Nina Vassileva caught the public imagination just three years before Britain went to war. A striking image of a young woman is now the lasting impression of her – a forerunner of the iconic images of Bonnie Parker, staring defiantly at the camera.
Yet this woman, in the stylish Merry Widow hat, defied conventional perceptions of what a woman should be like. She lived in sin with a man who planned a burglary and, during a fight with the police during it, killed a policeman; she was seen as instrumental in the planning of the burglary and loyal to her criminal lover.
On 16 December 1910, an attempt was made to bore a hole through a wall into a jeweller’s at No 9 Exchange Buildings. The police, coming onto the scene, were fired at from No 11, and a man in that building, George Gardstein – referred to throughout the later trial as ‘The Russian’ – was shot and later died.
Three policemen were also shot and killed – Sergeant Bentley, Sergeant Tucker and Constable Choat, of the City Police. Bentley died from wounds to the shoulder and neck; Choat from six bullet wounds; Tucker from gunshots to the heart and stomach.
Nina Vassileva was caught, with two men, helping her injured lover Gardstein out of Exchange Buildings after the gunfire. The focus was on her appearance from the start – she was ‘wearing a dark toque and carried a muff. Her height was about 5ft 4in, and she was rather good-looking’ [1. ‘The Houndsditch Crime’, 11 February 1911, 4]. One witness noted her habit of wearing black boots rather than shoes; another that she had naturally ‘flaxen’ hair and liked to wear a white hat [2. Old Bailey Online, t19110425-75].
Nina, also known as Lena, was 23 years old, a cigarette maker originally from Yekaterinoslav in Russia [3. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography], who had come to England around four years earlier. She claimed to be a political refugee. Her appearance resulted in excited descriptions in the press that were, at her trial, seen as influencing at least one of the witnesses. Isaac Levy was made to admit that ‘prior to my picking out Vassileva…I had read some descriptions in the newspapers.’ [4. Old Bailey Online, t19110425-75].
Zurka Dubof and Jacob Peters were charged with the murder of Charles Tucker; together with Nina Vassileva and John Rosen, they were also charged with feloniously harbouring Gardstein. All were also charged with conspiring to break and enter Henry Harris’s jeweller’s shop with the intent to steal his goods [6. Old Bailey Online, t19110425-75].
At their trial at London’s Central Criminal Court in May 1911, the men were acquitted of all charges, but Nina was convicted of conspiracy in the burglary and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment. Her sentence was regarded as lenient; the jury took into account the fact that she had previously been of good character. But there was also disbelief that she could have acted independently; they noted that she had ‘come under the influence of Gardstein’ and that must have made her act as she did.
The judge, meanwhile, stated that without the jury’s recommendation to leniency, he ‘certainly would have deported her’.
This was not the end of the story, though, and Nina did not meekly accept her situation. On 20 June 1911, The Times reported [7. ‘Court of Criminal Appeal’, The Times, 20 June 1911, 3] that Nina had appealed against her conviction, arguing that the judge a the trial, Mr Justice Grantham, had misdirected the jury.
He had told the jury that all the accused had been ‘living under false names in order that their antecedents in Russia should not become known’ – Nina denied this – that Nina had taken part in hiring premises for the purpose of committing the crime – she said there was no evidence that she had done so – and that she had lived with Gardstein in order to conceal his preparations for the burglary. Nina argued that, in fact, she had simply lived with Gardstein as his mistress, and had not known what he was intending to do.
The Crown centred its arguments, in response, on Nina’s looks and domestic circumstances. They argued that although she may have lived with Gardstein at Exchange Buildings for ‘merely domestic purposes’, they were allowed to infer a conspiracy because all the other people implicated in the case ‘had homes elsewhere’, so why should she want to live so near the place where the crime took place?
At the original trial, a local pub manager, Richard Cohen, had stated that Nina’s hair had been ‘a lot darker’ when he had originally seen her [8. Old Bailey Online, t19110425-75] – why had she dyed her hair, unless it was to make identification of her as being at the scene of the crime more difficult?
Despite these arguments, it was found that the judge had misdirected the jury; he had stated that there was ‘strong evidence’ that Nina was implicated in the burglary when this was not the case. As a result, Nina’s conviction was quashed [9. ‘Court of Criminal Appeal’, The Times, 21 June 1911, 3].
The case and its coverage shows how xenophobia and fears about immigration were key issues at the time. Press coverage of the murders noted how the coroner’s jury at the London Hospital had called the attention of the government ‘to the increase in the criminal element among the alien population of the East-end of London’ [8. ‘The Houndsditch Crime’, The Times, 11 February 1911, 4].
In the trial, too, racial and ethnic stereotypes were evident. A police superintendent, John Ottoway, noted that some four years prior to the trial, there had been a ‘large incursion to this country of Russian Jews’. However, although he was not aware of Russians being subject to political or racial persecutions, he grudgingly admitted that ‘no doubt the immigrants are of the respectable class as well as otherwise.’ [10. Old Bailey Online, t19110425-75)
Ottoway’s evidence also drew attention back to Nina’s sexual life and the gap between people’s initial perceptions of her and their revised view on her ‘respectability’. He said, ‘I suppose she was just a poor girl without superfluous goods. I was not aware that she had been the mistress of a man.’ [11. Old Bailey Online, t19110425-75]
After her conviction was quashed, Nina went back to life in the East End. She died in Smithfield on 24 February 1963 [12. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography]. The event that she was accused of being involved in, the Houndsditch Murder, and the act that followed it, the Siege of Sidney Street’, are not forgotten today. However, it is worth drawing attention to the sexual and racial stereotypes that were focused on during the trial and press coverage of the affair. It highlights the suspicion that immigration was viewed with, and the expectation that crime would follow if immigrants were allowed to settle in England.
It also highlights the inability of some to see women as human beings rather than as objects to look at; the focus with Nina was on her attractive appearance and the way she dressed. This, combined with her willingness to live ‘in sin’ with a man made her a fascinating creature for the press, and heralded the way that sections of the tabloid press today objectifies and portrays women.