CRIMINAL HISTORY: CRIME IN THE PRESS
Our ancestors may have been convicted of a range of offences – but Nell Darby asks why the press focused on particularly gruesome or bizarre crimes
The Victorian press focused on the most bizarre or shocking crime stories – but what made a story newsworthy?
His house was called Sunnyside, but in it, a dark murder had taken place
Many of us will have had ancestors who were the black sheep of their families – those who stole from their employers, or who beat their partners up, or even committed murder. But although a lot of crimes warranted merely a few lines in the local paper, suggesting that the offences were fairly common and thus not very newsworthy, others attracted far more attention.
The Victorian and Edwardian press was particularly interested in bizarre or gruesome crimes. One case that occurred in 1904 was described in the Dundee Courier as ‘a sensational crime’, a ‘gruesome and horrible crime’ and, twice, as a ‘bizarre crime’. This was when George Albert Crossman, a ‘short, dark, neatly- dressed man of around 32’, employed a carman to remove a tin trunk from his home at 43 Ladysmith Road in Kensal Rise, London. This trunk was seen as suspicious, so the carman called the police – at which point, Crossman fled. By the time the police caught up with him, he had cut his throat, and died. The trunk was opened, and in it was human remains, embedded in cement, together with some women’s underwear.
This tale had all the markings of a great crime story. Crossman was known to the police and had been in prison before; his house was called Sunnyside, but in it, a dark murder had taken place (blood stains were found on the floor of the back drawing-room, suggesting that this was the murder location). Crossman had let out some of the rooms in the house, and the tenants had noticed a ‘very unpleasant’ smell coming from the box, which was in a cupboard. One tenant had, in fact, said to his landlord, “What on earth are you doing there, old man? Have you got a dead body in there?” and insisted on Crossman removing the foulsmelling box from the house.
It emerged that Crossman had been married, but his wife had died ten years earlier. The body, however, was estimated to have only been in the box around two months. Crossman had, since being widowed, been advertising in the papers for a new partner – and a letter was found from a woman answering one of his adverts. A previouslymarried woman – possibly, although not necessarily this same person – had come to live with Crossman, but had since disappeared. Eventually, it was determined that this murder victim was one of Crossman’s seven wives – he was a serial bigamist as well as murderer. Ellen Sampson had married him in 1903, and been murdered the day after the wedding. An interesting follow-up came in July 1904, when Crossman’s fourth wife, Edith Caroline, sued his seventh wife, Annie Welsh, for the return of furniture and bedding, and won.
In a similar case in 1894, the story was made even more bizarre in the press’s eyes by the fact that the alleged killer was a woman. Austrian national Marie Hermann, the alias of Marie Stockhausen, was found to have killed an elderly man named Charles
Anthony Stephens, and to have again locked the body in a trunk – this time one stored in a locked spare room in her house central London. 43-yearold Marie had killed the man with a poker following an argument over money – she claimed it was self- defence. However, the police held that it would have taken two people to have got the body into the trunk, and that Marie must have had an accomplice. Marie was described as a respectable woman who had paid her rent regularly – however, the police believed that she had a ‘disreputable avocation’.
In 1897, Englishman Arthur Blatch was arrested in New Zealand in connection with another ‘gruesome’ crime, following the death by beating of clothier Alfred Welch in Colchester. Blatch had been Webb’s porter, and had burned his former employer’s house down after murdering him. The interest in this case arose both from the violence Blatch had subjected Welch to – strangling him, slicing his jugular vein open, and fracturing his skull, before dragging him by a rope to an upstairs room and burning him – and because of the mystery surrounding Blatch himself. He had supposedly been penniless, but had stayed undercover in Britain for some weeks before managing to get out of the country and disappearing for three years. His story caught the imagination of the public to the extent that any mention of him in the newspapers was termed ‘Blatchana’; the story rumbled on until 1901, when Blatch was finally brought over from New Zealand to face British justice – it was then found that there wasn’t enough evidence to convict him, and he was set free. The man brought to court always insisted that he was actually named Charles Lillywhite, and that he was subject to a misidentification. This confusion over his real identity increased the interest in his case.
Why did these particular murders get described as particularly gruesome or bizarre, and merit such breathless coverage in the press? Press and public alike were gripped by certain things. A woman being accused of a violent crime was newsworthy, so Marie’s offence got attention. A bit of mystery never went amiss, and so Arthur Blatch’s long disappearance, and subsequent arrest on the other side of the world, made people sit up. Crossman’s offence, like Marie’s, involved a body being hidden in a trunk, like a magic trick gone wrong – but his chutzpah at being queried about the smell coming from that trunk again made press and public take notice. In an era when penny dreadfuls appealed to all ages for their depictions of a different world – an exciting one where all sorts of strange things happened, well away from the mundanity of everyday life – such extraordinary murders represented this same thrill of excitement, the suggestion being that the ordinary neighbour next door could actually be some dastardly killer.
The public was given ample opportunity to read about these bizarre crimes, not just through regular newspapers such as the Illustrated Police News (founded in 1843) and the Illustrated Police Budget (1893), but also through spinoffs such as Famous Crimes Past and Present, which started in 1903. If you wanted to read all about it – and many people did – you could easily do so… in sensational detail.
Charles Lillywhite denied being Arthur Blatch, and his £600 compensation from the British government suggests he was telling the truth