The young lady that placed her faith in a fortune teller, and got thumped for her pains

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Mrs Maria Grace was taking tea at home in Rotherhithe in May 1845 when there was a caller at the door. She opened the door and admitted a fashionably dressed pretty young woman.  It all seemed very normal until the visitor stepped forward, seized a cup of tea from the table and threw it in Maria’s face!

This assault was followed by more violence as the young woman attacked, scratching Maria’s face and then stuck her baby (who was sat in her lap) causing its mouth to bleed.  Then, without any explanation the girl departed leaving the chaos she had caused behind her.

Some days later Maria and the mysterious visitor appeared before Mr Grove, the sitting magistrate at Greenwich Police court. Mr Evans conducted the prosecution case and Mr May represented the defendant whose named was Mrs Headlewick. Mr May cross-examined Maria and soon discovered that some time ago she had lost a valuable gold ring and had taken an unusual course of action to retrieve it. Maria told the solicitor that she had paid 2sto a fortuneteller to ascertain its whereabouts. This had revealed (if that the teller was to be believed) that:

‘the person who had taken the ring was a fair young woman, who was now gone into the country either by steam-boat or railway, and would remain away some time’.

While this might apply to quite a lot of people (as is often the case with fortune telling) Maria was sure that this applied to the person that had visited her. She explained that she was convinced that her assailant had not only taken her jewelry but had stolen from her own aunt, and she made a point of telling the young woman’s relatives this.

The court heard that for the last three months Mrs Headlewick had indeed been away, in Burton-upon-Trent, and it was only when she returned with her husband to London that she got wind of Maria’s accusation that she was a thief. So now the assault makes sense. Mrs Headlewick was angry that Maria was defaming her to her family and had gone round to confront her.

The magistrate was clear that an assault had occurred even if there had been  understandable provocation. However the more serious crime of robbery was harder to resolve. He told Mrs Headlewick that she would have to pay a fine of 5or go to prison. Given that both ladies were able to hire lawyers to represent them there was never any danger that the defendant was going inside for the assault. The fine was paid and the two women left court but neither were satisfied with the outcome. The fine was paltry and the accusation of theft was left unresolved.

For me it is a reminder that in the mid Victorian age people were prepared to place their trust in charlatans who promised to tell their future and solve mysteries in the present. Then again, do we actually live in a much more enlightened time ourselves?

[from Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper, Sunday, May 25, 1845]

If you enjoy this blog series you might be interested in Drew’s jointly authored study of the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders which is published by Amberley Books on 15 June this year. You can find details here:

A ‘notorious’ thief’s cross-examination skills backfire at the Guildhall

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Sir Robert Carden by ‘Spy’ (aka Leslie Ward) (Vanity Fair, December 1880)

In yesterday’s post I was able to show that a policeman who stayed in court (when all witnesses had been asked to leave) effectively undermined his own evidence and allowed a magistrate to exercise his discretion in a case he clearly felt slightly uncomfortable about. The newspaper reports of the London Police Courts, anecdotal as they undoubtedly are, can therefore be extremely useful to understanding how the summary process operated in the nineteenth-century capital.

This case, from the Guildhall Police Court in 1859, also reveals the nature of the hearing and, in particular, how the accused’s voice could be heard. In this instance the accused, a young man whom the papers certainly wanted to represent as a ‘bad character’, decided to act as his own defence counsel, cross examining the complainant in court.

As we will see, it probably wasn’t the wisest of strategies.

The complaint was brought by a ‘highly respectable young woman’ named Miss Martha Orange. The young lady in question was walking along Ludgate Street in the City at around 3 o’clock on Sunday afternoon when he realised that a young was at her side. He touched her on the shoulder and startled, she quickly crossed over the road to escape his attentions.

Very soon afterwards he was back and she realised she’d lost her purse. As she turned to confront him he ran off. Calling for others to help her catch him Miss Orange ran off after him. A few streets away he was captured by a policeman (PC Collins 337 City) in London House Yard and taken into custody. The lad had dumped the purse but it was found in the yard by a butcher’s son named Phillips Jeacocks, who handed it in.

The purse had contained quite a lot of money, which is why Miss Orange was aware it had been stolen from her. The prisoner, who gave his name as John Howard, now took it upon himself to challenge the woman’s testimony. In doing so he certainly asserted his rights but the nature of his line of questioning also suggests a familiarity with the legal system. I suspect that this familiarity exposed him as a ‘known’ offender, and he was later described as a member of a notorious local gang of thieves.

Howard started by asking the prosecutor if she had seen her purse in his hands. Miss Orange admitted that she hadn’t.

‘How do you know I took your purse?’ he enquired.

‘Because there was no one else near my pocket’ she replied.

He also cross-examined the butcher’s boy: ‘Will you swear I am the man?’ he demanded. ‘I am most sure you are’, said Phillip Jeacocks.

Having heard from the two principal witnesses the court now listened to the report of the police. Constable Haun (360 City police) declared that he was sure that the prisoner had previous convictions at Guildhall and Mansion House.

‘I was never at either place in my life’ Howard protested.

The arresting officer, PC Collins said he recognised him as someone who had escaped arrest after another man’s pocket had been picked. Now a Met policeman added that Howard belonged to a ‘notorious gang in Golden Lane’. Haun continued his evidence by telling the magistrate, Sir Robert Carden, that Howard had been imprisoned in Holloway and may well have been convicted at Old Bailey. Nowadays a prisoner’s previous convictions would not be revealed in court prior to conviction, but then again in the 1800s a person’s criminal record was not so easy to determine; these were the days before pretty nay kind of forensic science existed.

Unfortunately for Howard (if that was his name) even Sir Robert recognised him. Haun added that several of the lad’s ‘associates’ were in court that day, offering moral support to their chum. At this the magistrate warned the watching public to keep a close eye on their valuables, while he assured them he would make sure that Howard couldn’t pick any pockets for a couple of weeks at least.

This was because he intended to commit the lad for a jury trial where he might expect a severe custodial sentence. Howard twigged this and immediately put in a plea for justice to be served summarily: ‘I would rather you would deal with the case here sir’ he said.

Miss Orange had one last statement to make saying that at the police station Howard had admitted his crime and told her he was driven to it by his mother’s poverty and the need to look after her. He hoped she might forgive him and promised to mend his ways. His attempt to appeal to her good nature didn’t work but was overhead by PC Haun. Whether it was true or a lie he now denied it anyway, perhaps to avoid admitting guilt but maybe also to save face in front of his friends.

Sir Robert commended Miss Orange for the ‘coolness and courage’ she had displayed in apprehending and prosecuting the supposed thief. As for Howard, he turned to him and said: “I shall send you for trial, where you will have the opportunity of convincing a jury of your innocence’.

Howard did appear at the Old Bailey, on the 24 October 1859, indicted for stealing Miss Orange’s purse. Just as he had failed to undermine Miss Orange’s case at Guildhall Howard singularly failed to convince the jury of his innocence either. They found him guilty and when an officer from the Clerkenwell Sessions appeared to confirm that the prisoner had a previous conviction from August 1858 – for larceny for which he received a 12 months prison term) his goose was cooked. The judge at Old Bailey sent him into penal servitude for four years.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, September 27, 1859]