Two tragedies narrowly averted as life takes its toll on two Londoners

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April 1889 must have been a hard month for those living in London. The 1880s were a period of economic slump, if not a full-blown depression, and unemployment, homelessness and poverty were all rife. A year today I wrote up the story of a young woman that arrived from India, penniless and in need of kind advice and support, who got little of either from the Westminster magistrate. In the same set of daily reports from the Police courts two more tales of personal distress and tragedy caught my eye today.

Mr Bros was the sitting magistrate at Dalston Police court in northeast London when George King was brought before him. King was a 48 year-old stonemason but he was out of work. He’d lost his wife some years ago and was attempting to support his family on his own. Recently however, the state of trade meant he’d little or no money coming in and his sons and daughters were going hungry.

At some point in the spring it all became too much for George and he decided to end his own life. He swallowed a quantity of oxalic acid (used to bring a shine to marble, so something he’d have used in his work) and almost died. Fortunately oxalic acid is one of the least toxic of acids and while it causes considerable harm (notably to the kidneys) its misuse is survivable.

George King did survive but was later arrested and charged with attempting to take his own life. Mr Bros said he was inclined to make an example of the stonemason since ‘such cases were too frequent’ but thought better of it. Taking the circumstances of his plight into consideration he bound him over on his own recognizes (of £5) to never try to do such a thing again.

If George King’s story was a narrowly tragedy avoided then Thomas Burrows was equally distressing. Thomas was only 14 years of age when he attempted to kill himself by lying on the tracks of the North London Railway. At midday on the 10 April Thomas had been seen jumping ‘excitedly’ off the platform at Mildmay Park station onto the tracks below. Observers rushed to pull him up and a constable was called to take him home to his parents. He was later summoned before Mr Bros at Dalston.

The magistrate asked him if he knew it ‘was an extremely wicked thing to attempt to take your life?’  ‘Yes, sir’, Thomas replied meekly.

The boy’s father explained that he understood that the lad had had a ‘tiff’ with his sister. It was something minor, involving carrying home a basket of work in the rain, but it had upset the boy and he had taken this drastic course of action. Normally Thomas was ‘a very good boy, and was fond of his home and of his brothers and sisters’. This had been out of character and he was sure it would never be repeated.

Mr Bros was shocked but also recognized that it was a ‘one off’. Indeed, he said he was almost inclined to laugh’ had there not been ‘such a serious aspect to the case’. He decided to reserve judgment but released Thomas to his father’s care and set bail  (set at £5 again) to ensure the pair returned again to hear what the court decided.

Both these cases are revealing of a society where mental health care was nothing like as advanced as it is today. The attitude of the courts was to punish those that struggled with their personal demons not to support them. Nor was their the state support for men like King who wanted to work but couldn’t; he had at least four other mouths to feed and the only recourse he had was the workhouse (where he’d most likely lose his children altogether).

We are understandably concerned about the mental health of our children in today’s multi-media society where they are exposed to all sorts of challenges on a daily basis. It is often suggested that mental health problems amongst teenagers are more widespread than ever before. This may be true but cases like Thomas’ suggest that such problems existed in the past, but were treated very differently or simply not recognized at all.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, April 18, 1889]

‘She has been very low spirited lately’: The early casebook of the ‘Ripper’ surgeon reveals the extent of mental illness in London

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One of the most recognisable names in the Whitechapel murder case is that of Dr George Bagster Phillips, H Division’s divisional surgeon. Dr Phillips carried out the post mortem examinations of Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Kate Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly. He famously noted of Chapman that:

‘the work was that of an expert- or one, at least, who had such knowledge of anatomical or pathological examinations as to be enabled to secure the pelvic organs with one sweep of the knife’.

This, and other remarks by doctors examining the victims, have led some to suggest that the murderer was a member of the medical profession (a ‘Dr Jack’) and has fuelled the ‘royal conspiracy’ theory that links the killings to Prince Albert Edward, the grandson of Queen Victoria, and Dr William Gull, her majesty’s surgeon.

For all sorts of reasons many (myself included) dismiss the idea that the killings were carried out by a doctor, but it is possible (probable even) that the murderer has some ‘knowledge of anatomical or pathological examinations’.

Dr Phillips started his career with H Division in 1865 and so these cases, in late September, are from the very beginning of his time in the East End. On Thursday 28 September that year there were three charges of attempted suicide heard at Worship Street Police court and Dr Phillips gave evidence in at least two of them.

James Munday (a 42 year-old french polisher) apparently swallowed oxalic acid in an attempt on his own life. He took the poison because his wife had left him but fortunately he had coughed it all up at the police station after his son had called for help. Dr Bagster Phillips (misreported as ‘Baxter’) told the court that Munday was lucky that he’d swallowed the poison on top of a ‘much larger quantity of some more palatable fluid’ (probably alcohol). His son’s quick think also helped. James was sorry for what he’d done and promised not to repeat it but the magistrate remanded him, just to be safe.

Caroline Cleal – in a separate incident – had also tried to kill herself with oxalic acid. Oxalic acid was used in a variety of applications mostly in cleaning products. It wasn’t as lethal as some other potions but in quantity it could cause death from kidney failure. Caroline was also a french polisher. She was also having problems at home and had bought a pennyworth of the acid at chemist in Whitecross Street. Dr Phillips told the court that such a small amount wouldn’t harm her and the magistrate remanded her for a week so that the police could make some enquiries and keep an eye on her.

Finally that day Ellen Read was brought up charged with trying to cut her own throat with a razor. PC Horne (178H) reported that he had been called to Read’s home in Dorset Street where he found her ‘bleeding frightfully from a wound in her throat’. Dorset Street was perhaps ‘the worst street’ in London and was where the body of Mary Kelly was to be found, brutally mutilated, in November 1888.

Ellen had been depressed her husband told the justice, and he’d tried to take her away for a few days to the country (probably hop picking in Kent, as many Eastenders did) but it hadn’t effected a change in her spirits. Ellen said nothing in court and the magistrate had little choice but the remand her as well.

What this shows us I think is that mental illness was endemic in Victorian London. Alcoholism, poverty, domestic violence and a range of other pressures undoubtedly contributed to making poor people’s lives incredibly challenging. Dr Phillips was provably called to more than one suicide or attempted suicide on a weekly basis and that, along with the street attacks, wife beatings, road traffic accidents, and more deliberate murders, must have inured him to violence by the late 1880s. Whether that prepared him for the horrors perpetrated that summer however, is debatable.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, September 29, 1865]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now the hearing turned to whom had supplied it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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