‘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:

Procrastination, distraction and unexpected discoveries: the Coppetts Wood murder of 1882 (part one)

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There are moments in historical research when you discover something that distracts you from your core purpose and sends you in a different direction. One of the most famous examples of this (in academic history terms anyway) was Vic Gatrell’s Hanging Tree which examines in detail the history of public execution in England in the period 1770 to 1868. Gatrell wasn’t intending on writing a history of hanging, instead he made ‘a chance discovery’ whilst ‘working on something quite different’.

This led him to start browsing through a set of judges’ reports in the National Archives at Kew and he came across the story of the rape of Elizabeth Cureton and the petitions for mercy made on behalf of the man found guilty of assaulting her. The Hanging Tree is one of the seminal works in the history of crime and the idea that it was the product of a momentary desire to of break the ‘tedium’ of archival research (something I’m sure very many historians can empathise with) is enlightening.

I am (slowly) finishing a book on eighteenth-century homicides. It is a project which started life about 9 or 10 years ago when I began researching a murder in Northamptonshire. It had odd elements to it, but mostly it was interesting because it seemed to offer an opportunity to explore the system by which convicted criminals might avoid the death penalty, even for a crime as heinous as murder. Working with my PhD supervisor, a very eminent historian of crime, we published an article on the case in a historical journal. I then went on and started work on other articles and books.

There was something about that case that always niggled with me and made me want to see if other examples could be found where convicted murderers had tried to avoid the noose in the 1700s. Cutting a long story short I found four cases (including the Northamptonshire one) that seemed worth exploring. One involved two brothers murdering a watchman, the next concerned the public stoning to death of an informer in Spitalfields, and the last was a prostitute who was accused of killing a minor celebrity musician. I pitched the project to a publisher and they were kind enough to give me a contract.

In the meantime one of my former undergraduates approached me and told me he had ‘solved’ the Ripper murders. He believed he had uncovered the identity of the Whitechapel murderer of 1888 and had linked him to a second series of contemporary murders. I was skeptical, but intrigued. Over the course of the next few years I worked with Andy on this project alongside my other one until, in the summer of last year, we had the bulk of a manuscript to pitch to publishers. It wasn’t easy to sell because the market for Ripper books is pretty well saturated, but in the end we found a home for it with Amberley. A note here: if you are an author who wants to get something published, keep trying – if it’s good enough someone will take a chance on it, eventually.

While all this was going on I decided to start this blog. Daily writings on the police courts of the Victorian metropolis, a way of keeping me focused on writing and research every day. It was also born of my desire to return to a study of the magistracy, the subject of my original PhD research back in the early 2000s. My intention (after the homicide and Ripper books) was and is to write academic and more popular histories of the magistracy in England.

So, where is this rambling blog going right now? Well, this morning I’ve found a report of a 24-year-old man named Frederick Cheekly who was set in the dock at Southwark Police court in late April 1884 charged with stealing a watch. Cheekly lived at 113 the Borough in south London with his common-law partner Maud Norton. She was older, 29 years of age, and appeared in the dock with him as an accessory to the theft. A second charge was preferred against the pair, also for stealing, and this time a third person – Minnie Lewis – was also charged. The solicitor for the Treasury brought the charges and the trio were committed for trial.

What happened to them after that is unclear but I doubt it would necessarily have resulted in convictions. I suspect the house in Borough was a brothel and the two women acted as prostitutes and/or madams. The men robbed were risking their property simply by entering a house of ill repute and I doubt the Surrey jurors would have had much sympathy for them.

But what struck me was a comment made by the Police News’ reporter who stated that Checkley was ‘said to be a companion of the Finchley-wood murderer’. Given that I grew up in Finchley and I hadn’t heard of this case I thought I’d do some quick digging this morning.   I soon found a report form March 1882 which describes the discovery a the body ‘of a young man’ in woods near Finchley. A little bit more research established that these were Coppetts Wood, near Colney Hatch. At first the police thought they’d found the body a dead gispy since the woods were a popular transit point for travelling people. But the hair on the corpse was fair, not dark like most gipsies. The papers now speculated that the victim might have been part of a criminal gang operating in the area, committing burglaries and street robberies.

Suffice to say, for now at least, that I think I have worked out what happened and how this case unfolds but it is going to take me some time to unpack it all. So, if you would like to know what happens in the Finchley Wood murder mystery stayed ‘tuned’ for further articles over the week as I get to the bottom of who was left buried in Coppetts Wood and who put him there.

In between, that is, finishing off the book I’m supposed to be writing!

[The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, April 26, 1884; Daily News , Tuesday, March 7, 1882]

Murder in Wales but business as (depressingly) usual in London

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In mid March 1866 the trial of Robert Cox was concluding in Swansea. The body of John Davis had been discovered by police in Dyffryn Wood a long time after his disappearance. The body had been decapitated and the evidence led the police to Cox (or Coe). The jury had convicted Cox after deliberating for 12 hours and the judge, Justice Blackburn, ‘passed sentence of death in the usual manner’. The so-called ‘Mountain Ash murder’ resulted in the execution of Cox outside Swansea gaol on 12 April 1866. Cox confessed to killing his workmate after they had both been drinking. His was the last public execution in Wales.

Meanwhile the reports of the London Police courts reminded readers that most crime in the country was much more mundane. At Marlborough Street  Henry Baynes, a publisher’s clerk, was brought up again on a charge of defrauding his employers. He was accused of obtaining cheques by false presences from a number of publications including The Morning Post, the Owl, and Notes and Queries.  The prosecuting counsel was a Mr Wontner who was to go on to become a magistrate later in the century. On this occasion he managed to persuade the sitting justice that there was sufficient evidence against Baynes to send him for a jury trial.

At Southwark Mary Ann Vanna was accused to stealing a clock, coat and ‘other articles of wearing apparel’ from a house in Cole Street. She pleaded guilty in the hope of having the case heard summarily (and therefore getting a reduced sentence) and said it was the first time she’d been before a magistrate. The justice said he doubted that as she was a ‘well known character’ who lived with a ticket-of-leave man. He sent her to prison for six months at hard labour.

Over at Worship Street Mary Ann Taylor appeared in the dock charged with destroying her clothes in the casual ward at Shoreditch workhouse. She raised eyebrows in court because of the state of her dress:

‘beneath a dark wrap of a shawl and old bonnet she wore what was immediately recognizable as having been long since a nipped counterpane, but perfectly white and carefully patched and darned so as to exclude the clemency of the weather’.

When the magistrate asked the poor law officers why she was dressed like that they told him that when paupers destroyed their own clothes, with the expectation that the house would give them new, better ones, they supplied one of these ‘nice white dresses’ instead.

The effect was to humiliate the wearer and it seemed to have worked on Mary Ann who looked miserable and wept openly as she explained that she’d cut up her own clothes because they were ‘so filthy’. The magistrate sent her to prison for 14 days.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, March 16, 1866]

Knife crime: a salutary lesson from 1888

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In 2010 I started writing an article which eventually saw the light of day in May 2015 in a journal called Cultural and Social History. It concerned a murder case in London in 1888. No, not the ‘Ripper’ or even the ‘Thames Torso mystery’, instead this was the killing of a young man, stabbed to death in Regent’s Park by another young man.

This is how my first draft started:

In the recent 2010 election campaign government and opposition spokesmen traded insults and apportioned blame for what is a perceived increase in youth crime and gang violence over the past decade. Chris Graying, as the Conservative shadow home secretary, declared in February 2010 that, ‘the Government’s policies on crime have failed. After eleven years of claiming to be tough, these figures show shocking levels of violent crime’ and he cited statistics showing that the number of under 16s fatally stabbed has doubled since 1997. In 2007 alone, one teenager was killed each week in gang related attacks. Gang related violence in London claimed the lives of 28 young people aged under 20, while a further 1,237 were injured by guns or knives between April and November of that year. Commentators, politicians and parents have agonised over the causes of this increase in youth violence and, more particularly, about the rise of youth gang culture. Social workers, police, and gang members themselves have offered explanations for why our children are suddenly carrying guns and knives but with very little effect. 

Today, nine years later, we are once again ‘agonising’ over knife crime with the death of two more teenagers in the last week, one in Romford, the other in Greater Manchester. The Tories are now in charge and the current PM (Teresa May) finds herself answering probing and difficult questions on her role in cutting police numbers during her time as David Cameron’s Home Secretary.

I went and spoke to the Whitechapel Society about the murder (and the press coverage that surrounded it) in 2011, on the night that (coincidently) that the Tottenham riots erupted following the shooting, by police, of Mark Duggan a local black youth. I’ll try and set out the story of the ‘Regent’s Park Murder’ below because, in the wake of the recent spike in gang related violence, I think it is worth reflecting on what history can (or cannot) tell us.

On May 23 1888 Cissy Chapman and Francis Cole were walking out together on the Marylebone Road and had reached the junction with Lisson Grove when two young men approached them. Cissy and Francis were loosely involved with a youth ‘gang’ that claimed territorial rights in that area. They had unwittingly crossed into territory claimed by another however, and the two young men soon became a small crowd. The pair were called out, identified as the ‘enemy’ and beaten up.

The next day Francis was out with his mates and told them what had happened. His gang (the ‘Tottenham Court Road’ lads) decided they couldn’t let this attack on one of their number go unanswered and so they set out to ‘get’ the Fitzroy Place Lads or the Seven Dials Lads (the groups they deemed responsible).

It seems (and reports are  not clear) that they set off for nearby Regent’s Park, a location where trysts, dangerous liaisons, petty crime, and gang warfare was relatively common. If the newspaper images are to be believed the lads were tooled up – carrying clubs and sticks and coshes – but only one took a knife with him. Peter Lee had a large sheath knife attached to his belt and George ‘Garry’ Galletly (the youngest member of the gang) asked him to lend it to him. Lee handed the knife over.  ‘This will do for them’ Galletly swore before he set out to look for the rival gang members.

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Meanwhile Joseph Rumbold, a printer’s machinist who lived just a few streets to the west of Regents’ Park, was walking out with his sweetheart Elizabeth Lee, her sister Emily and her young man, Alonzo Byrnes. Alonzo and Emily had hung back as they promenaded around the Outer circle of the park, while Joseph and Elizabeth walked on ahead. Shortly afterwards they heard a scuffle up ahead. They hurried on and saw James Rumbold trying to fight off a group of lads. Rumbled, tried to escape by running off towards the York Gate but he was pursued by most of the gang.

Alonzo demanded to know what had happened. He was told that Rumbold had been attacked because the ‘other night we were up here and we and the girls were struck, and we thought he was one of them from the Dials’. He wasn’t but before they realised that Joseph Rumbled had been fatally wounded, knifed in the neck by George Galletly, perhaps keen to make a name for himself in front of his older chums.

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Rumbold’s death, widely reported in the media, led inevitably to a murder trial at the Old Bailey. There were eight young men in the dock of the Central Criminal court on 30 July 1888 but only Galletly was convicted.* The judge leaned forward and addressed the 18 year-old in the dock:

You and the gang that accompanied you found this unfortunate young man walking with a girl in Regent’s Park. He had done you no harm, had not wronged one of your party, but simply because you thought he lived in the district where some men resided who had insulted and outraged two of your comrades on the previous evening, you cruelly stabbed him twice, defenceless as he was

He then sentenced him to death.

Galletly’s execution was set for the 18 August but he was spared the rope on account of his youth. He served 10 years instead, being released on license in 1898 at the age of 27. The story shocked society and later that year the Pall Mall Gazette ran a feature on the ‘gangs of London’ and the inability of the police to deal with them.

What does the Regent’s Park Murder tell us? Well, the obvious truth that youth violence, testosterone fuelled bravado, and senseless killing is nothing new. And also that the media likes to fan the flames of incidents like this, creating moral panics that help raise awareness but also sell newspapers. It also reminds us (as does Grayling’s attack on Labour in 2010) that governments have systematically failed to tackle the causes of youth violence. The current incumbent of Downing Street’s pledge to host a summit sounds like more excuses to do nothing about a really serious societal issue.

This is probably because the issue is far too complicated for any government to ‘solve’. I don’t pretend to have any solutions either but while increasing police numbers, with more stop and search, and a knife amnesty might all be valid strategies I doubt increasing sentences for offenders or putting he army on the streets will do much good. Fundamentally however I suspect we need better opportunities for those that live in the areas where gang and knife crime festers, more social mobility, more ‘good’ jobs, better education (academic and vocational), more community cohesion, things for young people to do after school, and more support for beleaguered parents, teachers, police and social workers.

All of that costs money, lots and lots of money, and that comes from taxation (unless you want to cut the money we spend somewhere else) and no government wants to pledge to raise your tax. And then we have the small matter of the fact that Britain is facing up to the reality that austerity might go on a lot longer than Cameron and  Osborne promised us it would, given that over half the population voted to pull us out of a union with our closest trading block.

So, I fear, there will be a lot more victims like Joseph Rumbold, Damiola Taylor, Stephen Lawrence, Yousef Makki, and Jodie Chesney. The press will wail and the government will wring its hands, and our young people will continue to be murdered under our noses.

[from The Pall Mall Gazette, Saturday, May 26, 1888]

For other posts on gang crime see:

A London ‘scuttler’ in the dock at Marylebone?

Gang violence in Dalston as a new year dawns : an echo from 1877

*several of the others pleaded guilty to unlawful assembly and assault.

Child murder, suicide, neglect, and petty theft: just an average day in London

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This is the last in this series of posts from one week in 1884 and I’m going to finish it with a summary of the reports that appeared in the Morning Post under the heading ‘Police Intelligence’ which again show the diversity of business the police magistrate courts of the Victorian capital dealt with.

The most serious case was at Clerkenwell where Mr Hosack fully committed Sidney Clay to trial at the Central Criminal Court (at Old Bailey). Clay, a 30 year-old tobacconist from Holloway Road, was accused of ‘having encouraged and endeavoured to persuade Eustace de Gruther, doctor of medicine, to kill and murder’ a baby boy who was just two months old.

Clay’s lawyer argued that the doctor, as the only witness, was trying to implicate his client but the magistrate decided that the case needed to be heard by a jury and bailed Clay for £200.  In late February Clay was tried and convicted at the Bailey but it was recognized that the whole thing might not have been as intentional as it seemed at first. The jury recommended Clay to mercy and the judge gave him just six months hard labour. Interestingly here his age was given as just 21, not 30, so perhaps the reporter got it wrong at the original hearing – a reminder that we should always treat historical sources carefully.

Another tragedy of life was played out in Southwark Police court where Elizabeth Brockett was prosecuted for trying to kill herself. The 31 year-old (if we are to believe the report at least) was seen on London Bridge by a  wharf labourer. John Flanaghan was alerted by a woman’s scream and looked up to see Elizabeth who had just discarded her bonnet and shawl and was about to launch herself into the Thames. He rushed to save her, and, with the help of a policeman, managed to drag her back from the brink.

In court the woman told Mr Slade that she was ‘in great distress of mind, owing to the loss of two children’. She’d been very ill but promised never to try to do anything like this again. She was released back into the care of her husband.

At Hampstead John Redworth didn’t appear when his case was called. He’d been summoned by an officer of School Board for neglecting to send his daughter, Justina (9) to school. This was a common enough sort of hearing but was very rarely reported so what made this one special? Well it was that perennial issue around travelling people. Redworth was a member of a community of ‘gipsies’ who had been camping on Hampstead Heath. Apparently Redworth’s was the only family that had children of school age and so his was the only summons made.

He turned up in the end but too late for the magistrate (Mr Andrews) who had already adjourned the case for a month. The encampment had moved on the magistrate was told, so perhaps the court would decide to leave the girl’s education for someone else to deal with.

At Marylebone William Bliss (a footman) was charged with theft and receiving a china vase. He appeared in the dock with his accomplice and fellow servant Catherine Churchyard. The pair worked for a family in Chelsea and claimed the case had just been broken and they’d hidden the evidence to save Catherine getting into trouble. Mr De Rutzen didn’t buy this version of events and remanded them for a week to see what the police could find out about the case. I fear that at best the couple would have been dismissed from service, at worst they might have to spend some time behind bars.

So in just four reports that day we have a child murder, an attempted suicide, servant theft, and a case of truancy involving travellers. If we added a fraud, a case of domestic violence, and some drunk and disorderly behaviour on the streets in the West End we would have a very normal day at the Police courts of Victorian London.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, 31 January, 1884]

‘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]

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]