Murdered by a travelling showman

The Illustrated Police News' depiction of the murder (via British Newspaper Archive)

The Illustrated Police News’ depiction of the murder (via British Newspaper Archive)

Robert West was a travelling showman, running a coconut shy at the fairs that toured around England. Originally from Oxford, he was around 44 years old, and was used to a peripatetic life.

He had arrived, in his caravan, at the village of Handsworth Woodhouse near Sheffield at 11.30pm on Friday night, 23 August, his intention being to remain and set his shy up at the village feast that weekend.

He started quarreling with his wife Emma, which often happened as the result of Robert’s tendency to drink. Their son – one of their six children – realised Robert was drunk, and was arguing as a result of jealousy over his wife’s perceived behaviour. The son went off for a walk to get away from them.

While he was out, at 1am, West went running up to Police Sergeant Ford of the West Riding constabulary, as he was passing the caravan on his patrols.

“I’ve murdered my wife!” West shouted, and PS Ford ran with him to the van, where he found Emma lying on the floor, almost decapitated. By her side was a large knife, and the floor was covered in blood.

West was taken into custody at Sheffield, and immediately made a written confession. However, he had, in front of PS Ford, first said that he was “satisfied” with the murder, and “regretted that he had not also murdered the man whom he alleges to have been intimate with his wife”.

In the police court, Robert cross-examined Emma’s mother himself. She had got very upset, and shouted, “You bad, bad man, you murderer, you villain!”

Robert responded, “You can talk, but you are as bad as every one of them.”

“Am I, you bad villain? You murderer of my poor daughter!” screamed his mother-in-law.

Robert muttered,

“I am very glad I did it, and I am only sorry I did not do both of them. All I want is to die now, and the sooner the better. I shall then be out of the way. I told her I should do it, and I am glad I did it. I wish I’d done the other one as well.”

PS Ford then explained that as he had walked Robert to the police station after the murder, he had said,

“This thing has been brewing, it will be 12 months next Sunday, When we was here at the feast last year I began to find out of her tricks. There’s another I intended to do first; that’s Leicester Jack, and then her, but he kept out of the way, else I should have done him first.”

Robert West was committed to the Leeds Assizes on the charge of leaving murder. As he left the dock to be committed to Wakefield Prison, he said, “Goodbye, all of you!”

The travelling showman travelled no more. He was found guilty of murder at the Assizes and was executed at Armley Prison in Leeds, on 31 December 1889.

Webb's entry in the Wakefield Prison register, from Ancestry.

Webb’s entry in the Wakefield Prison register, from Ancestry.

Sources: Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sun 25 August 1889, Illustrated Police News, 31 August 1889, Capital Punishment UK, Ancestry, British Newspaper Archive.

 

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John Brown and his John Thomas: a perversion stopped by the Vagrancy Act

800px-Tramp_smoking_cigar_with_cane_over_arm_-_restorationJohn Brown had a bit of a predilection. The white-haired Londoner, who was around 70 years old, had a disconcerting habit of exposing himself in public places.

John Brown would get his John Thomas out at every opportunity, in any public place in the vicinity of Whitefriars.

Whitefriars, between Fleet Street and the river Thames, had once been a salubrious place, but was now acquiring a reputation as “a debtors’ sanctuary and thieves’ paradise”, a dingy area where people fought and cheated their way through life.

It was in this darkening part of London that John Brown operated, targeting not not only women, but children, horrifying them. It was in this small, grim network of alleys and wharves that Brown had been able to carry on with his anti-social, sexual behaviour for a considerable amount of time.

But in 1824, a new vagrancy act was passed, that suddenly curtailed Brown’s activities.

The interior of the Guildhall, 1820

The interior of the Guildhall, 1820

Although the vagrancy acts of the eighteenth and nineteenth century have been regarded as categorising a huge range of activities and behaviour as disorderly, or as examples of vagrancy, for the purposes of prosecution and punishment, this act showed itself to have a useful purpose.

Its predecessor had already regarded exposing oneself as an act of vagrancy, referring to “all persons openly and indecently exposing their persons in any street, public place, or highway”, but 5 Geo IV, c.83 made this clearer.

It stated that “very person wilfully, openly, lewdly, and obscenely exposing his person, in any street, road, or public highway, or in the view therefore, or in any place of public resort, with intent to insult any female” would be classed as a rogue and vagabond, and be punished by being imprisoned in the common gaol for up to three months.

This was part of a concerted effort to clamp down on activities perceived as immoral – a moral crusade, if you will, as a reaction to economic and social problems following the end of the Napoleonic Wars, that continued over the course of the 19th century.

The local residents of Whitefriars took the first opportunity to bring John Brown to the sitting magistrate of the Guildhall, Alderman Thompson. He was charged under the new act with having “for several nights successively” exposing himself to his neighbours.

Two of his victims, both women, gave evidence against him, and it was established that the case was both fully proved and came within the remit of the new statute.

Alderman Thompson regarded it as a “very aggravated” case, because Thomas repeatedly carried on his activities, night after night, and therefore sentenced him to the maximum penalty the 1824 Vagrancy Act allowed – three months of hard labour in the House of Correction.

Source: The Times, 30 June 1834, page 3; “Old and New London: Volume 1” (Cassell, Petter and Galpin, London: 1878), pp.182-199, via British History Online.

 

 

What an ass: Goodyer Long, who had sex with a donkey and lived to tell the tale

donkeyPoor Goodyer Long. Not just saddled with that name, but also saddled (appropriately) with a rather unpleasant conviction – that of bestiality with a female ass.

Bestiality was not that unusual an offence in the 18th and early 19th centuries, with criminal records detailing many cases, but usually involving boys in their teens or early twenties, trying to find an outlet for pent-up sexual desires. However, in the 1830s, there seems to have been several cases involving older men that were viewed less sympathetically than those involving the young – one 57-year-old man was executed in Bodmin in 1834 for the offence, and several other men were convicted at Exeter around the same time.

Goodyer was not a young man with no other way of dealing with his sexuality; he was a married man in his late 50s. But still, he was convicted of this capital offence “on the clearest evidence” at the Lent Assizes in Norfolk on 8 April 1837, and duly sentenced to death. The judge stated that he held out “no hopes of mercy”. He was due to be executed on 29 April, but instead was sent to the prison hulk York where, with the “exception of one indifferent muster”, he conducted himself well.

One would think that his offence would quickly alienate him from his local community – who would want to stick up for a man who stuck… well, never mind the rest of that sentence.

Yet the community DID rally round Goodyer. 29 inhabitants of the villages of Fundenhall and Tacolneston (listed as Tawlnestone) – including the rector and churchwardens, as well as the delightfully named Righteous Reeve – signed a petition to argue that he should not be executed. His wife, listed as Mary Long (actually Maria, nee Andrews), and sister, Mary Filby, also signed the petition and stuck by him.

Why did they think he deserved clemency? They actually tried several tacks. He was “usually” of good character; he was a drunk who, after a few, didn’t know what he was doing (even when an ass of any kind was involved); there was nobody at his trial to support him; his age was a mitigating factor… and lastly, the killer tack – he “may” have been suffering from insanity.

The prison ship, or hulk, York, where Goodyer Long was sent.

The prison ship, or hulk, York, where Goodyer Long was sent.

The petition, and the varied reasons for mitigation worked. On 21 April, a week before he was due to be hanged, Goodyer’s sentence was reduced to transportation for life. But again, he was sent back to the prison hulks.

He was received on the Leviathan – which had previously seen battle at Trafalgar – at Portsmouth on 1 June 1837, and then, on 14 April 1840, he was transferred to the hulk York, in Gosport, where it seems he served three years, living alongside some 500 other convicts on the ageing ship.

He was never transported. Perhaps surprisingly to modern eyes, on being discharged from the hulk, Goodyer returned to Norfolk. With few resources and a criminal record, he may have had little alternative. In 1851, he was in his home parish of Fundenhall, aged 72 and in receipt of parish relief, living with his wife. He died there two years later.

 

Sources: The National Archives (TNA) HO 17/75/58, 18 April 1837; 6 December 1843; The Bury & Norwich Post, 12 April 1837; 1851 census for Mill Road, Fundenhall, Norfolk (via The Genealogist); BMD Deaths, Norwich, 1853 (first quarter), 4b 203.

The 400 arrests of Annie Parker: newspaper representations of a drunken woman

Pin cushion embroidered by Annie Parker, using her own hair, c.1879. Photo by Nell Darby.

Pin cushion embroidered by Annie Parker, using her own hair, c.1879. Photo by Nell Darby.

Yesterday, I looked briefly at the Museum of London’s forthcoming exhibition on London crime – The Crime Museum Uncovered. One of the artefacts being displayed in this exhibition is a pin cushion embroidered by a woman named Annie Parker in 1879, a woman notorious, according to the museum’s publicity material, for having been arrested over 400 times for drink-related offences, and for having embroidered the cushion using her own hair as thread.

I was intrigued by this simple rendering of Annie as a drunk with a penchant for pulling her hair out. Who was Annie, really?

On 2 March 1879, Reynolds’ Newspaper reported that “an unfortunate” 31-year-old by the name of Annie Parker had appeared in court in Greenwich accused of being drunk and incapable. Already, the mythologising of Annie was underway, as the piece on her appearance was titled “Three Hundred Times in Prison for Drunkenness”.

Annie was, at the time, living in the slum area of Mill Lane in Deptford, but had previously been ‘rescued’ by the Greenwich Branch of the Church of England Temperance Society, who had found her a home with a well-meaning ‘lady’. Annie had apparently been unable to cope with living with this paragon of virtue, and had run away back to her previous life.

On the night of this particular offence, Annie had been found by a police constable, lying on the pavement at New Cross. She was so drunk that he had had to transport her to the police station in a cart. Once there, she had started to tear at her own clothes, and had actually been charged with this offence too, until the police clerk said that it would only be an offence if she was in a workhouse ward (presumably because the clothes would have been the workhouse’s) and that “a prisoner could not be charged with tearing up her own clothes in a police cell.”

Before the magistrate in Greenwich, Annie heard that she had spent 350 out of the previous 365 days in prison. She had been written off by authority; the local police inspector said that if she was “discharged now, she would be in custody again on Monday.”

Yet Annie was suffering. She was an alcoholic who probably got more of a sense of security being in prison than ricocheting between workhouse, lodgings and the unfamiliar residences of well-meaning temperance society members who couldn’t possibly know how it felt to need alcohol as Annie did. In police cells, Annie complained of “suffering” and of waking up with water dripping from her hair – she was not treated sympathetically.

There was little the legal system could do for Annie, either. In this case, she was simply imprisoned again, this time to one month’s imprisonment with hard labour.

It was noted in the press that the 300 prior convictions mentioned had all been cases heard at Greenwich; whether an additional 100 took place elsewhere, or after this one conviction, or whether there was an element of hyperbole in the reporting of her life is not clear. What was significant is that Annie was “never out of prison more than two or three days”.

This Annie may have been the same woman mentioned in a press report in 1875, although her given age was wrong; in this case, a 40 year old named Annie Parker came before the Greenwich magistrates accused of drunkenness and breaking a pane of glass in the window of the Deptford police station. In this case, it was reported that Annie had “only left Maidstone gaol on Saturday last, after undergoing a month’s imprisonment” for drunkenness, and that at the police station, whilst waiting for a charge against her to be taken, “she remarked that was the first time she had been brought to the station without being conveyed on a stretcher.” It sounds like the same person. (In this case, Annie was sentenced to two months in Maidstone Gaol – Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, 7 October 1877)

In 1884, the press again reported Annie appearing before the Greenwich magistrate, “charged for over the 300th time with being drunk and disorderly” after being thrown out of the Centurion public house. In this case, Annie’s fragile state of mind was apparent. When the police inspector spoke, he related that Annie had tried to kill herself in the cell, and had to be monitored as a result. Annie’s response was to retort, “And I should have done it if I had the chance.” She was again imprisoned. (The Morning Post, 13 August 1884)

Just a year later, Annie was dead. It was not drink that killed her, but consumption, ending her life in the Greenwich workhouse infirmary. Unusually for a woman in and out of prison, her obituary was published in the press, in recognition of her ‘notoriety’. In this case, unusually, her positive qualities were focused on, and the embroidery featured in the Museum of London was also reported on in a sympathetic rather than exploitative way:

“The death has just taken place in Greenwich Union Infirmary of Annie Parker, aged 35 [sic], who has been over 400 times charged before the magistrates at Greenwich Police Court with drunkenness, but never with felony, and has spent the greater part of her life in prison… She was always exceedingly well conducted in prison, and shortly before her death sent a letter to Mr Marsham, the magistrate at Greenwich police court, thanking him for kindnesses, and at the same time acknowledging that her life had been misspent.

“She had a luxuriant head of hair, and on the morning of her death presented to Dr Dixon, the assistant medical officer of the infirmary, a lace-bordered sampler, on which was artistically worked, with her own hair, the hymn commencing ‘My God, my Father, whilst I stray.’ Another beautiful specimen of her hair work is in the possession of the Rev JW Horsey, for many ears chaplain to the Clerkenwell House of Detention, and a third is framed in the parlour of Mr James, Old King Street, Deptford.

“Annie Parker had received an excellent education, and a bad word never escaped her when before the magistrate. On one occasion a lady took her to Canada with a view to her reformation, but she could never resist intoxicating drink.” (Illustrated Police News, 29 August 1885)

This obituary recognised Annie’s good traits – her attitude to others, her careful work, and her education; it even commended her for never committing more serious offences. Yet there was no attempt to analyse her addiction to ‘the demon drink’, or to query the system that shuttled Annie in and out of prison and the workhouse. This was undoubtedly a complex woman with an addiction that could not be simply stopped by the good intentions of a few women; a woman who came from a decent background but who could never combat her own personal demons.

There was undoubtedly more to Annie than simply an ability to pull her own hair out to sew with – although the question of why she needed to do this is interesting in itself. Her obituary in the Illustrated Police News hints at a woman whose life deserves more attention than just a mention of how many offences she was charged with over the course of her short life.

 

Annie’s age was reported differently in different papers, as suggested above – the newspapers tended to be a bit inaccurate when it came to the personal details of those it wrote about. Her death certificate gives her age, in August 1885, as being 38 years old (FreeBMD, deaths, Sept 1885, Greenwich, 1d 567). It is also possible that Annie herself was unsure of her exact age, and gave different ages to the magistrates and police.

The Condemned Criminal Tolerates Consolation

“The Home Secretary has issued orders for the execution of Bucknell, convicted at the late Somerset Assizes of the brutal murder of his aged grandfather and grandmother, at Creech St Michael’s, to take place at Taunton Gaol, on Thursday morning next, the 26th instant.

“The wretched criminal, it is said, appears extremely callous, and to have no conception of the enormity of his guilt.

“He is respectful to the reverend chaplain, but seems rather to tolerate than wish for his spiritual consolation and assistance.”

Liverpool Mercury, 23 August 1858

21-year-old John Baker Bucknell was executed at Taunton on 26 August. He had been convicted of housebreaking in March 1857 and given a 10 month gaol sentence.

The following year, he was convicted of murdering innkeeper John Bucknell, aged 72, and his wife Betsy, 74. He was described by the Taunton Courier of 11 August 1858 as an “unfortunate young man”.

Bringing a Murderer to Life

Broadside of Robert Blakesley's execution, 1841

Broadside of Robert Blakesley’s execution, 1841

Look at a criminal broadside from the 19th century. There are the drawings – generic depictions of people hanging, of gaols, of crowds, together with more personalised portraits of the murderer, or the victim.

There is the text – the melodramatic, overly detailed, story of the crime, the penitence of the murderer before he or she is dropped into oblivion.

These are the forerunner of the tabloid newspaper; designed to be bought, read, thrown away.

But now they are in museums, sold in auctions, a historical artefact. The individuals that are written about in these broadsides are somehow lost to us in the present. They are abstract, viewed from a historical distance, fictionalised by their broadside-producing contemporaries.

I own a broadside – and admit to being fascinated by the stories they tell and how they tell them. But can I build a picture of real people, living ordinary lives, from the dramatised story presented on this sheet of paper?

My broadside is from 1841. It relates to the execution of Robert Blakesley after being found guilty of the murder of James Burdon in the City of London.

It’s not the only broadside produced about Blakesley; the British Library has written about one it holds, which was produced prior to Blakesley’s trial, at his first committal hearing. That broadside assumed his guilty even though he had not yet been tried.

Blakesley was found guilty of stabbing James Burdon, landlord of the King’s Head in Eastcheap. He was depicted as mentally ill, a man who regularly abused and assaulted his wife.

The British Library states that Blakesley had tried to stab his wife; when challenged by Burdon, his brother-in-law, after “months of marital strife”, he stabbed him. Burdon died; Sarah Blakesley miscarried her baby, it was said, and died some time later.

Blakesley had been arrested in September 1841, was tried at the Old Bailey on 25 October 1841 and executed on 15 November.

Yet on the night of 6 June 1841, when the census was taken, a more domestic, peaceful scene was suggested.

At Eastcheap, James Burdon, aged 35, was listed as the head of his household. He was living with his wife Eliza, and their four-year-old son James. Also with the Burdons were Eliza’s widowed mother, Ann Adkins, and her sister Sarah, still unmarried and aged 25.

Also at the premises was Robert Blakesley, listed as a 25-year-old cattle dealer (he was actually 27, the 1841 census often rounding up or down to the nearest five years).

Robert was accepted as part of the Adkins family, and he married Sarah exactly three weeks after the census was taken – at St Stephen Walbrook church on 27 June 1841. Their witnesses were James and Eliza Burdon.

Robert and Sarah were only married for three months before the murder occurred.

Eliza Burdon gave evidence at Blakesley’s trial. She painted a similarly domestic scene to the census; on the evening of 21 September 1841, a Tuesday, she had been in the King’s Head bar with her sister Sarah. James Burdon was fast asleep at the end of the bar, his back against the window.

At 10.05pm, Blakesley walked in, “sprang” at Sarah and stabbed her in her right side, saying, “My wife or her life”, before turning around and stabbing James to death while he slept*.

The cosy domestic scene in the family pub was subverted by this sudden, unexpected, act of violence committed by one who had only recently been welcomed into this family environment.

Worse still, he had killed a man who was sleeping peacefully at the end of a long day working to maintain that family.

Blakesley’s own family were called on to testify at his trial. His father James, a respectable cloth factor based in the City, and a member of the Blackwell Hall, stated that his son had been brought up in his “establishment”, but that after a serious illness when aged about five, he had suffered from fits and been anti-social, struggling to make friends and interact with people.

Robert was sent away to school at the age of eight. The saddest part of his father’s testimony was his description of going to watch his son at school, through a blind in the schoolmaster’s room:

“I was sent for by the schoolmaster, to see how my son would stand by the wall when the other children were at play. I looked through the blind, and I saw him stand there for, I think, half an hour, while the children were all frolicsome and at play together.”

It conjures up an image of a lonely boy, different from others his age, and unable to connect with them.

His father removed him from school at the age of 13, to come and work for him; but Robert disappeared frequently, and when he returned seemed not to know where he had been, or what he had done.

His father explained:

“I have seen him agitated, some scores of times, his eyes starting and his lips quivering, and I have said, ‘Halloo, Robert! What are you about?’ He has looked and said, ‘Oh papa! Nothing particular.'”

This was a man whose older brother, on whose the family’s hopes rested, had died at the age of 20. He had the pressure of his parents now on him, and seems unable to cope with it. Yet his father clearly loved him very much, and refused to get him sent to an asylum because he did not think his son was “vicious”.

His sudden attack on his wife and his brother-in-law were an extension of his disappearances and fits of insensibility at home. Somewhere in there was still the lonely boy wondering how to fit in and always remaining on the outside.

He destroyed the family who had let him join them, and destroyed the hopes of his loving father in the process.

Yet the criminal broadsides produced after his death, and the carrying out of the death sentence, do not let the 21st century reader picture Robert as a three-dimensional man – the 27-year-old with a long history of emotional problems who, another witness said, was “on terms of the greatest affection with every member” of his family.

For a bit of insight into Robert’s complex character, other historical sources have to be studied and compared. His father’s shocked, but loving, testimony at his son’s trial, and the domesticity presented in the census return, conjures up a real man, rather than a criminal caricature.

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Images from The Genealogist and Ancestry.

* The British Library refers to Sarah dying of her wounds several weeks after James Burdon’s death. Although the Old Bailey states that she was stabbed in her side, and she did not appear as a witness, neither can I find evidence for her death.

 

The House of Correction for Bad Wives

Joseph Townsend

Joseph Townsend

In 1791, the London Chronicle reported the existence of a “remarkable” house of correction in Barcelona, which had been visited by Joseph Townsend four years earlier.

It had two aims: the reformation of prostitutes and female thieves (the two apparently interlinked or one and the same thing to many); and the second aim was “the correction of women who fail in their obligation to their husbands, and of those who either neglect or disgrace their families”.

The women held in this house of correction were fed bread and meat, paid for mainly through fines, but the women were expected to help fund their own meals by working “as long as they can see”.

They were able to earn five shillings a month, half of which was given to the Governor, and the other half was kept on their behalf until their term of confinement had expired – enabling them to walk out of the House of Correction with some funds behind them.

It was made clear that this punishment was a last resort, for these strong-minded women should ideally be “corrected” by their husbands, fathers, or other relatives. If they were unable to give a “severe” enough chastisement, then they could apply to the magistrate to confine them “for a term proportioned to their offences”.

The relative who sought their confinement would be made to contribute the equivalent of fourpence halfpenny a day for their maintenance, “and with this scanty provision they must be contented.”

The whole building was designed to maintain 500 women, suggesting that Barcelona had (or anticipated) something of a problem with independent women, although at the time of Townsend’s visit, there were only 113 women confined there.

These included, apparently, some rather fashionable ladies, whose families would tell concerned people that they were “visiting some distant friends”. One woman present was a rather well-to-do lady who had been accused both of being drunk and “imprudent in her conduct”.

Such women would receive “bodily correction, when it is judged necessary for their reformation,” a good whipping presumably being just the think for getting rid of any unfeminine thoughts.

This tale was regaled to the English newspaper reader as a strange act carried out by those odd foreigners; one can imagine the Daily Mail salivating over the tales of posh drunks, prostitutes and errant wives, being forced to learn appropriate behaviour from men.

Yet the English press appear to have failed to realise the similarities between this establishment and the gaols of its own land; the willingness of the English law to punish women deemed guilty of unfeminine or immoral acts; and the legality of whipping for women in England at this time.

It wrote about the strangeness of the law in Spain, without recognising the equal strangeness of the law at home.

Source: London Journal, 30 June-2 July 1791; “A Journey Through Spain in the Years 1786 and 1787” by Joseph Townsend (1791).