‘I did it!’ A young servant confesses to being the Lavender Hill poisoner

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The watching public at Wandsworth Police court witnessed an unusually dramatic case on 23 August 1886. Emily Parry, an 18 year-old domestic servant, was placed in the dock and charged with attempted murder. The girl was an unlikely murderer and what made the matter all the more sensational was that she confessed in full.

Inspector Lusk explained that on the previous Saturday Miss Parry had walked into Battersea Police Station and told the desk sergeant she wished to make a confession in the ‘poisoning case’.  She was referring to the attempted poisoning of Mrs Rose Darling at Lavender Hill in February that year. At the time another servant – Alice Tharby – had been accused and Emily had even given evidence at the pre-trial hearing. The case was thrown out by the Grand Jury and Alice was released but she had been out of work ever since and was living with her mother.

Now Emily admitted that she had put poison in Mrs Darling’s tea and milk because she had fallen out with Alice and wanted to get her ‘into a row’ (into trouble in other words). She’d used laudanum and chloroform that she’d found in the pantry; fortunately Mrs Darling quickly realized that the tea was ‘bad’ and hadn’t drunk too much. She was ill was several days but no serious damage was done. Alice tasted the milk and was ‘a little sick’ as a result.

At Battersea police station Emily declared: ‘I did it; I put the poison in the teapot’. She then made a full statement that was read out before Mr Bennett at Wandsworth.

I, Emily Parry, formerly Vass, understanding the probable serious consequences of what I am about to do, desire to make the following statement:—

On 26th February last I was in service at Dr. Bayfield’s, Soames Villa, Lavender Hill. My fellow-servant, Alice Tharby, and I quarrelled on that day. The same afternoon Alice made some tea for Mrs. Darling, Mrs. Bayfield’s mother, who was staying in the house, which she placed on the dining-room table. She then went upstairs. I was in the scullery at that time, and wishing to spite Alice I determined to put some poison into the teapot, thinking that blame would fall on her. I did not think of what might happen to other persons. I ran from the scullery and took the teapot off the dining-room table out to the surgery. I poured something from several bottles into it, one of which was labelled ‘laudanum, poison,’ and then put the teapot back on the table in the dining-room. I went to the pantry, took the jug of milk into the surgery and put some chloroform into it, and replaced it in the pantry. It only took me about five minutes to do all this. I had no thought or intention of poisoning any one; my only idea was to get Alice into a row. When Alice was locked up I was afraid to tell the truth. I have often since half made up my mind to make this statement, but could not find courage to do it until to-day. I make this statement to clear all blame from Alice Tharby and to ease my own mind.”

She’d given her statement through floods of tears, mindful of what might happen to her but also probably relieved to finally tell someone the truth. It was a straightforward decision for the magistrate: he committed her to take her trial at the Old Bailey and she appeared there in October. This time a chemist was called to examine two bottles which contained samples of the tea and milk that been given to Mrs Darling. He confirmed that there were traces of laudanum and chloroform present. Rose Darling, Alice Tharby and the surgeon that treated Rose all gave brief evidence in court but Emily said nothing.

The jury found her guilty on her confession and the other evidence and the judge sent her to prison for three months at hard labour.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, August 24, 1886]

The young lady that placed her faith in a fortune teller, and got thumped for her pains

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Mrs Maria Grace was taking tea at home in Rotherhithe in May 1845 when there was a caller at the door. She opened the door and admitted a fashionably dressed pretty young woman.  It all seemed very normal until the visitor stepped forward, seized a cup of tea from the table and threw it in Maria’s face!

This assault was followed by more violence as the young woman attacked, scratching Maria’s face and then stuck her baby (who was sat in her lap) causing its mouth to bleed.  Then, without any explanation the girl departed leaving the chaos she had caused behind her.

Some days later Maria and the mysterious visitor appeared before Mr Grove, the sitting magistrate at Greenwich Police court. Mr Evans conducted the prosecution case and Mr May represented the defendant whose named was Mrs Headlewick. Mr May cross-examined Maria and soon discovered that some time ago she had lost a valuable gold ring and had taken an unusual course of action to retrieve it. Maria told the solicitor that she had paid 2sto a fortuneteller to ascertain its whereabouts. This had revealed (if that the teller was to be believed) that:

‘the person who had taken the ring was a fair young woman, who was now gone into the country either by steam-boat or railway, and would remain away some time’.

While this might apply to quite a lot of people (as is often the case with fortune telling) Maria was sure that this applied to the person that had visited her. She explained that she was convinced that her assailant had not only taken her jewelry but had stolen from her own aunt, and she made a point of telling the young woman’s relatives this.

The court heard that for the last three months Mrs Headlewick had indeed been away, in Burton-upon-Trent, and it was only when she returned with her husband to London that she got wind of Maria’s accusation that she was a thief. So now the assault makes sense. Mrs Headlewick was angry that Maria was defaming her to her family and had gone round to confront her.

The magistrate was clear that an assault had occurred even if there had been  understandable provocation. However the more serious crime of robbery was harder to resolve. He told Mrs Headlewick that she would have to pay a fine of 5or go to prison. Given that both ladies were able to hire lawyers to represent them there was never any danger that the defendant was going inside for the assault. The fine was paid and the two women left court but neither were satisfied with the outcome. The fine was paltry and the accusation of theft was left unresolved.

For me it is a reminder that in the mid Victorian age people were prepared to place their trust in charlatans who promised to tell their future and solve mysteries in the present. Then again, do we actually live in a much more enlightened time ourselves?

[from Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper, Sunday, May 25, 1845]

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:

The customer that no one wants

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In the week before Christmas 1848 a young man named Thomas Pheny walked into a coffee house near Euston Station. He asked the proprietor, Mrs Humphries, for a coffee and paid her with a crown coin. Mrs Humphries was tired and worried about her rent, which was almost due, so she dropped the crown into her counter bag and gave the man his coffee and his change.

On the following night Pheny was back; this time he called for a cup of tea with some bread and butter. He handed over a half sovereign and he got back 9s9dchange. For those of you unfamiliar with pre-decimal currency a sovereign was worth 10s (or 120d) and a crown 5s.

On the Friday of the same week the man came back into the coffee shop, but this time he was dressed differently, perhaps not wishing to be easily identified. He bought a coffee and paid with a half sovereign, receiving three half-crowns amongst his change. One of these he held up and gave back to Mrs Humphries, telling her it ‘was bad’ (in other words, it was counterfeit). She checked, agreed, and exchanged it.

After he had left the coffee house the owner examined the contents of her till bag and discovered that one of the crowns and four half-sovereigns were all ‘bad’. Now she suspected that Pheny had been deliberately using her coffee house to ‘utter’ false coin – changing larger fake coins for smaller legitimate ones by spending small amounts on coffee and tea. She alerted the police and waited.

Sure enough the next day, Saturday 23 December 1848 in walked Thomas Pheny and he ordered a coffee. When he tried to pay with a counterfeit half-sovereign Mrs Humphries grabbed him and called out for help. Pheny was arrested and in the ensuing investigation a number of the coins were directly traced back to him. Moreover it was quickly established that he was supposedly connected to a gang of coiners that had been defrauding tradesmen ‘in various parts of the town’ for some time. He was taken to Marylebone Police court where he was remanded in custody for further investigation.

Uttering was hard to prove even with a fairly reliable witness like Mrs Humphries. A good lawyer would be able to sow doubt in the minds of the jury that anyone could prove that the bad money produced came from Pheny and wasn’t already in the bag. After all Pheny himself had handed back a coin that the coffee house lady had attempted to give him in change. If other members of the gang could be caught then there was a chance the police could get a successful prosecution and take the criminals off the streets: those convicted could expect a prison sentence of anything from six months to several years.

But there seems to be no record of Thomas Pheny at the Old Bailey so on this occasion he may have been lucky. Or he may have been using a false name as well as his false coins, and have slipped by unnoticed by history. We can be sure Mrs Humphries would  be taking greater care with her money in future however.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, 27 December, 1848]

Is tea the cure for alcoholism? One poet swears by it.

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Lest we be in any doubt about the problems caused by alcohol in the late nineteenth century the reports from the Police courts bear testimony to them. They are all of individuals (men and women) who are there because they are addicted to alcohol or are at least unable to control the amount they drink, or the affects it has on them.

The last quarter of the 1800s saw the rise of the Temperance Movement which strove to ween individuals off the ‘demon drink’ and to get them to sign the ‘pledge’ of abstinence. Out of this came the Police Court Missionary Service, the forerunner of Probation, which helped those brought into the courts, but only if they would promise to remain sober in future.

Drunkenness led to disorderly behaviour, to the verbal abuse of officials and police; to the physical abuse of partners and children; to poverty and homelessness; and ultimately to a debilitating death. The police courts were full of it, as these cases from Thames Police court (in London’s East End) in 1899 demonstrate.

The first person up before Mr Mead (the magistrate) was Mr William (or ‘Spring’) Onions. William was a self-styled poet who had struggled for years with a drink problem. Recently he’d overcome it and was in in May 1899 not because of any misdemeanour he committed but for a much more positive reason. He’d come to tell the justice that he’d been sober for six months.

How had he managed it, everyone (including Mr Mead) wanted to know? What was the secret of his sobriety?

It was simple, ‘Spring’ Onions declared. He’d exchanged beer for tea.

 ‘Tea is the thing, sir‘ he explained: ‘I take four or five pints of it everyday, instead of four and twenty pints of beer‘.

He heaped some fulsome praise on the bench, shared some anecdotes about his ‘companions’ in drink, and reminded everyone that he was a poet before leaving the courtroom.

The next person to take the stand was Samuel Freeman, a ‘tailor’s dresser’ from Mile End. He was charged with selling illicit alcohol door-to-door. He’d been under surveillance by the Inland Revenue (this was an offence of tax – or duty – avoidance so fell under their purview) and detective inspector Arthur Llewellyn had stopped him in Anthony Street as he made his deliveries.

He was found with two remaining bottles of spirt which he said he sold for 1s 6d at a profit of sixpence a bottle. He admitted to being able to shift 7-8 pints of this a week and at his home the officers found two gallons of unlicensed spirits ready to be sold. This was a racket that exposed the desperate desire locally for cheap booze; the sort of drink that wrecked the lives like those of William Onions.

Mr Mead gave him the option of paying  a 40s fine or going to prison for fourteen days.

Finally William Pocklingstone was brought up to face the court. He was an old man and admitted his crime of ‘being drunk and disorderly’. He had a ready-made excuse however (possibly one he’d ventured before).

He said he ‘was an old Navy man, and got drinking the health of Britain’s pride – the Queen, God bless her!’

What has Britain’s pride got to do with May 19?’ the magistrate asked him.

I had an idea it was the Queen’s birthday,’ the old salt explained, ‘and made a day of it‘.

It wasn’t Victoria’s birthday at all (she was born on the 20 June) but the magistrate decided to take pity on the old man so long as he promised to address his drink problem. He would let him go today without penalty if he swore to keep sober for the monarch’s actual birthday in a month. William said he certainly would (although I doubt anyone believed him) and he was released.

All three cases show that drink and alcoholism had deep roots in Victorian society and remind us that our concerns (about ‘binge drinking’, super strength lager and cider, and supposedly rising levels of alcohol consumption) are nothing new. Nor has anything that has been done to curb the British love affair with booze had that much effect.

Cheers!

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, May 27, 1899]