Thirteen Tales of Murder and Death in the Victorian Era

The Victorian Era is often remembered for its morality with women’s buttoned-up collars and high boots that prevented even the slightest hint of skin beneath. However, there were also many tales of murder and death during that era that captured the public’s imagination. Here are thirteen stories for Halloween.

Murder and Death in the Victorian Era

One unusual death happened in May of 1875. A miser between 60 and 70 years of age named Samuel Whitehead was found dead and there seemed to be no real reason for it. He lived for many years in Birmingham in a tenement off Moor Street and had been a recluse ever since his mother died twelve years earlier when she burned to death under rather mysterious circumstances. When Whitehead was found, according to newspapers:

“The house was in a most dilapidated and filthy condition, never having been cleaned since his mother’s death. The charred fragments of the dress which she was wearing when burned were to be seen upon the floor of a lower room. The paper was torn from the walls in every room, and in many parts the plaster had fallen. The ceiling of the attic was broken, the tiles being exposed, and at one end a portion of the roof had fallen in.”[1]

The house being filthy and in a dilapidated state seemed to add to the mystery. When police searched the premises, they found deeds to some property and located envelopes and packages stuffed with mildewed money and tarnished coins, apparently the cash having been there for years. In total, police found upwards of £100, and, as Whitehead had no job for years, police were stumped as to where he obtained all the money.

Another unusual death was discovered in the spring of 1865. This time a policeman in Somers Town made a gruesome discovery at a house in Charlton Street that had been shut up for some time. The policeman gained entrance and thereupon found the dead body of a woman lying on a bed.

“Several large cats were sitting on the body, and according to the policeman’s account attacked him so ferociously that he had to lay about him with his staff pretty vigorously. The room was in a most filthty [sic] condition, and not a vestige of food was found in it, or any article of clothing.”[2]

Like Whitehead it was unclear why the woman had died, and she was by no means poor. Bank deposit receipts were discovered that showed that she had deposited nearly £150. Police also eventually identified the dead body as that of a notorious woman known to regularly commit crimes. According to one newspaper, she had “formerly perambulated the neighbourhood of Regent’s-Park … [and] once was committed to prison at Marylebone police-court … [with] £78 … found concealed in her dress.”[3]

In October of 1865 a Belfast paper reported on the horrific murder of an 18-year-old girl who was killed by her mother. The girl was helping her mother when the mother told her to set her work aside and do something else. When the 18-year-old didn’t obey quickly enough, the mother lost all self-control:

“[The irate mother] taking up a knife, threw it with such violence at her daughter that it penetrated the neck deeply, severing the carotid artery and causing death shortly afterwards.”[4]

A mysterious murder at Huddersfield in 1891 left a 16-year-old servant girl named Catherine Dennis dead. She was discovered at the Ivy Green Public House when a butcher’s boy called, and no one answered. His calling roused a neighbor who then found the girl dead, “having apparently been stabbed in the neck with some sharp instrument.”[5] On the landing they also found her sweeping brush and a dustpan, as if she was going to sweep out a room.

Huddersfield shown within West Yorkshire. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The girl was stabbed in the jugular vein and no weapon was found. Exactly why the murder occurred was shrouded in mystery because according to reports, “no robbery appears to have been committed at the house, for although there was plenty of money on the premises, nothing appears to have been missed.”[6] Later, when “further particulars” were reported, it was stated that police had arrested two men: Joshua Lockwood and George Farnham. They were photographer’s canvassers and arrested because their coats were stained with a green color similar to the color of the walls on the landing of the stairs at the public house. Police were unsure, if they were the murderers and later both men were released. Furthermore, police suggested that the reason for the crime was an “attempted outrage.” Apparently, Dennis’ “clothes were undisturbed, and there were no indications of a struggle,”[7] but she laying on the floor at the time she was stabbed.

One death that was not particularly mysterious but highly unusual involved the death of a 33-year-old woman named Susannah Allen who lived at 85 Villa Street in Walworth. She was attacked by a throat disease that narrowed her air passage so severely, a life-saving operation was performed at Guy’s Hospital and a silver tube installed into her larynx to allow her to breathe. However, one or two days after the surgery, the woman began coughing severely, and the tube became filled with phlegm, “the poor woman in her agony, while fighting for breath, pulled the tube from her throat, and in a very short time died from choking.”[8]

Another unusual death was reported in Leicester in August of 1865. A 25-year-old woman, well dressed, with a dark complexion, who some people thought might be of gypsy origin, stopped at a cottage at the mouth of the Glenfield tunnel on the Leicester and Swannington Railway and asked for a glass of water. A 14-year-old girl provided the water and the woman told her that she was going to travel through the Glenfield tunnel. The girl warned the woman “with tears” that the tunnel was so small that if train passed through anything in the tunnel at the same time as the train would be instantly destroyed. The young girl begged the woman not to venture into it, but, unfortunately, the woman did not listen and went into the tunnel anyway:

“A train soon after emerged from the tunnel, and it was at once known what the young women’s fate must have been. She was found … not quite dead, but frightfully mangled, and died a short time after being removed, without giving any account of herself.”[9]

As the woman carried no identification, she could never be identified. Moreover, when the case was placed before the jury, they could not reach a decision as to whether she had committed suicide or died in an accident.

There was no confusion about how the next death happened. A Lincolnshire newspaper reported that a “shocking tragedy” had occurred in December of 1898 on Twekesbury Road in Stamford Hill. A 45-year-old man named Thomas Ruff had been working as a coal clerk but became ill. He then became exceedingly depressed, and, one day in the afternoon, he suddenly attacked his wife and daughter in a “frenzied manner.” The wounds he inflicted upon them were superficial, but the real damage was done when he returned to his own bedroom and almost decapitated himself. He couldn’t be saved and died at the hospital.

In another case, although it might not have been murder, it was carelessness at its worst and a mystery as to who to blame. During an initiation ceremony of the Royal Arch Purple degree, a revolver was discharged as part of the event. Apparently, no one had checked the revolver and a ball had been left in it so that when it was fired, a man named John Lyons, who was sitting some distance away, was struck by the ball. It hit him in the heart and he died instantly. As to the culprit to blame, a newspaper reported:

“The caretaker of the hall has been taken into custody. The inquest on the body was held on Friday night, and none of the witnesses could identify the man who fired the shot, the jury returned an open verdict.”[10]

In 1894, a school boy named William Cunliffe died five days after complaining that he had a swollen finger. The swollen finger occurred when he was beaten by his teacher. Doctors believed his cause of death was from blood poisoning, but they could not reach an agreement as to exactly why.

Children Released From School in the Late 1800s. Author’s collection.

The case went before a jury, and Miss Sumner of the Birchley Roman Catholic School admitted to striking Cunliffe with a ruler on the hand for misbehaving. The jury was advised to rule that the boy’s death was caused by simple blood poisoning and not to hold the teacher liable, and the case was summed up stating:

“[One of the doctors] spoke strongly on the inadvisability of assistant teachers punishing children without proper thought [and] the jury adopted the course suggested, and endorsed the coroner’s observation respecting school punishment.”[11]

In another interesting case, a woman’s dead body was found in a cellar at 37 St. Paul’s Square in Southsea at the residence of Mr. Malcolm Stace, a retired naval surgeon. The couple lived alone and on the 3rd of March Mrs. Stace left on some errands, and the husband had not seen or heard her from since and made no inquiries.

Mrs. Stace had a habit of locking the kitchen door, and a week later on Sunday, 11 March, when she had not returned, someone suggested that the kitchen door be forced open. Mr. Stace and a friend accomplished it and then went into a disused coal cellar where they found Mrs. Stace dead. Her death seemed mysterious and medical doctors were called to determine the cause of it. What they learned was shocking:

“[She] had slipped in going into the basement, and the strain on the neck of her dress had strangled her.”[12]

One case from 1865 touted as “horrid” involved a 12-year-old boy who killed his stepfather. The stepfather was a butcher named Abraham Long and the boy was Thomas Anstey, who worked with his stepfather at Green Street on the corner of Hope Chapel Hill in Clifton.

One evening around 11pm Anstey was hanging some meat in the shop, when Long told him he was not doing it properly. Anstey took no notice and continued hanging the meat, to which Long said he would chastise the 12-year-old, if he did not do it right. When Long attempted to put his threat into execution, the boy grabbed a poker and Long was forced to defend himself with a pair of tongs.

Ultimately, both Long and his stepson put down their weapons, and then Long walked to the back of his shop. He was followed by Anstey, who, unbeknownst to him, was carrying a long butcher’s knife. The boy then stabbed Long in the abdomen, and the wound was so severe, it penetrated his liver. Surgeons were called, but their care was not enough to save Long, and he died soon after. As to Anstey, papers reported:

“The boy was, of course, immediately taken into custody and lodged at the Cliften Police Station, where he was sleeping soundly on Sunday afternoon when the foregoing particulars were obtained.”[13]

Another gruesome murder happened in 1895 at 51 Pawson’s Road in Croydon at the residence of a clerk named David Wright. Wright left as usual for work one morning and his young daughter went to school. A short time later, around 11am, Mrs. Wright, who remained at home with her 6-year-old son Gilbert, sent a note to her daughter at school. When she opened the note, she was horrified. It was rambling, but essentially stated that her mother had killed “Bertie,” as Gilbert was called. According to newspaper reports:

“The girl at once went home, and on entering the front bed-room, she found her brother lying dead on the floor with hands and feet bound by a rope, which was also twisted tightly round his neck. The child was black in the face, the blood was issuing from his nose and mouth.”[14]

The girl could not find her mother, locked the house, and rushed to her father’s work. He returned with her immediately, and upon finding his son, sent for police. Wright also found that his wife had left him a note confessing to murder and stating that she was going to police, but she never appeared. In fact, ultimately, police found her and arrested her later that same evening at Crown Hill in the center of the busiest thoroughfare in Croydon. When police told her that she was to be charged with killing her son, she nonchalantly replied: “Bertie? Oh, yes, I murdered him.”[15]

One strange story of death happened in 1886 on a train. It all began after George Stokes left Coventry on an excursion train to Liverpool. On the return trip, he was traveling home with several other men and a woman. About 2am, everyone was asleep but the woman and one of the men, when the train going full speed blew its whistle. The woman watched Stokes suddenly jump up, put his leg through the window, then his head, and finally completely disappear.

Stokes’ body was discovered on a platform, “both his arms and legs were broken, and his head was frightfully shattered.”[16] He died about 24 hours later. Papers reported that Stokes was a stoker at the local bicycle works and an inquest was held to determine why he died. According to newspapers:

“At these works there is a trap-door, through which deceased occasionally got in the same manner as he got out of the railway carriage, and it is supposed the whistle of the engine woke him up [or he was sleeping walking], and he thought he was at work.”[17]

References:

  • [1] The Scotsman, “Strange Death of a Miser,” May 20, 1875, 5.
  • [2] Bedfordshire Mercury, “Strange,” April 8, 1865, 7.
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] Belfast Morning News, “A Girl Killed by Her Mother,” October 16, 1865, 2.
  • [5] Yorkshire Evening Press, “Mysterious Murder at Huddersfield,” August 22, 1891, 3.
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] Chard and Ilminster News, “Mysterious Murder,” August 29, 1891, 3.
  • [8] Portsmouth Evening news, “Strange Death From Choking,” October 8, 1881, 2.
  • [9] Stirling Observer, “A Strange Story,” August 24, 1865, 2.
  • [10] Saffron Walden Weekly News, “Killed During an Orange Lodge Initiation,” September 18, 1891, 6.
  • [11] Huddersfield Chronicle, “Strange Death of a Schoolboy,” January 22, 1894, 4.
  • [12] Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, “Singular Death at Portsmouth,” March 14, 1894, 3.
  • [13] Monmouthshire Beacon, “Murder by a Stepson,” April 1, 1865, 6.
  • [14] St. James’s Gazette, “Alleged Murder By a Mother,” October 30, 1895, 9.
  • [15] Ibid.
  • [16] Gloucester Citizen, “A Victim to Sleep Walking: Strange Death of an Excursionist,” August 6, 1886, 3.
  • [17] Ibid.

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