Labyrinthe, Huile sur toile by Roger Zanoni (2000)
When I wrote about ‘Looking into Futurity‘ and the case of Charles Paddon’s enthusiastic use of astrology to assist young ladies with knowledge of their future, the law of England was not in agreement with his motives and branded him a vagabond, insisting his future was one of imprisonment (http://wp.me/p8yqmi-op).
That was in 1836 and forty-seven years later, in 1883, another such criminal case emerged in Birmingham (England) that makes Charles Paddon’s activities shrink into insignificance compared to the claims and career of a certain John Hartwell.
Mr. Hartwell preferred to be known by two very ostentatious aliases. He felt he was a true seer, indeed a ‘Merlin’ – able to tap into supernatural insight and provide visions of the complex labyrinth of a person’s future by operating as both a male seer and a female seer as well as an astrologer. Seemingly as a kind of hermaphrodite futurity reader, he claimed he was both Methratton – The Great Seer of England, and simultaneously, Anna Ross – The Seeress of New York. He also claimed to be, not only ‘The Great Seer of England’, but,‘ a philosopher, astrologer and grand master of the mysteries and secret of the seals.’ (see Karl Bell, The Magical Imagination, Magic & Modernity in modern England, 1780-1914, Cambridge, 2012, p.161)
This, he said, gave him powers to enter the spirit world on a client’s behalf embarking upon complex journeys into deep spiritual labyrinths.
Catherine Crowe: The Seeress of Prevorst (1845) The Spirit World
Unlike Charles Paddon, however, ‘The Birmingham Seer’ as he tended to be called, never met any of his many hundreds of clients. He was a benefactor of the modern growth of advertising and a very efficient Birmingham postal service. Being a spiritual kind of man/woman, he only needed certain limited information about you to deliver your futurity – indeed he only needed the price of his advertised service paid in stamps!
“The great prophet will reveal your future seven years, 7d.; marriage and other particulars, 2s 6d.; wonderful supernatural records, 1s 8d and 5s. – METHRATTON, 137 Miller Street, Birmingham .”
A spiritual step too far, however, upset a local Yorkshire vicar when ‘The Birmingham Seer’ promised. “News from the invisible world for twenty stamps.” (Source: Pall Mall Gazette, January 15th, 1883)
The North-Eastern Daily Gazette (Middlesborough, England) January 16th, 1883, p.4
So, it seems, this particular seer has previous convictions – probably seen as par for the course given the financial gain his tricks were making, but this time his future was a little more seriously threatened with bail refused and a Yorkshire vicar in hot spiritual pursuit for a trial.
Under the headline, “The Great Seer of England” Again! The Citizen (Gloucester, England), reported ‘Methratton’s’ appearance at Birmingham Police Court on Monday January 16th, when John Hartwell of 137 Miller Street, Birmingham was charged with obtaining various sums of money from women and girls through the kingdom by means of advertising frauds. (p.3)
The court heard that when Hartwell was arrested by Detective Ashby at Miller Street, he was in possession of around 300 letters requesting various spiritual or magical assistance and containing money in the form of post-office orders or stamps which – at that time – acted as transferable into cash. Indeed, as he was leaving his house in the company of Detective Ashby, the postman arrived and cheerfully handed some more such letters addressed to METHRATTON, 137 Miller Street, Birmingham directly to Hartwell to be immediately confiscated by Ashby.
The Birmingham Police court hearing remanded Hartwell in custody for one week with recommended hard labour. It was at this hearing that a certain headline catch-phrase began and was even taken up by the national newspapers such as The Times. Mr. Hebbert, the Magistrate’s Clerk indicated that the Bench was surprised at the credulity of the women and girls who had been victimized. Hebbert could not have imagined that his passing comment about Hartwell’s clients, i.e.that he did not think “so many fools could be found in the country as was indicated by the letters to the prisoner” would be turned into a popular media headline “Astounding Credulity“
In fact, it was the complicatedly titled, The Cheltenham Chronicle and Parish Register and General Advertiser for Gloucester, that ratcheted this popular headline into,“Extraordinary Credulity,” and ran a piece called, “The Profits of Prophecy,” (January 23rd, 1883 p.6)*
For the first time this paper put together what was indeed an extraordinary list of services claimed by Mr. Hartwell that ranged from seven pence to fifty pounds. Fifty pounds bought you “The elixir and tree of life secrets,” but aside from that extravagance he had a warehouse of spiritual and magical goodies to suit all;
*’The Profits of Prophecy,’
A big problem for the police was to encourage victims to come forward and testify in court. The headlines to date had made people caught up in Hartwell’s scam feel foolish and reluctant to appear in public to further insults of stupidity. One brave witness, however, did give evidence at a further hearing at the end of January, that did result in Hartwell being sent to trial as an ‘incorrigible rogue and vagabond‘.
She was Miss Elizabeth Grant who Mr. Hartwell had persuaded was a real life Cinderella. Miss Grant said that she had heard of the powers of this astrologer from other girls who had written to him. She said she had sent ‘Methratton’ two shillings and sixpence for ‘marriage and other particulars‘ as listed in his advertisement next to ‘how to cause lover’s visits‘ and ‘wonderful supernatural records.‘
The Magistrate, after reading out the advertisements, asked Miss Grant. “Did you order, ‘wonderful supernatural records’ or ‘lover’s visits’ “? Unfortunately for Miss Grant, laughter then erupted around the court. She replied to renewed laughter, “Marriage and other particulars.”
“Did you have an answer?” asked the magistrate.
“Yes sir,” she answered.
“What was it?” he asked.
“I burnt it,” replied Miss Grant looking sheepish.
“Why?” he asked.
“He advised me not to get married at present.” she replied to more laughter from the court.
“Was it because you did not like the advice that you burnt the letter?” asked Mr. Hebbert, the Magistrate’s Clerk to even more laughter in the court room. The magistrate adding rather presumptuously, “It was very good advice.”
Miss Grant agreed it was good advice, adding, “Yes and he said if I went and got married just yet, everything would go wrong and go against me. He said if I did do it everything would cross me in every direction. But he said I should be wealthy.”
“That was if you had patience,” suggested Mr. Hebbert.
“Yes,” agreed Miss Grant.
“But how were you to be wealthy?” questioned Mr. Hebbert.
Miss Grant was now more relaxed and explained, “I cannot remember it all, but I know he said I should marry a rich husband and then to much more raucous laughter came the so-called, ‘Cinderella moment’;
Citizen (Gloucester, England), Wednesday, January 31, 1883; pg. 3;
Now came a most extraordinary warning to the court, indeed, the whole country. When asked how he pleaded to the charges against him, Hartwell said, “Not Guilty.” The court was then reminded by Inspector Hall that, to date, Hartwell had served three months imprisonment last May for ‘fortune telling’ in Birmingham as well as serving eighteen months imprisonment for selling indecent literature in London three years earlier. The prisoner said he had provided his defence to this present case in writing and asked if the Inspector would kindly give it to the magistrate.
The Inspector took two sheets of foolscap and handed them to Mr. Kynnersley, the stipendiary magistrate.As he did so, the Inspector said, “This is his defence, and if it is true, the consequences are going to be something awful to some of us here.”
Laughter followed, and then Hartwell was permitted to read his ‘defence’ out to the court;
“To the Town clerk and Magistrates: January 20th, 1883. Gentlemen I have been illegally arrested, without warrant or other instrument whatsoever, and the ‘dreadful’ will rest upon the parties concerned, or rather I would say, the ‘dreadful consequences of such an illegal and most wicked and sacrilegious act. In addition I was stripped of all I had.”
It was a very long defence letter speaking in detail of his visions and abilities to understand the “regeneration of nature and universal baptism” as well as “the restoration of all kings.” In summary, it was reported thus:
The Evening News (Portsmouth, England), Tuesday, January 31, 1883; pg. 3
Hartwell was ordered once more to be put to hard labour until his trial date was fixed.
The Times newspaper broke ranks on the day of Hartwell’s appearance at Birmingham Quarter Sessions on Wednesday March 28th with the non-nonsense headline; “CONVICTION OF A FORTUNE TELLER” (The Times, March 29th, 1883, p.4). Brave Miss Grant appeared again to tell her story, she was now used to the rather cruel laughter in the court room. The Recorder spent some time reading out to the court many of the letters sent to Anna Ross and Methratton, together with the replies that had been sent by Hartwell in lieu of witnesses coming forward in person.
In response, Hartwell claimed he was far from being a vagabond and owned a shop full of jewellry and works of art in London but declined to say exactly where it was. Patience began to wear thin when he embarked upon outlining his prestigious ancestry, claiming he had descended from the male side of Lord Lovell.
The Recorder ended Hartwell’s trip around his claimed heritage by sentencing him to nine months imprisonment.
I have tried to follow Hartwell’s progress after this trial, but he seems to have disappeared from the face of the earth. Maybe he’s on a long visit to the invisible world.
I have no picture of Hartwell to show you, but were he here (maybe he is!) I feel he would like to adopt this one from the brilliant artist Douglas Baulch.(1)
Don Crosby (Merlin) by Artist Douglas Baulch
Murder Victim George Heath – The Man With The Cleft Chin
This despicable and cowardly London murder somehow wended its way into the literary circles of George Orwell (1) and a rather tacky 1990 movie directed by Bernard Rose. (2) The shameful cold-blooded murder of private hire car driver, George Heath on October 6th 1944, shocked the nation and even more so when according to The Times newspaper, “The convicted accomplices were a shabby pair – a twenty-two year old G.I. deserter and an eighteen year old stripper.” Source: The Times, April 5th, 1990 p.5
This ‘shabby’ G.I. went straight into the record books for being the first ever American soldier tried in a British Court during the war. “As a rule,” explained The Times, “United States Army delinquents in England are tried by court-martial.” Source: The Times, ibid p.5
The American authorities themselves wanted this man out of their military system and into the criminal courts of England. He was a deserter and thief and now charged with murder within his host country – he was not to be defended by them. In fact, in her book, ‘A Fatal Pickup,′ (2015), Edna Gammon claims, “President Franklin D Roosevelt said Hulten was an embarrassment to the United States government and the case should serve as a warning to English girls against hobnobbing with flashy yanks.” (Chapter 13)
So, in order to piece together why there was this Orwellian literary interest and the release of a movie based on this murder, we need to know that these so-called accomplices presented the media with a ‘Bonnie & Clyde’ attraction. Their despicable morality and a car-crash of a relationship tended to overshadow the tragic victim, whose remembered mainly because of the constant referral by the media to his prominent cleft-chin. The additional fact that both the stripper and the deserter constructed their own romantic fantasy, neither of them knowing the real name of the other was bizarre by the standards of the time. It was a criminal ‘La La Land.′
Here is how the whole cleft chin media label began and the first hint that this was not a run-of the-mill murder given the very last line:
Source:The Evening Telegraph and Post, Tuesday October 10th, 1944, p.5
This American soldier was a twenty-two year old deserter from the 501st Airborne Division by the name of Karl Gustav Hulten who had created his own fantasy name of Lieutenant Ricky Allen. Only a matter a days before the murder of George Heath on Friday October 6th, 1944 – Karl Hulten, posing as ‘Ricky’ was enjoying the first meeting of what promised to be an exciting new relationship with an eighteen year old strip-tease dancer who called herself, Georgina Grayson.
She claimed she worked at the Blue Lagoon Club in London’s West End when they first met in The Black and White Cafe near Hampstead underground station on Tuesday October 3rd 1944, but she was actually a young Welsh lass called Elizabeth Maud Jones whose strip-tease career was still a dream yet to emerge. So Karl met Elizabeth, but they only knew it as ‘Ricky meeting Georgina’ (or Georgie, as she preferred). Karl soon moved into her one room apartment in Hammersmith.
Karl Hulten had been born in Stockholm, his parents moving to Massachusetts where he grew up and he passed himself off to ‘Georgie’ as a bit of a gangster before joining the military. His meeting with Elizabeth Jones was fortuitous for him, because when he had deserted some six weeks before he met her, he had blatantly stolen a two and a half ton military truck and was constantly having to keep it hidden from the military police so he jumped at the chance of a new identity with ‘Georgie.’ He was also armed with an automatic pistol and wearing a stolen American officer’s uniform to complete his Lieutenant Ricky Allan persona
KARL GUSTAV HULTEN (alias Lieutenant Ricky Allen)
ELIZABETH MAUD JONES (alias Georgina Grayson)
These two people in their fantasy world of Ricky and Georgie, somehow and immediately triggered each other to commit outrageous and grievous acts. Still using his ten-wheeled army truck, Hulten took Jones for a ride out on her first date that same night so they could really get to know each other.
The very next day, they met up again, Hulten still blatantly driving the stolen military vehicle. “Watch this!” Hulten was alleged to have said to Jones as he deliberately knocked over an innocent woman cyclist. Leaping out of the truck, they both robbed their victim of any possessions and drove off.
They were now partners in crime and after a more traditional date at the movies, Hulten was anxious to commit another robbery. It was Thursday October 5th, early afternoon and they were driving along the Edgware Road in London. They spotted a young girl struggling to carry a large suitcase. She was eighteen year old Violet May Hodge on her way home to Bristol, hoping to catch a train at Paddington Station. Hulten and Jones stopped to offer her a lift to Reading train station where they claimed she could catch a Bristol train.
Someway along the journey, Hulten faked a problem with the vehicle and stopped. Jones got out with Hodge and then Hulten climbed out, creeping up behind Hodge and hitting her hard on the head with a block of wood. He also punched her viciously in the face. Jones took off Violet’s coat and put in on, and they took what possessions they wanted. They then both dragged her across a field to the river Thames and threw her in. They set off home, pleased with the meager possessions they had stolen.
The shock of the cold water, revived Hodge and she managed to crawl to the river bank and her desperate cries for help were heard by occupants of a nearby house who took her inside and called the police. Violet was taken to hospital suffering from severe head injuries and damage to her left eye where Hulten had punched her.
On Friday October 6th, Hulten and Jones lounged around in her room at Hammersmith, but then at around 11.30pm, they decided to go out and look for more easy money. It was the unfortunate George Heath who was stopped by a young lady flagging him down by Hammersmith Broadway. He explained he was not a taxi- but a private hire vehicle and he already had a booking to attend in Maidenhead. Jones persuaded him to take her home, just along the road to King Street.
He agreed to take her for the pricey sum of ten shillings. As she got in, Hulten appeared alongside her and also got in the vehicle. Heath was surprised but stuck to the deal. Hulten sat directly behind Heath on the driver’s side.
When they reached the end of Chiswick Road, Hulten told Heath to stop. Heath did so, wanting to get paid and get off to his booking at Maidenhead. Heath lent over to open the back door for Jones to get out. As he did so, Hulten shot him in the back. Hulten pushed Heath into the passenger seat as he was gasping for breath and slowly dying. Hulten drove the Ford V8 saloon, with Jones in the back, towards Staines.
While Hulten was driving, Jones was leaning over the seat rifling the dying Heath’s pockets, taking around four pounds in notes, some loose change, his watch and a fountain pen with a matching propelling pencil.
Hulten drove across a track at Knowle Green where they both pulled him out of the car and rolled him into a ditch. They then drove back to London in Heath’s smart saloon, pleased with their evening’s haul. On the way back they flung his empty wallet out of the window and after a great deal of searching, Jones discovered the bullet that had passed directly through Hulten’s body and ricocheted off the dashboard. That too was flung from the window.
The tragic murder of George Heath was discovered on Saturday morning and the police immediately circulated the details of the stolen vehicle. Meanwhile, by Sunday October 8th, Hulten and Jones were getting itchy feet once more. Jones in particular wanted Hulten to steal a valuable fur cape or coat for her. So they drove to the luxury Berkley Hotel in Knightsbridge and waited outside watching the guests in their fineries coming and going. Jones spotted a woman with a fine white ermine cape and Hulten rushed up to her to snatch it. The shocked woman screamed, he dropped the cape and fled to the car and made his getaway with Jones as a policeman appeared around corner.
The “Police question soldier” headline we began this story with, was now coming closer, for on Monday October 9th, Hulten set off to visit another girlfriend in his recently acquired smart V8 Ford Saloon This was sixteen year old Joyce Cook. He parked the V8 on the corner of Fulham Palace Road.
As evening approached, a police constable spotted the registration and phoned in for assistance. The police set up a series of spotlights around the area of the vehicle and waited. When Hulten returned to the car it was showtime as the lights flared and the police moved in to arrest him.
There is a very long six day trial to come, which started on the 16th January 1945, but suffice it to say, as far as this blog is concerned, it was fraught with lie after lie, excuse after excuse – everything except the truth came from the mouths of this “shabby pair.”
KARL GUSTAV HULTEN WHEN ARRESTED
There were no doubts in the minds of the jury that Hulten and Jones were guilty of murder and that was the swift verdict delivered by the jury foreman on the sixth day of this trial (23rd January 1945). They did add, in the case of Jones, a recommendation for mercy.
The sentence of death was then passed on both prisoners.
Hulten was hanged at Pentonville Prison on March 8th 1945, while Jones was repreived at the eleventh hour and sentenced to life imprisonment, but was released on licence after only serving nine years.
In his rather tongue-in-cheek essay, ‘Decline of the English Murder’ (1946), Orwell deliberately picked on the so-called ‘Cleft Chin Murder’ to use as an illustration of crass, cowardly, and incomprehensible behaviour that unfortunately catches the public’s eye as somehow a ‘proper murder’ when for him it was far from that;
“Now compare the Cleft Chin Murder. There is no depth of feeling in it. It was almost chance that the two people concerned committed that particular murder, and it was only by good luck that they did not commit several others. The background was not domesticity, but the anonymous life of the dance-halls and the false values of the American film.” (Orwell, G., Decline of the English Murder, 1946)
Cruel to think there is still a victim of course, but in Orwell’s literary world this was never a ‘proper murder’ as in the ‘old days’:
“Perhaps it is significant that the most talked-of English murder of recent years should have been committed by an American and an English girl who had become partly Americanized. But it is difficult to believe that this case will be so long remembered as the old domestic poisoning dramas, product of a stable society where the all-prevailing hypocrisy did at least ensure that crimes as serious as murder should have strong emotions behind them.” (Orwell, G., Decline of the English Murder, 1946)
Well, it was remembered by film director Bernard Rose who, with writer David Yallop and actors Emily Lloyd, Kiefer Sutherland and Patsy Kensit, made Chicago Jo and the Showgirl, based on the ‘Cleft Chin Murder’ and in the process inadvertently proved George Orwell was absolutely correct in his diagnosis. In fact they really made a movie of the essence of his essay – bland, emotionless and random.
It was left to The Times reviewer David Robinson in his film review of April 5th 1990 (page 19) to find exactly the right word for this ‘shabby pair’ and all their devious, immoral actions – mythomanes.
George Orwell would certainly agree.
Imagine you are a young barrister and you have been given your first murder case to defend. The year is 1929, the country is England in the county of Bath. You need to defend your client from the death penalty but there is a problem – your client is guilty of murder, he murdered his young wife, and there is no question he is telling the truth when he claims he battered his bride to death in the bedroom of their apartment with an iron bar.
He does not appear to be insane and accepts his guilt. A quick perusal of your brief points to him as guilty of murder on all counts and your job is to save his life even though he took an innocent life for no apparent reason. Okay let’s see how well you would do.
This story begins with a dishevelled man in his early twenties, limping up to a surprised desk sergeant at London’s Paddington Green police station, and announcing, “I have killed my wife.” It was Friday 26th October 1928.
He turned out to be William Bartlett aged twenty-three, living with his wife Marjorie Aimee, also twenty-three, above their confectionery shop called The Chocolate Box in Monmouth Street Bath (about 120 miles away from London). Bartlett claimed that a strange sensation had overtaken him while with his wife in the bedroom of their apartment. He heard the crash of an iron bar falling to the ground and when he tried to focus on her face, it was just a blur of red. Then he noticed her head was lying in a massive pool of blood, her face beaten to a pulp. This had happened during the night of 25th October and this horrific sight led to a realization of what he had done with that iron bar. His distress, had then set him to aimlessly wandering the streets, ending up taking a train to London where he finally decided to give himself up. He said, “I have murdered my wife by hitting her over the head with an iron bar.”
Station Sergeant Lediard checked with his Bath police colleagues and sure enough when Detective Inspector Jones visited the Chocolate Box at number three Monmouth Street,* he discovered Marjorie Bartlett’s body and the iron bar. His colleague, Detective Constable Evans found no evidence of a struggle, and Inspector Powell discovered a shirt belonging to Bartlett with blood spots all along the right sleeve.
What Bartlett had said was true, and he was taken into custody for a murder trial which would not be held until the New Year. Bartlett appeared a little too slow in his reactions, speech, and attention span and was suspected of having learning difficulties but certainly not someone who was insane and likely to murder. So he was to be examined by medical specialists before any trial could begin. They declared that he had the mental age of a boy of fifteen rather than a man of twenty-three, however this would not prevent the application of the death penalty if found guilty.
Assigned to take on Bartlett’s defence was Mr. J. B. Casswell a young Western Circuit barrister from the chambers of Mr. Rayner Goddard. The media loved him, speaking of his “attractive manner” and “attractive voice”, concluding “no one could be failed to be stirred by his appeal.” (Source: Bath Chronicle and Herald, Saturday January 26th, 1929, p.5 – note as much as they loved him, the media misspelt his name as Caswell)
So you need to add these additional, non-judicial variables into the mix, but charisma on the part of the defence lawyer is hardly the solution to save Bartlett from death by hanging (or is it?) How’s your charisma?
His Honour J.D. Casswell, KC, in 1938:
But what of his client Bartlett?
Firstly, the limp that Station Sergeant Lediard had noticed when a weary and dejected Bartlett appeared at Paddington Green Police Station to give himself up was not from his hours of walking but due to the fact that Bartlett had an artificial leg. Lediard also recalled “..his brow was knit and he looked confused.” (Source: Bath Chronicle and Herald, Saturday January 26th, 1929, p.16).
When Casswell met him he described Bartlett as “a very miserable, simple young man who certainly did not appear to have any motive for killing his wife.” A Lance for Liberty, J.D.Casswell QC, 1961, p.60)
Bartlett’s expression about coming over ‘queer’, was the consistent theme he told to his young lawyer, Casswell. In order for Casswell to make a fair attempt at a defence, he had to find one and there did seem to be a possibility that – at the time of that tragic murder – William Bartlett had no idea what he was doing. So, not insane, but somehow not in possession of his senses at that moment in time. Bartlett’s backstory revealed a rather sad childhood growing up in Birmingham.
Casswell felt Bartlett’s childhood had been a terrible one as his parents and elder sister (he had two sisters) all died of tuberculosis and he had lost a leg as a young school boy when he fell and infected his knee. Three operations later, with parts of his leg being amputated each time, the complete limb had been removed. From then onwards he had become very introverted and took to hiding in his room. Casswell’s notes recorded him as ‘strange lonely and miserable.’ Indeed, the local paper, the Bath Chronicle and Herald, referred to him as, “being morbid, secretive and alone,” (ibid p.16)
The more Casswell delved into Bartlett’s past, the more sad and tragic it became and yet this was not to be a trial based on having sympathy for Bartlett but so much had gone very wrong for him since his mother had died when he was only thirteen, it must have had an effect on his mental state.
Casswell was particularly concerned about the time when Bartlett had managed to find a job apprenticed to a boot maker and was making progress when one morning at breakfast, he found his father dead on the sofa and when his elder sister had died, it was only ten months after the traumatic incident of his father’s death. He had very little contact with his remaining sister Frances.
Meeting and marrying his second cousin Marjorie Aimee in Weston-Super-Mare in the spring of 1928, was the best thing that had ever happened to him, he became a changed man, happy and content and loved Marjorie deeply – yet now he had murdered her – Why? It seemed an insane act and so was this going to have to be Casswell’s defence after all? But was he insane?
Between them, the Bartletts had sunk money that belonged to Marjorie into a childhood dream for both of them – running their own sweet shop – The Chocolate Box. The problem with this dream soon became apparent; neither of them had the least idea about how to run a business. They were literally like children playing shops. In a matter of months, their capital ran out while the income from the shop was negligible and the bills mounted up. So possibly a motive was beginning to emerge – but in what form would Bartlett have a motive associated with their business failing?
The trial began at the Somerset Assizes on Thursday 24th January, 1929.
Mr. J. L. Pratt was prosecuting on behalf of the Crown Prosecution Service, and Mr. J. D. Casswell was defending. An important variable for Casswell was that there were two women on the jury. He commented that he was not sure whether this would elicit some sympathy for orphan Bartlett or engender antagonism on behalf of his murdered bride, Marjorie.
When Bartlett was asked by the Clerk of the Assize, “Are you guilty or not guilty? Bartlett answered, “Yes Sir.” Asked again, he said “Not guilty.”
Casswell knew exactly how the prosecution were going to play their hand, relying on a simplistic monetary motive. Pratt opened the trial and only spoke for twenty minutes. He claimed that this was a very simple case. He reminded the jury that Marjorie Bartlett was an orphan and William Bartlett’s second cousin.
The ‘dead woman’ – as he tended to refer to her – was entitled to two hundred and ninety pounds under a marriage settlement. He also referred to the fact that Marjorie Bartlett had sold some stock on the day of the murder for eleven pounds, yet there was only a few pence discovered in the apartment. Without actually saying this was the motive, he made the following declaration to the jury:
“It is inevitable in a case of this sort that one should speculate as to the motive that induced this man to kill his wife, because I suggest to you it is clear on the evidence that he was the man who killed her. If there were a doubt as to the person who actually committed a murder, then it might be very important for the jury to consider what motives the accused person had for doing it. But in this case, they need not be concerned with the question of motive because it was this man who struck the blows and they were murderous blows. Anybody striking them must have known that death would follow, for they were struck with great violence with an iron bar on the head of a defenceless woman.” (Source: Bath Chronicle and Herald, Saturday January 26th, 1929, p.16)
Casswell, now alerted to the ‘cut and dry’ style being adopted by the prosecution began opening some chinks of sympathetic and emotional light during his cross-examination of the main prosecution witness. He was Frederick Comfort, a retired journalist, grandfather of William Bartlett and uncle, by marriage of Marjorie Bartlett. Running through Bartlett’s tragic backstory, Casswell asked the question;
“Have you ever heard of his leaving home and being absent for some time, and returning, saying he did not know what had happened?”
“His father has told me,” replied Comfort, “he was missing once for two days and was unable to explain what he had been doing.”
Casswell asked the witness if he felt the Bartlett’s marriage was a “love match.”
“Yes,” replied Comfort, “they had known each other for years as children.”
“And as far as you know they had lived a perfectly happy life until this incident?” inquired Casswell.
“Yes,” said Comfort.
“You know no reason why the accused should have killed this woman?”
“No,” replied Comfort.
Slowly but surely Casswell dug into what he saw as a motiveless act that did not fit the loving relationship of the childhood sweethearts and happily married couple. He was building his picture of a man who had a sudden episode of unexplained detachment from events and his surroundings. He even managed to cross-examine the police to reinforce this point.
“On your journey with the prisoner from London to Bath after you had taken him into custody, did the accused seem to appreciate the dangerous position he was in?”
Detective Inspector Jones replied, “Apparently he did not.”
When Casswell opened for the defence he immediately took pains to distance himself from Pratt’s dismissal of the jury not needing to be concerned about motive. He cleverly pointed out that the law did not need a motive, as it was clear Bartlett had committed the murder, but for the jury it was, in fact, very important they should consider motive.
“From a legal point of view, if a man had committed murder, it did not matter what the motive was, whether hatred, revenge or greed. But for you, the jury, motive is a very important matter. No doubt, as you listened to the evidence for the prosecution, you wondered why on earth he did it. He was a man who apparently loved his wife and had not been married long. Did he do it to get a paltry eleven pounds, when he could have easily taken it and walked out the place when she was sleeping? Was it likely a man in his senses would have left in the house, all the signs that he and he alone, did it? The answer I am going to put to you is that Bartlett did not know what he was doing at the time, that he had no control over himself and was not responsible for his act.”
When Bartlett himself was put on the stand, Casswell took his time to unpick this man’s tragic life through his calm questioning, but not to the extent that it overpowered the terrible deed. Getting the balance was crucial.
He then took Bartlett to the morning of October 25th 1928 and how normal that day was, with Bartlett taking Marjorie a cup of tea in bed. Later, still in the bedroom, she called down for some matches so she could have a smoke, William threw her a box on the bed and went back down. Later, because she had an appointment, he called her from the bottom of the stairs but she could not hear. He went up to the bedroom and found her asleep, shook her awake to remind her and she was angry with him, telling him to go away, “speaking very sharply,” said Bartlett, the word ‘sharply‘ somehow seemed significant to him.
Casswell asked, “What happened to you?”
Bartlett went on to give the media the headline story they would all run with the next day;
Bath Chronicle & Herald, ibid, p16
Casswell then asked, “Have you ever felt like this before?”
“Yes,” replied Bartlett.
“When?” asked Casswell.
“When I threw a kettle over my sister,” replied Bartlett without hesitation.
“What happened as far as you know yourself?” continued Casswell.
“I seemed to wake up, as if asleep standing,” answered Bartlett.
“Do you know what woke you up?” inquired Casswell gently.
“A noise,” replied Bartlett.
“Did you find out what it was?” Casswell asked softly.
“Apparently an iron bar dropping from my hand,” was the answer.
“Did you know you had the iron bar in your hand?”
“Do you remember picking it up?” prodded Casswell.
“Do you remember anything that happened?” said Casswell.
“Did you see anything on the bed?”
“I saw something red,” replied Bartlett, “the next thing I found myself in the room down below, and I found bloodstains on my sleeve. I realised I had done something to my wife.”
“When did you first realise it?” When Casswell asked this question, Bartlett opened up as if he had to make sense of it himself;
“When I saw something red on the bed. I changed my shirt; I don’t remember washing my hands; I remember going out, but I don’t remember locking the door. I went to Bristol by train, stayed there all day. but I cannot remember what I was doing. I just walked about in a dazed condition, I can remember nothing. I started for London close on midnight. I don’t know what happened when I arrived there. I just walked about in a circle – but always came back to the same place – Paddington railway station. I was doing that all night and the following day. I passed Paddington Green police station several times, then my head seemed to clear and I thought the best thing to do was to give myself up.”
Casswell then chose to ask his key question,
“Did you ever intend to kill your wife?”
“Had you any reason to wish to kill her?”
To further questioning – in order to allay the jury’s likely concern about the availability of the weapon used – it was established that the iron bar was in the bedroom because it was used to adjust and mend his artificial leg.
Pratt for the prosecution then began an extraordinary cross-examination that paid no attention to what had just been revealed by Bartlett and showed clearly he had no interest other than trying to portray Bartlett as needing the money and planning a kind of murder story. His first question to Bartlett was:
“Was your favourite author Sexton Blake, and did you spend the greater part of your married life reading stories of crime?”
“No.” replied Bartlett firmly.
Pratt then pursued a pointless journey of questioning to try and indicate that Bartlett had been persuaded to marry Marjorie by his sister Frances, and as he couldn’t get a proper job and as Marjorie had money, he could sort his life out that way, implying there was no real love and genuine marriage happiness, so clearly this was a deliberate act of murder by Bartlett and the ‘red mist’ theory was a ploy.
Pratt did not seem convinced by his own questioning. It was during the long afternoon and early evening part of this trial that the real breakthrough occurred for the defence by the introduction of a neurologist, Dr. R.G. Gordon, a specialist in what was at the time referred to as, ‘mental and nerve diseases.’
That afternoon Casswell and Gordon became a double act of important legal significance but the media chose to laud them in another way:
(Source: Bath Chronicle and Herald, Saturday January 26th, 1929, p.5)
That afternoon the jury saw a performance worthy of a theatrical production.
They took to Dr. Gordon’s detailed but clearly expressed view that this was a case of ‘Epileptic Automatism’.(1) When Bartlett killed his wife, he was suffering from an epileptic attack – not a fit – but equivalent to a fit that enabled him to take actions his everyday persona would never wish to undertake. He would have no knowledge of his actions until it was too late.
However the prison doctor, who had appeared for the prosecution, testified that Bartlett had not exhibited any signs of such an illness while on remand. What would later become Casswell’s brilliant trade-mark style as a successful defence lawyer was glimpsed at this moment when he suggested to the prison doctor, “If the prisoner were going to pretend to be unbalanced would not one surely expect him to pursue that pretence while under the authorities’ observation?” The doctor reluctantly agreed.
In his memoirs, A Lance for Liberty, (Harrap: 1961), Casswell admits at this point in the trial he had produced no independent evidence of previous epileptic episodes, “My only chance was an emotional appeal. I must arouse the sympathy of the jury for the accused.” (p.60)
Casswell asked the jury, “Do you think Bartlett consciously stilled the voice he loved or killed the only happiness that he had ever had in his life? It was passionate plea to the jury, ending with a quotation from Tennyson’s elegy, Break, Break Break:
‘But O for the touch of a vanish’d hand
And the sound of a voice that is still.’
For the first time and, as it transpired, the only time in his career, Casswell reduced the jury to tears. As expected, Judge MacKinnon tried to reverse this sympathetic picture back to the image of a cold-blooded killer, but the jury were swayed and returned a verdict of “Guilty but Insane”.
In the event, rightly or wrongly, William Bartlett served only a few years in Broadmoor before being released.
So, even when you know ‘whodunnit’ and the murder is a terrible, bloody one with no evidence as to real motive, or in this case, proven insanity, the final arbiters – the jury – hold the trump card. This card however had been expertly dealt in the city of Bath in January 1929, by a young barrister defending his very first murder trial.
How well did you do?
Source: Bath Chronicle & Herald, ibid, p16
*Incidently; The Chocolate Box today is a very popular student ‘take-away’ called Alfalafel: 3, Monmouth Street, Bath – see trip advisor for details.
(1) An excellent paper on this condition can be found at: Epilepsy and the law – Epilepsy Society
You are gazing at the skeleton of a notorious woman, as exhibited in London’s famous Surgeons’ Hall, whose murderous cruelty shocked and stunned eighteenth century England.
I thought hard about whether to re-visit this case because of its barbarous, torturous and gratuitous violence. However, when I re-read the transcript of Mrs. Elizabeth Brownrigg’s trial which took place on September 9th 1767 at London’s famous Old Bailey Criminal court, for the torture and murder of fifteen year old Mary Clifford in August of that year – two hundred and fifty years ago – I wanted Mary’s anguished cries for help to be remembered on this terrible anniversary together with an appreciation of the bravery of another young girl, sixteen year old Mary Mitchel, who gave crucial evidence against Mrs. Brownrigg, which greatly assisted in this wicked woman’s conviction and execution. It somehow seems unjust that Elizabeth Brownrigg is remembered but Mary Clifford and Mary Mitchel are forgotten.
Also, when I read the adage expressed at that time that I’ve taken as a title for this blog; “Let her crimes be buried though her skeleton be exposed″, I do not agree such crimes should necessarily be buried –our knowledge that they actually happened teaches us so much about the devious nature of human kind and what still happens today behind closed doors, these two hundred and fifty years later.
So here we are, starting at the end of a cruel murder story rather than at the beginning.
I want to understand more about the imagery and symbolism that attempts to convey a powerful message of deterrence within the judicial system of the time, and the use of the highly controversial drawings employed by the media to illustrate this wicked deed.
Be warned, it is extreme in nature with only one agenda, that of seeking to capture the public imagination so that whenever they hear the name Brownrigg – images of the sheer horror Mary Clifford and other young apprentice girls endured is not in doubt.
Okay – the villain is caught and has had her comeuppance. Here she is with a little more dressing:
Under the Murder Act of 1751, there was a clear determination to deliver more than deterrence by execution alone. The Murder Act included the provision, “for better preventing the horrid crime of murder” and “that some further terror and peculiar mark of infamy be added to the punishment″, and that “in no case whatsoever shall the body of any murderer be suffered to be buried″, by mandating either public dissection or “hanging in chains″ *of the cadaver, *(see my blog:
Under this Act, therefore, following her execution at Tyburn, Brownrigg was destined for public dissection for which tickets of admission to Surgeons’ Hall to watch her be transformed from skin & bones to just bones were like gold dust.
It was overheard by some, seeking what author Elizabeth Hurren refers to as a, “shocking, thrilling, repugnant, blood-staining, enticing experience,” that it was a pity forty-seven year old Brownrigg was so painfully thin to begin with – there was so little flesh to part from her bones. (See Hurren, E., Dissecting the Criminal Corpse, August 2016)
An eager medical student called Silas Neville, was determined not to miss this transformation from body to skeleton exhibit, and knew to mingle in nearby Child’s Coffee House, located in St. Paul’s Churchyard and close to both the Old Bailey and Surgeons’ Hall, and thereby procure some tickets from those associated with this medical ‘performance’ to take place in the theatre of Surgeons’ Hall. He even started a diary in that very year of 1767 for, as Hurren observes, he was determined to follow, “.. the anatomical entertainments in the capital.” (Hurren, ibid.)
He recorded the following entry:
“Wednesday 16 September 1767: After waiting an hour in the Lobby of Surgeons’ Hall, got by with great difficulty (the crowd being great and the screw stairs very narrow) to see the body of Mrs. Brownrigg, which, cut as it is, is a most shocking sight. I wish I had not seen it. How loathsome our vile bodies are, when separated from the soul! It is surprising what crowds of women and girls run to see what usually frightens them so much. The Hall is circular with niches in which are placed skeletons.”
Below is an illustration of a murderer (not Mrs. Brownrigg) undergoing public dissection in the same manner as applied in her case.
You now know Mrs. Elizabeth Brownrigg suffered a public execution and her flesh and internal organs were cut from her bones also under public gaze, and finally, burial was denied under the Murder Act in order to provide the public with a tangible image of what wickedness is supposed to look like. The newspapers had been running for weeks with the horrific details of this woman’s crimes and were now able to report the following final episode:
“It is said the skeleton of Mrs Brownrigg will be ﬁxed in the niche opposite the front door in the Surgeons’ Theatre, and her name will be wrote under it, in order to perpetuate the heinousness of her cruelty in the minds of the spectators.” Source: The Stamford Mercury (Stamford, England), Thursday, September 24, 1767; pg. 2; Issue 1875.
The newspapers had indeed worked hard during the proceeding month it took to get Brownrigg to trial, to ensure that the minds of all such spectators gazing at this symbolic exhibit, had but one image in their minds as they gazed up at the skeletal remains:
This midwife, Elizabeth Brownrigg, working to assist the poor women of the Workhouse, had been appointed by the overseers of the Parish of St. Dunstan-in-the-West, and was living in Flower-de-luce Court, a long winding jumble of an alley close to London’s Fetter Lane. She lived with her husband James, a painter, and John, their son.
Brownrigg herself, had given birth to fifteen children and apart from John still living at home, only two others were said to survive. The Brownriggs had employed three apprentice girls – interestingly all were christened Mary. Her first apprentice was Mary Mitchel (who had run away from Brownrigg’s cruelty and was later to give evidence against her), then Mary Jones, who also ran away and back to the Foundling Hospital where the Governors ensured Brownrigg was castigated by the Lord Chamberlain for cruelty and abuse towards their charge, and finally Mary Clifford who died on Sunday August 9th, 1767 after being beaten to death by Brownrigg over at least twelve months of torturous existence in the Brownrigg’s basement kitchen. She was kept as a slave, as a prisoner and as an object of extreme vengeful frustrations by all three Brownriggs.
Rather than recount the more sensational descriptions of Mary Clifford’s ordeal as contained in the media, below is the actual charge from the Brownrigg’s trial that was read out at the Old Bailey – so given what you are about to read in judicial language, you can see what the media had in its journalistic grasp for such sensationalism.
“James Brownrigg , Elizabeth his wife, and John their son, were indicted, for that they, not having the fear of God before their eyes, but being moved by the instigation of the devil, did wickedly, maliciously, and feloniously, from the 1st of May 1766, and divers other days and times, to the 4th of August 1767, make an assault on Mary Clifford, spinster; that the said Elizabeth, her the said Mary, wilfully, and of malice aforethought, did make an assault, with divers large whips, canes, sticks, and staves, and did strike, beat, and whip, over the naked head, shoulders, back, and other parts of her naked body, in a cruel and inhuman manner, giving to her divers large wounds, swellings, and bruises; and with divers large hempen cords, and iron chains, round the neck of the said Mary, did bind and fasten, giving her thereby a large and violent swelling on the neck of her the said Mary; and in a certain place, under the stairs, leading into a cellar, in the dwelling-house of the said James, did fasten and imprison; by means of which striking, whipping, binding, fastening, confining, and imprisoning her the said Mary, she did pine and languish till the 9th of August, when the said Mary did die. And the said James and John his son, of malice aforethought, were present, abetting, comforting, and maintaining her the said Elizabeth the said Mary to kill and murder. And her the said Elizabeth and James her husband, stood charged on the coroner’s inquest for the said murder.”
(Source: Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 7.2, 30 July 2017), 9th September 1767, trial of James Brownrigg , Elizabeth his wife James Brownrigg John their son (t17670909-1).
You may wonder why I’m only singling out Mrs, Brownrigg given the whole family was charged and herein lies another disgrace that despite severe beatings upon beatings given by both James and John Brownrigg to Mary Clifford often with Mrs. Brownrigg supervising the severity or even bringing them down to beat Mary because she was exhausted with her own efforts with belts, buckles canes and staves – their beatings did not directly lead to Mary’s death. They only received an indictment against them for assaulting and abusing the brave apprentice Mary Mitchel who gave evidence against them at the Old Bailey. Here is her voice these two hundred and fifty years later;
(Note: Mary Mitchel’s reference to “upon liking” is referring to the mutual probation period – so it was in the interests of the Brownriggs to treat their ‘free’ apprentices kindly for the first month in order to secure their ‘binding’ to the family)
Proceedings of the Old Bailey , 9th September 1767
Mary Mitchel sworn.
Mary Mitchel. I am going into sixteen years of age.
Q. Do you know the nature of an oath?
M. Mitchel. I do, I can say my catechism.
Q. Where did you live?
M. Mitchel. I lived in the house of James Brownrigg, in Flower-de-luce court, Fetter-lane; I was his a prentice.
Q. How long have you served of your time?
M. Mitchel. I have served two years of my time last May; I was there two months upon liking before I was bound.
Q. How long was Mary Clifford there?
M. Mitchel. She was there about a year and a half; she was there a month upon liking.
Q. How was she treated during that month?
M. Mitchel. Very well.
Q. Had she a good bed to lie upon while upon liking?
M. Mitchel. She had.
Q. When did any ill usage begin?
M. Mitchel. About a week, or a little more, after she was bound.
Q. What sort of ill usage?
M. Mitchel. Such as beating her over the head and shoulders with a walking cane and a earth-brush by my mistress, that is Elizabeth Brownrigg, she was the first that began.
Q. Did you see anybody else strike her?
M. Mitchel. Yes, John the son has struck her.
Q. Where did she lie after she was bound apprentice?
M. Mitchel. Sometimes on the boards in the parlour, sometimes in the passage, and very often down in the cellar.
Q. How came she to lie there?
M. Mitchel. She had the misfortune of wetting the bed; that was the reason of her being moved; at first she had a mat to lie on.
Q. Had she any thing to cover her?
M. Mitchel. Sometimes she had her own clothes, and sometimes a bit of a blanket.
Q. Was there any particular place where she used generally to lie?
M. Mitchel. Yes, in the cellar, where they used to lock us in; it goes under the kitchen stairs.
Q. How big was the place under the stairs?
M. Mitchel. It is about the bigness of a closet; it went in and turned under the stairs.
Q. Had she any bed there?
M. Mitchel. Sometimes she had a bit of a sack with some straw in it.
Q. What had she to cover her?
M. Mitchel. Sometimes she had something to cover her, and sometimes a bit of a blanket, and sometimes she was quite naked.
Q. Did she chiefly lie there?
M. Mitchel. She did.”
Source:Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 7.2, 30 July 2017),9th September 1767, trial of James Brownrigg , Elizabeth his wife James Brownrigg John their son (t17670909-1).
This trial became more and more tense as Mary revealed that the Brownriggs used to go away for week-end breaks leaving early on Saturdays and not returning until late Sunday night – possibly around six or seven times a year – leaving the girls naked, without food or water and locked under the kitchen stairs. On their return, the beating of Mary Clifford continued.
Q. In what manner did she use to beat her?
M. Mitchel. She used to tie her up in the kitchen; when first she began to be at her, she used to tie her up to the water-pipe, with her two hands drawed up above her head.
Q. Describe that water-pipe.
M. Mitchel. That goes across the kitchen; the hooks that hold it are fastened into a beam.
Q. Had she used to have her clothes on when your mistress tied her up in this manner to beat her?
M. Mitchel. No, no clothes at all.
Q. How came that?
M. Mitchel. It was my mistress’s pleasure that she should take her clothes off.
Q. What had she used to beat her with?
M. Mitchel. She beat her most commonly with a horse-whip.
Q. How long did she use to beat her in this manner?
M. Mitchel. I cannot justly say, but she seldom left off till she had fetched blood.”
Source:Old Bailey Proceedings Online (ibid)
It was after a last savage beating on July 31st that it’s claimed the “Hand of Providence” intervened on Mary’s behalf and so began the trail to track down and discover what cruelties had been happening in the Brownrigg’s kitchen basement area.
“Lamentable cries and groans“, were heard by a concerned servant working next door for Deacons the local bakers. It so happened that on that very same day as that last and most severe beating of Mary Clifford by Elizabeth Brownrigg took place, James Brownrigg had purchased a large hog which he brought back to live in the kitchen area of the house and it stank so much he was forced to open wide a skylight window to let in more air. The concerned servant,
“.. looked from his master’s through this casement-window, and observed something lying upon the ground bloody, but in such a situation as not to discover whether it was human or not; he thereupon called, but receiving no answer he threw something which fell upon the poor girl, who thereupon groaned and uttered some inarticular sounds; from whence he discovered the object to be human.” Source: The Ordinary of Newgate’s Account of the Behaviour, Confession and Dying Words of Elizabeth Brownrigg, who was executed at Tyburn on Monday September 14th, 1767.
Thus began an intensive inquiry into the Brownrigg’s activities which lasted some time as she denied the very existence of tragic Mary Clifford and then claiming she had gone to live in the country and she blatantly defied investigation by the parish officers and even legal representations for her to produce Mary Clifford for the officers to see.
It was James Brownrigg who eventually brought the young girl to be seen by the parish officers who were obviously distressed at the sight of this speechless, and grievously injured innocent apprentice.
Mary Clifford died of her wounds in hospital on August 9th 1767, unable to speak one word about her ordeal. Sadly, her step-mother who was unaware of the cruel world Mary had been confined in, had tried to visit her during July but failed to get past the trickery of Elizabeth Brownrigg.
There is no other ending than to abhor such a cruel tragedy, but at least these two hundred and fifty years later we should learn from Mary Clifford’s suffering and realise that where vulnerable young people are concerned, sustained and reliable professional accountability must never be relaxed.
Even Brownrigg was reported by the press as urging that all Overseers “..should look now and then after the poor young persons of both sexes to see that their masters and mistresses use them well” (The Stamford Mercury: Sept.17th, 1767 p.3)
Unfortunately, even in our contemporary times – it seems, that lesson is still there to be learned.
I admit, I’ve been a little tricky with this title because this is not directly about who or which culture invented fingerprinting. The man I am about to introduce to you, fully acknowledges that the historic dilemma of, ‘who-when-where’ is still not completely solved.
Meanwhile, his claim, quite rightly in my view, is that he really did provide the route to its ultimate success as a detection technique – certainly in Great Britain – in a special ‘hands-on’ way. He modestly claims, “the discovery of the value of fingerprints.” (source: Herschel William James, Sir (1833-1917) The Origin of Finger-Printing, 1916, p. 36)
William James Herschel, from the outset, referred to fingerprinting – as far as crime was concerned – as “a weapon of penetrating certainty for the sterner needs of Justice.” (ibid, p. 4).
Indeed, we now know how very true that remains and many of us now use that same discovery as an everyday domestic application in preference to trying to remember a PIN number for our smart phone or tablet or door entry systems etc. – a simple whirl of skin says ‘this is me, so open sesame’! Herschel referred to this as, “the stubborn persistence of the patterns on our fingers,” (ibid, p.5)
So my reference to ‘handy’ beginnings refers to a young man living in Bengal during the 1850’s. His name was Rajyadhar Konai and and he lived in the village of Nista near Jungipoor and you have already been introduced to his inky hand.
This was a commercial signature – his mark, if you prefer. It says, ′I have read and agreed the contract and now with my hand print I am sealing that agreement and I cannot claim other than to proceed or fall victim to whatever forfeit is determined for non- compliance of my commitment to honour it.’
This was a system William Herschel had stumbled across when working on a project for road metalling when he was tendering for quotations and commitments to supply a special binding material for roadways called ‘ghooting’. The hand print system, Herschel claims rather callously, was used in this instance, “to frighten Konai out of all thought of repudiating his signature hereafter.” (ibid p.8). In fairness to Herschel, he did quickly add, “He, of course, had never dreamt of such an attestation, but fell in readily enough.” (ibid, p.8)
They both had an interest in using this form of signature with Herschel doing the same so they could compare prints and joke about palmistry and the mystical practices of fortune telling. Herschel’s contracts with Konai continued on this basis of hand print signature agreements, but meanwhile Herschel was having other thoughts of how powerful this form of personal identification might become. So it was, he began serious research of this system using his own hands and then just using his fingers in an attempt to discovery a fool-proof identification system.
The unknown part was how persistent would fingerprints be? The hands and fingers change as age increases and wear and tear are a constant factor on the skin condition. Is it really possible that the nature of a person’s fingerprints is fixed for their life-time?
These were the problems that Herschel grappled with and he was assisted in his research when appointed as a Magistrate to a area called Nuddea near Calcutta in 1860 to oversee the legal processes dealing with the so-called ‘Indigo Disturbances‘ which gave rise to much violence, fraud, perjury cases and litigation of all kinds. Sometimes referred to as ‘The Blue Mutiny‘, modern perspectives recognize this terrible oppression of the indigo planters – usually by their ‘host’ farmers – who in turn were being exploited by the West for the precious blue dye extracted from this special plant. The British textile industry had a rapacious and exploitative appetite – but that is another story.
Suffice it to say, Herschel gained a great deal of knowledge and experimental expertise turning what he called his ‘fad’ or hobby for his fingerprint identification system into three years zealous experimentation amongst the senior police staff and all kinds of Indian society. This was purely a private procedure amongst his own colleagues and Station personnel and had no legal connection with any individuals involved in actual criminal proceedings. Indeed many of the people he fingerprinted were senior judges.
Herschel comments; “I was driven to take-up fingerprints now with a definite object before me, and for three years continued taking a very large number from all sorts and conditions of men.” (ibid p.11)
He even wondered if an artist could draw a person’s fingerprint with such accuracy, it could be forged and then used on contracts to dupe others; “I therefore submitted some specimens to the best artists in Calcutta to imitate. Their failure sufficed to dispel all anxiety on that point.” (ibid, p.14)
Back in England in 1863, he talks of continuing his ‘hobby’ with more and more people becoming interested but no real movement to impress the Government, Judiciary or Police Commissioner. His progress on whether fingerprints will change as the person gets older took priority and by definition, this took a lot of waiting time.
One fascinating comparison Herschel made was that of his own son, Alexander Herschel’s fingerprints at ages 7 3/4; 17 & then 40 years of age as reproduced below:
Herschel William James, Sir (1833-1917) The Origin of Finger-Printing, 1916, (p. 31)
“As time went on,” said Herschel, “it was chiefly the incessant evidence of my own ten fingers, and of my whole hand, which wrought in me the overwhelming conviction that the lines of the skin persisted indefinitely.” (ibid, p. 28)
So whilst in the background it was a contemporary, distinguished scientist Sir Francis Galton (1822-1911) who is rightly credited with the actual discovery of finger-printing as a technique for a unique identification system – it was Herschel (1833-1917) who progressed the time-line accuracy of the fingerprint and managed – from an inky image of Konai’s hand in 1858 – to take this potential to its destined use as a detecting tool. It was adopted by Scotland Yard with the support of the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Edward Henry in 1901 and now, what Herschel liked to call his “weapon of penetrating certainty, ” is used all over the world for crime detection.
Courtesy of Slough History Online