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

sampson-adv

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

‘His whole time belongs to the public’: the lot of the Victorian policeman

City police

London Police (c.1891) – you can see their duty armlets on their left wrists.

A Victorian policeman was expected to wear his uniform at all times of the day, regardless of whether he was on duty or not. According to the Police Code book an officer can ‘never be strictly off duty, for his whole time belongs to the public’.* To indicate he was on duty a policeman wore the striped armlet, the removal of which – in duty hours – was considered a very serious offence.

PC Josiah Norton  (770 City) was a good example of a police officer who took his vows of service seriously. He lived in digs above a watchmaker’s shop at 11 Barking Alley on the wonderfully named Seething Lane. On the night of the 22/23 February 1869 Norton was asleep then, around one in the morning, he was woken by ‘a slight noise’. His police sense told hi something was wrong and he got up and, dressed only in his nightshirt, went to investigate. As he descended the stairs to Mr Miller’s watch shop he saw an intruder who, seeing the other man, ran off with the policeman in pursuit.

The burglar ran out of the house and towards nearby Barking Church, tripping on some steps as he fled. Unfortunately for him two policemen were nearby, Inspector Harrison and Sergeant Hartopp. The running man looked suspicious so they questioned him. As they did PC Norton came running up, still dressed only in his night wear, and told them the fugitive was wanted for attempted burglary. Norton said he would have been with them quicker but the escaping felon had the presence of mind to bar one of the exits behind him.

In the Mansion House Police court the following day the man gave his name as James Cottrell, labourer but the police described him as the member of a ‘gang of burglars, all of whom are now in custody’. The magistrate, Sir Robert Carden, granted their request for a remand so that Cottrell’s character and circumstances might be investigated further.

Cottrell came to trial at the Old Bailey on the 1 March 1869. He pleaded guilty but tried to argue that he’d only entered Miller’s watch shop by accident: ‘I was making a convenience of the place, and fell in,’ he said. In other words he was using the doorway as a toilet when it opened unexpectedly. The judge was no more convinced than I imagine you are and, since he had a previous conviction from 1865, he handed down a seven-year sentence of penal servitude.  Cottrell was just 21 years of age; he served six years being released on license in February 1875.

As for PC Norton his heroics had not passed unnoticed by the City magistracy and police. Sir Robert Corden made a point of commending his dedication to duty in pursuing a criminal despite being undressed and said ‘he hoped his conduct would be reported to the commissioner’. It already had been, Inspector Harrison confirmed.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, 24 February, 1869]

*Neil A. Bell and Adam Wood, Sir Howard Vincent’s Police Code 1889, (Mango Books, 2015), p.24