An attempted poisoning in Bermondsey

The 1840s were famous for the trial of Francois Courvoisier for the murder of his master, Lord William Russell. Courvoisier was executed, in public and his hanging was watched by Thackeray who condemned the behaviour of the crowd that day. Russell’s murder led to a reform of the Detective Branch and the hanging of his killer prompted more calls for the end of public execution in England (not achieved until after 1868).

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However, while the papers mostly concentrated on the high profile murder of a member of the Peerage other, lesser, crimes continued to fill columns in the daily and weekly news sheets.

In May 1844 John Lever was hauled before the magistrate at Union Hall charged with attempting to murder his wife, Margaret, with poison. This was his second appearance and he was represented by a lawyer who challenged some of the evidence given earlier that week.

The court heard that Leaver, a hairdresser from Bermondsey, often purchased arsenic ‘for the purpose of destroying rats’ in his house. His son (George, aged 11) – who had triggered the case by reporting seeing his father put something in his mother’s tea (and so warning her not to drink it) – was cross examined by the defence.

He admitted seeing his father skim the top of the cup rather than add anything to it. The court was told that Lever was ‘in the habit of putting carbonate of soda into the teapot of a morning, to extract all the juice out of the tea leaves’. The boy had witnessed quarrels between the couple and his father threaten his mother on at least one occasion, but he admitted that was a while ago.

Margaret told the court she had taken the cup to Guy’s Hospital to discover if her husband had indeed poisoned it as her son feared. A witness form the hospital confirmed this and said that white sediment had been discovered in the cup, which proved later to be arsenic. It wasn’t enough to kill but was certainly sufficient to cause injury and illness.

However, she added had taken no more than sip and finding it burnt had stopped. She hadn’t wanted to take the drink to the hospital and would not have done so had she realized he would have ended up in court for it. This is perhaps indicative of the difficultly women had in prosecuting their spouses in the period, and the potential of losing the main breadwinner if he was convicted.

John Lever denied the charge of attempted murder and said ‘his wife and her acquaintances’ had fabricated it. At his trial (in June 1844) he was formally acquitted of the charge, we have no idea what happened to the relationship after that but Margaret had already left him to stay with friends in the ‘country’.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, May 31, 1844]

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Not so much a ‘dumb waiter’ as a mute diner

In late May 1813 while most of Europe watched the beginnings of the slow demise of Napoleon’s first Empire, Bow Street police court had to deal with a rather odd case.

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A Covent Garden coffee house

Mr. William Cunningham, a former Lloyd’s underwriter and wine merchant, was brought on the unusual charge of not paying for his dinner. Cunningham had walked into Hummums Coffee House at Covent Garden and been shown the menu. He indicated to the waiting staff that there was nothing on it he fancied but instead he’d like a neck of mutton and some Madeira wine.

Having eaten his fill and emptied the bottle he left, without paying. Staff pursued him but he ignored their entreaties to return by simply shaking his head. They then took him to Bow Street office (close by) where he was examined by the sitting justice, Mr. Read.

Cunningham refused to speak and so was taken to the Watch House to be detained. On the following morning he was again presented at Bow Street and Mr. Nares again asked him to explain himself. Not only did he continue to act dumb but the Watch House keeper reported that he ‘not uttered a syllable during the time he had been in his custody’. Nor did he have any money to pay for his keep in the Watch House (prisoners had to pay their own costs in this period, and often were not released until they had).

The magistrate committed him to Tothill Fields bridwell as ‘idle and disorderly’ (the default ‘catch all charge’ of its day) where, for ‘four or five days he refused to take any food’. The medical officer there offered him wine, which he drank but he hardly consumed anything else.

No one could be found who knew him (as he refused to speak) but some papers on his person indicated he lived in Whitechapel so the governor of the bridewell sent a request to have him transferred there. Parish officials knew of him and said he was ‘deranged’ but had no recollection of him being ‘dumb’. Once he had served his time he was let go, ‘care in the community’ we would call it today.

[from The Examiner , Sunday, May 30, 1813]

A case of extreme poverty and embezzlement

In May 1888 the newspapers were dominated (in terms of crime news) with the shocking murder of a young man in the Regent’s Park. This is something I’ve written about previously and I may return to in this blog but for now I was keen to see what else made the news in reporting from the police courts.

Elizabeth Sarah Davies, a 28 year old boot machinist with 4 young children, was brought up at Dalston Police Court in North East London charged with embezzlement.

Elizabeth was accused of taking no less than 40 boot uppers (worth around £2 – or £120 in today’s money) belonging to her employer’s, Alexander Lion & Company of Phipps Street. The works manager appeared and said she had been given the uppers as piecework to be paid at 1s a dozen. There was some discussion of the actual amount she would have been paid and it is clear that this was ‘out work’ (meaning she took the items home with her as was quite common at the time).

The uppers were due back on the following Saturday but she and goods never appeared. On investigation it became clear that Elizabeth had sold them for 3s. The manager accepted there were ‘extenuating circumstances’: Elizabeth and her family were starving. She had sold the uppers because she and the children had ‘not eaten for three days’. Her brother appeared for her and promised to pay the firm the £2 owing if they would just bind Elizabeth over instead of imprisoning her.

The magistrate agreed that this was a ‘sad’ case and decided to remand her for one day only, after which she would be released. There is no record of what happened next; did Elizabeth lose for employment (that is likely), did she have to enterer the workhouse with her children or was her brother able to support them both? Where was the father, dead, in prison or had he deserted them? This is one of those cases which reveals the human misery of the late nineteenth century before the Liberal reforms of the early twentieth began to improve the lives of the poorest.

[from Daily News , Tuesday, May 29, 1888]

An accident on the streets of London

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William Hogarth;s Second Stage of Cruelty

The thoroughfares of the metropolis were crowded with traffic in the later nineteenth century; thousands of horse-drawn vehicles competed with pedestrians and handcarts to make their way across and around the city. Accidents were, as today, a fact of life.

In May 1868 a car-man (the van drivers of their day) was brought up at Guildhall Police Court on a charge of dangerous driving. Andrew White, aged 23, was a van driver for a corn chandler and he had been driving his vehicle along the Farringdon Road at great speed at about 6 in the early evening.

He was seen by a witness just as he was passing the workhouse, it looked like he was losing control as he was trying to pull the horse to a stop. The horse seemed frightened and despite the best efforts of the driver he couldn’t stop the horse and van from careering across the street.

Another man (John Blunt) and his son were riding in the van and, seeing that the van might turn over, the man dropped his son to the road and leapt after him. They were unharmed but the van ran into two labourers, knocking them over. It then crashed over the kerb and knocked down a small child, the wheels running over his neck.

When he had eventually stopped the van the driver climbed down and ‘said he was very sorry for what he had done, but he could not help it’. The boy was killed but everyone seemed to agree it was a tragic accident, not a crime. White was described a ‘sober, hard working’ individual and the magistrate decided that it was a ‘sad accident’ but he ‘could see no blame attaching to the defendant, and at once discharged him’.

[from Daily News , Thursday, May 28, 1868]

a middle aged woman ‘of prepossessing countenance’

In the course of research for my first book on the summary courts of the City of London  I found that the eighteenth-century City justices spent a considerable amount of their time dealing with streetwalkers brought in by one over zealous parish constable named Thomas Paine. Paine was a God fearing Protestant who abhorred whores almost as much as he detested Catholics. One more than one occasion Paine brought the magistracy a cart load of prostitutes for them to admonish, fine or send to Bridewell.

Prostitution continued to be a problem in the 1800s and periodically the authorities determined to clamp down on it. In May 1823 upwards of 60 women were cleared from the streets of the capital and the worst offenders committed to gaol. The encounter between the presiding magistrate at Bow Street, Sir Richard Birnie, and one of the nymphs of the Pave’ was recorded by the papers for the amusement of their readers.

Anne Reeves, a middle aged woman ‘of prepossessing countenance, and delicate manner’ appeared and Sir Richard expressed his astonishment that a person such as herself should be at the bar like this; what had brought her to this? Anne begged his lordship’s pardon and said she was going to Bath ‘but she had a had a few things that were…’

…and ‘here the Lady set up a ha! ha! ha! and exclaimed – You know what I mean Sir Richard!’

‘Indeed I do not’, the justice replied, ‘but I suppose you mean pawned’.

Anne admitted that was indeed her problem. Sir Richard said he was inclined to believe her ‘plausible story’ and let her off with a warning and an instruction to go to Bath where she would be a problem for someone else.

[from The Morning Post , Tuesday, May 27, 1823]

‘Accidents, offences, etc’: reports from the Police courts

Today’s entry is not strictly a report from one police office but rather a short section entitled ‘Accidents, Offences etc.’ from the The Morning Post on May 26, 1806.

It reported that a person of ‘rank at the west end of town’ had been committed to prison by a police magistrate ‘on a charge of an offensive nature’. He (or possible she) are not named nor is the offence described but it was quite likely to have been of a sexual nature. Rape was never referred by its title and this continued throughout the century. So if a press report makes reference to a woman being ‘outraged’ (on the railway for example), then the contemporary reader would have understood this to mean a sexual assault of some description had taken place. The Victorians were not as prudish as they have been made out but they deployed euphemism much more frequently than we do.

In the same column we are told that two ‘young ladies’ drowned themselves that week; one on account of ‘lunacy’, the other of a cause unknown. A vicar at St. Paul’s grammar school also took his own life, hanging himself; it was explained by his exhibiting a ‘deranged mind’ for some weeks previously.

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In Drury Lane a journeyman painter fell from a two-story window and was ‘killed on the spot’. He left behind a wife and ‘family’. More happily a raft with seven American seamen on-board, were rescued and brought into Dover. Their ship, the sloop Lilly, had sunk with all hands.

[from The Morning Post , Monday, May 26, 1806]

A personal tragedy averted (for the time being at least)

Suicide is not longer a criminal act but until 1961 it was an offence under law. Indeed up until 1822  suicides could even have their estate confiscated by the state (an instruction that dated back to the 13th century). The rationale was that suicide was an immoral act, against God and the monarch and so deserved punishment. Even in the 1950s failed suicides could expect a prison sentence and this is why, in late May 1866, Abraham Gentleman found himself in Worship Street Police Court.

Abraham was a 54 year-old shoemaker living in Bethnal Green, in London’s East End. He was deaf and dumb and his wife and two of his sons had recently died of illness in Whitechapel hospital. He must have been a very low point in his life as one of his surviving sons told the court that day.

The shoemaker was himself ill and and that, with the addition of some strong alcohol (which he was not used to) must, his son insisted, have tipped him over the edge.

The police had been summoned to Gentleman’s home at 11pm at night and PC Mankerton of H Division had found him lying by the fire, insensible. There were rope marks around his neck and a ‘twisted line’ lying nearby. It seemed the cord had dislodged from a nail on the wall, thankfully (the newspaper said) saving him from certain death.

His son promised his father would eschew alcohol in future (and Abraham nodded his assent to this) and not make any further attempts on his own life. The Victorians had much less understanding of depression than us and perhaps less sympathy as a result. The justice, with what seems like callous indifference, merely remanded him in custody.

[from Daily News , Friday, May 25, 1866]