him one. Every time they saw him on the street they move him on or confiscated his box, taking away his livelihood. Thomas then had to collect this from the police station , reinforcing his relationship with the law and reminding everyone of his criminal history. According to Briggs this happened ‘four or five times a week’.

On this occasion Thomas lost control of the situation and refused to move. When the PC insisted the shoeblack climbed the nearest lamp post and yelled abuse down at the copper below. He accused the local police of persecuting him; they knew he’d only bene out of prison for a few weeks and ‘pitched on’ him at every opportunity making it impossible for him ‘to earn an honest living’.

In court the constable told the magistrate that Briggs was ‘obstinate’, obstructive and abusive. He ‘collected a crowd about him, told the people his history to enlist their sympathies, and then said they should see him righted’.

Not surprisingly Mr Hannay took the police’s side in this. Briggs would have to confine himself to cleaning shoes only in places where the police allowed him to (presumably licensed ‘backs had more liberty of choice?). The magistrate told him he would be dismissed without further charge today but warned him that future transgressions would fall heavily upon him. He advised the policeman to bring him in as often as was necessary for the former convict to learn that rules were there to be obeyed.

Naturally we can’t know whether Thomas Briggs was an honest man caught up in an impossible system. He may have been a petty criminal who preferred an ‘easy’ way of life. However, his extreme reaction to being moved on again suggests that he might have had some mental health issues which would hardly have been identified as such in the 1870s as they would be today.

Nor would he have had any support on leaving prison; no probation officer or social services, or any form of state benefit. Recidivism remains a serious problem today when there are many more options open to those caught up in the criminal justice system – if Thomas Briggs managed to ‘go straight’ and stay out of gaol for the rest of his life then he would have been a quite remarkable individual.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, March 21, 1875]