1815: Eliza Fenning, for the dumplings

3 comments July 26th, 2015 Headsman

Two hundred years ago today, an Irish serving-girl named Eliza Fenning hanged for poisoning her master’s family. The reliability of the judgment against her was widely questioned in 1815 and has not improved with age.

Robert Turner’s family, along with one of his apprentice stationers all sat down to a meal of dumplings that Eliza, a cook, had prepared for dinner on March 21 of that same year. Within minutes, all were in agony. As Charlotte Turner, who was the mistress of the house even though only a few months older than Ms. Fenning, told the Old Bailey:

I was taken ill myself in less than three minutes afterwards; the effect was so violent, that I had hardly time to get into the yard before my dinner came up. I felt considerable heat across my stomach and chest, and pain.

Q. Was the vomitting of a common kind?

I never experienced any thing before like it for violence; I was terribly irritated; it was not more than a quarter of an hour my apprentice Roger Gadsell was taken very ill in a similar way to myself.

It appeared from the symptoms — and from the blackened dough of the dumplings — that the meal had been laced with arsenic, that cunningly ubiquitous terror of the 19th century. The inference of family, Crown, and eventually court was that Eliza had availed the opportunity of preparing the food to revenge herself on the Turners because Charlotte Turner had caught her some days before sneaking into the apprentices’ room for a snog.

It’s a sure thing that homo sapiens has murdered for feebler reasons than this, but the insufficiency of the provocation, the vociferous denials of the condemned, and the puzzling fact that she too ate the noxious dumplings — all these things militated against confidence in the verdict which was hotly disputed in the public at large. Methods of establishing the presence and quantity of arsenic in a sample were extremely primitive in general, and painfully specious as applied by the surgeon who came to that verdict in the Fenning case.

The court inconclusively pursued the various ingredients in the dish: the same flour had been used for a meat pie that had brought up nobody’s dinner, so that was out; Eliza suggested the milk might be to blame, or a new yeast the house obtained on the eve of the dinner party. There is a wide-ranging effort in the transcript to establish the young woman’s access to an arsenic packet that Robert Turner kept in a desk drawer to poison mice, but this seems little relevant; it was an unlocked desk drawer in a busy household, plus arsenic was widely available in town. Everyone had effective access to arsenic, should she or he have a mind to find it.

As friend of the site (and occasional guest blogger) Richard Clark puts it in his overview, “it is difficult to be sure whether Eliza was guilty or not” even all these years later. But it’s a certainty that what was developed against her in 1815 would fall leagues short of any present-day standard for a confident conviction. Was she really unbalanced enough to try to murder the entire household over a tongue-lashing, yet steely enough to eat the poisoned dish herself to dispel suspicion, yet incautious enough not to have readied any other alibi for the moment when attention would turn to the cook? What possible basis could she have had for believing that she could salt in enough of the toxin to kill everyone else but eat a safely sub-lethal dose herself?

And maybe, as with Cameron Willingham, we might best begin with the premise: was there actually a dose of arsenic, laid in by a sinister hand — or might some contaminant carelessly proximate to the food supply of an unruly metropolis have been the true and undetected culprit?*

The case dissolves under even mild scrutiny into a tissue of social and medical quackery: the uppity servant, the sexually precocious Irishwoman, the assassin infiltrating the dumplings. (See Judith Flanders’s The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime for a scathing defense of Fenning.)

Whatever it was that the family puked up, everyone did so speedily enough to remain among the living. Attempted murder, however, was still a capital crime in England, and would remain so until 1861.

Though her case would attract widespread sympathy and public controversy, Eliza Fenning’s defense before the bar was all but nonexistent: four good-character witnesses, plus this statement:

My lord, I am truly innocent of all the charge, as God is my witness; I am innocent, indeed I am; I liked my place, I was very comfortable; as to my master saying I did not assist him, I was too ill. I had no concern with the drawer at all; when I wanted a piece of paper I always asked for it.

That’s the whole of it — complete and unabridged. It is a pathetic thought to consider this helpless plea in light of the idea that the food might have been poisoned accidentally; tunnel vision had already settled on a semi-coherent story of the embittered serving-girl’s revenge,** and without the art to draw out some different interpretation of the few facts available, Eliza found her place fixed by the self-validating suspicions cast upon her.

She held to her innocence all the way to the end; it was put about that a Newgate screw had overheard her father bid her do so no matter what lest he lose all honor after she died. One last character assassination for the road.

Supporters — and she has had many, down to the present day — flocked to Eliza’s Irish wake in the days after her hanging (the body “being placed in the kitchen of the house, and dressed out in ribbons, flowers, &c.”†) and then thronged a funerary procession from Red Lion Square to the tombs of St. George Bloomsbury.

* In 1900, to the consternation of brewers, around 6,000 pub-fanciers in northern England fell ill from beer that turned out to be contaminated with arsenic present in an ingredient (sulphuric acid) that made a different ingredient (glucose) that went into the beer.

** As Fenning was condemned just a few weeks before Waterloo, the paranoia that England’s burghers nurtured over the prospect of incipient Jacobinism must be presumed a relevant part of the scenario … doubly so, considering the young lady’s nationality.

The Lincoln, Rutland and Stamford Mercury, Aug. 4, 1815. Reports that the family had the effrontery to accept 40 quid worth of gifts from well-wishers were also lamely represented by Fenning’s persecutors as black marks on the family name.

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1864: Franz Muller, “Ich habe es getan”

4 comments November 14th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1864, German tailor Franz Muller hanged before an unruly London mob estimated near 50,000 angry souls.

Muller was among Britain’s last public hangings, before executions disappeared behind prison walls four years later. But what he’d done was a first, and father to a legion of detective novels and dinner theater: Muller committed the first murder on a British train.

Certainly Muller’s motive was as pedestrian as his locomotion was novel, for the victim was a 69-year-old banker who was relieved of a gold watch and gold spectacles, then pitched out of his compartment onto an embankment on a North London commuter train.

This operation was facilitated and — so conceived a public that was spellbound by the crime — poor Mr. Thomas Briggs’s escape from his attacker prevented by the then-prevalent use of the compartment coach, a railcar design without any interior corridor communicating between the berths. As each compartment opened only to the outside, passengers were stuck in their rooms between stations (and ticket-takers had to scuttle hazardously along exterior running-boards). Known in much of Europe as the English coach, these designs would quickly lose popularity thanks in part to this very affair.*

In a sense, these spaces just translated into the industrial era the age-old terrors that had always stalked travelers. It must be this that accounts for the extraordinary interest the public took in Briggs and Muller: in a sealed compartment, face to face with a desperate man, one would be as nakedly vulnerable as the mail coach on the roads of yesteryear quailing at the shadow of Dick Turpin. London businessmen did not expect such harrowing encounters on their daily commute.

A reward soon yielded a tip that put police onto this working-class immigrant Muller — the man sure ticked every box for a proper moral panic — who had dropped into a Cheapside jeweler’s** shop two days after the murder to exchange a gold chain (later identified as Briggs’s chain), and hopped a ship to New York soon thereafter. Inspectors took a faster ship and beat him to the Big Apple. He still had Briggs’s watch and top hat on his person, the latter ingeniously cut down.†

In a recent book about Briggs’s murder, Kate Colquhoun argues that despite the verdict, Britons “never quite felt they got to the bottom of” why the murder occurred. It’s commonly supposed that Muller didn’t intend to slay his victim and perhaps didn’t even realize he had done so.

Muller’s disarmingly amiable personality contrasted sharply with the circumstantial but persuasive evidence of a violent bandit; he struck the men who awaited him in New York as having been genuinely surprised by his arrest. Muller himself denied his guilt throughout a breathlessly reported three-day trial and even pressed for a stay of execution claiming to have developed new evidence of his innocence.

There was no stay, and only at the very last moment before the drop fell did the condemned youth succumb to the pressure of the German-speaking Lutheran clergyman who had been his companion in the last days to confess himself of the crime with the words Ich habe es getan.

Rev. Louis Cappel, whose immediate public announcement of this solemn unburdening played better as theater than as ministry, later explained in a letter to the London Times‡ (Nov. 16, 1864) that

the unhappy man declared he was innocent not while, but before, the Sacrament was being administered to him. Soon after entering his cell on the last morning I asked Muller again whether he was guilty of this murder. He denied it. I then said, “Muller, the moments are precious; we must turn our minds wholly to God; I shall question you no more about this, but my last words to you will be, ‘Are you innocent?'”

He remained silent for a minute or two, but presently exclaimed, his eyes full of tears, and clasping his arms round my neck, “Do not forsake me; stay with me to the last.”

* As a stopgap safety measure in the following years, before the widespread introduction of cars with interior corridors, existing compartment coaches were fitted with peepholes (called “Muller’s lights”) between compartments as well as wires enabling passengers to ring the alarm

** Submitted without comment: the jeweler’s name was John Death.

† Muller’s truncated-top-hat design actually enjoyed a brief fashion vogue that became named for him as a “Muller cut-down”.

‡ Consonant with the growing elite consensus on the matter, half the Times‘ execution coverage — a full column and a half of newsprint — was dedicated to excoriating the “lawless ruffianism” of the jeering hang-day mob.

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1855: Emmanuel Barthelemy, duelist

1 comment January 22nd, 2014 Headsman

The winner of England’s last fatal duel was hanged at Newgate on this date in 1855 … but not for the duel.

Both participants in that duel, Emmanuel Bart(h)elemy and Frederic Cournet, were French emigres* who had commanded Parisian barricades during the 1848 revolution.

On its surface the duel was one of those trivial affairs of honor: Barthelemy heard that Cournet (otherwise unknown to him) had repeated some defamatory rumors about Barthelemy already abroad in France, and challenged Cournet on that basis; Cournet at first dissociated himself from any such smears, but upon better consideration thought he considered Barthelemy’s notice a little on the ultimatum side and took exception to that.

The consequent set-to was delayed some time by negotiations over every element of its ceremony. When at last it was arranged, it unfolded thus:**

it should commence with pistols, the combatants, being 40 paces apart, advancing 10 paces before firing if they chose, and having two shots each, miss-fires not counting; that the choice of position, the choice of pistols, and the signal for firing should be determined by tossing up; that if the pistols proved ineffectual swords should be resorted to to terminate the affair.

Cournet won the toss and got to choose his position and take the first shot. Barthelemy had to stand stock-still as Cournet

advanced his 10 paces and fired, but though on 14 similar occasions he had never failed to hit his opponent this time he missed. Barthelemy then told him that he had his life in his hands, but would surrender his right to fire if Cournet would agree to terminate the duel with swords. [Barthelemy had wanted swords to be the dueling weapon in the first place -ed.] Cournet declined to do so, saying that he would stand his adversary’s fire and take his second shot. Barthelemy then levelled his pistol, but … it snapped. He put a fresh cap on and it snapped a second time,† and it was then agreed that he should use Cournet’s pistol, which was loaded and handed to him. Before discharging it, however, he again offered ineffectually to terminate the contest with swords. He then fired, and with fatal precision.

Barthelemy himself and all four of the seconds involved (both Barthelemy’s and Cournet’s) were arraigned in this case, but the jury returned only a manslaughter verdict. Barthelemy served a few months; he would have to exercise fatal precision once again to find a different route to the scaffold.

In his non-duelling life, Barthelemy was a mechanical engineer, and it was in this capacity that a soda-water manufacturer named George Moore employed him to repair his machinery at 73 Warren Street, just off Fitzroy Square.

Late the night of Friday, December 8, Barthelemy showed up with a veiled woman at the place and asked for Moore. Minutes later, the servant-girl saw all three emerge struggling violently together from their private meeting. As she raced to the door to scream for help she saw the Frenchman raise a pistol and fire …

“Murder!”

Her screams started attracting the neighbors as Barthelemy burst past her, but an iron gate in front of the house obstructed him. Before more people could assemble he fled back into the house and locked it shut behind him.

Moore’s neighbor, a former East India Company man named Charles Collard, thought quickly to his own grief. Collard raced around the back side of the house where a garden opened onto another street, and arrived just in time to catch Barthelemy vaulting over the garden wall. Collard pounced on him, and in the ensuing melee Barthelemy shot him, too.

This was all too late for Barthelemy, for the delay had brought an onrushing of neighbors and passersby who quickly subdued the gunman. Somehow — nobody quite knew how — his companion was nowhere to be found. She had vanished from the house leaving only her veil, and as she had surely not escaped by the front gate it was thought that she must have found some way to slip out the back casually amid the commotion and made a nonchalant escape. She was never seen again.

Moore was found quite dead in his home: he’d been shot through the head, and the marks on his body indicated that the fatal wound had been preceded by some whacks with a cane. Collard lingered on many hours in agony — long enough for his captured murderer to be brought before him and Collard to deliver a signed j’accuse identifying Barthelemy as the villain.

Barthelemy must have had a way with jurors because even in convicting him for murder on this occasion, the panel still recommended mercy. There seems to have been some thought that the mysterious dispute in the house might have been a spontaneous affair qualifying as manslaughter, while the murder of Collard might have passed (since Collard grabbed Barthelemy) as self-defense. The crown unsurprisingly did not share this exceptionally generous view of a man who had already been in the dock for homicide in the past and declined to extend mercy.

Barthelemy disdained the religious entreaties of his captors, scandalizing the right-thinking with bon mots like “it is no use to pray to God, as God will not break the rope.” Indeed, He did not.

* It was perhaps fitting that Frenchmen, a people with an abiding enthusiasm for the duel, who transacted this milestone encounter. En garde!

** Per the London Times of Oct. 28, 1852, summarizing evidence presented in court.

† Upon post-duel examination it emerged that Barthelemy’s pistol had failed to discharge because of a bit of linen rag stuck in the breach. This eyebrow-raising fact gave rise to the suspicion of foul play, though on whose part and to what end is less distinct. Both guys ended up with a shot at one another with the exact same pistol. Cournet just missed his.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Public Executions,Revolutionaries

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1883: Patrick O’Donnell, avenger

1 comment December 17th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1883, Fenian Patrick O’Donnell was hanged at Newgate for the murder of James Carey.

O’Donnell — or Padraig O Domhnaill, more Gaelically — was a casualty of the Irish nationalist struggle; his path to the gallows began on May 6, 1882, when an Irish republican group known as the Invincibles stabbed to death two prominent officials of the British crown as they walked through Dublin’s Phoenix Park.

The Invincibles were ultimately collared — and then hemp-collared — with the assistance of one of their own number who turned queen’s evidence and put five of his former confederates in the noose.

Now in peril of life and limb himself, the turncoat James Carey got a new identity and a ticket on a passenger ship from his recent British enemies. But Carey either got sloppy and blew his cover — provoking O’Donnell to take the opportunity to kill him — or was found out by the Fenians before he left — and O’Donnell sent to stalk him.

The matter is still disputed, and it was disputed at O’Donnell’s trial (further to the question of motive and premeditation; the defense claimed that O’Donnell killed in self-defense during an affray).

That defense didn’t fly. Even advancing it, O’Donnell’s defenders would rather celebrate the intrepidity of his action than plead its extenuating circumstances; riotous celebrations with Carey burned in effigy were reported in Ireland when the news of Carey’s murder broke.

Lyrics.

O’Donnell was apparently an American citizen, and his case generated a considerable groundswell from the ample Irish immigrant community stateside.*; he had lived in the anthracite mining regions of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania O’Donnells were big players in the shadowy Irish labor-terrorist-revolutionary Molly Maguires.

Now he’s dead, he’s laid to rest,
Let honour be his name,
Let no one look upon him
With scorn or disdain;
His impulse it is human,
Which no one can deny,
I hope he’ll be forgiven
By the infinite Lord on high.

If every son in Erin’s Isle
Had such a heart as he,
Soon they’d set their native land
Once more at liberty;
They’d unfurl their flag unto the British,
Their rights they would redeem
In unity and friendship,
In the lands far over the sea.

Source

O’Donnell was one of the very few hanged by the great English executioner William Marwood‘s subpar successor Bartholemew Binns. Binns and his assistant were arrested in the process, having attempted to skip the fare for the train to London.

* For instance, the Dec. 10, 1883 Freeman’s Journal and Daily Commercial Advertiser in Dublin reported that President Chester A. Arthur received a deputation urging him to press for clemency consisting of congressmen “Cox and Robinson, New York; Mirrosn, Springer, and Sinertz, Illinois; Lefevre and Foran, Ohio; Murphy, Iowa; Mabury, William Lamb, Indiana; M’Adoo, New Jersey; Collins, Massachusetts, and O’Neill and Burns, Missouri.”

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Crime,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Ireland,Martyrs,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Occupation and Colonialism,Revolutionaries

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