Elizabeth Ross: Convicted Burkeite and Murderess

Thirty-eight-year-old Elizabeth Ross was the common law wife of fifty-year-old Edward Cook, and therefore, sometimes called Mrs. Cook. The couple lived with their 12-year-old son Edward, known as Ned, in a one room apartment in Goodman’s Yard, where they had recently moved. As the couple knew 84-year-old Caroline Walsh they encouraged her to move nearby. Walsh’s granddaughter, Ann Buton, tried to discourage her grandmother from relocating, but her grandmother wouldn’t listen, and she moved to No. 2 Red Lion Square.

Elizabeth Ross

Elizabeth Ross. Courtesy of Wellcome Images.

Perhaps Elizabeth Ross and Caroline Walsh met on London’s street as the peppered-haired Walsh was a street seller selling thread, bobbins, and stay-laces while Ross supposedly sold hare skins, although there were questions as to whether she really sold hare skins or not. People claimed that whenever and wherever she appeared cats disappeared, and it was alleged what she sold was cats. Hoping to verify the rumor, the Morning Advertiser published the following:

“It was remarked, that wherever they [Cook and Ross] took up their quarters, of late years, the cats of their neighbours quickly disappeared; and Ross, who was generally about very early in the morning, and carried a bag, was accused of collecting and destroying them for the sake of their skins. Of her expertise as a cat-skinner she gave a striking proof, some time ago, at the Sampson and Lion public-house, … where she was employed as charwoman, the landlord having offended her, she ran up stairs and flayed a favourite tom cat, and returning shortly afterwards flung the naked carcase in the landlord’s face, and made off with the skin.”[1]

Ross was also said to be thief and therefore constantly lost jobs with her employers. She also had a reputation for liking the taste of gin, being a drunkard, and behaving violently. A description of her stated that she was “a large, raw-boned, and coarse-featured Irishwoman who has been many years known about the east-end of the town and remarkable for her bad habits and violent disposition.”[2] However, although Ross appeared to be a bad person, her common-law husband might have been worse. He was not only a drunk and bully but also a body snatcher, despite having been raised in a respectable family who were said to be natives of Faversham in Kent.

Neighbors reported that they last time they saw Walsh was when she went into the building where Ross and Cook lived with their young son Ned. However, no one seems to have ever seen her come out. The last day that Buton saw her grandmother was Friday morning on 19 August. She had then planned to visit her grandmother the next morning but then discovered she was nowhere to be found and so Buton then went to visit Ross to see if she knew had any information about her grandmother.

Ross told Buton that her grandmother had just “gone out, and added that her husband had a great respect for the old lady, that they had had a jolly good supper the night before, and that the old woman had slept on their bedstead.”[3] Buton knew that Ross and Cook had asked her grandmother to spend the night several times but she never. Buton was suspicious of Ross and her husband and had therefore warned her grandmother against doing so “by telling her what they were, and that they would be sure to put a black plaster on her, and dispose of her body[4]

When Buton pressed Ross for more information about her grandmother, Ross appeared increasingly evasive. Still when Ross asked Buton for money to buy gin, Buton offered her money for beer. Ross said she drank only gin and so the two women then went to Brown’s pub, where they downed gin and two pints of beer. During this time, Buton told Ross that she thought it was strange her grandmother went to see her when she was expecting her to visit. Ross then accused Buton of implying she had done something to her grandmother to which Buton replied that Ross was putting words in her mouth, but she also declared that she would soon find out what happened to her grandmother.

Buton could not shake the feeling that something was wrong and over the next few days and weeks, she returned to Ross and Cook’s residence hoping to find her grandmother. Nevertheless, every time she appeared Ross told her, her grandmother had just “gone out.” Buton then called at all the gaols, poor-houses, and hospitals in London but no one had seen or heard from her grandmother.

When Buton exhausted all possibilities and could not locate her grandmother anywhere nor find anyone who had seen her grandmother since mid-August, she went to the Lambeth Street Police. There an officer named Lea commenced an investigation into the missing woman but instead of finding Walsh well and alive he found evidence that suggested that she had been murdered. Apparently, Cook and Ross gave conflicting information to him when he questioned them, and this helped Lea determined that Elizabeth Ross had likely committed the murder of Walsh. Accordingly:

“Lea, as a preliminary step, took Cook, Mrs. Ross, and their son [Ned], into custody; and … they were conveyed to Worship-street Police-office. During the period which elapsed between the apprehension of the boy and his examination at the police-office, he was observed to be exceedingly agitated and uneasy. The master and mistress of the parochial school at Aldgate, which he had attended for two or three years, were, in consequence, sent for; and he made a statement to them upon the subject of the death of Mrs. Walsh.”[5]

What Ned reported, and reluctantly testified to at trial, was his mother’s involvement in Walsh’s death. The Reading Mercury reported:

“They had coffee about half-past nine o’clock on the same night for supper. He … took part of it, and it made him sleepy, but not sick. The old woman also took some of it, and it seemed to make her drowsy, as she shortly afterwards stretched herself out on his father and mother’s bed, and placed her hand under her head. Some time after he saw his mother go towards the bed, and place her right hand over the mouth of the old woman … When his mother placed her hand on the old lady’s mouth, her arm fell down, and she laid flat on her back; and his mother continued to keep one hand on her mouth and the other on her person, for at least half an hour. The old woman did not struggle much, but her eyes stared and rolled very much.”[6]

Elizabeth Ross killing Caroline Walsh

Elizabeth Ross committing the murder. Author’s collection.

It seemed likely that Ross committed the murder just as Ned reported, and it seemed even more likely after other mentions of Elizabeth Ross committing nefarious acts were reported and published in newspapers. For instance, the Monmouthshire Merlin stated:

“About a year and a half ago she decoyed away the child of Mr. Harris, a watchmaker in Upper East Smithfield, and took him into a court in Rosemary-lane, where she robbed him of his cap and frill, and a half-crown, with which he had been sent by father to get change. … She always had the use of a cellar in the house she lodged in, and frequently took home with her poor fruit women, Irish labourers, and destitute persons. A servant girl, who had quarrelled with her mistress, and ran away from her to the place of the prisoner … since which no trace has been had of her. Ross was seen, sometime afterwards with a bonnet which had belonged to the girl, and is, therefore suspected of having made away with her.”[7]

At trial incriminating evidence against Ross piled up related to Walsh. For example, Officer Lea testified about discoveries he made related to the dead woman’s clothing, which were then published in the Morning Advertiser:

“[A] piece of black stuff, [was] found by him at the prisoner’s residence, and which appeared to be the sleeve of a gown, he also produced a piece of stuff cut from the tail of a petticoat, which corresponded with the petticoat of the deceased … When the witness was conveying the female prison to jail, after her committal had been made out, she said to him that the clothes she had sold had been brought to her house by the granddaughter [Buton] … and … [she] must have made away with her, if any one had.”[8]

Buton denied every giving any of her grandmother’s clothing to Ross and insisted that Ross was lying. Moreover, a pawnbroker testified that a gown was pledged at his shop in the name of Walsh and showed a ticket for it after Walsh came up missing. There were also various reports taken from several women that Elizabeth Ross had attempted to sell them or did sell them items that belonged to Caroline Walsh.

One of the many penny broadsheets that published information on the crime. Author’s collection.

The defense for Ross was primarily that Ned was lying and that he had committed perjury. In fact, “she accused the boy of having uttered falsehoods respecting her, and prayed to God to forgive him for having done so.”[9] Additionally, despite lawyers for Ross alleging that another woman named Catherine Walsh was Buton’s grandmother and had died under normal circumstances at the London Hospital on 21 August, descriptions proved that woman was not the murdered Caroline Walsh. First, Catherine Walsh was between 60 and 70 years, had a full head of grey hair, and had no front teeth unlike Caroline Walsh who had perfect teeth.

A man named Bosey who was deposed at trial also attempted to link Elizabeth Ross to another murder. According to Bosey, he saw Ross and her son in June walking home at 2:00am in the morning. Bosey asserted that Ned “had a sack on his back, in which the witness was satisfied was the body of a child. His mother helped him to carry it, and they turned into a court in which they resided.”[10] Ned denied any knowledge of any such incident and maintained that he was not allowed out late at night, particularly at two in the morning. Thus, Bosey’s information proved not to aid in the murder case about Walsh.

Ned also testified that during the murder of Walsh his father had stood passively by while she was killed. According to Ned, his father was busy looking out the window and stood with his back to the fireplace as Ross suffocated Walsh. Once the elderly woman was dead, Ned reported that his father continued to look out the window and that his mother alone carried her dead body “down stairs ‘loose, like a baby in her arms.’”[11]  

The morning after the murder when Ned awoke, he reported his mother was there, but his father was not as he had left the apartment. In addition, sometime that morning someone mentioned to Ned that there were some ducks in the cellar and being a curious boy, he went downstairs in search of them:

“[H]e went to a corner near the stairs, which was rather darker than the other parts of the cellar; in a sort of hole underneath the stairs he saw a sack, in which the old woman was; he could see nothing but the top of her at the top of the sack; the sack appeared to be tied, but not tied close; he was sure it was the head of a person. The hair appeared to be black and grey.”[12]  

That same evening, around 11pm or midnight, Ned testified that saw his mother leave Goodman’s Yard carrying the sack that he had seen earlier in the cellar. He claimed it appeared to have something in it. Moreover, Henry Reynolds, a surgeon at Prescott Street in Goodman’s Fields supported statements made by Ned because he testified that the actions by Ross against Walsh were “sufficient to produce death by suffocation. The rolling of the eyes might be produced in the manner described by the boy … [and] that rolling of the eyes was considered the last action of life.”[13]

After all the evidence was heard and considered the jury retired. It only took a mere 15 minutes for them to return and render their verdict. Like the notorious Edinburgh murderers, Burke and Hare, who ended up in Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors for committing sixteen murders in Edinburgh, Elizabeth Ross was also found guilty of suffocating, or, as the term was now being called, burking, her victim. Her husband Cook was acquitted but remained in custody.

William Burke and William Hare at Burke’s Trial. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

It was stated that new charges against Cook would soon be brought. In fact, the judge noted that “the person who aided and abetted another in the commission of the crime was a principal in the second degree. There was no question of an accessory after the fact in the present case.”[14] Thus, it seemed as if Cook would be tried and convicted on some new charges related to the murder.

Despite all the evidence pointing to Ross’ guilt and the testimony given by her own son that she had committed the murder, she continued to declare her innocence. The night before her execution, she requested that Cook and her son be allowed to visit her. Perhaps, she thought she might be able to get her son to take back what he had said and that she might go free. In any event, her request was denied.

As scheduled, on Monday morning, 9 January 1832, the execution of Elizabeth Ross went ahead as planned. It took place outside the Debtor’s Gate at Newgate prison and as she was being pinioned and readied for execution, she could not hold back her disbelief that she was to be executed. She loudly declared:

“Oh, my God! am I going to be hanged for what I am innocent of? … Oh, my God! why did I leave my country to be so treated? … I left my husband and boy sitting with the old woman, and I never saw her after. You have now in your custody one who can prove me innocent, and quite clear me of the charge. Oh, my poor, my deluded child!”[15]  

Ross’ cries that she was innocent did not let up even at the foot of the scaffold. Requests came from the priest that she make peace with her creator, but she refused. She continued to noisily declare her innocence and did so until the “fatal drop fell.”

Reportedly, Elizabeth Ross died without a struggle. Afterwards as was usual her body hung for a time before it was cut down. It was then delivered for dissection, at which time William Clift, a British illustrator engaged for six years by the surgeon’s executors, made a drawing of her. It showed a woman much older than her 38 years. Apparently, all her gin drinking and her intemperate lifestyle helped to greatly age her.

Elizabeth Ross

Drawing made by William Clift of Elizabeth Ross at the dissection. Courtesy of NCBI.

Although the body of the murderess Elizabeth Ross was dissected that was not the last people saw of her. A “full-length” wax figure of her was created and appeared a few months later at Mr. Simmon’s, No. 167, at High Holborn in what was touted to be as an exhibition of “rare Wax-Work.” It cost a penny to see Ross who was presented wearing the identical clothes in which she last appeared. Moreover, according to the Morning Advertiser she was also not alone in the exhibit as she stood among “some of the most notorious characters of the present day.”

References:

  • [1] Morning Advertiser, “Elizabeth Ross, the Convicted Burkeite,” January 9, 1832, p. 3.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3]Monmouthshire Merlin, “Trial of Cook and His Wife for Burking Caroline Walsh,” January 14, 1832, p. 4.
  • [4] Reading Mercury, “Murder of Elizabeth Walsh,” November 7, 1831, p. 2.
  • [5] C. Pelham, The Chronicles of Crime; or, The New Newgate Calendar, a Series of Memoirs and Anecdotes of Notorious Characters (London: Thomas Tegg, 1841), p. 306.
  • [6] Reading Mercury, p. 2
  • [7] Monmouthshire Merlin, p. 4.
  • [8] Morning Advertiser, “Old Bailey Session, Jan. 6,” January 7, 1832, p. 4.
  • [9] Monmouthshire Merlin, p. 4.
  • [10] Reading Mercury, p. 2.
  • [11] Maidstone Journal and Kentish Advertiser, “Old Baily – (Friday),” January 10, 1832, p. 2.
  • [12] Ibid.
  • [13] Morning Advertiser, p. 4.
  • [14] Monmouthshire Merlin, p. 4.
  • [15] Huntingdon, Bedford & Peterborough Gazette, “Trial of Cook and His Wife for Burking Caroline Walsh,” January 14, 1832, p. 4.
  • [16] Morning Advertiser, September 28, 1832, p. 3.

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