Nicolas Steinberg and the Murder of a Georgian Family

John Nicolas Steinberg was a 40-year-old optician and a man considered to possess “inventive genius.” This was demonstrated by the fact that he received a patent for inventing a peculiarly constructed whip. But yet Steinberg’s peculiar whip would not be what he would become known for, rather he became known as a murderer.

A year or so before Madame Tussaud established her wax museum on Baker Street, Nicholas Steinberg ordered his 15-year-old servant, a girl named Pearson, to “go and fetch a pint of beer and a quartern of gin.”[1] After delivering it to him, he suggested she stay the night, but she wanted to go home to her mother’s house, so he instructed her to return at six o’clock the following morning. As told Pearson returned to 17 Southampton Street (now Calshot Street), Pentonville on the morning of 10 September 1834. However, after knocking on the door for some time, she received no answer and left.

The area designated by a red balloon is where 17 Southampton Street existed at the time. Detail comes from a portion of a google map.

Between eleven and twelve o’clock, Pearson and her mother returned. They knocked but again there was no answer. Eventually, Pearson and her mother talked to a neighbor. As Steinberg was six months behind on rent, the neighbor concluded he and his family clandestinely left to avoid paying rent. The neighbor then sought out Lewis Cuthbert, the landlord.

Cuthbert considered Nicolas Steinberg a quiet and respectable “tradesmanlike man,” but now he believed Steinberg had absconded. So, he and the neighbor returned to Steinberg’s house to further investigate. They knocked, received no answer, and decided the house was empty, which then encouraged Cuthbert to climb over a wall and push the kitchen door open.

Cuthbert was greeted with a sight that was horrific. Nicolas Steinberg was half-clothed, “lying on his back with his head nearly severed from his body; the kitchen and the whole of his body were covered with blood. A large and long butcher’s knife was lying by his feet.”[2] Cuthbert was shocked and quickly related the horrific scene to the neighbor.

Together the men sought out the local inspector named Miller, who then returned with them. The three men entered and passed Steinberg as they went upstairs to the bedrooms. There they found the fine-looking woman they believed to be Steinberg’s wife lying face-down on the floor in her nightdress and covered with blood. Her head was almost severed from her body too. At her feet, was her four-month-old infant, Phillip, dressed in his bed clothes, covered in blood, and with his head nearly severed.

Fearful about what else they would discover, the proceeded cautiously. In the next room, they found a small cot and a bed. Henry, four years old, was lying in bed with his throat slit. Ellen, age two, was lying on the floor next to the cot. Her throat was cut from ear to ear. In the next bedroom, they found five-year-old John. He was lying on the floor with his throat also severed. Apparently, however, John had struggled with the murderer as his forefingers on his left hand were cut off and were found about four feet from where his corpse rested. There was also a severe gash on his shoulder.

An inquest was held to determine what happened. The general conclusion was that Nicolas Steinberg had committed the murders of his family. Apparently, the knife used in the murders was a common knife, like butcher knife used for the cutting of bacon or meat. It had been sold to Steinberg a week or so earlier by a cutler named Verinder. However, he could not positively identify Steinberg as the purchaser, although one of Verinder’s employees did.

A butcher knife of today. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

During the trial, it was learned that Steinberg’s wife was not his wife but rather a woman cohabiting with him named Ellen Lefevre. Apparently, they had fallen in love while she was employed by Steinberg and his first wife. After the first wife discovered Steinberg was having an affair, she left him. Lefevre, who was seventeen at the time, then moved in with Steinberg, and the two had been living together since that time, which amounted to about seven years.

In addition, during Steinberg’s and Lefevre’s relationship Steinberg had forbade Lefevre’s mother from visiting them because they had quarreled. So, when Lefevre was murdered, her mother learned of her death in a horrible way. According to the Chelsmford Chronicle:

“On the day subsequent to the Coroner’s inquest having been held, she [the mother] was sitting at needlework in the kitchen of Mr. Mace’s house, No. 1. York-square, in company of Mrs. Mace, when a female acquaintace of Mrs. Mace’s entered, and inquired whether she had heard of the dreadful murder sin Southampton-street, Pentonville. She replied in the negative, when the lady began to relate the particulars, and mentioned the names of Steinberg and Lefevre, being unconscious that Mrs. Lefevre was her mother, and other circumstance, which left no doubt that it was her daughter; Mrs. Lefevre immediately started up, exclaiming, ‘My God, it is my child!’ Mrs. Mace endeavoured to appease her to no purpose – but she rushed out of the house without her bonnet, and hastened to Southampton-street, when she made her way through the crowd, and in a state bordering on madness, she begged to be admitted, as she was the other of the murdered women … but [the inspector] refused to let her see the mutilated bodies, until they were in fit condition; but requested her to wait in the front room on the first floor, on entering which she beheld the portrait of her daughter over the mantle-piece, when she screamed out, ‘Oh! my dear child!’ and fainted away.”[3]

At the inquest, Pearson described Nicolas Steinberg as a “passionate man.” She said that when Steinberg got upset, he would get angry and pull his children’s ears or pull them up off the floor by their hair. Sometimes he would also throw them down or even strike them. According to Pearson, Lefevre did not approve of such behavior and was known to argue with him that his conduct “was not right.”

Nicolas Steinberg also had a son with his first wife. His name was Samuel Edward Steinberg. Samuel Edward had not seen his father for years. He claimed that his father had a temper and that one time his father threatened to hang his mother. Samuel Edward also testified that when his father was mad, he would beat his mother, and, he noted that he thought his father was insane.

There were several things that pointed to Nicolas Steinberg as the murderer. First, everyone believed no one else could have entered the house. It appeared he had also washed his hands in the same room where Lefevre and his infant son had been killed because the wash basin contained bloody water and Steinberg’s hands were clean. The coroner also found evidence that Steinberg was alive for four hours after the murders. Moreover, it was also conjectured that after he killed them, he proceeded into the kitchen, sat down on the floor, and slit his own throat.

Two days after the murder, the jury convened. They looked at the evidence and after hearing testimonies of witnesses, they retired to consider the verdict. They returned 20 minutes later and announced, “the deceased Nicholas Steinberg did willfully murder Ellen Lefevre and the four children, and that he, Nicholas Steinberg, had committed Felo de se.”[4]

The following day after the jury’s verdict, the bodies were removed from the house and taken to Clerkenwell, the same area where Jane Cakebread, the drunkest women in the world, would become a familiar figure in the late 1800s. There in Clerkenwell a considerable crowd assembled at the north entrance of St. James’s Church to see the bodies of Steinberg and his victims. Because people were so indignant about Steinberg’s actions, “it was anticipated the crowd would attack the body of the deceased.”[5] Therefore, to prevent Steinberg’s corpse from being attacked, a plan was concocted.

Nicolas Steinberg - St. James's Church

St. James’s Church in 1806. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The body of an old woman was in the same vault as Steinberg’s. Her body was carried off in an easterly direction, which made everyone think it was Steinberg’s corpse. The crowd then moved to the eastern side of the church. Meanwhile, Steinberg’s body was carried to the pauper’s grounds, which was on the opposite side. When the crowd learned they had been deceived, they quickly reversed course, hissing and groaning, and when the crowd arrived at Steinberg’s grave, the police were already in place and restrained them.

Nicolas Steinberg was buried in the same bloody clothes — drawers and a shirt — that he was wearing when he committed the murders. Interestingly, at some point, several people got close enough to him to “cut [off] little pieces of his drawers, as curiosities, and one man … regretted that he had not cut the deceased’s ear off before he was buried, so that he might preserve it in spirits of wine!”[6] In addition, Steinberg was buried with little feeling because according to the Read Mercury:

“[He ended up in a] grave about 18 or 20 feet deep, and after exhibiting [Steinberg’s body] to the public … it was taken out … and pitched headlong into [the grave;] … the hollow sound of the body when it went to the bottom was shocking, and excited a feeling of horror, but not a soul seemed to sympathize for him.”[7]

During his burial people were so unsympathetic that it was reported by the Read Mercury that those attending began crying, “The wretch, the brute, &c,”[8] “Why don’t you burn him,”[9] or “Hang him up on a sign-post.”[10]

A much more sedate and respectful funeral was held for Lefevre and her four murdered children. The crowd was immense and so large that the streets were rendered impassable. At the funeral those attending showed great respect and were completely silent when the saw the four coffins: One for each of the three oldest children and one for Ellen Lefevre and her infant son. In addition, newspapers reported there was the most “profound silence” when the reverend gave his burial sermon for Steinberg’s victims.

At the time, the murders generated great interest with the public as did the 1830s murders convicted by Elizabeth Ross and John Holloway. However, in the Steinberg case an exhibitor bought the Steinberg house to create an exhibition. He then left it as it was, blood and all. The Clonmel Herald reported:

“It appears that the house has been taken by the present occupant, joined with two or three other persons, on the speculation of shewing it to the pubic; and to render the sights as attractive as possible to the lovers of the horrific, this scene of cruel butchery is intended to display a set of wax composition figures, representing the murderer and his victims, and wearing the identical clothing they had on when the murder was perpetrated. It is said that the enormous sum of 25l. was given for the clothes in question.”[11]

The shameful exhibition attracted throngs of curious visitors willing to each pay 6d. for admission. The bloody knife was displayed and wax figures of Nicolas Steinberg, Ellen Lefevre, and the children were placed in the various rooms and supposedly in the respective positions that they were allegedly murdered. The exhibition was said to have earned nearly £50 in one day and £25 was received from those who purchased pieces of the victim’s clothing.

References:

  • [1] “Horrible Murders, Southampton Street, Pentonville,” in Read Mercury, 15 September 1834, p. 2.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] “Further particulars of Steinberg and the Late Murders,” in Chelmsford Chronicle, 19 September 1834, p. 2.
  • [4] “Horrible Murders, Southampton Street, Pentonville,” p. 2.
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] Ibid.
  • [9] Ibid.
  • [10] Ibid.
  • [11] “The Steinberg Murder,” in Clonmel Herald, 11 October 1834, p. 1.

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