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Archive for the ‘Historical Crime’ Category

“JAMES CARSE is indicted, for that he, not having the fear of God before his eyes, but being moved and seduced by the instigation of the Devil, on the 2nd day of December1787, in and upon Sarah Hayes , single woman, in the peace of God and our Lord the King, feloniously did make an assault, and with a certain clasp knife, of the value of 2 pennies… did wilfully and maliciously strike and thrust, giving her one mortal wound of the length of eight inches, and of the depth of two inches, of which she instantly died.”

Indictments for murder in the 19th century did not mince their words. They were emotional in tone and  gory in their description of the alleged crime and must have put the defendant at a disadvantage from the outset. The phrases “not having the fear of god,” and “seduced by the instigation of the devil,” were commonly used, perhaps to convey the sense that anyone committing murder cannot be of sound mind or soul? Perhaps in this case though they also serve to emphasise the beginnings of of what was to become a continuing struggle  to understand the mind of a murderer.

Up until 30th November 1787 James Carse had been a sailor on the frigate, “Boreas” having served for four years, mainly in the West Indies, under the captainship of the young Horatio Nelson. When he was signed off he was paid 50 guineas, a considerable amount of money at the time.

On December 2nd 1787, Carse went drinking with a group of friends, in a public house in Wapping called the “Ship in Distress.” Here he met a girl called Mary Mills, a “woman of the town.” Carse shared his drink (three pennyworth of rum and water) with Mary and asked if he could “go home” with her. She agreed and took him back to a room she shared with Sarah Hayes. Carse gave Sarah a shilling for the use of the bed and sent her out with half a crown to fetch him a pot of brandy. She came back with the drink and change of eighteen pence.

Carse and Mary started to get undressed while Sarah smoked a pipe in the chimney corner. Later, at the trial, Mary commented on the strange way Carse rolled his trousers into a bundle, “like a doll” and laid them at his side on the bed. He lay there for a while before sending Sarah out for more drink. She returned with the drink and food for him, insisting that he eat something. Suddenly, Carse jumped out of the bed, wearing only a shirt, and produced a knife. He grabbed Sarah by the throat and shouted “I will, I must, I must, I must” and stabbed the girl.

There was, and is, little doubt as to the guilt of James Carse. He was arrested at the scene, covered in blood and the knife still in his hand. He also later confessed to the murder. Nor is there any doubt as to the sheer brutality of his crime, in killing a woman who had shown him nothing but kindness and who had offered no provocation. Yet there do seem to be some grounds for questioning his soundness of mind. Carse said little in his own defence at the trial, other than, “I was threatened my life at the same time.” When asked who had threatened his life, he said, “This woman, and the woman that I killed.” Pressed further he added, “There were people round the house at the same time.

This hardly amounts to a credible defence, and the proceedings of the Old Bailey do not give an account of the impression he gave, standing in the dock. Yet while James Carse said little in his own defence two factors probably saved his life. His defence barrister was the renowned William Garrow (as depicted recently in the TV series – “Garrow’s Law“) and the witness who spoke up for his character was the Captain Horatio Nelson, not yet an Admiral and the victor of Trafalgar, but even then a respected and commanding presence.

First Garrow produced two witnesses who said that Carse had told them that he was being pursued by a gang of sixteen men who were after his money when he had left his ship; that he had paid them off once, but that they were still after him. They said he seemed obsessed with the idea that people were after his money and would kill him for it. (Hence the importance of Carse’s statement that he believed “There were people round the at the same time.“) Several witnesses also attested that Carse’s character had changed since he had returned from the Indies. (Nowadays he might have been described as suffering from paranoid delusions.) Then Garrow questioned Captain Horatio Nelson.

William Garrow: “Had you an opportunity of knowing the character of this man, as far as humanity and good-nature were concerned?

Horatio Nelson: “Perfectly; …when I heard of this affair, I said, if it is true, he must be insane, for I should as soon suspect myself, and sooner, because I know I am hasty; he is so quiet a man, and never committed a fault during the time I knew him; seamen, I know perfectly, when they come home, the landlords will furnish them with raw liquors; I saw myself thirty or forty people from that ship, that were made as mad as if they were at Bedlam, and did not know what they did: I know, that when seamen are furnished with British spirits, it turns the brain.”

Garrow: “Can you fairly say, that this man, under the pressure of a good deal of liquor, did appear to you to be insane?”

Horatio Nelson: “He was a cooper on board; and at the island of Antigua, I think it was, he was struck with the sun, after which time he appeared melancholy; I have been affected with it; I have been out of my senses; it hurts the brain.”

Garrow: Is he a man, from your knowledge of him, likely to commit a deliberate foul murder?

Horatio Nelson: I should as soon suspect myself, because I am hasty, he is not.

After retiring for some time, the jury found Carse guilty of murder, but recommended, “that an enquiry should be made into the state of the man’s mind before execution“. The judge agreed and respited execution pending the Royal prerogative.

As far as I can ascertain Carse was later pardoned on condition that he re-join the navy. Perhaps a combination of William Garrow and Horatio Nelson had saved the life of James Carse, as an 18th century legal system struggled with the definition of sanity and the concept of “being of sound mind”? It also raises questions as to whether “celebrity” played a role in the outcome. Was justice done, perhaps we will never know. What is certain is that a young woman needlessly and innocently lost her life in a particularly brutal way.

The case is also interesting for what it tells us about the skill of Garrow as an investigator, and of the young Nelson and his relationship with those who served under him – the fact that he knew the members of his crew (Carse was not an officer and held a fairly lowly place in the ship’s hierarchy) and that he was was willing to speak out for them even in circumstances such as this.  Nelson’s testimony was also very frank and self-critical – “I should as soon suspect myself, because I am hasty, he is not.” 

One other detail of interest from the indictment is the reference to “and with a certain clasp knife, of the value of 2 pennies.” It appears from examining reports of other murder cases in the Old Bailey archives that it was common practice to to record the price of the murder weapon, be it a pistol valued at five shillings or a piece of wood with a value of a penny. This probably has a precedent in law, but perhaps it was a way of commenting on the fragility or cheapness of life?

Further details of this case, as recorded at the time, can be found in the Proceedings of the Old Bailey.

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Jane Austen's Aunt - Jane Perrot

Jane Austen’s Aunt – Jane Perrot

On the 8th August 1799, Jane Leigh-Perrot was accused of stealing a card of white lace from a millinery shop in Bath. The Leigh-Perrots, a wealthy couple, were Jane Austen’s mother’s brother and sister-in-law (Jane’s Uncle and Aunt). The white lace valued at £1 was found in Mrs Leigh-Perrot’s possession together with a card of black lace that she had bought and paid for from the same shop. Mrs Leigh-Perrot denied stealing the lace, saying that the sales clerk must have given it her by mistake when he handed over her purchase.

There was no organised police force in 18th Century England, apart from the Bow Street Runners in London . The capture and prosecution of criminals was largely left to their victims to deal with. Every parish was obliged to have one or two constables, but they were unpaid volunteers working only in their spare time. And a victim of crime who wanted a constable to track down and arrest the perpetrator was expected to pay the expenses of their doing so.

Sometimes victims of crime hired a thief-taker to pursue the wrong-doer. Again, they were private individuals working much like latter day bounty hunters. Sometimes, thief-takers would act as go-betweens, negotiating the return of stolen goods for a fee. Many though were corrupt, actually initiating and organising the original theft in order to claim the reward for the return of goods, or extorting protection money from the criminals they were supposed to catch.

For the most part, unless a criminal was “caught in the act” (usually by their intended victim) it was unlikely they would be brought to justice. In the absence of a police force, the maintenance of “Law and Order” therefore came to depend more on deterrence rather than apprehension. The harshest penalty of all was brought in to cover more and more crimes in what came to be known as the “Bloody Code.”  In 1688 there were 50 offences on the statute book that carried the death sentence. By 1776 the number had quadrupled, and reached 220 by the end of the century, including the crime of “Grand Larceny,” or the theft of items with a monetary value that exceeded one shilling (later increased to five shillings).

In practice, some judges, advocates and juries often recognised the barbarity of the punishment in relation to the crime. Advocates would sometimes plead for mercy. Juries might determine that goods were over-priced and bring their value down below the five shilling threshold. Defendants might claim “benefit of clergy” which by virtue of stating religious belief and reading out an oath allowed the judge to exercise leniency. In other cases the Government could review the sentence by appeal, and often did.

Between 1770 and 1830, 35,000 death sentences were handed down in England and Wales, but only 7000 executions were actually carried out. The alternatives, however, included branding or transportation to the Australian Colonies with the prospect of forced labour for 14 years. One-third of all criminals convicted between 1788 and 1867, it is estimated, were transported to Australia and Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania). Others were “allowed” to join the army as an alternative to transportation, many fighting in the Napoleonic wars.

Although Mrs Leigh-Perrot (Jane Austen’s aunt) denied stealing the lace in August 1799 she was nevertheless arrested on a charge of “grand theft.” The lace, to the value of £1, she was said to have stolen was worth four times the five shillings that carried the death sentence.

In practice it was unlikely (given her standing) that if she had been found guilty she would have been sentenced to death. Jane Leigh-Perrot was though refused bail and committed to prison on the sworn depositions of the shopkeeper. Due to her wealth, social standing and age she was allowed to stay in the house of the prison keeper, Mr Scadding, at the Somerset County Gaol in Ilchester, rather than being kept in a cell. Mrs Leigh-Perrot still wrote though that she suffered ‘Vulgarity, Dirt, Noise from morning till night’. James Leigh-Perrot insisted on remaining with her in prison.

During her trial Jane Leigh-Perrot spoke eloquently for herself.  Several testimonials as to her character were also read out to the court. At the conclusion of the trial the jury took only 10 minutes to find her “Not Guilty.” It does, however, make you wonder how someone less well refined, less well-connected,  less eloquent, less educated, less wealthy might have fared. The evidence of her guilt, might have been quite sufficient to send someone else to the gallows, or transported, or branded with a hot iron. She was after all caught in possession of the item and identified by the shop-keeper. In “Persuasion” Captain Harville asks Anne Elliot, ‘But how shall we prove anything?’ Anne replies, ‘We never shall.

As the system of justice developed, the “Bloody Code” came under increasing challenge from advocates like William Garrow (as dramatised in the BBC series “Garrow’s Law“). In 1823 the “Judgement of Death Act” made the mandatory death penalty discretionary for all crimes except treason and murder. Gradually the emphasis changed from deterrence by penalty, to deterrence by likelihood of capture. The first organised police forces were gradually established in major cities with the dual objectives of preventing crime and apprehending criminals.

This is an update of a post hosted on the Jane Austen’s World website on 24th July 2012. An extract of it (“Law and Order in the Georgian Era”)  was included on The Jane Austen Forum on 9th August 2012. In writing my first novel, “Avon Street,” I have tried to bring the Victorian era to life, with all its contradictions and similarities to modern life, and to take the reader on a journey behind the fine Georgian facades of Bath to expose the darker side of the city.

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There was mayhem at the Bath Fair of 1839. For years the event had been held at Lansdown, high above the city on the flat-lands that abounded the Bath Road. They had been largely peaceable affairs and widely enjoyed. In the early morning farmers would congregate to buy and sell livestock. In the afternoon the local population all gathered to see the wonders of “Wombwell’s Menagerie.”

“Wombwell’s Menagerie” was essentially a travelling zoo with tigers and elephants and other exotic animals, together with merry-go-rounds and swings,  stalls and sideshows. But the fair always attracted a large number of more informal drinking-booths, dancing-tents, contests of skill, and games of chance.

At ten o’ clock on the night of the 10th August 1839 the Sangers, owners of “Wombwell’s Menagerie,” decided to shut up shop earlier than usual. The crowd had been more boisterous than usual and from early evening fights had begun to break out around the showground. But as the Sangers began packing up the tents and stalls, “Carroty Kate” arrived at the head of a large contingent of already drunk residents of the Avon Street area of the city. George Sanger described her as:-

 “a red-headed virago, a big brutal animal, caring nothing for magistrates or gaol, who had long been the terror of every respectable person in Bath and its neighbourhood.”

Kate’s gang soon began looting the drinking-booths and beating their owners. Anything they could not drink or carry, they smashed. Booths and stalls were wrecked and burned. Many, including children, ran and hid in the surrounding fields and woods in fear of their lives.

Eventually Kate and her gang headed back to the city. But James Sanger loaded his blunderbuss, gathered the showmen together and set off in waggons, pursuing them. They caught a dozen of the fleeing rioters, including Kate. The men they tied together with tent ropes, like a human chain. Then as though it was a tug-of-war contest they dragged them back and fro through a deep pond. When they were half-drowned the show-men dragged them towards the waggons.

One of the rioters shouted,”Are you a-going to kill us? Ain’t you done enough?”

“Not half enough,” one of the showmen replied.

A captive called out, “Murder! Murder!”

“Shut it!” came the answer. “Save your breath for the next scene. You’ll want it then!”

Their captors tied them, two by two to the wheels of the waggons and flogged them with riding whips. After two dozen lashes each they sent them back to the city, barely able to walk. Then they turned to Kate.

The proprietor of a wax-works tent, a woman, shouted, “We’re not going to drag ‘ee through the pond, bad as you wants washin’, nor use the horse-whips to ‘ee, but you’re a-going to be made to smart all the same.” Four of the women in the party then held Kate over a trestle while two others beat her with canes before releasing her.

The rioters who escaped capture by the show-folk fared little better. They were met by the police as they entered the city. Another skirmish ensued. Several were arrested and later transported. One of the rioters though, severely injured a policeman with an iron bar. He was later tried and hung, for wounding with intent to murder. History does not record what became of “Carrotty Kate.”

Avon Street was a dangerous place to be – and to be from.

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Painting by William Hardwick from Victoria Art Gallery (Bath) Collection

Drownings in the River Avon were relatively common in Bath in the middle of the 19th Century. Many were accidental, or at least that’s what the Coroner’s Court often concluded. A substantial number though, were suicides. They were regularly reported as such in the local paper, but were rarely seen as newsworthy by the national press.

The people who had taken their own lives in the River Avon were for the most part un-newsworthy because they were usually poor. They were part of the nameless, faceless masses exploited by the Industrial Revolution, routinely marginalised and vilified in the press. Popular opinion was that they were lazy, ignorant and dirty; given to drinking too much, and begging, or they were itinerants, migrants without roots, who did not want to work and were content to live in squalor.

Yet it was in “The Times” newspaper archive that I first read of the incident that now forms the prologue to my book – an incident so tragic, abhorrent and pitiful that it was reported nationally. On Sunday 6th February 1850, in the early hours of the morning, Thomas Hunt drowned himself and his young daughter.  The Coroner’s Court determined that Hunt had taken his own life and found him guilty of the murder of his daughter.

I knew when I read the piece that I would include their story somewhere in my book. It seemed somehow to summarise the tragic lives of many who survived in the Avon Street area of Bath. It was the darkness and despair that existed at the heart of the city – the secret that was kept hidden behind the Georgian facades – the lie that lay behind the carefully contrived and protected image.

I had initially intended to use the incident as an anecdote somewhere in the book, perhaps brought up in conversation between the characters, but the story of Thomas Hunt and his daughter, would not leave me. Eventually it became a lynch pin, something that brought the characters together, or drove them apart. It played a big part in determining the plot and came to influence atmosphere and settings, as I tried to explore the two very different worlds that co-existed in the city.

There was nothing in the newspaper records to indicate that Thomas Hunt was in debt (as he is in my book) but debt and loan-sharks were a way of life for the working class at that time, as they are increasingly  now. Their story came almost to define what life must have been like for many of the residents of Avon Street and though prologues are unfashionable and may even put some people off reading a book, their story (or my interpretation of it) now forms the prologue of “Avon Street” – because that’s where it needs to be.

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In 1903 Britain was outraged by a  series of brutal attacks on horses, cattle and sheep  in Great Wyrley, near Birmingham. So frequent and sadistic were these night-time attacks that they were reported regularly in the national press.  Local people blamed a solicitor of “mixed race” by the name of George Edalji, claiming he organised the attacks as a part of ritualistic pagan worship ceremonies.

Edalji soon found himself at the centre of a “hate-mail” campaign. The police too began to receive anonymous letters pointing to him as the culprit and claiming that he was the leader of a  pagan sect. Early one morning  they mounted a raid on Edalji’s home and their suspicions were confirmed. In the house they found a damp coat and trousers each with a small blood stain on them. They also discovered horse-hairs on the coat and recovered a pair of muddy boots and four dirty razors with red staining.

The police arrested Edalji and he was quickly tried and found guilty at Stafford Assizes. He was  sentenced to seven years imprisonment. Yet despite his imprisonment, the animal attacks continued. A year after his trial a petition for his release, with over 10,000 signatures (including many lawyers) was sent to the Home Office. But the authorities would not relent and Edalji remained in prison until two years later. Then without explanation  he was suddenly released still carrying the stigma of  the “guilty” verdict.

Hearing of the case, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (creator of Sherlock Holmes) decided to investigate and to re-examine the evidence. He found that:-

  • the blood-stains were too small in relation to the brutality of the attack,
  • the police notes taken at the time indicated that the coat was damp, yet the blood-stains were dried into the fabric and of some age
  •  the marks on the razors that were taken to be blood were simply rust, reflecting their age and lack of use
  • the horse-hairs on the coat were commonly used in stuffing furniture and could be expected to be found on most people’s clothing.

Conan Doyle had known from his meeting with Edalji that the man was innocent, just as Sherlock Holmes would have known. He used the same  observational and deductive skills as his fictional creation and it was plain to him immediately that Edalji had,

not only a high degree of myopia, but marked astigmatism.

With such bad eyesight Conan Doyle argued, how could Edalji on a moonless night have walked across miles of broken ground, climbed innumerable walls and found his way through gaps in hedges and walls to reach his prey.

Conan Doyle presented his evidence in “The Daily Telegraph” in January 1907. He traced the anonymous letters to a man called Robert Sharp and found enough evidence to publicly accuse him and his two brothers of the crimes.  One of the brothers immediately fled the country.

Under pressure of publicity, the Home Office agreed to review the case through  a three-man inquiry. One of  those men coincidentally, happened to be related to the Chief Constable who had undertaken the initial investigation.

Needless to say they upheld the original conclusion that Edalji was guilty and that the Sharp brothers were innocent. The Law Society though, exonerated Edalji and reinstated him as a solicitor and readers of “The Daily Telegraph” raised £300 for him to help with his legal costs – all on the basis of Conan Doyle’s investigation – which they trusted more than the judgement of the legal system.

Conan Doyle like his creation, Sherlock Holmes, believed in the primacy of hard evidence. He assessed that evidence dispassionately and objectively in the belief that everyone is innocent until proved guilty. The police and judicial system, on the other hand, had largely judged George Edalji long before he even came to trial, on the colour of his skin and local prejudice and rumour.

I think it’s fair to say that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle lived up to the example of his fictional creation, Sherlock Holmes, not only in terms of his methods, but also in his belief in justice.

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Had Madame Rachael stuck to her true criminal vocation as a confidence trickster and charlatan, she might now be fondly remembered as the founder of a cosmetics empire. But Rachael got greedy and diversified into theft, blackmail and extortion.

Madame Rachael was an un-attractive, middle-aged, and rather coarse looking woman when she opened her first beauty salon.  But each line and wrinkle on her face had been hard earned, for Madame Rachael was actually Sarah Rachael Leverson, born into poverty in the North of England. She could neither read nor write, yet she was street-wise and bright enough to hide her roots.

Little is known about her past other than that she was married for a while to an apothecary’s assistant in Lancashire. Rachel moved to London in the late 1850s and sold old clothes for a while, and then fried fish, before dabbling in fortune-telling.

She must have done reasonably well, because she got together enough money to open a beauty salon in Mayfair. Rachael had learned a little about mixing chemicals from her former husband and she certainly had a flair for sales and marketing. She also had a personable and confident manner and a lot of “face.” Soon her parlour was the talk of Mayfair, yet it was bankrupt within a year. Perhaps Rachael’s lack of education let her down, or perhaps she was just under-capitalised, but she ended in the debtor’s prison.

For anyone else that might have been the end of the story, but Rachael was too persistent to give up.  As soon as she was released from prison she opened another salon in New Bond Street, with the slogan, “Beautiful for Ever.” No one knows where the money came from, nor given the fact that she could not write, who translated her ideas into the very effective advertising campaigns that she mounted.  The person who wrote the popular “house-magazine” promoting Madame Rachael’s exclusive beauty products, also remains a mystery.

By 1867 Madame Rachael had a handsome coach and pair, a house in Mayfair and retained a box at the Opera House at the cost of £400 per season. All this had been achieved by selling cosmetics, like the famous “Magnetic Rock Dew Water,”

“In the heart of the Sahara, or the Great Desert is a magnetic rock, from which water distils sparingly in the form of dew, which is possessed of an extraordinary property. Whether a latent electricity is imparted by magnetism, or an additional quantity of oxygen enters into its composition, it is not easy to say. But it appears to have the property of increasing the vital energies…and it gives the appearance of youth to persons of considerable antiquity. This water is brought to Morocco on swift dromedaries for the use of the court, and its virtues are much extolled by their physicians.”

Madame Rachael had also bought additional adjoining properties by then and was offering “Arabian Baths” and various health and spa treatments. Then she diversified further, offering rooms for “extra services” and private rooms for “dangerous liaisons” which were also highly lucrative until she began stealing jewellery from her patrons and blackmailing them over their clandestine meetings.

In the end, Madame Rachael ended up back in prison – if only she’d stuck to marketing fake beauty products she might have been a millionaire and her Cosmetics Empire might still be with us. Many of her marketing ideas certainly still are.

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It’s finally arrived. I opened the parcel this morning, and there it was – my book – “Avon Street”  Seeing the cover, holding the book, thumbing the pages, it all felt suddenly real and I finally allowed myself to feel excited.

I had known for months that “Avon Street” was going to be published. After all, I had signed a contract, checked the proofs seen it for sale on Amazon, Waterstones, and the Guardian Bookshop. Yet still it hadn’t felt real, or at least I hadn’t allowed myself to get too excited. You see, there had been publishers before, contracts signed; it had even been listed on Amazon, yet in the past things had gone wrong at the last moment and the book never made it to the bookshops. It’s a difficult industry, publishing.

There were years before that too, when writing was confined to reports and studies; policy documents and business strategies. Writing a novel was just a dream then, but now it is a reality. The “effort” was always worthwhile, even before I thought I had a chance of being published. I love writing, whatever form it takes. Yet now, seeing my book sitting there on the table, I can’t resist the smile that keeps insisting on taking over my face.

I am no longer  Unpublished Writer, but a Published Author. To be honest it’s hard to take in, but all in all it feels great.

And to any Unpublished Writer who reads this, the two lessons I’ve learned are to keep trying and exploring publishing opportunities – but more importantly – Keep Enjoying Writing.

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