‘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:

A sorry pond dipper is saved by the local bobby

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Dulwich College in the mid-nineteenth century

Police constable Milne (163P) was walking his beat close to Dulwich College, south of the River Thames when he heard a noise. It was about 10.30 at night and so he clearly wasn’t expecting to here sound near the school and set off to investigate. The sound seemed to have come from close to a pond near the college and to his horror PC Milne now saw a pair of feet and ankles sticking up from the water.

Removing his helmet and stripping to the waist the policeman dived into the pond and made his way towards the feet. ‘With difficulty he managed to reach the place where he had noticed the feet’ [they had since disappeared beneath the water], and was then able to drag the person out and on to the bank. The pond, he observed, was about nine feet deep.

Using the first aid he had been taught as a police trainee he revived the man he had rescued but he was far from grateful. As soon as he came to the bedraggled pond dipper ‘made a rush for the water’. Constable Milne secured him and conveyed him back to the nearest police station.

At the station the prisoner revealed that he was ‘a hackney carriage proprietor’ named Mitchell who lived in Lower Norwood. He admitted that he had been trying to kill himself and was promptly charged with the same. At Lambeth Police Court he again confessed his fault and said that he hoped the magistrate, Me Ellison, would send him to prison for a year as it was all he deserved. Instead Ellison remanded him in custody so that enquiries could be made as to his mental health.

He commented PC Milne for his quick thinking and his bravery and said he deserved a reward. Hopefully Mr Mitchell recovered and perhaps recognised that the copper had saved his life, and maybe even rewarded him himself. At least for PC Milne he had a story to dine out on for the rest of his career.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, August 25, 1880]

A man is driven to attempt suicide because of his ‘reduced circumstances’

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This blog has covered the difficult topic of suicide in several posts over the past year; Londoners in despair quite frequently attempted to ‘destroy’ themselves by jumping off one the capital’s bridges or by hanging themselves. Luckily in all the cases I covered they were prevented by the quick actions of a policeman or a passer-by. Suicide was technically a crime until 1961 and so anyone attempting, but failing, to kill themselves would be arrested and presented before a magistrate.

Joseph Nadall was just such an unfortunate person. After he failed to kill himself in March 1866 he found himself instead the dock of the Worship Street Police Court before Mr Ellison the sitting magistrate.

Naval was described as a 35 year old labourer, who was ‘without hope’. He had taken poison, the court was told, and when he was found he was taken to the police station where he was examined by Mr James Sequira, a surgeon.* The doctor found him in a ‘very prostrate condition and suffering greatly’. He administered an emetic and then an antidote.

When his patient had received sufficiently he asked what had happened and related this to the court. Nadall told him he had gone to a rag shop where he had bought a small bottle and ‘two pennyworth’ of oxalic acid. He took these to a water pump in the street and added some water. Having mixed his potion he ‘drank it off’.

The magistrate inquired as to exactly how much oxalic aside was required for a dose to be fatal. ‘About half an ounce’ replied the surgeon. And what would that cost? Between a penny and twopence said Dr Sequira, so the amount Nadall had could easily have been fatal. It would seem this is fairly accurate because today it is estimated that a dose of 15-30 grams could be lethal if injected orally.

Now the hearing turned to whom had supplied it.

A young lad (who looked about 15 but was nearly 17 the court heard) stepped into the witness box and admitted selling Nadall the acid. He told the justice that he was ‘in the habit of serving these packets to shoemakers and others, who use it in their trade. The packets are 1d. each, and I have him two of them’. The magistrate was then shown a similar blue packet labelled as ‘Shoemaker’s poison’.

Mr Ellison was surprised and concerned that the young assistant had not asked any questions of Nadall and had not objected to selling him poison when he clearly didn’t look like a shoemaker. The lad’s master, Mr Blackwell, now presented himself and felt the full force of the magistrate’s anger.

‘This boy of yours has acted with great incautiousness – very great’ he declared. ‘Poisons should never be sold without at least inquiry being made as to the purpose for which they are wanted’. 

Blackwell mumbled that he always told the lad to ask questions before he sold anything, but without much conviction. He and his boy had not broken any laws and so having been publicly rebuked they were free to go.

As for Joseph Nadall he explained that he was ‘impelled to the attempt on his life by reduced circumstances’. Poverty and unemployment had driven him to such drastic action.

Mr Ellison had little sympathy. ‘You should have applied to the parish’, he told him and remanded him in custody while he decided what to do with him. I except that a few days later he would have been released. Whether he then visited the workhouse, found work or threw himself off the nearest bridge we will probably never know.

Nineteenth-century London was an unforgiving place if you were poor.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, March 24, 1866]

*James Scott Sequira was a prominent London surgeon of Portuguese ancestry, who seems to have appeared as an expert witness in several poisoning trials during the second half of the nineteenth century.