‘I have murdered my wife, and I shall be hanged for it’: An old man’s sad confession 

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PC Edward Steward (319K) was on duty in Devons Road, Bromley-by-Bow on the morning of Tuesday 26 December 1871, Boxing Day, when he heard a cry of ‘Police! Murder!’ Shouts like that were not uncommon in the East End of London but the constable quickly ran towards the cry.

The noise had come from a house at 5 Bromley High Street and as the policeman entered he found an elderly man, splashed with blood, sitting forlornly in the doorway. PC Steward asked what had happened and the man replied:

‘I have done it at last. I have cut my wife’s throat’.

Pushing past him the officer into what was the couple’s marine store, where he found the victim sitting on a chair with a nasty long cut running down the side of her face. Her dress was ‘completely saturated with blood’ and he asked if she knew what had happened to her.

She said she didn’t, but probably to protect her husband who was clearly not at all well himself. The policeman followed the blood that stained the floor to the bedroom where there was a large pool of it congealing by the bed. A knife lay discarded nearby and he collected this and made his way back downstairs to the man and wife. When the man saw the knife he said:

‘That’s what I did it with. I have murdered my wife, and I shall be hanged for it’.

Their name was Hurley and having got help to have Mrs Hurley taken to hospital on a stretcher, he brought the old man, James, back to the police station to be questioned and charged. The next morning Hurley, PC Steward, and a doctor all appeared before Mr Lushington at Thames Police court.

The officer told the magistrate that before she’d been sent to hospital Catherine Hurley had finally told him the truth of what happened that morning. She was helping James to bed; he was an invalid she explained, and she had her arm around his neck. Suddenly he ‘flung his arms around quickly and struck me. I put my hands up to my face and felt blood trickling down it’.

The doctor said the wound, although not fatal, was dangerous. Catherine had sustained a wound that was 3 and half inches in length and she’d lost a lot of blood. He was keeping her in for the time being but he expected her to recover fully.

Mr Lushington (who had a reputation for dealing harshly with drunks, especially those that beat their wives, enquired as to whether James Hurley had been drunk at the time of the attack. The policeman testified that no, he seemed to be ‘perfectly  sober’ as did Mrs Hurley. Given the victim’s absence and because she was not yet completely out of danger the magistrate remanded Hurley in custody for a week to see how things unfolded.

I would seem Catherine made a full recovery and declined to press charges against her spouse. Although this was certainly an assault and possibly an act of attempted murder no James Hurley appears in the records of the Old Bailey Proceedings in the early 1870s for such a crime. He may have dealt with summarily later but I suspect Catherine knew her husband was not well in his mind or his body and accepted the outburst as a unavoidable consequence of whatever ailed him. Without her to press the case it is unlikely the police or courts would do much more.

One can only imagine the life Catherine Hurley had to endure, running a home, a business, and caring for an elderly husbands who retained the strength to hurt her, or worse, even if that might not have been his intention.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday 3 January, 1872]

Murder most foul in Old Nicol Street

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Old Nicol Street (from an image on the St Hilda’s East Community Memories blogsite)

James Muir had spent the whole of Christmas in gaol. He’d been accused in mid December of the murder of Abigail Sullivan, with whom he ‘at times’ cohabited in Shoreditch. The couple had a tempestuous relationship and arguments (often drunken ones) were frequent.

It was a familiar story in the East End, where domestic violence was endemic and murder or manslaughter all too often the result. At some point the pair had separated, with a suggestion that Muir had been seeing someone else, a lodger at the house in Old Nichol Street where Sullivan had lived with him. This woman was Selina Lewis and she was present when the fatal attack occurred.

Lewis told the magistrate at Worship Street Police court (a Mr Rose) that Abigail Sullivan had been speaking with Muir in her room when things got heated. He hit her and she fell down. Muir then made to leave, saying he was off to get a drink. Selina left as well but came back a few minutes later with a boy. Since Abigail was still lying prone on the floor Selina told the lad to fetch over a lamp so she could examine her. When he did so they both saw that the poor woman was dead and blood was flowing from a wound in her chest.

The police were called and the body was assessed by Percy Clark, an assistant to Dr Bagster Phillips, (the police surgeon who had presided in several of the ‘Ripper’ murders in 1888). He testified in court that Abigail had suffered a fatal wound that had ‘penetrated the lung and divided the aorta. The cause of death was syncope [loss of consciousness] and loss of blood’. The weapon was produced in court, a ‘thin-bladed butchering knife’ and the police inspector present said it must have been wielded with ‘considerable force’.

Selina admitted that the quarrel had been about her and Muir’s relationship with her. The knife also hers but she’d not seen the prisoner Muir use it. That he had was not in doubt however, as he’d been arrested outside in the street by PC Brown (389H) who picked it up as the killer tried to throw it away. Muir was remanded in custody again so that Mr Sims, the Treasury solicitor, could summon five more witnesses for the prosecution.

It took until early February for the case to make it to the Central Criminal court at Old Bailey but then it didn’t trouble the jury for too long.

Muir, described elsewhere as a 39 year-old shoemaker, was found guilty of killing his former partner and the mother of his child, a baby whom Abigail had given into the care of another resident while she spoke to her errant common-law husband. One witness knew the pair well. Caroline Hall lived at 67 Old Nicol (while Sullivan had a room at number 4) and she told the Old Bailey court:

‘I have heard him threaten her—I heard him say that he would give her a good hiding some night, and that he would swing for her’.

James Muir did ‘swing for her’ on 1 March 1892 at Newgate Prison. He was hanged by James Billington and the motive given at the time was that although he and Abigail had split up she ‘still pestered him for money’. Presumably to support her little baby girl, who was now an orphan.

A very happy New Year to everyone reading this and especial thanks to those who’ve been reading my posts on a regular (or irregular) basis for the past year or more. In 2019 my next book will come out – a co-authored analysis of the Whitechapel and Thames Torso murders with my friend and fellow researcher Andy Wise. Hopefully it will be published by Amberley in June, but I’ll keep you posted on here.

[from The Standard, Friday, 1 January, 1892]

The odds are stacked against a young wife at the mercy of her cruel and abusive husband

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This week my undergraduate students at Northampton have been looking at marital violence in history. I’ve set them reading by a variety of historians that will (hopefully) allow them to look at the way spousal abuse was perpetrated and prosecuted in the 18th and 19th centuries. Much of it was predicated on the prevailing ideology of patriarchy.

English society in the 1800s was fundamentally male dominated. Men held all the positions of power (save one, that of monarch after 1837) and women were effectively excluded from most decision-making.

All the Police Court magistrates I write about were men, as were all the judges and jurors at the Old Bailey. Policeman were exclusively male, most other parish officials were men, and almost all senior employers were male as well. In the household the man was dominant too; while the ‘rule of thumb’ can be over-stressed men did have (or believed they had) the right to discipline their wives and children if they thought it necessary.

Police Court magistrates dealt with a huge amount of domestic violence, nearly all of it directed at the wives or common-law partners of working-class males. Men like James Bridgeman clearly believed they were entitled to hit their wives. This had been instilled in them from childhood as they witnessed their fathers beating their mothers for the most trivial of reasons. Often the men were drunk and simply resented being questioned as to the time they were coming in. On other occasions they complained about the food they’d been presented with, or about how long they’d had to wait to get it.

Abuse was frequent but women less frequently did much about it. Some fought back and London women were a tough lot by most accounts. But the scales were hardly balanced and years of abuse took its toll. Some wives fled, others were cowed and suffered up in silence. A few took their husbands before a magistrate, often hoping he would give them a divorce. It was a forlorn hope; justices had no power to permanently separate married couples.

Many, presented with the choice of seeing their abusive husband go to prison for beating them chose instead to take them back, fearing worse punishment if they didn’t or a worsening of their economic situation (and that of their children) if he was ‘sent down’. A ‘bad’ husband was sometimes better than no husband at all some must have reckoned.

James Bridgeman was a ‘bad husband’. He beat his young wife often despite them being relatively newly wed. He had spent two ‘unhappy years’ married to Ellen, as she told the Police Court magistrate at Clerkenwell. Then, one day in November 1884 things got worse.

On the 10 November they quarrelled and Ellen left to go back to her mother in Elsted Street, Walworth. On the next morning James turned up at his mother-in-law’s house and asked Ellen to come back to the family home in Newington Causeway.

She refused and he asked her if she would at least go to court to ‘get a separation’. ‘No, I have not got time’ was her reply. The next thing she felt was a sharp pain in her neck as her husband stepped her with his clasp knife.

The witnesses that saw the attack or saw him before he stabbed her said the knife was already open; he had intended this violence or anticipated her rejection at least. She was saved by the appearance of her mother and another man who pulled Bridgeman off her.

As James ran off, Ellen was taken to the police station where her wound was dressed. Soon afterwards James gave himself up at the station and Ellen charged him with the attack on her. In court before the Clerkenwell magistrate Ellen deposed that he had threatened her when he visited her at her mother’s.

He told her: ‘If you don’t live with me, I’ll do for you’.

The magistrate first remanded him then committed him for trial at the Old Bailey. There Bridgeman tried to claim that his wife stayed out late and was ‘living an immoral life’. It was an easy slur to make and Ellen vehemently denied it.

He also tried to argue that it was an accident, that Ellen had walked into him as he was using his knife to trim his nails. She had a inch deep cut in her neck and bruising around her throat where he had grabbed her.  Bridgeman had told the police and the magistrate that he acted as he had because he was entitled to do so, and this was reported in court.

Why had he stabbed her?

‘Only for her stopping out all night as she has done I should not have done what I have done’, was his defence.

It was the defence of all violent abusive men in the 1800s. The jury found him guilty of lesser offence than that with which he was charged. He was young (just 22) and the judge respited sentence. In the end he seems to have gone unpunished, no record exists that I can find of any sentence, so maybe some leniency was shown to him. The fact that the police surgeon didn’t think Ellen’s wounds were ‘dangerous’, and she recovered soon afterwards probably helped his cause. And the fact that the jury was male and he had publicly accused her of being a disobedient spouse.

I hope that ultimately she escaped him, because the chances are that such a brutish man would be quite prepared to make good on his threat in the future.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, November 23, 1884]

Plain-clothes police foil a jewel heist on Cheapside

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The City of London police were only created in 1839, a decade after the Met. This was partly because the square mile had resisted Sir Robert’s Peel’s (and other’s) attempts to include them in a London-wide system of police. The City authorities (in the person of the Lord Mayor and aldermen) believed with some justification that they already possessed an efficient organization for policing the City streets. In 1856 policing was extended to cover not only London but the entire country with the passing of the County and Borough Police Act (1856) and it is from then that we can really date the modern service.

Peel intended for his force to be visible and preventative; not to act as ‘spies’ (as Fouché’s French police did) but as ‘citizens in uniform’  to counter fears of a paramilitary presence on English soil. But it seems the City police were not above putting men in plain clothes on occasion, especially after 1842 when the Detective branch of the Metropolitan Police was created.

PC Legg (440 City) and a fellow officer (Evans 459 City) were watching two suspicious characters on Cheapside in late October. It was about 7 at night and PC Legg were in plain clothes when they saw Henry Smith and William Raymond looking in a number of jewellers’ windows. The two men waited for the beat bobby to pass by and then one of them (Smith) took a stone from his pocket and smashed a window. As they attempted to steal from Mr Mott’s  jewelers and watchmaker’s shop the two officers rushed them and took them into custody.

The jeweller’s assistant (Joseph Snowden) came running out and saw what was happening. He noted that they had picked the window which held the most expensive items, including several diamond bracelets. In total he estimated that there was upwards of a £1,000 worth of stock that the thieves might have carried away had it not been for the quick work of the police.  Smith quickly found the stone and the men were arrested and searched: each of them was carrying a knife and Smith had an empty purse on him as well.

At the Mansion House Police court the Lord Mayor heard conformation of the evidence from PC Evans who added that the men were laughing as the broke the window. He also said that Raymond had told him (when arrested) that he was a former soldier having serve din the Middlesex Militia and the Buffs but had been discharged on health grounds. If that was supposed to impress the police or the magistrate it failed. The defendants refused to say anything much in their defence except to ask for the Lord Mayor to deal with them summarily. That would have earned them a shorter sentence and the justice was not inclined to oblige them.

‘No’, he said, ‘I shall never think of adjudicating in a case of this kind. It must go before a tribunal possessed of the power of inflicting a punishment proportioned to the serious offence’.

He committed them to the Central Criminal Court at Old Bailey where they appeared on November 24th. After a brief trial they were convicted and sent to prison for nine months each, both men were just 22 years old.

 

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, November 01, 1856]

A teenage girl gets the benefit of the doubt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 1888: A killer in the East overshadows the everyday reality of domestic abuse in Victorian London    

Catching Jack

I have just completed the final draft of my ‘Ripper’ solution book and its now off with my co-author for his last amendments. We have to do a little work on the images and maps but it looks like we will comfortably meet our end of September deadline. Having put down my pen (so to speak) on the project I thought I’d return to Whitechapel in 1888 to see what was going on in the Police Courts of the capital in the midst of the most infamous murders London has ever known.

For context, by Wednesday September 18 1888 the murders of four women were being investigated by the police: Emma Smith (4/4/88), Martha Tabram (7/8/88), Mary Ann Nichols (31/8/88), and Annie Chapman (8/9/88). Within  less than two weeks both Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes would be added to that list, their murders occurring within an hour of each other.

Very few people (including me) believe Smith to have been a ‘Ripper’ victim and some dispute whether Tabram was. Either way, by this time 130 years ago the police were desperate to catch a murderer who was mutilating defenseless women in the heart of the East End.

Meanwhile over the river at Lambeth Henry Baker (alias Williams) was being charged with the attempted murder of Mary Cowen. The attack had taken place in mid July but Mary was dangerously ill in St Thomas’ Hospital, and was too weak to attend court until early September. However, on the day of the first committal hearing she failed to appear in court to prosecute the case against Henry.

The policeman in charge of the case, Chief Inspector Chisholm, had then told the magistrate at Lambeth Police court that he was convinced that friends of the prisoner had conspired to prevent Mary giving evidence that day. Mr Biron had granted the police a warrant to force her to attend at a subsequent date, and therefore she was in court on the 18 September to start the case against her attacker.

Mary Cowen was still suffering the effects of the assault: ‘she appeared very ill, and evidently was most reluctant to give evidence against the prisoner’, the paper reported. The case was opened by the Treasury solicitor Mr Pollard. He ascertain (‘with some difficulty’) that Mary had lived with Henry in Birmingham but they had been separated ‘for some time’. As was the case much more frequently than we might imagine today, many working class couples lived as man and wife without ever formally marrying.

In July the couple had met in London and had a violent argument. She admitted striking her ex-partner in the face with her bag and calling him ‘foul names’. That was the 10 July 1888 and on the following Monday, the 16th, he found her again and this time he attacked her, stabbing her two or three times with a knife. Mary collapsed and lost consciousness. Someone must have helped her because she woke up in hospital.

Henry Baker denied the attack and objected when the solicitor played his trump card and produced a written statement, from Baker, admitting his guilt. Baker said no one could prove it was his handwriting but Mr Pollard begged to differ. The crucial witness was Mary however, and having finally persuaded (or forced) her to testify against her former lover the police must have ben relatively confident of securing a conviction. Mr Biron now fully committed the man to trial at Old Bailey for the attempted murder of his common-law wife.

The trial did take place, on 22 October 1888 and ‘Harry’ Baker was convicted, not of attempted murder but of the lesser offence of wounding. The court report stated at the end that:

the prisoner, ‘in his defence stated that he had been subjected to great annoyance by the prosecutrix, whose habits were very intemperate, and that he pleaded guilty to assaulting her after great provocation’.

An all male jury clearly agreed with him and even when he’d admitted having a previous conviction (from 1887 in Chester) the judge merely sent him away for a year’s imprisonment.

This is the surgeon’s report of the injuries Mary had sustained (and that Baker admitted inflicting):

The prosecutrix was brought there [St Thomas’ Hospital] with a deep incised wound on the right side of the chest, penetrating into the cavity of the chest, between 3 and 4 inches long and 1 inch deep or more, and another wound in her back behind the right shoulder blade an inch and a half long and half or three-quarters of an inch deep; there was considerable bleeding from the wound in front, a large artery was divided—she was in very great danger for some time—she remained in the hospital till September 3rd and after having recovered to some extent was allowed to go—her life was in danger till July 22nd

When juries were prepared to accept as mitigation the accusation that a ‘wife’ was ‘intemperate’ and that being called ‘foul names’ and slapped in the face with a bag counted as ‘provocation’ it is quiet easy to understand why women were so reluctant to prosecute their husbands and partners in the late Victorian period.

We should also see the actions of a misogynistic serial killer in the context of the way women were treated everyday in the 1880s, and not view him as an aberration (a ‘monster’) or some sort of criminal mastermind. Women were beaten up, stabbed, abused, raped and murdered on a very regular basis in the nineteenth century and ‘Jack’ wasn’t the only one to get away with it.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, September 19, 1888]

The histrionic farrier from Luton who drank himself silly at Barnet Fair

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I grew up in Finchley in North London. It was then (and is now) a multi-cultural  suburban centre with a busy high street, a couple of nice parks, and good transport links to central London. However, a quick glance at G. W. Bacon’s atlas of the capital (see below right) shows that in 1888 (when the map was published) there was very little of the modern Finchley in evidence.

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Church End (where I went to school) is just a small village and there are open fields all the way to what is now East Finchley. The railways (The Edgware, Highgate & London line) is there, as is the main southbound road towards Temple Fortune, Golders Green and then the main metropolis. Barnet, in the late nineteenth century then, was a largely rural place with pockets of suburban growth. This is reflected in this case from Highgate Police court in September 1898.

Thomas Hopkins, a 48 year-old farrier was brought up to answer a charge of being disorderly and of damaging a police cell.  The man wasn’t from Highgate or Finchley but had travelled down to the Barnet Fair from Luton in Hertfordshire. He’d been found at Whetstone on a Monday night, drunk as a lord, ‘behaving in a very disorderly manner’. The local police arrested him and locked him in a cell to sober up overnight.

Hopkins was belligerent however and made a great deal of fuss. He demanded water and complained that he was being allowed to die in the cell. When Sergeant Goodship went to see what all the noise was about the farrier threatened him saying:

‘If you don’t let me out, you will be hung in two minutes’.

It was an empty threat but typical of Hopkins’ histrionic manner. Throughout his arrest, incarnation and appearance in court Thomas managed to embroider his tale with exaggeration and melodrama. It amused the court’s audience if not the magistrates sitting in judgement on him.

‘I’m dying’, he told the police who had locked him up.

As he attempted to destroy his cell he promised to pay for all the damage, ‘even if it’s a thousand pounds’.

For context £1,000 in 1898 equates to about £78,000, which would pay a skilled tradesman wages for almost a decade!).

In court he was asked to explain himself and told the bench that on the previous Sunday he’d got two horses ready in Luton. One he intended to ride, the other would led by his assistant. But his wife refused to allow ‘his man’ to travel as well (perhaps thinking she’d need him at the stables).

He rode for 20 miles and called ahead for someone to meet him (who never showed up). He carried on and said he’d now walked for 200 miles, which collapsed the court in laughter. Luton is about 30 miles from Barnet so Hopkins was exaggerating wildly for effect. He wanted to show how far he’d tramped and how thirsty he was.

He was worried about falling victim to robbers as well. ‘There are any number of roughs lying about there’, he explained and revealed that he always carried a knife up his sleeve. When the police arrested him they took his knife away, and he lay still on the floor and pretended to be dead, ‘but I knew I wasn’t’, he added with perfect (if not necessarily deliberate) comic timing.

As the magistrates struggled to contain the laughter in the courtroom Hopkins played his final card. He claimed the police had try to kill him.

‘They gave me enough poison to kill the whole world’ he told his enthralled audience.

Sergeant Goodship gave a more rational explanation:

‘He told me he’d been drinking hard for a fortnight’.

The court was told that a doctor had been supposed to examine him in Luton before he left for the fair but hadn’t managed to before the farrier set off. Perhaps his wife and friends had been worried about the sate of his mental health. The bench could see that all was clearly not quite right with Thomas Hopkins and remanded him to the nearest workhouse infirmary so he could be checked out by a doctor. Ultimately, ‘mad’ or not, he would be sent back to Luton and his wife, though what fate awaited him there was unclear.

Barnet has had a horse fair since the middle ages and it would have drawn men like Thomas Hopkins from all over the south east of England. Horses and cattle were traded there and there was racing as well, at least till 1870. Now it exists as annual local festival, not a horse fair. The name of course is probably better as coated with cockney rhyming slang – Barnet Fair = Hair. So on Friday, after work, I’m off to get my Barnet snipped.

[from The Standard , Tuesday, September 13, 1898]