‘I found her insensible’: when domestic violence ends up in tragedy

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A little after 1 in the morning on the 27 May 1889 Dr Edward Cooney was called to a house in Bayonne Road, Fulham. His patient was a woman in her early forties, who was unconscious and who appeared, to Cooney, to be suffering ‘from compression of the brain’. On examining her he found a bruise on the side of her face, by the left ear, and one under her eye.

Turning to the woman’s husband (Charles Mills) he asked how she had come by the injuries, and he admitted inflicting them himself. He treated Mary Jane Mills and left her in the care of her husband and son. Within two days however, she was dead, never recovering from her condition.

In due course Charles Mills was arrested and charged at Hammersmith Police Court with causing her death.

In court Mills again admitted hitting his wife but said it was in response to her attacking him in the middle of the night. According to his account he had been woken by her striking him hard across his head. Half-asleep he had retaliated and presumably thought he had done enough to send her back to sleep. He only realised that he had done her more harm when he awoke in the middle of the night.

Mary Jane had a history of drinking and was seemingly unable to cope with life. The couple’s son lived with them and later testified to his mother’s erratic behaviour and inability to keep the house clean and tidy. Charles Mills was a bookseller, and his son worked as a fishmonger; they had respectable occupation even if they do not seem to have been particularly well-off. Mary Jane was not fulfilling her allotted role in life, as help-mate and mother. This probably counted against her in the view of society.

On May 30th 1889 Charles Mills was remanded in custody by Mr Hannay, the Hammersmith magistrature, and on 24 June of that year he was formally tried before  jury at the Old Bailey. The charge was manslaughter and the court heard that Mills was a well respected man with a good character. His wife’s drinking was detailed in court and so was evidence that this was not the first time Charles had hit her.

A neighbour told the Old Bailey court that she had witnessed or heard several alterations between them in recent weeks, including threats to her life:

‘I remember one occasion’, Hannah Noble recounted, ‘ about four weeks previous to this occurrence—about twelve o’clock, after he came home from his work, he gave her a thrashing—I saw it through their window, which had no blind, and I saw her next day with a pair of black eyes and scratches on the side of her face—on one occasion, towards twelve o’clock, I heard him say he would do for her.’

Whether Charles Mill meant to kill his wife or not is impossible to say, but men routinely used violence in the 1800s towards their spouses and children. Domestic murder was not at all uncommon and the most likely context in which homicide occurred. While the Whitechapel murders of Jack the Ripper dominated the news hole in the 1880s incidents like this were far more typical of the daily tragedies that befell women in late Victorian London.

The jury found Charles guilty of manslaughter; how could they not given his confession to the police, his son, and Mary Jane’s mother in the immediate aftermath of her death? But they recommended him to mercy on ‘account of his character and the great provocation he received’.

The judge sentenced him to 12 months impriosnment at hard labour.

[from The Standard , Thursday, May 31, 1889]

‘Mischievous’ or ‘evil’? An 11 year-old before the Guildhall Police Court

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In the nineteenth century the age of criminal responsibility was just 7 (today it is 10). It had been set at 7 for centuries and was not raised (to 8) until 1933. However, there was an understanding in law that while a 7 year-old could be tried for a crime the courts had to prove (up until the age of 14) that the child understood that what they had done was serious and not merely ‘mischievous’. This principle in law is termed doli incapax and in the wake of the murder of James Bulger in 1993 the Labour government abolished it.

Not only was it harder to prove that a child had committed an offence under the age of 14 it was also difficult to build a case if that was based on the evidence of children as well. There seems to have been no restrictions on children giving evidence or being cross-examined but in many historical cases where young people appear at the Old Bailey the court asks them to declare that they understand the consequences of lying on oath. This was not something that adult witnesses were asked to affirm.

Today child witnesses are protected in court and often give their testimony behind a screen or via a video link. The latter was not available in the 1800s of course, but in this case we do get a sense of the courts recognising the need to shield young victims and witnesses from the harsh reality of the operation of the criminal law, or at least a recognition that any testimony they gave might be suspect.

In May 1839 William Henry Browning, a child of 11 years of age, was brought up again at the Guildhall Police Court. He had appeared there at least one before in the past few days, on a charge of trying to kill an infant boy.

Two smaller boys appeared to give evidence against him. One was the victim, a three year-old, the other his older brother who was 5 or 6. They made a statement to the effect that William had placed a rope around the younger boy’s neck, ‘pulled him down, and then loosened the cord and ran away’.

The child still bore the marks of the attack, which revealed that ‘some force’ had been used and the court was told that ‘the little fellow had been in considerable danger of being choked’.

No adult seemed to have witnessed the event but a couple of women (including the victim’s mother, a Mrs Birbeck) turned up to testify that William was a naughty child. He had apparently been ‘saucy’ to Mrs Birbeck and her servant, and threatened to break her windows. She also accused him attempting to steal her chickens.

The boy’s father appeared to make a counter complaint about Mrs Birbeck for accusing his child of theft and attempted murder, and picking on him unfairly. He added that his family were in desperate circumstances, which may have affected the boy’s mental health, and this may explain his son’s erratic behaviour:

Mr Browning, a shoemaker, was ‘in very ill-health’. His son had ‘not been out of his sight for above half an hour, and he complained of Mrs Birbeck having given the boy into custody. instead of bringing him home to be corrected. A reverse of fortune, and the loss of his wife, obliged him to live in this low neighbourhood, and he should be glad if the alderman would get the boy into some asylum’.

Alderman White, the presiding magistrate at Guildhall Police Court, rather unnecessarily conceded that ‘the mother very naturally felt some exasperation’ when she saw that her little boy had nearly been strangled, but it was going to be hard to prove it in court. Mr White told her that he had to consider the ‘tender age of the accused as well as the two witnesses’. Turning to Mr Browning however, he added that the boy could not be let off scot free. Instead of sending him to an ‘asylum’ (whether the shoemaker meant this literally or not) he was going to send him to prison for a short, sharp, shock.

William was sent down for 14 days ‘lest impunity should encourage repetition’.

At 11 years of age William Browning was just a year older than Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, the killers of James Bulger (who was 2).

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, May 23, 1839]

Daring burglars nabbed by a DC near the Duke of Wellington’s London home.

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Piccadilly, near Green Park, in 1897

In the early hours of the morning of the 27 April 1889 Detective constable William Wyers (294 C) had stationed himself in a secluded spot at the corner of Piccadilly and St George’s Place; from here he could watch Piccadilly and the homes of the wealthy that lived there.

In the Victorian period the crime that most exercised the queen’s subjects, after murder of course, was burglary. The papers were filled with reports of burgled premises and with advertisements for preventing intruders from entering your home. This was also the period that saw the birth of home contents insurance as homeowners sought to protect themselves from the supposed legions of ‘Bill Sikes’ and his ilk.

As DC Wyers watched he saw three men approaching a house at number 146 Piccadilly, adjacent in fact to where the Ritz Hotel is today.* He saw one of the men enter the gates of 146 and climb the steps to the front door. The man tried the door and seemed to fiddle with (perhaps to see it was unlocked). Finding it secure he retreated, climbed over the railings and lit a match, and waited a moment or two. From a distance Wyers couldn’t be completely sure what he was up to.

The ‘burglar’ then went back to the other men and slowly, and in single file, they each approached the property. The man (who was later established to be Arthur Thiviot, a stoker living on the Charing Cross Road) went back over the railings followed by one of his mates (William Booty, a porter ‘of no fixed abode’). While they did this the last man (John Pegg, a Soho printer) stayed back to keep watch.

None of them had noticed the detective constable however. DC Wyers took advantage of a passing hansom cab and jumped on to the back spring, hitching a ride towards them. He alighted opposite Apsley House, the London home of the Duke of Wellington. This now placed him behind the men and he crept on all fours to avoid being seen by the lookout Pegg.

Unfortunately for Wyers he wasn’t as careful as he might have been. Pegg saw him and whistled to alert the others. They ran for it, rushing across Piccadilly and into Hamilton Place, with the policeman in hot pursuit. Wyers caught Thiviot and Booty and cornered them in a doorway. Pegg was known to the police so the DC called him by name and ‘ordered him to stop’, which he did.

He asked Thiviot what he was up and what he had in his pockets. The alleged burglar told him he had nothing on him, and if he was a suspect then the copper better take him back to the station. Wyers thrust his hand into Thiviot’s pocket and produced  dark lantern, a common tool of the burglar.

‘Halloa, what are you doing with this?’ asked Wyers.

‘Oh, its all right Mr Wyers’, replied the stoker, demonstrating that the detective was also well known to the criminal fraternity, ‘I have just left my club. The stairs are very dark where I live , and I brought this lantern to show a light up there’.

It was a fairly pathetic excuse given the circumstances, but I suppose he had to offer something.

Myers grabbed Thiviot and told the others to follow him to the station, warning them that he knew where they lived should they chose to abscond. Thiviot also urged them not to abandon him. As soon as they met with two beat ‘bobbies’ on Piccadilly however, Wyers handed them over and all three were accompanied to the police station.

There all three were searched; Booty and Pegg were clean but Thiviot was found to have ‘a lock picker, a knife and a pair of scissors’ on him. DC Wyers then returned to 146 Piccadilly with Inspector Barrie and they discovered more evidence: a jemmy and marks on the door that suggested Thiviot had tried to force it earlier. They moved on to search Thiviot’s lodgings in Charing Cross Road where they also found a set of keys, ‘and a surgical lance’ (why this was mentioned is unclear, except perhaps to show that he must have stolen it at some point,  why would he have it otherwise?)

In court on the following Monday the Marlborough Street Police magistrate the three were remanded on a  charge of loitering with intent to burgle the home of Mrs Rose Joyce, 146 Piccadilly, London.

The three men went on trial at the Old Bailey in May 1889, but not for the attempted burglary in Piccadilly. Instead they were tried for burgling a warehouse in Charing Cross and the items found on Thiviot (the lantern for example) and the jemmy or chisel found at the scene of the attempted crime in Piccadilly, proved vital in convicting him. All three were found guilty and then admitted a string of previous convictions.

As a result Cheviot was sentenced to penal servitude for six years, the other two for five. The court also aware William Wyers the sum of £2 ‘for the ability he displayed in watching and apprehending the prisoners on another charge, which was not proceeded with’, this being the attempted burglary of Mrs Joyce’s home.

[from The Standard, Monday, April 29, 1889]

*The famous London landmark was not there in 1889 however, as it did not open until 1906.

Another avoidable shooting in Hackney

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Frederick James was an anxious man. He kept a loaded revolver under his pillow in his Cumberland Street address, where he worked as a machine sewer in the shoe trade. There had been several burglaries in recent weeks and Fred, who didn’t trust the banks, kept just under £300 in his room and had the gun as his protection against robbery. But he was also a considerate man; his sister, Annie, lived at the property and she cleaned and cooked for him. He always took the pistol out from under his pillow in the morning and laid it close by him at his desk, so as not to alarm her when she turned the bed down.  Sadly, as we know from bitter experience of hundreds of modern tragedies, owning a gun often means that someone gets hurt or worse, especially when pride and machismo are involved.

James employed two other men – William Tripp and Thomas Hannibal – and took in work from larger operatives. On the 1 April 1872 a man named Charles Starkie turned up at 103 Cumberland Street, (off Great Cambridge Street, Hackney)  as he had done several times before, with a  pair of boots that required repair. As it was 5.15 the men were having their tea and so Starkie chose to wait.

There was clearly some underlying tension between the younger man (Starkie was about 28) and Frederick James (who was 39). The pair quarrelled and a lot of unpleasant words were exchanged. Starkie (according to Annie, Tripp and Hannibal) called the other man a ‘bloody thief’, a ‘bloody rogue, and a bloody shit, and a bloody swine’ (although the word ‘bloody’ was rendered in the Old Bailey Proceedings as ‘b_____’, so as not to give offence to the readers).

It isn’t clear exactly what happened after that but Starkie appears to have been taunting the cobbler, and threatening to take business away from him to give to someone else. It sounds like these were empty threats as James’ team enjoyed the confidence of their suppliers, but Frederick was still angered by the abuse he received.

A scuffle was heard upstairs and it may be that while James tried to walk away from the argument Starkie chose to continue it. Three shots were heard and when Annie and the others went to see what they were about, they found Starkie dead or dying.

When the police arrived – in the person of PC Edward Dunt (152H) – Fred admitted shooting the man but not intentionally. He had fired twice into the wall, which suggests he was either frustrated or wanted to send a strong warning. Starkie, as those in the house later  testified, poured scorn on James, saying he was just firing blanks.

Whether he was or not the third shot hit Starkie, entering his head via the jaw, fracturing his skull and ‘smashing’ his spinal cord. He probably died instantly and was dead before Dr Wallace reached the scene.

PC Dunt told Fred he must come with him to the station. James then asked to be allowed to change his shirt and promised to come quietly. He seemed to be very sorry for what had occurred and this was continued when he appeared some days later in the Worship Street Police Court. The charge was ‘wilful murder’ but there was clearly some doubt surrounding it. At Worship Street, on what was his second appearance his solicitor asked for  further remand so that James would not go before the next sitting of the Old Bailey. The higher court was busy, Mr Straight (the defence solicitor) told Mr Hannay (the magistrate) and it would not be fair to ‘hurry his defence on’ in such circumstances.

Hannah agreed and remanded him for a week, presumably meaning that he missed the sessions. The court reporter described James as looking ‘pale, and as if suffering much from the charge hanging over him’.

As well he might. If he were to be convicted of murder then he was quite likely to hang.

When it came to it however, the Old Bailey jury were lenient. There decided that there was ample evidence of provocation and insufficient evidence of intent. They found him ‘not guilty’ of murder but guilty of the second count of manslaughter. Frederick James escaped the noose and went to prison for 12 months.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, April 10, 1872]

Murder on the high seas 200 years ago

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One unusual aspect of the English law in the 19th century was that crimes committed on the high seas were not tried before the normal jury courts but were dealt with elsewhere. Piracy, mutiny and murder onboard merchant vessels were heard by the Admiralty Sessions (which sat as an when necessary, rather than having a set timetable as other courts did). After 1834 these took place at the Central Criminal Court  (the Old Bailey ), but in a separate sessions. Which means that the records of these trials are not with all the other Old Bailey Proceedings (held by the London Metropolitan Archives – and online) but instead are at the National Archives at Kew.

However, the London Police courts still had a role to play in the pre-trial examination of those accused of Admiralty offences. Bow Street was the senior Police Court for the capital and its magistrate (in 1816 Sir Nathanial Conant) was the de facto chief justice of the peace in London.

In 1816 two sailors and a soldier were brought before Conant at Bow Street on two separate charges of murder. The sailors (unnamed in the newspaper report) were charged with murdering the captain of a schooner which had been sailing from Smyrna (modern day Izmir on the Aegean) to England. The sailors had taken control of the boat and its small crew, cutting the captain’s throat and heaving his body overboard.

They then locked (or indeed ‘nailed’) the first mate in his cabin and threatened him. They demanded to know where the ‘wealth was in vessel’, until he promised to share the booty (described as a quantity of ‘doubloons’) with them.

He then proceeded to get them drunk so that he could overpower them and sail the schooner into Gibraltar where he handed them over to the British authorities. The pair were described as being ‘very penitent’ but also regretted not taking care of the mate properly! Conant committed them for trial.

His next prisoner was a soldier in the 18th Irish Regiment who had been brought from Woolwich. This man was also charged with murder, this time it was the killing of an unmanned crew member on a ship sailing from St Helena. He too threw his victim over the side and was also charged with piracy. The paper reported that ‘a great deal of proof against this man arises from his own voluntary confession’. He too was sent for his trial.

St Helena, of course, was to become a prison for the defeated French emperor, Napoleon, who died on the isolated island in 1821, with some scholars suggesting that he too was murdered – on the orders of the British government.

These reports in the Morning Post remind us that there were various layers to the justice system in the 1800s, with military courts and admiralty sessions which operated slightly differently to the jury courts of assize and quarter sessions. While we have have considerable work on the jury courts we still lack the same attention for the military and naval ones and a close study of the Admiralty records might shed some interesting light on  way in which certain cries were punished in the nineteenth (and eighteenth) centuries.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, November 12, 1816]

A Hammer attack on a Whitechapel chemist in 1888

On the 8th September 1888 (in the middle of the Whitechapel murder series associated with ‘Jack the Ripper’) William Seaman turned up at John Simpkin’s chemist shop at 82 Berner Street, Whitechapel.

It was 10 to midnight and the chemist was just closing up and beginning to draw his shutters. Seaman asked for ‘a pennyworth of zinc ointment*’ which Simpkin started to make up. The chemist had his back to his customers as he stood behind his counter.

All of a sudden, and without provocation, Seaman attacked – aiming a hammer at the shopkeeper which struck him on his head. Simpkin was wearing a hat which was knocked off his head and ended up (he knew not how) in the street outside.

The attacker then moved around the behind the counter and continued his violent attack, beating the chemist about the head with the hammer. As a result Mr Simpkins was badly bruised about the back and head, his ears were cut and he sustained other cuts to his upper body and head.

Dr Allen, who examined the chemist said he was covered in blood and for a while his life was in danger. Thankfully he made a recovery and a  month later he was able to give his evidence before the magistrate at Thames Police court.

The magistrate fully committed Seaman for trial and on the 22 October he appeared before a judge and jury at Old Bailey. There the court was told that the injuries had left Mr Simpkins deeply affected both physically and mentally. He was ‘unable to use his hands fully yet—the joints of his thumbs are very weak, and he is still suffering from pains about the body—he is now in a fair way to recovery—his eyesight has not been so good since the assault, and he has not been able to write (a major issue for a pharmacist). Moreover he was mentally damaged by the attack: ‘he was very excited at nights’ the court heard, and on ‘one or two nights he was rather delirious’.

Seaman’s only defence was that he had been drinking and said that they had quarreled because the chemist had refused to weigh ‘the alum’. He added that while he admitted to hitting his victim he never intended to cause the harm he had.

Havining pleaded guilty to a charge of wounding (rather than the initial charge of attempted murder that had been heard at Thames) Seaman was sent to prison for 7 years of penal servitude.

  • used (for example) for skins conditions, rashes and blisters.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper , Sunday, October 7, 1888]

Business as usual at Bow Street while the Red Barn murder mystery unfolds elsewhere

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In  1828 crime news in England was dominated by one story: the trial and execution of William Corder in Bury St Edmunds. Corder shot his lover, Maria Marten, after they had arranged to meet and then elope together. They met at the Red Barn in Polstead, Suffolk, having decided to run away because of fears that the parish officers were going to prosecute Maria for bearing at least two bastard children (one by Corder).

Corder was a fraudster and a Don Juan character and after murdering and burying Maria he fled to London, marrying  a woman who answered an advertisement he placed in the papers, and setting up home with her in Brentford. This is where he was when he was eventually tracked down by the police in 1828. He was brought back to Suffolk and his trial began on the 7 August.

The murder story became a sensation, it filled the newspapers and was copied widely into murder broadsides and cheap ‘penny dreadfuls’. Corder’s skull went on display in Suffolk and a play and melodrama was written about the tragedy. The Red Barn murder had become a murder mystery with a number of twists and sub plots.

Meanwhile at London’s police courts the more everyday business of law or order were given less coverage by the papers as a result. The entry for ‘Police Intelligence’ in The Morning Post is almost cursory. It mentions a counterfeiter at Hatton Garden who was remanded while two men at Marlborough Street were prosecuted for ‘furious driving’ and an assault on another road user (‘road rage’ in the 1820s?).

Finally from Bow Street, several women were brought in and charged by the proprietor of the English Opera House in Covent Garden. He complained to the Bow Street magistrate, Sir Richard Birnie, about the ‘disgraceful conduct of the depraved characters of both sexes who frequent the avenues of this theatre’. Covent Garden was synonymous with prostitution in the  period and this was a constant problem for the bench. Mr Birnie and his colleague, Mr Minshull sent the parcel of females to prison for a few days or weeks to ‘prevent their reappearance in that quarter for some time'(but not for ever).

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, August 09, 1828]