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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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]

A ‘not so old’ septuagenarian defends his property

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Charles Wehrfritz was on his way back home from the pub after enjoying his ‘supper beer’ following a day’s work when he ran into his son and daughter in law. The pair lodged with him at his house at 109 New North Road,  Islington. Wehrfritz was an German immigrant who spoke passable English. He was also 73 years old, but ‘still vigorous’.

As he neared his home he saw two men trying to get in. He assumed they were after his other lodgers upstairs, so indicated they should go up and see if anyone was at home. Moments later the men came down and said no one was in, so he showed them to the door and let them out.

Charles was sitting down to take his supper when he heard a noise in the passage way. When his cry of ‘who’s there?’ went unanswered he opened his door and found the two men back in his house.

‘What do you want here?’ he demanded, and ‘how did you get back in?

‘We want your money, old man’, said the younger of the two men.

At this Charles lunged toward and tried to stab the robber with the knife he’d been using to eat his supper. He connected with the man’s chest but to no avail, the knife was totally blunt and didn’t penetrate the thief’s jacket. Instead Charles now suffered a fearsome attack, being thrown backwards by the man and hit on the head by the other one.

He was knocked senseless for a moment to two and came to in time to see the men ‘splitting open a door’ to gain entry. Now the younger man picked up a door mat and tried to stop the German’s mouth with it to prevent him raising the alarm. In the struggle that followed Charles was once again hit on the head, this time with something heavy, made of metal he thought.

He fell in and out of consciousness before he was finally able to cry ‘murder!’ and see the men run out of the property as fast as they could. The police were called and later picked up the men and took them to Clerkenwell police station. Having been patched up at hospital (his life being feared for) Charles was later able to identify the two robbers in a parade at the station.

William Smith (24 and a box maker), and Arthur Leslie (a 22 year-old clerk from Pentonville) denied all the charges against them when they were set in the dock at Worship Street Police Court a few days later. Nothing was missing from the house as Charles had effectively scared them off. His brave display could have ended his life the court was told, he had been lucky. Charles’ main objection however, was that he had been called old; at 73 he didn’t think he was ‘that old’. This must have amused the watching audience and the paper’s readers.

Detective inspector Morgan of G Division said Smith was well known at the station as a ‘suspicious person’ and they had bene watching him for some time. He was also on the radar of N Division, as Inspector Smith testified in court. The magistrate granted a request from the police to remand the men for further enquiries and they were taken away.

On the 23 February the robbers were back in court and fully committed for trial. Smith turned out to be the brother of one of Wehrfritz’s lodgers. At the County of London Sessions held at Clerkenwell on 7 March 1899, Smith and Leslie were convicted of breaking and entering the property and of ‘severely wounding’ Mr Wehrfritz. Leslie got 21 months in prison, Smith 18, and their victim was described as ‘making a plucky stand against his assailants’. I hope he pinned the cutting to his wall to remind him that he wasn’t ‘so old’ after all.

[from The Standard, Monday, February 20, 1899; Daily News , Wednesday, March 8, 1899]

The Marlborough Street magistrate helps Big Ben’s missus deliver a knock-out blow

In the 1840s the biggest name in English boxing was Benjamin Caunt. Ben Caunt (pictured below) was one of the first English prize-fighters to seek international acclaim. In 1841 he traveled to the USA to look for rivals to fight for a world title but ended up bringing an American boxer home with him to manage instead. Caunt was so famous that some have suggested the bell within the clock tower at the Palace of Westminster was named after him, which seems unlikely.

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By 1846 ‘Big Ben’ was running a pub in St Martin’s Lane with his wife, although he continued to box well into the 1850s.

John Gill was a baker who lived in Cumming Street, Pentonville. On Saturday 19 December 1846 he had been drinking in the Caunts’ pub and got up to leave. Mrs Caunt asked him to settle his bill of 5s and at this point the baker made some wrong choices.

First, while he acknowledged the debt, he argued that since  her husband owed him 5 guineas it was a bit unfair of her to ask him to pay up in full when ‘Ben’ was already in his debt.

Such familiarity didn’t go down terribly well with Mrs Caunt. She came around from the other side of the bar and stood toe-to-toe with him.

‘Does Ben owe you anything?’ she asked, ‘Then I’ll pay you this way’, and punched him twice in the face.

Regaining his feet if not his composure, and finding his mouth full of blood, Gill staggered to the bar and launched a stream of abusive words at the landlady.

That was his second mistake.

Ben Caunt heard the foul language aimed at his wife and loomed into view, hauling the baker to his feet and throwing him out on to the street.

All of this of course landed Mrs Caunt in court before Hardwick at Marlborough Street. In her the dock Mrs Caunt didn’t deny the assault but said she had been provoked. She alleged that Gill had used bad language towards her before she had thrown any punches and was able to produce a witness to that effect.

The newspaper reporter for Lloyd’s Weekly clearly enjoyed the story and its associations with the English champion. Mrs Caunt had delivered a punch that ‘would have done no discredit to her husband’s powers’. The hapless baker was the butt of the story and that is how the magistrate saw it as well.  So Gill’s third mistake was in not simply putting the whole episode down to experience and going home quietly. Mr Hardwicke told him that he had ‘provoked the assault, by using language that was almost certain to cause a breach of the peace’, and he dismissed the summons.

Gill was beaten again, this time by a justice system and a magistrate that favoured the ‘weaker’ sex (who was clearly not the weaker one on this occasion).

[from Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper, Sunday, December 27, 1846]

The solicitor’s clerk and Commissioner Ye’s fur coat

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Ye Mingchen (1807-1859), governor of Canton (now Guangdong), China

Frederick Fisher might be forgiven for thinking that while he had committed a crime, his grudging admission should have won him some leniency at the very least. Fisher was a clerk in a firm of London solicitors. One the firm’s clients was a Lieutenant Tracey who had seen service in the second Opium War (1856-60). Tracey had been present at the Battle of Canton in which a small face of around 6,000 British troops had overcome and captured a city of over 1 million Chinese.

During the battle the lieutenant had been instrumental in the capture of Commissioner Ye Mingchen (also rendered as Yeh Ming-ch’en) who had famously resisted British influence in the region. One of the items Tracey had taken in spoils was a fur coat belonging to the Chinese viceroy. In April 1859 he had left this at the London solicitors where Frederick Fisher worked.

This must have been a temptation for the young clerk. On small wages and with what was probably a rather dull job he saw the exotic coat made from the fur of hundreds of grey squirrels and decorated with gold buttons, and took it. Fisher pawned the item with a broker in Pentonville and pocketed the money and the ticket (or ‘duplicate’).

The coat was soon missed and the solicitor (a Mr Preston) in whose private office it had been deposited must have flown into a rage or panic. This was an expensive and irreplaceable item and he looked for the culprit. Preston’s suspicions fell on Frederick and he interrogated him. Under pressure the young man buckled and when his boss offered him a way out, by saying that if the coat was returned all would be well, he caved in and admitted his crime.

Imagine his horror then when, having accompanied a detective and Mr Preston to the pawnbrokers and retrieved the missing fur coat, he was arrested. When he was taken before Alderman Phillips  at the Guildhall Police Court and accused of theft, he demanded to know  the lieutenant had sanctioned the prosecution given that the coat was now back in his possession.

The magistrate told him it ‘was immaterial, as the charge was of stealing a coat out of the possession of Mr Preston [my italics], who was responsible to Lieutenant Tracey for it’.

Having admitted his guilt there was nothing Fisher could do but ask for his case to be dealt with summarily, therefore hopefully sparing himself a more lengthy prison sentence. Alderman Phillips remanded him to await his decision on the following Saturday. Sadly we have no idea happened to him because the papers had moved on by then, and poor Frederick Fisher’s fate remains a mystery.

As for Ye Mingchen (who was condemned in the English Parliament as an ‘inhuman monster’ by Lord Palmerston), he was taken as a prisoner of war to Calcutta in British India, where he died of disease a year later; a victim (like many) of British Imperialism. He is remembered as Chinese patriot who stood up to the West and there is a state of him  in Guangzhou.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, April 23, 1859]

Cross-dressing in late Victorian London draws the wrong sort of attention in King’s Cross

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Where yesterday’s post (on a tragedy averted) reveals the human interest nature of the reporting of the Police Courts, today’s has much more to do with an editor’s decision to find something that amused his readership.

At half past three in the morning of the Tuesday 2 April 1895 PC Day (262E) heard shouts of ‘police!’ on the Euston Road and he hurried towards the entrance to the Great Northern Terminal at King’s Cross.

There he found what appeared to be a man and woman grappling together. As he tried to intervene he soon became aware that the ‘woman’ was no woman at all, but a man in female costume. Regardless of who had started the fight in the first place or indeed as to whether an assault had taken place, PC Day arrested the ‘woman’ and let the other assailant go.

When he had successfully removed him to the Police station Day discovered that his prisoner was indeed a man, a German by the name of Otto Schmitt. Still dressed as  woman he was presented to the magistrate at Clerkenwell Police Court on the next morning.

The newspaper reporter described the man in the dock in detail:

Schmitt wore a black skirt and bodice of the same colour, with velvet sleeves, black fur cape, and a small black bonnet and figured veil. His wig was of a rich golden colour, and hung in curls down his back. He carried in his hands a pair of dull red cotton gloves‘.

An interpreter was fetched to court and , through him, Schmitt explained that he was ‘character vocalist’ and had been employed by the Harmony Club in Fitzroy Square. According to one author the club was a well-known haunt of Germans in London in the 1890s and up to the outbreak of war in 1914.*

Schmitt said after he had left the club and was making his way home to an address in Pentonville the other man had attacked him. It is quite possible that he was mistaken for a street walker given the time of the night, for no ‘respectable’ woman would have been walking the streets at 3 in the morning alone.

The Clerkenwell magistrate decided to look into Schmitt’s claims that he has a valid reason for dressing up in women’s clothes, and remanded him in custody.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, April 03, 1895]

*  Panikos Panayi,  Enemy in our midst: Germans in Britain during the First World War, (Bloomsbury, 1991),