‘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 child has a narrow escape as a disenchanted teenager poisons her lunch

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In December 1895 Edith Fenn appeared before Mr Lane at the West London Police court. Edith was just 15 years old and worked as a kitchen maid at 21 Courtfield Gardens, Earl’s Court. She had been asked to take food up to the youngest member of the household, Gwendolin Morris who was just 3 and a half years of age.

As she carried a tray with a bowl of cooked mincemeat along the landing Elizabeth Smart, a housemaid cleaning upstairs, stopped her. Elizabeth  could smell something bad, like ammonia, asked Edith what is was. The kitchen servant nodded to the jug of milk standing on a slate on the landing: ‘Perhaps it is in the milk’, she suggested, and carried on to the nursery.

The milk was there because Edith had brought it up earlier (as was her duty) and the little girl had rejected it. When the child tried it she spat it out complaining that it tasted ‘nasty’ and her nurse, Florence Powell agreed. Since the milk was slightly off the nurse decided to put it outside.

Now Edith had arrived in the nursery with Gwendolin’s meal of minced meat and potatoes. Immediately Powell recognized the smell of ammonia, just as Elizabeth Smart had. Edith set the tray down on a side table and went back downstairs to the kitchen. The nurse sniffed the meat and found it was certainly the source of the ammonia smell and handed it to the housemaid to take back to Mrs Longhurst, the cook.

What was going on? Had the cook inadvertently added ammonia to the baby’s dinner or was something more sinister at work?

Once the cook had seen what had happened she called for her mistress, and Mrs Louise Morris, the wife of an army officer, summoned a doctor. He examined both the milk and the minced meat and found that both were poisoned. The meat contained ammonia and the meat had traces of prussic acid, a cleaning agent used on gold lace. Dr Wyckham gave the little girl some ether as an antidote and she was later said to be recovering well in hospital.

A police investigation was soon underway and suspicion fell on Edith who had only been with the Morris family for six weeks. A bottle labeled ‘poison’ was found in the dustbin and in a subsequent trial at Old Bailey Edith admitted throwing it away after poisoning the girl’s milk and food.

Why had she done so, a nurse at the hospital wanted to know? All Edith would say was that she didn’t like taking the girl’s food up to her. At the police station she seemed much more anxious that her mother would find out what she had done. In the end she was charged with a form of wounding (‘Unlawfully administering a certain poison to Gwendolin Sutherland Morris with intent to injure and annoy her’) and, thankfully, no real harm was done to the child.

It was the end of Edith’s career as a domestic however. The jury recommended her to mercy on account of her age and the fact that two people stepped up to say that she had a previously unblemished good character. The judge sent her to prison for four months with hard labour. If she didn’t enjoy the tiresome trudge up and down stairs with a tray of food she was hardly going to prefer the treadmill and the crank and a diet of thin gruel.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, 18 December, 1895]

‘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]

Montagu Williams and the case of the stolen fur cloaks – not one of his greatest triumphs

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Montagu Williams, by ‘Spy’, Vanity Fair, (1879)

At the beginning of August 1876 Harriet Sutcliffe stood in the dock at Marylebone Police Court accused of stealing four expensive fur trimmed velvet cloaks. Harriet was a 52 year-old ‘wardrobe dealer’ and the cloaks she was supposed to have pinched belonged to Messers. Marshall & Snelgrove, silk mercers on Oxford Street.

The charge was a serious one and the complainants had deep pockets. To prosecute the theft they had hired Montagu Williams, a prominent barrister in his day. Williams would later (in 1886) become a Police Magistrate himself before taking silk two years afterwards. He died after a period of illness in 1892 but has left us his reminiscences in two volumes, one of which (Leaves of a Life, 1890) I picked up in a bookshop in Hay of Wye at the weekend.

In late 1876  Williams was hired to defend a nobleman, Count Henry de Tourville, who was accused of murdering his wife in Austria a year earlier. According to Williams’ story* the charge was that De Tourville had killed his wife Madeline ‘by pushing her over a precipice in the Stelvio Pass of the Austrian Tyrol’. The motive was deemed to be financial as the pair had only recently married and the former Mrs Miller owned a ‘considerable fortune’ estimated by Williams at over £65,000 (or around £3,000,000 today – worth killing for perhaps).

The tale reads like a Sherlock Holmes mystery but Williams doesn’t seem to have been able to affect matters. The count was presented at Bow Street before the magistrate Mr Vaughan who (having listened to a great deal of evidence that demonstrated that he certainly had a case to answer) committed him for trial. The count was extradited to Austria, tried and duly convicted of murder.

He was also accused of poisoning his first wife (with powdered glass in her coffee, something alluded to in Evelyn Waugh’s 1928 masterpiece Decline and Fall), attempting to burn down his own house with his only child in it, and, finally, with shooting his mother-in-law.  De Tourville was sentenced to death but reprieved on condition he spend the rest of his days ‘working as a slave in the [Austrian] salt mines’.

Given that Williams had such tales as this to regale his audience with it is hardly surprising he overlooked the case of a fifty-something second-hand clothes merchant accused of stealing items from a  major high street store.

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There were three lawyers in the Marylebone court that day, Williams (who had been instructed by Messrs. Humphreys and Morgan), Mr Beesley, who appeared for the defence, and Mr Grain who represented the interests of a mantle manufacturer named James Cruse. Cruse was the man who had made the cloaks (mantles) and so Grain was probably there to provide evidence on behalf of his client as to the value of the items.

The magistrate, Mr Mansfield, listened to the case presented by Williams and the defence offered by Beesley that the items had been legally acquired and that there was little chance that a jury would convict her of theft on what he had heard. The magistrate decided to send the case to the Central Criminal Court (the Old Bailey) but allowed bail for Mrs Sutcliffe which he set at £300 (plus two sureties of £150 each). Montage Williams advised the magistrate that a warrant had been issued to find the defendant’s husband who seems to have had something to do with the supposed theft; so far however, he was lying low.

I rather suspect the evidence was as weak as Mr Beesley adjudged it to be because despite a series of separate searches I can’t find the case in the Old Bailey. Maybe that is why Montagu Williams chose not to immortalise it in print.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, August 02, 1876]

*Montagu Williams, Leaves of a Life, (1890, 1899 edition) pp.208-212

A man is driven to attempt suicide because of his ‘reduced circumstances’

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This blog has covered the difficult topic of suicide in several posts over the past year; Londoners in despair quite frequently attempted to ‘destroy’ themselves by jumping off one the capital’s bridges or by hanging themselves. Luckily in all the cases I covered they were prevented by the quick actions of a policeman or a passer-by. Suicide was technically a crime until 1961 and so anyone attempting, but failing, to kill themselves would be arrested and presented before a magistrate.

Joseph Nadall was just such an unfortunate person. After he failed to kill himself in March 1866 he found himself instead the dock of the Worship Street Police Court before Mr Ellison the sitting magistrate.

Naval was described as a 35 year old labourer, who was ‘without hope’. He had taken poison, the court was told, and when he was found he was taken to the police station where he was examined by Mr James Sequira, a surgeon.* The doctor found him in a ‘very prostrate condition and suffering greatly’. He administered an emetic and then an antidote.

When his patient had received sufficiently he asked what had happened and related this to the court. Nadall told him he had gone to a rag shop where he had bought a small bottle and ‘two pennyworth’ of oxalic acid. He took these to a water pump in the street and added some water. Having mixed his potion he ‘drank it off’.

The magistrate inquired as to exactly how much oxalic aside was required for a dose to be fatal. ‘About half an ounce’ replied the surgeon. And what would that cost? Between a penny and twopence said Dr Sequira, so the amount Nadall had could easily have been fatal. It would seem this is fairly accurate because today it is estimated that a dose of 15-30 grams could be lethal if injected orally.

Now the hearing turned to whom had supplied it.

A young lad (who looked about 15 but was nearly 17 the court heard) stepped into the witness box and admitted selling Nadall the acid. He told the justice that he was ‘in the habit of serving these packets to shoemakers and others, who use it in their trade. The packets are 1d. each, and I have him two of them’. The magistrate was then shown a similar blue packet labelled as ‘Shoemaker’s poison’.

Mr Ellison was surprised and concerned that the young assistant had not asked any questions of Nadall and had not objected to selling him poison when he clearly didn’t look like a shoemaker. The lad’s master, Mr Blackwell, now presented himself and felt the full force of the magistrate’s anger.

‘This boy of yours has acted with great incautiousness – very great’ he declared. ‘Poisons should never be sold without at least inquiry being made as to the purpose for which they are wanted’. 

Blackwell mumbled that he always told the lad to ask questions before he sold anything, but without much conviction. He and his boy had not broken any laws and so having been publicly rebuked they were free to go.

As for Joseph Nadall he explained that he was ‘impelled to the attempt on his life by reduced circumstances’. Poverty and unemployment had driven him to such drastic action.

Mr Ellison had little sympathy. ‘You should have applied to the parish’, he told him and remanded him in custody while he decided what to do with him. I except that a few days later he would have been released. Whether he then visited the workhouse, found work or threw himself off the nearest bridge we will probably never know.

Nineteenth-century London was an unforgiving place if you were poor.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, March 24, 1866]

*James Scott Sequira was a prominent London surgeon of Portuguese ancestry, who seems to have appeared as an expert witness in several poisoning trials during the second half of the nineteenth century.

Technology and pornography clash in the summary courts of the capital

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Today’s story from the London Police Courts combines two changes in the mid nineteenth century; one technological and the other legal.

In 1851 David Brewster exhibited his stereoscope at the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace. His stereoscope, invented by an Edinburgh mathematics teacher named Elliot and developed by  Jules Dobosqc, was not the first but it became very popular very quickly. The stereoscope allowed people to view 3D images on a handheld device, and had obvious entertainment and educational possibilities (sound familiar?).

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Brewster’s stereoscope

However, as with the still relatively new science of photography, some people soon realised that the stereoscope had other, less high brow or wholesome applications. In short, it opened new avenues for pornography.

The problem of pornography and its capacity to corrupt the morals of the population (especially young minds) was not lost on the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Campbell. While he presided over a trial for the sale of pornographic material Campbell was also involved in a  Lords’ debate on the restrictions of poisons. He recognised parallels between them and condemned pornography as ‘a poison more deadly than prussic acid, strychnine or arsenic’.

He introduced a bill of parliament that became law in 1857 as the Obscene Publications Act, the first of its kind. The sale of offending material was now an offence and powers were given to seize and destroy obscene publications. The offence came under the powers of summary jurisdiction and was therefore dealt with in the Police Courts before a Police magistrate.

Lord Campbell may not have had the stereoscope in mind when he conceived his legalisation but technology and the obscene publications law were soon interwoven at Bow Street Police Court.

In February 1858 Sidney Powell of Chandos Street, Covent Garden appeared at London’s senior Police Court charged with the sale of obscene ‘representations’ in stereoscopic form.

The court report doesn’t detail exactly what these slides contained but Powell was adamant that they weren’t pornographic. He argued that they were intended for ‘medical men, being of an artistic nature’. They were no more explicit, he contended, than the poses adopted by artists models.

He assured his worship that he had plenty of experience of selling images and of the law and he was ‘well known amongst artists, who told him that the representation of a single figure would not be deemed “obscene”.’

Mr Henry, the magistrate, rejected his case out of hand. He had seen the slides. There was, he concluded, ‘a very wide distinction between the representation of a nude in a  graceful attitude, and the coarse disgusting pictures produced in this case’. While he gave Powell leave to appeal his decision he ordered the slides to be destroyed. The unhappy Powell accepted the decision and made his exit from the court.

He was not the only person prosecuted under the term of Lord Campbell’s act that morning. Two men were prosecuted for selling pipe heads which were indecent. One of the sellers, a Mr Bush, complained that the pipes were not covered by the act and had been licensed for sale by Customs House. Henry was having none of it and order the entire stock destroyed.

One wonders why someone would want to own (or smoke from) a pipe with ‘indecent’ images on it, but then again our society uses sexually explicit images of women to sell just about anything so who are we to judge our Victorian ancestors? We might also reflect that the invention of new technology, from the printing press to photography, to moving pictures and the internet, has allowed pornographers to find new and creative ways to exploit a new medium.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, February 18, 1858]

A lack of ‘care in the community’ at Lambeth Police Court

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Occasionally the newspapers reports of the ‘doings’ of the London Police Court feel quite voyeuristic and uncomfortable to modern eyes. Alongside all the petty thefts, domestic violence and embezzling clerks there are moments of individual tragedy. The Victorians were beginning to understand ‘madness’ but had a far less enlightened view of the effects of mental illness than we do today. Those exhibiting symptoms of mental illness were rarely treated with much compassion, and more often with ridicule or scorn.

In November 1886 a woman appeared at the Lambeth Police Court asking for protection. If she gave a name it wasn’t reported by the journalist that attended that day – the reaction of the court, however, was.

Mr Chance, the sitting magistrate, heard the lady’s complaint that certain named persons had threatened her and then said he thought she’d been in this court before, under similar circumstances.

‘I have been here, and shall come again until I get protection’ she told him. His Worship responded: ‘If you are in danger you shall have protection, but I must know a good reason for it’.

‘I am in danger; I have been shot at in the street, but the bullet hit a lamp-post’ (this provoked laughter in the public gallery). ‘There is nothing to laugh at’ the women objected, (‘excitedly’ the paper reported).

When the calm of the court was restored Mr Chance asked if she had any other examples.

‘I have had an attempt made upon me to poison me. You may not have heard of a poison called the “Varieties” (more laughter)… it is no laughing matter, I can tell you’. She went on, ‘there is scarcely a dozen that know its deadly effects. A dose or two will bring on apoplexy, epilepsy, madness, prostration, consumption, and death’.

She continued to be interrupted by peals of laughter and finished with several other ‘curious statements’ before the justice turned to the clerk of the court and requested that inquiries be made – about her, not her allegations.

In all likelihood if the unnamed woman had no family or friends to look after her the result of her requests for help would be confinement in a ‘lunatic’ asylum. These were dread places, worse perhaps than the workhouse or even a prison. Experimental therapy might involve water baths, straitjackets and and worse and few recovered to be allowed to leave in anything other than a coffin. There is a growing body of academic historical research into mental health care in the 1800s  and we have several 3rd year undergraduates at the University of Northampton who are researching the topic for their final year dissertations.

[from The Standard, Monday, November 22, 1886]