‘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

One man throws acid at his wife, while another threatens his with a pistol

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Today I want to compare two separate but related cases heard this week in 1884 before the police magistrate courts of London. Both concern men acting against their wives, and both quite violently.

At Guildhall Police court, in the City of London, George Steel, a metal worker, was charged with threatening to shoot his wife Charlotte. Mrs Steel appeared in court to testify against him and the only other witness of the policeman that arrested him.

According to Charlotte her husband had come home in the morning ‘the worse for drink’ (in other words he was drunk, and we might presume she meant the ‘early hours’ of the morning). The couple rowed, and, as was depressingly common in working-class marriages at the time, came to blows. For some reason George owned a pistol and he seized it and thrust it in her face, threatening to ‘settle her’.

The alderman magistrate was told that it wasn’t the first time the metal worker had used force and threats against his spouse, and that too was very familiar. Wives and partners tended to put up with quite a lot of abuse before they were finally driven by desperation and fear of what might happen to take their complaints to law.

George said he only wanted to scare his wife, and that he only loaded the gun with the intention of firing up the chimney. The justice remanded him in custody to see what might emerge from other witnesses in the next couple of days.

Meanwhile at the Marlborough Street court George Ballard was brought up for second appearance having previously been remanded by Mr Newton for an assault on his (Ballard’s) wife. Ballard was a 38 year-old bootmaker living with Mrs Ballard in Berwick Street, Soho. The couple argued at lot and Ballard was another drinker. The officer of the court who had investigated the case described his wife as ‘a hard working woman’.  He added that he’d been told that the defendant had often threatened his wife and her sister.

George Ballard’s crime was to have thrown vitriol (acid) over his wife in a fit of anger. When questioned his only defense was that she had threatened his life. Mr Newton dismissed this excuse, saying that even if it was true (which he clearly doubted) it was no reason to attack her in such a cowardly way. He sent the bootmaker to prison for six months at hard labour and, ‘as she was capable of maintaining herself’, he granted Mrs Ballard a judicial separation. Hopefully when George got out she would have found somewhere a long way away from him.

Many women wouldn’t have gone as far as Mrs Ballard did in getting the court to remove her husband and bread winner, but she was perhaps in a better position than most, and able – as the justice noted – to look after herself. It was more usual for wives and partners, seemingly regardless of the hurt done to them, to forgive their abusers or retract their evidence, sometimes after the man had spent a few days in a cell.

This was the case with Charlotte Steel. When George Steel was again presented at Guildhall Police court on the 3 February 1884  Charlotte said she was not frightened of him and that he’d never threatened her before. Her sister backed her up, saying she didn’t believe George ever meant to hurt anyone. Alderman Isaac could do little but warn George about his future behaviour telling him that he:

‘had placed himself in a very serious position, for he might have been committed for trial for  threatening to commit murder. He advised him not to have anything to do with firearms again’, and then released him.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, 30 January, 1884; The Morning Post), Monday, 4 February, 1884]

“Oh what would mamma say?”: an old drunk at Marlborough Street

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Drunk and disorderly was by far the most common offence to be dealt with at the Police courts of the metropolis in the Victorian period. Thousands of men and women were brought before the city’s magistracy, usually after an uncomfortable night in the cells of a station house, to be admonished, fined and/or sent to prison for a few days or weeks. The worst nights for drunkenness were Friday or Saturday but it was a perennial problem, one we have not managed to solve today either.

Some of the drunks encountered by police officers would have sloped off to their homes when politely but firmly asked to do so, and quite a few of them were otherwise ‘respectable’ gentlemen and clerks who had just enjoyed one or two many beers or glasses of wine. These weren’t really the  concern of the magistrates, they concentrated their attention for the most part on the regular offenders, on those women for whom ‘disorderly behaviour’ was  simply code for prostitution, and the violent brawlers who squared up to police (or each other) outside one of the capital’s very many waterholes.

The catch-all offence of ‘disorderly’ brought defendants into court who, whilst clearly drunk, would probably today be seen as need to help, not punishment. Mental illness was not as well understood in the 1800s as it is today and society was certainly not as tolerant of ‘difference’ as we are. So the case of Amy Anderson is instructive.

Amy was a young woman, perhaps in her twenties, who was constantly in and out of prison in the last quarter of the century. In January 1888 she was put up before Mr Newton at Marlborough Street Police court on a charge of disorderly behaviour in Regent Street. This was a normal experience for Amy who gave a different name every time she was arrested. This time it was Lillie Herbert, a few months earlier it had been Tot Fay, but there were plenty of others. Giving a false name was a common enough ruse for criminals and streetwalkers who hoped that they would avoid a stiffer penalty if convicted (calculating that the courts would not link their previous convictions together).

I’m not sure Amy (Or Lillie or Fay) was a prostitute but she may have been. Regent Street was a notorious haunt for sex workers in the nineteenth century but it was also a place where single women would go shopping (and so sometimes be mistaken for prostitutes). Amy was dressed elaborately and this had drawn the attention of two other women. An argument had ensued and words and blows had been exchanged. At the point the police arrived – in the person of PC James (37 CR) – it appeared that Amy was the aggressor and she was arrested.

In court under questioning Amy’s responses suggest a person struggling with mental illness. She denied any wrongdoing and told Mr Newton that the other women had picked on her because of her ‘conspicuous dress’. She angrily declared that ‘her mamma would not tolerate such conduct, she was sure, and she would be sorry if she got to know about it’. This exchange – and most of the hearing in fact – was met with laughter in the court, clearly poor Amy was not being taken seriously and was held up by the paper at least as a figure of fun.

The gaoler was called forward to be asked if he recognized her.

‘Oh yes’, he testified, ‘she has been here very many times, as well as at Marylebone, Westminster, and other courts. On the 3rd of last month she was fined 40s for drunkenness and disorderly conduct in the streets and in default she was sent to prison for a month’.

So Amy had spent most of December 1887 in gaol and it had taken her less than a fortnight to find herself up on a charge again in the New Year. Mr Newton turned to her and dismissed her protests, telling her to find two sureties of £10 each to ensure she behaved herself for six months. There was no way Amy could provide such assurances or such wealthy ‘patrons’.

‘Oh what will mamma say?’ she sighed and was led skipping out of the dock with the laughter of the court ringing in her ears.  As the report put it: ‘in the afternoon she returned to her old quarters in Millbank’, meaning of course, the prison by the Thames (where the Tate Gallery now stands).

[from The Standard, Thursday, January 12, 1888]

A deceptively simple tale of lingerie, scandal, and theft

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If one of the aims of late Victorian press was to provide some titillation for their readers over breakfast then this tale, from the end of 1888 (a year which we might consider to have had more than enough sensation), certainly fits the bill. It concerns female criminality, exotic foreigners in London, underwear, and the hint of sexual scandal.

When Maria Becherette appeared before Mr Newton at Marlborough Street she commanded the attention of the court and the reporter from Lloyd’s Weekly. She was 23 years old, spoke English with a German accent, and was fashionably well dressed. She gave no address or occupation but nor was she pressed to do so by the magistrate.

Maria was accused of a number of thefts from West End stores, including Liberty’s and Lewis & Allenby in Regent Street. Her modus operandi was simple but effective. On the 14 November she spent two hours at Liberty’s and, having finally selected a number of items of ladies’ underwear, she arranged to have them delivered on account. Giving her name as ‘Lady Coencerl’ she asked for the goods to be sent to the Bath Hotel in Piccadilly.

At Messrs. Lewis & Allenby she had done similarly on the day before; this time giving the name ‘Lady Gorskey’ and directing the items to be delivered to the Continental Hotel. On both occasions after she had left the shop assistants discovered that several expensive items were missing. Mlle. Becherette it seems was a sophisticated shoplifter.

She might have got away with it as well had she not pushed her luck. In the 15 November she was seen in Regent Street by one of Liberty’s staff, who alerted a concierge at the store and set off to follow her. The assistant, Mrs Elizabeth Nicholls, had served the thief and tried to keep her in her sights with the intention of finding where she went. The young German was too alert however, and spotted that she had a tail. She hailed a cab and was about to escape when the concierge leapt into the hansom with her and told the driver to take them both to Marlborough Mews police station.

There she said she was a governess and had recently arrived from Vienna, and denied the accusations of shoplifting. She was charged and presented at Marlborough Street where she was remanded on more than one occasion (for the police to investigate) and then brought up again at the end of the year. In court before Mr Newton Maria cut a sad figure. She stood in the dock with tears in her eyes as the prosecution was presented by Mr Humphreys.

As he now explained that there were allegedly multiple other similar cases against her she broke down and sobbed, finally admitting her crimes. She told the magistrate that while she had stolen the underwear it was ‘not for her own benefit but for the benefit of “the gentleman” she had been living with at Queenborough’.

Before she could go on to add that something the justice stopped her, perhaps mindful that she might reveal his name or add to the implication that the underwear in question was part of some elaborate sexual fetish. Mr Newton remanded her again so that she could, he suggested, give whatever information she had to the police. It might help her defence by mitigating her crime, but it would serve no one for it to be heard publicly.

On the 29 December she was brought back up into court to be dealt with by the magistrate. Mr Newton had presumably decided that despite the relative seriousness of her crimes (in stealing expensive items on several occasions and giving false names each time) it was best to try her summarily. This avoided any further public scrutiny of  the case or her motivations. She was denied the opportunity to name and shame her mysterious ‘gentleman’  or to use her charm on a jury of middle-case men. Instead she was sent to prison for four months and taken away immediately. The reading public were left, like us, to speculate over their toast and marmalade, as to what really lay behind this simple case of shoplifting.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, 30 December, 1888; Daily News, Monday, December 31, 1888]

‘He is not quite right in the head’: Moriarty causes chaos and injury in Pall Mall

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In early December 1883 Peter or Joseph (there was clearly some doubt as to his real name)* Moriarty made his second appearance before the magistrate at Marlborough Street Police court.

He was accused of wounding Mr Hwfa Williams, a resident of Great Cumberland Place, by shooting him in the leg. It doesn’t sound like it was a deliberate attack on the Welshman because Moriarty was reportedly waving a pistol about in Pall Mall and firing it at random.

There was also evident concern for the prisoner’s mental health because he was exhibiting signs of depression in the days before the shooting. His friends had removed two bottles of poison from him which suggests that he had taken the gun to end his own life, not another’s.

In court Moriarty was represented by a lawyer (Mr Ricketts) who argued that his client should be allowed bail and promised that he would be looked after and, therefore, be no danger to anyone else. But Hwfa Williams was still recovering from the incident; he was ‘progressing favorably, but the bullet had not yet been extracted’.

Thus Mr Mansfield decided that a further court appearance was necessary and , since firearms were involved and the victim not entirely free from danger (given the state of medicine in the 1880s) he refused bail. Moriarty, a 22 year-old Post Office clerk who lived in Luard Street, Pentonville, would spend a few more days and nights in gaol.

A few days later Moriarty was again brought to court, and again remanded in custody as Mr Newton was told Williams was still unable to attend court. Another week passed and detective inspector Turpin appeared with a certificate from the surgeon treating Williams that again insisted that while he was recovering he was not able to come to court to give evidence.

Once more the troubled young clerk was taken back to his cell to await his fate. The Illustrated Police Newsmade a point of telling its readers that, ‘from the manner in which the prisoner has conducted himself, […] there is little doubt that he is not quite right in the head’.

It was reported (by Lloyd’s Weekly) that the poor victim would finally be fit enough to attend court after the 6 January 1884 but I can find no record in the papers of him so doing. To me this suggests that the papers had grown tired of the case which had carried quite a bit of interest.

Moriarty would have remained in custody for at least a month, and all over the Christmas period. If Mr Williams had been keen to see his assailant punished without the trouble of having to go to court himself then this was achieved most effectively. If however, the court decided that the best place for Moriarty was a secure asylum then that is perhaps where he ended up, without the necessity for this to be made public knowledge.

*In late December his name was also given as Frederick James Moriarty

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper ), Sunday, December 2, 1883; The Morning Post, Wednesday, December 05, 1883; The Standard , Wednesday, December 19, 1883; The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, December 29, 1883; Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper , Sunday, December 30, 1883]

‘Well sor, this ‘ere perliceman comes rushing in, and, with “Out you go, missus,” capsizes me into the street’: one drunk’s story a year on from the Dorset Street horror.

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Today is the 130 anniversary of the discovery of the body of Mary Jane Kelly in Miller’s Court, Dorset Street, Spitalfields in November 1888. Mary Kelly was the fifth ‘canonical’ victim of the killer known only as ‘Jack the Ripper’ and hers was the most brutal of all the murders in the series.

Mary (or Marie) was found lying on her bed when her landlord’s man came calling for her back rent. He peered through the window at the horror inside and rushed to find his boss and then the police. No one that saw Mary’s mutilated corpse ever forgot how awful it was.

However, within a year the room in Miller’s Court had been re-let and the landlord, McCarthy, merely sent someone round to scrub the blood off the walls and floors. Rooms in Dorset Street were cheap and new tenants could hardly afford to be too picky if all they could afford was a room in the ‘worst street in London’.

A year after the murders seemed to have ceased although many researchers are far from convinced the killer had stopped with Kelly. My own research suggests he continued into the early 1890s only stopping when his own body succumbed to the disease that killed him.

Meanwhile the day-to-day business of the Police courts rumbled on. Over at Marlborough Street Mary Jones appeared in early November 1889, charged with being drunk and disorderly, a commonplace offence at this level of justice.

Mary had been arrested after she had resisted arrest. Mr Newton (the presiding magistrate) was told that she had entered the King’s Arms in Titchfield Street late the previous night and had caused a scene. She’d asked for ‘two of unsweetened and a bit of sugar’ but the landlord refused to serve her as she was already quite inebriated and he had a care to his license.

He called in the passing street bobby, PC 282D to eject her and she squabbled with them both. She shouted abuse at both men and had to be restrained. In court she was apologetic (presumably having sobered up) and begged the magistrate’s “parding”.

She had been in hospital that day she said and explained that after she’d been released she’d felt dizzy. She’d gone into the pub to rest she insisted, and was as surprised as anyone when ‘this ‘ere perliceman comes rushing in, and, with “Out you go, missus,” capsizes me into the street’.

Mr Newton asked her where she lived.

‘Lisson Grove, your Wurchip’ she replied.

‘Then go back to Lisson Grove sharp, and don’t come back here again’ he told her.

And with that she stumbled gratefully out of court as the public gallery collapsed in laughter.

[from The Standard, Saturday, November 09, 1889]

Hardly the perfect ‘gentleman’: a waiter is ‘coshed’ by an impatient toff.

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The Café Royal, by William Orpen, 1912)

It was not the sort of behaviour one expected to see at the Café Royal on Regent’s Street, so other diners must have been shocked when Henry Fitzgerald rose from his seat and smashed a glass bottle over the head of a waiter.

As another waiter ran to intervene the assailant warned him to back off:

‘If you come near me I will smash one on your head as well’, he threatened.

The police were called and Fitzgerald was led away, admitting his crime but muttering darkly that the fellow had deserved it for his insolence.

At Marlborough Street Police court Henry Fitzgerald gave his address as 75 Chester Square in Begravia, his victim was Otto Kettler, a German national living in London and working at the café. The case reveals the cosmopolitan nature of late Victorian London: Kettler was supported in court by a fellow waiter (Fritz Temme – also most probably German or Austrian) and his manager M. Eugene Lacoste who was certainly French.

According to Fitzgerald’s defense counsel Mr Abrahams his client had been provoked. The waiter had not served him quickly enough, telling him instead that he was busy at another table. The policeman (PC Walters 187C) deposed that the man wasn’t drunk, just ‘excited’; perhaps he objected to being made to wait for his drinks by a foreigner, perhaps (more likely even) he was a just a very rude and self-entitled oaf.

The lawyer knew his client was in the wrong and offered (on his behalf)  a half-hearted apology and compensation for any harm done. Mr Newton, the magistrate, was in no mood for financial settlements however; a man had been assaulted violently with a glass bottle and Mr Fitzgerald – regardless of his fashionable address and clothes – would face trial at the Old Bailey.

However, I’m not sure it came to that. No Henry Fitzgerald appears in the printed records of the Bailey. Perhaps it was not published in the Proceedings or perhaps he was acquitted, but I rather suspect he came to an agreement outside of court – a hefty financial one at that – to keep his ‘good name’ out of the criminal courts.

The press did enjoy this fall from grace. The Hampshire Telegraph reported the incident as an amusing anecdote commenting that ‘after this we shall not be particularly anxious to be called “a gentleman” – it will sound roughish’.

Quite.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, October 26, 1880; Hampshire Telegraph and Sussex Chronicle etc , Saturday, November 6, 1880]