A strange encounter at the British Museum (Natural History)

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I recently visited the Natural History Museum in South Kensington and while it is one of my favourite collections I’d never before gone into the minerals sections. The old cabinets full of precious metals, rocks and crystals were beautiful and fascinating, even if they looked as if they’d been placed there more than a 100 years ago and had never been disturbed. It was in stark contrast to much of the rest of the museum which has seen a series of modernization which appear to aimed at attracting its core visitor, small children.

The Natural History Museum opened its doors in 1881 after a building project that lasted eight years. It was really an offshoot of the British Museum but the natural history element of that collection, which had its roots in a large donation of items by Sir Hans Sloan in the mid 1700s, were being lost, sold off or damaged and the decision was made to find a new home for them.

It retained its link to the British Museum until 1963 when it became fully independent. Until then it was termed the British Museum (Natural History) which explains the puzzling context of this curious case from 1861, which would have taken place in Bloomsbury, not South Kensington.

Edward Stokes worked as an attendant at the museum and was keeping an eye on visitors to the minerals collection when he noticed an agitated man approach one of the cabinets. To his horror the large man suddenly smashed the glass of the display with his elbow, exposing the valuable crystals it contained. It was the act of thief but the man made no attempt to escape, and just stood there gazing at the wondrous items below.

Stokes rushed over and seized the would-be thief who claimed his arm had slipped and he had no intention to cause any damage. He didn’t seem drunk to the attendant but he was ‘a little strange in his manner’. The arrest led to the man being charged with damage and the intent to steal items valued at £15. The case was heard at Bow Street Police court before Mr Corrie, the sitting magistrate.

The museum was represented by a solicitor, Harding, and he explained that the prisoner in the dock was well known to the staff there. The man, who gave his names as George Gates, a one time butcher from Brighton, had been seen early  in the morning on more than one occasion, waiting to be admitted into the museum. As he was being led away by police after the incident on the 23 May he was recognized by two of his friends and they promised to let his relatives on the south coast know what had happened to him. Clearly there was some concern that Gates was suffering from a form of mental illness.

With its usual tact Reynolds Newspaper referred to Gates as a ‘lunatic at large’ and described him as ‘half-crazy looking’ as he stood in the Bow Street dock. However there had been nothing from his relatives to suggest that he was undergoing any treatment for his mental health and while he had been held in police custody he’d been examined by ‘a medical gentleman’ who had ‘declined to certify that he was insane’.

Once again Gates insisted that it was an accident; his foot had slipped, he told the magistrate, just as he was calling out to a friend to come and look at a particularly beautiful diamond, and he’d fallen onto the glass. Mr Corrie accepted that there had been no intent to steal the rock and he suggested the man was ‘probably half stupid from previous drink’.

He decided that Gates would have to pay for the damage, which was valued at 5sor else go to prison for 14 days. Searching his pockets Gates could only produce half that amount so he was duly committed. He handed the gaoler a note which said:

‘dear gal, have dinner ready for six’. It had no address, and he was taken down.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, June 2, 1861]

On June 15 Drew’s new book (co-authored by Andy Wise) is published by Amberley Books. It is a new study of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 which offers up a new suspect, links the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings to the unsolved ‘Thames Torso’ crimes, and provides the reader with important contextual history of Victorian London. The book is available to order on Amazon here

‘He would have been alive only for my giving him what I did’: an 11 year-old admits to murder

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In April 1883 a lad of 11 named Arthur Harris Syres was brought before the Lambeth Police court magistrate where he confessed to causing the death of his little brother in early February. Arthur admitted that he had given his infant brother – who was just 12 months old – rat poison and gave the address of the shop that he bought it from. The magistrate decided that the full details of the case needed more careful investigation and remanded Arthur to the care of the local workhouse so they could be carried out.

A week later Arthur was back in court and more details emerged. His home address was given as Park Row, Peckham and his dead brother was named as Alexander Syres. A police sergeant (26P) deposed that Arthur had been brought to the station house by his stepmother. She explained that he child had been taken ill and had been vomiting. The poor thing had died soon afterwards but the doctor she consulted initially thought it might have been a complication of teething. It was only after this that Arthur admitted that he had given Alexander some rat poison that he’d purchased specifically for that purpose.

The magistrate, Mr Ellison, thought it all sounded very strange and once again remanded Arthur in custody. One of the first reforms of juvenile justice in the nineteenth century had been to stop sending children to adult prisons whilst they were on remand, which was why he was secured at a workhouse.

Another week passed before the case returned to Lambeth. More details emerged: the police now believed that it was ‘vermin poison’ that was used and that Arthur had bought ‘a pennyworth’ at a doctor’s shop. The doctor appeared and said the boy’s confession didn’t hold up because he’d said he’d purchased it from another boy working there. He denied that any lad dispensed poisons on his counter but of course he might have been trying to distance himself from the tragedy.

The discussion returned to the initial hypothesis that Alexander had died as a result of complications in teething. Mr Ellison wanted to know if the symptoms of this might be similar to those caused by poison. Dr Hemmings, who treated the child, agreed that they might.  Since little Alex had already been buried the only way to establish the truth for certain was to have his body examined and for that the justice would have to apply to the Home Secretary for a legal exhumation.

On May 4 Arthur learnt that while no decision had yet been made as to digging up his brother’s body it had been decided that he had a case to answer. It was now likely that the 11 year-old would face trial for causing the death of his brother and he was remanded in custody once more. This meant that he had now been in custody and separated from his family for three weeks, not knowing the outcome of the case against him and most likely not having any meaningful legal support. It is hard to imagine the torments he was going through.

On Friday 25 May Arthur was again set in the dock at Lambeth and again asked whether he had given his brother poison.  The lad continued to admit his guilt and so although no independent verification of his story could confirm this to be true the justice, this time Mr Chance, had little choice but to formally commit him to take his trial at the Old Bailey.

The trial took place on the 28 May and was quite short. Sergeant Ledger gave evidence as did Arthur’s stepmother, Margaret Syres. She told the court how while they had all believed that baby Alex had died as a result of his teething Arthur had admitted his role in the baby’s death to his sister Ada.

‘He would have been alive only for my giving him what I did’, he reportedly said and, when questioned by his parents, said he’d taken rat poison himself before.

However, doubts remained as to whether Arthur had administered rat poison or red precipitate poison (mercurite oxide) and Dr Butters (where Arthur claimed to have bought a twist of powder from an errand boy) was adamant that his servant would not have been able to have sold the boy the former.

It then emerged that on New Year’s Eve 1882  Arthur had been charged with attempting to take his own life. Inspector Thomas Worth told the Old Bailey court that on that occasion Arthur had ingested phosphorous paste (which was sometimes used as a rat poison). When asked why he replied that he’d run away from home because his parents ‘ill used him’.

Arthur’s confession was again given in court but when asked the defendant had nothing to say for himself. The jury acquitted him of manslaughter and he was free to go after several weeks of trauma. Whether he was able to return home however, or wanted to, is quite another matter. While the court was unable (and perhaps unwilling) to prove that an 11 year-old boy was a killer it is clear that Arthur Syres was a very troubled youth. His mother had died and his father had remarried and started a new family. It seems as if he was struggling to cope with the adjustment and acted up in the most extreme of ways.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, April 14, 1883; The Hull Packet and East Riding Times, Friday, April 20, 1883; The Standard (London, England), Friday, April 27, 1883;The Standard, Saturday, May 05, 1883; Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, May 27, 1883]

NB: If you enjoy this blog series you might be interested in Drew’s jointly authored study of the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders which is published by Amberley Books on 15 June this year. You can find details here:

Two tragedies narrowly averted as life takes its toll on two Londoners

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April 1889 must have been a hard month for those living in London. The 1880s were a period of economic slump, if not a full-blown depression, and unemployment, homelessness and poverty were all rife. A year today I wrote up the story of a young woman that arrived from India, penniless and in need of kind advice and support, who got little of either from the Westminster magistrate. In the same set of daily reports from the Police courts two more tales of personal distress and tragedy caught my eye today.

Mr Bros was the sitting magistrate at Dalston Police court in northeast London when George King was brought before him. King was a 48 year-old stonemason but he was out of work. He’d lost his wife some years ago and was attempting to support his family on his own. Recently however, the state of trade meant he’d little or no money coming in and his sons and daughters were going hungry.

At some point in the spring it all became too much for George and he decided to end his own life. He swallowed a quantity of oxalic acid (used to bring a shine to marble, so something he’d have used in his work) and almost died. Fortunately oxalic acid is one of the least toxic of acids and while it causes considerable harm (notably to the kidneys) its misuse is survivable.

George King did survive but was later arrested and charged with attempting to take his own life. Mr Bros said he was inclined to make an example of the stonemason since ‘such cases were too frequent’ but thought better of it. Taking the circumstances of his plight into consideration he bound him over on his own recognizes (of £5) to never try to do such a thing again.

If George King’s story was a narrowly tragedy avoided then Thomas Burrows was equally distressing. Thomas was only 14 years of age when he attempted to kill himself by lying on the tracks of the North London Railway. At midday on the 10 April Thomas had been seen jumping ‘excitedly’ off the platform at Mildmay Park station onto the tracks below. Observers rushed to pull him up and a constable was called to take him home to his parents. He was later summoned before Mr Bros at Dalston.

The magistrate asked him if he knew it ‘was an extremely wicked thing to attempt to take your life?’  ‘Yes, sir’, Thomas replied meekly.

The boy’s father explained that he understood that the lad had had a ‘tiff’ with his sister. It was something minor, involving carrying home a basket of work in the rain, but it had upset the boy and he had taken this drastic course of action. Normally Thomas was ‘a very good boy, and was fond of his home and of his brothers and sisters’. This had been out of character and he was sure it would never be repeated.

Mr Bros was shocked but also recognized that it was a ‘one off’. Indeed, he said he was almost inclined to laugh’ had there not been ‘such a serious aspect to the case’. He decided to reserve judgment but released Thomas to his father’s care and set bail  (set at £5 again) to ensure the pair returned again to hear what the court decided.

Both these cases are revealing of a society where mental health care was nothing like as advanced as it is today. The attitude of the courts was to punish those that struggled with their personal demons not to support them. Nor was their the state support for men like King who wanted to work but couldn’t; he had at least four other mouths to feed and the only recourse he had was the workhouse (where he’d most likely lose his children altogether).

We are understandably concerned about the mental health of our children in today’s multi-media society where they are exposed to all sorts of challenges on a daily basis. It is often suggested that mental health problems amongst teenagers are more widespread than ever before. This may be true but cases like Thomas’ suggest that such problems existed in the past, but were treated very differently or simply not recognized at all.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, April 18, 1889]

‘You won’t see me alive in ten minutes’: a strongman’s wife reaches the limits of her despair

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I am struck by the frequency of attempted suicide cases that came before the London magistracy in the late nineteenth century. The Police Code book stated that:

A person who kills himself in a manner which in the case of another person would amount to murder, is guilty of murder’,1 which seems a supremely unhelpful directive under the circumstances.

Those attempting to kill themselves were ordered to be given medical assistance and then prosecuted for a misdemeanor. In most cases I’ve found the accused was remanded so that enquiries could be made into their mental health and character with the aim being, it seems, to ensure that they didn’t try anything so drastic again.

While there were several attempts at hanging and one of a man who walked into an underground train tunnel to end his life, most of the attempted suicides that made the pages of the newspapers were of women who had been prevented from drowning themselves in the Thames or one of the capital’s canals. In almost all instances their lives were saved by the quick reactions of a nearby beat bobby or member of the public. The case of Edith Sampson was a little different.

In late March  1892 Dora Hoffmeister was working as a servant at the Empire Hotel in Leicester Square. She knew Edith as one of the guests and met her by the front door to the hotel on the 31 March in the afternoon. Edith spoke to her saying darkly: ‘You won’t see me alive in ten minutes’, before hurrying off upstairs to her room.

Alarmed, Dora followed her and entered her bedroom where she saw Mrs Sampson sat at her dressing table. She took a small bottle from the table and poured its contents into a glass. Dora seized the bottle and realized it was marked ‘Laudanum. Poison’. She remonstrated with Edith who relented and poured the liquid back into the bottle and set it down.

Dora stayed as Edith dressed and went out, and then returned to her duties. About an hour later she decided to check on her again and went up to her room. There she found Edith lying on the bed where she had been carried by one of the hotel’s waiters after she’d been discovered earlier. Apparently another servant, Harriet Perrett had found Edith slumped on the stairs, a handkerchief in one hand and the bottle of laudanum in the other.  Dora rang for help and stayed with Edith until a surgeon arrived.

Dr Clarke examined his patient and the bottle and administered an emetic. Edith vomited up the poison and complained that the doctor should have let her die. ‘You don’t know my troubles’, she declared and continued to bemoan her fate until her mother arrived. Edith Sampson was just 18 years of old her mother explained, and had married  ‘Sampson, the Strong Man’ in September 1891. He was not about having left for Liverpool earlier that week. The couple had quarreled and Edith was clearly unhappy in her marriage. Nevertheless Edith’s mother was sure that this was a one off and told Mr Newton (the magistrate at Marlborough Street) that her daughter would never take her own life.

Mr Newton was much less sure however, and said she’d already made that attempt and might well try again. In his opinion the best course of action would be to have Edith secured in the infirmary at the local house of correction for a week. Edith Sampson ‘was led away crying, and evidently in deep distress’.

Edith was probably married to Charles A. Sampson, a famous strongman in the late Victorian period. He claimed he owed his remarkable strength to being hit by lightning when he was a child and he would appeared on stage throughout Britain and further afield. As a vaudeville showman Sampson would have been on the road a lot, with little time for his young wife. Edith, who was described as ‘good-looking’ and ‘fashionably attired’ might have enjoyed the trappings of a prosperous theatre existence but she may well have been quite lonely and worried that her new husband might be subjected to the charms of other women while he was out of her sight and care.

Hopefully this incident was enough to alert Edith’s family and friends to rally round her and give her the support she needed and, had it not been for the attention of a stranger, Dora Hoffmeister, a European immigrant worker in London, Sampson might have been burying his young wife without even celebrating his first wedding anniversary.

[from The Standard, Saturday, April 02, 1892]

  1. Neil R A Bell and Adam Wood (Eds), Sir Howard Vincent’s Police Code 1889, (Mango Books, 2015), p.174

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]

A self confessed murderer? A or a case for the asylum?

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Smugglers, by G. Morland

Readers last week will hopefully remember that I left you on a cliffhanger as we waited to see what would happen to a man that confessed to a murder carried out 18 years previously. John Lane had walked into a police station and admitted having been involved in the murder of a coast guard at Eastbourne in 1832. The magistrate at Marylebone had remanded in custody for a week so S Division’s finest could see what information they could discover about Lane, his confession, and his mental state.

On Tuesday 22 January 1850 he was back in court before Mr Broughton and the newspaper reporter rehashed the story with a few additions. It seems that in 1842 Lane had traveled to Brighton to seek out Lt. Hall (the officer in charge of the investigation into the smuggling case he claimed to be involved in). He never found him and that was why he’d gone back to ground.

As he stood in the dock a second time to hear the details of the case restated Lane looked miserable. He ‘seemed in a very low and desponding state’ the report continued, ‘and the impression upon most of those in court was that his intellects were impaired’.

Two men from the customs appeared and asked lots of questions of Lane but he wasn’t able to provide them with kind of detail for the events he had originally described. They, and a religious man in attendance, (described as ‘a missionary’) were of the ‘opinion that the man was not sane’.

Mr Broughton concurred and said that given the rambling nature of his confession and the failure of anyone to reveal any details of this supposed crime there was ‘not the slightest chance of a conviction’ before a jury. He discharged John into the care of his wife, a laundress working from premises in Portland Grove. Hopefully she would be able to look after him but what he really needed was specialist mental health treatment and in 1850 that simply wasn’t available to the likes of him, unless he wanted to take his chances with the workhouse  or Bedlam.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, January 23, 1850]

‘Her Majesty’s most gracious pardon is all that I crave or look for’: a man confesses to murder

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A curious case today, of a man confessing to being involved in a crime that happened some eighteen years before he presented himself in court. John Lane was about 40 years of age and when he stood in the dock at Marylebone he gave the impression of being from a military background. He looked tall and physically strong, but also worn down by life and ‘not altogether sane’ (as the court reporter noted).

PC Transom (226S) explained that  at 10 o’clock that morning (the 15 January 1850) Lane had walked into the police station at Portland Town and declared:

“I have something particular to communicate to you’.

Fighting to control  what seemed to be almost overwhelming emotion the man went on to say:

‘About eighteen years ago I was engaged in a smuggling affair at Eastbourne, Sussex, and in the affray one of the Coast Guard was killed. I think he was shot’.

Lane said that while he wasn’t directly involved, and didn’t see the man fall, he was pretty sure the killing had happened while his comrades were hauling away several casks of spirits. He said he’d always wanted to confess but was afraid of what might happen to him.

This fear might have been of being convicted and hanged as an accessory or may also have been a genuine concern that had he given evidence against his fellow smugglers he would have been targeted by them. The history of smuggling in Sussex is peppered with fights between the revenue and smugglers and tales of intimidation, violence and murders are not uncommon.

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The most notorious case was probably that of the Hawkhurst gang (right) who terrorized the southern coastline of England in the 1730s and 40s. They were only brought to book in 1748 when two of their leaders were hanged and their bodies displayed on a gibbet as a warning to others.

The sitting magistrate at Marylebone, Mr Broughton, wanted to know why he was confessing now, so many years after the event. Lane said he’d tried to confess (in 1842) to the man in the charge of the case but had been unable to find him. That officer was Lieutenant Hall of the Coast Guard and it seems Lane was in some way desperate to unburden himself of his guilt, regardless of the consequences now.

What did he want, the magistrate asked? ‘Her Majesty’s most gracious pardon is all that I crave or look for’ Lane stated, before he was led away so further enquiries could be made.

For the magistrate it was a difficult case; if Lane was telling the truth then he was confessing not to murder but to a serious crime, which didn’t seem to have ben solved. There was no record, he was told, of anyone being prosecuted for the coast guard’s death (or even clarity that a revenue man had died). It was also evident to anyone watching that Lane was ‘not quite sane’ and so might be confessing to something he hadn’t done. Nevertheless Mr Broughton ordered Inspector Chambers of S Division to investigate the truth of the man’s testimony so he could decided what to do with him.  Lane was remanded in custody until the following Tuesday and I will reveal what happened next on the 23 January.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, January 16, 1850]