‘I did it!’ A young servant confesses to being the Lavender Hill poisoner

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The watching public at Wandsworth Police court witnessed an unusually dramatic case on 23 August 1886. Emily Parry, an 18 year-old domestic servant, was placed in the dock and charged with attempted murder. The girl was an unlikely murderer and what made the matter all the more sensational was that she confessed in full.

Inspector Lusk explained that on the previous Saturday Miss Parry had walked into Battersea Police Station and told the desk sergeant she wished to make a confession in the ‘poisoning case’.  She was referring to the attempted poisoning of Mrs Rose Darling at Lavender Hill in February that year. At the time another servant – Alice Tharby – had been accused and Emily had even given evidence at the pre-trial hearing. The case was thrown out by the Grand Jury and Alice was released but she had been out of work ever since and was living with her mother.

Now Emily admitted that she had put poison in Mrs Darling’s tea and milk because she had fallen out with Alice and wanted to get her ‘into a row’ (into trouble in other words). She’d used laudanum and chloroform that she’d found in the pantry; fortunately Mrs Darling quickly realized that the tea was ‘bad’ and hadn’t drunk too much. She was ill was several days but no serious damage was done. Alice tasted the milk and was ‘a little sick’ as a result.

At Battersea police station Emily declared: ‘I did it; I put the poison in the teapot’. She then made a full statement that was read out before Mr Bennett at Wandsworth.

I, Emily Parry, formerly Vass, understanding the probable serious consequences of what I am about to do, desire to make the following statement:—

On 26th February last I was in service at Dr. Bayfield’s, Soames Villa, Lavender Hill. My fellow-servant, Alice Tharby, and I quarrelled on that day. The same afternoon Alice made some tea for Mrs. Darling, Mrs. Bayfield’s mother, who was staying in the house, which she placed on the dining-room table. She then went upstairs. I was in the scullery at that time, and wishing to spite Alice I determined to put some poison into the teapot, thinking that blame would fall on her. I did not think of what might happen to other persons. I ran from the scullery and took the teapot off the dining-room table out to the surgery. I poured something from several bottles into it, one of which was labelled ‘laudanum, poison,’ and then put the teapot back on the table in the dining-room. I went to the pantry, took the jug of milk into the surgery and put some chloroform into it, and replaced it in the pantry. It only took me about five minutes to do all this. I had no thought or intention of poisoning any one; my only idea was to get Alice into a row. When Alice was locked up I was afraid to tell the truth. I have often since half made up my mind to make this statement, but could not find courage to do it until to-day. I make this statement to clear all blame from Alice Tharby and to ease my own mind.”

She’d given her statement through floods of tears, mindful of what might happen to her but also probably relieved to finally tell someone the truth. It was a straightforward decision for the magistrate: he committed her to take her trial at the Old Bailey and she appeared there in October. This time a chemist was called to examine two bottles which contained samples of the tea and milk that been given to Mrs Darling. He confirmed that there were traces of laudanum and chloroform present. Rose Darling, Alice Tharby and the surgeon that treated Rose all gave brief evidence in court but Emily said nothing.

The jury found her guilty on her confession and the other evidence and the judge sent her to prison for three months at hard labour.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, August 24, 1886]

‘He would have been alive only for my giving him what I did’: an 11 year-old admits to murder

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In April 1883 a lad of 11 named Arthur Harris Syres was brought before the Lambeth Police court magistrate where he confessed to causing the death of his little brother in early February. Arthur admitted that he had given his infant brother – who was just 12 months old – rat poison and gave the address of the shop that he bought it from. The magistrate decided that the full details of the case needed more careful investigation and remanded Arthur to the care of the local workhouse so they could be carried out.

A week later Arthur was back in court and more details emerged. His home address was given as Park Row, Peckham and his dead brother was named as Alexander Syres. A police sergeant (26P) deposed that Arthur had been brought to the station house by his stepmother. She explained that he child had been taken ill and had been vomiting. The poor thing had died soon afterwards but the doctor she consulted initially thought it might have been a complication of teething. It was only after this that Arthur admitted that he had given Alexander some rat poison that he’d purchased specifically for that purpose.

The magistrate, Mr Ellison, thought it all sounded very strange and once again remanded Arthur in custody. One of the first reforms of juvenile justice in the nineteenth century had been to stop sending children to adult prisons whilst they were on remand, which was why he was secured at a workhouse.

Another week passed before the case returned to Lambeth. More details emerged: the police now believed that it was ‘vermin poison’ that was used and that Arthur had bought ‘a pennyworth’ at a doctor’s shop. The doctor appeared and said the boy’s confession didn’t hold up because he’d said he’d purchased it from another boy working there. He denied that any lad dispensed poisons on his counter but of course he might have been trying to distance himself from the tragedy.

The discussion returned to the initial hypothesis that Alexander had died as a result of complications in teething. Mr Ellison wanted to know if the symptoms of this might be similar to those caused by poison. Dr Hemmings, who treated the child, agreed that they might.  Since little Alex had already been buried the only way to establish the truth for certain was to have his body examined and for that the justice would have to apply to the Home Secretary for a legal exhumation.

On May 4 Arthur learnt that while no decision had yet been made as to digging up his brother’s body it had been decided that he had a case to answer. It was now likely that the 11 year-old would face trial for causing the death of his brother and he was remanded in custody once more. This meant that he had now been in custody and separated from his family for three weeks, not knowing the outcome of the case against him and most likely not having any meaningful legal support. It is hard to imagine the torments he was going through.

On Friday 25 May Arthur was again set in the dock at Lambeth and again asked whether he had given his brother poison.  The lad continued to admit his guilt and so although no independent verification of his story could confirm this to be true the justice, this time Mr Chance, had little choice but to formally commit him to take his trial at the Old Bailey.

The trial took place on the 28 May and was quite short. Sergeant Ledger gave evidence as did Arthur’s stepmother, Margaret Syres. She told the court how while they had all believed that baby Alex had died as a result of his teething Arthur had admitted his role in the baby’s death to his sister Ada.

‘He would have been alive only for my giving him what I did’, he reportedly said and, when questioned by his parents, said he’d taken rat poison himself before.

However, doubts remained as to whether Arthur had administered rat poison or red precipitate poison (mercurite oxide) and Dr Butters (where Arthur claimed to have bought a twist of powder from an errand boy) was adamant that his servant would not have been able to have sold the boy the former.

It then emerged that on New Year’s Eve 1882  Arthur had been charged with attempting to take his own life. Inspector Thomas Worth told the Old Bailey court that on that occasion Arthur had ingested phosphorous paste (which was sometimes used as a rat poison). When asked why he replied that he’d run away from home because his parents ‘ill used him’.

Arthur’s confession was again given in court but when asked the defendant had nothing to say for himself. The jury acquitted him of manslaughter and he was free to go after several weeks of trauma. Whether he was able to return home however, or wanted to, is quite another matter. While the court was unable (and perhaps unwilling) to prove that an 11 year-old boy was a killer it is clear that Arthur Syres was a very troubled youth. His mother had died and his father had remarried and started a new family. It seems as if he was struggling to cope with the adjustment and acted up in the most extreme of ways.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, April 14, 1883; The Hull Packet and East Riding Times, Friday, April 20, 1883; The Standard (London, England), Friday, April 27, 1883;The Standard, Saturday, May 05, 1883; Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, May 27, 1883]

NB: If you enjoy this blog series you might be interested in Drew’s jointly authored study of the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders which is published by Amberley Books on 15 June this year. You can find details here:

A lucky counterfeiter or a young man with deeper problems? Mercury and bad money at Bow Street

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William Collins was lucky. In 1841 he had a brush with the law that might have ended in a quite serious prosecution and, most likely, a prison sentence. As it was the sitting magistrate at Bow Street chose to believe his version of events over that of the police, and he walked out of court a free man. With a different magistrate, and in previous decades, he may not have been so fortunate.

Collins was charged with passing counterfeit money (‘uttering’ as it was often described). He had entered a butcher’s shop in Charles Street and attempted to pay for a ‘quarter pound of beef’ with a ‘bad’ fourpenny piece. The butcher (George Garland) rejected the young man’s coin and demanded another. Colins produced a shilling and a sixpence from the same pocket and handed them over. Garland carefully examined each, told him the shilling was also ‘bad’ but accepted the sixpence. Collins left with his supper and 2din change.

Next he went to the Anchor and Crown pub in King Street and ordered a pint of beer. When Edward Hoey the landlord asked him to pay he handed him the shilling that had been refused earlier. Hoey refused it and Collis tried another coin, a halfpenny which was fine. He drank his pint and left.

Some moments later a man approached the bar and spoke to the landlord. He asked if a person fitting Collins’ description had been in and when he was told he had said he had him under surveillance for some time. The man was an early police detective named Roberts and having been informed that his quarry was  close by he rushed off after him, arresting him soon afterwards and taking him to the nearest police station.

Detective Roberts questioned his prisoner and sent for the landlord and the butcher. On the following Saturday both men and the detective were in court to give evidence against Collins.

The young ‘strenuously denied’ knowing that the money was counterfeit and was very clear about how he had acquired it. He can’t have come across as a criminal and Mr Jardine seemed ready to believe he was innocent. The justice asked the policeman who’d searched him at the station whether any other ‘bad’ coins had been found on him. The constable replied that none had but the lad did possess a bottle of quicksilver, which he kept in the same pocket as his money. The quicksilver (mercury) would have tarnished the coins he owed. This seems to have convinced Mr Jardine of his innocence although the other witnesses were less sure that they hadn’t narrowly avoided being ripped off by a fraudster. They insisted the coins were fake.

So the magistrate sent the constable off with the coins to be tested by a nearby jeweler. The expert opinion was that the coins were indeed ‘genuine, but discolored in consequence of being placed with quicksilver’. The magistrate turned to the young man in the dock and apologized to him for having held him in custody while the facts were checked. He said he hoped he understood that while he was now cleared of any suggestion of criminal behavior the ‘affair [looked] very suspicious’ based on the witnesses produced in court.

But why might Collins have had a phial of mercury on his person? In the 1800s there were plenty of uses for a metal that we would be rather concerned to find someone wandering the streets of London with. Mercury is highly toxic. However in the Victorian period plenty of substance we would consider dangerous were readily available and used in everyday operations at home and at work.  Collins might have been self-medicating with mercury; it was used as disinfectant, diuretic and even as a laxative.

At points in history mercury was used to treat syphilis, a disease that was rife in nineteenth-century London. However, the treatment could be as bad as, worse even, than the disease itself. Mercury can induce mental illness (that was the – possibly apocryphal – story behind Lewis Carroll’s ‘Mad Hatter’ – as mercury was used in the manufacture of hats) and cause other, physical, problems for the user.

So perhaps William Collins wasn’t that lucky after all?

[from The Morning Post, Monday, May 03, 1841]

The problem of syphilis and its treatment is something I cover in my new co-authored book on the Whitechapel (‘Jack the Ripper’) murders. This is published by Amberley Books on 15 June this year. You can find details here:

‘You won’t see me alive in ten minutes’: a strongman’s wife reaches the limits of her despair

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I am struck by the frequency of attempted suicide cases that came before the London magistracy in the late nineteenth century. The Police Code book stated that:

A person who kills himself in a manner which in the case of another person would amount to murder, is guilty of murder’,1 which seems a supremely unhelpful directive under the circumstances.

Those attempting to kill themselves were ordered to be given medical assistance and then prosecuted for a misdemeanor. In most cases I’ve found the accused was remanded so that enquiries could be made into their mental health and character with the aim being, it seems, to ensure that they didn’t try anything so drastic again.

While there were several attempts at hanging and one of a man who walked into an underground train tunnel to end his life, most of the attempted suicides that made the pages of the newspapers were of women who had been prevented from drowning themselves in the Thames or one of the capital’s canals. In almost all instances their lives were saved by the quick reactions of a nearby beat bobby or member of the public. The case of Edith Sampson was a little different.

In late March  1892 Dora Hoffmeister was working as a servant at the Empire Hotel in Leicester Square. She knew Edith as one of the guests and met her by the front door to the hotel on the 31 March in the afternoon. Edith spoke to her saying darkly: ‘You won’t see me alive in ten minutes’, before hurrying off upstairs to her room.

Alarmed, Dora followed her and entered her bedroom where she saw Mrs Sampson sat at her dressing table. She took a small bottle from the table and poured its contents into a glass. Dora seized the bottle and realized it was marked ‘Laudanum. Poison’. She remonstrated with Edith who relented and poured the liquid back into the bottle and set it down.

Dora stayed as Edith dressed and went out, and then returned to her duties. About an hour later she decided to check on her again and went up to her room. There she found Edith lying on the bed where she had been carried by one of the hotel’s waiters after she’d been discovered earlier. Apparently another servant, Harriet Perrett had found Edith slumped on the stairs, a handkerchief in one hand and the bottle of laudanum in the other.  Dora rang for help and stayed with Edith until a surgeon arrived.

Dr Clarke examined his patient and the bottle and administered an emetic. Edith vomited up the poison and complained that the doctor should have let her die. ‘You don’t know my troubles’, she declared and continued to bemoan her fate until her mother arrived. Edith Sampson was just 18 years of old her mother explained, and had married  ‘Sampson, the Strong Man’ in September 1891. He was not about having left for Liverpool earlier that week. The couple had quarreled and Edith was clearly unhappy in her marriage. Nevertheless Edith’s mother was sure that this was a one off and told Mr Newton (the magistrate at Marlborough Street) that her daughter would never take her own life.

Mr Newton was much less sure however, and said she’d already made that attempt and might well try again. In his opinion the best course of action would be to have Edith secured in the infirmary at the local house of correction for a week. Edith Sampson ‘was led away crying, and evidently in deep distress’.

Edith was probably married to Charles A. Sampson, a famous strongman in the late Victorian period. He claimed he owed his remarkable strength to being hit by lightning when he was a child and he would appeared on stage throughout Britain and further afield. As a vaudeville showman Sampson would have been on the road a lot, with little time for his young wife. Edith, who was described as ‘good-looking’ and ‘fashionably attired’ might have enjoyed the trappings of a prosperous theatre existence but she may well have been quite lonely and worried that her new husband might be subjected to the charms of other women while he was out of her sight and care.

Hopefully this incident was enough to alert Edith’s family and friends to rally round her and give her the support she needed and, had it not been for the attention of a stranger, Dora Hoffmeister, a European immigrant worker in London, Sampson might have been burying his young wife without even celebrating his first wedding anniversary.

[from The Standard, Saturday, April 02, 1892]

  1. Neil R A Bell and Adam Wood (Eds), Sir Howard Vincent’s Police Code 1889, (Mango Books, 2015), p.174

Child murder, suicide, neglect, and petty theft: just an average day in London

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This is the last in this series of posts from one week in 1884 and I’m going to finish it with a summary of the reports that appeared in the Morning Post under the heading ‘Police Intelligence’ which again show the diversity of business the police magistrate courts of the Victorian capital dealt with.

The most serious case was at Clerkenwell where Mr Hosack fully committed Sidney Clay to trial at the Central Criminal Court (at Old Bailey). Clay, a 30 year-old tobacconist from Holloway Road, was accused of ‘having encouraged and endeavoured to persuade Eustace de Gruther, doctor of medicine, to kill and murder’ a baby boy who was just two months old.

Clay’s lawyer argued that the doctor, as the only witness, was trying to implicate his client but the magistrate decided that the case needed to be heard by a jury and bailed Clay for £200.  In late February Clay was tried and convicted at the Bailey but it was recognized that the whole thing might not have been as intentional as it seemed at first. The jury recommended Clay to mercy and the judge gave him just six months hard labour. Interestingly here his age was given as just 21, not 30, so perhaps the reporter got it wrong at the original hearing – a reminder that we should always treat historical sources carefully.

Another tragedy of life was played out in Southwark Police court where Elizabeth Brockett was prosecuted for trying to kill herself. The 31 year-old (if we are to believe the report at least) was seen on London Bridge by a  wharf labourer. John Flanaghan was alerted by a woman’s scream and looked up to see Elizabeth who had just discarded her bonnet and shawl and was about to launch herself into the Thames. He rushed to save her, and, with the help of a policeman, managed to drag her back from the brink.

In court the woman told Mr Slade that she was ‘in great distress of mind, owing to the loss of two children’. She’d been very ill but promised never to try to do anything like this again. She was released back into the care of her husband.

At Hampstead John Redworth didn’t appear when his case was called. He’d been summoned by an officer of School Board for neglecting to send his daughter, Justina (9) to school. This was a common enough sort of hearing but was very rarely reported so what made this one special? Well it was that perennial issue around travelling people. Redworth was a member of a community of ‘gipsies’ who had been camping on Hampstead Heath. Apparently Redworth’s was the only family that had children of school age and so his was the only summons made.

He turned up in the end but too late for the magistrate (Mr Andrews) who had already adjourned the case for a month. The encampment had moved on the magistrate was told, so perhaps the court would decide to leave the girl’s education for someone else to deal with.

At Marylebone William Bliss (a footman) was charged with theft and receiving a china vase. He appeared in the dock with his accomplice and fellow servant Catherine Churchyard. The pair worked for a family in Chelsea and claimed the case had just been broken and they’d hidden the evidence to save Catherine getting into trouble. Mr De Rutzen didn’t buy this version of events and remanded them for a week to see what the police could find out about the case. I fear that at best the couple would have been dismissed from service, at worst they might have to spend some time behind bars.

So in just four reports that day we have a child murder, an attempted suicide, servant theft, and a case of truancy involving travellers. If we added a fraud, a case of domestic violence, and some drunk and disorderly behaviour on the streets in the West End we would have a very normal day at the Police courts of Victorian London.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, 31 January, 1884]

‘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]

Sad tales from the Police courts, and the hunt for the men that shot a policeman hots up.

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Islington High Street, c.1890

On June 27 1884 The Morning Post reported on several London’s police courts as well as updating their readers on an ongoing story concerning the shooting of a policeman. At Southwark a man named Hill was brought up for the second time, having been remanded on a charge of fraud. Hill had supposedly cashed fake cheques on at least two separate individuals for over £15 a time. That might not sound like much but a rough calculation for 1884 makes that around £700 in today’s money. The magistrate further remanded him for the Public Prosecutor to get involved.

At Westminster an Irish woman named Catherine Fagan was accused of begging but the case touched on her supposed involvement with the cause of Irish Nationalism. A membership card for the “W. P. Boyton” branch of the Irish National Land League was found in her possession. The INLL championed the rights of poor tenant farmers in Ireland and it was hardly a revolutionary organisation, but the 1880s were a difficult decade for Anglo-Irish relations, and saw several Fenian terrorist attacks in England (as I’ve written about previously on this blog). Fagan was eventually allowed to go, with some charity from the poor box.

But the story that touched me this morning concerned another woman in distress, Sarah Ann Cocksedge. Sarah Ann was presented at Lambeth Police Court charged with attempting to take her own life. This was, as I’ve written about on several occasions, a sadly regular charge before the magistracy. Even more tragic of course, was the fairly routine discovery of drowned bodies floating in or washed up on the banks of the River Thames. London was an unforgiving and hard place to live in the 1800s and Victorian society’s understanding of mental illness was far from as advanced as our own is.

Sarah Ann had tried to take a poison, ‘spirits of salts’ (which is hydrochloric acid) but had been prevented. In custody she told a policeman that she wanted to kill herself because  had been asked her to cover up the death of an infant child.

She said a ‘former mistress had given her a child to get rid of, which she had put into a garden (mentioning the place) and this had preyed on her mind’.

A detective from CID appeared in court to say that he had enquired into her claims but had been unable to substantiate them. The chaplain of the goal that had been holding her since her suicide attempt sent a letter to the court asking the justice to remand her back into his care, as he felt he could help her find a new home.

Sarah Ann continued to declare that she had spoken the truth regarding the dead child but it seems no one wanted to listen. She was again remanded and sent back to prison.

Finally, the paper reported that the police were closing in on two men wanted for shooting a police constable in Islington. PC Chamberlain had been shot in Park Street, ‘whilst in pursuit of two men suspected go burglary’. They had got away and the constable was injured, but not fatally it was thought. Two days later it was reported that he was ‘somewhat better’ and that the manhunt was focused on Hampstead.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, June 27, 1884]