Dead bodies dumped in a rubbish tip and a pair of Yankee fraudsters escape justice: all in a day’s business for London’s magistracy

dance_hall_illustration_1050x700

A pair of interesting cases for you this morning both brought before magistrates in London but neither of which ended in a conviction for any crime. Once again this is useful reminder that histories of crime that concentrate on the higher, jury courts of England will inevitably miss those cases which were dismissed much earlier in the criminal justice process.

In May 1847 two well-dressed young men were placed in the dock at Marlborough Street and accused of stealing. Their victim was a young woman named Eliza Williams who claimed to have lost a gold watch and chain and her purse. The crime was pretty standard – pocket picking – but the circumstances made it a little more unusual and, therefore, newsworthy.

Eliza claimed that she had met Robert Brownrigg Tolfrey at a ‘dancing room’ in Great Windmill Street. He’d approached her and asked her to dance. He spoke with a soft American accent and she accepted. Despite being distracted by the music and his attentions she was still aware enough to feel a tug on her watch chain. The chain broke but she quickly rescued it and the watch and place dit safely (she thought) in her pocket.

The couple parted for the next dance and Eliza instinctively checked for her watch – it was gone, as was her purse! Looking around another dancer caught her attention and pointed out Tolfrey and said they’d seen the watch chain hanging out of his pocket as he strode away. Eliza confronted him and although he vigorously denied stealing her property she had him arrested.

In court at Marlborough Street Tolfrey and his friend Robert Berkely Reynolds protested their innocence. A witness for Eliza said he’d seen Tolfrey pass the watch and purse to another man, perhaps named Nicholls, but he couldn’t be sure. There was no real evidence against either man and in this sort of case it was unlikely that the justice would be able to do anything unless previous convictions against them could be shown that would sow doubt in the mid of a jury.

That is why the men’s landlady was called I think.

Mrs Green said the men rented rooms form her at Golden Square off James Street giving their name as Berkley and passing themselves off as brothers recently arrived from America. While they were staying with her tradesmen would arrive and leave goods which soon vanished, suggesting a scam of some sort was being orchestrated there. When Mrs Green asked them to pay their rent they simply walked off leaving ‘nothing behind them except a false spring beard and mustachios’. The pair were clearly up to no good but, on this charge of ‘privately stealing from the person’, Mr Bingham could see no evidence that would stick in court, so he released them.

At Westminster a more disturbing case was heard before Mr Broderip. One of B Division’s police inspectors (named Donegan) was in court to report that ‘considerable excitement’ had been caused amongst the public in Lillington Street when human remains were discovered in a rubbish heap. He’d been called to investigate and had found bones that appeared to belong to a ‘human foot and arm’.

‘There were other bones’, he said, ‘smaller and larger, more advancing to decay, and evidently belonging to other bodies’. He had them collected for examination he explained.

In answer to a question from the magistrate Donegan said he didn’t believe the bones were recent but agreed that they might well come from a nearby medical school. A number of admission cards  from King’s College Hospital had been found amongst the rubbish and this strongly suggested a connected. The bones were probably the remains of persons whose bodies had been used in the teaching of anatomy, as the cadavers of the poor had been used for that purpose since the passing of the Anatomy Act in 1832. The act was supposed to stop the practice of grave robbing which itself had been caused by the shortage of fresh specimens taken from the gallows.

Anatomy-Act-Rich-and-Poor

It was a grisly business and not one the authorities wanted to be given too much publicity. Once dissected the bodies of the poor were supposed to have been buried properly even if no headstone was set to commemorate them. The idea that they might end up in a communal rubbish tip was appalling and, as the magistrate termed it, ‘indecorous’. He instructed Donegan to call upon the board at King’s to make it clear to them that any future occurrences of this sort would not be tolerated.

According to the leading historian of the Anatomy Act of 1832 in the course of the Victorian period some 125,000 corpses were sold in the ‘anatomy trade’.1 Many of those leaving the bodies of their loved ones did so by placing them outside the doors of London’s main teaching hospitals (like King’s or St. Bart’s) knowing that they had no funds to bury them. I regularly visit the local cemetery close to my home, to pay my respects to my wife’s parents, and we usually pass by a solitary stone that commemorates the thousands of people who are buried within the grounds in unmarked graves, because their families could not afford to meet the costs of a funeral.

For every grave carefully tended or left to slowly degrade there are, in small and larger graveyards and cemeteries they length and breadth of the country, hundreds of thousands of burials which are left unmarked. Something to think about when next you visit one perhaps.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, May 4, 1847]

1. Elizabeth Hurren, Dying for Victorian Medicine: English anatomy and its trade in the dead poor, c.1834-1929(Palgrave Macmillan, 2012)

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:

‘He has been in the habit of knocking me about’, until one day he went too far.

fig401

This is one of those frustrating cases where you really feel you should be able to find out more than you can about it. On Thursday 12 April 1883 a 45 year-old labourer named Thomas Ward was brought up before Mr Barstow for the second time, having previously been remanded in custody for an assault.

His victim was a widow, Mrs Elizabeth Wynn, who had been living with Ward as his housekeeper for the past year. Ward was evidently a violent man and was partial to knocking the poor woman about when he was drunk. Nothing about this would have surprised the late Victorian magistracy since domestic violence was endemic in working-class communities in the 1800s. It was probably more widespread in middle class homes than society was prepared to recognize but genteel ‘ladies’ were more accustomed to covering up the signs of it and more invested in keeping their husbands’ dirty secrets.

The assault had taken place on the 5 April and Elizabeth had been taken to St Bartholomew’s Hospital to be treated for her injuries. It quickly became apparent that she wasn’t going to recover from the beating she’d sustained so the police secured a dying deposition which makes for difficult reading:

‘Yesterday afternoon I was at our street door, and knocked several times. The prisoner would not open it, but at last he did, and struck me on the nose and mouth with his fist. I was covered with blood, and do not remember any more. I feel very sore in the stomach, and I am black all over from falling. He was sober. He has been in the habit of knocking me about, and I have been in Highgate Infirmary with fractured ribs, which he did. I stayed away on that night because he swore he would do for me’.  

Elizabeth died on the morning of the 6 April.

The magistrate remanded Ward for another week but that is where he seems to disappear from history. I find no trace of a murder or manslaughter trial at the Old Bailey involving either Ward or Elizabeth Wynn, nor any entry in the Digital Panopticon.

The newspapers are equally silent on whether Ward was ever formally prosecuted for the killing of his housekeeper.  That leads me to suspect that the police had insufficient evidence to press charges and that, if anything, all Ward got was a short prison sentence for the assault, and I suspect that was unlikely as well (or he would have been recorded as being inside on the DP site). As ever, if someone else can enlighten me I’d be grateful (after all today is my birthday).

[from The Standard, Friday, April 13, 1883]

‘The Lord is not so unjust as to hold a man responsible for a rash act when he is mad’: a man’s grief drives him to suicide.

155561946856c0ec2a38ed2088ffdcc1

Finsbury Square, c.1828

I am breaking, ever so slightly, with the normal pattern of these blog posts today. This story concerns the police courts but is not a report from one of them. Instead it came under the headings for London’s coroners courts, which detailed the inquests into those that died in suspicious circumstances.

On the 22 January 1838 an inquest jury sat at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital to listen to the evidence in case of a retired police court officer who had died at the age of 60. Thomas Van had worked at the Worship Street Police court ‘for nearly 25 years’ and was ‘an active officer’.

Each of the London police courts were served by half a dozen officers, modelled on the system set up by the Fieldings at Bow Street in the mid 1700s. Officers ran messages, brought up prisoners from the cells, kept order in the court and may well have played a role as active investigators in some instances. This was how the Bow Street officers (dubbed ‘Runners’ of course) operated.

Van’s wife had died in last year and he missed her very much. He lived with his son in rented rooms at 13 Queen Street, Finsbury Square and his landlord, Benjamin Watkins, gave evidence to the inquest. At about 9 o’clock a week earlier Watkins had heard a loud thud from Van’s room above and rushed upstairs to see what had happened. There he found the man stretched out on the floor with blood flowing from a gash in his throat.

There was ‘a large table knife on the floor besides him’ and while Van was not quite dead, he could not speak. Watkins called a carriage and took his lodger to St Bart’s where he died soon afterwards.

It was a tragic tale. Van had only recently been given a pension by the Worship Street office in recognition of his service, and because his grief made it impossible for him to carry on. He seems to have fallen into a deep despair and was quite unable to cope without his wife. His son testified to his father’s grief and told the coroner that Thomas Van ‘had been lately deranged’.

A suicide note was produced which read:

‘The Lord is not so unjust as to hold a man responsible for a rash act when he is mad’.

The inquest jury duly brought in a verdict of ‘temporary mental derangement’. Van probably had little to leave his son but suicides supposedly had their estates forfeited. They were also supposed to be buried at night, and not in consecrated ground. Perhaps the jury’s verdict allowed the family some license here.

Let’s hope so anyway.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, January 23, 1838]

Rossini’s ‘cat song’ provokes uproar at the theatre and medical students threaten to give the police the Bartholomew “touch”.

OxMusHall1918

Medical students have a long established reputation for high jinx and drink related antics. They study hard, so the saying goes, and play hard so it is no surprise to see a number of them appearing before the London magistracy in the 1800s. This case involves several medical students from St Bartholomew’s Hospital but in particular a young man named Charles Astley, who lived in Ealing.

Astley was charged before Mt Knox at Marlborough Street for assaulting a man at the Oxford Music Hall on the corner of Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road. Mr Knox’s court was packed with Astley’s fellow students, some of whom were also charged with a range of less serious offences related to Astley’s arrest and the circumstances of it. As a result the magistrate had to continually insist they behaved themselves or he would have them all ejected.

The complaint was brought by a Mr Freame (or possibly Freene), an employee of the theatre, and prosecuted in court by his counsel, who had the suitably festive name of Mr Sleigh. He explained that on several occasions large numbers of students had turned up at the music hall and had caused a disturbance. Their behaviour was riotous, disorderly and drunken. In the end the proprietor, Mr Syers, had been obliged to call on the police for support in keeping order.

On the night in question there were no less than 18 police constable deployed at the venue (which held around 1,800 paying customers. All was well until just before 11 o’clock at night when Signor Aldine took to the stage and began to sing. He sang the ‘Cat Song’ (which may well have been Duetto buffo di due gate or “humorous duet for two cats”, sometimes attributed to Rossini). I’m no expert on opera but it appears to be a song about two cats meowing to each other. At this point the medical students started to make a lot of noise, Astley ‘principal among them’. The musical director asked for quite but they ignored him, carrying on their commotion and shouting out things like ‘splendid’.

The Oxford Music Hall had undergone a rebuild after a fire in 1872, reopening in 1873 not long before the medical students caused such a fracas there.* So perhaps its not surprising that the owners were keen to avoid too much disturbance as they established themselves as a major nighttime venue when there was plenty of competition in the 1870s.

As the police moved in blows were thrown and abuse was shouted. Mr Freame said he made a grab for Astley, who he saw as a ringleader, and the medical student grabbed hold of his collar and manhandled him. Eventually Astley was whisked away to the nearest police station but about 500 students gathered outside the music hall threatening to ‘give the police the Bartholomew “touch” [and shouting] ‘let the bobbies have it’. Four of them were subsequently arrested and also appeared in court with their chum.

One of the Middlesex hospital’s teaching fellows, a lecturer on physiology, appeared to speak up for the young men and to say that if the charges were all dropped he had been assured that there would be no further instances of bad behaviour at the music hall. Mr Knox was not minded to take this case lightly however. He had, he said, already warned about excessive disorderly behaviour and drunkenness at the hall and would now carry through on his threat to deal harshly with offenders.

Ashley would go to the Central Criminal Court to face  a trial by jury and he insisted the other young men keep the peace in the meantime. One of them, John Pogose, he fined 40s (or one month in prison) for his part in the disturbances that followed Astley’s arrest. The other three were bound by their own recognizances to appear in January. Ashley appeared at the Old Bailey on 10 January on a charge of wounding but the jury couldn’t reach a verdict and he was discharged.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, December 21, 1875]

*Those of you of a certain age you will be familiar with the site of the music hall, which was where Virgin Records stood on Oxford Street from the 1970s. If you are a little older you may recall the same premises as belonging to Lyon’s Corner House (which opened in 1927).