‘I have murdered my wife, and I shall be hanged for it’: An old man’s sad confession 

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PC Edward Steward (319K) was on duty in Devons Road, Bromley-by-Bow on the morning of Tuesday 26 December 1871, Boxing Day, when he heard a cry of ‘Police! Murder!’ Shouts like that were not uncommon in the East End of London but the constable quickly ran towards the cry.

The noise had come from a house at 5 Bromley High Street and as the policeman entered he found an elderly man, splashed with blood, sitting forlornly in the doorway. PC Steward asked what had happened and the man replied:

‘I have done it at last. I have cut my wife’s throat’.

Pushing past him the officer into what was the couple’s marine store, where he found the victim sitting on a chair with a nasty long cut running down the side of her face. Her dress was ‘completely saturated with blood’ and he asked if she knew what had happened to her.

She said she didn’t, but probably to protect her husband who was clearly not at all well himself. The policeman followed the blood that stained the floor to the bedroom where there was a large pool of it congealing by the bed. A knife lay discarded nearby and he collected this and made his way back downstairs to the man and wife. When the man saw the knife he said:

‘That’s what I did it with. I have murdered my wife, and I shall be hanged for it’.

Their name was Hurley and having got help to have Mrs Hurley taken to hospital on a stretcher, he brought the old man, James, back to the police station to be questioned and charged. The next morning Hurley, PC Steward, and a doctor all appeared before Mr Lushington at Thames Police court.

The officer told the magistrate that before she’d been sent to hospital Catherine Hurley had finally told him the truth of what happened that morning. She was helping James to bed; he was an invalid she explained, and she had her arm around his neck. Suddenly he ‘flung his arms around quickly and struck me. I put my hands up to my face and felt blood trickling down it’.

The doctor said the wound, although not fatal, was dangerous. Catherine had sustained a wound that was 3 and half inches in length and she’d lost a lot of blood. He was keeping her in for the time being but he expected her to recover fully.

Mr Lushington (who had a reputation for dealing harshly with drunks, especially those that beat their wives, enquired as to whether James Hurley had been drunk at the time of the attack. The policeman testified that no, he seemed to be ‘perfectly  sober’ as did Mrs Hurley. Given the victim’s absence and because she was not yet completely out of danger the magistrate remanded Hurley in custody for a week to see how things unfolded.

I would seem Catherine made a full recovery and declined to press charges against her spouse. Although this was certainly an assault and possibly an act of attempted murder no James Hurley appears in the records of the Old Bailey Proceedings in the early 1870s for such a crime. He may have dealt with summarily later but I suspect Catherine knew her husband was not well in his mind or his body and accepted the outburst as a unavoidable consequence of whatever ailed him. Without her to press the case it is unlikely the police or courts would do much more.

One can only imagine the life Catherine Hurley had to endure, running a home, a business, and caring for an elderly husbands who retained the strength to hurt her, or worse, even if that might not have been his intention.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday 3 January, 1872]

Murder most foul in Old Nicol Street

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Old Nicol Street (from an image on the St Hilda’s East Community Memories blogsite)

James Muir had spent the whole of Christmas in gaol. He’d been accused in mid December of the murder of Abigail Sullivan, with whom he ‘at times’ cohabited in Shoreditch. The couple had a tempestuous relationship and arguments (often drunken ones) were frequent.

It was a familiar story in the East End, where domestic violence was endemic and murder or manslaughter all too often the result. At some point the pair had separated, with a suggestion that Muir had been seeing someone else, a lodger at the house in Old Nichol Street where Sullivan had lived with him. This woman was Selina Lewis and she was present when the fatal attack occurred.

Lewis told the magistrate at Worship Street Police court (a Mr Rose) that Abigail Sullivan had been speaking with Muir in her room when things got heated. He hit her and she fell down. Muir then made to leave, saying he was off to get a drink. Selina left as well but came back a few minutes later with a boy. Since Abigail was still lying prone on the floor Selina told the lad to fetch over a lamp so she could examine her. When he did so they both saw that the poor woman was dead and blood was flowing from a wound in her chest.

The police were called and the body was assessed by Percy Clark, an assistant to Dr Bagster Phillips, (the police surgeon who had presided in several of the ‘Ripper’ murders in 1888). He testified in court that Abigail had suffered a fatal wound that had ‘penetrated the lung and divided the aorta. The cause of death was syncope [loss of consciousness] and loss of blood’. The weapon was produced in court, a ‘thin-bladed butchering knife’ and the police inspector present said it must have been wielded with ‘considerable force’.

Selina admitted that the quarrel had been about her and Muir’s relationship with her. The knife also hers but she’d not seen the prisoner Muir use it. That he had was not in doubt however, as he’d been arrested outside in the street by PC Brown (389H) who picked it up as the killer tried to throw it away. Muir was remanded in custody again so that Mr Sims, the Treasury solicitor, could summon five more witnesses for the prosecution.

It took until early February for the case to make it to the Central Criminal court at Old Bailey but then it didn’t trouble the jury for too long.

Muir, described elsewhere as a 39 year-old shoemaker, was found guilty of killing his former partner and the mother of his child, a baby whom Abigail had given into the care of another resident while she spoke to her errant common-law husband. One witness knew the pair well. Caroline Hall lived at 67 Old Nicol (while Sullivan had a room at number 4) and she told the Old Bailey court:

‘I have heard him threaten her—I heard him say that he would give her a good hiding some night, and that he would swing for her’.

James Muir did ‘swing for her’ on 1 March 1892 at Newgate Prison. He was hanged by James Billington and the motive given at the time was that although he and Abigail had split up she ‘still pestered him for money’. Presumably to support her little baby girl, who was now an orphan.

A very happy New Year to everyone reading this and especial thanks to those who’ve been reading my posts on a regular (or irregular) basis for the past year or more. In 2019 my next book will come out – a co-authored analysis of the Whitechapel and Thames Torso murders with my friend and fellow researcher Andy Wise. Hopefully it will be published by Amberley in June, but I’ll keep you posted on here.

[from The Standard, Friday, 1 January, 1892]

‘You have most grossly ill-used this girl, and you will pay a fine of £5 to the Queen’: violence, theft and late night drinking dominate the news from  the early Victorian police courts

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The Police courts of the Victorian metropolis did not sit on Christmas Day but the newspapers were printed on Boxing day and they carried the stories of the week’s crime news. In the early days of the reportage of the ‘doings’ of these magistrates’ hearings the storytelling can be more elaborate than is the case later in the century. Dickens cut his teeth as a court reporter and you can certainly see some novelistic flourishes in the articles that were published under the header of ‘police intelligence’.

In the Boxing Day edition of The Morning Chronicle for 1838, in the first full year of Victoria’s long reign, there were three reports, all of the hearings heard on Christmas Eve before the courts closed for the holiday. At Worship Street Robert Terry was charged with breaking into a property in Hoxton with the intent to steal. As he entered the yard at the rear he was heard and a lodger went to investigate. Seeing a stranger in the dark the resident attempted an arrest and was badly beaten for his pains.

Fortunately a policeman was on hand to capture Terry and bring him before Mr Broughton at the East End police court. The intruder was well known to the police, having been ‘summarily conicted no less than six times’. On his way to the station Terry had told the officer (41N) ‘Well, you _____, you can’t hang me now: you can only give me two or three months for this’.

The magistrate told him he was mistaken: he would send to prison for two months for the attempted burglary and then on for trial as a ‘an incorrigible rogue’, for which he fully expected him to get a further year at hard labour.

At Lambeth Mary Byrne was brought before Mr Coombe charged with stealing nine pairs of gloves from a hosier in the Mile End Road. She was seen dropping a parcel containing the gloves into her basket soon after she entered the shop on the previous Saturday evening. Mary said she had travelled to the shop from Charing Cross and was so cold and wet (it had rained heavily that day) that her hands had ‘become so benumbed, that she was perfectly unconscious of what she did with them’. Her husband was a policeman, and had served since the formation of the force in 1829. He was an honest man but it didn’t save his wife who was sent back to gaol to await a trial in the new year.

Finally, the reporter from Thames Police court described the scene and exchange in court as Peter Murphy, a boilermaker, was prosecuted for a vicious attack on a young woman.

Sarah Douglas was assaulted by Murphy as she made her way home from a concert in a beer house called the Bee Hive. Murphy, quite drunk it seems, had caught up with Sarah and had knocked her to the ground. More than one witness (including PC William Wood of K Division) watched in horror as the man grappled with his victim and tore her clothes off. Poor Sarah was left with just her stays and a petticoat. The policeman rushed to her rescue but a mob of onlookers stole her clothes and ran away.

She must have known the young man that attacked her because in court she at first refused to press charges against him. Mr Ballantine, the sitting justice and a county justice sitting with him, were adamant however that the man must be punished. ‘That is very kind of you’, Mr Thistleton told her, ‘but we must punish him unless he has a very good defence’. All the boilermaker could say was that he was ‘very tipsy’.

‘But whether drunk or sober’, Mr Ballantine berated him,‘men don’t ill-use women and knock them down. It appears that you most grossly ill-used this girl, who had given you no provocation’.

He went on to add that:

‘If you had any manhood about you, you would not have done it. You will pay a fine of £5 to the Queen, or be imprisoned for two months’.

He then directed the police to look into the concert at the beer house, which, he suggested, was less than reputable.  The Bee Hive had been open much later than its license allowed and inspector Valentine of the Metropolitan Police promised he would give this his urgent attention.

Thus, the middle class reading public was suitably entertained by the bad behavior of the lower orders, but reassured that three near-do-wells (from the roughest areas of the capital) were safely locked up over Christmas.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, 26 December 1838]

A glimmer of hope for an abused wife in Somers Town

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According to the memoirs of one of London’s Police Court magistrates the working class believed that magistrates had the power to divorce married couples. In reality divorce was out of the question the poorer classes as it was an expensive legal exercise which effectively excluded all but the wealthiest in late Victorian society. Police magistrates in London could however, order a legal separation and require a husband to continue to maintain his wife.

We can see an example of this in a report from Clerkenwell in 1885. Richard Davis, a labourer living at 12 Churchway in Somers Town, was brought before Mr Hosack and charged with assaulting his wife. This was a common enough accusation levelled in the police courts, hundreds of women prosecuted their partners on a weekly basis in London.   In most cases the accusation was enough and when the couple appeared in court the wife would either drop the charge or plead for leniency, often whilst she stood in the witness box sporting a black eye or swaddled in bandages.

The police rarely intervened in ‘domestics’, and were not supposed to intervene unless ‘actual violence is imminent’ (as the Police Code stated). Most of the time they were called after violence had occurred as I have described on numerous occasions in previous posts here. In court this was the only situation in which a wife could testify against her husband but the difficulties in doing so were considerable. A wife that prosecuted her husband might fear retribution, or the loss of his earnings should he be imprisoned (which was one of the options that magistrates resorted to when confronted with wife beaters).

Mrs Davis had been brave enough to challenge her husband’s abuse in public; it was very unlikely to have been the first time that he had assaulted her and perhaps she feared that if she suffered in silence the next attack might be worse, fatal even. In court Mr Hosack heard that Davis ‘constantly ill-used his wife’. On this most recent occasion he had arrived home drunk, the pair had argued and he had hit her with a chair. The labourer then picked up a paraffin lamp and hurled it at her. Fortunately it missed but it caused a small fire, which must have been terrifying.

Perhaps because Davis’ actions threatened not just the life of his wife but also those of his neighbours the magistrate decided to send him away to cool down. He sentenced him to three months at hard labour, which would certainly impact on the man and remind him that his wife had the power to resist.

More importantly perhaps Mr Hosack ordered a ‘judicial separation between the prisoner and his wife’ and told Davis that on his release he would have to pay her 10a week maintenance. He could make the order of course but could he compel the man to pay? I doubt it. As a labourer recently out of gaol Davis would have few prospects of finding well-paid work (if any at all) and 10was not inconsiderable.

Mrs Davis’ best option was to find a new home with friends or family and hope Richard did not find her. If she wanted his money she would have to fight for it, and that meant taking him before the courts again if he failed to pay.

[from The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, December 5, 1885]

The odds are stacked against a young wife at the mercy of her cruel and abusive husband

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This week my undergraduate students at Northampton have been looking at marital violence in history. I’ve set them reading by a variety of historians that will (hopefully) allow them to look at the way spousal abuse was perpetrated and prosecuted in the 18th and 19th centuries. Much of it was predicated on the prevailing ideology of patriarchy.

English society in the 1800s was fundamentally male dominated. Men held all the positions of power (save one, that of monarch after 1837) and women were effectively excluded from most decision-making.

All the Police Court magistrates I write about were men, as were all the judges and jurors at the Old Bailey. Policeman were exclusively male, most other parish officials were men, and almost all senior employers were male as well. In the household the man was dominant too; while the ‘rule of thumb’ can be over-stressed men did have (or believed they had) the right to discipline their wives and children if they thought it necessary.

Police Court magistrates dealt with a huge amount of domestic violence, nearly all of it directed at the wives or common-law partners of working-class males. Men like James Bridgeman clearly believed they were entitled to hit their wives. This had been instilled in them from childhood as they witnessed their fathers beating their mothers for the most trivial of reasons. Often the men were drunk and simply resented being questioned as to the time they were coming in. On other occasions they complained about the food they’d been presented with, or about how long they’d had to wait to get it.

Abuse was frequent but women less frequently did much about it. Some fought back and London women were a tough lot by most accounts. But the scales were hardly balanced and years of abuse took its toll. Some wives fled, others were cowed and suffered up in silence. A few took their husbands before a magistrate, often hoping he would give them a divorce. It was a forlorn hope; justices had no power to permanently separate married couples.

Many, presented with the choice of seeing their abusive husband go to prison for beating them chose instead to take them back, fearing worse punishment if they didn’t or a worsening of their economic situation (and that of their children) if he was ‘sent down’. A ‘bad’ husband was sometimes better than no husband at all some must have reckoned.

James Bridgeman was a ‘bad husband’. He beat his young wife often despite them being relatively newly wed. He had spent two ‘unhappy years’ married to Ellen, as she told the Police Court magistrate at Clerkenwell. Then, one day in November 1884 things got worse.

On the 10 November they quarrelled and Ellen left to go back to her mother in Elsted Street, Walworth. On the next morning James turned up at his mother-in-law’s house and asked Ellen to come back to the family home in Newington Causeway.

She refused and he asked her if she would at least go to court to ‘get a separation’. ‘No, I have not got time’ was her reply. The next thing she felt was a sharp pain in her neck as her husband stepped her with his clasp knife.

The witnesses that saw the attack or saw him before he stabbed her said the knife was already open; he had intended this violence or anticipated her rejection at least. She was saved by the appearance of her mother and another man who pulled Bridgeman off her.

As James ran off, Ellen was taken to the police station where her wound was dressed. Soon afterwards James gave himself up at the station and Ellen charged him with the attack on her. In court before the Clerkenwell magistrate Ellen deposed that he had threatened her when he visited her at her mother’s.

He told her: ‘If you don’t live with me, I’ll do for you’.

The magistrate first remanded him then committed him for trial at the Old Bailey. There Bridgeman tried to claim that his wife stayed out late and was ‘living an immoral life’. It was an easy slur to make and Ellen vehemently denied it.

He also tried to argue that it was an accident, that Ellen had walked into him as he was using his knife to trim his nails. She had a inch deep cut in her neck and bruising around her throat where he had grabbed her.  Bridgeman had told the police and the magistrate that he acted as he had because he was entitled to do so, and this was reported in court.

Why had he stabbed her?

‘Only for her stopping out all night as she has done I should not have done what I have done’, was his defence.

It was the defence of all violent abusive men in the 1800s. The jury found him guilty of lesser offence than that with which he was charged. He was young (just 22) and the judge respited sentence. In the end he seems to have gone unpunished, no record exists that I can find of any sentence, so maybe some leniency was shown to him. The fact that the police surgeon didn’t think Ellen’s wounds were ‘dangerous’, and she recovered soon afterwards probably helped his cause. And the fact that the jury was male and he had publicly accused her of being a disobedient spouse.

I hope that ultimately she escaped him, because the chances are that such a brutish man would be quite prepared to make good on his threat in the future.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, November 23, 1884]

An unhappy arsonist is rescued by a brave constable.

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When Edward O’Connor got home from the pub he was disappointed that his wife hadn’t got his dinner ready. Mrs O’Connor was pretty used to this sort of situation, Edward was frequently drunk and when he was, he was unbearable. The 45 year-old shoemaker was a ‘quarrelsome’ fellow and not above taking out his frustrations on his spouse and their children.

This was nothing out of the ordinary for Victorian London of course, many women were victims of their husband’s unwarranted anger and violence and the summary courts bore witness to their occasional attempts to ‘get the law on them’.

However, on this occasion Mrs O’Connor hadn’t brought a charge against Edward, he had gone so far over the bounds of acceptable behaviour that he had found himself up before Mr Benson at Southwark Police court without his wife having to file a complaint.

This was because he’d come home to 18 Potter Street, Bermondsey in a drunken state and flew into a rage when he realized his supper wasn’t ready. He shouted at his wife and told her he would burn the house down with her and the children in it. She fled, clutching her offspring close to her and raised the alarm.

Meanwhile Edward stumbled over the fire and shoveled up a portion of burning coals which he then tossed onto the bed. As the fire began to take he staggered back to admire his handiwork. Soon afterwards the window was forced open and a policeman’s head appeared. PC Fred Palmer (45M) had arrived on the scene and rushed inside. Pushing Edward aside he quickly extinguished the flames and dragged Edward outside. The copper’s bravery undoubtedly saved the property and the lives of Edward and anyone else living there.

In court Edward was apologetic and said he had no memory of what he’d done. Mrs O’Connor spoke up for him (as wives and partners frequently did) saying that if the magistrate was lenient she would make sure her husband took the temperance pledge. She was sure he hadn’t intended to destroy their home or hurt her and the kids. The magistrate cautioned the shoemaker, warning him to stay off the drink and take better care of his wife and family. He then told him to find bail for his good conduct over the next six months and let him go.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, November 22, 1872]

Interfering mothers-in-law at Westminster give the ‘beak’ a headache

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Some of the cases that came before the Police Court magistrates seem particularly unimportant or trivial. It must have been quite frustrating, if not downright annoying, to have to listen to a never ending stream of petty disputes and grumbles on a daily basis, but moments of humour will probably have helped to lift the mood.

On the morning of the 16 November 1888 while Francis Tumblety (a suspect in the Ripper murders case) was being bailed at Marlborough Street, a young wife appeared at Westminster in answer to a summons taken out against her by her husband.

No names were given (perhaps to protect the couple and give them a chance to ‘move on’ with their lives) but they were newly wed and, it seems, barely mature enough for this life-long commitment.

The wife – described as a ‘mere girl’ – broke down in the dock, ‘cried and seemed greatly distressed’. She had been summoned for attacking her husband with a broom (which caused much laughter in the courtroom). She denied doing so and said she loved him and wouldn’t never hurt him.

However this public investigation into their married revealed the influence of each of the couple’s mothers, both of whom seemed unable to let their offspring go.

The husband was just 21 years of age and a sorter in the Post Office. Recently his mother had encouraged him to come back to his old home and declared that ‘the poor boy looked  bad’; implying that she (and not his wife) needed to look after him properly.

The poor wife complained that while he earned nearly a pound a week she was struggling to cope with paying the rent, and managing the family budget on the 13 a week he gave her. My students struggle to cope with their first year away from home, why should we expect it to be that much easier for Victorian newlyweds on a similarly limited income?

The situation was not helped by the fact, revealed in court, that the wife’s mother lived with them. She was a nurse and it was inferred that she was staying close to them as her daughter was pregnant. Had they married because she was with child? It is not unlikely.

In denying that she’d hit her partner with a broom the young wife did admit that she was ‘subject to fainting fits’. She explained that ‘when I have felt myself “going off” I may have seized my husband’s wrists and dug my nails into his flesh “unconsciously”‘.

The magistrate, (Mr Partridge) waived her away. Her husband had not attended to press the summons nor had he declared his intention to renew it. So as far as he was concerned it was at an end. He hoped that she would go home to him and advised them to ‘make up their differences’. As for her mother-in-law, he urged her to ‘live apart from them, and not interfere’.

If this marriage was going to work it required both mothers to accept that their children were adults now, with their own lives to lead.

[from The Standard, Saturday, November 17, 1888]