A murder confession, 13 years too late

The "Rookery", St. Giles's, 1850

Nineteenth-century St Giles

The reporter from Reynold’s newspaper, or his editor, captioned George Skinner’s behavior as ‘EXTRAORDINARY CONDUCT’.

Skinner, a 39 year-old resident of south London was brought before Mr Chance at Lambeth Police court charged with being drunk. It wasn’t his first appearance in court and had only recently been released from prison where he’d served a month inside for being an ‘habitual drunkard’.

On this occasion Skinner had presented himself at the desk of Gypsy Hill Police station, telling the sergeant that he was responsible for a murder that took place 13 years earlier. The station inspector sat him down and took a statement from him. He confessed to killing a ‘woman named Jackson’ in 1863 but when he was handed the statement to sign, he refused.

He was ‘very drunk’ when he spoke to the police and subsequent enquiries had ‘ascertained that the prisoner had before given himself up at Bow Street in a similar manner’.

But had a woman named Jackson been murdered in 1863, the magistrate asked? Indeed they had.

Sergeant 4ER gave evidence that a woman named Jackson had been murdered in George Street, Bloomsbury in 1863 and that in 1870 George Skinner had confessed to the crime. The police had investigated his confession however, and found it to be false.

Whoever had killed Ms Jackson the police didn’t believe it was Skinner, even if he seemed to. Mr Chance turned to the prisoner and told him that he had acted in a ‘most disgraceful manner’, presumably by being drunk and wasting police time. What had he to say for himself?

‘Commit me for trial’, Skinner replied. ‘I don’t care what you do. Let it go for trial’.

‘Let what go for trial?’, the magistrate demanded to know.

‘Send me for trial as an habitual drunkard. You know you can do it if you like. That’s the law’.

Mr Chance may well have had considerable discretionary power in 1880 but he could hardly send someone before a jury for being a drunk, however annoying the man’s behaviour was. Instead he was able to send him back to prison and/or fine him and this is what he did. Skinner, described as an able if ‘lazy’ shoemaker, was fined 20s  and told if he did  not pay up he would go to prison for 14 days at hard labour.

‘Only fourteen days for confession of a murder?’ Skinner quipped, ‘All right’.

In April 1863 a carpenter was charged at Bow Street with the murder of an Emma Jackson in St Giles. The court was crowded as the locals clearly felt this was the killer. They were mistaken however, as the police quickly established that the man confessing to murder, John Richards (a 31 year old carpenter) was, like Skinner, a drunken fantasist. He had confessed whilst drunk but later retracted and the magistrate, a Mr Broddick, warned him but let him go without further penalty.

The murder of Emma Jackson excited ‘intense interest in the miserable neighbourhood in which it took place’, Reynold’s  had reported at the time. As a result the tavern where the inquest was held was as crowded at the police court where Richards was examined a few days later. St Giles was a notoriously poor area (below), on a par with Whitechapel and Southwark in the 1800s, and a byword for degradation and lawlessness.

A_Scene_in_St_Giles's_-_the_rookery,_c._1850

Emma was murdered in a brothel, although it was also described as a lodging house; in some respects it was hard to discern much difference between the two. Jackson had arrived there with a client (a man wearing a cap was all the description the landlady could manage) and asked for a room for two hours.

It was a very brutal murder, there was blood everywhere, but no sign of the killer. Perhaps it was intensity of this murder and the lack of a suspect that prompted some disturbed individuals to confess to it, just as several people confessed to being the Whitechapel murderer in 1888.  That they were drunk when they did so might also indicate that they ware suffering from a form of mental illness, understood today but not in the 1800s.

Skinner had confessed to a murder in 1863 in Bloomsbury, Jackson was killed in St Giles, which is near enough to allow it to be the same murder.

[from Reynold’s Newspaper, Sunday 7 March 1880; Daily NewsThursday 23 April, 1863; Reynold’s Newspaper, Sunday 19 April 1863 ]

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

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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

Beware the sleepwalking arsonist!

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John Everett Millais, The Somnambulist, 1871

Police constable Dowding (198E) was pounding his beat in the early hours of the morning of July 15th 1878 when he smelt fire. He could hear the ‘crackling noise of something burning’, and rushed over to the rear of 23 Great Coram Street. There he could see that there was pile of burning clothes on top of the conservatory which seemed as if they had been thrown out of a window above.

PC Dowding ‘sprang his rattle’ (these were the days before police were issued with whistles) to call for help and quickly moved to alert the residents in the house. He ran straight upstairs towards the fire and found a room about to be engulfed in flames. Some clothes, the bed sheet and the lower part of the mattress of the bed were all on fire, but there was thankfully no one inside. He looked in the next room and found a 15 year-old girl cowering under a bed quilt.

He grabbed her and escorted her out, asking her what had happened. She told him that a man had entered her room, stayed briefly, then ran out and downstairs. PC Dowding was skeptical; he’d not seen anyone run past him, or run out of the building and he suspected the girl was lying.

He interviewed the landlady, Maria Goodhall who told him the girl’s name was Matilda Hayes and she worked for her as a maid of all work. She’d been with her for four months and ‘was a very good girl’. However, she also suspected that Matilda might have been responsible for the fire. She’d seen the clothes on fire by the bed and thought it likely that the girl had thrown some of the window in panic before being forced back by the flames.

In court at Bow Street Matilda was charged with arson and the source of the fire was found to be a spirit lamp which she kept with her when she went to bed. The lamp had been knocked over and the handle had come off. When Matilda had been found she seemed to be half asleep, as if she’d just woken in a panic. It was also suggested that Matilda and her sister (who often stayed with her) would walk in their sleep. So perhaps this had happened when the girl had been sleepwalking? Mrs Goodhall told the magistrate, Mr Vaughan, that she was sure that Matilda meant no ill will towards her or any of the other residents. It was accident, and nothing more.

Mr Vaughan was probably minded to agree but he decided to remand the serving girl for a week, just to be sure. When she appeared again Mr Vaughan was satisfied she was innocent and discharged her. This drew praise from one newspaper that used the case to write a longish piece on somnambulism and its perils. They also hinted that the young man that supposedly ran out of the girl’s room might have been there as her guest, and it was probably just as well that he was not discovered or it might have damaged her reputation.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, July 16, 1878]

Heartache for one couple as their baby boy disappears with his nurse

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The state of mind of George Augustus Mahon can only be guessed at when he turned up at Bow Street Police court to seek the help of the magistrate. His appearance there is a reminder that not everyone that came to court was brought by the police or a summons. Mahon and his wife had suffered a terrible shock and they turned to the magistrate as the most obvious person to advise and assist them.

Mahon was a commercial clerk, an upright member of the middle class, who lived at 15 Serle Street in Lincoln’s Inn, in London’s legal quarter. Two months earlier the Mahons had employed a new servant, Kate Curly, a steady sober woman of 26 years of age and she had served them well thus far. Families like theirs would probably only have afforded one or two domestics but Kate was hired as a nurse to look after their infant son, who was just a few months old.

On Monday 9 May 1870 Kate requested permission leave to visit her mother who lived locally.  She wanted to show her the baby she said and Mr Mahon granted her request. He had no doubts about Kate as she her behaviour and work had been exemplary up to then. However, when it got to 4 o’clock and Kate had not returned home Mrs Mahon began to get concerned. 5 o’clock came and went and still there was no sign of the servant. In the evening, when George returned from his office he went in search of her.

Mahon visited Kate parents and they told him that she had left their house around 7 or 8 in the evening that they had walked with her as far as the Gray’s Inn Road where they had said their goodbyes. No one had seen Kate or the baby boy since. If they were telling the truth then the servant and the child had disappeared close to Holborn. Had something happened or had Kate abducted the baby boy?

The clerk went to the police and detective sergeant Kerly of E Division sent a description to every police station and had dispatched men to enquire at the local hospitals to see him Kate had met with an accident. The chief clerk at Bow Street asked the sergeant if he had placed a notice in the Police Gazette. He hadn’t but he would consider it. Sir Thomas Henry, the Bow Street magistrate, suggested that the following description of Kate and the child be placed in all the newspapers:

The child is described to have been dressed in long clothes, and a white cloak trimmed with blue silk. The nurse [Kate Curly], was 26 years of age, and about five feet three inches in height, with dark complexion and black hair. She wore a black and white cotton dress, black cloth jacket, and black lace bonnet with white flowers’.

Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper reported this as ‘another case of child stealing suggesting that there had been a spate of abductions in the capital, but then it was a more sensational publication that the sober Morning Post.  I wish I could say what happened to the Mahon’s baby and their nurse but I haven’t managed to find anything that follows up on this story. I hope they both turned up or were found, perhaps having been involved in some minor accident as the police suspected. If not one can only imagine the heartache of the Mahon’s, who entrusted their child to someone they’d only know a matter of months.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, May 13, 1870; Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper , Sunday, May 15, 1870]

‘I’ll do for you now, you ____’: a policeman fights for his life

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PC James Baker (127E) was on duty in Chenies Street, off Tottenham Court Road, one late evening in early April 1863. As he walked his beat he noticed a man acting suspiciously so he kept his eyes on him. Following at a distance he saw the man disappear into nearby Bedford Square, where he lost sight of him.

Baker looked around and then found the man, in the company of two others, leaving 60 Gower Street. The policeman was sure they had just committed a burglary so rushed across to apprehend them. Two of the men managed to evade him altogether and ran off, but the other he nabbed. PC Baker told that if he came quietly he wouldn’t hurt him, and the man stopped resisting arrest.

If must have a been a common problem for beat bobbies unless they could quickly call for back up. Baker was on his own and could hardly be expected to collar all three suspected burglars. It seems unlikely that PC Baker carried handcuffs as these were initially at least, only issued under special circumstances usually being held at police stations.

Even if he was carrying a set they would have been of limited use. A pair of barrel handcuffs, D shaped and opened with a key, were hardly on a par with the efficient snap shut device modern officers can use. Moreover police in the 1800s were cautioned to only use handcuffs when the prisoner was deemed to be violent, and PC Baker had extracted what he believed was a sort of promise from his prisoner not to be.

Sadly for him the promise wasn’t worth the candle. Soon after the officer and his captive had set off for the nearest station house the suspected burglar whipped out a life preserver 111130b5-5592-46b7-c288-8b3979db59d4(right) and thumped the constable over the head with it. As the officer shouted ‘stop thief!’ and tried to call for help the man cried:

‘I’ll do for you now, you ____’ and beat him again. More blows rained down on the officer as he lay on the ground and the burglar escaped leaving PC Baker lying in a pool of his own blood and severely concussed.

Fortunately for Baker he was found by a fellow officer not long afterwards and helped to University College Hospital where he was treated for his injuries. Tow men, named simply as Egan and Sinnett, were rounded up and charged – both with burglary and Egan for attempted murder – and brought to the Bow Street Police court in late April when PC Baker had recovered sufficiently to give evidence. The policeman was better but far from well. He still suffered from his injuries and may well have sustained long term brain damage. He hadn’t returned to duties yet and may not have been able to continue in the force.

Egan and Sinnett denied any involvement and given the circumstances there has to be some doubt that they were the men responsible for the crimes of which they were accused.  I can find no trial for the attempted murder of PC Baker or any record of a trial or imprisonment of men fitting their identities in 1863 at all. However, they were described as ticket-of-leave men, former convicts released early from previous sentences of imprisonment (for previous burglary offences). This suggests that while they may have been the guilty parties (and the report states that the magistrate committed them both for trial) they may also have been rounded up as ‘the usual suspects’ by local police determined to get someone for the near murder of a colleague.

It reminds us that the Victorian police were vulnerable to violence from desperate criminals. They were lightly armed and hardly armored (no stab vests in 1863, no helmet even) and usually patrolled alone equipped only with a rattle and a lantern (whistles and torches came later). It was no picnic being a bobby in nineteenth-century London.

[from The Morning Post , Monday, April 27, 1863]

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]

‘An awful responsibility rests on those that who have brought this war about’, a vicar tells an angry crowd in London

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This morning we remember the fallen of all conflicts but with particular focus on the 100 year anniversary of the end of the First World War. There has been a great deal of emphasis on those that lost their lives in the so-called ‘war to end wars’ with a powerful lightshow at the Tower of London and a count of the dead across the advertising screens in Piccadilly Circus. Across the country and across the world ordinary people, politicians, and members of the armed forces (serving ones and veterans) have been marking the armistice that was signed in 1918 on a railway carriage in France.

There have been some discordant voices; criticism has been aimed at those not wearing poppies and the president of the USA chose to avoid getting his hair wet rather than attending a ceremony to mark the sacrifice of the ‘doughboys’ who did so much to bring the conflict to an end on the Western Front.

boer war

In 1899 (21 years before the end of the First World War) Britain was embroiled in a smaller colonial conflict in South Africa. The Boer War (as it was called then) ended up in a  victory for the Queen’s forces but for a while the irregular farmers of southern Africa embarrassed the finest army in the world. At home patriotism was high and there were joyful celebrations of victories, along with outpourings of sadness at the loss of life amongst the troops that sailed halfway across the world to defend the Empire.

The Reverend Francis Allen Minnitt was someone who objected to the sacrifice and believed, as a significant minority did, that the war was unnecessary. These sentiments were to voiced in 1914 and throughout the ‘Great War’ by those who for political, religious or moral reasons argued that war was wrong, or that ‘this war’ was wrong.

Rev. Minnitt had set himself up to speak in Betterton Street, Westminster and a crowd of (mostly) boys had surrounded him. The minister had been working with young boys in London for some time, trying to help the poorest avoid the temptations of crime and immorality, through education and work. But now he was also condemning the war and the men at the top of society that had sent so  many men off to fight and die in the Transvaal.

‘An awful responsibility rests on those that who have brought this war about’, he told the crowd.

The crowd didn’t like it. Several of them started heckling him, and two women argued and started fighting each other. Several of the boys had been at the Lord Mayor’s Show earlier and tossed a few of the apples they had filched at him. PC 352E was perambulating his beat and soon realised that the reverend was in trouble. Pushing his way through the crowd he grabbed hold of the cleric and asked him, none too politely, to ‘come along’ with him.

Rev. Minnitt was unhappy about the constable’s then but was eventually pulled away and then arrested  for causing an obstruction. On the next morning (the 10 November 1899) he was presented at Bow Street Police court where he protested taht he’d been doing nothing wrong. Mr Marsham (the presiding magistrate) told him that he had been chasing an obstruction  and, if the constable’s testimony was accurate, was also at serous risk of injury himself.

The cleric said he thought the officer ‘might have spoken in gentle tones’

‘He spoke too harshly. He pushed me along, and I wanted to retire with modesty and dignity’.

Unfortunately for him he got little sympathy from the court and the public gathered there, who struggled to stifle laughter as the clergyman spoke.

‘You were making a speech which was not agreeable to the people that heard it’, Mr Marsham explained, ‘and the constable took you into custody to prevent you being attacked’.

He went on to add:

‘I think the constable was quite right. Our soldiers in the Transvaal are fighting their country’s battles , and it was indiscreet of you in a mixed assembly of this kind to say anything about the war’.

The reverend made another little speech and again complained that the policeman might have been gentler to him but promised not to repeat his offence in future, and so he was discharged.

In 1902 there were large celebrations in London and other British cities to mark the final victory against the Boers. The war caused serious concerns at home at the state of the health and fitness of those recruited to serve in the armed forces. Poverty and its consequences were evident in the men and boys that went to war, and no amount of jingoism could cover the fact that it was a costly and far from certain victory. Within just 12 years Britain was again at war, this time in a conflict that would claim many many more young lives.

At the going down of the sun, we will remember them.

[from London Evening Standard, Saturday 11 November, 1899]