A real life ‘Fletch’: The man who had (too many) convictions

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One of the innovations of the Victorian criminal justice system was its ability to track offenders over many years. In the second half of the eighteenth century the Bow Street Police court had (under the leadership of the Fielding brothers, Henry and John) pioneered the collection of data in relation to crime. John, who was blind, was supposedly able to identify an offender that had appeared before him previously by voice alone. The Bow Street Runners collected information on criminals in an early form of the modern police database, but much of this was lost when the office was destroyed in the Gordon Riots of June 1780.

Effective use of data would have to wait for the second half of the nineteenth century, and was supported by the invention of photography and the creation of a professional police force. The ‘garroting panic’ of 1862 led to the passing of the Habitual Offenders Act in 1869. This created a register of offenders who were obliged to check in with police on their release from prison, and continue to do so for the next seven years. Records now noted all previous convictions, physical characteristics, as well as age, occupation, place of birth etc.

It had now become very difficult for anyone who had been in trouble with the law to escape the consequences of their past, something modern offenders and probation and prisoner support services are only too aware of.

John McCann was just such a ‘habitual’ offender. Like ‘Fletcher’’, the anti-hero of the popular British TV comedy Porridge, John McCann was a criminal who ‘seemed to treat arrest as an occupational hazard’. By 1881 he had already noticed up 16 previous convictions when he appeared at Marylebone Police court in mid July.

On this occasion he had been found lurking around the rear of a property in Charles Street by a constable on his beat. PC David West (160D) discovered McCann hiding by a workshop door at two in the morning and, suspecting he was up to no good, challenged him.

McCann ‘became very violent’ and hit out at the policeman, punching and kicking him, and running away. PC West managed, with difficulty, to secure him and take him into custody.

At Marylebone Mr Cooke was told that McCann had convictions for assault, theft, and other offences. He’d served several prison sentences but none seem to have deterred him from his chosen life course. He had, the justice declared, ‘been guilty of almost every kind of offence and spent nearly all his time in prison’. He would now go to gaol again, this time for six months with hard labour.

I am no apologist for violence or the burglary that McCann was probably about to commit and it is hard to see him as anything other than a serial offender. But what chance did he have once he was in the system? Tracked by the police and subject to periodic shakedowns by officers whenever a crime fitting his MO occurred we might imagine that John McCann was a target for the police whenever he showed his face. His chances of ‘going straight’ (as ‘Fletcher’ eventually did) were limited at best.

[from The Standard, Monday, July 18, 1881]

A victory for William Stead or just another victim of male lust?

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On Saturday I left you with the unfinished case of Louisa Hart who was accused at Marylebone Police court, of the abduction of a young girl for the purposes of child prostitution. The hearing was one of the first to result from the passing of the Criminal Law Amendment Act in 1885 after a sensational campaign by the leading journalist of the day, William Stead of the Pall Mall Gazette.

On the 8 February 1886 Louisa Hart was remanded in custody so that an investigation by CID could be further pursued. On the following Tuesday (16 February) Hart was back before the magistrate flanked by her solicitor (a Mr T. Duerdin Dutton) to hear a prosecution brought this time by the Treasury. She was described as being 21 years of age and residing at 32 Fulham Palace Road. The charge was that she had ‘unlawfully procured two young girls of reputable character, aged twelve and thirteen respectively, for immoral purposes’.

Florence Richardson was again called to give evidence, this time in person, and she recounted her experience of visiting Mrs Hart with her friend Rosie Shires in the summer of 1885. This account had a little more detail than the one I reported on Saturday as Florence described some of the events that had occurred:

Having had tea with Mrs Hart Rosie and Florence ‘went downstairs to a back room furnished as a bedroom. They washed their hands and presently an old gentleman came in’.

He spoke to the girls but she couldn’t remember what he’d said. Soon afterwards though both girls undressed and then things happened which were said in court but not written up or published by the Daily News’ reporter. Mrs Hart gave Florence a half-sovereign and Rosie 10s, adding 3s 6for their cab fare home to Holloway. Florence returned on the next Saturday and the same man was there and the same thing happened again.

It was an awful experience for Florence who cried bitterly in the witness box, especially when she was being cross-examined by Mr Dutton. She was being asked about her family, her withdrawal from school, and her sister, but she pleaded with the bench that she had nothing more say having already  ‘brought sufficient disgrace on her family’.

The next witness was Sophia Shires (22) of Spencer Road in Holloway. Rosie was her daughter and was not yet 13 years old. She’d found a letter (form Mrs Hart) in her daughter’s pocket and had contacted the police. Again she was cross-examined with doubt being thrown on her morality with regards to her daughter. Had she been aware of what Rosie was involved with? Had she been complicit?

This chimed with the case of Eliza Armstrong, the 13 year-old girl that William Stead had bought for £5 as the centerpiece of his ‘Maiden Tribute’ exposé. It was Mrs Armstrong’s strong reaction to the idea that she had ‘sold’ her daughter into prostitution that helped bring Stead and his accomplice Rebecca Jarrett before an Old Bailey judge and jury in the previous year.

Rosie was not in court and her mother clearly wanted to spare her the trauma that Florence was going through but Mr De Rutzen, the magistrate, insisted. The case was adjourned for a few days and Louisa Hart again remanded in custody. Meanwhile Mr Mead, the Treasury solicitor, muttered darkly that there had already been attempts to interfere with some of his witnesses. Powerful forces supported brothels and child prostitution just as they had opposed the attempted to pass the legislation that was at the heart of this prosecution. Some members of the elite strongly believed they had a right to prey on the children of the poor to satisfy their carnal desires.

During the course of the following week it emerged that Louisa Hart’s husband, Ben, was possibly the real power behind the relationship. The Pall Mall Gazette noted that when Louisa had been searched at Paddington police station she had told her female searcher that Ben Hart had married her when she was just 15 years old. It was against her will, she said, and it was him that had been the driving force in setting up what was described as ‘a child’s brothel’ in Markham Square.

Louisa Hart was back before Mr De Rutzen on 2 March. The same evidence was repeated but with some clarifications. Rosie was there this time and gave her version of the events in the house. She described the gentleman there as ‘middle aged’ and was clear that she had been asked her age, and ‘Florry’ asked hers. The prosecution was trying to establish that the girls were underage and that Mrs Hart (and the mysterious unmanned pedophile) knewthey were underage. She later added that on another occasion at the house she clearly remembered Mrs Hart insisting she tell the old gentleman that she was over 16, despite her knowing that she wasn’t.

This last point seemed to knock the defense solicitor somewhat and he asked for an adjournment for a week. The magistrate allowed this and again remanded the prisoner. A week later a much shorter hearing ended with Louisa being fully committed to take her trial at the Old Bailey.

That trial took place on 3 May 1886 and Louisa Hart was accused and convicted of ‘feloniously aiding and assisting a man unknown in carnally knowing Rosie Shires, a girl under the age of 13’. That was all the details the Old Bailey Proceedings recorded apart from Hart’s sentence, which was five year’s penal servitude. She served just over three years, being released on license in August 1889 and listed on the habitual criminals register. She died ten years later at the age of just 34. What happened to Rosie and Florence is unknown. The man that abused them seems to have got away scot-free as did Louisa’s husband Ben.

[from The Daily News, Wednesday 17 February, 1886; Pall Mall Gazette, Wednesday, 24 February 1886; The Standard, Wednesday, 3 March, 1886]

‘Wanton mischief’ and criminal damage earns a recidivist drunk a month in gaol

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While the Victorians didn’t have fingerprint technology or the data gathering capacities of modern police forces this didn’t mean that it was always easy for repeat offenders to avoid the repercussions of their past indiscretions.

Policemen were expected to get to know their beats and areas, and the local populations they served. From the end of the 1860s ‘habitual’ offenders were monitored more closely, making it even harder for them to ‘go straight’ and then,  when photography was invented, ‘mug shots’ added to a criminal’s woes.

Alongside the police were the gaolers, court officers and, of course, the magistrates themselves. These authority figures were adept at recognising old or frequent visitors to their court rooms and were far less likely to be lenient if someone had been up before them time after time before.

James Oaks was just the sort of frequent visitor that Mr Arnold at Westminster Police court was hearty sick of seeing in the dock. He was a drunk and probably turned up among the night charges that were paraded before the magistrates most mornings to be admonished, fined or sent to prison for a few days or weeks.

This time Oaks was accused of criminal damage. On the previous evening he had stumbled into a gentleman’s outfitters on Brompton Row. He was the worse for drink and flailing about. He tripped over his own feet and grabbed at a shirt hanging on a nail. Struggling to regain his balance he pulled on the shirt, tearing it and earning the wrath of the shop assistant.

The police were called, Oaks arrested, processed at the police station, and locked up overnight. In the morning at Westminster he tried to say he’d been pushed over and it was all an accident not of his making but Mr Arnold didn’t believe him.

First of all a clerk at Doyle & Foster’s outfitters gave a very damning and clear report of the prisoner’s actions and declared the damage done as the nail ripped the cotton amounted to 7s 6d. In 1869 that equated to a day’s pay for a skilled labourer (and Oaks was very far from being one of the those) so this was no cheap shirt.

More importantly I suspect, Mr Arnold recognised Oaks as someone he’d cautioned for being drunk and disorderly previously and so he was hardly likely to believe his version of events over that of a sober and respectable clerk.

The magistrate looked down at the man in the dock and told him ‘he had no doubt this was a piece of wanton mischief’ and for that he was sending him to the house of correction for a month. No fine, no warning, but straight to gaol.

That was a heavy sentence for the relatively trivial ‘crime’ James had committed and it would probably further impair his chances of finding legitimate employment on his release; presuming, of course, that gainful employment was something he wanted.

In the opinion of men like Mr Arnold the likes of Oaks were near-do-well drunks and loafers for whom second (or third) chances were a waste of his time. Better to keep locking them up than bothering to help them find work, or quit drinking. Sadly this attitude continued until well into the next century when social work and probation began to challenge it.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, August 18, 1869]

The shoeblack who only wanted a chance to ‘go straight’.

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The Victorians believed that criminality was endemic in the working classes and that some offenders were beyond help. This informed a debate about the existence of a ‘criminal class’, reviewed and given impetus by the writings of Henry Mayhew at mid century. Just as there were those that ‘would not work’ there were those that lived by theft and violence. This depiction of crime had important consequences for those caught up in the justice system because by the 1870s the authorities had pretty much abandoned all attempts at rehabilitating prisoners and instead imposed ever more strict forms of discipline and penalties for breaking the rules.

The harsh nature of the penal system didn’t end when you left gaol. Under the terms of the Prevention of Crimes Act (1871) any prisoner released early on a ticket-of-leave could be arrested and presented before a magistrate on the mere suspicion (by the police) that they had done something wrong. Moreover, registers of habitual offenders were now kept which recorded previously untold details of thousands of individuals convicted of all manner of offenders by the Victorian state. Now then, a criminal record could dog your footsteps forever.

Not surprisingly this made it very hard for former convicts, like Thomas Briggs, to go straight. By March 1875 Briggs already had a  prison record. He’d served at least one term of penal servitude and had been up before the local Police magistracy on a number of occasions.

On Saturday 20 March 1875 he was there again, this time in Mr Hannay’s court at Worship Street in Shoreditch.

Briggs was an unlicensed shoeblack who  plied his trade on the streets. The 35 year-old was well known to the local police and it seems they were in no mind to let him live out an easy life. PC 250N was patrolling his beat near Shoreditch church at seven in the evening when he saw Briggs standing by his box looking for trade. According to the policeman the ‘black and his box were blocking the passage and he asked him to move along.

The real problem here was that Thomas didn’t have a license to clean shoes in the street and this was because the police refused to give him one. Every time they saw him on the street they move him on or confiscated his box, taking away his livelihood. Thomas then had to collect this from the police station , reinforcing his relationship with the law and reminding everyone of his criminal history. According to Briggs this happened ‘four or five times a week’.

On this occasion Thomas lost control of the situation and refused to move. When the PC insisted the shoeblack climbed the nearest lamp post and yelled abuse down at the copper below. He accused the local police of persecuting him; they knew he’d only bene out of prison for a few weeks and ‘pitched on’ him at every opportunity making it impossible for him ‘to earn an honest living’.

In court the constable told the magistrate that Briggs was ‘obstinate’, obstructive and abusive. He ‘collected a crowd about him, told the people his history to enlist their sympathies, and then said they should see him righted’.

Not surprisingly Mr Hannay took the police’s side in this. Briggs would have to confine himself to cleaning shoes only in places where the police allowed him to (presumably licensed ‘backs had more liberty of choice?). The magistrate told him he would be dismissed without further charge today but warned him that future transgressions would fall heavily upon him. He advised the policeman to bring him in as often as was necessary for the former convict to learn that rules were there to be obeyed.

Naturally we can’t know whether Thomas Briggs was an honest man caught up in an impossible system. He may have been a petty criminal who preferred an ‘easy’ way of life. However, his extreme reaction to being moved on again suggests that he might have had some mental health issues which would hardly have been identified as such in the 1870s as they would be today.

Nor would he have had any support on leaving prison; no probation officer or social services, or any form of state benefit. Recidivism remains a serious problem today when there are many more options open to those caught up in the criminal justice system – if Thomas Briggs managed to ‘go straight’ and stay out of gaol for the rest of his life then he would have been a quite remarkable individual.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, March 21, 1875]

Two jewel thieves nabbed in Cheapside

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Cheapside in the 1890s

One of the early jobs I had as an adult was working in a jewellers over the busy Christmas period. Being new to the trade my job was to fetch items from inside the large shop windows and bring them to the assistants serving customers on the counter. Jewellers are different from most retail outlets in that customers are not generally allowed to select their purchases without supervision; after all some of the rings, necklaces and watches they sell are extremely valuable.

This makes it more of a challenge for shoplifters and jewel thieves. The crudest method is the smash and grab: literally smashing a jeweller’s window with something heavy (like a hammer or a brick) and snatching as much as they can before running off with it. This is harder to achieve during daylight so its no surprise that jewellers routinely empty their displays at the end of the day’s trading.

The other common method of theft is deception by distraction. This is frequently deployed by shoplifters and involves convincing the shop keeper that you are an honest regular customer and diverting their gaze or attention from your target long enough to palm it or other wise secrete it about your person. This often works best if the thief has an accomplice.

In October 1889 Mary Ann Sinclair and Sarah Pond (or Pend) entered a jewellers shop in Cheapside in the City of London owned by a Mr Carter. They asked the assistant if they could see some wedding rings. Neither of them were particular young ladies (Sinclair was 52 and Pend 39) but presumably they were respectably dressed and caused the assistant no alarm.

He produced a triangular wire tray containing a selection of rings. Mary Ann tried on 2 or 3 of the rings but none fitted; she told the man that they had better bring in their friend (the bride to be presumably) just to be sure. She then asked the assistant to measure her finger and left. Almost as soon as they had gone the assistant realised one of the rings was missing, a diamond band valued at £15 10s (or around £600 in today’s money).

This was not the first theft these two had carried out however. On the 2 October they had performed a similar deception at John James Durant & Son., also on Cheapside and the police were onto them. Soon after they left Carter’s two detectives picked up their trail and followed them to Gutter Lane, just off the main street, where they were arrested. Back at Cloak Lane police station the pair were identified as the women that had stolen another ring from  Durant’s by Albert Chambers by the same ruse. Chambers, who served as the shop’s engraver, told the police that he counted the number of rings on the wire frame  before handing them to his colleague to show the women. This was probably standard practice.

So the police now had good evidence against the women and at the Mansion House Police court they were both committed for trial. At the Old Bailey on 21 October they were tried and convicted of the theft despite their protestations that they knew nothing about it. Pend admitted to having a previous conviction from 1878 when she was known as Mary Margaret M’Cull. Both women were sent down for 15 months at hard labour.

We have no more information about Sinclair but Sarah Pend (or M’Cull) generated a little more detail in the records. The new Digital Panopticon website notes that she was born in Norfolk in 1850 and had great eyes and sandy coloured hair. She was sent to Holloway Prison and released onto the habitual criminals register in January 1891.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, October 11, 1889]

‘Well, I’m sure, if a man acts bad once in his life, he never gets over it’, complains a young member of the ‘swell mob’.

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One of the key themes that is emerging from the Digital Panopticon conference in Liverpool (where I am at the moment) is the critical importance of being identified as someone with previous criminal convictions, however petty. In the nineteenth century the British state’s ability to track ‘known offenders’ increased and while defendants might try to avoid being recognised as such (by offering a false name or denying being convicted previously) the arrival of professional police forces and a more bureaucratic justice system gradually entrapped the late Victorian and Edwardian offender in ways that his or her Georgian ancestors might have escaped.

The police and magistracy were important agents in this process as the summary courts of London (the police magistrate courts) were the arenas were criminal careers were established. We can illustrate this in the case on on young man who was brought before the Mansion House in September 1839, the year that the nomenclature of ‘police magistrate’ was official established.

William Jones was reported to be a ‘notorious pickpocket’ when he appeared before Sir Peter Laurie in the City of London’s premier magistrate court. Sir Peter, who later served as Lord Mayor was sitting in on this occasion for the incumbent office holder, Sir Chapman Marshall. The Charter‘s reporter recorded that William was:

‘One of those well-dressed thieves whose appearance never excites attention’.

In other words William blended in with the crowds in central London which enabled him to get close to his victims and get away without being noticed. On this occasion however, he had not been so lucky and had been arrested by a City police officer.

Whilst the PC was taking Jones and another suspected thief into custody however, he managed to slip his custodian and escape. His bid for freedom didn’t last long though, being ‘known to the police’ meant that William was soon tracked down to a well-known haunt of his, a public house associated with local criminals.

He was brought before the Sir Peter at Mansion House charged, it seems, with running away from the policeman. The magistrate asked him what he had to say for himself.

‘I couldn’t help running away’, William told the alderman, adding: ‘It was my business to run away if I could. It was the officer’s business to prevent it’.

‘But you know it is an offence to make an escape from an officer?’ he was asked.

‘Please you, my Lord, if you were in my place wouldn’t you try to get away yourself? I’m blessed if you jist [sic] wouldn’t’.

Sir Peter turned to the collection of police officers gathered in the court and declared: ‘I suppose this young man is well known?’

This was confirmed by the police who said he was known for ‘constantly parading about the streets with other well-dressed thieves, and sometimes thieves of the other sex’. This sounds to be very like a description of the so-called ‘swell mob’ described by Dickens and many others as a mid nineteenth-century phenomenon.

William knew what was coming; even though he had not been convicted of a crime as such (he was not charged with theft from the person for example) his mere association with the ‘swell mob’ and identification as a local thief meant he could expect to be sent to prison as a suspected criminal.

‘Aint a body to go to draw a breath of air on a warm day but he must be pulled [i.e. arrested] for it?’ William complained. ‘Well, I’m, sure, if a man acts bad once in his life, he never gets over it’.

And of course this was true, lads like William Jones were in and out of the justice system over the course of their (often short) lives being arrested on suspicion, prosecuted for petty thefts, being fined, imprisoned (often by default of not having the money to pay the fine), and then progressing to more serious crime and, ergo, longer prison terms. Before the late 1850s many might have ended up being transported to Australia or, later, serving long periods of penal servitude in a convict prison. After 1869 the habitual offenders register dogged the footsteps of convicted felons and eventually photography and then fingerprints (from the early 1900s) made it even harder for those caught up in the justice system to ‘go straight’ and avoid future convictions.

Sir Peter sent William Jones to the City Bridewell, or house of correction, telling him (and the newspaper’s readership) that ‘this shows the value of never having acted dishonestly’. This of course was a luxury young men like William could hardly afford growing up poor in an unforgiving city like London.

Several of the historians gathered for the Digital Panopticon launch have made the point that history has a lot to say about recidivism and the ‘making’ of a criminal. The ‘convict stain’ and the albatross of previous convictions made (indeed continue to make) it hard for those who make one or two mistakes in life to get back on track. Sadly, policy makers today don’t seem to want to listen to the evidence of history.

[from The Charter , Sunday, September 15, 1839]

The perils of being a ‘known thief’

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Steam boats at Old Swan Pier, near London Bridge

After 1869 there was a change to the law. This was one of the long term consequences of the moral panic surrounding ‘garrotting’ (a form of violent street robbery) that occurred in London in 1862. The Habitual Offenders Act (1869) saw the creation of a register of prisoners who had been convicted. This included taking details of their physical features and photographing them. In 1871 the act was modified so that it was now limited to all those sentenced to a month or more in prison. The registers are held by the National Archives at Kew and and will be a part of a new historical online database, the Digital Panopticon.

Before that the court had no official record of previous offenders although there were plenty of instances where a person’s criminal record dogged them through the justice system. From the 1750s the Bow Street police office, run by Sir John Fielding (the ‘blind beak’) had attempted to create its own database of London’s criminals. Their early efforts were destroyed by fire in the Gordon Riots of 1780, and subsequent records were lost to history when the office moved to a new building in the late 1800s.

Many constables, watchmen, gaolers, and magistrates could however identify persons who had appeared on more than one occasion but this was limited by memory and geography. If, for example, a defendant was brought up before the magistrate at Bow Street and convicted and sentenced to, say, a month in the house of correction, on release he would ‘disappear’. If he was arrested and brought before the justice at Worship Street (in the East End) then he may have been unknown to them.

It was then, as it is now, the case that repeat or persistent offenders were likely to receive a stiffer sentence, or at least not get the benefit of the doubt when it came to conviction. So we can see the benefits to the authorities of a systematic system of identifying known criminals. By contrast we can also see why it was in the interests of thieves to try to pretend they were first offenders by denying previous convictions (that might be hard to prove) or by using alias, which many did.

The John Cox that appeared at the Mansion House Police Court in June 1866 was described in the papers as ‘a well known thief’. He was brought up on a charge of robbing a young lady named Elizabeth Gallagher, on Old Swan Pier as she waited for a steam boat by London Bridge.

He was seen ‘dipping’ her pocket by an officer named Henwick, who may have been City policeman or more likely someone working for the steam ship company. Henwick acted quickly and arrested Cox before he could make his escape, and told him there was no use him denying what he’d done.

In the Mansion House court Cox’s luck went from bad to worse as the gaoler of Coldbath Fields prison rose to give evidence. He told the presiding magistrate, Alderman Gabriel, that he knew the prisoner of old. Cox had served time in the prison for being a rogue and a vagabond and had also been sentenced to three years penal servitude at the Middlesex Sessions.

As a result, instead of dealing with him summarily by awarding a short prison sentence, the alderman fully committed Cox for trial. As he was a taken down Cox turned his anger on the gaoler, warning that he ‘would be “down on him” [at] the first opportunity’, and was led away muttering curses to the cells.

Cox was clearly guilty of the crime but the consequences of being identified as a repeat offender: as someone who had not learned his lesson previously, was severe. On 9 July 1866 he pleaded guilty to picking the pocket of Elizabeth Gallagher and was sent to prison for seven years.

Cox was listed at 23 years of age in 1866. In 1874 another man, also named John Cox (aged 35) was convicted at the Bailey of housebreaking. Listed as a previously convicted felon he was sent down for ten years. Was this the same John Cox? There is a slight difference in age (3-4 years) but it is not impossible. Cox would have been out of gaol by 1874 and would have found it very hard to gain legitimate paid employment. He may also have made acquaintances inside that would have helped him ‘progress’ from the smaller crime of picking pockets to the more serious one of breaking into someone’s home or business.

There is an alternative outcome however. In 1879 a John Cox was convicted with another man, William Price, of stealing 20 ‘dead soles’. The pair pleaded guilty and Cox was shown to have been convicted in 1870 and a further five charges were heard and proved against him. He was sentenced to 8 years.

I suspect one of these cases (but not both) was our man. From 1869 or 1871 onwards we could be clearer if we checked the Register created in the wake of the garrotting panic. That is an exercise for another day but is the sort of exercise the Digital Panopticon project was created to make possible, the tracing of criminal ‘careers’ and lives of those sentenced at London’s Central Criminal court.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, June 23, 1866]

Footnote: yesterday I received my copy of a new volume about the history of crime. A Companion to the History of Crime and Criminal Justice (edited by Jo Turner, Paul taylor, Sharon Morley and Karen Corteen) is published by the Polity Press and is full of short articles about criminal justice history across the 18th and 19th centuries. It features a short entry by your truly (on the Whitechapel Murders of 1888) and is an excellent companion to my own text book covering the period from 1660-1914