It is often the mistakes crooks make that get them caught

Curtain Road, from the Corner of Great Eastern Street

Curtain Road, Shoreditch in the late 1800s

Sometimes it is the small twists of chance that mean that crimes are discovered. On a grand scale it was the sighting of a parked car with false number plates that led to the arrest of Peter Sutcliffe (the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’) In January 1981. Sutcliffe had evaded police for years, despite being interviewed by them on more than one occasion. It is quite likely that his inspiration – the nineteenth-century killer known as ‘Jack the Ripper’ – was also questioned by the men of H Division and the City as they hunted London’s most notorious serial killer.

What this shows perhaps is that the police need an element of luck to add to their forensic knowledge and information gleaned from intelligence (informers etc). That luck often comes because criminals make mistakes, or someone becomes suspicious.

Mr Stevenson wasn’t looking for a thief when he asked his co-worker for a light for his cigarette. He and Frank Neski worked for William Cutting & Sons, a firm of upholsters in Curtain Road, Shoreditch. Frank (a lad of just 18) told his mate that he had some matches in his coat pocket and he could help himself to them.

However, when Stevenson fumbled in the man’s pockets he found more than a packet of lucifers: there were several pawn tickets and he quickly realized that they were for parcels of satin. It seemed that Frank was stealing cloth from the firm and pawning at local ‘brokers. He might have kept quiet but it was well known on the factory floor that satin had been going missing and suspicion was falling on several people, but Frank Nevski wasn’t one of them.

No one suspected him.

With accusations (false ones at that) flying around Stevenson did the ‘right thing’ and told his fellow workmates and then Mr. Cutting. Nevski was arrested and brought for a committal hearing at the Worship Street Police court. This was serious and could easily end up as a trail at the Old Bailey meaning young Frank faced a long spell in gaol.

In court the magistrate heard from Stevenson and two pawnbokers who testified to receiving the satin from Nevski. Faced with overwhelming evidence against him Frank didn’t try to wriggle out of it, he confessed to the crime but said he never intended to steal, only to borrow the cloth to get much needed money. It was a old excuse – one I heard more than once when I worked in retail – he fully intended to redeem his pledge and put the satin back when he got paid.

The magistrate was sure that Frank Nevski had stolen the material but he accepted his guilty plea and agreed to deal with the case summarily. Frank would go to prison for six months, the maximum sentence the bench was able to hand down without sending him before a jury. He would serve that with hard labour but perhaps more importantly he would almost certainly lose his position at Cuttings’ factory. That would impact his young life every bit as much as the half year behind bars.

[from The Standard, Monday, October 27, 1879]

‘I always do what I say I will do’: the dark murmurings of a troubled mind

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The owner of Deacon’s Coffee House and Tavern on Walbrook in the City was disturbed by the sound of shattering glass. It was nine in the evening and Mr. Howell rushed out into the front room of his establishment to see to his horror that his window was completely destroyed. His clientele were in uproar and outside a small group of onlookers were gathering around a ‘little old woman’.

A policeman had arrived in a hurry and a small boy pointed out the elderly lady as the culprit. The constable arrested her and led her off to the nearest police station to be questioned and charged. She had already admitted throwing a brick through Mr. Howell’s window telling the proprietor:

‘I said I would break your window and I have done it. I always do what I say I will do’.

While in custody the woman, who gave her name as Emily Howard, told the police should would have liked to have smashed ‘every ______ pane of glass in the house’, and would make good on her promise when they released her. The constable later told the Lord Mayor at Mansion House that she was swearing throughout the interview but seemed perfectly sober.

In court the Lord Mayor heard that Emily had previous for criminal damage. The court’s gaoler (a man named Partridge) said he’d known her for 20 years and that she was someone who’d been in and out of gaol for doing similar things in the past. Emily’s only defense was that someone had thrown water over her but no one seemed to believe her.

The Lord Mayor sent her back to prison for two months at hard labour and she was led away ‘uttering threats of vengeance’ against the coffee house owner and the policeman that arrested her. She sounds to be like someone that needed help not a month or two picking oakum.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, October 16, 1875]

A curious (and confusing) case of a two bob’ fraudster and his mate.

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There are plenty of cases of fraud that came before the Metropolitan Police courts in the Victorian period. From individual attempts to extort money from gullible ‘punters’ to full-blown and well-organized ‘long firm’ scams, the courts were kept busy with the full gamut of fraudsters. Some had quite elaborate ruses but William Jewell and Joseph Richards simply relied on talking fast and confusing their victims.

Jewell was a 38 year-old waterside labourer from Bethnal Green while Richards was a simply ‘labourer’ from nearby Mile End. In September 1895 both were placed in the dock at the North London Police court on a charge of being ‘suspected persons’ and with attempting to defraud tradesmen. Being ‘suspected’ was a catch-all term which allowed the police to pick up people they thought were up to no good.

Jewell was the main player in this case, Jackson seems to have acted as his accomplice, or look out. The scam went something like this:

Jewell entered a shop (such as Henry Amos’ confectionary shop in Well Street). He put a sixpence on the counter and asked for a pennyworth of sweets. The shopkeeper’s wife served him and  handed over the sweets and 5 pennies in change.

Now Jewell took a penny form his pocket, added it to the pile already there and asked Mrs Amos to please change it for a sixpence. Before she had time to scop up the pennies Jewell said: ‘Give me a shilling instead of the sixpence and the coppers’.

He was trying to confuse the poor lady and would have succeeded in gaining an extra sixpence had not Mr. Amos been listening in. He came in from the back room and Jewell scarpered. The eagle eyed confectioner spotted Jackson just outside the shop as Jewell ran off, he was nonchalantly pretending to read a newspaper.

Unsuccesful here, the pair tried the same ruse at Mrs Muffett’s newsagent’s in Hackney Wick. Again it was Jewell who entered the shop and engaged Mrs Muffett in conversation. He asked for the evening paper (which cost a halfpenny)

and put a shilling on the counter. The newsagent gave him ‘eleven pence halfpenny change’. He then asked for his shilling back and Mrs Muffett obliged, assuming he’d found the 1/2d  for the paper in his pocket. But Jewell pushed the money back over to her and asked her to change it for a florin (a two shilling piece).

She didn’t have one she told him.

‘Then I have to give you a halfpenny’ he replied. ‘No, you have to give me a shilling’ she said, as he’d wanted to get back 2sf rom her. Again his attempt had failed but probably worked on other occasions. Shop assistants had (and have) to be alert  to possible attempts by customers who try to persuade then that that have given them large amounts than they have (‘I gave you a £20 note…’) or accused them of shortchanging them.

In these days of contactless debit transactions and a virtually cashless society we forget sometimes how easy it was to trick someone who is not expecting it.

Mrs Muffett called the police and with Mr Amos help the two men were picked out of a police identification parade. There wasn’t sufficient evidence to prosecute Jackson but Mr Taylor (the duty magistrate) decided there was ample proof of Jewell’s fraudulent intent, and he sent him to prison for three months at hard labour. Three months, for trying to trick two women out of two bob seems pretty harsh to me.

[from The Standard, Friday, September 27, 1895]

Unhappy patient bites porter at one of London’s finest hospitals

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On Wednesday the 6 September 1883 the assistant medical officer at the Highgate Infirmary on Dartmouth Park Hill ordered that Eli Sparksman be discharged. The 20 year-old gardener had no home to go to however, and seemed reluctant to leave. The assistant MO ordered one of the porters to find him and escort him off the premises but this seemingly simple instruction resulted in a court case at Highgate Police court.

Highgate Infirmary had opened in 1870 and quickly established itself; none other than Florence Nightingale described it as ‘the finest metropolitan hospital’. Until 1893 it was part of the Central London Sick Asylum district, thereafter reverting to the St Pancras Poor Law Union. It served the poor of north London and in 1930 became the Highgate Hospital. In 1948 it was incorporated into the Whittington (where I was born) as its Highgate wing, close to the cemetery at Highgate.

Sparksman had reacted badly to be told to change his clothes and leave the institution, and refused, demanding instead to be seen by Dr McCann the head of the hospital. Acting on the instructiosn he’d been given Walter Bowen went looking for Eli Sparksman, and the porter eventually found the young patient wandering in the infirmary’s garden.

He tried to lead Sparksman back inside the building but as they were climbing the steps up from the garden Eli became ‘very violent’, and threw himself to the ground. As Bowen tried to drag him to his feet the patient attacked him, biting his hand ‘in a very savage manner’.

Despite his injury the porter got his charge back inside to the ward where Sparksman threatened to ‘knock his head off with a stone’ if he got him outside again. Hospital staff today continue to be attacked and abused by patients, some of them drunk and disorderly others, like Eli I suspect, suffering from a form of mental illness. In this instance the police were called and PC Deeks arrived to take the man into custody. The policeman later testified that Sparksman was both violent and verbally abusive towards him as he took him back to Kentish Town nick.

The case came up before the magistrates at Highgate where no account seems to be taken of Eli’s mental health. The police knew him as ‘a very bad boy’ (which given that he was 20 and not 12 suggests again that this was a person who today would be diagnosed with a learning difficulty or mental illness and not treated as a criminal).  The bench had no truck with violence towards medical or police officials and sent Eli to prison for a month at hard labour.

[from The Morning Post , Tuesday, September 11, 1883]

A man lays about his wife with an iron poker, ‘saying he would have her life’: an everyday domestic trauma in Mile End

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Nowadays we have a number of organizations (state run and charitable) that look out for the interests of women and children, especially those caught up in abusive relationship or poverty. The laws protecting women are also much more stringent and the support mechanisms (if nowhere near perfect) much better than they were in the nineteenth century. Any regular (or even causal) readers of this blog will have seen that domestic violence was a daily event in Victorian London and something many of the Police Court magistrates railed against.

Charities did exist to help, one of which was the Associate Institute for Enforcing the Laws for the Protection of Women and Children (AIELPWC). Organizations such as this were often run by well-meaning members of the middle class, who saw it as their mission to intervene in the ‘savage’ lives of the working class. The AIELPWC were run by Henry Newman and based at 30 Cockspur Street, just off Trafalgar Square. In September 1869 William Moore, a member of the charity, followed a case that was of interest to them at the Worship Street Police court in Stepney.

Benjamin Briggat, a ‘looking-glass frame maker’ from Mile End was up in court, accused of a violent assault on his wife. Mrs Briggat appeared in the witness box swathed in bandages. She was able to give chapter and verse on her husband’s serial abuse of her in the five years they had been married.

Many women suffered for months or years before they built up the courage to take their spouse before a magistrate as Mrs Briggat had done. It took determination and resignation in equal measure, and the outcomes were rarely positive anyway. At best the husband would be locked up and the household deprived of the principal bread-winner, or he was fined (reducing the family budget even further), and worse he’d be reprimanded and she’d have to go back home with him, angered and embittered.

Mrs Briggat told the bench what had happened on the previous Saturday when Benjamin had come home late from work, clearly ‘three sheets to the wind’ (i.e. drunk). She’d made him a stew but he said he didn’t want it.

They argued and he started to kick at her as she was bent over the stove. At this she tried to get away, running to the bed but Briggat ‘seized the iron pot off the fire and beat her about the head with it’.

There was more, she said:

She was soon covered with blood and fell to the floor. The prisoner again kicked her repeatedly while she was down, He also got the poker from the fire-place, and struck her over the back and arms with it, saying he would have her life’.

She must have been terrified and with good reason, most homicide victims in the nineteenth century were wives, children or in some other way relatives or friend of their killers. Her neighbours were too scared of Benjamin too come to her aid but they did call for the police and she was then able to escape from the room. Her husband’s last act was to throw a pail of water over her as she ran out of their home.

It took PC 187H a long time to contain Briggat and get him to the station. It took Mr Newton a few moments to send him to gaol for four months at hard labour. Presumably Mr Moore made a point of recording the incident in his notebook to discuss with his colleagues. Would it make a difference? Sadly, I doubt it.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, September 07, 1869]

Child cruelty or a single parent who simply couldn’t cope?

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Children in the St Pancras workhouse school at Leavesden

I think it would be quite easy to look at this next case and judge the man in the dock quite harshly. Perhaps that would be correct as William Everett’s supposed neglect of his three children had brought them almost to the point of starvation and most people would condemn him for that cruelty.

Moreover William Everett, a ‘jobbing gardener’ in full time work, liked a drink and the inference drawn here is that he preferred to spend money on alcohol than on his children.

But before we are as quick to judge him as the editor of the Standard was in September 1877, let’s look at the context and see if we might read between the lines.

Everett was charged at Clerkenwell Police court with ‘neglecting to maintain his children’. As a result of this neglect they had fallen chargeable on the parish of St Pancras and had thus become a burden on the ratepayers. The prosecution was brought, therefore, by the local Poor Law Guardians and one of the relieving officers, a Mr Stevens, gave evidence.

He told the magistrate, Mr Hosack, that he’d been called to the prisoner’s home at 16 Bertam Street, Highgate New Town, after some neighbours expressed their concerns. He found the children in a half starved state:

They were very scantily clothed and in want of food’. He gave some funds for them and told Everett to look after them better in future.

Some weeks later however, on the 24 May 1877, he was again called to the property by worried locals.

He found the children in the most deplorable condition. They had no food, and when food was given to them they ate ravenously. There was no bed for them to lie upon, and they scarcely had a particle of clothing’.

The officer took the children to the workhouse and they had since been sent (by the guardians) to an industrial school at Leavesden (which had began to built in 1868). They were safe then, but their care was being met by local people through the rates and not by their father.

Mr Hosack thought this was one of the worst cases of child neglect he’d seen as a magistrate and said so. How much did Everett earn? He was paid 21a week the deputy relieving officer told him, which should have been sufficient, it was felt, to provide home, heat and food for his family of four. However, as he ‘was given to drinking’ perhaps he squandered much of it.

In his defence William Everett said he did his best, but as he was out all day working he could hardly care for them as well. He had no wife, either she’d died or had left them, but her absence from court suggests the former.

The children were Rosina Jane (11), Emily (8) and Thomas (7) so only Rosina was really of an age where she could be expected to help out. His landlady at Bertram Street said that William went out very early leaving the children a 1lb of bread to eat and didn’t come home till very late. She often took them in herself and washed them, She said ‘it was quite a relief to neighbourhood when the children were removed to the workhouse’.

I bet it was. It must have been hard to see three small children virtually starving and living in dire poverty while their father either spent his days working every hour he could, and/or the evenings drinking himself into oblivion in the pub.

Who was to blame however? A society that allowed such desperate poverty to exist in the richest city in the world or the neglectful gardener who enjoyed one too many drinks at the end of a hard day and perhaps couldn’t face returning to a family home he had once shared with his wife. Each day he was reminded of his loss as he looked own on the plaintive faces of his children, all three of whom probably resembled their mother. As for the money he earned, well that was, at 21a week, about £65 today, how far would that go?

But perhaps I’m guilty of misplaced sympathy for William Everett, perhaps he was simply a drunk and neglectful parent who wasn’t prepared to take responsibility for his own family. That’s clearly what the magistrate thought: he sent him to prison for a month, with hard labour. The parish rates would continue to support his kids.

[from The Standard, Thursday, September 06, 1877]

As the ‘Ripper’ strikes in Whitechapel a wannabe Charlie Peace is nabbed in Clapham.

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The 31stAugust 1888 is etched on the memory of anyone familiar with the biggest crime news story of that year. It was at about 3.45 that morning that PC John Neil (97J) found the body of Mary Ann (‘Polly’) Nichols lying dead in near the entrance to a stable yard in Buck’s Row. Her throat had been cut and (although the constable could not have known this at the time) her abdomen had been ripped open. Polly Nichols is largely accepted to have been the first victim of the killer most commonly named ‘Jack the Ripper’.

Personally I think it quite unlikely that Mary Ann Nichols was the first of the murderer’s victims and, in a new study I hope to publish early next year, myself and a colleague will reveal the person we think responsible for Polly’s, and another dozen or more, murders and assaults.  But that, as they say, is a story for another day, so let us return to late August 1888 and see what was troubling the police court reporter at The Standard that day.

While he didn’t garner many column inches (and nothing that compared to the Whitechapel murderer later that autumn) John Terroad did reckon himself some kind of ‘super villain’.

220px-Charlie_Peace_executionPerhaps likening himself to the infamous Charlie Peace – the self-styled ‘king of the lags’ – Terroad claimed to  have committed over 120 burglaries in London in his short career. Given he was only 23 years of age in 1888 this was some résumé, but on this occasion he’d been caught.

[Right: Charles Peace and his executioner, William Marwood, in Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors]

Up before the ‘beak’ at Wandsworth he was charged with entering the house of Mr Harry Bishop in Manor Street, Clapham, as well as that of a Mr Williams in Putney Common, and Edward James’ home in Ilchester Gardens, Lavender Hill. An older accomplice (Frederick Merce, 45) was also charged with aiding and abetting in the Clapham break-in. Both men were committed for trial. They pleaded guilty at the Old Bailey and were sent to prison for ten months each at hard labour.

Charles Peace was hanged for the murder of Arthur Dyson at Leeds in February 1879, a decade before the ‘Ripper’ eclipsed him as the most famous criminal of the nineteenth century.

[from The Standard (London, England), Friday, August 31, 1888]