Thursday 25 January 2018

A House Through Time... A House Through CRIME?

Tonight will be the last episode of my new favourite TV programme; A House Through Time. If you know me or my research, you'll know that it's right up my street. (Pun fully intended.)

The programme has focused on a single house in Liverpool and, drawing on the disparate archival traces and connections left by residents since the house was first built in the 1840s, has used 62 Falkner Street as a prism through which to explore not just the architectural and economic history of the building itself, but also the material, cultural, and social histories of the street, the area, the city, with personal and political journeys reaching right around the globe. I love this because, like my own research, it shows that the history of a single house is the history of so many houses, and it shows the many ways that the spaces people live in can influence their lives, their opportunities, their families, their relationships; their futures/our pasts.

There's been a stellar staff involved in researching and presenting the programme. For example, David Olusoga has been accompanied by Deborah Sugg Ryan, who influenced me early on in my postgraduate research about Histories of Home when I saw her present at the Institute of Historical Research in London. She also gave me serious dress-envy! And I've enjoyed Tweeting with her and other historians whose books adorn my shelves, hearing a little about how the research for the programme evolved. As for sources, we've seen census records, maps, furniture lists, letters, photographs, and some great visualisations to show the changing geographies of the house and the neighbourhood. It's been a really varied and dynamic programme and has appealed to a wide audience - some people came for the history, others the nostalgia, and there's also been a lot of love for Liverpool.

In this previous post on my blog I do a sort of mini 'House Through Time' about a house in William Mews in Knightsbridge, London, and I'm planning more based on similar streets near my home in the City of Brighton and Hove so watch this space!

I can't help thinking how great it would be to make a programme like 'A House Through Time' using the approach I've applied to my own research, a micro-macro historical view of a house using the sources from a case of murder before 1970. If 62 Falkner Street had been the site of one of the murder cases I've researched there would be crime scene photographs capturing the furniture and decoration at a moment in time, a floor-plan showing how the rooms and furniture were laid out, descriptions of the house and how it was lived in by the inhabitants, the routines and everyday minutiae of the lives of the neighbours and relatives, their jobs, their relationships, their migration journeys, their local/national/international networks of kin and social connections, love letters, diaries, lists of furniture and personal belongings, exhibits of evidence... Wouldn't that make great telly?! If anyone wants to commission me to write A HOUSE THROUGH CRIME, please get in touch!

How about this House Through Time/House Through Crime? This 1930s case highlights important historical themes like class, migration, domestic violence, race, mental health, policing and nosy neighbours!

Wednesday 1 November 2017

Hanged by the Neck: A short blog post about the Home Office ‘black books’ of capital cases

Graphic content. Please consider this a trigger warning for descriptions of self-inflicted injuries, blood and hanging.

If you follow me or ‘Race and the Death Penalty’ on Twitter you’ve probably noticed that I got very excited recently when I found books of late-nineteenth to mid-twentieth century capital cases kept by Home Office civil servants at the National Archives. The ‘black books’ index and classify cases that set precedents or were otherwise significant enough to be referred back to when making later decisions. Entries outline the key aspects of a case and why the defendant’s sentence was or was not respited (meaning that rather than being hanged, their death sentence was commuted post-trial to imprisonment). The books have important implications for the Race and the Death Penalty project, some of which I talk about as part of this post over on the project blog, and also for my own research. They give specific reasons why cases were considered appropriate for mercy, for example ‘provocation’ by the victim (even before the notion was codified in law), and other mitigating circumstances of a crime.

Crucially, they reveal why the cases were considered significant to those who kept these books, reasons that might not be immediately obvious from the case files or other records. For example, multiple entries in one of the books suggests that an additional reason, or even a sole reason, for commuting some defendants’ sentences from death by hanging to a term of imprisonment was their bodies, rather than the victim’s behaviour or some detail of the offence itself. And not because there was sympathy for their pain or suffering, but because the Home Office feared public scandal. To put it more explicitly; the Home Office were apparently reluctant to hang a person whose injured neck was likely to bleed during hanging.

‘Exercise of the prerogative [of mercy]’ and punitive practices tended to be based on precedent. A page in one of the Home Office black books acts as an index to Home Office files containing accusations of ‘misconduct’ by executioners. A reference number under the name Marwood led me to the case of William Brownless who in 1880 murdered his ‘sweetheart’ by slashing her neck with a razor and then cut his own throat in a failed suicide attempt. As Crime and Punishment Historian Patrick Low’s blog post suggests, his injured neck caused one of many complications in his execution:

‘It will be remembered that after committing the murder for which he this morning forfeited his life, he attempted to commit suicide, cutting his throat badly in two places. When he dropped the jerk caused the rope to break one of these wounds and it sank into the neck, being completely embedded in one part of it.’ Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette, 26 November 1880, p. 2 (quoted in P. Low, ‘My verybloody Valentine’, Last Dying Words9 February 2015 [last accessed 31 October 2017].

Another contemporary newspaper described:

‘On approaching the top of the scaffold a ghastly spectacle presented itself to view. The wound in the throat had given way, the wound was plainly exposed to view, and a narrow streak of blood tricked down his chest.’ ‘EXECUTION AT DURHAM’, The Scotsman, 17 November 1880, p. 8 (via The BritishNewspaper Archive)

The terrible scene must have been really harrowing for those involved. Unsurprisingly perhaps then, it seems that William Brownless’s execution remained in the minds, or at least the records, of Home Office officials for more than half a century afterwards. The following entries in a later black book of capital cases, each separated by many pages of different classifications, show that the Home Office were anxious to avoid a repeat incident:

‘HENSON, Sam (1903)
Caused an explosion which injured his wife and killed his son, then cut her throat and his own. Motive jealousy. Decision to respite because the state of pr[isoner]'s neck would have made execution a most horrible spectacle.’

‘GRAY, William (1948)
Shot his wife and then tried to shoot himself. Premeditated crime, whose motive was revenge on his wife and her mother. Reprieved because injury to his jaw incurred when he shot himself made execution impossible. Otherwise he would have been executed.’

‘WAYMAN, Alfred John (28), 1955
Stabbed divorced woman whom he hoped to marry, and then tried to commit suicide by cutting his throat. She had been going about with another man. Non-Stat[utory] Med[ical] Inq[uiry] found him sane. To hang him might cause public scandal as his throat wound would open and probably bleed profusely. Respited.’

‘GRINSTEAD, Leslie William (39), 1955
Pleaded guilty to stabbing sweetheart. Supported by her father she had rejected his marriage proposals and when she found herself pregnant by him had procured miscarriage. After murder attempted siucide [sic] by cutting his throat. State of his neck would have made execution unseemly. Respited. (Licenced 20.11.64. Served 9 years. Licence revoked 12 March 1967. Relicenced 15.12.78. Served 11 years 9 months.)’

The above entries suggest that defendants with a serious neck injury were being respited because of the potential mess; literal and figurative. The mention of a possible ‘public scandal’ is interesting because since 1868, twelve years before the case of William Brownless, hangings had taken place ‘in private’. The only witnesses to executioner misconduct or the ‘most horrible spectacle’ of a bloody hanging would be the executioner and his assistant, the prison governor, sheriff, a couple of warders, a surgeon/doctor and a chaplain. In some instances there might also be representatives of the press in attendance but it seems unclear if they actually observed the hanging or were admitted to view the body and interview the governor to gain a first-hand account afterwards. Interesting then, given these limited potential witnesses that the Home Office were so concerned about the possible offence to public opinion. I wonder if fear of ‘public scandal’ here is more about concern that instances of ‘unseemly’ executions, even in private, could have been used to fuel campaigns for abolition of the death penalty. 

Friday 22 September 2017

Mews Stories #1: William Mews, Knightsbridge, London

This is the first of several blog posts I’m going to publish about mews (mewses?) in the coming months. I love these little backstreets. They tend to be right in the middle of a busy urban area, but tucked away from main thoroughfares and considerably quieter. The mews I’ll be profiling draw on my research, past and present, and also on explorations of my local area in and around Brighton. My interest is historical (what was it like to live in these streets and homes in the past? who lived in them and what did they do there every day?), but also geographical and vaguely architectural. I’m interested in how these streets have changed and developed over the decades, what remains of their past features, character and atmosphere, and who lives in them now, and how. As an Historian of crime I’m particularly interested to know if the uniquely private places of mews made them ideal locations for illegal activities.

Once upon a time, mews would have housed horses, coaches, and the staff who drove and cared for them. They tended to be built behind terraces of big houses, or at least very near to them, in the 18th and 19th centuries. When the horse and coach was slowly replaced by the motor-car in the early 20th century, chauffeurs and their families could be found living upstairs in mews houses, with cars and workshops to maintain them accommodated beneath. This page from the 1901 census for Belgrave Mews North, Knightsbridge, shows the occupations of the residents, most of whom are Coachmen and Stable Helpers:

1901 census page for Belgrave Mews North, Knightsbridge

Today many mews are a mixture of residential homes, garages, workshops and small businesses. The best of them (in my opinion) retain their folding doors over the garage openings and cobbled paving in the street. I became interested in mews when I was researching the case of Elvira Barney who lived in William Mews, Knightsbridge, in 1932.

Map showing location of William Mews (marker) and Belgrave Mews North (roughly centre) in 1916 from

I found that the unique opportunity provided by mews-living (that they tend to be in the centre of things, providing easy access to city-life, but offering a more quiet and private lifestyle), meant mews attracted certain ‘bohemian’ types in the past. For example, Elvira enjoyed the kind of parties and active sex-life that were publicly frowned upon in the 1930s in her little house in William Mews. For a fuller account of the case of Elvira Barney and what it can tell us about her and her life in a mews in 1932, see my chapter 'Murder at the "Love Hut": At Home with Elvira Barney' in the edited volume Beyond the Boundariesof Home: Interdisciplinary Approaches. It’s free and Open Access. It features this image from the case file, one of several crime scene photographs that gave context to events for court and jury who couldn’t actually go to the mews to see it.

1932 photograph of William Mews (looking North) published in A. Neale, 'Murder at the "Love Hut": At Home with Elvira Barney' in M. Barrios Aquino, E. Campillo-Funollet, N. Daw, K. Jha, M.L. Miller, A. Neale and T. Ottway, (eds), Beyond the Boundaries of Home: Interdisciplinary Approaches (Brighton: University of Sussex, 2017), p. 17.

Since the 1930s when Elvira and her neighbours called William Mews home, other famous people who preferred to remain anonymous at home lived in the same mews. Celebrity former-residents include Brian Epstein and members of The Beatles, and Steve Marriott of The Small Faces (according to band-mate Ian McLagan’s memoir All the Rage).

Today very little, if anything, remains of the original William Mews, and Elvira’s ‘Love Hut’ at number 21 has been completely replaced (though The Beatles’ former flats at Whaddon House are still there). The website ‘Everchanging Mews’ has some useful information and much better images than mine of modern William Mews. (It can’t be seen on Google Streetview, unfortunately.)

William Mews looking out, 2013 (Alexa Neale).

William Mews looking South, 2013 (Alexa Neale).

Tuesday 13 September 2016

Case files for murder trials: The case of Cyril Johnson / Auntie Maggie

While I’ve been wrapping up on my PhD I’ve been working one afternoon a week as a Freelance Research Consultant for Leicester’s Story of Parks project. Project Officer (Parks Heritage) Jess Boydon was looking for someone to help coordinate the project’s volunteer researchers and keep them active and interested over the summer holidays while the regular intern was taking a break. I was happy to help, especially as it offered me an opportunity to expand my research interests. For a few weeks I took murder cases out of homes and into parks, and out of London and into Leicester.

The Green Bicycle Case is arguably the most famous Leicestershire murder. Only it was in the county of Leicester and not the city, and on a country lane not a municipal park. So not really useful for my purposes. I found two cases of murder from the period before 1970 that occurred in Leicester parks that I started to research, with some really interesting results. I’ll be giving a talk on those in Leicester this Autumn. (You'll find the event, when it is organised, on the Leicester Parks Facebook page.) These cases, like the ones I used in my thesis, told me less about ‘whodunnit’ and more about contemporary uses of the spaces by witnesses deposing. Who was using these spaces, with whom and what for? They also told me a lot about contemporary attitudes to acceptable behaviour in parks, just as the domestic murder cases I’ve looked at tell me a lot about what was considered acceptable behaviour at home, with all the class, age, ‘race’ and gender biases that go along with these social and cultural mores.

But my experience with Story of Parks and case files for murder trials didn’t end there, and it took on an unexpected dimension. While I was sharing the products and methods of my research in a workshop with the volunteer researchers one day, one of them told me ‘my Aunt was murdered’, and showed me a newspaper article of a case from 1942. My interest was piqued. I promised to have a look at the case files when I was next at The National Archives. I expected to find a case like others I explored for my PhD thesis, and that this one would fit in with others I had analysed for a chapter on wartime murders. In the chapter I identified the common trope of the returning soldier (either on leave or demobbed) who murdered his wife when he suspected (or said he suspected) her of betraying him or ‘breaking up the home’. I found that in numerous cases men were able to play on the sympathy of the public for serving men, and the expectation that their wives would be waiting when they came home. Many were able to literally ‘get away with murder’ and receive sentences for manslaughter instead, because the narrative of their wife’s death fitted a certain idea of what had happened. She had provoked him, she was culpable, any other man in the same position would have acted in the same way. To us, now, this seems preposterous. Even a judge at the time said that the remedy for this situation was the divorce courts, not that men should take the law into their own hands. The judge realised the gravity and the pervasiveness of this kind of trope – that many men believed they could ‘kill their wives with impunity’ because of the messages they were receiving about other cases.

In cases like the above, one thing that really interests me is that belief, and those messages. Exactly how did people get their information about murder, about murder trials, about possible punishments, and about what would make a case more likely to be manslaughter than murder? This is important because the statements of defendants undoubtedly speak to this common contemporary narrative, this trope that a returning soldier could kill his wife and be treated sympathetically if he had reason to believe she had been unfaithful. It’s like a circuit of culture: a man murders his wife and is treated sympathetically by the courts, the case is reported in newspapers, everyone reads it and understands it, the next man who murders his wife consciously or unconsciously frames his actions in the same way, justifies them similarly, and so the circuit continues. But were there other ways people were getting their information about manslaughter and murder?

YES. So says the case of Cyril Johnson, who was convicted of the murder of Maggie Smail in 1942. Maggie was the Aunt of one of our volunteer researchers, his late mother’s sister. He knew very little about the case, I knew I’d find the files at the National Archives, and so I had a look. What was interesting about this case, for me, is that knowing someone related to the victim changed my view on the murder slightly. I was looking out for details that might give more information about Maggie’s life, and about her sister Daisy, our researcher’s mother. (Usually, I’d be focussing more on the space where the crime occurred – in this case a flat above a shop in Ashford, Kent.) I was excited when I found material in the Home Office file that wasn’t included in the Central Criminal Court case file, because it did just that.

My research for my PhD thesis has shown that the CRIM deposition files at The National Archives give only the statements and depositions that were used in a final trial of a defendant. Other files, such as those of the Metropolitan Police and Department for Public Prosecutions, often give much more information because they reflect the statements and evidence collected and later filtered out as either irrelevant or potentially prejudicial to the court case. But these statements are richly detailed and useful for historians. I’ve mostly used them to look at homes – people’s emotional relationships with their homes and in their homes, their daily routines and material deprivations, home-making practices, safety, security, and the ways they have used their domestic spaces. Here, however, I’m focusing more on the people than the place, in part because I’ve so much information for our researcher about the murder of his Aunt, and in part because I wanted to see if I got something different from the sources if I was less neutral or impartial to the victim and defendant and allowed myself to have more of an empathetic, emotional response to the case.


Maggie Smail was born in 1911 in Ashford, Kent. Her father George was also born there, and had brothers and sisters who lived in the same town. Maggie’s mother gave birth to another daughter in 1913 but died later that year. The girls, Maggie and Daisy, then lost their father as well before they were out of their teens. Orphaned, they had a very close relationship, and by their mid-twenties they had set up home together in a flat above a shop on Beaver Road, Ashford, just down the street from an Uncle and Aunt.

Maggie, also known as Mitsy according to one newspaper article, worked in an Ashford branch of Lloyds Bank as a clerk, and Daisy was the Manageress of a Newsagents. The two young women often went out together, though Daisy was fonder of dancing than her sister, and went to dances where they met locally billeted soldiers during WW2. Neither girl was particularly serious with anyone in early 1942, though Daisy had a regular dance partner with whom she had been friends for a few months. Cyril, a soldier from Lancashire billeted just outside Ashford, had met both the sisters at a dance but particularly befriended Daisy. She felt sorry for him, she said; he had told her he was heartbroken because his fiancée had called off their engagement a few months earlier.

One afternoon in February 1942 Cyril turned up unannounced at the girls’ flat. He had brought his dancing shoes, and asked Daisy if she’d go out with him that night. She agreed, but she had to go back to work for a couple of hours first and left Cyril in the flat alone. When she returned from the Newsagents she found him napping with a book by his side. It was one of hers, A Question of Proof (1935) by Nicholas Blake (crime-writing pseudonym of Cecil Day-Lewis). The detective novel was about the murder of an unpopular pupil who had been strangled in a boarding school. The pair had a drink and got ready to go out, meanwhile Maggie came home from work and declined the invitation to go out with them.

A Question of Proof dust jacket
At the dance, Cyril seemed to be enjoying himself but Daisy sensed he was a bit down about going back to camp that night. He missed the last train and asked if he could spend the night at Daisy and Maggie’s flat, and she agreed, on the condition that he sleep on the sofa in the sitting room and ‘take things as he found them’. She had work early in the morning. On the way home from the dance Daisy persuaded Cyril to go to the train station and find out when his train was in the morning. A porter told them the first train back to camp was at 8am, and Daisy explained to Cyril that she’d be gone to work by then so he would have to wake himself up, but he could help himself to some breakfast and some tea.

Back at the flat Maggie was getting ready for bed and was surprised to see Cyril. Wasn’t he supposed to be back at camp? Had he gone AWOL? Daisy reassured her that Cyril was getting the train in the morning, and Maggie took her hot water bottle to bed and got into her pyjamas. Daisy and Cyril had some cocoa, Cyril settled down on the sofa, and Daisy went to bed with her sister. The two shared a bed and a bedroom. In the morning, Daisy got up to go to work before 5am. Her sister stirred but went back to sleep, and Daisy prepared some breakfast and left it in the kitchen. She crept out so as not to wake Cyril.

When Daisy came home from work after 9am she went straight to the kitchen. She could see by the washing up that only one person had had breakfast. Something was wrong. Had Cyril slept in instead of going back to camp? She went to the sitting room but Cyril was not there, the book he had been reading was left open, half-read, upside down on the fireside kerb. Daisy wondered if perhaps Maggie was still in bed, unwell. In the bedroom the covers were pulled right up over her sister’s face. As Daisy approached she saw blood. The poker from the living room was next to the bed. She ran out of the flat, terrified, and got the Chemist from next door. Mr Brotherton, the Chemist, found Maggie dead but still warm. He telephoned for a doctor and the police. Maggie had been hit on the head with the poker, sexually assaulted when she was unconscious, and finally strangled with a scarf.

Daisy must have been devastated at the loss of her sister. She went to live down the road with her Uncle and Aunt, Albert and Beatrice, and was the primary witness at Cyril Johnson’s trial at the Old Bailey. Police reconstructed events following the brutal murder and found that Cyril had made himself a cup of tea and helped himself to Daisy’s writing pad after he had killed her sister. He wrote a letter to his ex-fiancee, blaming her for his hatred of women, and another letter to a female friend, asking her to remember him when he was ‘gone’. He posted the letters on his way to catch his train back to camp, where he was later arrested.

Police evidence made strong links between the book Cyril had been reading and the manner in which he’d killed Maggie. But Cyril’s statement hinted at manslaughter rather than murder:

‘At 7.15am I went into Miss Margaret SMAIL’S bedroom to ask her the time. I asked her would she like me to get in bed with her. She said, ‘No’. I then lost my temper. I knocked her down on the bed. She started to struggle, and I put my hands round her neck with the intention of frightening her. I must have squeezed her too hard and held on too long, because she lost consciousness then. I think I lost my head altogether then, and I tied a scarf round her neck that was hanging on the bedrail.’
The prosecution, on the other hand, submitted the following passages from the book A Question of Proof as evidence, arguing that Cyril had been inspired by the text to commit murder in the same way as he had read: 
“Dear me, dear me!” he exclaimed. “Most extraordinary and, er, tragic. No question about it, I’m afraid. Murder or manslaughter. He seems to have been throttled first by his assailant’s hands. These bruises, you see. Than a thin cord tied round his neck. You will observe the red line: it has sunk in rather deeply.”
( the above is from Page 43 )
“[…]the medical evidence suggests that he was first strangled with hands and then the cord tied round to make certain.”
( the above is from Page 92 )’
By writing to his former fiancée afterwards, Cyril might’ve hoped it would look like he had killed Maggie in a rage rather than with ‘malice aforethought’. 
‘Exhibit 1: Copy of a letter to Muriel Golding
Dear Muriel, By the time you get this letter you will see in the papers an account of me doing a murder. All I want to say is this. I’m in love with you, and for the last 4 months since you jilted me I’ve lived in hell, you made me hate females. The girl I’ve killed was teasing me, just like you did. That’s why I did it, and because I hate women.’
But Maggie barely had any contact with Cyril, Daisy said. He was friends with her, not with her sister, and he hadn’t showed the slightest interest or attention to Maggie. And according to Muriel, Cyril hadn’t seemed that upset when she broke off their engagement, he even said he had been expecting it: 
‘Muriel Golding in response to question ‘why was the engagement broken off’
I found Cyril Johnson out in various needless lies and he was very spiteful, also he would not tell me anything about his home or parents. He tried to domineer my ways and he was very jealous so that I took a dislike for him and thought it best that we should part, in fact I got so I used to dread him coming to the house. There was no other reason; he behaved himself all the time he was with me.’
The prosecution’s case, supported by all the police evidence, was strong. Defence argued that Johnson had been temporarily insane at the time of the murder, but they could give no evidence for this. The prison medical officer found Johnson to be sane, with no history of mental illness, and able to answer the charge. Police had intimated that he might have low intelligence but doctors found him above average for his age. Citing his young age, the jury recommended Cyril Johnson be given mercy. He was only 20 years old and a soldier, they said. The judge disagreed with the recommendation. It was a brutal murder, and he sentenced Cyril to death. An appeal was filed but abandoned, Johnson instead acknowledging his guilt and petitioning the Home Office for his death sentence to be commuted to life in prison. Various letters in the Home Office file show that there were hopeful petitions for Cyril’s death sentence to be commuted to life imprisonment giving various reasons including the respectability of his family, the youth of the prisoner, the ‘madness’ of the act, the fact that his mother was suffering from terminal illness, and the jury’s recommendation for mercy. Each letter is filed with a copy of a personally addressed reply that the Home Secretary had considered the case and found no reason why the law should not run its course. The Judge’s decision was upheld and the sentence carried out. 

‘Statutory documents relating to execution
I beg to inform you that the sentence of death passed on this Convict at the Central Criminal Court on the 20th March last was duly and efficiently carried out by Mr Thomas W. Pierrepoint at Wandsworth Prison at 9 o’clock on Wednesday morning last, the 15th instant. [April 1942.]’
The case is obviously a distressing one, and this blog post must have been difficult for our researcher and his family to read, despite never having met Maggie. It was important to me to share the text with them before I published it, and to point out that the files also contain some potentially distressing images that they might not want to see. They were happy for me to publish the above online, and I'm grateful to them for allowing me to share it. Personally, I felt moved by the senseless loss of Maggie’s life, sympathy for her sister, and for the family of Cyril Johnson who, in his capital punishment, also lost their son. But I also felt that by writing the above I was using my experience and knowledge of these types of files to mediate between the different versions of the narrative of the crime. On reading the letters Cyril left behind, for example, the crime has a different reading than the one described by Daisy's statement. Cyril and his defence counsel frame Maggie’s death as a ‘crime of passion’, that he was driven to murderous ‘insane’ rage because she rejected him. Whereas Daisy’s statement helps support the prosecution’s ultimately successful argument – that Cyril had never been interested in Maggie, that he intended to kill her when he entered her bedroom with the poker, and that he planned her murder with ‘malice aforethought,’ inspired by a book. This is important, because it demonstrates how different documents archived after a trial support different interpretations of events, and how each interpretation fits a legal framework or ‘script’ with particular outcomes. 

Daisy and Maggie's living room

Monday 6 June 2016

The meanings of photographs in case files for murder trials: part three of three

Last month’s blog post was about how my personal experiences have influenced my handling of sources in my research, including photographs. Though photographs of crime scenes are the main source around which my research pivots, I am also interested in the meanings of photographs as material and emotive objects in the files. This blog post in three parts uses four different case studies to explore some of the multiple meanings of photographs in the case files.

In part one of this post I described how the crime scene photographs in cases of domestic murder that I use in my research served as a surrogate for the space of the crime in the space of the courtroom. I used the example of the 1957 trial of Brian for the murder of his wife Moira to illustrate how the photographs were used at the Old Bailey to support the prosecution’s narrative of what happened on the day Moira died. Part two of this post used the 1930s cases of Eric’s murder of Juliette, and George’s murder of Tom the boarding house keeper, to illustrate another meaning of photographs to police and court: as signifiers of intimate relationships, with important consequences for witnesses, defendants and victims in cases of domestic murder.

Part three of this post explores a further meaning of photographs: as provoking emotional responses, as alleged motivators for murder.

Blackmail is a slippery issue in cases of murder. If person A attempts to blackmail person B by threatening to reveal some secret about them to another party, to the public, or to the authorities, and person B kills person A (either on purpose or accidentally), person B is unlikely to reveal to the police all of the information about the events that led to the death. You can say what you like about the dead. In many of the cases of murder I've looked at in my research I've wondered if there is some hidden piece of information that the defendant was looking to protect by killing. The likelihood is, we’ll never know. In one case, however, blackmail was given as the reason for being provoked into killing. And I am equally suspicious of the narrative given by that defendant, particularly as there was no evidence of the blackmail having taken place. The secret the defendant didn't want to get out, he said, was a photograph. But the photograph was never found.

This case tells us, not what really happened, in this as in many other cases we can never know what the perspective of the victim might have been because they are deceased. But what we can know is what the defendant believed was a credible narrative of events, a powerful enough story, a good enough reason to provoke him to kill. If his story was believed he could get away with a charge of manslaughter rather than murder, and manslaughter could in some circumstances mean a suspended sentence: he might even walk free.

In January 1960, Cleveland, a 32-year-old Jamaican man working in the East End as a decorator, was asked to give a statement to police when his girlfriend, 35-year-old beauty and alleged ‘Dope Queen’, Frances, was found dead at their partially burned flat in Brick Lane. In the first statement he gave to police, Cleveland described how he had met Frances in 1958 when she was living in rooms in Stepney. They had only known each other a few weeks when they decided to live together, and Frances knew of a place:

‘She told me that she knew where some rooms were going at Brick Lane [Stepney], E.1. and the landlord wanted £15 key money and £3 rent in advance. At that time I did not have such money. She said that she could borrow it from her place of work if I would pay it back. I agreed and she got the money. I paid her back in two sums of £8 and £7. She said that other three pounds was out of her wages. We agreed to put our money together and be the joint owners [sic: tenants]. I earned £12 per week and I gave her £10 a week for rent, food and towards buying furniture.’

Though Frances was working full-time she still needed Cleveland’s income to help her set up a new home and afford the rent. Their Brick Lane flat had comfortable furnishings: a settee, lamps, photos and ornaments on the mantelpiece, and, in December 1959, a decorated Christmas tree. When Cleveland had gone to prison for just over a year, Frances needed to pawn some of his suits to make ends meet.

Cleveland’s first statement continues, he was away from the flat when Frances died in it, he said, he didn’t know anything about it. After the statement had been read back to him and signed, an officer handed him a copy of that day’s Daily Mirror. A copy of the front page also exists in the file as an exhibit of evidence. The main headline read ‘IT WAS MURDER… QUEEN OF DOPE DIES IN FIRE’ and included a photo of the rescue of Frances’ upstairs neighbours from the building, as well as a snapshot of her when she was alive.

Daily Mirror, 12th January 1960, p. 1, via ukpressonline

Cleveland read the page carefully a couple of times and then said he wanted to make another statement.

The second statement gives a dramatic and emotional account of a narrative that Cleveland hoped would make police officers sympathetic. It was ‘shocking’ and ‘terrible’, he said, what this woman had tried to do to him.

‘[One day] …she and I were sitting up in the flat opposite each other. All of a sudden she say to me ‘You can never leave me because all the men have lived with her before have left her but you will not leave me because I have something holding on me that would make me stay with her.’ She took out a small photograph… This photograph showed me stripped naked lying on the bed and she stripped naked too with her private part near my mouth with a dirty diaper [sanitary towel] in my mouth and I had all sh*t on my face and she was leaning sideways with her private part on my face…’

It seems that police doubted the story. They looked for syringes in the partially fire-damaged flat to corroborate Cleveland’s story that Frances had ‘doped’ him before she took the photograph. The post-mortem report was compared with Cleveland's description of how he had lost his temper over the threat of the photograph, knocking Frances to the floor where she lost consciousness before he set a fire to cover up what he had done. Pencil notes in the margins of the statement suggest that the Metropolitan Police and/or the Director of Public Prosecutions believed that it was possible that the photograph had existed, and that Frances might've taken it while Cleveland was asleep. But they never found any trace of the photograph.

'? Provocation' : pencil notes written in the margins of Cleveland's statement.

Cleveland hoped that police would believe that an image like the one he described, and the threat of its use against him, was sufficient provocation as to reduce a charge of murder to manslaughter. The fact that he only described the photo after he found out that police suspected murder, shows that he realised how much trouble he could be in. Provocation had very recently been codified in law and featured in many high-profile murder cases and newspaper reports on them. With this in mind, Cleveland's story represents what he thought was a believable act by a woman desperate to make a man stay living with her. She was blackmailing him, using the photograph, to make him stay. And it wasn't just the existence of the photo and copies of it that would keep Cleveland living with Frances, he claimed she thought, but also the threat of what she would do with it.

‘She said she would show it to my sister who is a good woman and my friends who would laugh at me and it would hurt my sister terribly. It so shocked me I went to grab it from her but she put it in her mouth and chewed it and swallowed it. But she said she had plenty more like that to show… my sister and friends… I hunted the flat and pulled it to pieces but I could never find those other dirty pictures of me. I begged and begged of her to give them to me but she only laughed at me.’

He describes his desperation, real, imagined, or totally made-up, to get the pictures from her. And if she wouldn't give them up, Cleveland pleaded with Frances to let him get away, to go where nobody knew him to escape the shame.

‘I begged of her to let me go out of the country or to Glasgow or somewhere I was not known but she laughed and said I would not get rid of her so easy. And she said she would show the bad photographs to my sister. I begged of her not to do this thing for my sister’s sake, but she only laughed.’

‘I can always make you come back [home] any time I want to’ Cleveland said Frances told him. He painted an image of himself as fearful of this clever ‘terrible’ scheming woman who was blackmailing him. Police were less than sympathetic, especially when he described the struggle that took place when he tried to get the photos from her. Whether police agreed that the shame threatened by this photograph was serious enough to understand Frances’ murder as provocation, and therefore manslaughter, is unclear, although he was indicted for the more serious crime of murder, which strongly suggests that police believed they had enough evidence that he was not reasonably provoked. For his part Cleveland seemed more worried about the photograph being found and seen by his sister than the punishment that might be in store for him for killing Frances.

‘I pray God nothing will be done to bring shame to my sister about the photographs. I pray God you will find them and destroy them to save my family shame. That is the whole truth. Everything I have told you before [prior to arrest] was true except that I did not tell you what happened at the flat last night between me and Francis [sic] when Francis died… I have read this statement and is Gods trouth. [pencil note points to this last sentence: ‘In own hand writing’] (Sgd.)’ 

The methods I've used to interpret the file documents are significant here. I consider the impact of evidence on the indictment, the influence of the recent Homicide Act (1957) on gathering documentary evidence and conducting police interviews, the recent codification in law of provocation and how newspaper reporting on cases where provocation had reduced sentences might've meant that such notions seeped into public understanding, I also take into account the pencil notes annotating the documents, and all this contributes to a deeper understanding of each type of document and its role and significance in the courtroom. It particularly helps to explain the importance of narratives like the one given by Cleveland to explain why he had ended up killing his partner.

We have to ask, where did Frances get the idea to blackmail Cleveland with a photograph like this? OR, where did Cleveland get the idea to tell police this story that Frances had blackmailed him with a photograph like this? Whichever is the right question to ask, the result is the same: Cleveland thought that this was a believable story – that a reasonable man could be moved enough by a photograph to snap and kill. 

Thursday 2 June 2016

The meanings of photographs in case files for murder trials: part two of three

Last month’s blog post was about how my personal experiences have influenced my handling of sources in my research, including photographs. Though photographs of crime scenes are the main source around which my research pivots, I am also interested in the meanings of photographs as material and emotive objects in the files. This blog post in three parts uses four different case studies to explore some of the multiple meanings of photographs in the case files.

In part one of this post I described how the crime scene photographs in cases of domestic murder that I use in my research served as a surrogate for the space of the crime in the space of the courtroom. I used the example of the 1957 trial of Brian for the murder of his wife Moira to illustrate how the photographs were used at the Old Bailey to support the prosecution’s narrative of what happened on the day Moira died. I see this approach to what the science of photography was used to do as contributing to recent work in Photographic History that explores beyond photos as another historical source. Recent articles by Beatriz Pichel and Elizabeth Edwards, for examples, have examined what photographs were intended to do when they were made as part of ‘scientific’ endeavours, and what was done with them (B. Pichel, ‘From facial expressions to bodily gestures: Passions, photography and movement in French 19th-century sciences’ History of the Human Sciences, 29:1 [2016], 27-48. DOI: 10.1177/0952695115618592 ; E. Edwards, ‘Photographic Uncertainties: Between Evidence and Reassurance’, History and Anthropology, 25.2 [2014], 171–88. DOI: 10.1080/02757206.2014.882834). They have followed work that explores what photographs do as emotional and emotive objects with a variety of meanings, some of which was commented on in the last paper I attended at the European Social Science History Conference in Valencia in April (see Tweets about it Storified here). Annebella Pollen’s recent book Mass Photography (I.B. Tauris, 2015) really beautifully and helpfully summarises much of the scholarship on what photographs do, especially in the Introduction, I highly recommend it. 

Drawing on this work, part two of this post on the meanings of photographs in case files for murder trials uses two cases from the 1930s to explore how photographs were interpreted by police and judicial system as signifiers of intimate relationships. This meaning could have important consequences for witnesses, defendants and victims in cases of domestic murder.

Photographs as signifiers of intimate relationships: Eric and Juliette, and Margaret who ‘wore no ring’

At about 11am on Thursday the 5th of April 1934, PC Ron Rushmore was on duty in Great Portland Street, Soho, when he was approached by a man whose hands were covered in blood. Eric, a 29-year-old stoker in the Navy, told the officer “I have killed a woman” and led him to a flat in a neighbouring street. He showed PC Rushmore the body of his lover, Juliette, on the floor of her bedroom. Rushmore telephoned his Divisional Detective Inspector to come to the flat straight away, and when DDI William Collins arrived he found Eric in the sitting room and arrested him. Eric told the police that Juliette was married to a civil servant who lived in the suburbs, but they had been separated for three years and Juliette went by her maiden name. After Eric had been taken to the police station, Detective Constable Percy Law of Scotland Yard was called to the flat to take photographs of the crime scene.

The photographer Percy Law’s name features in many of the mid-century murder case files I have read in my research. I would really like to learn more about him and his career, especially the training or instruction he may have undertaken to qualify him to take so many photos of domestic murder scenes. Please get in touch via Twitter if you have any information that might help me.

In cases where he took photographs Percy was asked to state at the police court hearing that he had taken them and when. These statements are really useful because, though they do not record the questions deponents were asked, (the responses written in prose rather than in the form of question and answer,) they draw attention to the details present in, or missing from, the photographs that would be most relevant in the prosecution’s and defence’s narratives of events and explanations for the crime.

The man in Naval uniform was Eric. This photograph was important in the case because Juliette’s owning a framed portrait of Eric, and specifically keeping it on display in her bedroom, was understood to mean that she was in an intimate relationship with him.

Detail from one of Percy Law’s photographs of the crime scene.

As Divisional Detective Inspector William Collins said “I found a photograph of him [Eric] in the bedroom. This was the only photograph of a man in the flat.”

The married Juliette did not have a photograph of her husband in her bedroom, but one of Eric, which, to police, showed that she was having a sexual relationship with him.
In this, as in other cases I have seen, an apparently single, separated or divorced woman with a photograph of a man in her bedroom could have all sorts of implications for her reputation. The defence counsel could argue that the defendant had been motivated by sexual jealousy, which, if argued successfully, could reduce a charge of murder to manslaughter or add a recommendation for mercy. If she was the deceased victim she would not be able to challenge such an interpretation. If she was a witness she might be able to attempt to do so, but even the suggestion that she had pre-marital or extra-marital sexual relationships could be enough to have her disbelieved, whatever her testimony.

A good illustration of this is Margaret, a witness at the trial of her former fiance for the murder of her employer. Margaret was arguably as much on trial for her alleged sexual relationships as George, the defendant, for the murder. Two significant pieces of evidence pointed to Margaret as sexually active and therefore as an unreliable witness, one was a novelette with notes in the margins between Margaret and a man, the other was a photograph of Margaret and her employer.

Margaret was 21 when she moved to London from Scotland in 1933. One day, walking in the West End with her roommate, Margaret met George, a Coppersmith from Cyprus, 9 years her senior. Within a few weeks George gave Margaret a wedding ring, told his landlady that he had married, and moved Margaret into his room at his lodgings. George opened a Post Office savings account and started putting away a little of his wages each week toward their real wedding, which the couple thought might take them two years to be able to afford. George later told the court that he ‘kept’ Margaret, giving her most of his wages to feed them both so she didn’t have to work as a waitress anymore. Margaret’s version of events was different. They argued about money, she said, and she tried to leave him, but ‘he threatened to do all sorts of things, and he cost me my job [in a tearoom] and [so] I had to go back to him.’

Tom and his family were also experiencing financial difficulties in the early 1930s. His correspondence school business failed and his wife went to work in a hotel where she ‘lived in’. So Tom sub-let a building in Bloomsbury near the building site of Senate House at the University of London, to rent out rooms and live there himself. He advertised for a housekeeper to help him, and Margaret responded to the ad.

George was unhappy about the job, especially when Margaret announced that she would be going to live at the house. She’d been offered more money by Tom to be the live-in Housekeeper and Manager, and there was a room becoming available that George could rent. They could live in the same house and carry on their relationship in secret. But Margaret wasn’t wearing the wedding ring. She didn’t want Tom to know that she was having a relationship with George, they would have to be discreet. When they stopped sleeping together, George became angry, suspicious and jealous. He accused Tom of sleeping with Margaret in her room in the basement. Margaret denied the accusations, Tom was like a father to her, she said, ‘nothing improper ever took place’ between them. However, George felt his suspicions were confirmed when Tom took Margaret (in her deposition)

‘down to Brighton for the day… we had our photograph taken together while we were there. I wrote on the back of one of the photos ‘with fondest love, Margaret’ and gave it to him. I knew he was a married man and did this for fun. We both treated it as a joke and laughed about it.’

The court did not see the photograph as a joke however. Despite the photo being nothing to do with the actual murder (in fact, George didn’t refer to it in his statement or testimony, so it’s not clear whether he ever saw it before the trial), it was submitted as Exhibit 8 by the defence counsel:

Exhibit 8

Whether the photograph was a joke between a woman and her employer or a picture of a courting couple, it was considered evidence of Margaret’s sexual misconduct and therefore of her unreliability as a witness. During the trial Justice Goddard became impatient with Mr Paterson for the defence when he was questioning Margaret about the photograph and her relationship with Tom. Paterson replied 

'I am only dealing with the credibility of this witness with regard to what happened on the night and I want to see if she is telling us the truth in every respect. I want to find out how far her evidence can be trusted according to the answers which she gives to my questions. I am very sorry that I have had to do it in this way, but I see no other way of doing it...'

Later Goddard reminded him:

'we are not trying Margaret, we are trying the prisoner for murder, and you must please use your discretion as Counsel and obey the ruling which the Court has given and call witnesses whose evidence is directed to something which is material and not to matters which are not material to the issues which we are trying. Cross-examination is one thing, but calling evidence in chief is quite another.'

Margaret was probed about ‘Going to Brighton’ which was implied to mean having an affair. That this meaning was widely understood is clear from George’s response to Margaret going there with Tom, and supported by Claire Langhamer’s article on 'Adultery in Post-war England' (History Workshop Journal, 62:1 [2006], 86-115. DOI: 10.1093/hwj/dbl004), in which she argues that going to Brighton was one way to procure a divorce, given that it meant sex.

The other damning article of evidence against Margaret was the handwritten notes in the novelette found in her room, particularly ‘I will show you my bedroom’. The notes were not between Margaret and George, however, but between her and another ‘foreigner’ who lived in the lodging house where George had installed Margaret. Ironically, the little book was called She Wore No Ring and was about a young woman duped into marrying a criminal. She then falls in love with her boss who didn’t know she was married because ‘she wore no ring’.

Exhibit 12

"I will show you my bedroom" "I am much obliged"

The photograph and little book were evidence enough for the jury to add a strong recommendation for mercy to the guilty verdict they returned, citing the provocation of Tom’s remarks. ‘The Cypriot Murderer’ as press called him, was sentenced to death but commuted to life imprisonment. The police report suggests that there was little sympathy for George because of his being so ‘foreign’ and his having been ‘known to have habitually associated with undesirable characters who frequent low class cafes in the Tottenham Court Road District.’ The police report isn't in the same file as the crime scene photographs and the one of Margaret and Tom at Brighton, but it is important because it shows how George was treated differently by police because of his nationality. Police interpretation of events shaped the evidence that was gathered at the scene. Class, nationality, gender and sexuality were significant factors used by police and counsel to depict the greater or lesser culpability and truthfulness of individuals, and photographs were a key source for their portrayal.

Thinking about what photographs do is useful here because not all the photographs in a case file were meant to do the same thing. My method of using trial transcripts and other supplementary files helps to show what different exhibits of evidence, including photographs, were meant to do in court. Even if the photo of Margaret and Tom wasn't the catalyst that caused George to attack them, injuring Margaret and killing Tom, it was powerful enough to help save him from the gallows.

The issue of photographs as motivators for murder will be explored in part three of this blog post, coming soon.