An old man’s ‘revenge’, with echoes of the infamous Ratcliffe Highway murders

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In October 1843 Thomas Rowe was brought before the Lord Mayor of London at Mansion House Police court. The Lord Mayor sat, as did the City’s aldermen, as single magistrates just as Police Magistrates did across the rest of the metropolis. On most days they dealt with the full gamut of summary offences and pretrial hearings, listening to cases of petty theft, fraud, disorderly behaviour and assault. But on this morning, Friday 6 October, a much more interesting (and serious) case was opened in the Mansion House.

Rowe, a 77 year-old former servant, was accused of attempted to murder his employer – a wine merchant named Thomas Waller. The incident had occurred at around nine o’clock that morning.  Thomas Lock, another of Waller’s servants, had opened the door to his former work colleague Rowe, with a ‘halloa’ and a comment that he hadn’t seen him for some time.

This was because Rowe had been dismissed some three weeks earlier after an argument with the wine merchant. Now he asked if he might have a word with Mr Waller and Lock went off to see if his boss would see him. The 61 year-old wine dealer told him: ‘I have nothing particular to say to him, but let him come in’.

Rowe was shown in to the counting house where Lock left him. Barely five minutes later the sound of a pistol shot punctured the peace of the house and Lock heard his master cry out: ‘Rowe has shot me!’

He rushed in and put himself between the shooter and his victim, then manoeuvred Rowe out into the passage while he attended to the injured man. Rowe made his escape past a frightened serving girl and the beadle was called.

Police inspector Waller (no relation to the wine dealer) was soon on the case and sent ‘officers in all directions’ while he acted on information and hailed a cab to pursue the would-be assassin in the direction of Bow. He caught up with him and Rowe quickly surrendered. He made no attempt here, or later before the magistrate, to deny what he had done so it really only fell to the justice to determine why he had tried to kill the merchant.

What reason had you for committing this dreadful act?, the Lord Mayor asked him.

I could not live with nothing but misery before my eyes‘, Rowe replied.

Having served his master faithfully for 24 years he felt he was owed more loyalty from the wine merchant.

After ‘serving him morning, noon, and night, at all hours, I could not help thinking it [his dismissal] was like transporting me to a foreign country. I had no one to help me‘.

Whatever the cause of his dismissal it was devastating. With no wife and children that he said were unable to support him, and no savings or means of employment, Rowe was thrown on the scrap heap and all that society offered him was the workhouse and, eventually, a pauper burial with no known grave. It must have been a desperately depressing and frighting future for an elderly man who had probably worked all his life.

Nevertheless the Lord Mayor was horrified:

The idea of firing pistols at a man because it did not suit him to employ you is horrible beyond everything‘.

Rowe was stony faced:

My Lord, Mr Waller is a very rich man and he could afford to employ me easily enough‘.

So the motive for the attack was revenge and Rowe was taking no chances of failing in his mission. He had two pistols  (in case one misfired) and a dagger as back-up because, as he put it, ‘that was a thing that wouldn’t miss-fire’.

How long had he had these weapons, the magistrate wanted to know.

I have had them for 30 years‘, Rowe explained. ‘I bought them to protect myself at the time of the murder of the Marrs in Ratcliffe-highway‘.

The defendant was referring to the infamous Ratcliffe Highway murders of 1811 when two entire families had been brutally murdered in the space of a week in East London. The case gained national headlines and highlighted the ineffectiveness of the capital’s policing in the years before Peel’s 1829 reform. The murderer was caught (although some doubt remains as to whether he was the right man) but he never went to trial. The body of John Williams was found hanging in his cell before he was formally committed to a jury trial. William’s corpse was then placed on a cart, with the murder weapons alongside his head, and he was paraded along the Highway before being buried at a crossroads with a stake driven through his heart.

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Having heard from the doctor that examined and treated the injured Mr Waller and from the policeman that searched the scene of crime for evidence (and picked up the offending bullet), the Lord Mayor asked Rowe if he anything further to say. ‘No, my Lord, I have nothing at all to say’. Since the wine merchant was still recovering from his injury (which it was hoped was not fatal) Rowe was remanded for a week.

When the case came before an Old Bailey jury much was made of Rowe’s infirmity and poor mental health. In the end this was what saved him. He had made no attempt to deny his actions at any stage. William Cook, a surgeon that specialised in ‘diseases of the mind’ testified that he had known Rowe for very many years and had seen him deteriorate. When asked by Rowe’s counsel what the effect of his dismissal from service would have been he answered that he thought it quite possibly could have tipped him over the edge. Rowe had complained of ‘a swimming in the head, and dizziness about the eyes’ on several occasions, the jury was told.

Thomas Rowe was acquitted on the three counts he was charged with: namely ‘feloniously assaulting Thomas Wilier […] and shooting off and discharging at him a certain pistol loaded with gunpowder and leaden bullets, and wounding him on the left side of his body, with intent to murder him.—2nd COUNT, stating his intent to be to maim and disable him.—3rd COUNT, To do him some grievous bodily harm.’

It was also revealed in court exactly why Rowe had been dismissed. Mr Waller had deemed him unfit to continue on account of his age and mental state. Waller told the Old Bailey that ‘when I gave him notice I said, “Your faculties give way, you don’t know what you are about”.’ He gave him a guinea and a week’s notice.

After 24 years of service, a week’s wages and a guinea was not a lot of reward for his loyalty. A week later Rowe sent a letter to his former master (written by Rowe’s son) pleading for help but ignored it.

Rowe was found not guilty on the account of being insane; however, no one doubted he’d acted as charged. The asylum beckoned for Thomas Rowe, if anything a worse outcome than the workhouse, or even a public execution.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, October 07, 1843]

A misguided printer arms himself against the ‘roughs’

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Well, today is exciting! The first editorial queries for my new book have arrived. Jack and the Thames Torso Murders  is due to be published by Amberley in the summer and this morning the copyeditors questions have landed in my inbox for me and my co-author to deal with. The book offers up a new suspect in the Ripper murder case and packs in plenty of social history at the same time. I’ll keep you posted with its progress.

Given that the Whitechapel murders took place in the summer of 1888 let us now go back to February of that year and see what was happening in the Police courts.

At Clerkenwell George Dickson, a 19 year-old printer was convicted of firing  pistol in Castle Street, Hackney on the previous Saturday night. Dickson was lame in one leg and so probably walked with a limp. Sadly this attracted the unwanted attention of the local youth who teased and taunted him as he made his way along the streets.

Like many areas of London in the late 1880s ‘gangs’ of youths walked the streets, acting aggressively towards passers-by, pushing and shoving, and using crude language.  George was just one of their targets and had taken to arming himself against the threat he felt they posed. He was overreacting, the magistrate at Clerkenwell insisted, who declared that the ‘practice of carrying loaded revolvers was a very dangerous one’, and something parliament should act against.

Clearly in 1888 it wasn’t against the law to carry a gun in England (although you did need a license), but it was an offence to fire one. In court Dickson was contrite and because he agreed to surrender his pistol to the police the justice (Mr Bennett) simply bound him over in the sum of £10 against any future misconduct, and let him go.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, February 12, 1888]

A mysterious shooting in Belgravia

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Sometimes there is just no obvious reason behind people’s actions and this is one of those cases. In early February 1844 the magistrate at Queen Square Police court was about to shut the court and leave for home when the police brought in a young man named Philip Macholland.

Macholland, who was seemingly in all accounts, ‘respectable’ and ‘of sound mind’, was set in the dock and charged with firing a pistol into a house in Lower Belgravia Place. The ball from the gun narrowly missed the Reverend Charles Chapman who appeared in court with the policeman that had arrested the youth.

Rev. Chapman testified that earlier that afternoon, at about four o’clock, he had been dressing in a room which overlooked his garden at the rear of the house at 20 Lower Belgravia Place. To his horror he heard a gun discharged and felt the ball pass close by him before lodging in the wainscot.

Looking out the window he saw a man (evidently Macholland) appear from a property three doors down holding a gun. Either the cleric or one of his staff had already called for the police and PC Hobbs (166B) quickly arrived and secured the gunman.

Macholland tried to deny firing the gun but when the clergyman assured him that ‘he might be forgiven’ if he admitted his actions he confessed to it, but gave no reason. In court before Mr Bond Macholland said he was sorry for what he’d done and promised not to do it again. All he would add under questioning was that he was apprenticed to a modeler and sculptor; he couldn’t (or wouldn’t) say why he had a gun or had used it that day.

The magistrate was quite perplexed but given that the Rev. Chapman was in no mood to press serious charges against the lad he simply reprimanded Macholland, warning him that the consequences could have been fatal, and bound him over to keep the peace for the next twelve months. Having extracted a promise (backed up with nearly £150 worth of sureties) he released the young man. Congratulating the reverend on his lucky escape from an untimely death the magistrate went home to reflect on an unusual end to his working day.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, February 10, 1844]

p.s curiously, and amusingly, just around the corner from Lower Belgravia Street is Ebury Street where, at number 22 Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, once lived. A blue plaque marks the house today. 

Tragedy, as a man murders his cleaner before turning the gun on himself

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From The Illustrated Police News, January 1882

In a break from the usual focus of this blog I am looking at a case that didn’t make it to the Police courts, for the simple reason that there was no one to prosecute. The source for all my posts are the reports of the cases heard at the Metropolitan Police courts in the Victorian press and these are usually situated with all the other ‘crime news’ in the papers. On the 2 January 1882 the usual record of events at the Bow Street, Guildhall and Marlborough Street courts was followed by the following headline:

Shocking murder and suicide.

It detailed the case of Robert Saunders, a 60 year old man who had given many years service as a butler to ‘a gentleman in Portman Square’. On his retirement from service Saunders had managed to accumulate enough money to purchase a number of small properties close to the Edgware Road. He rented most of these out but lived at 16 Shouldham Street with his wife Mary Jane in two rooms (the remainder of that house also being let to tenants).

Sadly what should have been a gentle and prosperous retirement for Robert was anything but. He was in financial difficulty and two of the leases of his properties had ‘fallen in’. Saunders feared that instead of prosperity, poverty was all that he and his wife had to look forward to. The former butler now fell in to what the report described as a deep ‘depression of spirit’.

In one of his houses, at 5 Newnham Street, lived a cab driver named Humphries and his wife Louisa. Humphries had had an accident and was being treated in the Marylebone Infirmary, as he was too sick to work. As a result Louisa was forced to take up charring for the Saunders and on Saturday 31 December 1881 she was at 16 Shouldham Street all day.

At half past five o’clock she had finished cleaning and went to see Mrs Saunders to let her know. The Saunders were seated in the parlour eating a meal. They were having hare but Mary remarked that they should have pork tomorrow, and asked him Mrs Humphries would oblige her by fetching some for them. She turned to her husband and asked him to give the cleaner 3s for the meat.

This simple request seemed to trigger something in Robert. He got to his feet and moved to the door, locking it. Slowly, he turned around and drew revolver from his pocket. In horror Louisa Humphries tried to rush to the door but Saunders shot her at point blank range in the face. She fell down dead on the spot. Mary screamed but ran at her husband, trying to wrestle the gun from his grip. He let off two shots, which missed her, before she knocked the weapon from his hands. As he reached for it she unlocked the door and ran out into the street, shouting for help. As she did so ‘she fancied she heard another shot fired’.

Neighbours soon rushed to the scene and a police constable (Stokes 156D) assumed control. He called for support and other police arrived including Inspector Measures of D Division. Mr. Saunders had locked the door again but they broke it down and entered the parlour where ‘a shocking scene presented itself’ (as the Illustrated Police News‘ artist imagined it above).

Mrs Humphries was lying dead in a pool of blood, the bullet had entered just below her left eye and had penetrated her brain, the money for the pork joint still gripped tightly in her lifeless hand. She would have died instantly, the report suggested. The former butler’s body was draped over a fender, the revolver close to his right hand. He had pointed the muzzle of the gun into his mouth and fired upwards, once again death would have been instantaneous.

The revolver still contained one charge; he’d fired one at his wife’s retreating back before locking the door behind her. The final shot Mrs Saunders had heard was the one that took her husband’s life.

A crowd had gathered outside the house and the bodies were taken away to the mortuary prior a formal investigation by the Middlesex coroner. There would be no trial but the readers could look forward to seeing if anything new emerged from the coroner’s enquiry in a few days time.   The question on everyone’s lips was how had an otherwise mild mannered former servant gotten hold of a pistol and why had he chosen to shoot an entirely innocent woman? Unfortunately, with no defendant to set in the dock and ask, these were questions that were unlikely to be answered.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, 2 January, 1882]

A woman pulls a gun in court

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It must have caused quite a stir at Wandsworth Police court when a respectably dressed woman stepped into the witness box and placed a loaded revolver in front of her. Mr Plowden, the sitting magistrate, asked her why she was carrying it and she told it it was for protection against her husband, who had threatened her.

The unnamed lady was ‘respectable’ (which is probably why her name was left out of the paper’s report) but was living away from her partner as he had ‘put her in fear of her life’. Mr Plowden was sympathetic to the woman’s request for protection (which is why she had appeared that day) but advised her to seek legal advice for a formal separation.

He added that carrying a loaded gun around in her handbag was dangerous: for herself, her husband and and the wider public and he cautioned her to leave it at home. The court clerk took the revolver from the lady and extracted the bullets before handing it to a ‘legal gentleman’. She left court in the company of that solicitor to begin the process of legal separation from her man.

Given that this incident took place in November 1888, when across London in the East End a serial killer was stalking victims around Whitechapel it is interesting that no mention of this was made by the press here. After all it might seem quite appropriate for a woman to arm herself for protection, even if, on this occasion at least, the threat she faced was much closer to home. Perhaps the heightened tension caused by the Ripper had prompted her to take such drastic precautions?

[from London Evening Standard, Monday, 5 November 1888]

‘I did it for love!’ Jealousy, xenophobia and murder in Bermondsey.

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In late May 1891 Franz Joseph Munch, a 31 year-old baker living in Bermondsey appeared at Southwark Police court to answer a charge of murder. According to the policeman that arrested him he had shot a Mancunian named Heckey who had been making his life a misery and who, he believed, had been stealing from his employer. On his way to the police station the German asked Sgt. Ayerst (of M Division, Metropolitan Police) how badly injured the other man was.

I think he is dead‘ the sergeant replied.

A _______ good job‘, responded Munch (and we can imagine the deleted expletive), ‘he called me a German bastard‘, adding ‘I suppose I shall swing for it in a month‘.

The papers dubbed the case ‘the Bermondsey Murder’ and Munch was hauled off to prison to face a trial at the Old Bailey.

Munch was tried at the Old Bailey on the 29 June 1891. Much of the evidence was repetitive (as trials often are) and concerned the events of the night Hickey died. He and a friend (an engine named Joel Dymond) had been drinking in the Lord Palmerston pub opposite Mrs Conrath’s bakery where Munch was employed Several people saw Hickey and Dymond cross the road to the bakery.

Hickey got out his key and entered the building. Almost immediately there was a bang and a flash and Hickey staggered out on two the street and collapsed. He’d been shot and Munch followed him out holding a gun in one hand and a knife  in the other. He was quickly overpowered and led away; Hickey was taken to the pub where he died before medical help could arrive.

The key to the story is Bridget Conrath, the bakery’s proprietor. She was Hickey’s cousin and, for some time at least, Munch’s lover. It seemed that when Hickey arrived in the capital from Manchester he was looking to start his own business and perhaps he had designs on his cousin’s. He certainly didn’t approve of her relationship with a foreigner and it plain. He insulted Munch at every opportunity and refused to be in the same room as him.

Hickey also moved to get the German baker the sack, insisting that Bridget get rid of him. In the end she was persuaded (perhaps by force or familial pressure) to give Franz his notice. She didn’t want to she told the court, and it had a terrible effect on Munch. He’d proposed to her and she rejected him but they’d stayed close friends and she valued him as an employee. He was trusted with the shop’s money and perhaps he’d noticed Hickey helping himself to the takings as he swanned around the place. When Bridget gave him his marching orders he got drunk – the only time she’d seen him lose his control in all the years she’d known him.

In the days leading up to the murder Munch was also suffering from tooth ache and this physical agony, combined with the upset and shame of losing his job and seeing the woman he loved being manipulated by a racist bigot probably pushed him over the edge.

The jury clearly thought so. They found him guilty (as he undoubtedly was) but recommended him to mercy on the grounds of provocation. The judge donned the black square of cloth and sentenced Franz Joseph to death. Berry-1

Munch appealed his sentence to the German Embassy but they did nothing to help him. He’d left Germany to avoid being conscripted into the army and having supposedly abandoned his country, his country left him to die at the end of James Berry’s rope. He was executed on the 21 July 1891 at Wandsworth Prison.

                                           James Berry, the executioner

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, May 31, 1891]

A father meets out his own brand of ‘justice’ on the man that ‘defiled’ his daughter

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Many of the cases prosecuted and heard by the magistrates of the Victorian metropolis were fairly mundane and soon forgotten.

Everyday across London drunks, disorderly prostitutes, pub brawlers, petty thieves and swindlers, took their place in the Police Court dock along with the occasional middle-class trader charged with selling meat unfit for human consumption or for adulterating milk or other goods. Landlords were fined for failing to maintain premises and cab passengers summoned for failing to pay their fares. Sad stories of suicide, poverty and child neglect were tempered by amusing tales involving country ‘bumpkins’, cross-dressing entertainers and defendants who showed a bit of bravado in the face of adversity.

Just occasionally however, the cases were quite serious and reflected the courts’ role as a court of first hearing for many of the trials that reached the Old Bailey.

In 1888 (the year that ‘Jack the Ripper’ perpetrated a series of brutal murders in the East End) Robert James Matthews stepped into the dock at Worship Street Police Court charged with wounding and attempted murder.

His victim was Henry Blaming, a 22 year-old ‘potman’ who had previously worked for Matthews at his pub in Brick Lane. Matthews ran the the Two Old Brewers and lived there with his wife, son and two daughters. Blaming took a fancy to one of his employer’s daughter and in January of 1888 there was some kind of incident and Blaming was sacked.

It seems that Blaming was accused of indecently assaulting Eliza Matthews and he was formally charged and tried at the Old Bailey, but acquitted. Blaming later claimed that Eliza was 14 years old at the time, but the Old Bailey puts her age as under 13. Whether there was simply insufficient evidence of Blaming’s guilt or he was indeed as innocent as the jury found him is impossible to know. The proceedings of the Old Bailey rarely went into any detail in publishing accounts of rape trials and this is typically uninformative.

After leaving the Old Bailey at noon Blaming decided to celebrate his acquittal by going for a drink with two of his friends. All fair enough we might think, except that the former pub worker chose to rub his old boss’ nose in the mud by opting to have his celebration at his old place of work. He took a position at the bar and asked to be served.

Matthews saw him smiling at him and demanded: ‘who are you laughing at?’

‘I have nothing to cry for’, was the younger man’s response. Things now escalated fairly swiftly. Matthews reached behind the bar and grabbed his revolver. He levelled it at Henry and fired.

Blaming was hit in the stomach and tried to run away. A second shot caught him in the buttocks before he escaped into the street. The wounded man was soon treated by a doctor and then taken to the London Hospital were he was an in patient for ten weeks.

In the meantime Matthews was arrested and taken to the station by a young detective, Walter Dew. Dew was to go on to serve on the ‘Ripper’ case (supposedly being the first policeman into Mary Kelly’s home) and, more famously, to catch the murderer Dr Crippen in a chase across the Atlantic.

Matthews told Inspector Bavington, who had questioned the landlord at the pub, that he had fired two shots but that he was provoked. He clearly believed that Blaming was guilty of raping his daughter and had gotten away with it.

On the way to the police station Dew said to Matthews: ‘This is a bad job;” only for his prisoner to reply: ‘What! I wish I had killed him, there would be an end to the b——then’.

There was a third bullet because when the police examined the gun they found one remaining in the chamber. Blaming had been lucky: the first bullet had entered his thigh but had missed his abdomen by a ‘faction of an inch’. The first bullet had been removed but the other remained lodged in his buttock and he was still receiving ongoing treatment.

When it came up to the Old Bailey Matthews was, unsurprisingly, convicted. The jury was sympathetic to him however and strongly recommended mercy on the grounds of provocation. The judge was lenient, sending him to prison for six weeks at hard labour she he could easily have spent much longer inside. If he was able to return to his management of the pub one imagines Blaming gave him a wide berth in future.

[from The Standard, Thursday, April 12, 1888]