A murder confession, 13 years too late

The "Rookery", St. Giles's, 1850

Nineteenth-century St Giles

The reporter from Reynold’s newspaper, or his editor, captioned George Skinner’s behavior as ‘EXTRAORDINARY CONDUCT’.

Skinner, a 39 year-old resident of south London was brought before Mr Chance at Lambeth Police court charged with being drunk. It wasn’t his first appearance in court and had only recently been released from prison where he’d served a month inside for being an ‘habitual drunkard’.

On this occasion Skinner had presented himself at the desk of Gypsy Hill Police station, telling the sergeant that he was responsible for a murder that took place 13 years earlier. The station inspector sat him down and took a statement from him. He confessed to killing a ‘woman named Jackson’ in 1863 but when he was handed the statement to sign, he refused.

He was ‘very drunk’ when he spoke to the police and subsequent enquiries had ‘ascertained that the prisoner had before given himself up at Bow Street in a similar manner’.

But had a woman named Jackson been murdered in 1863, the magistrate asked? Indeed they had.

Sergeant 4ER gave evidence that a woman named Jackson had been murdered in George Street, Bloomsbury in 1863 and that in 1870 George Skinner had confessed to the crime. The police had investigated his confession however, and found it to be false.

Whoever had killed Ms Jackson the police didn’t believe it was Skinner, even if he seemed to. Mr Chance turned to the prisoner and told him that he had acted in a ‘most disgraceful manner’, presumably by being drunk and wasting police time. What had he to say for himself?

‘Commit me for trial’, Skinner replied. ‘I don’t care what you do. Let it go for trial’.

‘Let what go for trial?’, the magistrate demanded to know.

‘Send me for trial as an habitual drunkard. You know you can do it if you like. That’s the law’.

Mr Chance may well have had considerable discretionary power in 1880 but he could hardly send someone before a jury for being a drunk, however annoying the man’s behaviour was. Instead he was able to send him back to prison and/or fine him and this is what he did. Skinner, described as an able if ‘lazy’ shoemaker, was fined 20s  and told if he did  not pay up he would go to prison for 14 days at hard labour.

‘Only fourteen days for confession of a murder?’ Skinner quipped, ‘All right’.

In April 1863 a carpenter was charged at Bow Street with the murder of an Emma Jackson in St Giles. The court was crowded as the locals clearly felt this was the killer. They were mistaken however, as the police quickly established that the man confessing to murder, John Richards (a 31 year old carpenter) was, like Skinner, a drunken fantasist. He had confessed whilst drunk but later retracted and the magistrate, a Mr Broddick, warned him but let him go without further penalty.

The murder of Emma Jackson excited ‘intense interest in the miserable neighbourhood in which it took place’, Reynold’s  had reported at the time. As a result the tavern where the inquest was held was as crowded at the police court where Richards was examined a few days later. St Giles was a notoriously poor area (below), on a par with Whitechapel and Southwark in the 1800s, and a byword for degradation and lawlessness.

A_Scene_in_St_Giles's_-_the_rookery,_c._1850

Emma was murdered in a brothel, although it was also described as a lodging house; in some respects it was hard to discern much difference between the two. Jackson had arrived there with a client (a man wearing a cap was all the description the landlady could manage) and asked for a room for two hours.

It was a very brutal murder, there was blood everywhere, but no sign of the killer. Perhaps it was intensity of this murder and the lack of a suspect that prompted some disturbed individuals to confess to it, just as several people confessed to being the Whitechapel murderer in 1888.  That they were drunk when they did so might also indicate that they ware suffering from a form of mental illness, understood today but not in the 1800s.

Skinner had confessed to a murder in 1863 in Bloomsbury, Jackson was killed in St Giles, which is near enough to allow it to be the same murder.

[from Reynold’s Newspaper, Sunday 7 March 1880; Daily NewsThursday 23 April, 1863; Reynold’s Newspaper, Sunday 19 April 1863 ]

‘An offence that must be put down’: an attack on trade unionism in 1889

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I am currently teaching a third year history module that focuses on London in the 1880s. Crime and Popular Culture in the Late Victorian City uses the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders of 1888 as a prism through which to explore the social and cultural history of the East End.

On Monday my students were looking at radical politics, strikes, and demonstrations. We focused on the rioting in and around Trafalgar Square in 1886 (the so-called ‘West End’ or ‘Pall Mall’ riots) and the events of ‘Bloody Sunday in 1887. We then went on to look at the Match Girls Strike (using the work of Louise Raw) and the Great Dock Strike of 1889.

It is always harder to get students engaged in this sort of ‘political’ history than it is in crime and punishment history, although of course the two are very closely related. Much of the crime and its prosecution in the 1800s was linked to the inequalities which drove radical politics and the demands of men like Ben Tillett who led the dockers’ dispute. It is too simplistic to see the Police Courts of London as a disciplinary arm of the state but, in part at least, they functioned as that.

The courts served their communities and all of those that lived in them, but their fundamental purpose was as part of the mechanism that preserved the status quo in Victorian London. Poverty, unemployment, homelessness, alcoholism, crime and other social ills were self-evidently a product of a capitalist system which failed to provide for the poorest, regardless of any sense of being ‘deserving’ or ‘underserving’, but it was a system the government, police, and courts were determined to uphold regardless.

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In mid August 1889 the Great Dock Strike (right) broke out and tens of thousands of dockworkers downed tools and followed Ben Tillett and John Burns (and others) in demanding better pay and a better system of work. They drew tremendous support, both from the East End communities in which they lived and worked and further afield. Australian workers sent donations of £30,000 to help the cause.

There were numerous prosecutions of dockers and their supporters as the police tried to prevent secondary picketing and the intimidation of strikebreakers. The strike emboldened other workers in the area, just as the Match Girls strike a year previously had inspired the dockers to take action.

On 21 August 1889, just a week after Tillett’s call for action ignited the strike on the docks, Mark Hacht found himself in front of Mr Saunders at Worship Street Police court. Hacht was a tailor who lived at Wood Street in Spitalfileds. He was just 18 years of age and was accused of assaulting a police officer.

The court was told that the premises of a Mr Koenigsberg, a local furrier, was being picketed as his workers were out on strike. Hacht was part of the picket it seems, gathered outside the factory on Commercial Street preventing some employees from entering.

However, Hacht didn’t work for Koenigsberg, he had no connection at all to the furriers, instead he was, the prosecution lawyer alleged, merely ‘a paid agitator’. When one worker went to enter the building Hacht grabbed at him and said:

‘You shall not go to work there’.

‘I have got no food’, the man replied.

Hacht supposedly dismissed this saying that he ‘would murder him if he went there’. As the man continued Hacht hit him over the head with an umbrella. A policeman (PC 337H) intervened and the tailor tuned his attention to attacking him. As they struggled a ‘mob of Jews’ tried to pull the policeman off of his prisoner, impelling PC Littlestone to brandish his truncheon and ‘hold back the crowd’.

Having successfully secured his prisoner he took him into custody. There were witnesses who denied Hacht had done anything at all but the magistrate decided to believe the policeman and the furrier’s lawyer.

It was, Mr Saunders said, ‘one of the worst cases of the kind he had heard’ and it was ‘an offence that must be put down’. With the dock strike occupying so many column inches at the time it is was hardly surprising that a representative of middle class and elite society should choose sides quite so obviously. the young man was sent to prison for three months with hard labour.

In September 1889 the employers caved in and agreed to the dockers’ demands for sixpence an hour and a fairer system of choosing casual workers. The demands were not that radical, the impact on the employers’ profits fairly minimal. It was a rare victory for organized labour and led to a groundswell in trade union membership in the 1890s. Its longer-term affect was less positive however; in fact we might see the 1890s as the apogee of trade unionism in England.

The General Strike of 1926 showed labour could still organize but two world wars failed to change British society in any truly radical way. In the late 1970s the newly elected Conservative government set about dismantling trade union power, something unions have never really recovered from. Workers rights were more effectively protected by Britain’s membership of the European Union, and now even that has gone.

Yet again capitalism and corporate greed has triumphed at the expense of those that create the wealth. Until workers truly understand that their best interests lie in sticking together against a common foe (as the match girls and dockers did) rather than blaming immigrants for their woes, it will continue to dominate and make the few wealthy on the backs of the many.

[from The Standard, Wednesday,  August 21, 1889]

‘What would become of the little children?’: charity and kindness make a rare appearance in a Police Court

John Tenniel The Nemesis of Neglect

Tomorrow is the last day of February meaning that (as we do every four years) we get a 29thday of this month. Did you know that 1888 was a leap year? Making a very tenuous link today is also the artist John Tenniel’s birthday. Had he lived he would be 200 years old today.

On 29 September 1888 the magazine Punch published a cartoon by Tenniel alongside an article on slum living in the East End of London. Tenniel’s iconic image of the Nemesis of Neglect (above), was published at the height of the Jack the Ripper murders, while London reeled from the terror created by a serial killer the police seemed unable to catch.

Tenniel’s drawing and the text that accompanied it suggested that the murderer was a product of the degraded environment in which all the victims had lived, and died. It also warned polite society of the dangers of not doing ‘something’ about the abject poverty of the East End, which risked the ‘contagion’ spreading to reach the wealthier parts of the metropolis.

In February Whitechapel was relatively quiet; the series lodged in the National Archives at Kew as the ‘Whitechapel Murders’ had not yet started, but poverty was very much in evidence.

At Westminster Police court a 76 year-old man appeared to ask Mr D’Eyncourt for a summons. He wanted to bring a charge against the one of the officers at St Luke’s workhouse in Chelsea. The elderly man moved slowly and spoke with difficulty, clearly suffering as he was from fresh injuries. He told the magistrate that he’d sustained these when he was turfed out of his bed at 6.45 in the morning by a workhouse attendant.

He was, he said in response to the justice’s questioning, 15 minutes late in getting up after the bell rang at 6.30. But he had only just got to sleep having been kept awake by others’ coughing and cramp in his legs.

‘I am so badly bruised that I have not been able to walk upright since’ he complained.

The poor man had no family or friends and had been an inmate of the workhouse for six years. Mr D’Eyncourt granted his summons and said he would not have to pay for it. He would hear what other inmates said and call the accused party before him.

At Southwark Sarah Ann Davis stood in the dock with a baby in her arms. She was accused of begging in London Road, having been arrested by a police sergeant. Sarah denied the charge, she ‘was selling some pins to get some food for her children’ she explained.

Sergeant Ireland told Mr Slade that the prisoner’s husband was currently serving a prison sentence for begging. As if that compounded the woman’s crime and demonstrated she was guilty.

The magistrate asked her why she didn’t turn to the workhouse.

‘I don’t want to break up the home while my husband is away’, she replied.

Mr Davis was, she said, and out of work carpenter who’d do any job if he could get one. 1888 was not a good year for work: this was the year that the word ‘unemployment’ entered the dictionary and for the past few years large numbers of unemployed men and women had gathered in Trafalgar Square to listen to socialists and free traders bemoan the state of the economy and the capitalist system that had seemingly failed so many.

Slade called her landlord to the stand and asked him about the family’s character. He was told that the Davis’ were good, respectable and quiet tenants, but were two weeks behind with their rent.

‘You are not going to turn them out?’ The magistrate asked.

‘On no, sir, certainly not. What would become of the little children?’ the landlord replied.

‘Very well, I will discharge her now. You can go know, Mrs. Davis. You will receive some coal and bread tickets from the Poor-box Fund, and you had better apply to the Relieving Officer for some out-door relief’.

Then he warned her against begging in future, and she left, with applause for the magistrate ringing out in court.

Individual acts of decency by men like Mr Slade and Sarah’s landlord were not enough of course to mitigate the realities of abject poverty in late nineteenth century London. On another day Sarah might have gone to gaol and had her children taken away.  Another magistrate might have told her it was the ‘house or nothing, and she would have again lost her children.

Tenniel’s image of the ghoul raising from the ‘slum’s foul air’ was so powerful because it reflected a sort of stark reality, even if it was as fantastical as his more famous illustrations for Alice in Wonderland.

[from The Standard, 28 February 1888]

‘You will meet a tall dark stranger’: a fortune teller fails to predict her own demise.

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Did you watch the recent BBC drama, The Pale Horse? It is an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1961 murder mystery in which a dying woman leaves a list of names of people who die in unexplained circumstances.

The drama centres around three ‘witches’ in the village of Much Deeping (below right) , who tell fortunes and (at least in the mind of one of the characters) place curses on victims, causing them to die.images

The idea of having one’s fortune told has a very (very) long history. From ancient times those with the gift of prophesy or ‘sight’ have been sought out by kings and chieftains, and those who just want to know who and when they’ll marry.

Until the eighteenth century those deemed to be practicing witchcraft could hanged if convicted and although the laws against witchcraft were repealed in 1736 so-called witches were still targeted well into the 1800s. The 1735 Witchcraft Act had effectively abolished the crime of witchcraft but made it illegal to claim magical powers. This continued to be used against those who said they could ‘summons spirits’, as both Helen Duncan and Jane Yorke discovered in 1944 when they were last two people to be prosecuted under the act.

According to the Police Code Book of 1889 fortune telling was also prohibited. The section reads:

‘Every person pretending of professing to tell fortunes, or using any subtle craft, means, or device, by palmistry or otherwise, to deceive and impose on any one, may be treated as a rogue and vagabond, and sentenced to imprisonment with hard labour’.1

This offence fell under the ‘catch all’ terms of the Vagrancy Act (1824) and in February 1884 it ensnared an elderly woman called Antonia Spike. Spike appeared before Mr Lushington at Thames Police court. She’d been brought in on a warrant by sergeant White of H Division who’d been watching her for weeks.

White testified in court that he’d often seen women going coming and going at the house where Spike lived, sometimes as many as 8 or 9 in a single day. On the 18 February Eliza Weedon (a tenant on Whitechapel High Street) and Annie Wheeler, who lived in Shadwell, were among Spike’s visitors.  Somehow the police sergeant persuaded them to give evidence before the magistrate.

They said that they had entered the house and Antonia  Spike asked them if they wished to have their fortunes told. They said they did and Spike proceeded to shuffle and a pack of cards before giving them to Wheeler to cut

‘Are you married?’ she asked Annie, who said she was.

‘You will have a letter from a fair man, with a present, and you will be pleased. You will hear of the death of a dark woman, and you will come into some money. You will cross the ocean, and be married a second time, and be very well off’.

She also read Eliza’s fortune but presumably that was less interesting so the reporter didn’t write it down. Both women paid Antonia sixpence for reading their futures.

Mr Lushington, not a man to suffer fools or charlatans easily, sent the old lady to prison for a month with hard labour.

I had my fortune read once, in Aylesbury by a man who described himself as a warlock. He used the tarot and had an impressive statue of Anubis over his front door. He said I’d travel overseas, and that someone close to me, and elderly, would die. I paid more than 6d.

[from The Standard, Monday 25 February, 1884]

  1. From Sir Howard Vincent’s Police Code 1889, (ed by Neil. A Bell and Adam Wood, Mango Books, 2015), p.88

‘Ring the bell, and put the child on the doorstep’: a young mother is handed a stark ultimatum

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There have been plenty of examples in the pages of this blog of quite stark reminders that the past was ‘a different country’. Periodically today there are news reports of babies being found abandoned. In late January this year for example, a postman found a newborn child on a doorstep in Hackney as he made his rounds. The baby was taken into care and the police ‘appealed to his mother to come forward, assuring her she is not in trouble and will be helped’.

That is invariably the message to mothers who, for whatever reason, feel unable to keep a child they have just given birth to. Come forward, you’re not in any trouble, we are just worried about you.

This was not the way society viewed mothers that abandoned their babies in the nineteenth century however; something clearly illustrated by this cautionary take from 1871.

Elizabeth Fisher was working as a servant when she fell pregnant. She had the child and at first her sister agreed to care for it. Elizabeth’s employer, a Mrs Cruise (of Arthur Road, Brixton), made it abundantly clear that she was not willing for an illegitimate child to be raised under her roof.

Fisher either had to get rid of her baby or leave her service.

That was normal in the 1800s. Servants who got pregnant would often be dismissed and so many hid their pregnancies and then gave away or farmed out their children to relatives or women who they paid to take them in.

This worked for Elizabeth for a while but then in December 1870 her sister explained that she could no longer care for the baby.  With what one imagines was a heavy heart Elizabeth took her baby to the Camberwell workhouse (below right) and asked them to care for it.

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The workhouse refused telling her they were ‘neither a nursery nor a baby-farming establishment, and they could not separate mother and child’. If Elizabeth wanted to place her baby in their care she’d have to admit herself at the same time. Even when Fisher offered to pay a weekly sum for the child’s acre the workhouse authorities turned her away.

She was back to square one.

Her mistress, Mrs Cruise, now suggested she take the child to its father. While Fisher wasn’t married she did know where the father was. Cruise told her to go to Gloucester Terrace, Hyde Park (where the man lived), ‘ring the bell, and put the child on the doorstep for the father to take in’.

So it was that Elizabeth, her sister, and Mrs Cruise set off, taking an omnibus towards Haymarket (where Cruise was going to attend the theatre). The sisters hopped off but seemingly never made it to Gloucester Terrace. The baby was found on a shop doorstep in the Haymarket by a policeman.

It took some time for the police to trace the child back to Elizabeth Fisher who by this time had left Cruise’s employment. The police obtained a summons to bring Fisher, her sister (Mrs Brown,, who lived in Hoxton) and Mrs Cruise to court at Marlborough Street. Mr Tyrwhitt, the sitting Police magistrate, listened carefully to the stories all three women told before reaching his judgment.

Despite her telling her employer to leave the child on a doorstep or leave her employment, the justice exonerated Mrs Cruise. She’d apparently acted ‘only with kindness’ her lawyer had argued, and Mr Tyrwhitt agreed. Nor did he condemn the workhouse for not receiving the child and refusing the mother’s money. The father was not summoned as Elizabeth’s sister did not want to ‘disgrace’ him. Instead he reserved his opprobrium for Elizabeth Fisher. He sent her to prison for 10 days with hard labour.

I doubt she took her child with her and I imagine she would have found it hard to find similar employment thereafter, with the stain of imprisonment added to that of bastard bearing. Elizabeth was ‘ruined’ and yet no fault or responsibility was set at the door of the man that she had conceived her baby boy with.

This was the reality of being poor, female, and a single mother in nineteenth-century London. It may not be easy today, but at least it is unlikely to land you in gaol.

[from Morning Post, Wednesday, 22 February 1871]

‘A most outrageous assault’: more gang violence in Oxford Street

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Most of the gang crime that plagued London in the late 1800s was pretty minor compared with the stabbings and drug related crime experienced by Londoners today. Even so, then, most of the victims were rival gang members. When ordinary members of the public were caught up they were often simply harassed or shoved as they walked home from the theatre or the pub and encountered groups of ‘roughs’ on the streets.

This incident, from December 1889, was within that typology of gang attack but was of a more serious nature, which was probably why it ended up before the magistrate at Marlborough Street.

Herbert Easton was walking home along Oxford Street after a late night out in town. He was heading past Harewood Place where a group of around 20 young men were gathered. As he past them something hit him on the back and he spun round on his heels. He wasn’t drunk but he had been drinking and, possibly emboldened by the ‘Dutch courage’ he demanded to know who was responsible.

He was met by silence and denials and carried on his way.

He was quickly aware that the group was now following him, in a very threatening manner. Before he had time to take evasive action they were on him, knocking him to the ground and kicking and punching at him.  As he tried the lift his umbrella as a makeshift weapons they overpowered him and held him down with it.

Easton struggled to his feet and pushed one of his assailants away. Seeing a cab he hailed it and jumped in side. The driver set off but the lads grabbed hold of the reins and one, George Leonard, tried to clamber into the cab. As Easton fought and grappled with Leonard the driver shouted out for help. A constable was quickly on the scene and fought his way through the throng, blowing his whistle to summons others.

As a number of officers arrived and the gang decided their luck was up, they melted away leaving Leonard in police custody. The police ordered the cabbie to make directly for Marlborough Police station where the young ‘rough’ was charged and thrown in a cell.

Appearing before Mr Hannay he had little to say for himself. The magistrate was much more forthcoming however. He told George Leonard (19) that this was ‘one of the worst street outrages he had ever heard of’ and sent him to prison for two months with hard labour.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, December 10, 1889]

One wedding, a broken jaw, and a prison sentence

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On Saturday 30 November William Mellish appeared at the Greenwich Police court accused of assaulting his a sister Caroline at their cousin’s wedding. Caroline, married to man named Hannen, was present in court with her swathed in bandages.

Mr Marsham was told that the wedding party had retired to Mellish’s home in Deptford where the drinking had continued. A sing song had resulted in arguments as Caroline’s sister apparently omitted some words from a popular ditty and the celebration descended into a full-blown fistfight.

Caroline poked her sister in the eye, the sisters went at each other no holds barred and William reached across the table and punched out at the pair of them. His blow landed on Caroline, breaking her jaw.

He tried to claim that Caroline had hurt herself by banging her head against the table but the magistrate wasn’t convinced. Everyone had been ‘the worse for drink’ and I suspect he wanted to make an example of such working-class excess.

Mellish was sent to prison for three months, meaning he would miss the family Christmas that year. In retrospect that was probably no bad thing.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, December 1, 1889]