“Good-bye, Tom, I have done for my missis, and I am going to do for myself”; murder in the East End in 1888

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The Isle of Dogs, 1899 (Manchester Road runs south-east parallel to Blackwall Reach)

In early October 1888 London was gripped by the ‘Ripper’ murders. As far as the press and public were concerned an unknown assassin had brutally murdered six women in a small area of East London and the police had no clue as to his identity. Police patrols had been stepped up and the newspapers were becoming inundated with fake letters from people purporting to be the murderer, and correspondence offering advice on how to catch him. Between the end of September (when both Elizabeth Stride and Katherine Eddowes were murdered on one night) and the 9th November (when Mary Kelly’s body was found in Miller’s Court) the killer seems to have lain low, avoiding the redoubled attentions of the police.

Meanwhile over at the Thames Police Court Mr Lushington was hearing the case of a man accused of murdering his wife. Levi Bartlett was a 57 year-old general dealer who lived and worked in Poplar. He and his wife, Elizabeth, ran a small shop on Manchester Road on the Isle of Dogs, selling mostly milk. He had been held on remand since the incident had happened back in August, because after killing his wife he had attempted to cut his own throat with a razor.

Even by October he was a weak man and was allowed to sit in court rather than stand through the evidence. Elizabeth’s sister, Emma Mears, testified that Levi and her sister had live together for many years before they married, and had now been married for about five years. During all of that time, she said, the dealer was ‘nearly always drunk’.

By all accounts when he was sober, Levi was a good man but that was rare. When in his cups he was abusive and violent and dipped into the shop’s till to feed his drinking habit.  Not surprisingly then quarrels between him and Elizabeth were frequent and loud.

On the 18th August 1888 Emma visited Elizabeth and found her sitting crying. When she asked what the matter was her long suffering sibling said:

‘Can’t you see the old villain is drunk again, and hasn’t been to bed since two this morning’. This was punctuated by the dealer’s loud denials, ‘don’t you believe her’ he shouted. He then asked for 2d for gin.

‘No, you villain, you have had enough now’ was his wife’s response. This provoked Bartlett to threaten her:

‘I will mark you for this tonight’, he declared.

More abuse was exchanged and before she left Emma told her her sister to fetch a policeman if her husband hit her again. Perhaps because Levi was frequently drunk and abusive no one really expected what was to happen next, although the signs were there. At some point on Sunday morning (19 August) the former stevedore attacked his wife with a hammer, fatally wounding her,  before admitting his crime to George Jones who he had employed as a milk delivery man.

Jones later related the dramatic scene to the Old Bailey court as he was woken up by his master:

‘between 4 and 5 in the morning I was awoke by the prisoner coming into my room—he asked French if he had got any drink—French said no, he had forgot to bring any; the prisoner shook hands with French and said “Good-bye, you won’t see me no more alive”—he then went back to his own room, he seemed sober then—in about twenty minutes he came into our room again, and again bid French good-bye; he then came to me and said “Good-bye, Tom, I have done for my missis, and I am going to do for myself”—he shook hands with me and went out of the room’.

Bartlett then visited his old friend Benjamin French who had lodged with the Bartlett’s for 14 years. He also bids him ‘goodbye’ which left the dock labourer perplexed and not a little concerned. It was French that finally fetched a policeman, police sergeant Doe (30KR), who found Bartlett sitting on his bed ‘in his shirt, bleeding from the throat; the front of his shirt was covered with blood—he had a razor in his right hand’. Having taken the razor from him he summoned a doctor and then took him to hospital.

Bartlett, who had earned the nickname ‘Mad Dick the jockey’ (his middle name was Richard) was fully committed for trial at the Old Bailey. There, on the 22nd October 1888 he was convicted of murdering Elizabeth. Elizabeth’s sister testified to the years of abuse that she had suffered at Levi’s hands while the former dock worker’s best friend Benjamin said he had never heard a cross word between them. Drink was Bartlett’s downfall and it seems he simply could not function with it or without it. Ultimately this cost both him and his wife their lives; having recovered from his own suicide attempt Levi Richard Bartlett was hanged at Newgate Gaol on 13 November 1888.

Such a tragic event may well have created many more ‘headlines’ than it did in 1888 had there not been a supposedly crazed serial killer on the loose. This was, of course, a much more typical homicide for nineteenth century London than the series that has occupied the attention of researchers for over 120 years. Most murderers are men, and most of their victims (many of whom are women) are close to them – as wives, partners, lovers and acquaintances. The ‘Ripper’ killed strangers, and that made him all the more difficult (indeed almost impossible) to catch.

[from The Standard, Saturday, October 06, 1888]

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

‘Iron filings clippings, gritty matter, and foreign stalks’: some of the things found in a very British cup of tea

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I am writing this on Monday and at this point we still don’t know what is going to happen with regards to Brexit. As it stands though, unless the PM has managed to persuade enough MPs to back her deal, we are still scheduled to leave the European Union at 11 o’clock tonight.  We joined the EU (or rather the European Common Market as it was then) on 1 January 1973 after a referendum was held to test the public’s desire to enter or not.  Today we may leave on the basis of another such referendum, or we may not.

I thought it might be interesting to find out what was happening in the Metropolitan Police courts 100 years before we joined the European club. After all in March 1873 Britain was a very different place. Instead of being a declining world power we were THE world power, an empire upon which ‘the sun never set’. Queen Victoria had been on the throne for almost 36 years and had been a widow for 12 of those. William Gladstone was Prime Minster in his first ministry and he was opposed at the dispatch box by Benjamin Disraeli who he had beaten by 100 seats in the 1868 election. Oh what Mrs May would give for a majority of 100 seats, or any majority for that matter

Britain was stable, powerful, rich and successful in 1873 and Europe was a collection of individual nation states of which republican France, under Adophe Thiers, and Germany, (under Kaiser Wilhelm I and his able chancellor Bismark), were dominant. Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire represented the old guard  by comparison. No one was talking about a European union in 1873 but the slide to European war (in 1914) could already be predicted by those able to read the runes.

1873 in Britain saw the opening of the Alexandra Palace in London, and Londoners watched in horror as it burned down a fortnight later. The Kennel Club was created in April , the first of its kind in the world. Another first was the opening of Girton in Cambridge, as an all female college.

220px-Elizabeth_Garrett_Anderson,_MElizabeth Garrett Anderson (right) also became the first woman to be admitted to the British Medical Association, an honor she retained uniquely for almost 20 years. In Africa British colonial troops went to war with Ashanti king, ostensibly because of the latter’s continued trade in human slaves.  Mary_Ann_Cotton

On the 24 March Mary Ann Cotton (left) , one of history’s most unpleasant murderers, was hanged in Durham goal for the murder of her stepson (and the presumed murder of three former husbands); her motive was to cash in on their life insurance money.

Over at Clerkenwell Police court things were a little less dramatic as a tea dealer named Brown was set in the dock before Mr Barker, the incumbent police magistrate. James Neighbour, the sanitary inspector for St Luke’s, testified that he had purchased tow sample of tea from Brown’s shop and had taken them away for analysis. Dr Parry certified that both had been adulterated.

The adulteration of food was common in Victorian Britain and the authorities were keen to prevent it, not least because of the risk it posed to the health of population. Dr Parry’s verdict was that one sample of tea contained ‘iron filings and clippings, gritty matter, and foreign stalks’ while the other was made up of ‘tea dust’ and ‘small fragments of wood’ as well as all the other substances found in the first one. The tea was described variously in signs in the shop window as ‘capital’ and ‘noted’ mixtures but they were very far from it.

However, when pressed the doctor would not or could not say that the tea was ‘injurious to health’, it just wasn’t what it was advertised to be.  Whether it had been adulterated by the defendant or had arrived in that state from China was also something he couldn’t comment on with authority.  This led Brown’s defense lawyer (Mr Ricketts) to argue that the prosecution had failed to prove its case against his client. Mr Barker disagreed. He said it was self-evident that the tea dealer either knew his product was adulterated with ‘foreign matter’ even if he hadn’t adulterated it himself. This was done, he declared, to bulk up the actual tea and cheat the customer. Had it been dangerous to health he would have fined him £20 but as it was not he let him off with a £10n and ordered him to pay the inspector’s costs.

Of course one of the things the EU protects is our consumer and environmental rights, through its stringent laws on trade. Indeed one of the fears some have is that if we open ourselves up to a genuine free market we might have to accept products (such as bleached American chickens) that would not pass EU food standards. We might also note that in 1873 that Britain dominated world trade and that most trade passed through British ports, making money and creating work as it did so.  But in 1873 we had an empire and a navy that was the envy of the world.

Today not only do we longer have an empire but we also have a navy that has been stripped back to the bare bones, to the extent that we only have one aircraft carrier and that is unable to launch the sort of planes we have available. In 1873 we were the major power in the world, truly GREAT Britain. In 1973 we joined a trading community to ensure our future prosperity. In 2019 we may be about to leave that club having grown frustrated with its attempts to evolve into something that resembles a United States of Europe rather than the trade club we signed up to.

Who knows where we go from here and whether this will prove to be a smart move or a disaster that will haunt us forever. History will judge us, and those that made the decisions that led us to this point.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, March 29, 1873]

Murder in Wales but business as (depressingly) usual in London

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In mid March 1866 the trial of Robert Cox was concluding in Swansea. The body of John Davis had been discovered by police in Dyffryn Wood a long time after his disappearance. The body had been decapitated and the evidence led the police to Cox (or Coe). The jury had convicted Cox after deliberating for 12 hours and the judge, Justice Blackburn, ‘passed sentence of death in the usual manner’. The so-called ‘Mountain Ash murder’ resulted in the execution of Cox outside Swansea gaol on 12 April 1866. Cox confessed to killing his workmate after they had both been drinking. His was the last public execution in Wales.

Meanwhile the reports of the London Police courts reminded readers that most crime in the country was much more mundane. At Marlborough Street  Henry Baynes, a publisher’s clerk, was brought up again on a charge of defrauding his employers. He was accused of obtaining cheques by false presences from a number of publications including The Morning Post, the Owl, and Notes and Queries.  The prosecuting counsel was a Mr Wontner who was to go on to become a magistrate later in the century. On this occasion he managed to persuade the sitting justice that there was sufficient evidence against Baynes to send him for a jury trial.

At Southwark Mary Ann Vanna was accused to stealing a clock, coat and ‘other articles of wearing apparel’ from a house in Cole Street. She pleaded guilty in the hope of having the case heard summarily (and therefore getting a reduced sentence) and said it was the first time she’d been before a magistrate. The justice said he doubted that as she was a ‘well known character’ who lived with a ticket-of-leave man. He sent her to prison for six months at hard labour.

Over at Worship Street Mary Ann Taylor appeared in the dock charged with destroying her clothes in the casual ward at Shoreditch workhouse. She raised eyebrows in court because of the state of her dress:

‘beneath a dark wrap of a shawl and old bonnet she wore what was immediately recognizable as having been long since a nipped counterpane, but perfectly white and carefully patched and darned so as to exclude the clemency of the weather’.

When the magistrate asked the poor law officers why she was dressed like that they told him that when paupers destroyed their own clothes, with the expectation that the house would give them new, better ones, they supplied one of these ‘nice white dresses’ instead.

The effect was to humiliate the wearer and it seemed to have worked on Mary Ann who looked miserable and wept openly as she explained that she’d cut up her own clothes because they were ‘so filthy’. The magistrate sent her to prison for 14 days.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, March 16, 1866]

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]

A teenage girl gets the benefit of the doubt

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Since 1908 we have had separate courts for juvenile defendants and even before then there was a recognition that young children at least needed to be dealt with differently when they were caught up in the criminal justice system.

Today we wouldn’t think of placing a child of 13 in the dock of a magistrate’s court. Instead they would be brought before a youth court (if they are aged 10-17) and a parent or guardian would have to be present. The public are excluded from youth courts (but allowed in Magistrates’ courts) and defendants are called by their first name, and the presiding magistrates are specially trained.

The emphasis is on the welfare of the child, rather than their supposed criminality or deviant behaviour. Serious charges (murder for example) will potentially  end up before a judge and jury but nearly all other youth crime is heard in a Youth court where the legal process is more relaxed and less intimidating.

In the mid nineteenth century things were a little different. Welfare was not uppermost in the minds of the penal authorities and children were routinely imprisoned and even transported for a whole series of offences. Earlier in the century children (those aged below 16) could still end up on the gallows if they were convicted of murder, although this was extremely rare. So in 125 John Smith was hanged for burglary, he was 15; more infamously John Any Bird Bell was executed in 1831 for murdering a 13 year-old child, John was only a year older himself.

So when Anne Mabley appeared in the dock at Southwark Police court it’s no wonder she sobbed through her entire hearing. Anne was 13 and was accused of stabbing a younger child, nine year-old Richard Sparrowhall in the face.

The court was told that as Richard had passed Anne at ten that morning (the 19 September 1847) in Bermondsey she called to him. As he turned she asked him ‘how he should like to have his head cut off!’

Not surprisingly Richard replied that he wouldn’t like it, not at all!

But Anne produced a knife and tapped him on the shoulder with it. He pushed her roughly away, presumably in defence, and she stabbed him in the face. The blade cut his cheek below his eye and, very fortunately,  did little damage. Anne panicked and ran away but several witnesses saw what happened and caught hold of her.

While the lad was taken to have his wound looked at Anne was questioned by a policeman. She denied do anything and swore she had no knife but PC 159M soon found it and arrested her. He brought her straight to court as a day charge and her mother was sent for.

In between her tears Anne swore it was an accident, a joke that went wrong and said she’d been using the knife to trim her nails. The magistrate was inclined to believe and since Richard had escaped serious injury common sense prevailed and Anne was released into the care of her mother. So this story has a happy ending but on another day the 13 year-old girl could have faced a custodial sentence, of several weeks or even months, in an adult prison. The consequences of that experience may well have mentally scarred her for life, just as her attack on Richard might have scarred him physically.

[from The Standard, Monday, September 20, 1847]

A sad confession at Bow Street

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At ten past eleven on Friday March 1 1883 PC Pilling (428 City) was patrolling his evening beat on the Victoria Embankment. A rough-looking man with a wooden leg approached him and made a startling declaration:

‘I want to give myself up for murder’.

The policeman accompanied the man back to Bow Street Police where he supposedly made the following statement to Inspector Husted, the inspector on duty that night.

‘My name is Dennis Driscoll. About 5 or 6 years ago, at Christmas time, I killed a man named Brennan, at a lodging-house in New Church Court, Strand, by hitting him on the head with a piece of iron – the iron frame of my wooden leg. I went away for some weeks, and he died.  At times I have been very unhappy about it, and so I have given myself up’.

It was a dramatic confession and Driscoll was taken before the Bow Street magistrate the following day, Saturday 2 March, to be formally indicted for the murder. However, once he was there Driscoll claimed that the confession had been fabricated; he’d never said any such thing.

Mr Flowers was told that Driscoll was well known in the area as an aggressive and unpleasant individual. He had been ‘repeatedly charged and convicted for violent assaults’ many of which involved him taking off his false leg and using it as weapon. Thus the idea that he had murdered someone in 1877 was not implausible despite his physical disability. The magistrate decided that since this was all very odd and the prisoner was acting ‘in a very strange manner’ he would at least remand him in custody so that further enquiries could be made.

Driscoll was back before Mr Flowers on the 10 March where a few more details emerged. The Inspector Hustead confirmed that a man named Brennan had died following a quarrel in 1879 (not 1877) and that it was believed that Driscoll was the other party. However, Brennan had not been at all badly injured and went back to work as a flower seller straight away. It was only a few weeks later that he fell ill and was admitted to St Giles’ Infirmary where he died soon afterwards. His death was attributed to his destitution (flowers sellers were often, in effect, beggars) and it was formally registered as death by ‘natural causes’.

Driscoll then was off the hook. He may have believed he’d caused another man’s death but there was no proof to take him to trial for it. He was however, quite destitute himself and so Mr Flowers ordered him to be discharged but offered to recommend him as a suitable candidate for the workhouse.

It is a very sad case and indicative I think of the lack of care in Victorian society for the disabled poor. Clearly Dennis Driscoll struggled with life and may well have been a violent person who struck out at those around him. He quite probably drank and if, as is likely, he found work hard to come by then he must have supported himself by begging in the streets. Evidently he was in and out of the justice system, regularly turning up in the Police Courts and quite likely spending small amounts of time locked up. We have no idea how he’d lost his leg but an accident, or an injury sustained in the forces are possible explanations.

His confession may have been the result of guilt, of a drunken urge to get something off his chest, or even of a fatalistic desire to end his miserable existence. Convicted killers were still executed in Victorian England and while that is unlikely to have been Dennis’ fate he might have thought that was a way out of his misery.

[from The Standard, Monday, March 05, 1883; The Standard , Monday, March 12, 1883]

“Good-bye, Tom, I have done for my missis, and I am going to do for myself”; murder in the East End 1888

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The Isle of Dogs, 1899 (Manchester Road runs south-east parallel to Blackwall Reach)

In early October 1888 London was gripped by the ‘Ripper’ murders. As far as the press and public were concerned an unknown assassin had brutally murdered six women in a small area of East London and the police had no clue as to his identity. Police patrols had been stepped up and the newspapers were becoming inundated with fake letters from people purporting to be the murderer, and correspondence offering advice on how to catch him. Between the end of September (when both Elizabeth Stride and Katherine Eddowes were murdered on one night) and the 9th November (when Mary Kelly’s body was found in Miller’s Court) the killer seems to have lain low, avoiding the redoubled attentions of the police.

Meanwhile over at the Thames Police Court Mr Lushington was hearing the case of a man accused of murdering his wife. Levi Bartlett was a 57 year-old general dealer who lived and worked in Poplar. He and his wife, Elizabeth, ran a small shop on Manchester Road on the Isle of Dogs, selling mostly milk. He had been held on remand since the incident had happened back in August, because after killing his wife he had attempted to cut his own throat with a razor.

Even by October he was a weak man and was allowed to sit in court rather than stand through the evidence. Elizabeth’s sister, Emma Mears, testified that Levi and her sister had live together for many years before they married, and had now been married for about five years. During all of that time, she said, the dealer was ‘nearly always drunk’.

By all accounts when he was sober, Levi was a good man but that was rare. When in his cups he was abusive and violent and dipped into the shop’s till to feed his drinking habit.  Not surprisingly then quarrels between him and Elizabeth were frequent and loud.

On the 18th August 1888 Emma visited Elizabeth and found her sitting crying. When she asked what the matter was her long suffering sibling said:

‘Can’t you see the old villain is drunk again, and hasn’t been to bed since two this morning’. This was punctuated by the dealer’s loud denials, ‘don’t you believe her’ he shouted. He then asked for 2d for gin.

‘No, you villain, you have had enough now’ was his wife’s response. This provoked Bartlett to threaten her: ‘I will mark you for this tonight’, he declared.

More abuse was exchanged and before she left Emma told her her sister to fetch a policeman if her husband hit her again. Perhaps because Levi was so frequently drunk and abusive no one really expected what was to happen next, although the sights were there. At some point on Sunday morning (19 August) the former stevedore attacked his wife with a hammer, fatally wounding her,  before admitting his crime to George Jones who he had employed as a milk delivery man.

Jones later related the dramatic scene to the Old Bailey court as he was woken up by his master:

‘between 4 and 5 in the morning I was awoke by the prisoner coming into my room—he asked French if he had got any drink—French said no, he had forgot to bring any; the prisoner shook hands with French and said “Good-bye, you won’t see me no more alive”—he then went back to his own room, he seemed sober then—in about twenty minutes he came into our room again, and again bid French good-bye; he then came to me and said “Good-bye, Tom, I have done for my missis, and I am going to do for myself”—he shook hands with me and went out of the room’.

Bartlett then visited his old friend Benjamin French who had lodged with the Bartlett’s for 14 years. He also bids him ‘goodbye’ which left the dock labourer perplexed and not a little concerned. It was French that finally fetched a policeman, police sergeant Doe (30KR), who found Bartlett sitting on his bed ‘in his shirt, bleeding from the throat; the front of his shirt was covered with blood—he had a razor in his right hand’. Having taken the razor from him he summoned a doctor and then took him to hospital.

Bartlett, who had earned the nickname ‘Mad Dick the jockey’ (his middle name was Richard) was fully committed for trial at the Old Bailey. There, on the 22nd October 1888 he was convicted of murdering Elizabeth. Elizabeth’s sister testified to the years of abuse that she had suffered at Levi’s hands while the former dock worker’s best friend Benjamin said he had never heard a cross word between them. Drink was Bartlett’s downfall and it seems he simply could not function with it or without it. Ultimately this cost both him and his wife their lives; having recovered from his own suicide attempt Levi Richard Bartlett was hanged at Newgate Gaol on 13 November 1888.

Such a tragic event may well have created many more ‘headlines’ than it did in 1888 had there not been a supposedly crazed serial killer on the loose. This was, of course, a much more typical homicide for nineteenth century London than the series that has occupied the attention of researchers for over 120 years. Most murderers are men, and most of their victims (many of whom are women) are close to them – as wives, partners, lovers and acquaintances. The ‘Ripper’ killed strangers, and that made him all the more difficult (indeed almost impossible) to catch.

[from The Standard, Saturday, October 06, 1888]

An unfortunate Swing protester is caught by chance

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In December 1830 a man was brought to the bar at Marlborough Street Police Office (as it was termed then) charged with being the ringleader of a gang of rioters.

Riot was a capital offence until the late 1830s (when almost all of the so-called ‘bloody code’ was dismantled leaving just murder, high treason, piracy and arson in a Royal dockyard punishable by death by 1861). Riot was however, fairly commonplace in the long eighteenth century and well into the 1800s.

Rioters protested about food (wheat) prices, the enclosure of common land, the erection of turnpike tolls, the press gang, as well as specific incidents and actions of the authorities or people the ‘community’ did not approve of.

The man at the Marlborough Street court was William Cheater, described as having ‘an athletic appearance’ and he was accused of orchestrating a riot in Wiltshire. Apparently there had been several such incidents in that county in 1830 and Cheater was accused of causing damage to the home and property of his employer, Sir Charles Hulse of Bremoire (Breamore) House.

Cheater and a group of men had ‘entirely demolished all [Hulse’s] machinery about his farm’ and then absconded with a bounty of 50 guineas on his head.

Cheater came up to London where he must have hoped he could disappear among the crowds but he had a stroke of very bad luck. One day he was standing on a London street which happened (not to his knowledge) to be opposite the town house of his master. One of Sir Charles’ servants came out of the house and recognized Cheater.

This man then attempted a ruse: he sent another man across to Cheater who invited him for a drink   in a local pub (the White Horse) while in the meantime a messenger was sent to the police station in St James to fetch an officer. This must have been one of the very first ‘Peelers’ as the Metropolitan Police Act (1829) had only become law late the previous year.

The rioter was arrested and later made his appearance at Marlborough Street. There the magistrate was handed a letter from Sir Charles Hulse requesting that the prisoner be conveyed to Wiltshire where he could face trial. The prisoner denied he was responsible for the attack on his master’s farm but it emerged that the authorities in Wiltshire wanted him for organizing several other riots as well.

He was remanded overnight to be dispatched to the country in the morning, where he would face a trial by jury and almost certain death or banishment to Australia.

William Cheater was probably part of a widespread protest movement that affected Wilsthire (and several other English counties) in 1830. Reaction to the Salisbury Swing riots led to hundreds being executed and many others being transported as the authorities clamped down on small famers and agricultural workers who rioted and engaged in covert activities to protest about changes to their working conditions and the effect on their livelihoods.

Swing was a protest against the introduction of labour saving machinery (such as the threshing machine) to agriculture which made it easier for large farmers to dispense with labourers and pay those that remained less. The problems of the rural poor were famously highlighted by William Cobbet in his Rural Rides (1822-6) and the post ‘Swing’ world saw many agricultural workers leave the countryside and migrate to the growing towns and cities, never to return.

[from The Morning Post , Thursday, December 09, 1830]

A pickpocket’s minor offence against society reveals a much worse ‘crime’ against humanity.

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“This morning John Smith and John Pratt expiated their heinous offence, by forfeiting their lives on the scaffold in front of Newgate”.

                       The Standard, Friday, November 27, 1835

So ran the first line of a news report in the London press on 27th November 1835. We are not told what it was that the pair had done to merit a death sentence but we can be fairly sure that the paper’s readership did.

However the details of their offence were probably not revealed; the court case at the Old Bailey carries only their names, ages and sentence with the nature of their offence rendered with letters missing:

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Smith and Pratt were prosecuted for being homosexual and a third man, William Bonill, was charged and convicted as an accessory*.  The papers reported the last hours of the men in Newgate. Pratt was reluctant to confess his sins to a dissenting minister who visited him in the condemned cell, sending him away before calling him back to ‘make his peace with God’.

A crowd turned out to see them ‘turned off’ as was usually the case with these public displays of ‘justice’. Smith went to his death calmly but Pratt had to be helped onto the scaffold outside Newgate gaol. The executioner ‘adjusted the ropes and caused the plank to fall which closed the world upon them’.

One of those watching the execution was Thomas Palmer. Palmer was a young lad who seems to have been unmoved by the gruesome spectacle he was witnessing. While others stood and doffed their caps as Smith and Pratt had their necks broken in public, Palmer ‘dipped’ the pockets of a gentleman. He removed a pocket book (a wallet) but it had nothing of value in it.

He wasn’t quick enough however, to avoid capture by one of the officers keeping watch over the crowd. He came before the magistrate at Guildhall on the following day to be charged with picking pockets, there was no report of what happened to him so I suspect he was either reprimanded and discharged or sent to prison for a week or two.

Pratt and Smith had been caught in August at Bonhill’s house in Southwark. They were the last men to be hanged for sodomy in England and the only two persons hanged outside Newgate gaol between 1834-6. The pair had been prosecuted under Lord Landsdowne’s Offences against the Person Act (1828) a wide ranging piece of legislation that included confirmation of the death penalty for rape (abolished in 1841) and for shooting, stabbing or wounding (repealed in 1837).

The death penalty for buggery was finally removed from the statute in 1861 (although no one was hanged for it after Pratt and Smith). If this seemed enlightened it certainly wasn’t. In 1885 new legislation made it easier to convict men of ‘indecency’ when sodomy could not be proved. This was the act that caught Oscar Wilde and prematurely ended his life. At his trial in 1895 the judge (Mr Justice Wills) handed down a two year prison sentence but declared it: “totally inadequate for a case such as this,” and added that the case was “the worst case I have ever tried”. Wilde died within three years of his release, his health health adversely affected by the conditions he experienced in Reading gaol.

In 1967 homosexual acts were decriminalized in England and Wales, this was extended to Scotland in 1980. Following a ruling at the European Court of Human Rights decriminalization followed in Northern Ireland in 1982. It took until 2001 for the laws about consensual sex to be applied to heterosexual and homosexual men equally, when the age of consent was lowered to 16; again this took an intervention from Europe to achieve.

The arrest of Thomas Palmer (my jumping off point for today’s blog from the Police Courts) revealed an event that marked a watershed in the LGBT rights in this country. Hopefully the vast majority of people in the UK would be disgusted, not at the actions of Pratt and Smith as many were in 1835, but at a state that executed people in public for being gay.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, November 28, 1835]

  • Bonill was not hanged but instead transported to Australia for 14 years