Beware the sleepwalking arsonist!

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John Everett Millais, The Somnambulist, 1871

Police constable Dowding (198E) was pounding his beat in the early hours of the morning of July 15th 1878 when he smelt fire. He could hear the ‘crackling noise of something burning’, and rushed over to the rear of 23 Great Coram Street. There he could see that there was pile of burning clothes on top of the conservatory which seemed as if they had been thrown out of a window above.

PC Dowding ‘sprang his rattle’ (these were the days before police were issued with whistles) to call for help and quickly moved to alert the residents in the house. He ran straight upstairs towards the fire and found a room about to be engulfed in flames. Some clothes, the bed sheet and the lower part of the mattress of the bed were all on fire, but there was thankfully no one inside. He looked in the next room and found a 15 year-old girl cowering under a bed quilt.

He grabbed her and escorted her out, asking her what had happened. She told him that a man had entered her room, stayed briefly, then ran out and downstairs. PC Dowding was skeptical; he’d not seen anyone run past him, or run out of the building and he suspected the girl was lying.

He interviewed the landlady, Maria Goodhall who told him the girl’s name was Matilda Hayes and she worked for her as a maid of all work. She’d been with her for four months and ‘was a very good girl’. However, she also suspected that Matilda might have been responsible for the fire. She’d seen the clothes on fire by the bed and thought it likely that the girl had thrown some of the window in panic before being forced back by the flames.

In court at Bow Street Matilda was charged with arson and the source of the fire was found to be a spirit lamp which she kept with her when she went to bed. The lamp had been knocked over and the handle had come off. When Matilda had been found she seemed to be half asleep, as if she’d just woken in a panic. It was also suggested that Matilda and her sister (who often stayed with her) would walk in their sleep. So perhaps this had happened when the girl had been sleepwalking? Mrs Goodhall told the magistrate, Mr Vaughan, that she was sure that Matilda meant no ill will towards her or any of the other residents. It was accident, and nothing more.

Mr Vaughan was probably minded to agree but he decided to remand the serving girl for a week, just to be sure. When she appeared again Mr Vaughan was satisfied she was innocent and discharged her. This drew praise from one newspaper that used the case to write a longish piece on somnambulism and its perils. They also hinted that the young man that supposedly ran out of the girl’s room might have been there as her guest, and it was probably just as well that he was not discovered or it might have damaged her reputation.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, July 16, 1878]

Think you’ve got what it takes to be a lady detective? Send 10s 6s now!

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John George Binet had set up the grand sounding ‘National Detective Agency’ (perhaps modeled on America’s infamous Pinketon’s) which was, in effect, himself and one or two other persons acting as private investigators. In the early 1890s they investigated a range of private matters including unpaid bills, unfaithful spouses, and missing persons. In short the usual fare of the private ‘dick’.

On the 8 July 1893 Binet found himself on the wrong side of the Bow Street dock however, accused of obtaining money by false pretences. The accusation was that he had placed adverts in the papers calling for more men and women to join his agency as detectives. If you were interested all you had to do was send a postal order for 10s 6d (about £45 today) and he promised to send a certificate by return (showing you were now attached to the NDA) and then details of cases you could investigate. In effect he was franchising private detection across the country.

Binet was quite successful in this enterprise as several people sent him money and waited for the work to roll in. Sadly, very few, if any of them, got any more than a certificate, and some didn’t even get that. The supposed fraud made the pages of Tit Bits and the Truth, two of the better selling periodicals of the day and hopefully some people were deterred from parting with their cash so easily.

In the end enough people complained and the police investigated, hence Binet’s appearance at London’s senior police magistrate court. He didn’t speak himself, leaving his defense to his lawyer, a Mr Cranshaw. The legal man told the magistrate (Mr Vaughan) that he intended to bring several witnesses that would speak to his client’s reliability as a detective and to his good character. Mr Vaughan listened to them, and heard Cranshaw’s attempt to argue that the case did not constitute one of ‘false pretences’ and then fully committed Binet to take his trial at the Central Criminal Court later that month.

On the 24 July John George Binet was tried at Old Bailey and found guilty. The court heard from a number of witnesses on both sides but mostly the defense was that Binet was good at being a private detective and that his clients were happy with the work they had commissioned. That Binet and his star employee – Mrs J Gray, ‘the celebrated lady detective’ – were competent investigators was somewhat beside the point. The court heard that they were also in debt and behind with their rent. Perhaps that pushed Binet to try and raise some quick money by the means of his postal fraud scheme.

It didn’t wash with the jury or the judge, who sent him to prison for a year with hard labour. Binet had tried or evade the law once he knew that summonses had been issued to bring him in. He was arrested on the platform of Victoria railway station where he was attempting to catch a train out of the capital disguised as a sea captain. Mrs Gray and another of Binet’s team of detectives, ‘Chief Inspector’ Godfrey (formally of the Jersey Militia) were more successful in escaping justice having vanished before the police could catch up with them.

I am now intrigued to find out if ‘Mrs Gray’ is one of my distant relations…

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, July 9, 1893]

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 on Amazon here

A second chance for the lad that strayed

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Augustus Harris (1852-1896)

It seems as if young John Davenport was trying to escape his environment and make a better life for himself. For a 14 year-old working-class lad like John there were few opportunities to scale the social ladder or win any kind of wealth or fame. An entrepreneurial boy might strike lucky and make a fortune in business; by contrast serious crime was a pathway out of poverty (albeit a rocky and precarious one).

I once had the pleasure of spending an afternoon with the Strictly Coming Dancing judge Len Goodman. Len told that growing up in East London he knew that his passport out of the area was dancing. It was that, he said, or football or becoming a gangster. While he loved football, dancing was his passion and what he was best at.

Entertainment was also John Davenport’s thing and he got a break, being selected as part of the touring company performing Augustus Harris’ Human Nature (written in 1885). Augustus Harris was a big name in late Victorian theatre. Dubbed the ‘father on modern pantomime’ Harris was manager of the Drury Lane Theatre and co-wrote a number of plays and pantomimes. Several of these will be familiar to modern readers including Babes in the Wood (1888), Beauty and the Beast (1890) and Cinderella (1895).

So it was a ‘big thing’ to be chosen by Harris and should have meant to start of a long career in show business. Unfortunately John found himself on the wrong sort of stage in June 1888, after being caught in the wrong sort of act.

At the beginning of June he was brought into the Bow Street Police court and charged with stealing a pocket-handkerchief. He was first remanded so enquiries could be made and these revealed his links to Harris and the theatre company. It also revealed that his father – a costermonger –  wasn’t keen to see his boy fly the nest, at least not if it meant he would be excluded from his son’s earning potential.

As a 14 year-old thief with a previous unblemished record the magistrate, Mr Vaughan, was minded to be lenient. A member of the St Giles’ mission appeared and said he would be happy to find the boy a temporary home so long as the father would ‘give an undertaking not to interfere with him in future’. Mr Wheatley (from the mission) was clearly keen to remove the old bad influences from John and set him on a better road. Mr Davenport however refused to play along and said he would rather see John imprisoned for month instead.

Mr Vaughan told the father that he was extremely selfish and saw through his attempt to conceal his avaricious desires on his son’s earning under a cloak of parental indignity. Now it transpired that Augustus Harris had heard about John’s arrest and far from abandoning the lad as yet another wastrel that had failed to take the opportunity offered to him, ‘interested himself on the boy’s behalf’. The court was informed that Harris had found him a job in domestic service, would pay for a new suit of clothes and the fare to get him there.

It was a kind and generous offer and presented a viable solution to the magistrate. John was released to begin his new life. Let’s hope he took full advantage of this second chance the impresario had given him.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, June 3, 1888]

P.s Augustus Harris was a lover of food and drink as well as the theatre and there is a bust of him on the corner of Catherine Street in Covent Garden, where he might have enjoyed a glass or tow. There’s even a smart Italian restaurant named after him.

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

A foolish young man amongst the ‘roughs’: police and protest in late Victorian London

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This morning my History and Criminology undergraduates sit their exam on my third year module on the Whitechapel murders. The module uses the ‘Jack the Ripper’ case as a prism through which to explore a number of themes in the social and cultural history of late Victorian London. We look at the murders, think about the representations of ‘Jack’, of the mythmaking that surrounds the case, and consider policing, prostitution, poverty and popular culture (among other things). I am considering creating an online version of the module that the public might be able to sign up, so do send me an email if you think this is the sort of thing that might interest you.

One of the events we cover is ‘Bloody Sunday’ in November 1887 when a demonstration in Trafalgar Square was broken up by police and elements of the military on the order of Sir Charles Warren, the chief commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. Many people were injured and two or three killed as the police charged protestors. It was a mixed day for Warren who was castigated in the radical and popular press but praised by establishment organs such as The Times. He’d acted firmly following a debacle in 1886 when demonstrators had run amok in Pall Mall, smashing shops and the smart West End gentleman’s clubs that were situated there.

Demonstrations of all sorts happened in the 1880s: for Irish Home rule, or socialism, against unemployment, or for free trade – all brought hundreds and thousands of people onto the streets. The 1880s was a turbulent decade or poverty and austerity, and hundreds slept rough in the streets, squares and parks of the capital. Police soused the benches in Trafalgar Square to  deter the homeless from using them as beds and local residents demanded action to clear the area of the unwanted ‘residuum’ or ‘dangerous classes’.

There must have been some sort of protest or demonstration in Trafalgar Square close to May Day 1888 because two men appeared at Bow Street Police court on charges connected to disturbances there. First up was Alexander Thompson, a ‘respectably dressed youth’ who was accused by the police of being ‘disorderly’. PC 82A deposed that on Saturday evening (5 May) at about 6 o’clock Thompson was being arrested by two sergeants when a group of ‘roughs’ tried to affect an impromptu rescue.

According to the police witness Thompson was egging them on  by ‘groaning and hooting’ and some stones were thrown at the officers. As the constable tried to hold back the crowd Thompson lashed out at him, striking him on the shoulder. His escape was prevented by another PC who rushed in to help but it was devil of job to get him to the station house. The young man had enough money to be represented by a lawyer, a Mr E Dillon Lewis, who secured bail of £5 for his appearance at a later date.

Next to step into the dock was Walter Powell and he was charged similarly with disorderly behaviour. Powell had been selling ‘a weekly periodical’ in the square. He’d drawn a crowd of ‘roughs’ about him and the policeman who arrested him said that while he couldn’t hear what he was saying it was clear he was addressing them, and possibly exhorting them to some sort of nefarious action. The police sergeant from A Division told Powell to go home and when he refused, or at least did not comply, he took him into custody. He’d been locked up overnight and all day Sunday and for Mr Vaughan, the magistrate presiding, that was punishment enough. He told him he was foolish but let him go with a flea in his ear.

Hopefully today my students will not have been ‘foolish’ and will have prepared themselves for the 90-minute examination I’ve set them. They have to write one essay (from four choices) and analyse  one of two contemporary sources. If they’ve done their revision and paid attention all year I should get some interesting papers to mark. I wish them all the best of luck, but hope they don’t need it.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, May 08, 1888]

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 Frenchman and the case of the missing umbrella

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Cannon Street Station, 1878

It was a chance meeting, the sort of thing that can happen on a long train journey. Cesar Blancher was newly arrived in England having taken the boat from France that morning. As he sat on the train to London his carriage door opened and a head appeared. The new arrival (who’s name was Emille Iron) asked if he might join the occupants and Blancher noticed his unmistakable French accent. Before long the two fellow countrymen had struck up a friendship as they travelled through the countryside of southern England.

When they got to London leaving their luggage at the railway station, they decided to dine together and, one thing leading to another, they ended up at the Royal Hotel in Blackfriars where they slept in the same room together. Iron was up early and woke his companion to tell him he was going to fetch their luggage from Cannon Street station.  Blancher acknowledged this but then rolled over and went back to sleep.

When he finally rose he wandered over to check the time on his watch. He had left his timepiece on the dressing table but now discovered it was missing. Soon he found that his purse and money (103 francs and £4 3s) was gone , along with a portmanteau and his umbrella.

Having dressed quickly he rushed downstairs to the concierge and found that there had been no sightings of M. Irons so he headed for Cannon Street. There he saw Irons leaving the station and about to step into a cab. Blancher approached him and immediately demanded he hand over his watch and chain, and other affects. Irons produced the watch but said he would give him the other items when they reached the hotel.  Blancher insisted on having his property straight away and when the other man refused he called over a policeman who arrested him.

The case ended up before Mr Vaughan at Bow Street where Irons denied stealing anything. He said he’d taken the watch so he’d know what time it was, and the purse so he could change the francs into sterling. The portmanteau he was taking to lodgings (presumably some he had found for the pair of them?).

And the umbrella Mr Vaughan asked, why had he taken that? Why, he thought it might rain the Frenchman replied to laughter in court.  The magistrate wanted to check both men’s version of events at the station so asked the clerk to track down the cabbie for his evidence. In the meantime M. Irons was remanded in custody and taken off to enjoy a slightly less grand accommodation for a few nights.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, December 04, 1878]

A befuddled old man ends up in the wrong bed

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It was about 10 o’clock at night and Jane Black was feeling unwell. Her husband worked in a nightclub and was often late home so she decided to take herself to bed. An hour later she work up, conscious that someone had joined her but as she moved to greet her partner she was instead shocked to find that she was in bed with a complete stranger!

Mary screamed and raced down the stairs in her nightclothes. The commotion woke the house and brought several other lodgers out of their rooms. The landlord went up to Mary’s room and found Edward Williams, an elderly man of 65 years, sitting on the edge of the bed in only his shirt. He was drunk and admitted:

‘I fancy I may have made a mistake. Well if I can’t sleep in the bed , let me sleep on the floor’.

The police were called and the uninvited ‘guest’ was arrested.

A prosecution for assault followed at Bow Street on the next morning and Mr Vaughan was told that Williams had been let in by the landlord. The landlord said he and his wife had retired to bed but later heard someone fumbling at the door, trying to get into the house. He had opened the door and asked who the person wanted. ‘Mary Ann Black, of course’, the stranger replied, so he’d let him in. It was dark, and he assumed it was Mary’s husband.

The magistrate decided that he needed to know more about Williams and so he remanded him in custody that enquiries could be made into his character and mental health.

This case really shows us that we have to be careful about how we read a newspaper report. What is written above is how the incident was recorded in Lloyd’s Weekly, and there is no real hint that this is anything other than an amusing and not very serious case of a drunken old man getting confused and finding the wrong door.

But on the 25 October Edward Williams, a 40 year-old labourer, was sent to Pentonville Prison for 12 months for indecently assaulting Jane Black. He was committed to trial by Mr Vaughan so we can sure this is one and the same man. Not a 65 year-old who lost his way but a would-be rapist that tricked his way into Mrs Black’s bed while her husband was at work.

That is quite a different story to the one the newspaper presented.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, October 14, 1888]

‘I thought it would give a man a job’; one man’s weak excuse for breaking windows

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George Jackson had a strange way of helping the late Victorian economy. On Sunday 19 August 1883 he picked up a handful of stones in the Strand and put them in his pocket. He walked on down the Strand in the direction of what was then the Charing Cross railway and foot bridge, heading for Whitehall. In 1883 this was where the majority of the government buildings were, including the Home Office on the corner of Charles Street and parliament Street.

At ten to one in the morning he was seen by PC 31 of A Division who watched as the young man lobbed two stones at the windows of the Home Office building. As the plate glass window smashed the police officer rushed over and seized the culprit as he calmly walked away. Jackson was taken away and brought before the sitting magistrate at Bow Street on the Monday morning after.

Mr Flowers wanted to know why he had thrown the stones, telling him he ‘had acted like an idiot’. The magistrate declared that:

I cannot understand a man willfully breaking a window and walking off’, adding: ‘You are not a glazier, are you?’

No, but I thought it would give a man a job’, was Jackson’s reply.

Yes, and you a month’s imprisonment’, quipped Mr Flowers.

It was a case of willful damage to government property but not overly serious. Certainly it was something the magistrate was well within his power to deal with summarily. However, he was inclined, he said, to send Jackson for trial where he could expect a more severe sentence. The prisoner’s situation wasn’t helped by the appearance of a policeman from L Division who said that he’d previously been convicted for breaking windows in Lambeth. The justice there had sent him down for a month but he’d not learned from his experience.

Mr Flowers decided to remand his for a few more days ‘for enquiries’. George would have to sweat it out in a cell for the time being as he waited to find out his fate.

In the end Jackson turned up at the Middlesex Sessions having been committed for trial almost a year later on a separate charge by one of Flowers’ fellow magistrates, Mr Vaughan. He was tried on the 5 February 1884 for ‘maliciously damaging three panes of glass, the property of Her Majesty’s Commissioners of Works’.

George Jackson clearly had a problem with authority and government. He pleaded guilty but despite this, and probably because his previous convictions now counted hard against him, the judge sentenced him to eight years in prison. Jackson was listed as being 33 years old and a carpenter. Perhaps he was a disgruntled former government employee, now out of work (as many were in the 1880s (the decade that coined the word ‘unemployment’).

Maybe also he was suffering from some form of mental illness. Either way, eight years was a very stiff penalty for breaking windows and reflects both the harshness of the late Victorian ‘justice’ system and contemporary fears associated with terror attacks in the capital, of which there were several in the 1883-5.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, August 26, 1883]