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 ]

Charges of pomposity, adultery and theft are levelled at a couple from the East End, but little sticks

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Anne Ferrell (or possibly Varrell) had only a short interval between her twin appearances at the bar of the Worship Street Police court in 1844. On the first occasion she’d been accused of pledging the contents of a room she shared with William Smelt in Blue Anchor Alley in the parish of St Luke’s, east London.

On 1 November her partner abandoned her and the landlord, finding the room emptied of his property, took her to court. She admitted that she and Smelt had pledged the items but pleaded poverty. She said her legal husband (another William) had run out on her and their four year-old daughter some months previously and she was close to starving when she set up with Smelt.

This story had elicited considerable sympathy from the court and ‘several subscriptions’ were raised to help her. The parish officers were also asked to look into her circumstances to see he was eligible for their help.

They discovered that while William Farrell had indeed left her it was on account of her own behavior. He alleged (and others agreed) that she was ‘a woman of most profligate habits, who had pledged and sold every article belonging to her husband that she could lay her hands on’.

When she had finished with him she moved in with Smelt instead. The magistrate commiserated with Farrell and ordered that the monies that had been paid to her be repaid into the poor box. He’d not long finished with her when she was called back into court to answer a charge of conspiring with Smelt to rob their lodgings in Blue Anchor Alley.

Mr Broughton was told that the room was let by a poor shoemaker named Thomas Howes and once the pair’s guilt was clearly established he asked Smelt if he had anything to say for himself. He certainly did.

Smelt ‘with great pomposity’ declared himself to be ‘a socialist, and that he had been actuated by principles, the perfect rectitude of which would, he felt satisfied, be made truly manifest to the whole world’.

The justice asked him if his so-called ‘principles’ extended to ‘living in open adultery with another man’s wife?’

Smelt had an answer for this too.

He said that ‘on the day of resurrection there would be neither marrying nor giving in marriage; and that the ties of mutual attachment would be held as scared as any bonds sanctioned by mere human institutions’.

He had launched into his own sermon when Mr Broughton cut him short. Was he attempting to justify robbing a poor man of his property he asked.

Smelt replied that he was only ‘borrowing’ the items and fully intended to repay the ‘debt’ he accrued.  He followed this up with a long winded diatribe against everyone that had ever slighted him or done him wrong, saying that his talents and virtue had ‘utterly been lost’ as the country had gone downhill in recent years.

Mr Broughton had heard enough. Silencing him again he said his words were ‘utterly subversive of every principle of morality and religion’, and he committed them both to Newgate to face trial for the thefts.

They did face trial, on the 25th November 1844. Both were cleared.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, November 27, 1844]

‘The more I look at you the more convinced I am that you are the man that tricked me’

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William Hurley admitted to being a thief.  However, on this occasion, as he stood in the Bow Street dock on 21 November 1898 he strongly denied he had committed the crime for which he’d been charged. He brought in a lawyer to represent him but in the course of his examination he dismissed him and took over his own defense.

His accuser was a Miss Alice Bull who gave her address as Haverstock Hill in northwest London. She had traveled into central London on the train, stopping at Charing Cross where she deposited a black box at the cloakroom. As she was leaving the office a man came running up to her and said:

‘Excuse me; you have just left a black box in the cloak-room, and I have left a Gladstone bag. Unfortunately, you have taken my ticket, and I have got yours’.

He showed her his ticket and suggested they swap. Alice was wary:

‘How am I to know that your story is correct’, she asked.

‘’It’s all correct’, he assured her. ‘If you have any doubt about it, come back to the cloak-room with me’.

Reassured, Alice handed over the ticket and went off to spend the day in the capital. However, when she returned to the station in the evening and produced what she thought was her ticket she was given a brown paper parcel, which contained nothing other than a daily newspaper. Her box, and the watch and chain, three gold brooches, and clothing – valued at around £30 – was nowhere to be seen.

She reported the theft and the police investigated. The box turned up in a railway carriage at Action, lodged under a seat and devoid of its contents. The police did track down and arrest a suspect – William Hurley (23) and Alice picked him out in an identity parade at Old Kent Road police station.

Thomas Jones, the porter at the Charing Cross cloak room having at first failed to identify Hurley was more sure it was him when he saw him at Bow Street Police court. However, since he admitted that since 12,000 parcels were deposited each day at the station (a staggering amount when one thinks about it) there must have been some degree of doubt in his mind.

Alice went on the offensive in court, clearly annoyed that she had been robbed in this way. The only thing that had been found in her box was a ball of string.

‘Is that yours?’ she asked the man in the dock.

The magistrate (Mr Sydney) reminded her that she was not allowed to cross-examine the defendant, but she was not to be put off. When Hurley claimed it was a case of mistaken identity and that he knew who had stolen her property, and it wasn’t him, she said:

‘Why don’t you bring him here so that I might compare you? The more I look at you the more convinced I am that you are the man’.

Hurley, having dismissed his lawyer, again denied the charge, told the court he was a tailor and said he ‘had ten or eleven witnesses that he was at Gatwick Races on the day of the this occurrence, and did not return to London until 10 o’clock that night’.

The justice committed him to take his trial.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, November 22, 1898]

A sharp eyed passer-by foils a burglary

Bethnal-Green-Road

Mrs Isabel James was on her way home wither husband one Sunday night in November 1886. It was late, around midnight, and she was passing a warehouse on Bethnal Green Road when she noticed something that didn’t seem right.

A pony and cart was parked outside the warehouse, partly obscuring the door to the premises. As she looked she saw a man standing between the cart and the door and another, stopped over, who seemed to be fiddling with the lock. The standing man started straight at her, so she got a good look at him. He looked like he was trying to hide ‘as much as possible the movements of his companion’ so she told her husband that they should report it to the police.

As soon as they found a constable they explained what they’d seen and he, with another officer, went off to investigate. On reaching the warehouse they saw a man in the cart, who, seeing two policemen arriving raised the alarm and the pair of would-be burglars raced off as fast as the pony and cart could carry them, with the policemen in hot pursuit.

The chase continued through several back streets but by the time the officers caught up with the vehicle the men had escaped. However, Mrs James was able to give such a clear description of the man she’d eyeballed that it led to the arrest and charging of John Bloxham on suspicion.

His name had come up when the owner of the cart had come to claim it from the police. He explained he lent it to Bloxham (although he had no idea he was going to use it was such a nefarious purpose) and the police had their lead. They arranged an identity parade and Mrs James picked Bloxham out.

At the Worship Police court Bloxham, a 32 year old general dealer from Shoreditch, denied the crime. Mr Bushby was told that when the police investigated the warehouse (which was owned by a boot and shore manufacturer named Samuel Lyon) they had discovered that a ‘very determined effort had been made to force the door with a jemmy’. The lock had been broken although it wasn’t clear if the thieves had gained access of taken anything. At this stage Mr Bushby simply agreed to the police’s request to remand Bloxham while further enquiries were made.

The enquiries were made and Bloxham was formally charged with housebreaking and tried at the Middlesex quarter sessions on 6 December. There was insufficient evidence however, and he was cleared of the crime.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, November 17, 1886]

The ‘Swell mob’ is undone by two ‘intrepid’ females

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Samuel Harris and George Edwards were, it was alleged, members of a notorious gang of smartly dressed criminals who targeted the  pockets of the wealthy at fairs and other large public gatherings. In July 1855 the two were out and about in Whitechapel and Harris had just taken a purse from a woman’s pocket when a sharp voice rang out:

‘You vagabond, you have just picked the lady’s pocket!’

The cry came from a servant girl, Emma Shearman, who was walking out with her mistress the widowed Mrs Whittaker. Emma moved swiftly to try and catch hold of Harris and in the process he dropped the purse he’d stolen. As he tried to pick it up she stood on it. Harris and Edwards fled with the two women in hot pursuit.

One of them grabbed Harris by the collar and spun him round, he lashed out with his cane hitting her on the head. The women persisted despite the violence and were eventually assisted by the arrival of PC H66 and the High Constable of Tower Hamlets, Thomas Reynolds. The two thieves were removed to the station house.

When they appeared for their hearing at the Worship House police court the station gaoler told the magistrate that the two were well-known to the police as members of the ‘swell mob’ who with a ‘gang’ of others turned up to races and the like, dressed in fine clothes and in a hired ‘stylish-looking chaise’ so they pass themselves off as moneyed and ‘respectable’. This ruse allowed them to get close to their victims. He added that recently one of them had a attended a confirmation at church where a man  was robbed of a £50 gold watch.

They were fully committed for trial.

The ‘swell mob’ was a term in common usage during the nineteenth century. It was applied to those criminals that lived well off the pickings they made as thieves and con-men. They saw themselves as the ‘elite’ of criminals and dressed to ape the habits of the middle-class. They were part of the so-called ‘criminal class’ of Victorian London – a term that historians of crime have warned us to not take too literally.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Saturday, July 14, 1855]

This post first appeared in July 2016

‘Take that you _____!’: a pickpocket loses her cool

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Amongst the most common crimes that women were accused of at the summary courts was picking pockets. Female offenders appear in greater numbers (and larger proportions) for these property offences than nearly all others – shopflifting being the obvious other one.

Picking pockets is an indirect, non-violent crime, one that involves dexterity and stealth, rather than strength and bravado. It required the perpetrator to get close to his or her victim and, to some extent at least, to not seem like a threat. Pickpockets chose crowds or tightly packed spaces like omnibuses or train carriages,  and victims that were unsuspecting, like drunks in bars.

Female thieves were also often, like Elizabeth Smith, prostitutes who were well connected with the criminal networks they either needed to sell on stolen items or to retreat within to hide when the law was after them. Picking pockets was risky; if you were caught and it could be proved you’d stolen items of value you could be sent to prison. If you had previous convictions that could mean a lengthy sentence.

However, there was also a reasonable chance that you would get away with it, especially if you had an accomplice. It was pretty standard practice for a thief to ‘dip’ a pocket and pass the stolen items on to a nearby assistant who’d make away wit them. When the thief was apprehended a search would reveal nothing at all making it hard to gain a conviction.

Not all pickpockets were subtle however, and not all eschewed violence.

In late October 1860 Elizabeth Smith was brought before the magistrate at Lambeth Police court charged with robbery with violence, a much more serious offence than pickpocketing. By all accounts Smith had been picking pockets in a beer shop in Lambeth, Walker’s on the Marshgate.

Edwin Oliver, a master boot and shoemaker was enjoying a glass of stout after work when he saw Smith trying to separate a drunken man from his possessions. He strode over to the couple and intervened, getting a mouthful of abuse from Elizabeth for his pains.

Some time later he left the shop and was making his way towards hoe when he felt a blow on his head and was knocked to the ground. The blow was accompanied by a woman’s voice (Elizabeth’s he believed) saying:

‘There you ______, take that!’

Oliver passed out and when he was helped up later his head was bloody and his pockets had been rifled. He reckoned he had lost between 15 and 18 shillings in coin.

It took a day but the police picked up Elizabeth and she was remanded while Oliver recovered from his wounds. When she came before the magistrate she said little. The justice established from Oliver that she might have had a male accomplice, perhaps her ‘bully’ (or pimp), and so it may have been him that thumped the shoemaker. Elizabeth was committed for trial by jury.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Monday, October 29, 1860]

‘Skylarking’ leaves one youth in hospital when he picks on the wrong victim

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Historians of crime have estimated that in the 18thand 19thcenturies only a small percentage of assaults (even fairly serious ones) reached the courts. Even when prosecutors did bring assaults before the magistracy in 18thcentury London the most common outcome was a settlement between the two parties, often brokered by the justice.

Arguably, this was mostly because inter-personal non-fatal violence was treated as a civil rather than a criminal offence, and so did not always need a jury’s deliberations. In the previous century and for much of the 1800s it was property crime that occupied the minds of legislators and the justice system. However, it seems to be the case that over the course of the nineteenth century violence increasingly became the focus of concerns about crime.

Perhaps this is reflected in this case from the Thames Police court in 1864 which occurred just 3 years after parliament had consolidated the various laws concerning interpersonal violence in one piece of legislation: the Offences Against the Person Act (24 & 25 Vict. c.100).

Herman Menus, a German immigrant, was charged with cutting and wounding Timothy Bryan, an Irish labourer. The victim was not in court to press the charge and Mr Partridge was told this was because ‘he either did not care about the wound as a serious one’ or had been compensated by some of Menus’ friends.

Nevertheless the case against the 38 year-old skin-dresser proceeded because, as Mr Partridge said, it was serious. He stated that ‘cutting and wounding cases had become so alarmingly common that the investigation must be continued’ and he remanded the German in custody.

The facts presented were that a police constable from H Division was called to a disturbance in Lambeth Street where he found Bryan lying in the gutter with a long cut to his face. He took the injured man back to Leman Street police station where he was treated. Whilst there he had some sort of fit but was now stable.

John Conley, a surgeon living on Whitechapel High Street, deposed that the wound was serious but not life threatening. In his defence Menus told the court that he had been attacked by a group of lads as he was going home from work. He was struck twice about the head and reacted, using the two cans he was carrying with him. One of these connected with Bryan’s cheek causing the injury. He used no knife at all.

The police confirmed that Bryan was one of the groups of lads that were involved in baiting the skin-dresser, which perhaps explains his reluctance to appear in court against him. Bryan was most likely part of the gang or group of ‘roughs’ who were known to pick on foreigners or anybody else they might like to terrorize on the capital’s streets. Unfortunately for him he had selected a victim who was quite capable of defending himself.

The prisoner was brought up the following day to be questioned again and so Mr Partridge could finally decide his fate. Now the court heard that Bryan was a fireman on a steam ship bound for Bordeaux in France. Menus had hired a solicitor to represent him.

Bryan appeared and said he was having some difficulty in speaking due the injuries he’d sustained in the attack on him. He told the court that he and his mates had just been ‘skylarking’ when Menus had said something to him. One thing led to another and blows were exchanged. He was drunk at the time he admitted, so his memory of the events was hazy at best. Several witnesses for both parties testified that there was equal fault on each side.

In the end the magistrate decided the best thing was this to be sorted out by a jury and so he committed Menus to take his trial.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, September 24, 1864; The Standard, Monday, September 26, 1864]