An old hand plays to the gallery

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Samuel Owen was (like Norman Stanley Fletcher) an ‘old hand’ in terms of the law. The 56 year-old Owen had a string of convictions reaching back to his first in 1863 (when he must have been 24 or younger), its quite likely he had brushes with the police before then as well. Owen had served ‘a total of 26 years imprisonment’; almost half his life had therefore been spent ‘inside’.

It doesn’t seem to have have taught him anything much and certainly didn’t deter him from further offending.

In October 18995 he was up before the magistrate at Marylebone charged with stealing a pair of trousers and trying to pawn them back at the very shop he stole them from. His victim, John Davis, kept a pawnbrokers’ shop on Hampstead Road and he brought the prosecution against Owen for goods valued at 4s and 6d.

It was an ordinary case but Owen decided to make it newsworthy but behaving ‘in an outrageous manner’ in court. The Standard’s court reporter wrote that he ‘flung his arms about in the air and shouted ‘at the top of his voice’. He demanded the gaoler bring him his glasses: “I want my glasses.. and I won’t be quite till I have them”, he exclaimed. “How can I see the prosecutor, or how can I read my Bible or Prayer-Book” (this provoked much laughter in the public court).

The gaoler stepped forward to restrain him but Owen shrugged him off declaring: “Don’t touch me, don’t touch me. I’m a crack-pot and won’t stand being played with!”

Eventually Owen was reunited with his spectacles and he turned to survey the court. Identifying the pawnbroker in the witness stand Owen said:

” Ah yes, he’s the bloke. Now I am ready, come on!”

The case against him now preceded and the evidence, such as it was, was read. Owen had been suspected and was followed by a police constable who arrested him. The copper was crossed examined (with Owen adding:

“Ain’t he innocent? I told him I got the trousers from the New Cut and he said ‘Do you mean the canal?’ (laughter) He don’t know the New Cut…is he from the country? It makes me roar” (more laughter).

Owen was alluding to the reality that many of the Met’s finest hailed from outside the capital; former agricultural labourers who had swapped the fields for the streets and a uniform. They were not often credited with great intelligence but were good at following orders; a rather unfair stereotyping it has to be said.

Finally the prisoner added that he had actually been ‘caught’ by a little girl (who had presumably seen what he had done) who he described as a ‘mite of a girl, alleluiah, alleluiah!’

Owen had little to say in his defence and pleaded guilty but at the same time demanded a jury trial, and the magistrate duly obliged him.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, October 02, 1895]

Two knife assaults in the East End: evidence of targeted police action to find the ‘Ripper’?

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One can imagine that with tension riding high in September 1888 violence was on everyone’s mind, even violence that might have seemed ‘commonplace’ previously. Assault was one of the most frequently prosecuted crimes at the police courts but penalties were usually small – fines or short period of summary imprisonment – it wants normal to send cases up into the trial court system unless they were serious.

However, in times of ‘moral panics’ the authorities tend to react by clamping down on even small acts of anti-social behavour and petty theft, using the courts as a blunt instrument to reassure the public that they are ‘doing something’. In 1888, with a serial killer on the loose and the police unable to catch him pressure was building on the forces of law and order to do something about it.

So perhaps that’s how we should read the fact that the Morning Post chose two assault cases to feature as its daily look into the work of the Thames Police court on 14 September that year.

The first was the case of Suze Waxim, a Japanese sailor who was charged with stabbing a local woman, Ellen Norton. Ellen was drinking in a Limehouse beerhouse when she heard screams from across the street. She ran out towards the noise and found Waxim standing over her friend Emily Shepherd about to thrust a knife into her.

Ellen tried to intervene and was stabbed in the head. The sailor ran off but was captured nearby, in the backyard of the Stranger’s Home, by PC 448K. The man was washing his hands when the officer found him and arrested him. Ellen had only suffered a superficial flesh wound and wasn’t in danger but a knife wielding foreigner on the streets was not what society needed. Waxim spoke no English and while they had translators for languages such as Italian and Yiddish, I doubt the police would have found anyone able to speak Japanese.

Waxim was committed for trial.

Next up was a local man, Frank Kersey, who was also accused of assaulting a  woman, Frances Cocklin. She testified that on the 3 September he had stabbed her and beaten her while they were at Canning Town. She’d suffered bruising and cuts but was not seriously injured. He had multiple previous convictions for assault and wounding and it seemed he had also tried to rob her. Mr Lushington also committed him for trial.

Both cases were serious but I have seen cases like this dealt with summarily before, with the defendants being fined or sent to gaol for a few weeks or months.  That Lushington decided to send them to the Old Bailey is indicative, I believe, of a wider concern about violence, especially violence involving knives. It may also reflect police practice – were they particularly targeting assaults where a knife was used in the hope of finding the ‘Ripper’? It is possible, if not provable.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, September 14, 1888]

‘I don’t convict a man for stealing a turnip and I won’t convict a man for stealing an empty champagne case, worth nothing’: A lucky escape in Mitre Square

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Yesterday’s blog concerned a violent assault in Berner Street, where Liz Stide was murdered on 30 September 1888. Today’s is about a theft committed in Mitre Square, the other killing site on the night of the so-called ‘double event’.

A night watchman – whose name wasn’t given in the newspaper’s report – testified at Guildhall Police court to hearing a noise on the International Tea Company’s premises in Aldgate. He went off to investigate and discovered a man trying to carry off a packing case. He called the police and the man was arrested.

On 11 September the man was placed in the dock and gave his name as Andrew Birke, he said he was a shoemaker. The magistrate, Sir Andrew Lusk, asked the night watchman what the value of the packing case –which had been entirely empty when Birke stole it – was.

‘I don’t know sir’, he replied.

‘It isn’t worth much, say 1d’, Sir Andrew suggested.

‘It is worth more than 1d, the man insisted, ‘but its not the value. This man has been convicted before, and I have known a man to be sent to prison for stealing a turnip’.

‘Well, I don’t convict a man for stealing a turnip’ said the justice; ‘and I won’t convict a man for stealing an empty champagne case, worth nothing’.

He then turned to the prisoner and told him ‘ I shall discharge you; but mind you don’t touch anybody’s property, in case you get into trouble’.

Two weeks later PC Watkins found Catherine Eddowes’ body in Mitre Square and one of the first people he spoke to was George Morris, an ex-policeman who worked as a night watchman for Kearly & Tonge, wholesale grocers in the square (see the 1887 map of the square, right). 10Mitre_Square_1887Morris had seen nothing untoward that night and entirely missed the killer brutally murdering Kate and removing her kidney and uterus.

However Kearly & Tonge were tea merchants so perhaps the unnamed watchman was Morris. This would make sense of his desire to see Birke prosecuted and punished as a thief despite the petty nature of the crime. Morris might have known him to be a villain and his comment about knowing someone convicted of stealing a turnip also rings true if he was formally a police officer. Sir Andrew Lusk was – as far as I am aware – no relation to George Lusk, the chair of the Whitechapel Vigilance society who was to receive a portion of a human kidney in the post a few days after the murder. Whether this came from Kate Eddowes is impossible to say.

So, first Berner Street then Mitre Square, it is strange how these coincidental connections appear just before the ‘double event’ happened.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, September 12, 1888]

‘Another Whitechapel outrage’ in Berner Street

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The panic over the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders were really beginning to set in by the second week of September 1888. Martha Tabram, Polly Nicholls and Annie Chapman had all been murdered in the past few weeks. Annie was found in the back yard of 29 Hanbury Street in the early hours of Saturday 8 September, and crowds soon gathered to watch the police investigation unfold.

On the 10th William Seaman, a local builder, was accused of attempted murder at the Thames Police court.  Charles McCarthy testified that he had been walking along Ellen Street at about midnight on Saturday when he’d heard a scream. It seemed to be coming from Berner Street and he hurried off in that direction.

There was a chemist’s shop at number 82 and McCarthy found the chemist, John Simkin, his beard covered in blood, slumped over his counter. A hammer was on the counter and Seaman was standing nearby. The elderly chemist was hurt but still alive and conscious. He told McCarthy ‘here is the hammer he hit me with’ and handed it to him.

Seaman made no attempt to run away and when the police arrived he was taken quietly into custody. Constable 85H deposed that when he arrested Seaman his prisoner declared: ‘I shan’t tell you what I did it for, but I will tell the magistrate’. The man had been drinking he added. Since John Simkin was bedridden and recovering from his injuries the justice, Mr Saunders, remanded Seaman in custody while enquiries continued.

The chemist didn’t recover sufficiently until early October and so Seaman remained in custody till then. On Sunday 7 October Reynold’s carried areport of his committal for trial. The senior investigating officer was Inspector Thresher of H Division (who presumably wasn’t otherwise busy with the ‘Ripper’ case). Simkin testified that Seaman had entered his shop and asked to purchase some alum and zinc. While the chemist sorted the order hit him twice with the hammer, for no obvious reason. Having promised to explain his actions the accused chose now to keep silence and was fully committed for trial at the Old Bailey.

He appeared there on the 26 October 1888 and all he would say in his defense was that he’d been drinking. The jury convicted him of grievous bodily harm (rather than the more serious offence of attempted murder). The court was told he had a previous conviction for burglary – a sentence of 14 years  – and so the judge now sent him away for a further seven years of penal servitude.

By then Whitechapel was in full ‘Ripper panic’ mode. On the 30 September, a few weeks after the incident Liz Stride had been found dead in Berner Street, just yards away from Mr Simkin’s chemist’s shop. An hour later Catherrine Eddowes was brutally murdered in Mitre Square. The pair of murders have been dubbed the ‘double event’ after the Central News agency received a handwritten letter and then a follow up postcard from someone purporting to be the killer. The postcard read:

I was not codding dear old Boss when I gave you the tip, you’ll hear about Saucy Jacky’s work tomorrow double event this time number one squealed a bit couldn’t finish straight off. had not the time to get ears for police. thanks for keeping last letter back till I got to work again.

It was signed ‘Jack the Ripper’.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, September 11, 1888; Reynolds’s Newspaper , Sunday, October 7, 1888; The Morning Post, Saturday, October 27, 1888]

Drew’s new book (co-authored by Andy Wise) is published by Amberley Books. It is a new study of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 which offers up a new suspect, links the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings to the unsolved ‘Thames Torso’ crimes, and provides the reader with important contextual history of Victorian London. The book is available on Amazon and other bookshops 

‘A very bad woman’ in Shadwell

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Bluegate Fields by Gustave Doré (1872)

Bluegate Fields in Shadwell was, by all accounts, ‘a terrible place’ in the 1800s. Gustave Doré included it in his famous set of London etchings, a picture of desperate poverty, dark and foreboding. In 1863 it was inhabited by ‘thieves, ruffians, prostitutes, and other bad characters’ and was a place where ‘numberless outrages and robberies had been perpetrated’.

It was on PC Robert Thimbleby’s beat. The policeman (119H) was patrolling Shadwell High Street at 2.30 in the morning of August 20th1863 when he heard a disturbance. Cries of ‘murder’ and ‘police’ rang out and the bobby ran towards to the noise.

As he entered Bluegate Fields he saw a second floor window open and a man tumble out. The man was dressed only in is nightclothes and his fall have left him ‘dreadfully mutilated’. PC Thimbleby helped him and a cab was found to take him to the London Hospital.

The house was notorious as a brothel and soon after the man had fallen out of the window a woman appeared at the front door. She was Irish and rough looking, with a quite masculine, ferocious appearance. She squared up to the policeman, abused him verbally using ‘foul language’ and exposed herself ‘in a most flagrant manner’. With some difficult he arrested her.

On the next day PC Thimbleby brought her before Mr Patridge at Thames Police court where she gave her name as Mary Ann Mahony. The man who’d fallen was too unwell to give evidence against her but his story had been gathered by the police. Mr. Partridge listened to his version of events.

The wounded man was a sailor and had gone to the brothel with Mahony. In the middle of the night he awoke to find she’d stolen his trousers and his money – around £5 in gold and silver – and was making her way out of the room. When he grabbed her, she fought back, seizing a poker and chasing him round the room with it. Fearing for his life (and perhaps not realizing exactly where he was) he jumped out of the window.

Given that the man was not in court to press charges of attempted robbery all the justice could do was deal with the charge of being drunk and disorderly. Mr Partridge was quite satisfied that this had been established and he sent Mary Ann to gaol for 21 days warning her that when her punter recovered she was likely to be back to face a charge of attempted theft. She was, he added, a ‘very bad woman’ who had had a string of previous convictions to her name.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, August 21, 1863]

A real life ‘Fletch’: The man who had (too many) convictions

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One of the innovations of the Victorian criminal justice system was its ability to track offenders over many years. In the second half of the eighteenth century the Bow Street Police court had (under the leadership of the Fielding brothers, Henry and John) pioneered the collection of data in relation to crime. John, who was blind, was supposedly able to identify an offender that had appeared before him previously by voice alone. The Bow Street Runners collected information on criminals in an early form of the modern police database, but much of this was lost when the office was destroyed in the Gordon Riots of June 1780.

Effective use of data would have to wait for the second half of the nineteenth century, and was supported by the invention of photography and the creation of a professional police force. The ‘garroting panic’ of 1862 led to the passing of the Habitual Offenders Act in 1869. This created a register of offenders who were obliged to check in with police on their release from prison, and continue to do so for the next seven years. Records now noted all previous convictions, physical characteristics, as well as age, occupation, place of birth etc.

It had now become very difficult for anyone who had been in trouble with the law to escape the consequences of their past, something modern offenders and probation and prisoner support services are only too aware of.

John McCann was just such a ‘habitual’ offender. Like ‘Fletcher’’, the anti-hero of the popular British TV comedy Porridge, John McCann was a criminal who ‘seemed to treat arrest as an occupational hazard’. By 1881 he had already noticed up 16 previous convictions when he appeared at Marylebone Police court in mid July.

On this occasion he had been found lurking around the rear of a property in Charles Street by a constable on his beat. PC David West (160D) discovered McCann hiding by a workshop door at two in the morning and, suspecting he was up to no good, challenged him.

McCann ‘became very violent’ and hit out at the policeman, punching and kicking him, and running away. PC West managed, with difficulty, to secure him and take him into custody.

At Marylebone Mr Cooke was told that McCann had convictions for assault, theft, and other offences. He’d served several prison sentences but none seem to have deterred him from his chosen life course. He had, the justice declared, ‘been guilty of almost every kind of offence and spent nearly all his time in prison’. He would now go to gaol again, this time for six months with hard labour.

I am no apologist for violence or the burglary that McCann was probably about to commit and it is hard to see him as anything other than a serial offender. But what chance did he have once he was in the system? Tracked by the police and subject to periodic shakedowns by officers whenever a crime fitting his MO occurred we might imagine that John McCann was a target for the police whenever he showed his face. His chances of ‘going straight’ (as ‘Fletcher’ eventually did) were limited at best.

[from The Standard, Monday, July 18, 1881]

The prisoner who violently refused to accept her fate

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Although this story is not from one of London’s Police courts it does involve the magistrate system in London. It seems as if when crimes were committed inside prisons by serving prisoners it was possible for these cases to be heard (or at least assessed briefly) by visiting magistrates. Today we have a system whereby those held on remand in prisons or custody suites can be questioned by video link, so perhaps this was an early form of remote inquisition.

Elizabeth Heydrick was recidivist who had been in and out of court and the prison system on a number of occasions. None of her brushes with the law had any effect at all, unless it was to harden her resolve to be as obstreperous as possible.

In June 1870 she was in the Westminster house of correction serving a nine month sentence for assaulting the matron of the Bethnal Green workhouse. On that occasion as she’d left he dock she had turned to matron and vowed to kill her when she got out. As a result the magistrate ordered her to find sureties to ensure her good behaviour towards the woman on her release. This proved impossible however, so when her time was up she was kept inside and told she’d not be released until she did so (up to the period of sureties which was 12 months).

After three months Heydrick rang the bell of her cell, summoning a warder named Elizabeth Warwick to her. Heydrick told Warwick that she wanted to go to the exercise yard and the warder took her there. After about 10 minutes she said she wanted to return to the cell, but asked for some water first. She then turned on the taps but didn’t drink, just letting them empty into the yard. For this nuisance the warder rebuked her and told her to get back to the cell.

As they climbed the stairs to the level of Heydrick’s cell the prisoner turned around and punched Warwick in the face, blackening her eye, and then again twice to the chest. Other warders rushed to assist their colleague and so prevented Heydrick’s assault from being even more serious. As it was Elizabeth Warwick was badly injured and shaken up. The prison surgeon feared she’d broken two ribs and she was not fit to return to her duties – of even to leave her room – for nearly a month.

The magistrates that visited the prison fully committed Heydrick to stand trial for the violent assault at the next sitting of the Middlesex Sessions. On July 7 Heydrick appeared in court before a judge and jury who were told that when she had been taken to a ‘refractory cell’ (by which I presume they meant something like the ‘darks’ at Millbank, a solitary cell designed for punishment) she was searched. Male warders had helped subdue her after the assault on Warwick but only female warders could search her. As Amelia Newton was doing so she found a long pin in her jacket and was removing the potential weapon when Heydrick struck out and hit her in the face, cutting her lip and drawing blood.

The jury duly convicted her and the judge handed down an additional one-year sentence. Again this seemingly had little effect on Elizabeth who was led away from the dock laughing to herself.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, July 08, 1870]