An incredible story as a nonagenarian hero applies for help from the Lord Mayor

Trafalgar, 21 October 1805: 'Situation of HMS 'Bellerophon'

Trafalgar, 21 October 1805: ‘Situation of HMS ‘Bellerophon by William Joy

On Saturday 27 June 1840 the Mansion House Police court was held enthralled as a very old man told his life story in the hope that he would get some support form the City coffers. Isreal Furmen was 91 years of age – impressive in 2019 and even more so the mid nineteenth century – and he was down on his luck. He told the incumbent Lord Mayor of London that he was a native American Indian who had been living in Wales for several years after previously serving with the British Royal Navy.

He had to leave Wales, he said, because he have been implicated in ‘Frost’s treasonable outbreak’ (the Chartist rising in Newport) even though he claimed to have wanted nothing to do with and had been ‘compelled’ to join the rebellion. The Newport Rising in November 1839 had ended in the death of 22 or more Chartists as they attempted to seize the Westgate Hotel in Newport and were fired on by troops stationed there.

The rising was organized and led by John Frost but was probably doomed to fail. Rumours of the rising had alerted the authorities and many of those involved had mixed feelings about the revolt. Chartism itself was divided on the merits of using ‘physical force’ to achieve its laudable aims of enfranchising all men and introducing (amongst other things) a secret ballot to the voting process.

John Frost was one of several Chartists arrested and sentenced to death as traitors after the rising but was spared and sent to Australia. He was pardoned in 1856 and returned to Britain. He died in 1877 at the ripe old age of 93.

His fellow nonagenarian, Israel Furmen now told the Lord Mayor he had first gone to Bristol then travelled up to the capital. On arrival in London he’d applied to the Whitechapel parish for relief but had been set to ‘break stones at a penny a ton’. Despite his age he’d had a go but because he was slow they cut his pay. He only wanted to get back to America and his people. He then outlined his life story in the hope that the Lord Mayor help him. His story was quite amazing.

Furmen claimed to be the son of an India chief and to have been apprenticed to a blacksmith in Philadelphia when he was 15 (in 1764). In 1776 he had fought against the British in the American War of Independence, but had later switched sides to fight the rebels. After the war he’d gone to Europe and visited France and Spain. He said he was in Paris and saw Louis XVI being guillotined.

He signed up as a sailor for the Americans and served aboard a brig named Pelly where he was later capture by the British and pressed into the Royal Navy.  That was in 1794 and he served until 1816. This meant, he explained, that he had been on board the Bellerophon at Trafalgar under captain John Cooke, who died bravely in the encounter, one of 27 men of that ship that died that day.  However, the Bellerophon is probably most famous for being the naval vessel that took the formal surrender of Napoleon after his defeat at Waterloo. If Furmen’s account is to be believed he was present at that key moment in history as well.

Not only was he present at Trafalgar (where he was badly wounded) Furmen also said he had served at the battle of Copenhagen and at Flushing, and had been in the same sick bay at Lord Nelson. This then was a man with a knack for being in the right (or perhaps wrong) place to see history unfold before his eyes. He had been captured twice by the French but had escaped and finally ‘retired’ to Wales to live out the rest of his days in peace. That was until John Frost and his Chartist rebels decided to coopt him into their ranks of course.

He said his Indian tribe was ‘very long-lived’ and (as proof) added that just 10 years earlier he had received a letter from his father, who was still alive. He was also very strong and proved this in court by performing ‘several difficult feats of agility, to the surprise of all present’.

In 1840 the Morning Chronicle reported this case without comment or embellishment but can we take the facts at face value? It is entirely possible that a man born in 1749 could have witnessed history at such first had as he claimed, but is it probable? I expect that is what the Lord Mayor had to decide. The Bucks Herald added that Furmen was accompanied by his wife (39) and their three-year-old child.

In none of the papers could I find the outcome to this case but I imagine that Furmen’s story (real or imagined) was such a rich and compelling one that someone reading it would have paid him for the rights to publish it in full. If so then even if the City didn’t find it in their hearts or pockets to pay his passage back to the USA some speculative London printer would have.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Monday, June 29, 1840; The Bucks Herald, Saturday, July 04, 1840]

P.s A man named Isreal Furmen was indeed implicated in the Newport Rising and appears in the records at Newport Reference Library. He is also mentioned in a treatise on longevity published by John Charles Hall in 1841. I can’t find a crew list for the Bellerphon in 1805 or 1815 but perhaps others can?

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The Lord mayor drops into the Police Courts to discuss the problem of prison reform

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Eastern State Penitentiary (Philadelphia) as it is today

Today’s tale from the Police Courts is less of a particular crime and more a report of how contemporaries felt about the criminal justice system of the late 1830s. In 1839 the Metropolitan Police had been in existence for a decade, the transportation of felons to Australia was in full flood and London’s first ‘national’ prison (Millbank on the Thames) had been open for 20 years. After the turbulent years of the late teens and 1820s Britain was moving towards stability and peace but the threat of political unrest had not entirely gone away, as Chartism (c.1836-48) showed.

The problem of crime was ever present of course, because each successive generation tends to believe that life was less criminal in the previous one and any outbreak of criminality (like the ‘garrotting’ panics of the 1850s and 60s, or the ‘hooligan’ panic of the 1890s) had reporters and correspondents to the newspapers rushing to their quills to complain about the state of law and order.

In December 1839  appeared at the Guildhall Police Court and discussed the state of crime with the sitting magistrate, Alderman White. Sir Peter had an interest in law and order, having served as Lord Mayor (the City’s chief magistrate in 1832) and had written two books on prison reform.

He informed Alderman White that he had seen the reports of the prisons of the metropolis  and shared its contents. These revealed that no less than 58 ‘desperate destitute persons’ were being ‘let loose to prey upon the public from the several prisons of the metropolis’ every morning.

The debate about what to do with criminals had raged in the first decades of the nineteenth century as Robert Peel’s reform of the justice system removed capital punishment from all property crimes meaning that hanging was now reserved for murderers and (until 1842) rapists. The state still transported thousands to Australia but increasingly it was the prison (the penitentiary prison, with an emphasis on reform) that provided the backbone of the penal system.Within prisons there was also a highly contested debate about how to treat convicts with some advocating a ‘silent’ system (where inmates could mingle but not talk) and others opting for the more draconian ‘separate’ system which was in effect, solitary confinement.

Sir Peter was not a fan of the modern penitentiary prison; he said that he had read a study of the penitentiary at Philadelphia (a model of the American penal system) which showed its ineffectiveness.

He told the magistrate that ‘so far from the Penitentiary at Philadelphia reforming and making useful citizens of thieves, it breaks down their bodies as well as their minds. He saw a number of prisoners who had been confined for two years, and he never before beheld such a collection of emaciated, miserable looking objects, with lack-lustre eyes. Such an approach’ he argued, ‘did men no good’.

Alderman White commented that prison reform was one of those topics that everyone seemed to have an opinion about but no one really understood; it needed much more research in his opinion. For me this is a comment that could easily be applied in the 21st century. Too much of our penal policy seems to be based on the reactions of the government of the day to public opinion expressed in the tabloid press and not on a scientific understanding of the problem.

Sir Peter ended his visit to the court by reading the report of releases from the London prisons. This showed that in the past 49 weeks 16,940 persons had been discharged from institutions in the capital (at an average  rate of 345 a week). This report did not include Millbank, Newgate, or the New Prison at Clerkenwell however; if it had I think the numbers would have been considerably higher.

This shows then that the numbers being related were in the public domain (I wonder if they are so prominent today) and so Londoners could see the effect of the move away from capital punishment and transportation on the streets. This was to become much more pronounced in the 1850s as transportation to Australia slowed and then stoped in the next decade. Thereafter, the prison, however, ineffectual it might have been, was the only form of punishment available until the experiments with probation in the early Edwardian period.

 

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, December 18, 1839]