A lucky escape (or just a delayed one?)

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Catherine Johnson was a fortunate thief. Fortunate that is, because the mid nineteenth-century criminal justice system and police was unable to build a tight enough case to send her to trial.

In early January 1853 she was brought before the magistrates at Marlborough Street to be examined as a suspect in a series of jewel thefts in New Bond Street. She was remanded for further enquiry twice before finally being discharged for lack of evidence.

Catherine was initially charged as an accessory, the main culprit being her husband who had seemingly fled the country. Mr Johnson (no first name was given) was an American citizen and following a raid on Hunt & Roskell’s jewelers where items valued at £1,500 were stolen, he evaded the police search and escaped to France leaving Catherine to face the music.

The only evidence that the police had was that Johnson had pledged two rings at a pawnbrokers in Newington Causeway before he fled and that ‘some articles of jewelry resembling some of the stolen propriety’ had been seen in Catherine’s possession. Crucially however, nothing had been found on her by the police, so that evidence was, at best, circumstantial.

At the hearing on the 7 January Mr Bingham was told that no new evidence had emerged that would justify pursuing a case against Catherine for the theft.  Since Mr Hardwick had dealt with case initially he had asked his opinion but his fellow justice agreed that little could be done. The real villain was somewhere on the Continent by now and unlikely to return so, on this occasion, Catherine would walk free from court.

Neither Catherine  nor Johnson are unusual names for the mid 1800s but in 1853 a Catherine Johnson was sent to gaol for stealing a earthenware pint pot. Later, in 1855, a Catherine Donovan (alias Johnson) was sentenced to penal servitude for picking the pocket of a man and taking his watch. I wonder…

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, January 08, 1853]

Ever fallen in love with someone you shouldn’t have fallen in love with? (especially a queen)

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Queen Victoria in the Royal Box of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane (after the oil painting by E. T. Parris, 1837)

At Christmas 1837 the young Queen Victoria had been on the throne for just six months. She was not to marry until 1840 and so remained an object of desire, and for one person at least, a fantasy. James Ash was certainly smitten by her. He had visited Windsor and caught a glimpse of the eighteen year-old monarch and had fallen her over heels in love with her. It would do him no go at all.

Sadly for James he was a pretty unsuitable candidate. He was ‘about forty years of age, rather ill-favoured and something above the mechanic class’, as the reporter at Marlborough Street Police court described. He had been brought into court at the request of the parish authroories of St Giles who wanted to send Ash to a lunatic asylum.

Mr Dyer, presiding as magistrate on the 22 December 1837, was unclear why he was being asked to adjudicate in this case. It would normally, he said, be a decision for ‘a medical man’ whether someone was sent to an asylum or not.

victoria-jenna-louise-colemanA surgeon gave evidence to say that Ash was, by all accounts quite normal and rational with the notable exception that he had declared not only that he was love with the queen but insisted that his affections were returned in full.

Mr Dyer questioned Ash about his lifestyle. Did he drink? Not at all, Ash insisted. Was he married or otherwise involved with any other woman? Ash declared that he:

‘was deeply in love with her Majesty , and he had the happiness of knowing that the passion was mutual’.

I suspect at this point the magistrate was convinced of the man’s delusional state but he asked him to continue. Had he expressed his affection by letter perhaps? He hadn’t but as  soon as the queen and her ministers had completed the ‘arduous task of setting the Pension and Civil Lists he should apply to them for suitable provision, in order that he might be enabled to throw himself at the feet of her Majesty’.

Mr Dyer had no intention of letting James Ash anywhere near the young queen and was entirely satisfied that he was ‘mad’. He signed  a warrant  to have Ash confined in the Hanwell lunatic asylum* where he might tell his story to all the other residents until the authorities there decided it was safe or expedient to let him go.

I suspect that might have been some time in the future. Meanwhile Victoria married Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha and the couple had nine children who married across the European continent earning the queen the epithet of ‘grandmother of Europe’.  Victoria’s reign was peppered with attempts on her life, the earliest in 1840 when Edward Oxford shot at her carriage as it made its way on Constitution Hill. There were a further six assassination attempts, none of which succeeded. So perhaps Mr Dyer and the St Giles authorities were right to err on the side of caution and lock poor James away.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, December 23, 1837]

*For more about the asylum at Hanwell see Mike Paterson’s post for the London Historians blog.