Christmas Crime in the Victorian Era

The holidays of the late 1900s were often thought of as a time of cheer, but along with that cheer came Christmas crime in the Victorian Era. It was plentiful and resulted in anything but peace on earth. Perhaps, that was why the following Christmas card, although wishing Christmas cheer, displays a dead bird.

Christmas Greetings. Public domain.

Among the many crimes that happened during the Christmas holidays were murder, theft, and fraud. Here are nine interesting tales:

In 1894, 39-year-old Edmund Kesteven was indicted for the murder of 40-year-old Sarah Ann Oldham on Christmas morning. Kesteven was a former professional cricketer turned framework knitter who had lived with Oldham for about four years after her husband left for America. According to papers:

“Shortly before midnight on Christmas Eve Mrs. Oldham left a neighbour’s house, went home, and was heard to fasten her door. [However, she reappeared] a little after midnight [when] she entered the house of her sister, Mrs. Dove, who lived in the same, and who at the time had some friends with her. Mrs. Oldham’s face, neck, and nightdress were covered with blood. She did not speak, but sank into a chair and then on to the floor, and died in a few minutes.”[1]

Mr. Dove had earlier gone to bed, but when he heard the commotion, he rushed downstairs and found his bloodied sister-in-law lying on the hearthrug. He then charged over to Kesteven’s house, kicked at the door, and Kesteven calmly opened it.

“Dove said, ‘What have you done, Ted?’ and Kesteven replied, ‘I have done it, and I’m not going to deny it. Upstairs in the room you will find something I have done it with.’”[2]

Dove then took Kesteven to his house where he admitted the crime to those present, adding that Oldham had deceived him and that he had cut her throat. The police were informed and took Kesteven into custody. Later, they located a broken razor in the bedroom that he has used in the murder.

His defense at trial was insanity and some fellow cricketers raised money to help with his court costs. However, the jury decided he was not insane but rather uncommonly jealous. They found him guilty and sentenced him to death. He was hanged on 26 March 1895 at Nottingham.

One horrible murder that occurred on Christmas Eve happened at a house on Hodgskin Street in Sunderland, in Tyne and Wear, England. The victim was a 50-year-old woman named Elizabeth Taylor, “who was found with her skull split open, evidently with a hatchet, in the back-yard of No 7 Hodgskin-street on Christmas Morning.”[3]

Her shawl was found in the passageway entering the home and her body in the yard into which the passageway led. She had last been seen about 1am drunk and sitting on the front steps. When the inquest was held a few days later, a tenant identified the axe as his but also denied that it been removed from a cupboard after 5pm on the night in question, and tests done on the axe showed no blood on it. So, with no evidence upon which the police could act, the jury returned a verdict of “murder against some person or persons unknown.”[4]

Christmas was also a time that many people enjoyed drinking, and one murder attributed to too much alcoholic cheer happened on Christmas Eve in 1890. A man named John Healey of Kilworth appeared at the Michelstown police station in bloodstained clothes and was taken into custody. According to newspapers:

“The prisoner somewhat under the influence of drink, and who was barefooted, called at the police station on Wednesday night, and stated that his wife had been murdered on her way home to Kilworth.”[5]

Police proceeded to check out his story and found his wife Bridget, also drunk and nearly dead, lying near the roadway with her clothes covered in blood. She had been beaten and kicked. Police also quickly discovered the weapon used against her. It was Healey’s wooden shoes, with metal plates. The battered Bridget was taken to Mitchelstown Workhouse, and expired shortly thereafter.

Another murder attributed to alcohol happened on Christmas night. In this case it happened at a public house on York Street in Leeds. Two men, John Ross and John Manley upon leaving the public-house began to quarrel. Ross then allegedly stabbed Manley behind his right ear in the neck with a penknife, and the wound was almost instantly fatal. Ross fled afterwards, but later when the inquest was held, jurors returned a verdict of “wilful murder” against him and he was captured some time later in Wolverhampton.

Murder wasn’t the only crime happening during the Christmas holiday. There was also an audacious trick played on a servant of an English actress named Mrs. Bernard Beere in 1887. Beere, or Fanny Bernard-Beere as she was also called, was married three times but kept the name of her second husband as her stage name. She also possessed a cloak that she treasured until a man of “gentlemanly exterior” appeared at Beere’s house. According to newspapers:

“[He told] the servant that her mistress had been commended to recite that night at Marlborough House [and] added that he had come for her cloak. … His plot succeeded according to his anticipations, and he left – the undisputed possessor of the coveted treasure.”[6]

The trick was not discovered until later that night when Beere returned home at 11pm and found her cloak missing.

Lithograph of Mrs. Bernard Beere in 1885. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Beere’s cloak wasn’t the only thing stolen during the Christmas season. Another robbery happened on Christmas Eve in 1895 when a bricklayer named Henry Moore of Folkestone turned criminal. Moore went into a public house owned by Matilda Bird and her husband. He asked for a half-pint of beer and paid for it, but sometime later as Matilda and her husband were sitting at dinner in an adjoining room, she heard the “sound of coppers clicking in the bar.”[7] She went to investigate and caught Moore opposite the till learning over the counter. According to papers:

“The till was open, and [Moore] had his hand full of coppers inside. [Matilda] caught hold of his whiskers, and [he] thereupon dropped several of the coppers through the hole in the counter. There was about 9s. worth of coppers in the till. He must have had quite a shilling’s worth of coppers in his hand. She let go of him, and he ran away, but was brought back soon afterwards.”[8]

The man who captured him was Henry Button. He was working in the neighborhood when he heard a cry for “Police!” and saw Moore running with two children pursuing him. Button then pursued Moore and cornered him in a garden on the Hemplands. Moore’s excuse was “Poverty made me do it.”[9] For his crime, he received 7 days.

One fraudulent case that brought no Christmas cheer to anyone happened in 1841 when a middle-aged man went to the Colonial Office in Downing Street and was informed that Lord and Lady Stanley were visiting her majesty, Queen Victoria, at Windsor Castle. The stranger claimed that he was commissioned to deliver to Lord Stanley the box he had with him, intended as Christmas gift to Lady Stanley from some foreign courts, and that he was also instructed to deliver the following morning 35 cases of wine for his Lordship. Further discussions ensued, and then the stranger stated that he was due 3l 5s 4d for dues, which was paid to him and for which he gave the clerk a receipt.

Queen Victoria. Author’s collection.

The stranger then left, and the package was taken to the mansion of Lord and Lady Stanley where upon their arrival home from Windsor Castle, it was opened with the greatest care.

“[They] found … a few brick bats, packed in a manner to prevent them rolling the case. Immediately on the fraud being discovered, by directions of the noble secretary, information was given at the police station, in Scotland Yard, and also to the city police, and every exertion, in consequence used to discover the delinquent.”[10]

Edward George Geoffrey Smith-Stanley, 14th Earl of Derby, known as Lord Stanley from 1834 to 1851. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Fortunately, Scotland Yard’s investigation proved successful. The fraudulent party was apprehended near the custom-house soon after.

One case that not even Scotland Yard ever solved was the cold-blooded murder that happened during Christmas in 1886. The victim was 78-year-old John Osborne who lived alone in a small cottage in Kettering. His dead body was found Christmas morning on the floor of his sitting room.

“[H]is head being shockingly cut and battered, and one of his fingers being nearly severed. The floor and walls of the room were bespattered with blood, and there were other indications of a severe struggle.”[11]

There seemed to be no real reason for Osborne’s death. He was poor, received parish relief, and led a quiet, unassuming life. In fact, he been confined to his house for the past six weeks and what money was found in his pockets remained untouched.

Despite the bloody scene and apparent vicious struggle, neighbors reported that they heard nothing and those parading through the nearby thoroughfare on Christmas Eve also heard nothing. Detectives remained stumped and as Osborne’s funeral was happening and attended by about 200 people, the police-superintendent asked for anyone with information on the murder to come forward.

Soon after, detectives announced that they had a suspicious character named John Sudborough in custody. He had been seen twice in the yard where Osborne lived on the evening of the murder. However, the arrest of Sudborough led to nothing.

When he was brought before the magistrate he was discharged as there was no real evidence against him. In addition, detectives were unable to produce the hatchet or billhook with which the murder was thought to have been committed. It seemed as if the case would never be solved and days stretched into weeks and then into years. In fact, it was seven years later when a man by the name of Harry Mitchell came forward and admitted to Osborne’s murder. According to papers:

“This individual, who gave the name of Mitchell, went to the Bedford police-station … and told the officer in charge that he wished to give himself upon the charge of murder at Kettering, and, when asked for particulars, he gave an apparently circumstantial account of having killed Osborne by hitting him on the head with a piece of iron. As the man was perfectly sober, and seemed quite rational when making his confession, the Kettering police … conveyed Mitchell to Kettering lock-up.”[12]

Unfortunately, Mitchell was not the killer. He was a shoe operative who over the past two or three years had behaved outlandishly and displayed “extraordinary” behavior. Still because he confessed, he was taken before the court where he was given a lecture, cautioned against such future conduct, and set free. Thus, Osborne’s murder remained unsolved.

One of the most gruesome and mysterious murders that happened over Christmas occurred at No. 12 Great Coram Street in London during the Christmas of 1872. The victim was 27-year-old Clara Boswell* who had just moved to Great Coram Street in Russell Square. Newspapers said she was in the habit of accepting engagements as a supernumerary at various theatres and music halls. She also frequently worked at Alhambra, the Argyll Rooms, and other places of entertainment, and when need be, she eked out a living by prostitution.

“On Tuesday night she left her room about ten o’clock, having previously borrowed a shilling from a fellow lodger named Nelson. About midnight she returned with a foreigner supposed to be German, and in conversation with the landlady of the house and others she appeared to be unusually lively.”[13]

Boswell was seen several more times later that night and her client was seen leaving about 7am. When breakfast time came, Boswell did not appear or answer her door, so, the landlady became suspicious.

“[She] summoned the other lodgers in the house and burst open the door, when a ghastly sight presented itself. The deceased was found in bed weltering in blood, her throat being cut in two places. Her clothes were found strewn about, but otherwise there was no appearance of a struggle. … The face of the victim was perfectly calm. On the forehead, however, there was a distinct print of a thumb, and little lower down that a of the palm of a hand, as if after the first wound had been inflicted the poor creature had been held down by the left hand while the second blow was given. The pillows were completely saturated and steeped with congealed blood.”[14]

Discovery of Boswell’s body. Author’s collection.

Eventually, a ship’s chaplain named Dr. Gottfried Hessel aboard a German brig called the Wangerland was pointed out by some witnesses as the man who was with Boswell. He was charged with her murder and taken into custody. However, he provided an unshakeable alibi: Hessel admitted that he was in London when Boswell was murdered, but he also insisted that his wife was always with him and the hotel staff where they stayed confirmed that he had been ill and had not left his room on night of the murder.

Hessel’s alibi was strong. The evidence presented to the magistrate, Mr. Vaughn, was conflicting, and, the only similarity seemed to be that Hessel was German. Thus, Vaughn, ultimately declared:

“To my mind, it has been conclusively shown that Dr. Hessel was not the companion of the murdered woman on that evening.”[15]

Vaughn went further by discharging Hessel and stated that he was releasing him “without suspicion.” In addition, for his twelve days of wrongful incarceration, the courts indemnified him for his suffering with a large subscription.

As to Boswell’s body, her brother claimed it and buried her. No one was ever charged with her murder. Moreover, the crime became known at the time as “The Great Coram Street Murder,” and it remains one of several unsolved murders that happened during this time period.

Although the stories I’ve written about Christmas may be grim and don’t necessarily end on a high note, I am wishing you a holiday season free of crime. May you have an enjoyable holiday season, and may 2019 come in with a bang and be the best year yet. See you in the New Year!


*She was also listed in papers as Burton or Buswell.

References:

  • [1] Blackburn Standard, “A Christmas Murder,” March 9, 1895, 2
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] Hull Daily Mail, “Christmas Eve Murder at Sunderland,” December 27, 1889, 4
  • [4]Dover Express, January 10, 1890, 3
  • [5] Bolton Evening News, “Murder on Christmas Eve,” December 27, 1890, 2
  • [6] Shields Daily Gazette, “A Christmas Robbery,” December 27, 1887, 3
  • [7] Lowestoft Journal, “A Christmas Eve Robbery,” January 4, 1896, 5
  • [8] Ibid.
  • [9] Ibid.
  • [10] Birmingham Journal, “Christmas Presents – Fraud on Lord Stanley,” January 8, 1842, 2
  • [11] Irish Times, “Murder at Kettering,” December 27, 1886, 7
  • [12] Northampton Mercury, “The Kettering Murder of 1886,” August 1, 1893, 6.
  • [13] The Scotsman, “Mysterious Murder in London,” December 26, 1872, p. 5.
  • [14] Dublin Evening Telegraph, “Horrible Murder in London,” December 26, 1872, 2
  • [15] The Annual Register, p. 17.

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