A sorry tale of an old abuser who finally went too far

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Isaac Jones was a violent man when he was in his cups. He had that in common with very many in nineteenth-century London and his poor wife and family suffered for it.

On the 21 July 1860 he’d come home late, drunk as he often was, and belligerent with it. His wife and he had the usual exchange of words and a fight broke out. The exact details are not clear but at some point Isaac lunged for his wife Jane who, fearing for her life, grabbed the nearest weapon she could and defended herself.

She selected a poker but she might have easily picked up an iron, a saucepan or a rolling pin; when women fought with their menfolk it was often one of these they used (or had used against them). The poker connected with Isaac’s leg and he slipped and fell, unable to maintain his balance as he was so drunk after the evening’s excesses.

He cried out and his groans brought a policeman to the door of the house. PC 256M came into the room and found Isaac on his side his leg bent horribly under him and ‘the bone of the fractured limb protruding through the skin’. A cab was called and the injured man was ferried to Guy’s Hospital where his leg was amputated. Since it seemed evident that Jane was to blame she was arrested and taken into custody.

Events unfolded with some inevitability given the state both of Isaac’s general health (he was an elderly man with a drink problem) and Victorian medicine. The local magistracy were informed that the old man was dying so went to see him in hospital to ascertain who was responsible for his condition. Jane went along as well and he kissed her warmly saying ‘that it was the last time’.

Isaac was too ill to say anything else, and did not condemn his wife in the presence of the justices. He died a day later and so Jane was taken before Mr Maude at Southwark Police court accused of causing his death by striking him with the poker.

An inquest had concluded that he had died from the injury but ‘there was nothing to show how it was done’. Isaac’s daughter (also named Jane) gave evidence of the row and the fight but said she’d not seen her mother hit her father with the poker, adding that she’d told her she had not. She elaborated on the fight saying that Isaac had a knife and was threatening her mother with it.

Mr Maude heard a report form the surgeon at Guy’s which was pretty clear that the leg was broken by an impact injury not a fall but he was trying to find a way to clear Mrs Jones if at all possible. Isaac Jones had been a wife beater, she was a domestic abuse survivor and, on this occasion, the tables had turned on the old man. There was clear evidence that Jane had been defending herself and that the attack – if attack there was – had been spontaneous not premeditated.

There was also sufficient doubt over the exact cause of death to give Jane the benefit of the doubt. It is unlikely that a jury would have convicted her anyway and she was evidently remorseful at the death of her husband, however bad a man he was. It would do no one any good to see her go to trial much less go to prison so Mr Maude commented that it was ‘a very painful case’ but he would detain her on longer; she was free to go.

Mrs Jones, who had ben allowed to sit the clerk’s table instead of occupying the dock wept throughout the examination but was helped to her feet and led out of court on her daughter’s arm.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, August 28, 1860]

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]

An unhappy arsonist is rescued by a brave constable.

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When Edward O’Connor got home from the pub he was disappointed that his wife hadn’t got his dinner ready. Mrs O’Connor was pretty used to this sort of situation, Edward was frequently drunk and when he was, he was unbearable. The 45 year-old shoemaker was a ‘quarrelsome’ fellow and not above taking out his frustrations on his spouse and their children.

This was nothing out of the ordinary for Victorian London of course, many women were victims of their husband’s unwarranted anger and violence and the summary courts bore witness to their occasional attempts to ‘get the law on them’.

However, on this occasion Mrs O’Connor hadn’t brought a charge against Edward, he had gone so far over the bounds of acceptable behaviour that he had found himself up before Mr Benson at Southwark Police court without his wife having to file a complaint.

This was because he’d come home to 18 Potter Street, Bermondsey in a drunken state and flew into a rage when he realized his supper wasn’t ready. He shouted at his wife and told her he would burn the house down with her and the children in it. She fled, clutching her offspring close to her and raised the alarm.

Meanwhile Edward stumbled over the fire and shoveled up a portion of burning coals which he then tossed onto the bed. As the fire began to take he staggered back to admire his handiwork. Soon afterwards the window was forced open and a policeman’s head appeared. PC Fred Palmer (45M) had arrived on the scene and rushed inside. Pushing Edward aside he quickly extinguished the flames and dragged Edward outside. The copper’s bravery undoubtedly saved the property and the lives of Edward and anyone else living there.

In court Edward was apologetic and said he had no memory of what he’d done. Mrs O’Connor spoke up for him (as wives and partners frequently did) saying that if the magistrate was lenient she would make sure her husband took the temperance pledge. She was sure he hadn’t intended to destroy their home or hurt her and the kids. The magistrate cautioned the shoemaker, warning him to stay off the drink and take better care of his wife and family. He then told him to find bail for his good conduct over the next six months and let him go.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, November 22, 1872]

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]

‘I did it for love!’ Jealousy, xenophobia and murder in Bermondsey.

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In late May 1891 Franz Joseph Munch, a 31 year-old baker living in Bermondsey appeared at Southwark Police court to answer a charge of murder. According to the policeman that arrested him he had shot a Mancunian named Heckey who had been making his life a misery and who, he believed, had been stealing from his employer. On his way to the police station the German asked Sgt. Ayerst (of M Division, Metropolitan Police) how badly injured the other man was.

I think he is dead‘ the sergeant replied.

A _______ good job‘, responded Munch (and we can imagine the deleted expletive), ‘he called me a German bastard‘, adding ‘I suppose I shall swing for it in a month‘.

The papers dubbed the case ‘the Bermondsey Murder’ and Munch was hauled off to prison to face a trial at the Old Bailey.

Munch was tried at the Old Bailey on the 29 June 1891. Much of the evidence was repetitive (as trials often are) and concerned the events of the night Hickey died. He and a friend (an engine named Joel Dymond) had been drinking in the Lord Palmerston pub opposite Mrs Conrath’s bakery where Munch was employed Several people saw Hickey and Dymond cross the road to the bakery.

Hickey got out his key and entered the building. Almost immediately there was a bang and a flash and Hickey staggered out on two the street and collapsed. He’d been shot and Munch followed him out holding a gun in one hand and a knife  in the other. He was quickly overpowered and led away; Hickey was taken to the pub where he died before medical help could arrive.

The key to the story is Bridget Conrath, the bakery’s proprietor. She was Hickey’s cousin and, for some time at least, Munch’s lover. It seemed that when Hickey arrived in the capital from Manchester he was looking to start his own business and perhaps he had designs on his cousin’s. He certainly didn’t approve of her relationship with a foreigner and it plain. He insulted Munch at every opportunity and refused to be in the same room as him.

Hickey also moved to get the German baker the sack, insisting that Bridget get rid of him. In the end she was persuaded (perhaps by force or familial pressure) to give Franz his notice. She didn’t want to she told the court, and it had a terrible effect on Munch. He’d proposed to her and she rejected him but they’d stayed close friends and she valued him as an employee. He was trusted with the shop’s money and perhaps he’d noticed Hickey helping himself to the takings as he swanned around the place. When Bridget gave him his marching orders he got drunk – the only time she’d seen him lose his control in all the years she’d known him.

In the days leading up to the murder Munch was also suffering from tooth ache and this physical agony, combined with the upset and shame of losing his job and seeing the woman he loved being manipulated by a racist bigot probably pushed him over the edge.

The jury clearly thought so. They found him guilty (as he undoubtedly was) but recommended him to mercy on the grounds of provocation. The judge donned the black square of cloth and sentenced Franz Joseph to death. Berry-1

Munch appealed his sentence to the German Embassy but they did nothing to help him. He’d left Germany to avoid being conscripted into the army and having supposedly abandoned his country, his country left him to die at the end of James Berry’s rope. He was executed on the 21 July 1891 at Wandsworth Prison.

                                           James Berry, the executioner

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, May 31, 1891]

Two unsuspicious characters exploit passengers on the Dartford train

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I have discussed the perils of travelling on the Victorian railway network in previous posts on this blog. The railways not only made Britain smaller and allowed Victorians a new freedom to move around the country quickly and cheaply, it also broke down some of the well-established barriers between the classes. Not everyone was entirely comfortable with this, no least because it also opened up new opportunities for crime.

Alfred Thomas and Ann Mark were skilful thieves who exploited the new railways to earn an illegal living. Their patch was the South-Eastern Railway, which ran (until 1922) from London to Dover. They dressed ‘fashionably’; in other words they didn’t look like criminals or members of the lower working class but passed as respectable.

Ann dressed smartly and carried a muff to keep her hands warm. She also had a small lap dog and must have seemed to those that saw her a charming young woman with a distracting animal. Alfred was similarly presentable and when the pair traveled together he pretended to be her brother. What could be less threatening: two siblings traveling together on the railway?

However, all was not as it seems and these two were eventually exposed and brought to the Southwark Police Court to be prosecuted as thieves.

The first witness and victim was Mrs Susannah Pledge, a ‘lady residing at Bermondsey’. She testified that she was in a  second-class carriage on the train to Dartford and was sat next to Ann while Alfred sat opposite. Ann was playing with her ‘handsome little dog’ letting it crawl in and out of her muff. At Plumstead Alfred rose and leaned over to Ann to speak quietly to her, then at the next station he got up again and bid her farewell, saying: ‘Give my love to brother’.

As soon as the young man had gone Mrs Pledge realised that her dress had been cut and her purse removed from her pocket. Mr Walter Rutherford (described as ‘a gentleman’) was also in the carriage and saw what went on. He was suspicious of the pair and saw Alfred reach over towards Mrs Pledge and scoop up something from the floor of the train just as they pulled in to Woolwich station.

He called the guard and helped track Alfred down to a third-class carriage further along the train. Another woman in the the carriage had also been robbed in the same way. Alfred escaped however, dashing across the station towards the waiting room.

The railway company, mindful of its reputation and the effects of these sorts of thefts on its customers, had hired a detective to investigate the problem. Detective Dennis Scannel (who was officially employed by the Metropolitan Police in M Division) was seconded to the railway. This suggests that the police themselves were well aware that protecting customers on the railways was also part of their role. Today we have the British Transport Police but this force wasn’t created until after the second world war.

Scannel told the Southwark magistrate, Mr Coombe, that when he’d arrested and searched the pair he’d found significant amounts of coin on them. He’d recovered four to five pounds in silver and found the ladies’ empty purses under a grate in the waiting room where Alfred had been seen to go directly after the train arrived at Woolwich.

The prisoners were represented in court by a lawyer who said they would plead guilty to the crime in the hope that the magistrate would deal with them there and then and not send the case before a jury. This would minimise their sentences of course. The counsel for the prosecution explained that several other robberies of a similar nature had occurred recently and he and the police were convicted that these two were responsible.

Mr Coombe weighed up the evidence; picking pockets was notoriously difficult to prove and conspiracy even more so. If he sent the pair before a jury one or both of them might well be acquitted. At least by gaoling them today he would protect passengers on the railways for a limited period and by alerting the public (via the newspapers) to the risks they took while traveling he might also reduce the number similar thefts. So he did as the prisoners’ lawyer asked and in finding them guilty sent them to prison for six months at hard labour and ordered the two ladies to be reunited with their purses and missing money.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, March 12, 1862]

The ‘Long Firm’ in late Victorian London

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Long Lane, Bermondsey in the 1930s, with its Victorian buildings still standing

I have always associated the ‘long firm’ fraud with 1960s criminals like the Krays. The scam, whereby a supposedly legitimate business is set up to develop a credit history before supplies are systematically defrauded, is described in Jake Arnott’s 2000 novel of the same name.  The long firm died out in the late 20th century as paper trails meant it became harder to get away with.

However, it seems that the form of fraud, and indeed the name, has quite deep roots in London criminal history, as this case from the Southwark Police court makes clear.

Charles John Holms, alias Frederick Jackson was described in court as a 41 year-old baker, although it is quite clear that he did very little baking and quite a lot of fraud. He opened a shop at 91 Long Lane, Bermondsey and an account with the London & South Western Bank. It seemed then, that he was trading legitimately, but this was very far from the truth.

Acting after a series of complaints were, made the police began an investigation, headed by Inspector Matthew Fox of CID. Having obtained a warrant to search his premises, the inspector turned up at Jackson’s shop in May 1880.

‘The shop had the appearance to an ordinary observer of being well stocked. On the shelves were a large number of kegs and cheese boxes, but on inspection they were all found to be empty, and with the exception of some loaves of bread and two sacks of flour, there was not a single article in the shop that the prisoner purported to deal in’.

In other words it was a front or a scam, and when he looked further inspector Fox found the evidence he needed to arrest the fake baker. Several letters from suppliers were discovered, along with a blank cheque book and some other paperwork that showed what he had been up to.

Jackson (or Holmes) had been carefully contacting supplies all over the country, ordering samples, paying for small orders of goods that he then disposed of quickly, before upping the ante and placing larger orders for goods he had no intention of paying for.

He used the bank account to draw cheques ‘payable to himself, which he passed away in payment of goods, thereby leaving an impression that he was carrying on a genuine trading business’.

Witnesses at Southwark, like Edward Elevy, (a starch manufacturer from Battersea) told the magistrate that he had received a letter of introduction from C. J Holmes of Bermondsey, written on a ‘bill-head on which the words “Established 25 years” were printed’. Soon afterwards he got an order for 25lbs weight of starch. This was never paid for and when another order arrived he ‘declined’ it and eventually sued him for the debt.

Elvey was not the only victim, the court was told that there were at least 68 suppliers in London that were owed money, and a further 40 ‘in the country’.

In May 1880 Holmes was remanded in custody for another week and in August he appeared at the Central Criminal charged, alongside several others, with fraud. It was a long and complicated case and the trial record runs to several pages. At the end of it Holmes was found guilty of obtaining goods by fraudulent means and conspiracy – he was sentenced to five years penal servitude. Three others were similarly convicted but received shorter sentences of 18 months, and four men were acquitted.

The ‘long firm fraud’ it seems, has a longer history than we might have thought, making its first appearance on Google’s Ngram reader in 1868.

[from The Standard , Wednesday, May 19, 1880]