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.

 

 

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The man whose wife had sex with the lodgers

adulteryIn 1900, a Pimlico hairdresser and waiter sought a divorce from his wife, on the grounds of adultery.

His wife seems to have been a busy woman – she and her husband rented out their spare rooms to lodgers, and she was accused of sleeping not just with one but with all three of them.

The husband, Ephraim Riseley, had married Emily Elizabeth Murkett at St John’s in Fitzrovia on 9 May 1886. Ephraim, a coachman’s son, was 23; his bride, the daughter of a carpenter, was 24; both were originally from Huntingdonshire.

They moved into a house at 15 Glasgow Terrace in Pimlico, and had two children, Edwin Ephraim, born in February 1889, and May Emily, born in August 1891.

Ephraim had been working as a footman and butler since his marriage, but wanted to invest for his and his family’s future – so he took over a hairdressing business. They moved to 4 South Wharf Road in Paddington, where Ephraim installed Joel Edwards as manager of the hairdresser’s, renting out one of his rooms to him, with the business being run from there. The other rooms were taken by lodgers named Alfred Leaman and Mr Hammond.

While Edwards was running the hairdresser’s, Ephraim continued to work as a waiter or footman at private functions, which often required working through the night into the early hours of the morning.

On 3 July 1899, when he returned home at 3am after finishing work,

“he found his manager and wife occupying the same bedroom.”

Ephraim's divorce petition, taken from Ancestry.

Ephraim’s divorce petition, taken from Ancestry.

He unceremoniously turfed the couple out into the street, and when it had reached a more civilised hour, lodged a petition for divorce. Initially, he only named Joel Edwards, but then, later, he requested that he be allowed to amend the petition by adding charges of adultery with both Leaman and Hammond – making it clear that he had never found out, or been told, the latter’s first name. He also recorded that he had only been made aware of these ‘offences’ on 30 July, although he didn’t note how he had found out or who had told him.

He alleged that Emily had slept with Leaman at their house on 29 June 1899, and with Hammond on 30 June 1899 at the same address; in other words, that she had slept with different lodgers on consecutive days, both in the marital home. It was only Edwards, though, who Ephraim thought his wife had regularly slept with.

The divorce was granted, and Ephraim was awarded custody of the couple’s children. As soon as he divorced, he married again, and in 1911 was living in Fulham, where he was working as a gentleman’s servant. His children, Edwin and May, were still living with him, together with his daughter Mary Elizabeth, from his second marriage – born only a year after his divorce case.

Emily, meanwhile, so maligned in the divorce case, with her response to Ephraim’s charges unrecorded, was not so fortunate. For the next decade, she eked a living as a charwoman. The 1901 census recorded her as married still; by 1911, she chose to describe herself as a widow. There was no sign of Joel Edwards – or, indeed, any lodger living with Mrs Riseley. She obviously knew the dangers of having lodgers now.

Sources: The National Archives, divorce case J77/673/454 (also on Ancestry); Reynolds’s Newspaper, 18 March 1900; 1911 census for 20 Burnfoot Avenue, Fulham; 1911 census for 42 Theobalds Road, Holborn; 1901 census for Paddington (address not visible on census return).

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 Woman Who Ate Her Baby

prestonguardian14:3:1846

 

This tantalisingly brief piece in the Preston Guardian of 14 March 1846 caught my attention as I was searching for something else.

The relative lack of detail made me wonder if it was a fictional piece – the Victorian press were not strangers to making up the odd story, or embellishing the basics of a true one to make a better piece.

A woman gnawing her baby to death? Surely not.

But then I searched a bit more, and realised that this was, sadly, only too true (although a few parts of the Preston Guardian‘s story are incorrect, or based on later events).

It was a tale of poverty, and of a woman driven literally mad by the effects of childbirth.

Mary Ann Dinah King, the woman in question, was a mother of three. She was born in December 1822 at Union Street in Lambeth, the daughter of Joseph Lyons, a hawker, and his wife Amelia.

mary ann baptism

The baptism of Mary Ann Dinah Lyons in 1823.

 

On 16 March 1841, aged 18, she married John King at St Mary’s in Lambeth. She had not been known to have any mental issues until she gave birth to her first child, and, within a short period of time, had become pregnant with twins.

By the beginning of 1846, Mary Ann was living at her parents’ house on Chester Street in Kennington – her husband absent or dead.

On 24 January 1846, she gave birth there, to a boy and a girl, both healthy. She named them James and Catherine Mary Ann. All three appeared to be doing well, until the evening of 31 January.

Mary Ann had been in bed at her parents’ house that night, when she suddenly started up, grabbed the little boy, and beat him around the head.

Her mother, Amelia Lyons,  ran to her, but by the time she got to the baby, Mary Ann had started to bite at his face. Blood was pouring from little James’s head.

Amelia screamed for her husband, Joseph, who ran up to the room, but by this point, Mary Ann had chewed through James’s nose and cheek. She was leaning on her son, her mouth still attached to his face, and would not let go until her father pinched her nose tightly and she had to breathe.

James was covered in blood. Mary Ann’s face and mouth were smeared with it. The shock and horror that Mary Ann’s parents – little James’s grandparents – must have felt is clear.

motherAmelia had the presence of mind to run with the baby to the house of Mr Mason, the local surgeon, who dressed James’s wounds as best as he could.

Amazingly, James survived for nearly a month, gradually becoming weak and exhausted, before dying on 25 February.

A coroner’s inquest was held at the Fountain Tavern on Walworth Road in Kennington at the beginning of March, where the coroner, William Carter, and 14 local householders gathered to hear the horrifying story.

The householders returned a verdict of wilful murder against Mary Ann. She, meanwhile, had, since the attack, been committed to the lunatic ward of the parish workhouse*.

She was indicted for trial at the Central Criminal Court, but when her case was held on 2 April, the jury found that she was clearly unfit to plead, being of unsound mind.

 

Old Bailey Online 1846

 The brief details of Mary Ann’s case, taken from the Old Bailey Proceedings.

What happened to Mary Ann afterwards? It does not appear that she regained her senses; her actions were those of a woman who had lost contact with reality and it is hard to see how she could come back from that awful night.

NOTES

  • Details found via Free BMD, Ancestry.co.uk, Preston Guardian and The Era.
  • * One report stated that Mary Ann was in the lunatic ward of Newington workhouse, but she was living at her parents’ house in Kennington, which came under the Lambeth Poor Law Union, rather than the Newington PLU, and so it is possible she was actually sent there.
  • Mary Ann’s oldest child, not mentioned by name in press reports, may have been Amelia, born in Lambeth early in 1842.

Horror and entertainment at the gibbet: Charles Dickens’ day out

Marie_Manning,_murderer

Marie Manning, hanged with her husband Frederick outside Horsemonger Lane Gaol on 13 November 1849 – witnessed by Charles Dickens.

“I was a witness of the execution at Horsemonger-lane…The horrors of the gibbet and of the crime which brought the wretched murderers to it, faded in my mind before the atrocious bearing, looks and language, of the assembled spectators…

“When the day dawned, thieves, low prostitutes, ruffians and vagabonds of every kind, flocked onto the ground, with every variety of offensive and foul behaviour.

“Fightings, faintings, whistling, imitations of Punch, brutal jokes, tumultuous demonstrations of indecent delight when swooning women were dragged out of the crowd by the police with their dresses disordered, gave a new zest to the general entertainment.

“Nothing that ingenuity could devise to be done in this city, in the same compass of time, could work such ruin as one public execution, and I stand astounded and appalled by the wickedness it exhibits.”

Charles Dickens, 18 November 1849

A pilfering barmaid at the Rising Sun

The Old Rising Sun on Marylebone High Street

The Old Rising Sun on Marylebone High Street

Florence Savins was a barmaid at the Old Rising Sun on Marylebone High Street. She was just 19 years old, and had been working at the pub for around two months.

But her behaviour was arousing suspicion. The pub’s takings had been falling off; money seemed to be disappearing. The landlord thought Florence had been taking money from her employer.

He called the police, and two police detectives, Keys and Brooks, duly arrived. He told them of his suspicions, and they took some coins from him and marked them.

They then called into the Rising Sun, pretending to be customers, and when Florence told them how much their beer was, they passed the coins over in payment.

When the landlord came to empty the till that night, he found that two shillings and a sixpence were missing. He called Sergeant Keys to the pub, and, in front of Palmer, Keys questioned Florence.

At first, she said she didn’t know what had happened to the missing purse, and said all the money she had been paid had gone straight into the till.

image2She then showed the men her purse, which contained over a pound, all in unmarked coins. However, she later produced the marked coins, admitting having pocketed them after receiving payment from a customer. She was immediately taken into custody.

Florence’s case was heard in May 1894 at the Marylebone Magistrates’ Court, the prosecutor being the famous solicitor Frederick Freke Palmer.

Freke Palmer asked for her to be dealt with leniently, and Walter Dobbin, from her employers (Dobbin & Co), promised her that if she told him all about the money, “he would do his best to be lenient to her”.

However, Mr Newton, the magistrate who dealt with her,  said,

“tradesmen could not carry on business if such offences were to be regarded as trivial matters.”

He sentenced Florence to 21 days hard labour.

Source: The Standard, London, 16 May 1894, p.6

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.