A ‘frantic’ young woman attempts to ‘destroy herself’.

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Alongside petty crime, disorderly behaviour and violence the Police magistrates of the capital heard a considerable number of cases of distress and desperation. None more so than charges levelled against people (mostly women) who had attempted suicide by throwing themselves into the River Thames to drown.

It seems to have been a regular occurrence in the 1800s and featured in the BBC’s drama Taboo, where James Delany’s half-sister (Zilpha Geary, played by Oona Chaplin) leaped to her death. From the thirteenth century up to 1961 ‘self-murder’ was a crime, perhaps more importantly to some, a sin in the eyes of the church. As a result those accused of attempting to ‘destroy’ themselves frequently came before the metropolis’ magistracy.

While it was a largely accepted ‘truth’ that the ‘weakness’ of women’s minds was more likely to drive them to take their own lives, the reality was that men ‘committed’ (or attempted) suicide more frequently. However, gendering suicide in this way to make it a ‘female malady’ (as Elaine Showalter has dubbed madness in the 1800s) fitted contemporary tropes more closely. While men do feature in newspaper reports of attempted suicide it is more common for the examples to be of young women, like Zilpha and for the act to be one of drowning rather than hanging or other forms of self-harm.

So when Sarah Keyworth tried to jump off Westminster Bridge she was providing the Morning Post’s reporter with exactly the copy he needed to reinforce the weakness of the ‘fairer sex’ in the minds of his readership.

Sarah, ‘a respectable-looking young woman’ was seen running along Westminster Bridge by a gentleman named Houghton. Mr Houghton told the court at Southwark that she was ‘calling out in  a frantic manner’ before she ‘suddenly stopped and climbed over the railings of the bridge’.

He must have feared that she was about to jump so he reacted quickly and grabbed hold of her. She struggled, saying ‘let me go, let me go!’ but he held on until a policeman arrived to help. Sarah was taken to the local police station and brought up before the magistrate in the morning.

At her first hearing she was ‘sullen’ and said she had fully intended to have ‘destroyed herself and was sorry the gentleman had interfered’. The magistrate (Mr Woolrych) had remanded her and instructed the prison chaplain to visit her.

A week later and she was back up in court and this time her sister appeared with her to support her. Now Sarah was in repentant mood, through floods of tears she said ‘she was very sorry for such an attempt on her life. She knew the wickedness of it, and promised never to do it again’. Her sister told Mr Woolrych that she could only imagine she had been driven to it after ‘words with her young man’. She promised to look  after her and so the magistrate admonished Sarah and let them both go.

Sadly, attempting to drown oneself in the Thames is still one of the favoured options for those who feel that life is something they can no or longer wish to cope with. In 2014 over 100 calls were made to the City of London police on account of people trying to jump from one of the five bridges along the stretch of river covered by the City’s jurisdiction. Given that London has over a dozen more bridges (not including railway ones) that pedestrians can access the numbers of places where potential human tragedies could occur probably raises that figure considerably.

A 2016 report from the City noted that there were 20-25 suicides by drowning alone in the Thames and attempts have been made to prevent further deaths by installing information boards with the Samaritans phone number and even patrols on some bridges to look out for those in need. London can be a lonely place and it would seem that it always has been.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, March 11, 1865]

An execution brings out the crowds – and the pickpockets

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A public execution on the roof of Horsemonger Lane prison 

Until 1868 executions – the hanging of criminals for murder – took place in public. There had been calls for this practice to end in the previous century but while capital punishment had been removed from nearly all crimes by the late 1830s, the public element was retained.

Critics (including novelists like Dickens and Thackeray) argued that the spectacle of seeing a man or, more rarely a woman, being hanged before a large crowd had a negative effect on those watching. Instead of learning the lesson that crime didn’t pay, or sharing in the collective shame of an offender the crowd drank, laughed, mocked the police and the condemned, and generally behaved as if they were at a carnival.

The large crowds that gathered were also the targets of thieves, who willfully picked the pockets of those whose attention was focused on the events taking place on the raised platform before them. This had worried William Hogarth 100 years earlier and in his final engraving for his ‘Industry and Idleness’ series he had included a pickpocket amongst the crowd that watched a thief being ‘turned off’ at Tyburn. His message was clear: the gallows was hardly an effective deterrent if thieves robbed those watching their fellow criminals being executed for the very same offence.

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William Hogarth’s image of an execution at Tyburn (modern Marble Arch) you can see the pickpocket on the left, next to the man on crutches, two small boys are pointing him out. 

Detective William Cummings of M Division, Metropolitan Polce, was on duty at 8 in the morning outside Horsemonger Lane prison. A gallows had ben erected to hang Samuel Wright. Cummings was in plain clothes and was there to watch the crowd for any disturbances or criminality. Wright had been convicted of murdering his lover, Maria Green, by cutting her throat after they had both been drinking heavily. He had handed himself in three days after the murder and there were public pleas for clemency in his case. Maria was known to have a temper and it was suggested that she had threatened him on more than one occasion. Despite this the home secretary remained unmoved and Wright’s execution was set to go ahead as planned.

His case was compared at the time with that of George Townley who also killed a woman close to him. In Townley’s case it was his ex-fiancé, Bessie Godwin, who had rejected him. Townley stabbed Bessie in the throat and then helped carry her home, declaring to her father: She has deceived me, and the woman who deceives me must die’. He too was convicted and sentenced to death but reprieved by the home office after his legal tram effectively fabricated evidence that he was insane.

So in 1864 we had two murderers with very different outcomes and the fact that the man left to swing was working class while the man saved was ‘respectable’ was not lost on the public outside Horsemonger Gaol. I suspect that is partly why the detective inspector was there.

However, he had not been there long when he saw when he saw two rough looking men trying to push their way through the crowds. They seemed to be being pursued by a more smartly dressed man. The man was loudly accusing them of robbing him, so the policeman intervened and collared the pair.

In court at Southwark James Walter Fisher (a commercial traveller) told the sitting magistrate (Mr Burcham) that he’d been waiting for the execution and had seen the tow defendants (John Jones and Richard Johnson) pick the pockets of a man standing in front of them. The pair moved off and he didn’t see what they’d taken but he quickly alerted the victim. The man checked his pocket and declared his handkerchief was missing. Fisher went off in pursuit and pointed them out to inspector Cummings.

Whilst John Jones was being searched at the local police station PC Reed (235M) said he noticed Johnson pull out something from his own pocket and chuck it away. It was a silk pocket-handkerchief. Johnson denied ever having one and said it must have been planted there by the copper. PC Reed said other officers were ready to give evidence that they had seen Johnson throw it away. Inspector Cummings told the court that the victim, a gentleman, had identified the item as his own but was unable to come to court today. He would, however, be able to attend on Friday. Mr Burcham therefore remanded the two men until then.

At this point both of them disappear from the records. John Jones is such a common name that it would be difficult to trace him anyway but while there are a number of men with the name Richard Johnson in the records of the Digital Panopticon I’m not convinced any of them are this man.

So perhaps the gentleman that lost his handkerchief decided that a few nights in a cell was suitable punishment for the pair of opportunistic thieves. He had got his property back by then and maybe chose not to give up a day taking them through the justice system. Equally Mr Burcham may well have chosen to punish them as reputed thieves using the powers given to him under the terms of the Vagrancy Act (1824) that allowed him to punish those merely suspected of doing something wrong.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, January 13, 1864]

The painted lady and a ‘most impudent fellow’.

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Miss Elizabeth Cox was disturbed by sounds outside her front door in late August 1831. She opened the door which was next to Mr Ryder’s Yard, Queen Street on Cheapside and was confronted by a young man dressed as a painter and decorator.

Miss Cox looked him up and down and said (rather unnecessarily) ‘You are painting my door’. The painter agreed and added that he would happily paint her as well if she wanted him to. ‘Ay, do’, she supposedly replied.

Incredibly the painter did just that. He dipped his brush into his pot and painted her face.

Was that enough Madame, he asked, or did she want more?

‘Go on, sir’ the lady told him.

So he did, applying paint to her bonnet and dress and, when he’d finished, demanded 3payment for the ‘work’ he’d completed!

But Miss Cox refused to pay and said she’d take him before the aldermen magistrates at the Guildhall instead. In response the man told her to do her worst, and he’d paint them as well.

The next day he was up before Sir Claudius Hunter at the Guildhall Police court and Miss Cox appeared (holding her bonnet and dress, both of which were covered in paint, as evidence). Naturally, she had washed the paint from her face.

The defendant gave his name as John George Barrett Gill (a ‘high-sounding name’ as the reporter remarked) and came across as an ‘extraordinary’ individual. He brazened out the encounter with the bench, seemingly unaware that he’d acted badly in any way whatsoever.

‘You are a very impudent fellow’, Sir Claudius told him, ‘and I’ll paint you in another way before I have done with you’.

The court now heard from several people that knew of Gill and doubted his sanity. One testified that just the other evening he’d invited a fellow workman to supper but that when he’d arrived he’d discovered the table and chairs, set for a meal, but outside the opposite house in the street!

Clearly Gill was eccentric but was he properly ‘mad’? Sir Claudius decided to bail him on the charge of damage (or possibly assault) but insisted that the surgeon at Wood Street compter (a small City gaol) examine him for signs of mental illness.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, August 20, 1831]

An unexpected intruder tests a housekeeper’s nerves

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When the housekeeper turned up to work at 5 Queen Street on Wednesday 13 August 1873 she didn’t expect to be surprised. The house was unoccupied at the time, as the family were out of London and so the unnamed ‘keeper simply worked there in the day and locked it up  again at night. So as far as she was concerned the place was empty.

Imagine her astonishment then when, as she approached the property she saw a ‘wild-looking’ man staring out of a third-floor window. The housekeeper gathered her courage and headed upstairs to confront him.

He was clearly a disturbed individual and after he had given her a very incoherent explanation of being in the house, she urged him downstairs and out of the building, found a policeman, and had him arrested. On Thursday it went before the alderman magistrate at Mansion House, who remanded him to Newgate so his situation could be looked into.

On Friday the man was back, giving his name as John Smith, and repeating a claim he’d made earlier that 5 Queen Street had been his home for the past two years. This was palpably untrue and suggested that Smith was not in his right mind.

He was examined at Newgate prison by the surgeon, Dr Gibson, who declared him insane, violent and dangerous. He said he was ‘quite unfit to be at large’. Sir Robert Carden, the presiding magistrate, had no hesitation in committing the man to Bow Street workhouse from where he would be moved to a lunatic asylum at the earliest convenience.

No one seemed to know however, just how John Smith (if that was his name) had managed to gain access to the property when it had apparently been secured by the housekeeper.

[from The Morning Post , Saturday, August 16, 1873]

A remarkable woman challenges the patriarchy

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Mrs Georgina Weldon

In August 1883 a woman appeared at the Bow Street Police court to ask for a summons against a psychiatrist whose name is perhaps family to researchers interested in the ‘Jack the Ripper’ case. Lyttelton Forbes Winslow was born in London in 1844 and trained as a physician, like his father. He became a psychiatrist like his father but was a controversial figure, falling out with his family and making seemingly spurious claims about his knowledge of who the Whitechapel murderer was.

Winslow believed the killer was the Canadian born G. Wentworth Smith who had arrived in London for work and lodged with a couple in Finsbury Square. Smith was apparently overheard declaring that ‘all prostitutes should be drowned’ and this was reported to Winslow by Mr Callaghan, the Canadian’s landlord.

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Winslow told the police, who investigated and dismissed his thesis, but the doctor persisted to talk it up at every opportunity. When he was eventually interviewed by Chief Inspector Swanson Winslow crumbled and said he’d been misrepresented in the press (which had carried the story). One Ripper theorist (Donald McCormick) suggested that the police even suspected Winslow himself of being the murderer.

Forbes Winslow’s real notoriety however, and his rejection by the mainstream medical community, was down to events before 1888 and linked in fact to this case at Bow Street. In 1878 he had attempted to commit Mrs Wheldon to a lunatic asylum at the request of her husband. This ended up in a long running court battle of which this request for a summons seems to have been a part.

Georgina Weldon was an opera singer who led a colourful life and become estranged from her husband Harry, a former officer in the Hussars. She’d filled her house with orphan children and when Weldon became increasing exasperated at the expense of keeping his ex-wife (at £1,000 a year) he tried to do what many Victorian men did and have his wife put away as a lunatic on account of her interest in spiritualism (which was increasingly popular at the end of the 1800s).

Her examination was conducted in an underhand manner by doctors who pretended they were interviewing her about her orphanage and Georgina soon realised something as amiss. She couldn’t sue her husband directly until the law changed in 1882 but seems to have sued everyone involved at some point and to have been a champion of litigation (‘the Portia of the Law Court’s as she was dubbed).

At this appliance in August 1883 Georgina had requested a summons to bring Dr Forbes Winslow to court to prove she was not insane. Mr Flowers, the Bow Street magistrate, declined her a summons but stated that he was entirely satisfied she was not mad. He added that she could of course apply at a higher court to bring Dr Winslow to book, which of course she went on to do.

Georgina Weldon went to prison, gave public lectures, wrote a number of books and articles about her experiences and sang and published songs. She died just over six months before the outbreak of the First World War and perhaps deserves to be better known than she is. She certainly stands out as a woman who was not prepared to accept the lot that life dealt her; that is (or was) to be a submissive wife of a Victorian military man.

She carved out her own destiny and challenged the medical and legal patriarchy at every turn and its a shame she didn’t make it to the end of the war to see the sisterhood win the right to vote. She was a quite remarkable Victorian lady.

[from Morning Post, Monday 13 August 1883]

‘A dangerous imposter’ on Rosslyn Hill spells trouble for DS Fox

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The Victorian criminal justice had been developing a much more effective means of keeping records on those that passed through it doors than had been the case in the Georgian period. As a result criminals routinely gave false names to the police and magistrates in the hope that their previous convictions would not dog their footsteps for ever. Being ‘known to the police’ or the courts was dangerous; a magistrate or trial court judge was very likely to hand down a much stiffer sentence if he knew you’d failed to learn your lesson in the past.

I some cases of course the problem ran much deeper and this is particular true in cases of those that committed offences in part because they were suffering from mental illness. The law recognised that mental health was a factor and the principal of acting with ‘diminished responsibility’ had been debated throughout the nineteenth century following a handful of high profile cases that shocked society. In 1863 the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum had opened in 1863 to take those convicted as being guilty but insane.

This would have been too early for John Gough. He had been convicted of ‘assault with intent to murder’ at Exeter Assizes in 1856 and had sentenced to life imprisonment. In 1873 he was freed on a ticket of leave (effectively parole) and had then been admitted (or admitted himself, it is not clear) to a lunatic asylum. Gough must also have moved from the south west to London because in 1883 he turned up at the Marylebone Police Court charged with assaulting a police detective.

Detective Sergeant Fox saw Gough wandering at Rosslyn Hill in Hampstead in late February 1883. Gough looked in serious trouble and was soliciting for charity, as Fox described in court:

‘The prisoner was bandaged about the the head and arms, as though suffering from injuries, and while walking along praying aloud begged for alms of people’.

Begging was illegal and so DS Fox arrested him, only to attacked and verbally abused (with ‘profane language’) by his charge. Back at the station Gough was examined and it was found that there was nothing whatsoever wrong with him; his show of injury was just that, a show. The man was ‘an imposter’ Mr De Rutzen (the magistrate) was told and the police added the information regarding Gough’s previous conviction.

While Gough was clearly suffering from mental illness he had checked out of the asylum in 1877 and hadn’t been in contact with the police either. This was a breach of his release license and this, coupled with the assault on the detective sergeant, earned him a another spell inside. De Rutzen declared Gough was ‘a dangerous man’ and sentenced him to two months at hard labour. It might have bene more sensible to send him to Broadmoor or even to the Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum which had opened in 1851 which held over 2000 patients in the 1880s, including (just possibly) a candidate for Jack the Ripper.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, March 07, 1883]

‘A murderous outrage’ in Holloway

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We are staying in 1891 today to see if any there were any Police Court developments in the wake of Frances Coles’ murder on the 13 February of that year. Lloyd’s Weekly  carried reports from seven of the capital’s courts but there was no mention here of Coles, the ‘Ripper’ or the man who became associated with this killing, James Sadler.

Instead the paper covered a complaint about the mis-labelling of Turkish cigarettes, theft from a theatre district club, two different frauds (one by a nine year-old boy), a gold robbery, a so-called ‘fair fight’ that turned nasty, and the case I’d like to focus on today, which was described as ‘a murderous outrage’ .

The case had come up before at North London Police Court and the accused, a 35 year-old bricklayer named Daniel Shannon, had been remanded for further enquiries. He was charged with assaulting Jessie Bazely with whom he cohabited in Chapel Road, Holloway. Jessie had been too poorly to attend on the first occasion Shannon had appeared and the court was told she remained in that state, if not a worse one.

The paper reminded its readers of the basic details of the case: Shannon had objected to his partner’s drinking and they had argued. In the scuffle that followed Shannon had grabbed a poker and smashed her over the head with it. In his defence the bricklayer argued that it was an accident:

‘he said that ‘the woman took up the poker to strike him, and in struggling they fell on the floor, the woman’s head coming in contact with the fender’.

The police investigated the assault and Inspector Charles Bradley of Y Division was present in court to report on their findings so far, and in particular the condition of Jessie. Her evidence would be crucial in determining what happened to Shannon next.

The inspector told the magistrate that the poor woman was being held in the workhouse infirmary and had gone quite mad as a result of her injuries and her previous addiction to drink. When asked what evidence he had for this the policeman declared that he had seen her there ‘being held down by five nurses’. Moreover, she had attempted her own life and had bitten several of the staff there. Dr George Wright, the divisional police surgeon, then confirmed the inspector’s report.

From the dock of the court the prisoner asked for the fender to be produced. He said he wanted to demonstrate what had happened so he could clear his name. Inspector Bradley said that he had asked for this previously, but had been denied. The magistrate also refused his request and remanded him in custody once more.

We shall see if the case is picked up later in the week, or if the attention of the press became fixated on events in the East End instead.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, February 15, 1891]