A lucky counterfeiter or a young man with deeper problems? Mercury and bad money at Bow Street

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William Collins was lucky. In 1841 he had a brush with the law that might have ended in a quite serious prosecution and, most likely, a prison sentence. As it was the sitting magistrate at Bow Street chose to believe his version of events over that of the police, and he walked out of court a free man. With a different magistrate, and in previous decades, he may not have been so fortunate.

Collins was charged with passing counterfeit money (‘uttering’ as it was often described). He had entered a butcher’s shop in Charles Street and attempted to pay for a ‘quarter pound of beef’ with a ‘bad’ fourpenny piece. The butcher (George Garland) rejected the young man’s coin and demanded another. Colins produced a shilling and a sixpence from the same pocket and handed them over. Garland carefully examined each, told him the shilling was also ‘bad’ but accepted the sixpence. Collins left with his supper and 2din change.

Next he went to the Anchor and Crown pub in King Street and ordered a pint of beer. When Edward Hoey the landlord asked him to pay he handed him the shilling that had been refused earlier. Hoey refused it and Collis tried another coin, a halfpenny which was fine. He drank his pint and left.

Some moments later a man approached the bar and spoke to the landlord. He asked if a person fitting Collins’ description had been in and when he was told he had said he had him under surveillance for some time. The man was an early police detective named Roberts and having been informed that his quarry was  close by he rushed off after him, arresting him soon afterwards and taking him to the nearest police station.

Detective Roberts questioned his prisoner and sent for the landlord and the butcher. On the following Saturday both men and the detective were in court to give evidence against Collins.

The young ‘strenuously denied’ knowing that the money was counterfeit and was very clear about how he had acquired it. He can’t have come across as a criminal and Mr Jardine seemed ready to believe he was innocent. The justice asked the policeman who’d searched him at the station whether any other ‘bad’ coins had been found on him. The constable replied that none had but the lad did possess a bottle of quicksilver, which he kept in the same pocket as his money. The quicksilver (mercury) would have tarnished the coins he owed. This seems to have convinced Mr Jardine of his innocence although the other witnesses were less sure that they hadn’t narrowly avoided being ripped off by a fraudster. They insisted the coins were fake.

So the magistrate sent the constable off with the coins to be tested by a nearby jeweler. The expert opinion was that the coins were indeed ‘genuine, but discolored in consequence of being placed with quicksilver’. The magistrate turned to the young man in the dock and apologized to him for having held him in custody while the facts were checked. He said he hoped he understood that while he was now cleared of any suggestion of criminal behavior the ‘affair [looked] very suspicious’ based on the witnesses produced in court.

But why might Collins have had a phial of mercury on his person? In the 1800s there were plenty of uses for a metal that we would be rather concerned to find someone wandering the streets of London with. Mercury is highly toxic. However in the Victorian period plenty of substance we would consider dangerous were readily available and used in everyday operations at home and at work.  Collins might have been self-medicating with mercury; it was used as disinfectant, diuretic and even as a laxative.

At points in history mercury was used to treat syphilis, a disease that was rife in nineteenth-century London. However, the treatment could be as bad as, worse even, than the disease itself. Mercury can induce mental illness (that was the – possibly apocryphal – story behind Lewis Carroll’s ‘Mad Hatter’ – as mercury was used in the manufacture of hats) and cause other, physical, problems for the user.

So perhaps William Collins wasn’t that lucky after all?

[from The Morning Post, Monday, May 03, 1841]

The problem of syphilis and its treatment is something I cover in my new co-authored book on the Whitechapel (‘Jack the Ripper’) murders. This 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]

A young lad is ‘too sharp for his prosecutors’, and swallows the evidence

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Mrs Sarah Cameron ran a tobacconist shop on the Broadway in Westminster, central London. One evening in November 1840 a young man  called William Meeton entered the ‘snuff and tobacco’ shop and asked for a cigar. He handed over half a crown and she gave him the cigar and his change (which consisted of ‘two shillings and four pennyworth of halfpences’).

Meeton scraped up the coin but after examining carefully it ‘threw down a shilling alleging it was bad’. He accused the tobacconist of trying to fob him off with forgeries but Mrs Cameron was sure the coins she had handed over were fine, and she said so. Now she suspected him of committing a crime and called for a policeman who soon arrived and arrested the lad.

William Meeton was charged at Queen’s Square Police Court with uttering – a variant of the wider crime of coining and forgery. While forging meant making false notes (and coming, fake coins), uttering described the practice of using or distributing counterfeit money.

The magistrate demande to see the coin in question. Sadly Mrs Cameron didn’t have it. Why not, Mr Burrell asked?

The young man had swallowed it she told him, along with several other shillings he had in his possession. It was a common enough ploy to get rid of the evidence (albeit temporarily). The chief usher of the Police Court informed his worship that that the accused was ‘well known’ to the court, which would have counted against him. However, without the proof that the shillings were bad there was little the justice could do. After some conferring Mr Burrell and his clerk agreed that no case could be made without the coins as evidence.

He turned to Meeton and told him that while today he ‘had been too sharp for his prosecutors’ his card was marked, and warned him about his future conduct. He was discharged, presumably to find the nearest privy!

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, November 18, 1840]

NB a half-crown was worth 2 shillings and 6 pence so you can work out for yourselves just how much Mrs Cameron was selling her cigars for. No age is given for Meeton but this wouldn’t matter anyway in the context of the 19th century. There was no age restriction on buying or selling tobacco to minors until 1933. It still isn’t illegal for children to smoke but under 16 it is subject to parental control. 

Like a bad penny old Annie keeps turning up

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It is always a bad sign when a defendant appears in the dock and is said to answer to more than one name. It suggests a ‘known’ criminal who is trying to keep their head down so as not to be processed up through the criminal justice system to a higher court where they might get a stiffer penalty.

Anne Hogarty was also known as Anne Flannaghan [sic] and Anne Sullivan but more importantly for her she was known to the police and the courts as someone who passed (or ‘uttered’) counterfeit money.

On this occasion she had attempted the simple ruse of waylaying  a little girl in the street and promising her a penny if went and fetched her a loaf of bread. The child rushed off with a ‘bad shilling’ in her mitt and handed it over at Mr Wheeler’s bakery on Orchard Street, Westminster. He spotted it instantly and grabbed her, demanding to know where she’d come by the coin.

The nine year-old girl pointed out Anne in the street who tried and failed to make a swift getaway and on Monday the 29 October 1860 she was hauled up before the magistrate at Westminster Police court. The Mint solicitor attended to press the charge and two publicans gave evidence that Anne has uttered bad coins on their premises as well. She tried to deny it but there was a ‘respectable’ witness who saw her talking to the child and the justice was also informed that in May 1859 Anne had served nine months for a similar offence.

Her previous convictions had caught up with her and so she was committed for trial at the Old Bailey, sadly I can find no record of what happened to her there.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, October 30, 1860]

Dodgy coins and an echo of the Titheburn Street Outrage

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Miss Philips was a barmaid working at Victoria Railway Station, in the London, Brighton and South Side refreshment bar. One of her customers had already raised her suspicions that day and when she handed over a florin that looked a little dodgy she called her manager’s attention to it.

Mr Sweeting looked ay the coin and compared it with a few others that the bar had taken that day. He was pretty sure they were counterfeit and moved quickly to have the elderly woman that had paid for her brandy with it arrested. Sweeting also noticed a man in the station who had been seen with the prisoners earlier making a hasty exit and sent the police after him as well.

The next day Laura Deane (an 80 year-old ‘disorderly woman’) and Thomas Shoster (a ‘well-dressed, middle-aged man’) were both brought before Mr Woolrych the sitting magistrate at Westminster. Shoster hailed from Liverpool and had been seen conversing with Deane at several points at Victoria. When he was searched at the police station a ‘shilling was found in an old glove’ along with several pieces of paper which had evidently been used to wrap coins in.

The suggestion was that Shoster was sending Deane out to ‘utter’ (to pass the counterfeit coin) and so change it for ‘good’ money. As for Laura Deane, she was found to have a string of pockets that she wore under her dress, seemingly to conceal coins on her person. But for the sharp eyes of the barmaid and her boss the criminal pair might have gotten away with more sharp practice that afternoon. Instead they were both remanded in custody so that the police had more time to investigate.

Interestingly Thomas Shoster gave his Liverpool address as Titheburn Street. Historians of crime will recognise this as the scene of Liverpool’s first recorded gang murder, in August 1874, just seven months before this news report in London. Richard Morgan was beaten to death by John McGrave and other members of the notorious ‘cornermen’ that infested the area.

The ‘Titheburn Street Outrage’ made national news and provoked much soul-searching about the state of Britain’s urban centres and the problem of gangs, something that has never really gone away. As for Deane and Shoster this may have been the end of their story. They leave no record in the Old Bailey or in the related records of the Digital Panopticon.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, March 21, 1875]

A Gang of Cheerful thieves at Clerkenwell are destined for a life inside

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In early August 1881 four young men appeared in the dock at Clerkenwell Police Court charged with picking pockets in Islington. It was a fairly straightforward case and so it either caught the eye of the newspaper reporter because his editor was intent on warning his readership about the perils of London’s streets, or because of the bravado displayed by the accused. I found it interesting because it shows how previous criminal behaviour and convictions were increasingly being used to identify ‘recidivist’ (or repeat) offenders.

William Hillman (26), Charles Jones (19), Edward Davies (18) and George Smith (19) were, they self-declared in court, all unemployed and homeless. They were seen attempting to pick ladies’  pockets in Upper Street, Islington, by Detective-Sergeant Holloway of N (Islington) Division Metropolitan Police in August 1881. DS Holloway watched them carefully and when he saw Davies lift a purse he called for assistance and moved in to arrest all four of them.

There was no purse in Davies’ possession (it was common practice amongst pickpockets to ditch anything that could easily tie them to a particular target) but ‘the exact amount of money that had been in the purse’ was found on him. In consequence all four young men were produced in court on the following morning.

The presiding magistrate was Mr Hosack and from the research I have doing in the archives it is becoming clear that Police Court Magistrates (or at least some of them) were not always tied to one particular court. Here Hosack was at Clerkenwell yet on the 28 July 1881 he was at Worship Street (in the East End) where he sent Emma Heath to Westminster Prison for stealing two table cloths and ‘other articles’ from her master John Waldron. He also sent John Gladding to face trial at the Middlesex Sessions for stealing a watch. Gladding, a persistent offender with a string of previous convictions, was sent into penal servitude for 6 years (with a further 5 years of supervise by the police when he got out again).

Mr Hopsack was told that some of those in front of him were also ‘known thieves’. In the nineteenth century a criminal record would dog the footsteps of a convicted man or woman and could be produced in court before the magistrate determined what to do with them. Not surprisingly then many criminals opted to give false names to police and in court in the hopes that their past crimes did not catch up with them.

Unfortunately for these four that didn’t work. Jones, as Mr Hosack heard, had been given four months ins prison for stealing from the person (pickpocketing) at Marylebone in May 1880. Then he had been using the name Alfred Rogers. Seven months later he was back in court, this time at Marlborough Street (calling himself Charles Clare), where he received a three month sentence for the same offence. In April 1881 (or four months previously) Jones was sent down for six weeks hard labour by the Guildhall magistrate. This also shows that thieves moved around London, being picked up by different police divisions and courts and so hoping to avoid being identified.

Jones wasn’t the only member of the ‘gang’ to have a criminal history. Hillman had been sentenced to four months at Clerkenwell for picking pockets and uttering counterfeit coin. Davies had also been imprisoned by the Clerkenwell magistrate for dipping pockets. Nothing could be proven in terms of a criminal record against Smith but ‘he was known as the constant companion of known thieves’ DS Holloway explained.

As a result Smith got off relatively lightly, with a month’s imprisonment. The others all received three months with hard labour. Not that it seemed to make much of an impression on the men who acted as if it was all a big joke.

They ‘demonstrated great delight at the sentence, performing a dance, and calling out to their companions at the back of the Court, “Cheer up old pals, we can sleep away that lot”. “Meet us when we come out”, and other expressions of that kind, until they were removed by the gaoler’.

For them there was little prospect of ‘going straight’. With no Probation Service (until after 1907) and little or nothing in the way of rehabilitation in the late Victorian prison system, they were likely to go the way of John Gladding. I would confidently predict that most if not all of these four men would wind up on a sentence of penal servitude with post release supervision by the police within a very few years. Thus, the revolving doors of the Victorian prison system would become a familiar sight to each of them until illness or injury finally curtailed their criminal ‘careers’.

[from The Standard, Thursday, August 04, 1881]

The detective and the banker’s clerk

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London bank clerks dressed in the height of male fashion in the Victorian period

In the middle of a May night one of the housemaid’s at a hotel in Exeter was disturbed by sounds on the landing. Opening her door she was confronted by a man in ‘his nightshirt flourishing a pistol about, … in a state of great excitement’. She called her boss and the landlord escorted the guest back to his room, assuming he had ‘been partaking too freely of wine’.

The guest, who was a young man from London named Charles Pinkatone,  didn’t heed his host’s instructions to retire to his room for long however. Shortly afterwards the household was again in uproar and this time it was the landlord’s wife who discovered Pinkatone blundering about brandishing his gun, ‘capped and loaded’.

Nothing anyone could do would quieten him or persuade him to go back to bed so the police were called. This didn’t help and the young man ended up assaulting the copper and being arrested and remanded in custody at Exeter to face a local magistrate.

Police intelligence seems to have traveled more quickly in the 1860s than we might think, because one London detective was soon on the train for Exeter with a warrant for Pinkatone’s arrest.  Robert Packman had been investigating a forgery case and Pinkatone was a prime suspect. When he caught up with he young man in Devon and having confirmed his identity he charged him with forging and uttering two cheques; one for £100, the other for £200.

The two men returned to London and on the way Packman’s prisoner was talkative, and told his captor he intended to come clean and admit his guilt. When he had been handed over by the authorities in Exeter Pinkatone had £173 in gold, ‘8s in silver and copper, a gold watch and chain, and a portmanteau, containing apparel’.

Packman wanted to know what he had done with he rest of the £300 he had exchanged the forged cheques for. The fashionable dressed young man told him he had spent it: ‘He paid about £45 for his watch, chain and appendages; £1 for a pistol, which he bought a few days before he was locked up; £1 for a portmanteau [a suitcase]’. The rest of the money he had ‘lost’ (meaning, presumably, he had gambled them away at cards).

When the pair reached London Pinkatone was produced before the Lord Mayor at Mansion House and fully committed for trail. Representatives of Messr’s Martin & Co, bankers of Lombard Street attended. As did Pinkatone’s former employer, Mr Barfield (of Loughborough & Barfield), who told the magistrate that Pinkatone had been his clerk but that he had ‘absconded without giving any notice’. The two cheques were produced in court and Barfield confirmed that the forged signature and writing on them was Pinkatone’s but the cashiers at the bank where he cashed them were unable to positively identify who had presented them.

It is possible that this helped Charles in the long run. I can’t find a record of him appearing at the Old Bailey for this or any other offence in the late 1800s. Maybe he pleaded guilty and it wasn’t published in the Sessions Papers. Perhaps the banks let him go because they knew they could not prove his guilt but his reputation was such that he would not work in the area again. It is one of many cases which touched the newspapers but disappeared just as quickly, a mystery which must remain unsolved.

[from The Morning Post , Thursday, May 08, 1862]

Update – thanks to a reader I can now say that Charles was not so lucky; he pleaded guilty at the Old Bailey on 12 May 1862 and while the jury asked for leniency (on the account of this being his first offence) he was sent to prison for four years.