Another habitual criminal rightly punished, or a missed opportunity to make a difference?

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Following a spate of street robberies (or muggings) in London and elsewhere in the 1860s, colloquially known as the ‘garroting panic’, parliament passed a series of loosely connected laws that aimed to clamp down on criminal offending. This was a kneejerk reaction to a press conceived ‘moral panic’ and – as is so often the case – it would have a lasting impact on those caught by it.

One of those was Thomas Sims who, in April 1883, was working as a bricklayer in East London. Sims was trying to ‘go straight’ having previously been convicted of a crime that had earned him a sentence of seven years in prison.

Thomas had been released  on a ticket of leave (the nineteenth century’s equivalent of parole) some time around the beginning of 1882 and had been duly reporting himself to the Bethnal Green police station as was required under the terms of the Habitual Criminals Act (1869).

This legislation meant that anyone released on license would have to report the police once a month for the duration of their sentence and often afterwards for up to seven years. Offenders were recorded on a register and the police checked that they were ‘behaving’ themselves. At any time they could be brought before a magistrate if the police felt they were complying with the terms of their parole or were engaging in disreputable behavior.

Quite obviously this made it very difficult for men like Thomas Sims to escape the taint of prison and reintegrate into an honest life. He certainly thought so and in December 1882 he moved to Spitalfields and told the Bethnal Green station of his plans. The sergeant explained that he would now need to report in to the Commercial Street station but only did so once, on Boxing Day 1882.

He was picked up by police and gave them a false address. Detective sergeant Rolfe (K Division) brought Sims before Mr Hannay at Worship Street and said that, when asked, the prisoner had failed to produce his license. The magistrate asked him why he’d stopped reporting in and Sims told him that:

‘he would not go on reporting himself as everybody then knew that he had been convicted’, adding that he would rather back inside.

Hannay told him the act, ‘however stringent, was a very necessary one and require dot be enforced’. As Sims still had six months left of his sentence the justice sent him to prison for a year at hard labour, that 12 months to include the six he had outstanding.

Thomas Sims thanked him and was taken away to renew his acquaintance with a prison cell. Having stayed out of obvious trouble for over a year, and having held down a job as well, this prisoner was now back inside, a burden to the state.

There was worse to come. Following Sims’ release he went back to his offending pattern and was prosecuted in October 1884 for stealing money and a gold watch and chain, he was listed as 30 years of age. He got another 12 months in Cold Bath Fields prison. His conviction cited his previous ones, – the 12 months from Mr Hannay and the original seven years (with 3 years supervision) from Northallerton Quarter Sessions in October 1876, for stealing a gold watch and chain.

Another Thomas Sims (aged 42) was tried and convicted at the Old Bailey in September 1894 for robbery with violence. Again, as in both his other listed larcenies, the stolen item was a gold watch and chain – he got five more years. Is this the same Thomas Sims? It is possible as ages can vary in the registers, and the crimes are quite similar. If it was Thomas then he didn’t live much longer, dying in 1903 aged just 51.

What a sad life and what a missed opportunity in 1883 to let a man ‘go straight’.

[from The Standard Monday, 23 April 1883]

A ‘John Major’ in court: The Bermondsey Fortune Telling Case of 1880

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I do enjoy it when historical research throws up well-known modern names in unconnected situations. The ‘John Major’ who is the subject of this story has probably no connection whatsoever to the former Conservative Prime Minister, but who knows? After all ‘our’ John Major was born in Surrey (in 1943) to relatively humble parents (one of which had been a music hall performer).

The John Major who found himself before the magistrate at Southwark Police court in 1880 hailed from Ambrose Street, Bermondsey, on the Surrey side of the Thames. He was a 36 year-old print seller but in early April 1880 he was charged with fraud.

In fact he was accused of ‘obtaining sums of money from various persons in different parts of the country, by pretending to tell their fortunes’. John Major then, was a fortune teller and it seems he styled himself,

‘Methveston, the Great Seer, Philosopher and Astrologer’

And he promised to:

‘reveal your future complete, with fate and marriage, family, friends, etc.; what part to travel or voyage to, and other particulars to buyers of three prints, [price] 31 stamps’.

In addition Major advertised ‘Talismanic charms’ at 17 stamps, ‘Direction for making a red magnetic present, causing the visit of lovers’ for 31 stamps.

It was quite a comprehensive service Major was offering and one suspects that there were plenty of people gullible enough to believe that a love charm or a promise of a fortune being told was worth sending the print seller a parcel of postage stamps for (today’s equivalent of using PayPal one presumes).

Sadly, it seems that when Major’s claims failed to materialize some of those dupes by his advertisements complained, and some went directly to Scotland Yard. Since he’d included his address on his adverts (48 Ambrose Street) it wasn’t hard to track him down, and the detective division launched an investiagtion.

A genuine seer might have foretold the involvement of the police and have taken suitable action but a charlatan like John Major was no Nostradamus. Inspector Fox duly investigated, and set a trap. Sergeant Wells (M Division) sent Methveston 31 stamps and received ‘three worthless prints of his “Nativity”, all of which were false and complete rubbish’.

The police arrived at Ambrose Street and searched his rooms. They found ‘nearly a cartload’ of  “Books of Futurity” and evidence that he’d spent almost £30 buying advertising space in regional newspapers.

Major was represented by a lawyer in court, a Mr Ody, who said his client ‘was no fraud’ and only sold prints. Mr Bridge, the sitting magistrate, was advised by the police that they had identified a number of witnesses and would like time to bring them to London. The magistrate granted them four days to do so and remanded Major in custody till then.

It must have taken the police longer than this and so Major was remanded on more than one occasion, but on 24 April he was back in court to face his accusers.  There more details emerged as to the material he was selling, and what the ‘complete rubbish’ was that sergeant Wells had received for his 31 stamps.

This was in fact:

‘a letter containing three pictures, telling him he would get married to a rich woman, and lead a happy life’ as well as ‘other matters concerning love, etc.’

In total Inspector Fox and the sergeant removed all sorts of ‘circulars, books, and papers’ from Ambrose Street, which they brought to court. These included papers ‘inscribed with texts form the Bible, 9,000 handbills, postcards, and letters addressed to various people in the country’, ‘a large number of stamps;’, and ‘fortune-telling books’.

A police inspector from Northampton – Thomas Swain – appeared in court to testify to knowing the man as a convicted rogue and vagabond at Daventry in 1870, where the magistrate there had given him a month at hard labour. He had also attended the Old Bailey in October 1877 to see Major sent away for 18 months for obtaining money by false presences. This was enough evidence for Mr Slade (who was on the rota instead of Mr Bridge that week). He committed Major to take his trial at the Surrey Quarter Sessions as a rogue and vagabond.

[from Lloyd’s Illustrated Newspaper, Saturday 4 April 1880; Lloyd’s Illustrated Newspaper, Friday 24 April 1880]

NB: I’m not doubting Inspector Swain’s testimony but I can find no John Major appearing at the Old Bailey in 1877 (or indeed any year) for fraud. In fact no one in the October sessions for 1877 comes close to Major in terms of his MO. However it may be that his trial record was not printed and so has not survived, or that Swain was talking about the Middlesex Sessions of the Peace, not the Central Criminal court. I don’t have access (not from home anyway) to the Surrey sessions so I cannot (in lockdown) find out what happened to Major hereafter. I suspect however, that if convicted (as seems likely) he would have served another couple of years at most for his offending.

 

 

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.

One young man’s attempt to escape the horrors of Norfolk Island and exile to Australia

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In late January 1852 a man calling himself George Parker was placed in the dock at Lambeth Police court charged with returning from transportation. George (not his real name it seems) had a colourful story to tell and one that gives us a glimpse into the realities of convict transportation to Australia in the 1840s and 50s, and one that involved one of the most famous detectives of the nineteenth century.

Whilst some convicts did return from exile in Australia at the end of their sentences it was extremely rare for anyone to escape from the colony. After all, as the historian Robert Hughes wrote, from 1787 onwards:

An unexplored continent would become a jail. The space around it, the very air and sea, the whole transparent labyrinth of the South Pacific, would become a wall 14,000 miles thick’.1

Australia was a penal colony for much of the period between 1788 (when the First Fleet arrived) and 1868 when the convict system ended. It made the perfect prison: thousands of miles and more than half a year’s sailing away, sparsely populated and largely uncultivated, and surrounded by dangerous seas. If you could escape the military and civil guards where would you go? Into the bush to die of starvation or be killed by aborigines or the wildlife? Or into the sea to take your chances with the sharks and treacherous currents?

It wasn’t much of choice and so hardly anybody attempted it.

However, it seems that George Parker did, and survived to tell the tale.

He was brought to court at the behest of Sergeant Jonathan Witcher ‘of the detective force’ at the Metropolitan Police. Jonathan – better known as ‘Jack’ – Witcher is famous as one of London’s first members of the Detective Branch that was founded by Scotland Yard in 1842.

In 1851 Witcher (pictured below right) had courted controversy when he and another officer had been accused of entrapment when they caught two bank robbers red handed in St James’ Square. Witcher and Inspector Lund had been watching John Tyler (himself a returnee from transportation) and William Cauty case the London and Westminster Bank and drew criticism because they allowed them to carry out the raid on the bank rather than preventing it.

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Witcher had a stellar career as a detective and his investigation and arrest of Constance Kent for the murder of her 3 year-old half brother Francis, was later immortalised by Kate Summerscale in her 2008 book The Suspicions of Mr. Witcher which was dramatised for television.

In 1852 Witcher was on the hunt for an escaped convict named James Punt Borritt and had teamed up Inspector Shaw of P Division. Acting on information received Witcher and Shaw took up positions on the Blackfriars Road. At midday they spotted their quarry and moved in to arrest him. Borritt (who was using the name Parker) was taken to a station house where he denied being the man they wanted.

He could deny it all he liked but Witcher found marks on his person that corresponded with those in his prison record: ‘namely a scar under his left ear, and an anchor [tattoo] on the right arm’. He was charged about brought before Mr Norton at Lambeth.

There the magistrate was addressed by Inspector Shaw who testified that he had arrested Borritt for a burglary and robbery in the Ratcliffe Highway in June 1839. He’d been convicted at the Old Bailey and received a sentence of 15 years’ transportation.  Somehow Barrett had escaped and in 1844 Shaw had been summoned to Liverpool to identify him. Tried for returning from transportation before his sentence was up, Barrett’s penalty was increased to exile for life.

Now Inspector Shaw explained that the man had escaped again and returned to England after being sent to Norfolk Island, a penal colony where the ‘worst description of convicts’ were sent between 1824 and 1856.   In a story with echoes of Hugo’s Les Miserables Borritt, (a sailor by trade) had been dispatched with a small crew of others to help rescue a ship in distress in the seas off the island. According to Inspector Shaw’s evidence:

‘The boat and the crew disappeared, and none of the latter, with the exception of the prisoner and another desperate fellow named Sullivan, had afterwards been heard of, and there were strong reasons to suspect that the prisoner and Sullivan had despatched their comrades and by this means effected their own escape’.  

Mr Norton granted the police request to remand Borritt in custody while they sought witnesses to testify against him.

The record of Borritt’s trial in July 1839, where he was accused alongside three others for burgling a premises in Shadwell and stealing a large quantity of clothes, is in the Digital Panopticon database. Borritt was 25 and arrived in New South Wales on 27 April 1840, five months after leaving England on the convict ship the Mangles.

A further record, from 1852, records his second trial at the Bailey for returning from transportation before his time. He pleaded guilty and was sent back to Australia to finish his sentence. After he was sent back from Liverpool on the Hyderbad in 1844 the authorities chose to send him to Norfolk Island for two years but this record suggests he was back in VDL when he escaped again. Shaw’s story might be true or it could have been an invention to impress on the magistrate the need to keep him custody as a dangerous criminal. This source suggests he stowed away on a merchant ship, a much less colorful tale than the one told to the Lambeth magistrate by Inspector Shaw.

Whatever the case it was end of Borritt’s attempt to escape the fate the English justice system had handed him. He made a plea for mercy at his trial in which James admits the charge of returning from transportation but says he has already paid for his crimes several times over. It also reveals how he escaped.

‘The condition of a convict at a penal station is too horrible to be voluntarily endured’ he wrote to the Common Sergeant in his petition for mercy. He goes on to explain why he turned to crime in the first place as a teenager in desperate poverty.

he went on, (in a petition that was published the Juvenile Companion as a cautionary tale for its young readership) to say:

Dire necessity, created by a want of employment, once goaded me to the commission of an offence against the laws of property, but it was not aggravated by personal injury or cruelty. For that offence, I was sentenced to fifteen years’ transportation. I was conveyed to the most penal settlement, Norfolk Island, which, from the horrible personal sufferings to which all prisoners there are exposed, is commonly designated the “Ocean Hell”.

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Here, my lord, I endured almost incredible misery for eighteen months. At the end of that period I and eight other convicts effected our escape in an open boat. For eight days and nights we were beaten about at sea without chart or compass, with death from exhaustion and shipwreck staring us in the face’.

They made land at the Caledonian Islands (or New Caledonia, now owned by the French) about 750 miles east of Australia.  There he says they were set upon by ‘savages’, stripped and locked. They escaped again and made it to Star Island in the New Hebrides where, after resting for seven months they came back to England, only to be arrested and sent back to Norfolk Island.

His second escape was from Van Dieman’s Land (modern Tasmania) as a stowaway in a merchant ship.

In that situation I was concealed sixteen days, in the most miserable plight, being almost dead from suffocation and want of food’.

He clearly felt he’d paid his dues for the robbery on the Ratcliffe Highway. Unfortunately for him the judge thought otherwise.

[from Lloyd’s Illustrated Newspaper, 25 January 1852]

  1. Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore: A History of the Transportation of Convicts to Australia, 1787-1868, (London, Harvill Press, 1987), p.1

A fresh start for one young girl with an ‘indifferent character’.

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Yesterday’s blog was about youthful delinquency in 1840s Whitechapel. Today’s concerns more youthful criminals, this time in the West End of London twenty years later.

A crowd of shoppers were peering through the windows of the London Stereoscopic Company in Regent Street, looking at the display of photographs within. As their attention was held by the still relatively new mystery of photography two young thieves were hard at work behind them. John Thompson (16) and his sidekick Catherine Hayes (12) were busy ‘dipping’ pockets to see what valuables they could steal.

Unfortunately for the pair they were also being observed; PC Tiernan (C162) was on duty and had spotted them. As he knew Thompson he arrested him and escorted him to the nearby police station, on his return he saw Hayes put her hand in a lady’s pocket and quickly apprehended her too.

The lady was not inclined to prosecute as he had no desire to be seen at such a common place as a police station house, but she did tell the officer that her purse  contained seven sovereigns, so Catherine’s intent was proven.

The two would-be felons were brought before Mr Knox at Marlborough Street Police court where they were accused of attempting to pick pockets. Detective Cannor of C Division testified to knowing Thomson ‘for some time’. The lad had previously been convicted of shoplifting and, since his arrest for this crime, had been identified as wanted for the theft of a gold watch valued at £15.

PC Tiernan had looked into the character of Catherine Hayes and found that it was ‘very indifferent’. She had been expelled from school on more than one occasion, for being suspected of stealing property that had gone missing.

The nineteenth-century justice system had made some limited progress in the treatment of juvenile likes these two. Magistrates had the powers to deal with them summarily for most offences, saving them from a jury trial and more serious punishment. But it still operated as a punitive rather than a welfare based system.

Mr Knox sent Thompson to gaol for three months as a ‘rogue and vagabond’. This was a useful ‘catch all’ that meant that no offence of stealing actually had to be proven against him; merely being on the street as a ‘known person’ without being able to give a good account of himself, was enough to allow the law to punish him.

As for Catherine the law now had a supportive alternative to prison or transportation (which she may have faced in the 1700s). Catherine Hayes would go to Mill Hill Industrial School until she was 16 years of age. There she would learn useful skills such as needlework and laundry, things that might help her secure a job when she got out. It would be taught with a heavy helping of discipline and morality, in the hope that this might correct and improve her ‘indifferent’ character.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, October 21, 1876]

A specialist thief on the Great Northern Railway

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King’s Cross station, c.1862

When, in October 1868, a customer reported losing several of his possessions on a train the Great Northern Railway company called in their own in-house detective team. In 1868 this meant that William Thorogood was immediately set on the trail of the thief.

It didn’t take the private detective long to spot a young man strolling quickly across the platform at King’s Cross. The man was sporting a ‘portmanteau, rug, umbrella and [walking] stick’, all matching the description given by Mr William Kingsworth, the traveler that had complained he had fallen victim to a robbery.

The detective quickly moved to fall in step behind the thief and watched as he hailed a cab. As the young man entered the hansom in St Pancras Road, Thorogood clambered in beside him. The man was ‘fashionably dressed’, not obviously then, a thief,  and he gave  name as Robert Johnson. When challenged he emphatically denied stealing anything and asked how Thorogood could possibly prove that he had.

The detective took his prisoner back to the station superintendent’s office where Mr Kingsworth positively identified his property. In court at Clerkenwell the passenger said he’d never seen Johnson before that day and had missed his items after he’d left then briefly on his seat. Johnson denied everything, refused to give his address, and cried throughout the entire hearing. Mr Clarke remanded him for a week and he was led away to the cells.

Johnson was tried at the Bailey on the 26 October 1868. He pleaded guilty to stealing Mr Kingsworth’s property and asked for several other offences to be dealt with at the same time. He seemed to specialise in stealing portmanteaus (briefcases) from railway trains. The judge sent him to prison for 18 months.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, October 17, 1868]

A cross-dressing copper and the Whitechapel murderer?

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The ‘From Hell or ‘Lusk’ letter 

In mid October 1888 the London, national and even the world’s press were full of the news of the Whitechapel murders. It was the sensation story of its day and has remained one of the most discussed crime news stories of all time.

On the evening of the 16 October George Lusk, a builder and head of the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee, received a disturbing parcel in the post. The parcel contained a badly written letter and a piece of human kidney. The so-called ‘From Hell’ or ‘Lusk’ letter has been the subject of fierce speculation amongst those interested in the case. It was not signed ‘Jack the Ripper’ and the portion of kidney gave it extra credence, since it was commonly known that the killer had removed one of Kate Eddowes in Mitre Square.

Ultimately we can’t be sure if the ‘From Hell’ letter, or any of the communications received by the press and police, were from the murderer or the work of attention seekers and cranks. They all, however, demonstrate just how much public interest there was in the Ripper case.

The police hunt for the killer was at its apogee in October and may have contributed to the fact that there was a lull in murders that lasted just over a month. The police were out in force and watching anyone they suspected might be involved. Evidence of this can found in all sorts of places including this report of proceedings in the Clerkenwell Police court.

James Phillips and William Jarvis, two cab washers, were brought before Mr Bros charged with a serious assault on a police detective. The court heard that on the 9 October detective sergeant Robinson was on duty in Phoenix Place. DS Robinson was in disguise, dressed in women’s clothing so he could watch ‘a man supposed to be the Whitechapel murderer’.

According to the report Jarvis attacked him, throwing him to the ground and stabbing him before Phillips rushed in and started kicking him. A man named Doncaster came to assist the policeman and he was also wounded. Eventually the pair were arrested and charged.  Mr Bros committed the men for trial, accepting £20 each in bail. Jarvis was tried at the Middlesex quarter sessions where he was convicted and sent to Pentonville prison for six weeks.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, October 17, 1888]