‘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]

A suspected murderer captured and a fatal accident exposed

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In a break from the daily ‘doings’ of the Metropolitan Police courts I thought I’d take a look at ‘other news’ on the same page of the papers this day in 1873. Following the reports from Guildhall, Mansion House, Westminster, Marylebone and the Worship Street Police courts came the story of the ‘Coram Street Murder’. This reported the killing of Harriet Buswell, a London prostitute, found dead in her bed, and the arrest of a suspect in the village of Pirbright near Guildford, in Surrey.

The man, named Joveit Julien, was a Frenchman and had raised suspicion while drinking in a pub. On being searched he was found to have ‘three napoleons and several other pieces of money’ along with papers suggesting he had tickets to travel to New York but hadn’t made that trip. Despite claiming he couldn’t speak English he was more than capable of reading a wanted poster issued by the police which offered a £200 reward. He was arrested and an interpreter found so that the police investigating the murder could question him. However, the report continued, when two witnesses failed to identify him the authorities were forced to let him go.

Perhaps this was an all too common example of suspicion falling upon a foreigner? However, later in the month a German – Dr Gottfried Hessel – was formally charged with Harriett’s murder at Bow Street Police court. Hessel was discharged for lack of evidence but no one else was ever prosecuted for the murder of the woman.

Meanwhile in London and on Lambeth side of the Thames the paper reported that a ‘fatal accident’ had occurred. A builder named Bass had visited a wharf belong to a Mr Beaumont. Darfield Wharf, was close by the Lion Brewery at Charing Cross Bridge, and the builder had gone there in search of mouldings. The wharf manager West took him to see his stock that was held below a loft used to store oats.

Another man, the foreman Harris, was about to go along with the pair when his wife called him back to fetch her the key to a coal cellar. Her domestic request saved his life.

The loft was old and probably creaking under the weight of oats stored there. With a sickening creak the ceiling gave way and 50 tons of oats landed on the wharf manager and his customer. Harris shouted for help and all hands rushed to try and clear the rubble from the stricken men.  The men from Bennett’s hay and straw wharf nearby also downed tools to come and help and within moments there were ’40 men engaged in clearing away the mass of rubbish’.

One small boy was pulled from the wreckage, miraculously unharmed, but the two men trapped under the fall were not so lucky. West had been hit on the head and died instantly, Bass had suffered a broken leg, snapped just above the knee and must have passed away in considerable agony. Mr Bass’ pony had also been under the loft when it collapsed and it too was dead.

It was a terrible tragedy which today would have provoked an investigation into health and safety. The Victorians however, were no so big on H&S so one can only hope the parish did their best for the families of the men that died.

[from The Morning Post,  Friday, January 10, 1873]

Tragedy, as a man murders his cleaner before turning the gun on himself

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From The Illustrated Police News, January 1882

In a break from the usual focus of this blog I am looking at a case that didn’t make it to the Police courts, for the simple reason that there was no one to prosecute. The source for all my posts are the reports of the cases heard at the Metropolitan Police courts in the Victorian press and these are usually situated with all the other ‘crime news’ in the papers. On the 2 January 1882 the usual record of events at the Bow Street, Guildhall and Marlborough Street courts was followed by the following headline:

Shocking murder and suicide.

It detailed the case of Robert Saunders, a 60 year old man who had given many years service as a butler to ‘a gentleman in Portman Square’. On his retirement from service Saunders had managed to accumulate enough money to purchase a number of small properties close to the Edgware Road. He rented most of these out but lived at 16 Shouldham Street with his wife Mary Jane in two rooms (the remainder of that house also being let to tenants).

Sadly what should have been a gentle and prosperous retirement for Robert was anything but. He was in financial difficulty and two of the leases of his properties had ‘fallen in’. Saunders feared that instead of prosperity, poverty was all that he and his wife had to look forward to. The former butler now fell in to what the report described as a deep ‘depression of spirit’.

In one of his houses, at 5 Newnham Street, lived a cab driver named Humphries and his wife Louisa. Humphries had had an accident and was being treated in the Marylebone Infirmary, as he was too sick to work. As a result Louisa was forced to take up charring for the Saunders and on Saturday 31 December 1881 she was at 16 Shouldham Street all day.

At half past five o’clock she had finished cleaning and went to see Mrs Saunders to let her know. The Saunders were seated in the parlour eating a meal. They were having hare but Mary remarked that they should have pork tomorrow, and asked him Mrs Humphries would oblige her by fetching some for them. She turned to her husband and asked him to give the cleaner 3s for the meat.

This simple request seemed to trigger something in Robert. He got to his feet and moved to the door, locking it. Slowly, he turned around and drew revolver from his pocket. In horror Louisa Humphries tried to rush to the door but Saunders shot her at point blank range in the face. She fell down dead on the spot. Mary screamed but ran at her husband, trying to wrestle the gun from his grip. He let off two shots, which missed her, before she knocked the weapon from his hands. As he reached for it she unlocked the door and ran out into the street, shouting for help. As she did so ‘she fancied she heard another shot fired’.

Neighbours soon rushed to the scene and a police constable (Stokes 156D) assumed control. He called for support and other police arrived including Inspector Measures of D Division. Mr. Saunders had locked the door again but they broke it down and entered the parlour where ‘a shocking scene presented itself’ (as the Illustrated Police News‘ artist imagined it above).

Mrs Humphries was lying dead in a pool of blood, the bullet had entered just below her left eye and had penetrated her brain, the money for the pork joint still gripped tightly in her lifeless hand. She would have died instantly, the report suggested. The former butler’s body was draped over a fender, the revolver close to his right hand. He had pointed the muzzle of the gun into his mouth and fired upwards, once again death would have been instantaneous.

The revolver still contained one charge; he’d fired one at his wife’s retreating back before locking the door behind her. The final shot Mrs Saunders had heard was the one that took her husband’s life.

A crowd had gathered outside the house and the bodies were taken away to the mortuary prior a formal investigation by the Middlesex coroner. There would be no trial but the readers could look forward to seeing if anything new emerged from the coroner’s enquiry in a few days time.   The question on everyone’s lips was how had an otherwise mild mannered former servant gotten hold of a pistol and why had he chosen to shoot an entirely innocent woman? Unfortunately, with no defendant to set in the dock and ask, these were questions that were unlikely to be answered.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, 2 January, 1882]

Murder most foul in Old Nicol Street

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Old Nicol Street (from an image on the St Hilda’s East Community Memories blogsite)

James Muir had spent the whole of Christmas in gaol. He’d been accused in mid December of the murder of Abigail Sullivan, with whom he ‘at times’ cohabited in Shoreditch. The couple had a tempestuous relationship and arguments (often drunken ones) were frequent.

It was a familiar story in the East End, where domestic violence was endemic and murder or manslaughter all too often the result. At some point the pair had separated, with a suggestion that Muir had been seeing someone else, a lodger at the house in Old Nichol Street where Sullivan had lived with him. This woman was Selina Lewis and she was present when the fatal attack occurred.

Lewis told the magistrate at Worship Street Police court (a Mr Rose) that Abigail Sullivan had been speaking with Muir in her room when things got heated. He hit her and she fell down. Muir then made to leave, saying he was off to get a drink. Selina left as well but came back a few minutes later with a boy. Since Abigail was still lying prone on the floor Selina told the lad to fetch over a lamp so she could examine her. When he did so they both saw that the poor woman was dead and blood was flowing from a wound in her chest.

The police were called and the body was assessed by Percy Clark, an assistant to Dr Bagster Phillips, (the police surgeon who had presided in several of the ‘Ripper’ murders in 1888). He testified in court that Abigail had suffered a fatal wound that had ‘penetrated the lung and divided the aorta. The cause of death was syncope [loss of consciousness] and loss of blood’. The weapon was produced in court, a ‘thin-bladed butchering knife’ and the police inspector present said it must have been wielded with ‘considerable force’.

Selina admitted that the quarrel had been about her and Muir’s relationship with her. The knife also hers but she’d not seen the prisoner Muir use it. That he had was not in doubt however, as he’d been arrested outside in the street by PC Brown (389H) who picked it up as the killer tried to throw it away. Muir was remanded in custody again so that Mr Sims, the Treasury solicitor, could summon five more witnesses for the prosecution.

It took until early February for the case to make it to the Central Criminal court at Old Bailey but then it didn’t trouble the jury for too long.

Muir, described elsewhere as a 39 year-old shoemaker, was found guilty of killing his former partner and the mother of his child, a baby whom Abigail had given into the care of another resident while she spoke to her errant common-law husband. One witness knew the pair well. Caroline Hall lived at 67 Old Nicol (while Sullivan had a room at number 4) and she told the Old Bailey court:

‘I have heard him threaten her—I heard him say that he would give her a good hiding some night, and that he would swing for her’.

James Muir did ‘swing for her’ on 1 March 1892 at Newgate Prison. He was hanged by James Billington and the motive given at the time was that although he and Abigail had split up she ‘still pestered him for money’. Presumably to support her little baby girl, who was now an orphan.

A very happy New Year to everyone reading this and especial thanks to those who’ve been reading my posts on a regular (or irregular) basis for the past year or more. In 2019 my next book will come out – a co-authored analysis of the Whitechapel and Thames Torso murders with my friend and fellow researcher Andy Wise. Hopefully it will be published by Amberley in June, but I’ll keep you posted on here.

[from The Standard, Friday, 1 January, 1892]

December 1888: Whitechapel is quiet again,but ‘Jack’ is still at large.

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Today finds me, weather permitting, stumping around Whitechapel with my third year undergraduates. This is an annual occurrence for me; in the past 12 years I’ve only missed one year of taking students around the area to visit the sites of the ‘Ripper’ murders and the associated places of interest.

This year my route has again been carefully worked out to take in as many places that might prove interesting (from Flower & Dean Street, to Wilton’s Music Hall, to the Pinchin Street arches, and back up to Mitre Square and then Christ’s Church, Spitalfields). It will take us the best part of four hours with stops for lunch and refreshments. At the end of it I hope they will have learned something as well as getting slightly fitter!

130 years ago the shadow of the Ripper still lay across Whitechapel. Following Mary Kelly’s death in early November the case began to lose its interest for the newspapers but no killer had been caught and the police patrols continued. There had been an attempt of the life of one woman (Annie Farmer) on 20 November, just eleven days after Kelly’s murder, and there was another homicide that can be associated with ‘Jack’ on December 20 that year (Rose Mylett), but things were more or less back to ‘normal’ in East London.

On Thursday 13 November 1888 the proprietors of Batey & Company Limited, ginger beer manufacturers, were summoned to appear at Worship Street Police court accused of infringing the factories act. It was alleged that the company had employed 21 young women who were set to work beyond 2 o’clock on Saturday afternoon at the company’s factory in Kingsland Road.

Under the terms of the act they should have been released at 11.30 that morning but the company was hard pressed. There had been, its representative explained, an ‘extra demand for aerated waters, owing to the late summer’. They admitted their culpability and Mr Bushey fined them £21 (£1 for each girl) plus £2 2scosts. It was an expensive day in court for the Bateys and one wonders if an employee had blown the whistle on them or whether a factory inspector had been watching them. Often these prosecutions followed repeated infringements of the law, rather than being isolated incidents.

The paper that day also chose another similar case to remind its readers (who would have come from the same class as the owners of the factory in Kingsland Road) that the laws must be respected. Hannah Bender, who worked as a French polisher, was fined £1 plus 4sfor employing two young women after eight in the evening, against the statute. The Match Girls strike had happened in 1888 and so labour rights were fresh in everyone’s memory, perhaps that was why these cases were prosecuted, or at least highlighted by the Standard.

[from The Standard, Friday, December 14, 1888]

In June next year my own solution to the Whitechapel murders is due for release. Based on several years of research it is a collaborative effort with an independent researcher, Andy Wise. We hope to offer a new angle on the killings that terrified Londoners in the late 1880s. 

‘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]