A murder confession, 13 years too late

The "Rookery", St. Giles's, 1850

Nineteenth-century St Giles

The reporter from Reynold’s newspaper, or his editor, captioned George Skinner’s behavior as ‘EXTRAORDINARY CONDUCT’.

Skinner, a 39 year-old resident of south London was brought before Mr Chance at Lambeth Police court charged with being drunk. It wasn’t his first appearance in court and had only recently been released from prison where he’d served a month inside for being an ‘habitual drunkard’.

On this occasion Skinner had presented himself at the desk of Gypsy Hill Police station, telling the sergeant that he was responsible for a murder that took place 13 years earlier. The station inspector sat him down and took a statement from him. He confessed to killing a ‘woman named Jackson’ in 1863 but when he was handed the statement to sign, he refused.

He was ‘very drunk’ when he spoke to the police and subsequent enquiries had ‘ascertained that the prisoner had before given himself up at Bow Street in a similar manner’.

But had a woman named Jackson been murdered in 1863, the magistrate asked? Indeed they had.

Sergeant 4ER gave evidence that a woman named Jackson had been murdered in George Street, Bloomsbury in 1863 and that in 1870 George Skinner had confessed to the crime. The police had investigated his confession however, and found it to be false.

Whoever had killed Ms Jackson the police didn’t believe it was Skinner, even if he seemed to. Mr Chance turned to the prisoner and told him that he had acted in a ‘most disgraceful manner’, presumably by being drunk and wasting police time. What had he to say for himself?

‘Commit me for trial’, Skinner replied. ‘I don’t care what you do. Let it go for trial’.

‘Let what go for trial?’, the magistrate demanded to know.

‘Send me for trial as an habitual drunkard. You know you can do it if you like. That’s the law’.

Mr Chance may well have had considerable discretionary power in 1880 but he could hardly send someone before a jury for being a drunk, however annoying the man’s behaviour was. Instead he was able to send him back to prison and/or fine him and this is what he did. Skinner, described as an able if ‘lazy’ shoemaker, was fined 20s  and told if he did  not pay up he would go to prison for 14 days at hard labour.

‘Only fourteen days for confession of a murder?’ Skinner quipped, ‘All right’.

In April 1863 a carpenter was charged at Bow Street with the murder of an Emma Jackson in St Giles. The court was crowded as the locals clearly felt this was the killer. They were mistaken however, as the police quickly established that the man confessing to murder, John Richards (a 31 year old carpenter) was, like Skinner, a drunken fantasist. He had confessed whilst drunk but later retracted and the magistrate, a Mr Broddick, warned him but let him go without further penalty.

The murder of Emma Jackson excited ‘intense interest in the miserable neighbourhood in which it took place’, Reynold’s  had reported at the time. As a result the tavern where the inquest was held was as crowded at the police court where Richards was examined a few days later. St Giles was a notoriously poor area (below), on a par with Whitechapel and Southwark in the 1800s, and a byword for degradation and lawlessness.

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Emma was murdered in a brothel, although it was also described as a lodging house; in some respects it was hard to discern much difference between the two. Jackson had arrived there with a client (a man wearing a cap was all the description the landlady could manage) and asked for a room for two hours.

It was a very brutal murder, there was blood everywhere, but no sign of the killer. Perhaps it was intensity of this murder and the lack of a suspect that prompted some disturbed individuals to confess to it, just as several people confessed to being the Whitechapel murderer in 1888.  That they were drunk when they did so might also indicate that they ware suffering from a form of mental illness, understood today but not in the 1800s.

Skinner had confessed to a murder in 1863 in Bloomsbury, Jackson was killed in St Giles, which is near enough to allow it to be the same murder.

[from Reynold’s Newspaper, Sunday 7 March 1880; Daily NewsThursday 23 April, 1863; Reynold’s Newspaper, Sunday 19 April 1863 ]

Charges of pomposity, adultery and theft are levelled at a couple from the East End, but little sticks

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Anne Ferrell (or possibly Varrell) had only a short interval between her twin appearances at the bar of the Worship Street Police court in 1844. On the first occasion she’d been accused of pledging the contents of a room she shared with William Smelt in Blue Anchor Alley in the parish of St Luke’s, east London.

On 1 November her partner abandoned her and the landlord, finding the room emptied of his property, took her to court. She admitted that she and Smelt had pledged the items but pleaded poverty. She said her legal husband (another William) had run out on her and their four year-old daughter some months previously and she was close to starving when she set up with Smelt.

This story had elicited considerable sympathy from the court and ‘several subscriptions’ were raised to help her. The parish officers were also asked to look into her circumstances to see he was eligible for their help.

They discovered that while William Farrell had indeed left her it was on account of her own behavior. He alleged (and others agreed) that she was ‘a woman of most profligate habits, who had pledged and sold every article belonging to her husband that she could lay her hands on’.

When she had finished with him she moved in with Smelt instead. The magistrate commiserated with Farrell and ordered that the monies that had been paid to her be repaid into the poor box. He’d not long finished with her when she was called back into court to answer a charge of conspiring with Smelt to rob their lodgings in Blue Anchor Alley.

Mr Broughton was told that the room was let by a poor shoemaker named Thomas Howes and once the pair’s guilt was clearly established he asked Smelt if he had anything to say for himself. He certainly did.

Smelt ‘with great pomposity’ declared himself to be ‘a socialist, and that he had been actuated by principles, the perfect rectitude of which would, he felt satisfied, be made truly manifest to the whole world’.

The justice asked him if his so-called ‘principles’ extended to ‘living in open adultery with another man’s wife?’

Smelt had an answer for this too.

He said that ‘on the day of resurrection there would be neither marrying nor giving in marriage; and that the ties of mutual attachment would be held as scared as any bonds sanctioned by mere human institutions’.

He had launched into his own sermon when Mr Broughton cut him short. Was he attempting to justify robbing a poor man of his property he asked.

Smelt replied that he was only ‘borrowing’ the items and fully intended to repay the ‘debt’ he accrued.  He followed this up with a long winded diatribe against everyone that had ever slighted him or done him wrong, saying that his talents and virtue had ‘utterly been lost’ as the country had gone downhill in recent years.

Mr Broughton had heard enough. Silencing him again he said his words were ‘utterly subversive of every principle of morality and religion’, and he committed them both to Newgate to face trial for the thefts.

They did face trial, on the 25th November 1844. Both were cleared.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, November 27, 1844]

Poor life choices force ‘Annie’ out on the streets of Whitechapel in September 1888

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When I worked in retail in the 1990s (long before I changed career to become a historian) there were a couple of occasions where I had to investigate cases of theft by employees. I was a shop manager and was sometimes deployed by one of the directors to troubleshoot underperforming shops or to help recruit for new stores. In one store there was  problem with money going missing; someone was pilfering,  either from the tills or the safe. In the end we discovered it was the manager.

Confronted with it he confessed and said he’d been borrowing money as he was struggling to pay some debts. He said he always intended to pay the money back, he saw it as a loan (albeit and unauthorized one) not stealing. Suffice to say that’s not how the director or the company’s owner saw and he was out on his ear. He was lucky no prosecutions followed.

There is a fine line of course between borrowing and theft, one that best avoided if you want to stay on the right side of the law. Annie Franks crossed that line in September 1888. The 18 year-old shop girl lodged with Julia Regan in her digs in New Court, Whitechapel. Regan had taken the girl in while her folks were away in Kent helping to bring in the hop harvest. She’d done so because Annie looked lost and Julia needed the company.

Annie had been there a few weeks when Julia missed a pawnbroker’s ticket she’d kept in a sugar basin in her room. She’d pawned some clothes in order to get some cash but now she was ready to redeem the ticket and collect them. She asked around to see if anyone had seen it and neighbour told her that Annie had shown it to her, and claimed Julia had sold it to her for 3d.

It was a lie and it soon transpired that Annie had taken the ticket and retrieved the clothes for herself. Julia was angry and provably quite hurt, so she went to the police. Annie broke down under questioning and admitted her crime to PC 77H. She only meant to borrow the clothes while she too went ‘hopping’ and she fully intended to give the items back on her return.

That was a lie as well because a little investigation showed that she’d already pawned them once more. In court at Worship Street Annie must have cut a forlorn figure in the dock. Her youth was in her favour but Mr Saunders was told that since she’d moved to Spitalfields she had ‘taken up with a lot of bad characters’. The police also reported that she had a previous conviction for theft as a servant. That decided things for her and the magistrate: he sent her to prison for seven days.

If you are familiar with the events of 1888 in the East End you might know that New Court was an alleyway that ran off Dorset Street to the north. There were two others: Paternoster Row and Miller’s Court. Miller’s Court was where Mary Kelly lived in the autumn of 1888 and where she died on the night of the 9 November. Lots of people lived and worked in this desperately crowed and poverty riven part of Whitechapel but there was a chance, a real one perhaps, that Annie knew Mary and certainly she would have been affected by the terror that was meted out on the inhabitants of the East End that summer and autumn.

All the women killed by the ‘Ripper’ were out late at night or in the early hours of the morning. They were living a hand-to-mouth existence, staying in cheap rooms or boarding houses where they could, and earning money by prostitution when they had to. They had all enjoyed more comfortable and settled lives previously but drink, bad luck, or tragedy had best each of them which was why they were on the streets and vulnerable.

Annie – by virtue of her own poor decision making and the sentence handed down by Mr Saunders was now on a critical downward pathway towards a similar fate. Let’s hope her employer took her back when she came out of gaol or that she did indeed escape to the country to pick hops. Let’s hope she didn’t end up like Martha, Polly, Annie, Liz, Kate and Mary Jane walking the streets in the hopes of finding enough money for her ‘doss’. After all just two days after Annie’s court appearance another ‘Annie’ (Annie Chapman) was found murdered in Hanbury Street, barely ten minutes walk from New Court.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, September 07, 1888]

‘I will go faster to ruin if I go with my mother’: teenage defiance as tensions run high in Westminster

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I am not sure what Margaret Brown hoped to achieve when she prosecuted Matthew Max Plimmer for an assault at Westminster Police court. Margaret (a 32 year-old woman who lived in a property on the Brompton Road), explained that her daughter had run off with Plimmer, who was already married, and had been living in sin with him. Anxious to ‘rescue her’ as she put it, Margaret turned up at the house and demanded that her daughter come home with her. Plimmer refused to allow this, remonstrated with the woman and then assaulted her. According to the prosecutrix he ‘seized her, and bit her wrist so it bled’.

The daughter was in court and was interviewed by the magistrate, Mr Paget. She told him she had left Plimmer (a Belgian national who had apparently worked, briefly it seems, for the C.I.D) and had set herself up at digs on the Marylebone Road. She wasn’t doing very well however, and was surviving only by pawning her own clothes.

Mr Paget advised her to go back home to her mother but the headstrong nineteen year-old refused. She would ‘do as she liked’ she told him. In that case ‘she was going fast to ruin’, the magistrate said; why on earth would she not return home?

The young woman offered an ‘insolent’ (but unrecorded) response and said ‘she would go to ruin faster if she went with her mother’.

Ouch.

That was a telling comment on Mrs Brown’s character and her relationship with her daughter. If she had hoped to use the leverage of the court to separate her daughter from a married man (and a foreigner to boot) in an effort get her to return to the fold she had failed. Plimmer was initially remanded for further examination but then released on sureties of £50 to reappear if required.

Mother and daughter went their separate ways.

[from The Standard, Friday, April 11, 1879]

‘He’s a good man, when he’s sober your worship’: Little support for an abused wife at Guildhall

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As many posts on this blog and research elsewhere, including recently published work on the victims of  ‘Jack the Ripper’ have detailed, violence against women was a depressingly familiar aspect of daily life in late Victorian London. Everyday, women were abused, beaten, sexually assaulted, and killed by men and a great deal of this violence went unprosecuted and unpunished.

Very many women were in a perilous position with regards to confronting their husbands or partners when it came to domestic violence. If they chose to fight back, they could expect not only more and worse violence, but were likely to lose the tacit support of their communities. If they went to law they risked not only a beating, but the economic hardship of losing the family’s main breadwinner or his being fined, another charge of the domestic budget.

As a consequence few women prosecuted their spouses unless they were desperate or recognized the relationship was unrecoverable; they went to law as a last resort, and often, once in front of magistrate, retracted their charges or spoke up in mitigation of their abuser’s actions: ‘he’s a good man, when sober your worship’, was familiar refrain.

Honora Rush decided to go to law when her husband, John, beat her up for the umpteenth time. Honora knew what her laboring spouse was like when he was in his cups and on Sunday night, the 11 March 1888, when she heard his staggered boots ascending he stairs to their room she barred the door with the bed. ‘She knew that he was drunk, and would most likely knock her out’ she told the alderman at Guildhall Police court, and she was right.

John barged his way inside, breaking through the wooden door, and confronted her. He ‘knocked her about’ with his fists and she ran past him but he grabbed her and threw her down the stairs. As she struggled to her feet and began to dust herself down he came out of the room holding a paraffin lamp. Alarmed she asked him to put it down. Instead he came down to her, kicked her in stomach and threw the lamp at her. The flames set her petticoats on fire and ignited the stairs. The other residents of the building rushed out to fetch water and a police constable and John was arrested.

It took some time to put out the fire, PC Cooper explained, but then he questioned the man and the woman and their 11 year-old son. The boy supported his mother’s account but the magistrate was keen to enquire whether she’d given him any provocation for the assault.  Had she been drinking, he wanted to know? Honora said she hadn’t (and the boy confirmed this) but  John said otherwise and Alderman Knill was inclined to believe him.

Both the court’s gaoler and the police confirmed that John Rush had been prosecuted previously for abusing his wife, although on several occasions Honora had not pressed charges, perhaps hoping that the shock of being arrested would do the trick. Sadly she was mistaken. The magistrate seemed not to be inclined to throw the book at this brutal specimen of a husband but he had to do something. Turning to the prisoner in the dock the alderman told him that:

‘it was a most outrageous thing that he, a great burly fellow as he was, should assault his wife in the way I which he had done’. However, the court recognized that since in his opinion, she was ‘not a temperate woman’ there ‘might have been some slight provocation’. He bound Rush over to keep the peace towards her for six months on pain of having to find £5 if he did not. The only person satisfied with that outcome was the labourer himself who tipped his cap to the bench and said, ‘thank sir, I am very much obliged’

Poor Honora must a have been left fearing the worst and any woman reading this would surely have thought that the law offered her no protection whatsoever. This was 1888 and within eight months at least six women in the capital would have been brutally murdered by an unknown killer.  In dingy rooms all over the capital brutish husbands threatened to ‘do for their wives’ like the ‘Ripper’ had. The Whitechapel murderer killed at a time when working-class were cheap, and those of the poorest and most vulnerable, mostly women, were considered cheapest of all.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, March 13, 1888]

A small success in the war on drugs (the nineteenth-century version)

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Plan of the London Docks, by Henry Palmer (1831)

Sergeant Aram of H Division Metropolitan Police (18H) was stationed in Flower and Dean Street, one of the most notoriously rough addresses in Victorian London. Now the street is altered beyond recognition; all that remains is an archway that used to mark the entrance to model dwellings built in 1886. By the 1880s Flower & Dean Street was lined with low lodging houses and several of the Whitechapel murder victims dossed there at some point.

It wasn’t much better in the 1850s and was a almost a ‘no-go’ area for the police who preferred to patrol here in strength. The sergeant may have been positioned here to receive information from his constables as walked their beat. There were fixed points like this throughout the police district but in this case it seems Aram may have been keeping an eye out for criminal activity himself, perhaps on the basis of information he’d received.

At about five o’clock in the morning a hansom cab pulled up and two men got out. One lobbed a bundle into the passageway of number 33 and then turned to see the police officer approaching him. Before sergeant Aram had a chance to ask him what he was up to the man fled.

Seeing his fare disappearing into the night the cabbie started to run after him but sergeant Aram called to him and instructed him to follow the other passenger, a man wearing a smock frock. It took a little while but both men were soon apprehended. At a first hearing at Worship Street both the cab driver (a man named William Perry) and the smock coated man were questioned before being released; the other individual, William Watchem, was remanded for further enquiry.

Two days later Watchem (also known as Will Watch or simply, ‘the Captain’) was brought up from the cells and set in the dock to be examined in the presence of an official from the Customs. He had been formally identified by Inspector White from H Division who clearly knew him (or knew of his reputation).  The Customs were involved because the bundle Watchem had lobbed into 33 Flower & Dean Street contained no fewer than 213 packages of tobacco with a street value of over £50 (about £4,000 today).

Perry, the cabbie, testified that Watchem had flagged him down in the Minories and said he wanted to transport a sack of potatoes. The magistrate was content that the driver was not otherwise involved and perhaps the other man was a police informer (and so was not prosecuted). I imagine the court could have prosecuted this as theft  but it may have proved difficult to gain a conviction. So instead the police and magistrate opted to deal with Watchem under legislation aimed at those that avoided paying the required taxes on imported goods.  So, ‘The Captain’ (described in the press report as ‘the Bold Smuggler’) now faced a hefty fine for non-payment of the duty owed on the tobacco.

The magistrate decided that Watchem should pay a fine of £100 which, at twice the value of the tobacco, was clearly unrealistic and he can’t ever have been expected to do so. Instead, in default, he was sent to prison for six months.

A smuggler was taken off the streets for a while and the police had demonstrated that their information networks were capable of penetrating the underworld of organized crime. It was a small success for sergeant Aram and the men of H Division.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, 16 December, 1852]

A glimmer of hope for an abused wife in Somers Town

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According to the memoirs of one of London’s Police Court magistrates the working class believed that magistrates had the power to divorce married couples. In reality divorce was out of the question the poorer classes as it was an expensive legal exercise which effectively excluded all but the wealthiest in late Victorian society. Police magistrates in London could however, order a legal separation and require a husband to continue to maintain his wife.

We can see an example of this in a report from Clerkenwell in 1885. Richard Davis, a labourer living at 12 Churchway in Somers Town, was brought before Mr Hosack and charged with assaulting his wife. This was a common enough accusation levelled in the police courts, hundreds of women prosecuted their partners on a weekly basis in London.   In most cases the accusation was enough and when the couple appeared in court the wife would either drop the charge or plead for leniency, often whilst she stood in the witness box sporting a black eye or swaddled in bandages.

The police rarely intervened in ‘domestics’, and were not supposed to intervene unless ‘actual violence is imminent’ (as the Police Code stated). Most of the time they were called after violence had occurred as I have described on numerous occasions in previous posts here. In court this was the only situation in which a wife could testify against her husband but the difficulties in doing so were considerable. A wife that prosecuted her husband might fear retribution, or the loss of his earnings should he be imprisoned (which was one of the options that magistrates resorted to when confronted with wife beaters).

Mrs Davis had been brave enough to challenge her husband’s abuse in public; it was very unlikely to have been the first time that he had assaulted her and perhaps she feared that if she suffered in silence the next attack might be worse, fatal even. In court Mr Hosack heard that Davis ‘constantly ill-used his wife’. On this most recent occasion he had arrived home drunk, the pair had argued and he had hit her with a chair. The labourer then picked up a paraffin lamp and hurled it at her. Fortunately it missed but it caused a small fire, which must have been terrifying.

Perhaps because Davis’ actions threatened not just the life of his wife but also those of his neighbours the magistrate decided to send him away to cool down. He sentenced him to three months at hard labour, which would certainly impact on the man and remind him that his wife had the power to resist.

More importantly perhaps Mr Hosack ordered a ‘judicial separation between the prisoner and his wife’ and told Davis that on his release he would have to pay her 10a week maintenance. He could make the order of course but could he compel the man to pay? I doubt it. As a labourer recently out of gaol Davis would have few prospects of finding well-paid work (if any at all) and 10was not inconsiderable.

Mrs Davis’ best option was to find a new home with friends or family and hope Richard did not find her. If she wanted his money she would have to fight for it, and that meant taking him before the courts again if he failed to pay.

[from The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, December 5, 1885]