Dead bodies dumped in a rubbish tip and a pair of Yankee fraudsters escape justice: all in a day’s business for London’s magistracy

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A pair of interesting cases for you this morning both brought before magistrates in London but neither of which ended in a conviction for any crime. Once again this is useful reminder that histories of crime that concentrate on the higher, jury courts of England will inevitably miss those cases which were dismissed much earlier in the criminal justice process.

In May 1847 two well-dressed young men were placed in the dock at Marlborough Street and accused of stealing. Their victim was a young woman named Eliza Williams who claimed to have lost a gold watch and chain and her purse. The crime was pretty standard – pocket picking – but the circumstances made it a little more unusual and, therefore, newsworthy.

Eliza claimed that she had met Robert Brownrigg Tolfrey at a ‘dancing room’ in Great Windmill Street. He’d approached her and asked her to dance. He spoke with a soft American accent and she accepted. Despite being distracted by the music and his attentions she was still aware enough to feel a tug on her watch chain. The chain broke but she quickly rescued it and the watch and place dit safely (she thought) in her pocket.

The couple parted for the next dance and Eliza instinctively checked for her watch – it was gone, as was her purse! Looking around another dancer caught her attention and pointed out Tolfrey and said they’d seen the watch chain hanging out of his pocket as he strode away. Eliza confronted him and although he vigorously denied stealing her property she had him arrested.

In court at Marlborough Street Tolfrey and his friend Robert Berkely Reynolds protested their innocence. A witness for Eliza said he’d seen Tolfrey pass the watch and purse to another man, perhaps named Nicholls, but he couldn’t be sure. There was no real evidence against either man and in this sort of case it was unlikely that the justice would be able to do anything unless previous convictions against them could be shown that would sow doubt in the mid of a jury.

That is why the men’s landlady was called I think.

Mrs Green said the men rented rooms form her at Golden Square off James Street giving their name as Berkley and passing themselves off as brothers recently arrived from America. While they were staying with her tradesmen would arrive and leave goods which soon vanished, suggesting a scam of some sort was being orchestrated there. When Mrs Green asked them to pay their rent they simply walked off leaving ‘nothing behind them except a false spring beard and mustachios’. The pair were clearly up to no good but, on this charge of ‘privately stealing from the person’, Mr Bingham could see no evidence that would stick in court, so he released them.

At Westminster a more disturbing case was heard before Mr Broderip. One of B Division’s police inspectors (named Donegan) was in court to report that ‘considerable excitement’ had been caused amongst the public in Lillington Street when human remains were discovered in a rubbish heap. He’d been called to investigate and had found bones that appeared to belong to a ‘human foot and arm’.

‘There were other bones’, he said, ‘smaller and larger, more advancing to decay, and evidently belonging to other bodies’. He had them collected for examination he explained.

In answer to a question from the magistrate Donegan said he didn’t believe the bones were recent but agreed that they might well come from a nearby medical school. A number of admission cards  from King’s College Hospital had been found amongst the rubbish and this strongly suggested a connected. The bones were probably the remains of persons whose bodies had been used in the teaching of anatomy, as the cadavers of the poor had been used for that purpose since the passing of the Anatomy Act in 1832. The act was supposed to stop the practice of grave robbing which itself had been caused by the shortage of fresh specimens taken from the gallows.

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It was a grisly business and not one the authorities wanted to be given too much publicity. Once dissected the bodies of the poor were supposed to have been buried properly even if no headstone was set to commemorate them. The idea that they might end up in a communal rubbish tip was appalling and, as the magistrate termed it, ‘indecorous’. He instructed Donegan to call upon the board at King’s to make it clear to them that any future occurrences of this sort would not be tolerated.

According to the leading historian of the Anatomy Act of 1832 in the course of the Victorian period some 125,000 corpses were sold in the ‘anatomy trade’.1 Many of those leaving the bodies of their loved ones did so by placing them outside the doors of London’s main teaching hospitals (like King’s or St. Bart’s) knowing that they had no funds to bury them. I regularly visit the local cemetery close to my home, to pay my respects to my wife’s parents, and we usually pass by a solitary stone that commemorates the thousands of people who are buried within the grounds in unmarked graves, because their families could not afford to meet the costs of a funeral.

For every grave carefully tended or left to slowly degrade there are, in small and larger graveyards and cemeteries they length and breadth of the country, hundreds of thousands of burials which are left unmarked. Something to think about when next you visit one perhaps.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, May 4, 1847]

1. Elizabeth Hurren, Dying for Victorian Medicine: English anatomy and its trade in the dead poor, c.1834-1929(Palgrave Macmillan, 2012)

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:

One man’s complaint reveals ‘considerable excitement’ about the trade in pauper bodies at Lambeth

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In December 1857 a poor man appeared at the Lambeth Police court to ask the magistrate’s advice. In November his elderly sister was so sick with consumption (TB as we know know it) she was ordered to be admitted to the sick ward at the Newington workhouse. There, on the 3 December, she died.

Before she died she had begged her friends and family to give her a decent burial because rumours were swirling around the parish about what happened to the bodies of those that died inside the ‘house.

The next day her husband and friends presented themselves at the workhouse to collect her but she was ‘nowhere to be found’. They asked the undertaker there, and all he could tell them was she had been buried by mistake the body mistaken for that of another pauper, a Mr Bazely. Deeply unsatisfied, and understandably upset, they decided to pursue the matter with Mr Norton at Lambeth.

A local parish constable named Cook was called to give evidence of local practice. He told the court that the workhouse master ‘had been in the habit of disposing of the bodies of deceased paupers for anatomical purposes’. This had caused ‘considerable excitement’ amongst the poor of the parish’.

‘Persons who supposed they were following a deceased relative or friend to the grave not infrequently followed  perfect stranger, brought from other parishes, while that over which they supposed they were mourning had been disposed of in a  different way; and the thought of such deception created great dissatisfaction’.

Cook’s evidence was damning and must have been shocking to the reading public. Dr Elizabeth Hurren (at Leicester University) has demonstrated that there was a lively trade in the bodies of the poor in Victorian England after the the passing of the Poor Law Amendment Act in 1834. Elizabeth has also suggested that the Whitechapel murders of 1888 may well be connected to this dark history in London. The trade was exposed by a series of articles in the popular press leading, as Hurren explains, to the arrest and prosecution of Albert (or Alfred) Feist at the Old Bailey in May 1858. Feist had broken the terms of the Anatomy Act (1832) which had prohibited the sale of dead bodies for profit. That act had been the government’s reaction to the illegal trade in the dead which was exposed by the Burke and Hare murders in Edinburgh and that of the ‘Italian boy’ in London in 1831.

Feist was convicted but sentence was reserved. The case then went for review and he was subsequently acquitted. The use of pauper bodies for the training of surgeons was legal under the Anatomy Act but the practice was effetely concealed from the public and, most importantly, from the poor themselves. As Hurren’s work show:

‘Summaries of the Anatomy Act, just like the New Poor Law, were supposed to be available to the poor, pinned on walls in places they might congregate. However, in such pieces of legislation, the word “dissection” itself was often concealed behind that of “anatomical examination”.’*

The families of paupers were often unaware of what had happened or unable to do anything about it afterwards. The pressure of finding enough body parts to train all the new doctors increased after 1858 when legislation required that all medical students must study anatomy for two years. Whole bodies were now routinely cut up into their composite parts so students could practice, explore and understand.

It must have made grim reading over breakfast and supper and its interesting to see the story unfold within the reportage of the summary courts. At Lambeth Mr Norton told the complainant that the workhouse master (who was of course Mr Feist) had been guilty of a misdemeanour in allowing his sister’s body to be buried so quickly after death. He was required, by law, to keep it for 48 hours so the family could arrange a funeral themselves. He told him he was happy to issue a summons.

As we now know Alfred Feist would face trial for this and a total of 62 other instances of supplying dead pauper bodies for the anatomy trade. In the end of course he, and his accomplice in the trade – the undertaker Robert Hogg – escaped scot free. Hurren estimates that a staggering 125,000 pauper bodies were sold in the Victorian period to benefit the study of medicine.

Poor lives didn’t matter in the 1800s but the reading public didn’t really want to be reminded of that too often. The exposure of the body trade, like the scandals surrounding the treatment of paupers in the Andover workhouse in 1845-6 reminded society of the harsh realities of being poor in Victoria’s Britain in perhaps a similar way that the tragedy at Grenfell Tower has caused a considerable amount of soul searching this year. Ultimately, it seems, even today poor lives don’t matter as much as rich ones.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, December 16, 1857]

*Review by Laurence Talairach-VielmasElizabeth T. Hurren, Dying for Victorian Medicine: English Anatomy and Its Trade in the Dead Poor, c. 1834–1929, in Miranda [http://journals.openedition.org/miranda/4586] accessed 16/12/17