‘Am I not entitled to be believed as well as he?’ An ingenious defence from the dock

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Peter Chambers was determined to prove his innocence although his method suggested that perhaps he did ‘protest too much’. He’d been arrested on a charge of picking pockets at the Albert Hall at the end of November 1889.

In court at Westminster he described himself as an artificial florist and vehemently denied the charge. The police constable that arrested him said that several ladies had complained him that their purses had been stolen and he saw Chambers ducking under a horse and cart to escape the throng of lady choristers that surrounded the entrance to the convert hall.

Chambers took the stand in his only defense and, with a flourish, produced a piece of paper and called the constable to come and examine it.

‘Now, constable, I wish to introduce to your notice a little sketch or plan which I have prepared, because if you could see me from where you stood you must have had one of those double magnifying glasses we read about’.

As the laughter in court subsided the officer peered at the sketch but made little of it.

‘You will observe the dotted line on the plan?’ Chambers continued, but the policeman declared he didn’t quite follow his line of argument.

‘I am not surprised at you making nothing of it’, the defendant huffed. ‘Does you Worship see the dotted line?’ he asked Mr D’Eyncourt. ‘The cross’, he said pointing it out, ‘ is where the constable stood, and how could he see me – unless he can see round a corner!’

‘but what is your defence’, the magistrate asked him.

‘I am innocent’, Chambers intoned, melodramatically. ‘Am I not entitled to be believed as well as he?’ he demanded, pointing at the policeman. ‘It is blasting my reputation to be here on such a charge’.

There were doubts as to the evidence or at least the lack of it presented by the police but they asked for a remand and Mr D’Eyncourt granted it.

After all Chambers asserted that he could bring his brother in to testify that he was at the Hall on legitimate purposes, to assist him in his role as a linkman (showing people to their carriages).  The magistrate doubted this would prove anything, one way or the other, and the gaoler took him away.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, December 03, 1889]

A casual thief with a lot of attitude

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Hannah Newman was a confident (one might say ‘cocky’) character. At half past ten on the 29 November 1858 she was on Cheapside, in the City of London. She was dressed smartly and carried a muff to keep her hands warm.

As a man walked towards her along the road she engineered a collision, running into him and apologizing. When he checked his pockets he found his purse was missing. Turning to Hannah he accused her of stealing it which she denied.

The gentleman (who had lost over £13) didn’t  believe her and threatened to call the police. Seeing a constable near by Hannah retrieved the purse from her muff and handed it over, ‘begging to be allowed to go free’. But her appeals fell on deaf ears and she was handed over to the police and taken back to the nearest station house.

When she was searched more money was found along with a porte-monniae (a wallet) with 7s 6d in it. The police also found some calling cards belonging to another gentleman. When they followed up this lead he told them he had been similarly robbed in Jewry Street about an hour earlier.

All this was outlined to the sitting justice at Mansion House along with the suggestion that there was a third victim who did not wish to come forward. Hannah claimed that she had merely picked up the purse for safe-keeping and had no knowledge of how she had come by the other man’s cards. She requested that her case be dealt with summarily and not taken to a jury court.

The Lord Mayor disagreed and said her crimes were too ‘flagrant to permit him to take such a course’ and that for her ‘barefaced’ actions he would send her to the Central Criminal Court (the Old Bailey) for trial.

At this she requested that at least she might keep the money (19s and 6d) that had been found on her. This the magistrate refused, telling her that it would be put ‘towards her maintenance in prison’.

There is no trial of a Hannah Newman at the Old Bailey in 1858 so perhaps it wasn’t published (not all were) or she was released before then or the trial collapsed (perhaps because the ‘gentlemen’ involved preferred not reveal why they had been out on those evenings or because they simply preferred to stay out of the papers). There was a case 8 years earlier however when  a 14 year old girl named Hannah Newman was convicted of stealing a shawl and other goods from her master and mistress. She was sent to prison for 6 months.

Was this the same Hannah? Chances are unlikely I concede, but not impossible. Research at the University of Liverpool has shown that offending patterns in women started young and that many had several  convictions before they stopped offending in later life. If it was was the same Hannah then she might have been 22 at the time of her encounter at Mansion House. Unmarried and out of work she was represented the ‘norm’ for female thieves in mid nineteenth-century London.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, November 30, 1858]

The ‘Swell mob’ is undone by two ‘intrepid’ females

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Samuel Harris and George Edwards were, it was alleged, members of a notorious gang of smartly dressed criminals who targeted the  pockets of the wealthy at fairs and other large public gatherings. In July 1855 the two were out and about in Whitechapel and Harris had just taken a purse from a woman’s pocket when a sharp voice rang out:

‘You vagabond, you have just picked the lady’s pocket!’

The cry came from a servant girl, Emma Shearman, who was walking out with her mistress the widowed Mrs Whittaker. Emma moved swiftly to try and catch hold of Harris and in the process he dropped the purse he’d stolen. As he tried to pick it up she stood on it. Harris and Edwards fled with the two women in hot pursuit.

One of them grabbed Harris by the collar and spun him round, he lashed out with his cane hitting her on the head. The women persisted despite the violence and were eventually assisted by the arrival of PC H66 and the High Constable of Tower Hamlets, Thomas Reynolds. The two thieves were removed to the station house.

When they appeared for their hearing at the Worship House police court the station gaoler told the magistrate that the two were well-known to the police as members of the ‘swell mob’ who with a ‘gang’ of others turned up to races and the like, dressed in fine clothes and in a hired ‘stylish-looking chaise’ so they pass themselves off as moneyed and ‘respectable’. This ruse allowed them to get close to their victims. He added that recently one of them had a attended a confirmation at church where a man  was robbed of a £50 gold watch.

They were fully committed for trial.

The ‘swell mob’ was a term in common usage during the nineteenth century. It was applied to those criminals that lived well off the pickings they made as thieves and con-men. They saw themselves as the ‘elite’ of criminals and dressed to ape the habits of the middle-class. They were part of the so-called ‘criminal class’ of Victorian London – a term that historians of crime have warned us to not take too literally.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Saturday, July 14, 1855]

This post first appeared in July 2016

‘Take that you _____!’: a pickpocket loses her cool

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Amongst the most common crimes that women were accused of at the summary courts was picking pockets. Female offenders appear in greater numbers (and larger proportions) for these property offences than nearly all others – shopflifting being the obvious other one.

Picking pockets is an indirect, non-violent crime, one that involves dexterity and stealth, rather than strength and bravado. It required the perpetrator to get close to his or her victim and, to some extent at least, to not seem like a threat. Pickpockets chose crowds or tightly packed spaces like omnibuses or train carriages,  and victims that were unsuspecting, like drunks in bars.

Female thieves were also often, like Elizabeth Smith, prostitutes who were well connected with the criminal networks they either needed to sell on stolen items or to retreat within to hide when the law was after them. Picking pockets was risky; if you were caught and it could be proved you’d stolen items of value you could be sent to prison. If you had previous convictions that could mean a lengthy sentence.

However, there was also a reasonable chance that you would get away with it, especially if you had an accomplice. It was pretty standard practice for a thief to ‘dip’ a pocket and pass the stolen items on to a nearby assistant who’d make away wit them. When the thief was apprehended a search would reveal nothing at all making it hard to gain a conviction.

Not all pickpockets were subtle however, and not all eschewed violence.

In late October 1860 Elizabeth Smith was brought before the magistrate at Lambeth Police court charged with robbery with violence, a much more serious offence than pickpocketing. By all accounts Smith had been picking pockets in a beer shop in Lambeth, Walker’s on the Marshgate.

Edwin Oliver, a master boot and shoemaker was enjoying a glass of stout after work when he saw Smith trying to separate a drunken man from his possessions. He strode over to the couple and intervened, getting a mouthful of abuse from Elizabeth for his pains.

Some time later he left the shop and was making his way towards hoe when he felt a blow on his head and was knocked to the ground. The blow was accompanied by a woman’s voice (Elizabeth’s he believed) saying:

‘There you ______, take that!’

Oliver passed out and when he was helped up later his head was bloody and his pockets had been rifled. He reckoned he had lost between 15 and 18 shillings in coin.

It took a day but the police picked up Elizabeth and she was remanded while Oliver recovered from his wounds. When she came before the magistrate she said little. The justice established from Oliver that she might have had a male accomplice, perhaps her ‘bully’ (or pimp), and so it may have been him that thumped the shoemaker. Elizabeth was committed for trial by jury.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Monday, October 29, 1860]

A fresh start for one young girl with an ‘indifferent character’.

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Yesterday’s blog was about youthful delinquency in 1840s Whitechapel. Today’s concerns more youthful criminals, this time in the West End of London twenty years later.

A crowd of shoppers were peering through the windows of the London Stereoscopic Company in Regent Street, looking at the display of photographs within. As their attention was held by the still relatively new mystery of photography two young thieves were hard at work behind them. John Thompson (16) and his sidekick Catherine Hayes (12) were busy ‘dipping’ pockets to see what valuables they could steal.

Unfortunately for the pair they were also being observed; PC Tiernan (C162) was on duty and had spotted them. As he knew Thompson he arrested him and escorted him to the nearby police station, on his return he saw Hayes put her hand in a lady’s pocket and quickly apprehended her too.

The lady was not inclined to prosecute as he had no desire to be seen at such a common place as a police station house, but she did tell the officer that her purse  contained seven sovereigns, so Catherine’s intent was proven.

The two would-be felons were brought before Mr Knox at Marlborough Street Police court where they were accused of attempting to pick pockets. Detective Cannor of C Division testified to knowing Thomson ‘for some time’. The lad had previously been convicted of shoplifting and, since his arrest for this crime, had been identified as wanted for the theft of a gold watch valued at £15.

PC Tiernan had looked into the character of Catherine Hayes and found that it was ‘very indifferent’. She had been expelled from school on more than one occasion, for being suspected of stealing property that had gone missing.

The nineteenth-century justice system had made some limited progress in the treatment of juvenile likes these two. Magistrates had the powers to deal with them summarily for most offences, saving them from a jury trial and more serious punishment. But it still operated as a punitive rather than a welfare based system.

Mr Knox sent Thompson to gaol for three months as a ‘rogue and vagabond’. This was a useful ‘catch all’ that meant that no offence of stealing actually had to be proven against him; merely being on the street as a ‘known person’ without being able to give a good account of himself, was enough to allow the law to punish him.

As for Catherine the law now had a supportive alternative to prison or transportation (which she may have faced in the 1700s). Catherine Hayes would go to Mill Hill Industrial School until she was 16 years of age. There she would learn useful skills such as needlework and laundry, things that might help her secure a job when she got out. It would be taught with a heavy helping of discipline and morality, in the hope that this might correct and improve her ‘indifferent’ character.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, October 21, 1876]

A ‘well known nymph of the pave’ in court once again.

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Clerkenwell Prison , c.1862

PC William Warren (208N) was perambulating his beat when he saw a man and a woman leant up against the railings at the corner of Nelson Place on the City Road. The pair were arguing and when the man saw the officer he called out to him. He gave his name as John Stourton and claimed the woman had picked his pocket, stealing his purse and half a sovereign. Warren arrested the woman and took her back to the station.

Since a search there revealed nothing PC Warren retracted his steps and searched the areas around the railings. There he found the purse close to where the pair had been standing. It had clearly been dropped by the thief as soon as she’d seen the officer appear.

The woman’s name was Elizabeth Lewis but she was more commonly known as ‘broken-nosed Liz’, and was a notorious thief. A ‘well known nymph of the pave’ as Reynolds’s Newspaper described her, Liz had a string of previous convictions. PC Barker (124N) told the magistrate that she had served six months for stealing a watch in 1859, three years for a similar offence in in May 1860 and had committed two like offences since she’d got out of goal.

Whilst the case showed up Liz as an old offender it didn’t too much for Stourton’s reputation either. The court heard that the stonemason, a married man with children, had picked up Liz in the street after she had asked him to buy her a drink.  It was a common enough ploy for women soliciting prostitution and having had a drink she told the justice that Stourton then went with her to a nearby house ‘for an immoral purpose’. She denied stealing anything and was trying to undermine her accuser by pointing out his own, less than respectable, character.

It didn’t work in front of Mr Barker who committed her to take her trial at the in due course. She was brought to the Middlesex quarter sessions on the 17 October where the jury convicted her and she was given yet another sentence of penal servitude, this time for seven years. Her previous convictions really counted against her here, as the system punished her severely for not learning her lesson.

In reality of course there was little hope for someone like Liz. At 35, with a history of prostitution and crime and little hope of finding work she was condemned to repeating her actions and lifestyle until poverty, the cold or an angry punter ended her miserable existence.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, October 9, 1864]

A man offers a free ride and gets more than he bargained for

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Mr Savory Moriston had been out in the Haymarket, dining with friends during one of his regular visits to London. Moriston was a Hamburg based merchant and in a couple of days time he was bound for Australia, once more on business. As we waited for a cab at one on the morning two young women sidled up to him. Introducing themselves they said they lived ‘over the Waterloo Bridge’ and, since Moriston was heading to Lambeth, they entreated him to give them a lift. When a cab arrived all three got in.

If Moriston was familiar with the Haymarket in the 1850s then it is fairly likely that despite their ‘well-dressed’ appearance he would have realized that Emily Morton and Susan Watson were prostitutes. The Haymarket was notorious for the sex trade in the 1800s and the girls had probably been working the bars and theatres around the West End all evening. Now they saw the opportunity of a free ride home and another possible punter, perhaps one a little the worse for drink.

The girls bided their time and it was only when they were crossing the Thames that Moriston felt a hand in his coat pocket and then realized his handkerchief was missing. I remained silent at this point but decided to check his money. He reached into his trouser pocket and took out 13 sovereigns to count them.

It was probably not the most sensible move because it alerted the women to the fact that he possessed a much bigger prize than a silk hankie. Soon afterwards Susan leaned in and began to whisper in his ear, all the time stroking his breast with one hand. Meanwhile her other hand was heading for his trousers. Within seconds she had pinched two sovereigns.

Moriston was aware however and kept his cool. As the cab approached a policeman the merchant hailed him and the women were taken into custody at Tower Street Police station. There they were searched and the sovereigns were found, one in Watson’s glove the other in a pocket concealed in her dress. The handkerchief had been dropped as soon as the policeman was seen, it was found on the floor of the cab.

It was a serious theft and one that warranted a jury trial. Moriston was reluctant to go to court however, as his business commitments required him to leave London in a few days. He said he was content to have the young women dealt with summarily. Mr Norton presiding said that while he would not normally approve of such leniency he accepted that the German visitor to London was committed to be elsewhere and so agreed. He sent Susan Watson to gaol for two months and discharged Emily Morton, as nothing had been found to incriminate her.

[fromThe Morning Post, Thursday, August 11, 1853]