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”.

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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 case that revolved around the age of a goat

120px-Goat_PortraitIn 1839, a rather ludicrous case was heard at the Drumcondra Petty Sessions in Dublin regarding a goat stolen from a former policeman – where the case hinged on the age of the said animal.

The former policeman, Samuel Stephens, who was now working as a labourer, accused Conliffe Mill proprietor Mr Dollard of having a goat that Stephens swore had been stolen from him some three years earlier.

Magistrate Captain Cottingham noted that the case had been held over from a previous day in order for someone to be called to prove the age of the goat.

Stephens stated that his goat was around seven years old, whereas Dollard argued that HIS goat was only four.

In evidence, Stephens told the magistrate that in mid 1836, three goats had been stolen from him, and that he had received information that they had been stolen by a man and woman who lived in Spring Gardens.

When he had tracked down the couple, the woman said the goat was hers; but when asked where she had got it from, she burst into tears, and said she had bought it from a man in Dalkey about five weeks earlier.

Stephens said he was sure it was his goat; it had a white face, black neck and white sides.

The case got somewhat derailed by the defendant’s counsel’s curiosity about why Stephens had left the police.

“Did you like the service?”

“I did.”

“Did the service like you?”

“Certainly it did.”

“Then if you liked the service, and the service was equally fond of you, what was the cause of your leaving it and becoming a labourer?”

“I left it to go to a gentleman.”

“Will you swear you were not dismissed?”

“I left the police to go to a gentleman, I tell you.”

“Come, Sir, by virtue of your oath, were you not dismissed from the police?”

Stephens appealed to Captain Cottingham,

“Am I bound to answer the question?”

“You are.”

The defendant’s counsel, Mr Cantwell, then asked,

“Now, again, I ask you, and you must answer the question, were you not dismissed from the police?”

“Yes, I was.”

Further examination revealed that Stephens had been dismissed from the police for assaulted a man on the Naas Road.

His reputation for honesty somewhat damaged, he then detailed how he had bought the goats some three years before their theft.

One of the goats had been a kid then, and Stephens had paid half a crown for him. That was the goat he swore that Dollard had taken.

Mr Cantwell asked,

“Did you know the goat by any other marks than those you have described?”

An exasperated Stephens responded,

“Oh, it’s all a humbug! The goat is mine!”

“I quite agree with you that it is a humbug,” Cantwell replied.

A witness was then called, Laurence Brangan, who had given a kid to a Miss Connolly – and he thought this was the same goat that Dollard now had.

Then a Mr McLoghen was called, who said he was the man who had given a kid to Laurence Brangan, who had then given it to Miss Connolly… But he could not say that this goat was the same as that kid.

“Why, this gentleman’s evidence is of no value to anyone!” spluttered the magistrate. “He is not able to prove the identity!”

McLoghen was recalled. “Is it four or three years since you gave the kid to Mr Brangan?” asked the magistrate.

McLoghen was vague. “It is either three or four years since I gave it, but I cannot say which.”

Mr Cantwell complained that McLoghen was being given harder questions than Stephens had. McLoghen suddenly got his memory back, and said that the goat had been given three years earlier, not four.

Dalkey, home of the Connollys.

Dalkey, home of the Connollys.

Then Thomas Connelly of Dalkey was called, to state that Miss Connolly, his sister, had given him a goat the previous winter to keep on his land until the summer.

But in June 1838, McLoghen’s sister had asked Connolly to give the goat to Dollard’s wife as a present, and the goat was duly sent there.

Mr Cantwell believed that this convoluted evidence of multiple ownership made the case clear; but Cottingham, the magistrate, understandably remained confused. Again, he commented that he would like someone to tell him how old the goat was.

Now, for some reason, Stephens called a witness, called Larkin, ostensibly to prove that three years ago, Stephens had owned three goats.

Unfortunately for Stephens, though, Larkin, on being examined, couldn’t describe any of the goats to the magistrate.

And then, “a great deal of time” was spent “endeavouring to get somebody who could judge the age of a goat” – but nobody could be found.

Captain Cottingham, by now at the end of his – ahem – tether, announced his intention to dismiss the case. “I believe that Stephens is under the conscientious impression that the goat is his property, but it must be a mistake on his part.”

Stephens was not prepared to let this lie. “Oh! It is no mistake!” he exclaimed. “The goat is mine!”

The case looked like it would now have no speedy resolution, with both sides continuing to lock horns (sorry) over the age of a goat.

Source: Freeman’s Journal, Dublin, 19 September 1839

The Hall Green Tragedy Part 2: Scandal at the Undertaker’s

This is part two of my retelling of the Hall Green Tragedy of 1895. For part one, see here.

It was not until the day after the deaths that the bodies were identified, after police found an address in Edward’s pocket.

His wife was brought to formally identify the bodies as those of her husband and her eldest daughter by her first husband. It was noted that ‘the distress and horror of the poor woman were most painful to witness’.

The Mermaid Inn in Sparkhill. Photo by Oosoom.

The Mermaid Inn in Sparkhill. Photo by Oosoom.

Carrie’s body was initially taken to the local pub, the Mermaid Inn, on Stratford Road, but later, both her body and that of Edward Birch were removed to the undertakers. Here, scandal ensued.

The undertaker unscrupulously allowed spectators to view the bodies on payment of a penny each admission fee.

The result was that his premises were ‘crowded with morbid sightseers’ all weekend, with women seen shaking their fists in Edward Birch’s dead face and shouting ‘May you go straight to hell!’.

The negative publicity this resulted in led to the undertaker promising to donate all money paid to Mrs Birch, but this did not lessen the views of other locals that this had been an ‘unedifying’, ‘repulsive’, spectacle.

Carrie’s inquest was held first, at the Mermaid Inn, with AH Hebbert, deputy coroner for North Worcestershire, presiding. Here, the verdict of wilful murder against Edward Birch was recorded, despite the couple appearing to have made a pact together to die.

The deputy coroner summed up by saying, ‘the extraordinary part of the case was that the girl consented to die’ but that if two persons agreed to kill themselves, but one of them survived, the survivor would be guilty of murder.

The jury expressed ‘strong dissatisfaction’ with how the bodies had been ‘housed’ – and the subsequent scandal – and ‘hoped it would not be long before a proper police-station, mortuary and ambulance’ was provided in Sparkhill.

Meanwhile, a search had been carried out in the family home, and police found several letters written by Birch. One read:

“E Birch, 59 Upper Highgate Street, Highgate, Birmingham. Nov 8th 1894. This is to shew that I will not be bested I worned her 12 mounths ago she dou in May 5th 1894 what she ourt not to… she as deceived me agin & when I get in drink it plays on my mind and I make the best of myself Ive taken her out & to places of amusement and then she will be after the men & in September last I give hir lef to go Sunday school and church if she be in by 9 and then she goes of with to fellers in the Ram till after 10 at night round the Mosley fields coaved with muck and paint… She is not my own child and this is the reason when I tell hir about it the mouther takes hir part and incurges hir in it. So this is the end of it.”

The next letter, sent to his parents in Wolverhampton on 5 January, stated:

“Dont put yourself about me of what you see and hear, I care for nothing as they ave brought it all on themselves. Emmer knows what I sed about genney when I was out of work being with that grieves till 1 o’clock in the morning as I keept from starving so long in 1893. So this makes to I have to keep of other mens kids and Calley is as bad…and have soon put her in trouble and this is the way out of it the Job is worse for me than hir as I shall go throw the same and no it tell the fokes to have mutch to say of this afair on either sides to envest into ther own life and they will no dout find soom black spots that will take a robbing out.”

The Victoria Law Courts, by Tony Hisgett

The Victoria Law Courts, by Tony Hisgett

An inquest on Edward Birch was held on 15 January at the Victoria Courts in Birmingham, before city coroner Oliver Pemberton. Here, Mrs Birch repeated the evidence that she had given at her daughter’s inquest, detailing the ‘painful relationship’ between her relatives.

At a small china teacup, which had the words ‘A present from Birmingham’ inscribed in gold round it, being produced, she burst into sobs – ‘it was given to me by my daughter on my 32nd birthday.’

Carrie’s younger sister Lilly, then aged around eight, then had to give evidence, followed by two of Birch’s colleagues at Messrs Lowe’s iron foundry in Upper Trinity Street. They noted that although quiet and intelligent as a worker, he was something of a drinker, and had been summoned before the courts recently for not sending one of his children to school.

The coroner stated that the dead man had ‘turned from the conduct of the parent and behaved in a manner almost impossible to describe.’ He went further; Birch was a ‘profoundly wicked man’, and he encouraged the jury to return a verdict of felo de se – that Birch had ‘feloniously, wilfully, and of malice aforethought did kill and murder himself’. The jury duly did so.

The funeral of Carrie Jones took place at Yardley Cemetery on the Monday morning. The funeral procession left her mother’s house at 59 Upper Highgate Street at 9.30am with the service taking place at 11am.

How did Mrs Birch cope with this double betrayal by her husband and daughter, followed by the double deaths and the publicity the events received?

Understandably, the press reported that she was ‘utterly prostrated, both mentally and physically’, to the extent of being unable to maintain either herself or her six other children, the youngest being only a few months old. In her lowest moments, but the community did not stigmatise her, instead rallying around her.

The jury had stated at Birch’s inquest that they expressed ‘deep sympathy’ for Mrs Birch, and collected money for her from each of the jurors at the end of the inquest. The coroner encouraged all the onlookers at the court to do the same.

Joseph Lock was appointed by the community to collect money on behalf of the Birch family, writing in the press that ‘any sums, however small’ would be welcome to help maintain the family as it would be ‘weeks, probably months’ before Mrs Birch was able to resume family life.

Another man, William L Sheffield, responded in the press that ‘the unfortunate woman Mrs Birch deserves some little help, and I shall be happy to contribute’, and others sent postal orders directly to the newspapers, asking for them to be forwarded on.

Selina Birch survived the ordeal, although life continued to be tough for her. She stayed in the Upper Highgate Street area for the next decade.

She worked as a laundress to maintain her children, and seems to have had at least two illegitimate children following Edward’s death – Jessie was born in 1898 and Lizzie in 1906.

In 1911, living at 6 Beales Buildings, Frank Street, in Balsall Heath, she stated that she was a widow with nine children, of whom two had died.

Significantly, though, despite being a widow, she wrote that her ‘present marriage’ had so far lasted 30 years, suggesting that she still saw Edward Birch very much as her husband.

Selina J Birch died in Birmingham in 1939, shortly before the start of the Second World War, aged 79 – having long outlived her unfaithful husband and naïve daughter.

Sources: 

The Standard, 9 January 1895, p.3; Nottinghamshire Guardian, 12 January 1895, p.8; Birmingham Daily Post, 12 January 1895; The Derby Mercury, 16 Jan 1895; Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, 20 January 1895; Ancestry, The Genealogist.

The Bow Street Runners and the fortune-telling catoptrical

The Bow Street courtroom

The Bow Street courtroom

In a piece worthy of today’s Daily Mail, in 1800, the Caledonian Mercury reported on the illegal occupations undertaken by some of London’s immigrants.

It reported that ‘some foreigners’ who lived on Oxford Street, near Poland Street, were said to ‘possess a knowledge of the occult science, or, in plain terms, were fortune tellers’.

After a tip-off, John Revett, a Bow Street Runner, was despatched to Oxford Street. On reaching the house, he was ushered up to a chamber which contained a ‘very curious machine, called a catoptrical’ and a tablet on which were inscribed a series of questions.

The catoptrical was supposed to be able to answer these questions, but the audience had to pay a shilling for each question they wanted answered.

Each visitor had to look into a telescope-like barrel, supported on a glass tub, and, by the aid of mirrors, an answer would be shown.

The newspaper reported that only the ‘ignorant’ would have thought this was really magic, as the mechanism for working the machine was clearly visible, one of the ‘foreigners’ working the various figures and letters of the answer.

Officer Revett had been promised a wife for his shilling. He returned to the Bow Street magistrate, Richard Ford, to report this, and Ford duly issued a warrant to apprehend the ‘parties practicing this nefarious imposition.’

It took three officers – Revett, together with Townsend and Sayer – to carry out the warrant on Oxford Street. All, of course, paid their shilling to get their fortunes told first, with Sayer wishing he hadn’t, after he was told his wife would be unfaithful to him.

Unluckily for the ‘foreigners’, ‘no lucky omen gave notice of the approach of the officers of justice’; they were taken by surprise by their clients revealing themselves to be officers.

They were brought, in a coach, to the Bow Street public office at 10pm in the evening, and examined by Mr Ford.

Boys exercising at Tothill Fields Prison, or Bridewell. Via Wellcome Images (L0002980).

Boys exercising at Tothill Fields Prison, or Bridewell. Via Wellcome Images (L0002980).

Under the 1744 Vagrancy Act (17 Geo 2, c5), the prisoners were deemed to be rogues and vagabonds, as the act covered ‘persons pretending to have skill in physiognomy, palmistry or fortune telling’.

They were unceremoniously packed off to Tothill Fields Bridewell to await trial at the next Quarter Sessions.

Before they had left the Bow Street office, however, the prisoners had admitted to Mr Ford that they were French immigrants, and that the government paid to them a regular allowance. This allowance was immediately stopped.

The Caledonian Mercury reported that the fortune-tellers ‘did not have recourse to any supernatural means to foretell what would shortly be their fate.’

Instead, Richard Ford – who, unhappily for them, also acted as superintendent of the Aliens Office – stated by the usual means that he would now use his influence to ensure that they were deported back to France.

Source: Caledonian Mercury, 20 October 1800

JM Beattie’s book The First English Detectives: The Bow Street Runners and the Policing of London, 1750-1840 (Oxford University Press, 2012) has lots more on Richard Ford and two of his Runners, Townsend and Sayer.

The Roaring Girl: How the RSC failed to convince me that Moll Cutpurse was a Victorian drag king

I went to see the RSC’s The Roaring Girl, directed by Jo Davies, recently – and was rather unimpressed by its assertion that this Jacobean play – and petty criminal heroine – was more about Victorian gender-bending than the society in which it was originally set.

Moll Cutpurse

Moll Cutpurse

Moll Cutpurse was a 17th century pickpocket, an infamous member of the London underworld, a woman who revelled in her reputation, swearing, smoking a pipe, and being the subject of plays even within her own lifetime.

She undoubtedly challenged gender conventions of the time, and was punished for it, being charged with dressing indecently in 1611 and having to do penance a year later for ‘evil living’. She accepted mens’ bets to dress as a man, acted as a pimp, and was infamous for her actions.

Yet she was also seen as rather a glamorous creature. She performed in public to eager audiences, and the fact that plays were written about her suggests that the public wanted to hear and see more of her.

She has become a larger than life figure, mythologised to the extent that it is no longer known what is real and what is fiction. But she remains very much of her time – a Jacobean woman who lived life on her own terms.

One of the most famous plays written about Moll is Dekker and Middleston’s The Roaring Girl, written in the first decade of the 17th century, while Moll was still in her 20s. The title derives from the ‘roaring boy’, a contemporary slang term for men who partied, fought, and carried out petty crimes.

Moll is depicted as an object of horror to the older characters, but is also depicted with sympathy – it is assumed that because she is unconventional, she must be a whore; Moll puts the character of Laxton, who attempts to pay her for sex, in his place about this.

She also admits to Sebastian that she is uninterested in sex and has no intention of marrying. She also later states her aim of protecting the innocent from crime due to her insight into the criminal class.

Moll is clearly seen as a morally superior woman to the more socially acceptable Prudence Gallipot, the apothecary’s wife, who is carrying on an affair with Laxton, and who lies to her husband in order to get money for her lover.

To me, Moll and The Roaring Girl is of its time. It shows how 17th century women could defy gender stereotypes and be strong, independent women who challenged convention. She is no caricature, but a feisty individual who survives as she can.

Yet the RSC has decided otherwise. Their production of The Roaring Girl turns Moll into a fey cross-dresser, mimicking male behaviour – including the way she walks and sits – with a few nods to lesbianism.

But also, they’ve decided that Moll’s life in Jacobean England is just not sexy or relevant enough, and so have decided to make her a Victorian heroine, and a caricature of one at that.

This Roaring Girl is all about Victorian ideals of femininity and how Moll rejects those ideals, ripping off her boned bustle to reveal trousers, and strutting around the men in their bowler hats and plaid jackets. The programme stresses the Victorian context of their production, complete with a timeline of 19th century history.

But Moll is not Victorian, and Victorian society is not Jacobean society. Moll is not universal, she does not transcend the centuries. The reaction to her actions was not unmitigated horror, a fear of her making men look weak and insipid; she was a figure of interest, as shown by the plays written in her lifetime and the performances she put on.

Her offences were typical of her period, and carried out during a time when execution was a real threat to even petty thieves. By the 1890s – when this production is set – that fear had rescinded due to Victorian sensibilities over the effectiveness of hanging (where executions were carried out far less, particularly if you were female, and in Britain, held in private post-1868).

Anne Bonny

Anne Bonny

And Moll was no camp cross-dresser. She disguised herself for bets, or to gain some purpose, and she was not unique in pre-Victorian times – look at the likes of Anne Bonny and Mary Read in the 18th century, for example.

She was not surrounded by meek women carrying parasols (as she is in the RSC production). She was a complex character, a petty criminal, an extrovert – not a pariah or an object of derision but of interest and excitement.

She showed how Jacobean society included a variety of people, and how women could be surprisingly modern.

Perhaps the problem lies more in how Jacobean society is perceived today. Victorians are more sexy, more immediate to audiences.

We relate to them more, because they are more recent, because we have photographs showing what they looked like, diaries and books in abundance from those living in the era. Our knowledge of the 17th century requires more help, more research – it is more shadowy.

And yet, perhaps the RSC recognised that its depiction of Moll as a Victorian lady challenging stereotypes of the submissive woman was difficult to justify, and hence its odd inclusion of rock music, breakdancing, characters playing electric guitars and rapping.

I particularly objected to the rapping – for the characters stated that they were actually ‘canting’. Canting was the slang used by thieves, such as the word ‘frummagemm’d’ to denote being hanged. I recognised that the director was trying to show how different sections of society develop a type of communication that gives them a sense of identity – but rap?! In a Victorian setting?

But just as it makes no sense to include breakdancing randomly into a Victorian setting, it also makes no sense to put Moll into such a setting, either.

I can’t do better than to quote the Telegraph’s Charles Spencer, who described the moden touches as making a ‘mockery’ of the production’s already ‘unnecessary Victorian setting’ and the Evening Standard’s Henry Hitchings who pointed out that the relocation to the late Victorian era was ‘to no great advantage’.

I was relieved that critics had felt the same way as I; it is not necessary to shoehorn events from earlier into the Victorian era.

Not everything is timeless, and sometimes it’s OK to say that women – criminal women, cross-dressing women, or just, say, WOMEN in general – in the 17th century were complex, interesting, and fascinating, and don’t need to be turned into Victorians to make them so.

For my review of Arden of Faversham, another of the RSC’s crime-related productions in its Roaring Girl season, click here.

A Letter from the Flagellator

1811_emblem_TheScourge_Boston_Oct3Letters to the editors of Victorian newspapers are often fascinating insights into the minds of our 19th century forebears. This one, from 1842, caught my attention – from the self-titled Flagellator (whose name should give you an immediate indication of his interests), he argued that frequent flogging was the way to deal with pretty much all offenders.

It’s also interesting as it sheds light on Victorian debates surrounding the execution of criminals. Here, for your delectation, is a letter from the Flagellator of Victorian England.

“Punishment of Flogging. To the editor of The Times. Sir: I most cordially agree with your article in this day’s Times relative to the punishment of flogging for various offences.

“It is true that there are many mawkish and morbid persons who cannot bear to hear, or see, or think, of punishments; but, as prevention of crime is the object of punishment, I should most strongly advocate frequent flogging during the period of imprisonment, which would check many crimes, and pickpocketing in particular.

“Indeed, though I should be sorry that hanging be abolished, yet, if the morbid and canting part of the world would not object, I should almost be inclined to stop hanging, provided even the convicted murderer should be kept to hard labour, and be flogged well once a month as long as he lied.

“This would effectually prevent all crimes, for men could not bear such constant inflictions. Till this is agreed on, hanging must be continued.” FLAGELLATOR, July 5.

From The Times, 7 July 1842