A ‘demented’ socialist picks a fight with the police

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Throughout the late 1880s Trafalgar Square was the site of numerous political demonstrations, protests and gatherings of the poor and homeless. It is hard for us to imagine the capital without the square; it is one of the top ten tourist sites that visitors flock to now, but it was only laid out in the 1830s and Nelson’s Column wasn’t erected until 1839-42 and the base sculptures were not completed until 1849. By then the square had already borne witness to Chartist demonstrations in 1848. What Nelson himself would have made of the political rhetoric than unfolded below him is hard to say. England’s greatest naval hero would probably have disapproved though, since he was an arch conservative and no champion of liberty or democracy.

In 1886 demonstrations in the square had been badly mishandled by the police and groups of rioters had caused chaos in nearby Pall Mall. Shortly afterwards the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police had resigned amid calls for a parliamentary enquiry. Determined that a similar chain of events should not engulf him the new commissioner, Sir Charles Warren, tried to ban gatherings in the square the following year (in November 1888) but without success. When protesters did congregate in large numbers Warren resorted to excessive force and several people were injured and 2 or 3 killed in the melee that resulted from police baton charges and the use of the military.

Earlier in the year, in July 1887, Trafalgar Square had become a sort of temporary shantytown, occupied by London’s homeless who spilled over from the square into the parks close by. Local residents complained about the sight and radical politicians railed about the poverty that had caused them to flock to the centre of the city in such numbers and desperation. The police were ordered to sluice the bench with cold water, to discourage rough sleepers, and to clear the parks of the human detritus that ‘infested’ it.

In May 1888 meetings were back on, and the newspapers reported that there had been a ‘Conversational meeting’ in the square on Saturday 12th. These had been organized to assert the rights of free speech in the face of Warrens’ attempts in the previous year to close the square to public gatherings. Members of the Bloomsbury branch of the Socialist League (which included William Bartlett, a prominent figure in the British Labour movement) deliberately held meetings in the square to discuss the issues of the day and the importance of being to air their views in a public space.

However, police attempts to curtail this supposed freedom led to scuffles and occasionally to accusation of assault on both sides. At the meeting on 12 May Walter Powell was arrested by the police in the square and charged at Bow Street Police court with disorderly conduct.

Evidence was presented that he had been followed into the square by ‘a crowd of roughs’, whom he had then attempted to address. The term ‘roughs’ was applied widely in the late 1800s, to mean youth gang members, political ‘muscle’, or simply members of the ‘residuum’ or ‘underclass’. It was always used disparagingly and Powell was being depicted as a ‘rabble rouser’ who probably deserved to be arrested for inciting crowd trouble.

Since he had been locked up in the cells overnight the magistrate decided he’d been suitably punished already and let him go with a warning.

Whenever crowds gathered in London however, there was always the possibility of other forms of criminality taking place. Once Powell had been discharged tow others were stood in the dock accused of picking pockets. Both men were remanded in custody so the police could continue their enquiries.

The last appearance related to Trafalgar Square that morning was Alexander Thompson, who was charged with disorderly conduct and assaulting the police. He was probably a member or supporter of the Socialist League that had insisted on championing the right of citizens to occupy the square for political protest but he had run foul of the police stationed to prevent trouble.  By 1888 the Socialist League, which had been founded by Henry Hyndeman and had included William Morris, was suffering from internal schisms. The Bloomsbury branch would split in the face of a takeover from anarchists who were more revolutionary in their outlook.

Back at Bow Street Mr. Vaughan looked the man up and down and must have decided he was very far from being a dangerous and ‘disorderly’ ruffian.

He said that ‘unless the man was demented he could not imagine his attacking a man of the constable’s calibre’ and dismissed the charge.

This was a backhanded compliment to the police officer, and a dismissal of the threat posed by ‘revolutionaries’ like Thompson. It was probably also an attempt to diffuse tensions in the spring of 1888 so as to avoid a repeat of the very real violence of the previous autumn.

However, events overtook the police in 1888 and the right to protest, while remaining a key issue, was subsumed by the murders of five or more women in the East End of London, where many of the rough sleepers had tramped from the previous summer. Warren, who was so determined not to be brought low by criticism of his failure to act against  protestors was soon to face much more serious criticism of his ability to run a police force capable of catching a brutal serial killer. In November 1888, just a  year after ‘Bloody Sunday’, Warren resigned as Commissioner.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper , Sunday, May 13, 1888]

‘Oh don’t be so hard on me,’ pleads an Irish philosopher and gentleman of the road

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I had a ‘conversation’ yesterday on social media with someone asking how he should act when homeless people ask for money in the street. Should he give money, or buy them food or a coffee, or should he simply take the time to chat to them? It is a complex question and I quite understood his dilemma; some charities (like the Salvation Army) tell us not to give money, believing it perpetuates the problem. Others suggest we should to help them get the basic necessities of life.

I’m also often told that ‘they will spend it on drink or drugs’, not that it is any of my business how they spend whatever money they have.

Homelessness, vagrancy and begging are not modern social issues, they have been with us for as long as humans have lived in societies. The ‘modern’ vagrancy laws in Britain have their roots in the Tudor period with laws to punish ‘sturdy beggars’ and the building of houses of correction to enforce them. By the Victorian period poverty was endemic and being dealt with by the Poor Law, with workhouses operating as a deterrent to the ‘work-shy’ in the belief that poverty was a personal failing, not a product of society or a capitalist economic system.

There was also limited understanding of mental health and very little state provision for those that suffered. That much is obvious form so many of the cases I’ve written about on this site. I am reluctant to say that nineteenth-century society didn’t care about the poor and homeless and mentally ill, just that it didn’t really understand them and the underlying reasons for their actions.

St. George Gregg was someone who often found himself in trouble with the authorities in the late 1830s and early 40s. He’d come up before the Police court magistrates at Queen Square on more than one occasion in 1840 and was there again in early May that year.

Gregg was an Irishman and was frequently charged for being drunk. He was about to be convicted and fined by Mr Burrell when he raised his hand and asked if he could say a few words. The justice agreed and listened.

The defendant held out a small book, offering it to the chief usher to give to the magistrate. He explained that he’d been writing a book ‘on the currency question’ and thought his worship might like a copy. Mr. Burrell wasn’t interested.

I don’t want your book. What have you to say to the charge against you?’

I walk frequently thirty miles a day’, replied Gregg, ‘That fatigues me, and if I have nothing to eat the liquor has an effect sooner. I had no dinner yesterday, in fact I had no “tin”.’

The magistrate didn’t know what he meant by ‘tin’, so asked him.

Tin is money’, the man explained, ‘and having no  money I had no dinner’.

He’d tried to sell his books for money but seemingly had no takers to he’d started to sing in the streets and that way he’d raised a few pennies which he spent on drink.

‘You might have purchased victuals with that’, Mr Burrrell remarked.

‘Oh, sure, I wasn’t victuals hungry, I was grog hungry’ Gregg shot back. ‘I was like the captivating chandler, wanted I wanted in starch, I made up in blue’, he said, warming to his theme.

So I had toddy till I had but a single copper left, then devil a bed had I, and was making my way to the church-yard to go to bed on a tombstone, when the police found me quarters’.

He added that he’d written a study of ‘ambition’ and would send the magistrate a copy.

‘I don’t want your book. You are fined 5s’ was Mr. Burrell’s response.

Gregg hadn’t got one shilling let alone five and the justice must have realised this. What was the point of fining a homeless tramp anyway? Gregg attempted to barter with the justice, offering him books that he probably hadn’t written (and certainly hadn’t ‘published’ as he’d insisted he had) as part payment of the penalty. Burrell was having none of it and ordered him to be taken away; if he couldn’t pay the fine he’d have to go to prison.

Oh don’t be so hard on me’, pleaded the Irishman, ‘I want to finish a poem’. He was led away protesting his freedom.

Society didn’t understand George Gregg. He didn’t, couldn’t or wouldn’t conform to what was expected of him. He chose to live by his wits and on his own terms. Perhaps he was a ‘popular philosopher’, who wrote tracts in notebooks or scraps of paper that nobody read. His logical response to accusations of being drunk (drinking on an empty stomach) or his choice of how to spend the money he’d earned (on drink because he was thirsty after singing and walking) would be quite reasonable if he was a ‘normal’ member of society. Because he was an outsider and had chosen to live differently to others, the law treated him as a problem. It punished him rather than helped him. I’m not entirely sure we have made much progress in the last 180 odd years.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, May 7, 1840]

‘Clothed in the dirtiest of rags’; three little urchins at Worship Street.

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Alice and Rosina Purcell were homeless. The sisters survived on whatever they could scavenge around Spitalfields Market, living on ‘rotten fruit and begging of the salesmen’ there. Thomas Williams was also destitute and had no other means of supporting himself besides begging. All three of them fell foul of the laws against vagrancy and begging and in late April 1872 were arrested and taken before Mr Hannay at Worship Street Police court.

Alice and Rosina must have struggled to see over the dock because they were just children, aged between 6 and 8 years. A school board officer named Mr Gear had picked them and enquiries were made by the local police. The girls’ mother was dead and their father, who worked as labourer at the London docks, ‘left nothing for them’. They were both ‘clothed in the dirtiest of rags, although they looked cheerful and intelligent’.

The magistrate wanted to send them to school but they were Protestants Mr Gear told him, and at present there were no vacancies in Protestant schools so the pair were remanded for a week and sent to the nearest workhouse.

As for Thomas (who was 13), he had been brought in by police constable Barker (141N) and had also been remanded to a workhouse and in the meantime a school had been found for him. Here the school option was complicated however.  The choice of a Catholic school was based on information given to the court when first the case was aired a week ago.  It was claimed, by the landlord where his family had formally lived, that the lad had been brought up a Catholic. Thomas, who had lost both his parents, hadn’t contradicted him. However now Thomas objected to being sent to a Catholic school and said that he had in fact been a pupil at St Mark’s Protestant school in Hoxton.

Mr Hannay asked him why he hadn’t said this earlier to save the confusion? Thoams admitted he hadn’t wanted to say anything in court, possibly because the poor lad was simply bewildered or afraid.

Religion was important and so even though these children were paupers with no parents to speak for them (or at least as in the girls’ case who were prepared to take responsibility for them) Mr Hannay was determined that they should be educated within the tenets of their faith, and where possible, I expect, he would always have favoured the reformed church over the Roman one.

If only society was as bothered about the fact that three children were wandering the streets of the world’s largest city starving and living on their wits quite as much as they cared which version of the Christian doctrine was used to educate them. It smacks, to me at least, of gross hypocrisy.

[from The Morning Post , Wednesday, May 01, 1872]

‘I am absolutely lost in London’: bureaucracy and callousness combine to mistreat a servant of the Empire.

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A Hindu temple in Bangalore in the 1880s

 This week the news is rightly dominated by the scandalous treatment of the Windrush generation. This country had a proud history of supporting and welcoming immigrants because it recognized the tremendous value they brought to these islands. The first discordant voices in the immigration debate were raised in the late 1800s as large numbers of Eastern European Jews arrived in London, fleeing persecution in the Russian Empire. Anti-Semitism mixed with protectionism meant that politicians on the right (like Arnold White) and left (H. M. Hyndman) used immigration as a political weapon and argued that Britain was too full, and needed to look after its own people first.

Racism and anti-immigration rhetoric often raises its ugly head when there is an economic crisis. We saw this in the 1880s, in the 1930s, the 1970s and today, in this prolonged period of austerity and concern around our impending exit from the European Union. Blaming immigrants focuses attention on the symptoms not on the causes of economic hardships and helps keep the working classes divided. Moreover it also reveals that when times are hard governments attempt to save money by reducing the amount of benefits that are paid out to those at the bottom of society, rather than raising the contributions made by those at the top. There are lot more people at the bottom than there are at the top and those in power (at national, local and parochial levels) have always been closer, in terms of social class, to those at the top.

Consider this case from 1889, a time of serious economic downturn if not quite a depression. The payments for poor relief had been rising across the second half of the 1880s and London was receiving thousands of political and economic migrants from Europe as well as very many from across the UK and wider Empire. If these migrants arrived (as many of them did) without much or any money; without jobs to go to: without homes or friends and family to stay with, then they had few choices but to appeal to charity or the state for help. The reaction they got was often uncaring and unhelpful even, as in this case from Westminster, they seemingly had every right to assistance.

In April 1889 a ‘poorly-dressed woman’ (we are not told her name) presented herself at Westminster Police court asking for help. She was Irish and she had been married to a serving British soldier in India, a sergeant major in the Nilgiri Rifles. The Rifles was a volunteer regiment raised in Madras in 1878 and while she had lived with him she had drawn a small government allowance as she was deemed to be ‘on the staff’ of the regiment.

However, at some point the couple had separated (‘through no fault of her own’ she told the magistrate at Westminster, Mr Partridge) and he, on leaving the regiment at the red of his period of service, had returned to England with their two children. The woman had followed him, taking a boat a Bangalore in March 1888 after gaining a certificate from the District Staff Officer there, which entitled her to free passage. She had just eight rupees left for the whole of the voyage and arrived in London on the 14 April. She headed to the War Office with her papers with the intention of being sent on to Ireland where ‘her friends were’.

However, there she was met with a similarly uncaring bureaucracy as that has recently confronted the Windrush generation. She was entitled to help from the British state but the paperwork had not arrived or could not be validated. Until ‘the order’ came from India nothing could be done for her. Even the certificate from the ship’s captain that declared she had forgone her beer allowance (and was thus entitled to some money for that) could not be processed. She ‘was transferred from one to the other, only to be told that nothing could be done for her at present’.

The previous night she had slept at the workhouse casual ward in Buckingham Palace Road and now she asked Mr Partridge for help. ‘She was absolutely lost in London’, she said, ‘having never been here before’. Without some temporary help she said would have to ‘walk the streets or starve’ – suggesting her only alternative was to beg or to prostitute herself.

The magistrate was cold. There was nothing he could or would do for her he said. He told the clerk to give her the fare to get to Thames Police court so she could plead her case there. ‘The docks are in that district’ he added, suggesting that since she’d arrived by boat she wasn’t his problem. The poor woman was dispatched with a shilling, not knowing what to do or where to go.

[from The Standard, Thursday, April 18, 1889]

The unwanted dinner guest

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Let’s not beat about the bush, James Bull was an alcoholic. In 1840 the papers referred to him as ‘dissipated’ by they meant that he was a drunk. Bull was, technically at least, a married man with an eleven year old child, but he had separated from his wife some time ago.

Mrs Bull was a ‘woman of steady and trustworthy principles’ and whether she had thrown him out or he had simply left isn’t clear. What is evident is that James was on his uppers; out of money he needed to rely on his long suffering wife to support him. She worked as a domestic servant in the Earl of Darlington’s London home at Upper Brook Street.

James was in the habit of visiting his estranged spouse and demanding money with menaces. He had developed a strategy of calling when he knew the house had guests for dinner, forcing his way into the kitchens and threatening to prevent her from overseeing the dinner service.

This would not only have been an embarrassment to Mrs Bull, it could have put her employment in jeopardy. In mid April 1840 James went too far, and caused a disturbance at the house which was brought to the attention of the Earl (or the head of his household staff at least). James Bull was arrested and taken before the magistrate at Marlborough Street Police court on a charge of creating a disturbance.

Mrs Bull told the justice, Mr Long, that she allowed her husband six shillings a week from her wages but it was ‘quite impossible’ for her to do more for him. She had her child to look after and James was perfectly capable of finding work. He was ‘strong, able-bodied , and capable, if so disposed, of keeping himself’.

In his defence James said he was ‘without money, and he had not tasted food for some time’ which was why he’d visited his wife at her work.

After all, he added, he ‘had a right to’ ask her for help.

That was as maybe but he had no right to abuse her, or impact her work and endanger her employment. And things were worse than this the court discovered. Mr Long pressed her and she admitted that in the past few weeks James had threatened and assaulted her.  Having ‘elicited’  this information from Mrs Bull the magistrate decided to intervene in this domestic squabble. He committed James to the Sessions where he would have to answer for his actions, and find bail in the meantime to avoid being remanded in prison.

It was a serious message to James to leave his wife alone and accept the small amount of charity she had volunteered. It was also an injunction to him to give up his ‘dissipated’ lifestyle and find honest work. If not he could expect to be seeing the inside of many more police and prison cells in the future and could kiss goodbye to seeing his wife and child ever again.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, April 16, 1840]

Two ‘ungovernable’ girls smash up the workhouse to get a change of scenery.

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Over Easter I’ve been enjoying bingeing on the BBC’s Dickensian series (via Netflix). While Inspector Bucket hunts for the killer of Jacob Marley, a variety of characters created by Dickens interact with act other in a  number of subplots. 1842 was the year the Detective Department was created (and Bucket presumably is meant to represent them when he refers to himself as ‘the detective’).

One of the subplots in Dickensian is the attempt by Mrs Bumble (the workhouse keeper’s wife) to ingratiate herself and her husband with the Board of Guardians of the Poor so they can secure a better paid position running a workhouse in ‘the Midlands’. She forces the inept and overweight Bumble to apply with a mixture of threats and false promises and we know, of course, they’ll eventually succeed because that is how Bumble comes to feature in Oliver Twist’s early life.

The Bumbles run the local workhouse (which we rarely see) with little care for the young charges trapped within. At his interview before the Guardians Bumble promises to thrash each and every one of them to instil the ‘Christian discipline’ they so badly require.

Dickens drew on real life. As a journalist his attention to detail gives his characters – even the gross parodies like Mr and Mrs Bumble – genuine authority. Life in the workhouse was very hard for all inmates, no less so for the children of the poor, orphans like young Oliver. There was little food, a basic education and the only family they had was each other. So it would be surprising if the children of the workhouse didn’t rebel from time to time.

Sarah Shaddock and Mary Tighe were two young women on a mission. The mission  they had, it seems, was to infuriate the keeper and matron of the Bishopsgate workhouse in the City of London. The girls (now 18 years old) had been born in the workhouse – they had known no other home outside. Growing up in the institution they had not only rebelled, they had tried to make it impossible for the matron and keeper to control them.

This was the only freedom they had of course; the only ‘agency’ available to them was to refuse to do as they were told. This choice however, had consequences, and in early April 1842 they found themselves standing in the dock at Mansion House Police Court facing Alderman Gibbs, the sitting magistrate, charged with theft.

The assistant matron explained that the pair had only just returned to the workhouse, having been previously confined in the bridewell for damaging property and being disorderly. On their return they’d robbed an elderly pauper of her entire savings (which amounted to just a few pennies).

The alderman was told that the girls, who stood at the bar ‘as quiet as mice’ had ‘frequently distinguished themselves by breaking windows and pelting the elderly residents with bread’. Mr Booker, one of the parish officers, added that when the pair were bored of the workhouse they:

‘committed violence of some kind, and the contrived to have a little variety to their taste’, adding that ‘they had been for a length of time ungovernable’.

What was the alderman to do with these two ‘ungovernable’ girls? Sanctions were clearly having little effect on them. He decided to give them two months in prison at hard labour but with the following stipulations as to their regime.

The pair were ‘to be locked up locked up every alternate week during that period in a solitary cell’. In addition, he said, care should be taken that ‘the diet of the prisoners should be as low as could be consistent with the preservation of their health’.

In other words, he was putting them on a starvation/subsistence diet which would serve both to break their spirit and weaken any attempt at resistance, and remind them that life in the workhouse – however awful – was much preferable to gaol.

This is unusual, I’ve not encountered such detailed sentencing from the court reports but it reveals the limits of the system to really effect change in the persons brought before them. As they had reached 18 both Mary and Sarah could presumably also expect to be able to leave the workhouse at some point soon and make their own way in the world. Given that they had been institutionalised since birth I doubt that transition was going to be easy and we may find both women appearing before the London Police Courts in the future.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Saturday, April 2, 1842]

A little bit of common sense as Easter concentrates the mind of the ‘beak’.

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The magistrates operating at London’s several Police Courts applied the law as they saw it but used their discretion when appropriate. It is not accurate to describe the courts as spaces to demonstrate the power of the state but nor were they arenas for the poor to negotiate their way to a better life. Moreover, we must not see the magistracy as a group of like-minded individuals who always presented a united front, or who invariable took the side of the police or indeed, the wealthier or middle classes.

They did tend towards a moral position in most things; drunks, wife beaters and prostitutes could expect short shrift, as could recidivist thieves or tradesmen that attempted to defraud or trick their customers. Some justices had particularly fearsome reputations as ‘no nonsense’ law givers (like Mr Lushington in the late 1800s) while others might have earned contrasting reputations as ‘kindly gentlemen’.

In popular culture it is the character of Mr Fang in Oliver Twist that represents one contemporary view of the uncaring Police Court magistrate. Mr Fang, on no evidence whatsoever, initially sentences Oliver (who has fainted clean away in the courtroom though illness and exhaustion) to ‘three months – hard labour of course’. Dickens had reported on the courts of the metropolis and was aware of the institutions he was critiquing and the men that served them. He used Mr Brownlow as the voice of reason and charity who ultimately saves Oliver from being caught up in the Victorian justice system.

Sometimes though we do get a sense of the humanity of the Victorian bench and perhaps at certain ties of the year this was more likely to be highlighted by the court reporters who attended these daily summary hearings. The reading public may well have needed to reminded that while justice was swift and harsh for those that deserved it, it could also be ‘just’.

Easter was certainly a time when charity and ‘good Christian’ values were uppermost in everyone’s thoughts, especially the upright moral middle classes of Victorian England.  Over at Westminster Police court in March 1865 Easter was just a fortnight away and Mr Arnold was in the high seat of the courtroom. He had several charges that day one of whom was James Davis. Davis cut a melancholy figure in court:

‘A poor, miserable-looking fellow, covered with rags, was brought up on remand’ the report described, ‘charged with hawking without a license’.

Davis had been held in the cells for a couple of days while enquiries had been made, and this experience had clearly not done him much good. This probably factored into the justice’s decision-making, but before we leap to the conclusion of the case let us door-to-door the circumstances of the charge.

PC Rowe (113 B) was on patrol in Chelsea when he noticed Davis wandering from door to door in King’s Place off the King’s Road. A ragged looking individual had no business being in such an elevated part of town and the policeman was immediately suspicious. There had been a series of burglaries and robberies recently, committed by people that pretended to sell things at the door (we are familiar with this sort of trick today).

As Davis left one house PC Rowe collared him and asked him what he was doing. Davis was indeed trying to sell stuff and had a card of shirt buttons  and the previous householder had bought some from him. Rowe asked him if he had a license to sell goods in the street and off course since he didn’t, he took him into custody.

On his first appearance before the magistrate Davis pleaded poverty, saying he was ‘half starved’ and was trying to ‘get an honest living’. Nevertheless, the law was the law and Mr Arnold reminded him so that he could seek advice from the relevant authorities. In this case that was the Inland Revenue and a few days later a gentleman from the Excise appeared.

The offence Davis had admitted to carried a maximum fine of £10 but the revenue man said this could be reduced ‘by a quarter’ under legislation passed in 1860 and 1861. This was still a huge sum for a man in Davis’ parlous state to find. £10 was the equivalent of almost £600 in today’s money and would have bought you a skilled tradesman’s labour for a nearly two months. Davis was selling his buttons for a few pennies, and trying to scrape a few shillings together to eat and put a roof over his head.

So taking all of this in account Mr Arnold acting with charity, compassion and no little common sense. This man, he declared:

‘could not pay £2 10s, and if he sent him to prison it was for trying to get an honest living. Nothing was known of him [meaning he was not ‘known to the police’ as a repeat offender or trouble maker] and he (Mr Arnold) should not put the law into force’.

He told him he ‘must not do it again’ but released him on his own recognizances with the warning that he might be required to attend his court again in the future, presumably if he was caught selling without a license once more. Another man was similarly convicted and released, so that Mr Arnold could award punishment at a later date. The inference was that as long as he behaved himself and obeyed the law, that ‘later date’ would not transpire.

Quite how James Davis managed to keep himself together and earn his ‘honest living’ without being able to afford to purchase a hawking license is not clear, but at least he was out of gaol and with no stain against his character.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, March 31, 1865]