A ‘mad cat lady’ is ordered to make the ultimate sacrifice

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We are a nation of pet lovers and one supposes that this has ever been so. But this does not mean that everyone, everywhere, sees pets as a ‘good thing’. Moreover within almost every community I have lived in I can remember at least one ‘mad cat lady’, the sort of person who keeps a number of feline friends for company and is often (albeit gently) mocked for it. The case of Louisa Bragg brings both of these statements together and shows, once again, that the range of a magistrate’s work in the 1800s was quite wide.

In July 1889 Miss Bragg (she was described as an ‘elderly maiden lady’ so we must presume she was still a ‘miss’) was brought before Mr D’Eyncourt at Westminster Police court on a ‘peremptory summons’. The summons was issued by the court because Louisa had failed to comply with a previous ruling regarding her large collection of cats.

She lived at 65 Marsham Street, Westminster, in a house of multiple occupation. The other residents had complained about the old lady and her cats, saying that they were a source of disease and that several of them had died and were decaying in her rooms!

The case was presented by Mr Rogers, who prosecuted on behalf of the vestry, and he brought in the sanitary inspector to support his case. Thomas Dee testified ‘to the filthy conditions of the defendant’s room, where he saw seven cats on the table’. Sergeant Edwards, the court’s warrant officer, also reported on the state of things he’d seen when he served the summons on Miss Bragg.

The poor lady begged for leniency and to be allowed to keep her animals who she said were dear to her. She appeared in court armed with copies of acts of parliaments and attempted to defend herself, saying the law was wrong. The question was, she implored the magistrate, one of whether ‘a happy home should be broken up’.

Mr. D’Eyncourt dismissed this as mere sentiment and suggested she get rid of the cats and take a ‘nice little dog’ instead. Miss Bragg huffed at this suggestion and begged for more time so she could find a bigger room elsewhere. D’Eyncourt was in no mood to sympathize with her however, insisting that unless she cleared out the cats and cleaned up her room she would be levied with a fine of a £5 for refusing to obey the order of his court. Since she had already breached the first order he fined her a sovereign for good measure.

Clearly he was no cat lover and one imagines that Miss Bragg’s fellow tenants were heartily sick of having to share their dwelling with half a dozen or more flea ridden moggies. One only has to travel to southern Europe or to Cyprus to see what a society where stray or semi-feral cats are allowed to roam free looks like. Lovely as they are (and I am most certainly a cat lover) they bring an associated risk of disease if they are not controlled.

However, for Miss Bragg, an elderly lady living on her own and seemingly without any living relatives close by, her cats were her only companions and so while others might dismiss her as the ‘mad cat woman’ they were all the friends she had in the world and to ask her to get rid of them smacks of heartlessness.

[from The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, July 6, 1889]

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 (including the life of pet food salesman…).

The book is available on Amazon here

“Stab me you b——if you are a man, stab me, stab me”: Drink and domestic violence end in tragedy

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John Wicks and his wife had both been drinking on the 14 April. John was well known in the community as a drinker and for being violent when he was under the influence. His wife, Elizabeth, could also resort to violence when her temper flared. The couple lived in Kensal New Town in northwest London and Wicks earned his money as a chimney sweep.

When John came home on the 14than argument flared about money. He was drunk and Elizabeth had shared two or three pints with a friend, so she wasn’t sober either. Wicks complained that he had nothing and demanded she hand over the money she’d sewed into the pocket of her skirt. She refused and they came to blows.

Reports are mixed with conflicting evidence from Wicks, his mother-in-law, and other witnesses (domestic fights like this were quite often public affairs, given the crowded accommodation of late Victorian London). It is possible that in order to defend herself Elizabeth picked up the fender from the fire and threatened her husband with it. He pulled a knife and she threw the fender at him as he retreated out of the room. His wife then seized the next available weapon she could find, a large spoon, and came after him.

The pair ended up in the garden which was where George Abbott, a van boy who lived opposite, saw them. He’d been drawn to the quarrel by the noise, as had Henry Stacey (another neighbour) and both saw Elizabeth strike John with the spoon. Stacey later testified that Elizabeth was in a rage and was shouting: “stab me you b——if you are a man, stab me, stab me” at John. Soon afterwards the sweep aimed a blow at her neck and when his hand came away blood spurted from the wound.

John Wicks had stabbed his wife in the neck.

He was arrested and she was taken to hospital where despite the best efforts of the surgeons at St Mary’s, Paddington, she died 10 days later. ‘Inflammation of the throat’ had ‘set in the same night as she was stabbed, and she was unable to swallow anything except iced water’. She died as a result of ‘exhaustion caused through not taking food and inflammation of the lungs’. It must have been a terrible and extremely distressing way to die.

On 23 May after a number of appearances before him Mr D’Eyncourt formally committed John Wicks to take his trial for murder at the Central Criminal Court. He had pleaded not guilty and claimed that she must ‘have fallen against the knife’. He admitted he’d been drunk, and offered that in mitigation.

The police detective that interviewed Elizabeth in hospital confirmed the pattern of events as she described them but added that she had, at the last, described her husband as a gentle man when he was sober. ‘There is not a kinder man or a better husband’ she had insisted.

It is a familiar story for anyone who has looked at domestic violence in the past or worked with abuse survivors in the present. Women only went to the law when they had tried all other means to curb their partner’s violence. The courts fined or locked men up but little else was done to support the victims and in a society where women so often depended on men to survive there were few alternatives open to a wife than to take her man back again and hope for the best.

In court after the evidence of witnesses had been heard the house surgeon at St Mary’s testified. He described the wound and speculated on it cause. The court wanted to know if it could have caused by accident, as John had suggested. He doubted it was likely but admitted that it was possible: ‘it is unusual to get such a wound in that way, but it might be’ he observed.

That was enough for the all male jury. Despite the glaring evidence that John Wicks had killed his wife in a drunken rage while he was holding a sharpened knife in his hands, the jury acquitted him of all charges, manslaughter included. He walked free from the Old Bailey exonerated by men who clearly believed that he was provoked and that his incapacitation due to alcohol absolved him of the responsibility for his wife’s death.

Wicks died a few years later in 1884 at the relatively young age of 54. I like to think that the guilt he felt played a role in his death but it is more likely that he succumbed early to the ravages of alcoholism which had already consumed him in 1877 and must have got worse following this tragic sets of events.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, May 24, 1877]

This case is not untypical of many cases of domestic violence in the nineteenth century, not all of course ended in tragedy. For me though it is indicative of the prevailing attitudes towards women, attitudes which I believe directly fuelled the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders. My co-authored study of those murders is published by Amberley Books on 15 June this year. You can find details here:

‘You nearly killed this old woman’: ‘If not, I  ________ will soon!’ Jealousy and violence is fuelled by a night of heavy drinking

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Most of the domestic violence cases that I have written about over the last three years of this blog have involved men beating their wives. The majority of attackers were younger men or men in their 30s or 40s, their wives similarly, but today’s example is a man in his late 50s who brutally assaulted his elderly partner who was 63 years of age.

Timothy and Mary Reece had been married for 30 years, a considerable achievement in any age but perhaps especially in the harsh conditions of working-class life in Victorian London. They lived in the East End, in Edward Street, Hoxton and on a Saturday night in May 1854 that the attack happened.

PC Austin (224N) was alerted to the assault by the noise coming from a crowd of around 150 persons that had gathered outside the couple’s home. Shouts of ‘murder!’ had rang out and the constable forced his way through the throng to find Mary lying on her back in the passage of the house. Timothy was dragging her by the legs, intending to throw her into the street and – symbolically – out of his life. He stopped when he saw the policeman.

Mary was falling out of consciousness;

her tongue was protruding and quite black, and her mouth was full of blood. Her face also was black and much bruised, and it was some time before she recovered her senses, and she then complained of being injured in the ribs’.

PC Austin told Reece that he had ‘nearly killed this old woman’, to which he merely grumbled ‘If not, I  ________ will soon’.

Timothy Reece was arrested and his wife was taken to hospital to have her injuries assessed and treated. A few days later Reece was in court at Worship Street and his wife, still recovering and using a stick to support herself, was summoned to give evidence against him.

He said that the altercation was her fault, that she had misbehaved in some way. A neighbour, Elizabeth Guterfield, suggested that he was jealous of her and the landlord, something she found ridiculous. On the night in question both parties had been drunk she testified. Timothy had been pushing her along the street as they made their way back from drinking in Bishopsgate and his wife was swearing at him.

She wasn’t sure why or how the jealousy had arisen but she insisted that in her day Mary had been a beautiful woman. She went on to describe Mary’s ‘departed charms’ to the court while the court observed the victim in court who ‘certainly bore no present trace of them’.

Mary herself said she could remember very little of the events of Saturday night as she was out of her senses. Even in court she was under the influence. She did say she’d borne 15 children in her life, six of whom were still alive. According to Timothy the couple had had eight children so whether the other seven were from another relationship or he was simply unaware of them is impossible to say.

Mr D’Eyncourt sentenced Timothy Reece to three month’s hard labour and bound him over to keep the peace to his wife for six months on his release. It was a common enough punishment for a wife beater and evidently well deserved. Whether it would do any good however, is debatable. Mary had to be summoned to court, I doubt she wanted to press charges and her situation was not really helped by losing her husband for 12 weeks. I also doubt whether this was the first time he’d hit her, although perhaps it was the most serious of a number of smaller assaults.

Working class life in mid nineteenth-century London was hard, extremely hard. Grinding poverty was a fact of daily life there and it seems both of them self-medicated with alcohol to alleviate the pain of it. Both seemed older than they really were: the newspaper reporter thought Mary was over 70 and described Timothy Reece as ‘elderly’. She was 63 and he was several years younger, so perhaps my age. Alcohol and poverty had taken its toll on both of them, physically and emotionally, and they had little hope of any improvement as they headed towards their dotage. There were no old age pensions to collect (those arrived in 1908, too late for Timothy and Mary) and little support outside the hated workhouse. Cheap drink – gin and beer – was their only comfort but alcohol (as we all know) fuels jealousy and violence and domestic violence in particular.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, May 18, 1854]

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:

Three bad apples are locked away at Clerkenwell

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There had been a spate of burglaries in February 1861 in the Clerkenwell area and the police were on heightened alert. Burglary was the quintessential Victorian crime and burglars the apogee of the ‘criminal class’. Newspapers often reported burglaries and carried adverts for anti-burglar alarms and devices; towards the end of the century there was a notable growth in the insurance business to offset the losses from home thefts.  In short then, burglary and burglars were a menace and this put pressure on police chiefs to make arrests and reassure the public that their properties were safe.

Police sergeant Robinson (4E) and PC Blissett (106E) had dispensed with their uniforms and adopted ‘plain clothes’ to keep watch for any unusual activity on the street near Mecklenberg Square (where a number of incidents had been reported). They were keeping watch on Doughty Street at about 8 in the evening when they saw three men ‘loitering about in a very suspicious manner’.

As they watched the officers saw one of the men trying doors on the street, to see if any would open. The other men were ‘piping’ (cant for keeping watch) and when they clocked the policemen they made a run for it. The bobbies followed and quickly overtook them, and attempted to make an arrest.

Unfortunately for sergeant Robinson and PC Blissett the trio decided not to come quietly but instead attacked them. One of the men broke away and threw something into the gutter, another tried to get rid of set of skeleton keys but the sergeant recovered them. The policemen struggled with their prisoners and called for help that soon arrived. Finally the would-be burglars were safely locked up in the station house.

Sergeant Robinson returned to the scene and recovered a chisel that one of the gang had discarded and this was matched to marks made on doors in nearby John Street. The chisel was presumably there to enable them to force locks open if they couldn’t gain access without doing so.

The men were stood in the dock at Clerkenwell Police court before Mr D’Eyncourt. They gave their names as William Green, James Higgins and William Smith. They were all well known to the police who clearly suspected them of being the men responsible for the mini crime wave in the district but on this occasion they hadn’t actually broken into anywhere. There was some strong circumstantial evidence however. A local man, named Abrahams, explained that his property had been burgled and the culprits had gained using a set of skeleton keys.

Mr Abrahams said thieves had broken into his house on Bedford Row and had stolen property valued at £50 from him. ‘What made the matter worse’, he continued, was that ‘his servant’s savings, amounting to over £11, besides some of her clothing, were stolen’. This wasn’t simply stealing from those that could afford it, it was the plunder of the life savings of some poor domestic, someone everyone in the court (and reading the report) could empathize with.

The three men denied doing anything wrong, yes, they said, they had picked up the keys (but innocently, without intent to use them) and as for the chisel ‘they knew nothing of it, nor did they wish to’. This drew a laugh or two from the court which was probably quickly stifled by the magistrate.

Mr D’Eyncourt told them that had they managed to break into a house that evening he would have had no hesitation in committing them for trial at the Old Bailey where, if convicted, they might have face several years of penal servitude. As it was they were lucky that he could only punish them for the attempt and the assault on the policemen that had arrested them. They would all go to gaol for three months with hard labour.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, February 15, 1861]

The pillar box thief comes unstuck

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Today I am going to begin a week of posts all drawn from the equivalent week in 1884 (when the calendar matched with ours). For some context in 1884 Great Britain’s empire was at its height, Queen Victoria (who had been Empress of India since 1876) was in the 47th year of her reign. Her husband had died in December 1861, she had survived an assassination attempted two years earlier, then a bad fall at Windsor Castle which prevented her from walking properly for several months. This was compounded by the death of her servant John Brown, whom she mourned quite publicly, stoking rumours that the pair had been having an affair.

In politics Gladstone was in power, the second and longest of his four ministries. Disraeli (Victoria’s favourite) was dead and so the opposition was led by the future Tory PM Lord Salisbury. Socialism was becoming a force to be reckoned with on the European continent and in London on the 4 January 1884 the Fabian Society was founded with its particular brand of gentle democratic socialism. It attracted some of the leading thinkers and writers of the day, including George Bernard Shaw,  H. G. Wells, Annie Besant, Emmeline Pankhurst and Sidney and Beatrice Webb. The future Labour Party PM Ramsey MacDonald was also an early convert.

In January 1884 Gilbert and Sullivan’s eight comic opera, Princess Ida, opened at the Savoy Theatre in London’s West End and on the 18th, with less success, General Charles Gordon set off for Khartoum to quell an uprising in what is now Sudan; he never returned. In the world of sport 1884 saw the establishment of Derby County as a professional football club while in tennis William Renshaw won the Wimbledon men’s singles and Maud Watson beat her sister Lillian in the ladies final.

Over at Westminster Police court, on the morning of January 2, William Henderson was brought up for the second time having been remanded in custody charged ‘with intent to commit a felony’. Henderson, who gave his home address as a house in York Street, had been reported acting suspiciously on several occasions in and around Belgrave Square.

According to these reports Henderson was loitering near a pillar box which was later discovered to have been tampered with. When he’d realized a policeman was watching him he had run away and a letter addressed to ‘a lady in Scotland’ was found discarded by the post box, it was smeared with something sticky.

Henderson was picked up some hours afterwards and when he was searched he was found to have a pair of gloves with the fingers cuts off, also sticky with some sort of adhesive. There were also some hooks made from copper wire and more evidence of glue on his handkerchief.

A search of his lodgings revealed yet more adhesive material and ‘a contrivance for abstracting letters from pillar-boxes’. In addition to the mechanism he’d apparently been using to steal the post was a large collection of letters and stamps. Mr D’Eyncourt remanded him once more so the police investigation could be continued, in the meantime the letter thief (or avid philatelist) was returned to prison to await his fate. If you stick with my posts for the next few days (no fun intended) we may discover what happened to him.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, January 25, 1884]

Hard choices for an unmarried mother in Spitalfields

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Spitalfields (in the early 20th century) by the photographer C. A. Matthew 

Sophia Higgins, the wife of a chemist in Spicer Street, Spitalfields was making her way home at 11 at night when something caught her attention.  She was crossing the market when she heard what she thought was a baby crying.

Moving towards the sound she soon discovered an infant ‘lying on the pavement, wrapped in a piece of blanket’. Horrified she stopped it up, went to find a person nearby to care for it, and then rushed off to the nearest police station.

The police arrived and collected the child, taking it to the Whitechapel workhouse to make enquiries there. Having established from the porter who they thought the mother was, another officer was despatched to find her and arrest her.

Eventually Ellen Lehain was identified as the child’s mother and questioned by the police before being summoned before the magistrate at Worship Street Police Court in October 1853. A witness, Ann Buskin (described as an ‘unmarred female’) said she had lodged with Ellen at a property in Holborn and testified that she had recently given birth to an illegitimate child.

Ann explained that her fellow lodger had ‘nursed it for a few weeks, when she left there to go into the union house’ (meaning the local workhouse for the poor).

The child was produced in court and  Ellen admitted it was hers. When the policeman had asked her what she had done with it she had told him she’d left the baby at the door of the workhouse. So how did it come to be in the middle of Spitalfields market the court wanted to know?

Ellen’s response to this question is not recorded.

In her defence the girl simply pleaded poverty and distress as the reason for abandoning her new born baby. Mr D’Eyncourt sent her to the house of correction for three months, the fate of her child was not something the newspaper reporters seems to have thought important enough to write down. Perhaps it was obvious: the child would become another mouth for the parish union to feed, until at least he or she could be apprenticed out into service.

No one seemed to be in the least bit interested in the fate of its mother, who must have been in considerable distress to give up a child she had been caring for for several weeks.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, October 14, 1853]

A ‘typical girl’ in the dock at Clerkenwell

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In my seminar last week my students and I were discussing forms of property crime in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. One of those we focused on was shoplifting, noting its increasing importance in contemporary discourse in the 1700s (as the number of shops in London grew and the emphasis on the display of goods made them more vulnerable to opportunistic thieves).

They were interested to note that women made up a more equal  proportion of defendants at the Old Bailey in shoplifting trials than they did, say, in highway robbery or burglaries.  Indirect thefts, such as shoplifting or pocket-picking, were much more likely to feature females or children than the direct and often violent or dangerous crimes of robbery and housebreaking or burglary.

We also looked at what shoplifters stole and at why female thieves mostly seemed to have filched items that fitted within their social sphere. Thus women took clothes, or linen and lace, lengths of materials, and ribbons. Men, by comparison, stole tools, money, and precious items such as watches. Women did take these as well, but images of female thieves with ribbons and lace tucked under their clothes are more common.

The explanation is straightforward: women took things they could use or easily get rid of. There was a huge market in secondhand clothes and materials into which thieves could ‘invest’ their loot. Suspicions might be raised by a woman walking through town with a bag of working-men’s tools but not by a basket of ribbons.

Mary Ann Stanniel was only 18 when she appeared before Mr D’Eyncourt at Clerkenwell Police court in November 1860 but she had already established an unwanted reputation as a ‘well-known shoplifter’. On this occasion she was charged with taking two samples of silk ribbon belonging to John Skinner a linen draper on the Pentonville Road.

Mary had entered Skinner’s shop with a friend and then engaged the shopkeeper in conversation in a classic distraction technique. They asked him to show them two completely different sorts of product and Skinner was on his guard. He’d been robbed before and spotted the attempted deception.

However, having two young women in his shop, each demanding to see different things at the same time he was hard pushed to keep his eyes on both of them. He called his wife to help and she provided the necessary extra pair of eyes. Soon afterwards she noticed that a piece of blue ribbon was missing. Mrs Skinner came round the counter and took hold of Mary Ann’s hand, turning it over to reveal a roll of ribbon. It wasn’t the blue one she’d lost, but it was theirs so the police were called.

The blue ribbon was missing so when PC Lillycrap (409A) arrived he took Mary Ann to the station and searched her. It seems that her friend had done a runner when Mary Ann had been pinched by the shopkeeper’s wife. No ribbon was found on Ann so the policeman came back to the shop to check again. After a quick search the ribbon was found on the floor, behind some other things, where the defendant had hastily dropped it.

PC Lillycrap told Mr D’Eyncourt that he had arrested Mary Ann before and that she’d been up before the bench at Westminster Police court on similar charges. Mary Ann had some support in court, in the form of a solicitor who urged the magistrate to deal with the matter summarily, saving her a longer spell in prison after a full jury trial. He promised that after she had served whatever time the justice felt was appropriate Mary Ann’s father would ‘take her home and look after her’.

Whether D’Eyncourt believed him or not he did as requested and sent the shoplifter to the house of correction for four months and told her she ‘was fortunate’ she hadn’t got longer. Let’s hope her father kept his promise.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, November 7, 1860]