‘Fake news’ or fools’ news?’: a drunken news vendor in the dock

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Tomorrow is April Fools’ Day, the one day in the year when ‘fake news’ is supposed to be disseminated by the news media. In the past we’ve had the amazing Swiss spaghetti harvest of 1957, the invention of instant water pills that could save lives in droughts, and of course the discovery of the dead body of the Loch Ness monster (in 1972). Now, sadly, false or fake news has become ubiquitous with the advent of social media, the click-bait culture of the internet, and the ridiculous Trumpery of certain politicians.  In fact given the political events in England over the last few weeks it is quite hard to think what the press could tell us that we wouldn’t believe, regardless of its veracity.

In 1889 Frederick Stubbs decided to go early with the whole April Fools thing. At midnight on Sunday 24 March 1889 he was found marching about at Piccadilly Circus  (not under the gaze of Eros of course, as it was not installed until 1894) shouting “Death of Mr. Gladstone” ‘with the utmost strength of his lungs’.

He was carrying the following morning’s Sunday Edition and the 19 year-old newsvendor was as drunk as a lord, and reeling about. Drunks were routinely rounded up by beat policemen and asked to go home  if they were capable or, taken to the nearest station house if they were not. Stubbs was not and so PC 16 C (reserve) took him by the arm and escorted him to ‘the nick’.

The next day Stubbs was brought up, possibly still the worse for his excesses and with a sore head, to face Mr Hannay’s inquisition. The magistrate noted that the eminent statesman was very much alive but Stubbs was adamant that he’d seen an article in the paper marking his death. That was Gladstone’s brother, Mr Hannay explained, not the ‘Grand Old Man’ himself.

220px-Gladstone_being_kicked_in_the_air_by_angry_men_Wellcome_V0050369Gladstone, who had split the  Liberal Party three years earlier (in 1886) over Irish Home Rule, would be in opposition until 1892 when he regained the keys to Downing Street for the fourth and final time at the age of 82. He died on 19 May 1898 at Hawarden in Wales, aged 88.

In March 1889 Mr Gladstone was ‘enjoying excellent health’ the paper had actually said.  So Stubbs had made a mistake and not deliberately tried to fool anyone, and the justice recognized this. However, he had also got drunk and caused a disturbance in a public place and for that he would pay a fine of 5 shillings (or about £20 today).

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper , Sunday, March 31, 1889]

A mugging outside Swan & Edgar’s reveals the reality of everyday crime in London

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Some of the cases that come before the nineteenth-century magistracy are useful in revealing how criminals operated.

The most common type of offending throughout the 1800s was theft. This usually meant relatively petty, non-violent thefts such as shoplifting, picking pockets and embezzlement. The archetypal serious property crime of the 1800s was burglary and the papers devoted considerable space to the problem. However while ‘classic’ robbery (the sort we associate with highwayman) was largely confined to the previous century, it still happened in the Victorian period.

This example, from Marlborough Street in 1889, looks very much like a mugging to modern eyes, but then that is what robbery was.

It was a Sunday morning and a barrister-at-law named Moyses was passing by the windows of Swan & Edgars, the department store, at Piccadilly Circus when a man approached him. The man appeared to want to speak to him as he placed one of his hands to the side of his face and leaned in.

‘Then in a second or two he was knocked violently against one of the pilasters, and felt a hand in his pocket and something snap’.

The man, whose name was John Harrington, had struck him, pushed him against the building and then had stolen his watch from inside his  coat. AS several passers-by raised the alarm the thief attempted to make his getaway. Unfortunately for Harrington the crowd pressed in too quickly and he was surrounded; within moments a police constable arrived and the would-be thief was captured.

However, when Harrington was searched at the police station Mr Moyses’ gold watch was nowhere to be found. In court the justice was told that a second man had been involve din the attack. According to Henry Hart, a singer, as Harrington had assaulted the barrister another man had come up and ‘the prisoner passed something to him’. This must have ben the watch. So while the crowd concentrated on the attack on Mr Moyses, the other member of the ‘gang’ escaped.

This will be familiar to anyone who is aware of how pickpockets and thieves operate in modern London, indeed probably at Piccadilly Circus. If you are unlucky enough to be mugged or (more gently) ‘pickpocketed’, the initial thief will palm your phone or wallet to a confederate who will walk or run off sharply. They will then pass the stolen goods to someone else, or drop them in a ‘safe’ spot to be collected later, by another member of the gang.

All of this made (and makes) it extremely hard to get a conviction. For anything to stick in court there needed to be proof that a crime had occurred and that the accused could be associated directly with it.

In this case the witness, Hart, was potentially crucial. He said that he had seen the assault on Mr Moyses, and watched the prisoner Harrington try to escape from the ring of people that surrounded him. As Harrington had attempted to ‘dive’ between the legs of the gathered crowd the ‘vocalist’ had followed, grabbing onto the tails of his coat and holding him long enough for the police to effect an arrest.

The policeman had searched the immediate area for the missing watch, using his lamp, but nothing was found. At first he thought Mr Moyses was drunk because he was so dizzy from the attack. As a precaution he took both assailant and victim back to the police station in Vine Street where it became clear that the law man was simply suffering from the ‘violence of the attack’ made on him. In court Mr Moyses denied being drunk and said he was merely ‘dazed’ by what had happened.

In the end there wasn’t really sufficient evidence for a charge of theft however. There was no gold watch, no accomplice, and it was far from clear that Harrington had done much more than shove the barrister against the Swan & Edgar building. As a result all parties were dismissed and Mr Moyses would have had to accept that he needed to be a little more aware of where he was and what he was doing in future, and keep strangers at a distance.

As for Harrington, well so long as he kept out of Marlborough Street Police Court for the foreseeable future he was probably safe. If he appeared there again however, he was likely to face the full force of the legal system – especially if he found that the barrister prosecuting him was his previous victim!

[from The Standard, Tuesday, November 12, 1889]