The brutal murder of a young girl in 1876 shocked the northern town of Blackburn, and its baffled police force seemed powerless to apprehend the killer. Enter an unlikely saviour in the form of Morgan the bloodhound... JAN BONDESON recounts an exploit of canine crime-fighting and “wonderful sagacity”.
The brutal murder of a young girl in 1876 shocked and scandalised the northern town of Blackburn, and its baffled police force seemed powerless to apprehend the killer. Enter an unlikely saviour in the form of Morgan the bloodhound... JAN BONDESON recounts an exciting exploit of canine crime-fighting and “wonderful sagacity”.
On 28 March 1876, the seven-year-old Emily Agnes Holland told her friends at St Alban’s School in Blackburn, Lancashire, that she had just met a nice man, for whom she would run some errands. She came home from school and went out to play, but then was nowhere to be found. After her father, the mechanic James Holland, of 110 Moss Street, had gone to the police, the relevant parts of Blackburn were thoroughly searched, but without anything coming to light. On 30 March, Mrs Alice White, of 73 Bastwell Terrace, was alerted by a neighbour’s child, who had found a strange parcel in a field, wrapped in newspaper. A dog was sniffing around nearby, as if interested in its contents. Mrs White was horrified when she opened the parcel and found the trunk of a small girl, the head, arms and legs having all been severed by the murderer.
An extensive search was made, in the hope of finding the remaining body parts, but without any success. However, a witness named Richard Fairclough had seen a man behaving suspiciously in a lane at Lower Cunliffe. He later found a parcel containing two severed legs, perfectly matching the trunk discovered earlier. Dr William Maitland, the local police surgeon, examined the body parts. He found evidence that the little girl had been violated before she was murdered. A strong, sharp knife had been used for the mutilation. The trunk and the legs had been wrapped in old copies of the Preston Herald, and it interested Dr Maitland that the newspapers were covered with hair. He was curious to find that it was most likely human hair, of different lengths, colours and textures, all mingled together. Now who would have access to the hair of so
Who would have access to the hair of so many different people?
many different people? Was the murderer a barber?
“WHO MURDERED LITTLE EMILY?”
The coroner’s inquest was opened on 31 March at the Blackburn Town Hall. The murder and mutilation of a blameless little girl had outraged the people of Blackburn, and a large and excited crowd gathered outside. James and Elizabeth Holland, the parents of Emily, identified the body as hers, from a mark on the back, although the head was still missing. Alice White and Richard Fairclough described how they had found the body parts. Mary Ellen Eccles, a little girl attending the same school as Emily, had heard her say that she was going for half an ounce of tobacco for a man she had met in the street. This individual had worn a billycock hat, a mixed cloth coat, a yellow waistcoat, dirty fustian trousers, and wooden clogs. Mr Potts, the Chief Constable, said that in his opinion, the murderer was most probably a tramp, but the coroner objected that tramps do not often carry newspapers around with them. Three tramps had already been arrested on suspicion, and later discharged. The inquest was adjourned for a week.
The police had two witnesses who had seen the murderer: two little girls aged eight and nine, who vaguely described him as a scruffy-looking tramp. A man named Charles Taylor, a vagabond who had been begging in the Moss Street area of Blackburn, roughly matched their description, so he was arrested, and the police could proudly announce that they had a suspect in custody. Due to the suspicions of Dr Maitland, the police also took an interest in the local barbers. It was noted that one of them, William Fish, of 3 Moss Street, had a pile of old Preston Heralds in a corner. Fish was a man of low repute, who had been in a workhouse as an adolescent and had two previous convictions for larceny; he was 25 years old and married with two children.
Someone suggested that dogs should be employed to search the barber’s shops
Although Fish was not charged with murder, the local residents had strong suspicions about him. His business boomed as a result, since many people came to see him as a curiosity. As the singing barber warbled “Tomorrow will be Friday, and we’ve caught no fish today…”, a chorus of guttersnipes outside sang back “Yah boo! Barber, barber, who killed the girl?” and “Emily, Emily, who murdered little Emily?” When a woman entered his shop, to stand staring at him, the startled barber asked what she had come for. “To see a murderer!” she responded. In the end, Fish had to ask for police protection against the angry locals who kept harassing him.
When the coroner’s inquest was resumed on 7 April, the tramp Charles Taylor had just been discharged due to the lack of evidence against him. Several schoolgirls had seen the man who lured Emily away, but none of them could describe him properly. The tobacconist Frederick Cox testified that he had sold half an ounce of tobacco to a little girl matching the description of Emily Holland on the day she disappeared. The inquest was once more adjourned. The police kept looking for tramps, and more local vagabonds were arrested, although nothing could be found to incriminate them. After several weeks had passed, the newspapers began to express critical sentiments: were the police entirely baffled, and would the murderer escape scot-free? But the Blackburn police found an unexpected ally: a man named Peter Taylor, of 72 Nelson Street, Preston, who was the handler of two dogs: the half-bred bloodhound Morgan, and also a clumber spaniel. These two animals were employed to search the area where the trunk and legs had been found, in the hope of finding the arms and head, but without the desired result.
MORGAN MAKES GOOD
Some bright individual suggested that the dogs should also be employed to search the two barber’s shops in Moss Street. In the first shop, nothing incriminating was found, so the animals were taken to Fish’s shop at No 3. Morgan led the way into the back of the shop, where he stood scenting by the door to the stairs. When the door was opened, both dogs galloped upstairs. Morgan first sniffed at some clothes in the back room, but then ran into the front room with a howl, sniffing at the fireplace and thrusting his head up it. “There is something here!” cried Mr Taylor, and after the dog had been pulled away, Emily Holland’s burnt skull and arms were found thrust up the chimney, wrapped in her remaining clothes. This was the earliest instance in Britain where a dog had been instrumental in solving a murder.
Fish initially denied all involvement in the murder, but he eventually made a full confession. After abducting and raping Emily Holland in the room above the barber’s shop, he had cut her throat with a razor, and dismembered the body. He had burnt the head and arms in the downstairs fireplace and tried to dispose of them up the chimney in the upstairs room, but only to be thwarted by Morgan’s sagacity. Witnesses among the locals had seen a particularly large fire in the empty barber’s shop, as the murderer tried to destroy the remains of poor little Emily; it was also remarked, with horror and disapproval, that the Blackburn miscreant had later shaved several people with the very same razor he had used to cut Emily’s throat. No motive for the murder ever emerged, apart from perverted lust; Fish denied premeditation, but here he was probably untruthful, since a certain degree of planning had definitely gone into the plans for the disposal of the body.
As Fish was languishing in prison, rumours were buzzing about his parentage, since the good burghers of Blackburn thought that such a dastardly murderer and child-ravisher must surely be of foreign birth. Some
thought his real name was Fiesch or Fieschi and speculated that he might be related to Giuseppe Marco Fieschi, who had tried to assassinate King Louis Philippe of France. The chapbook Betrayed by Bloodhounds contained an even spicier version of the antecedents of “the monster known as William Fish, the fiendish violator and diabolical murderer of the poor child, Emily Holland”. It was confidently stated that his maternal grandfather was one Jacopo Fiesch, a Corsican who was exiled after taking part in a Bonapartist plot and went to live in London. His widow remarried a wicked Jew named Matamoros, and they took care of the little daughter Marguerite Fiesch, alias Margaret Fish. Matamoros forced Margaret to marry the Italian anarchist Felice Orsini, who was later guillotined for attempting to blow up Napoleon III and his Empress in their carriage. William Fish, their only son, born at Derwen in 1850, had been forced to enter the workhouse after his mother had died from a broken heart.
Unamused by these fantasies gaining credence among the locals, Mrs Elizabeth Fish spoke out to a representative of the
Blackburn Times: her husband was as English as they came, and the son of the block printer William Fish, born at Brinscall near Chorley and dead for 10 years. The murderer William Fish Jr was born at Derwen on 1 April 1851 and christened by the old vicar Robert Cross, known as the ‘Derwen Bishop’. Far from being an only child, he had two brothers and two sisters living, and his father’s twin brother was also still alive, at the age of 75.
William Fish, the Demon Barber of Blackburn, was charged with murder and committed to stand trial at the Lancaster Assizes; he was found guilty and was hanged at Kirkdale Prison, Liverpool, on 14 August 1876. There was as little pity or sympathy for a creature of his description back in 1876 as there would have been today, and there was jubilation in Blackburn as the detested child murderer was launched into eternity. Fish’s final words was a public-spirited appeal to other would-be killers: “I wish to tell you, while you have a chance, to lead a new life. You can see my bad end through breaking off Sunday-school, and through bad companions. Those were happy days when I attended Sunday-school. After I neglected it I went from bad to worse, and so I have been brought to this sad end. If I had my time over again I would lead a different life. It is not too late for you to mend. Avoid those bad cheap journals on which I wasted so much spare time. May we meet in heaven, through God’s mercy!”
A CANINE PARAGON
As for the half-bloodhound Morgan, he was the hero of the hour. After the police had been entirely baffled, this paragon of canine virtue had brought the murderer to justice and vindicated the blameless memory of little Emily Holland. Although the dog had been handled by Mr Taylor during its crime-fighting exploits and lived with an innkeeper named Thomas Bailey, its rightful owner was Mr James Parkinson, a lamp and oil merchant in Church Street, Preston. And indeed, in a swift dawn raid, Mr Parkinson came to call at Bailey’s beerhouse with a troop of assistants and secured the ownership of Morgan. He explained to journalists that the dog was his: this sagacious animal had been brought up with the greatest of care, and when Parkinson got dressed, he could employ Morgan as his butler, since the dog could fetch his clothes and boots from the wardrobe. Morgan had always been a highly-strung dog, and in his younger years, he had been disposed to attack and bite tramps and other scruffily dressed people. After Morgan had bitten a certain Mr Lamb, Parkinson gave the dog to a man named Spencer, a resident of Bolton, for the animal to be re-educated to abolish his vicious tendencies. But Spencer had illicitly sold the dog to a druggist named Smith for 10 shillings, and Morgan had been handed over to a farmer, and then to Bailey, who had been taking care of the dog for seven months.
Mr Parkinson was offered £200 for Morgan, but he turned this offer down, instead taking £6 an evening from a Blackburn theatre, where the dog was exhibited before the curious. Morgan was petted by the people of Blackburn and Preston, and many stories were told about his wonderful cleverness. Mr Parkinson could employ his dog to fetch various objects from his warehouse to his house, he boasted, and if he had dropped a glove in the market-place, he could send Morgan to retrieve it. A letter to the Dundee Courier praised the public-spirited Mr Parkinson and his wondrous hound: “I also hope that some photographer will give us a picture
portrait of Morgan and that he (Morgan) will get a silver collar with an inscription thereon giving day and date when he, with unwonted display of sagacity, handed over that bloodthirsty Fish to justice.” When Mr Bailey became aware of Morgan’s extensive fame, and the dog’s value to the showmen, he took Mr Parkinson to court at the Manchester Assizes, but Parkinson emerged as the undisputed owner of the famous dog.
After exhibiting Morgan for several months, and milking the valuable animal for all he was worth, Mr Parkinson gave the dog into the care of Mr Spencer, who appears to have been an expert doghandler. In 1881, when the embalmed body of the Earl of Crawford and Balcarres was stolen from the family mausoleum in Dunecht near Aberdeen, Mr Spencer and Morgan were called in to help search for it. Mr Spencer told a newspaper reporter that, apart from his heroism in Blackburn, Morgan had once tracked a pair of poachers for a distance of 17 miles, being instrumental in capturing them. He was optimistic with regard to finding the Earl’s kidnapped body: if it was not too deeply buried, the hound would find it. The Earl’s body was recovered by more conventional means, however, and a local poacher was imprisoned for stealing it.
In June 1884, the body of eight-yearold Mary Cooper was found in shrubbery in Albert Park, Middlesbrough. She had been sexually assaulted, and her throat had been cut. Inspector Swanson, of Scotland Yard, who was put in charge of the case, suggested that the celebrated Morgan should once more be called in as an auxiliary crime-fighter. This time, Mr Parkinson’s son-in-law handled the dog, which was transported from Preston to Middlesbrough on the railway. When led to the shrubbery where the body had been found, Morgan gave a howl, before sniffing around with interest, and seemingly following several tracks. Nothing valuable came of this experiment, however, and the murderer of Mary Cooper was never found.
In 1888, when the newspapers discussed the employment of bloodhounds in the hunt for the elusive Jack the Ripper, Morgan’s great feat of 1876 was mentioned more than once as a sterling example of canine sagacity, but by this time, the celebrated Preston half-bloodhound had himself long since expired.
This article is extracted from Jan Bondeson’s book Victorian Murders (Amberley Publishing, 2017).
JAN BONDESON is a senior lecturer at Cardiff University, a regular contributor to FT and the author of numerous books, including Murder Houses of London (2014) and Strange Victoriana (2016). His latest book, Victorian Murders, is currently available from Amberley Publishing.
LEFT: The murder of Emily Holland, from the Illustrated Police News, 15 April 1876. FACING PAGE: The cover of a rare contemporary pamphlet on the Fish case (reproduced by kind permission of Mr Stewart P Evans).
LEFT: Morgan and the Clumber spaniel rush upstairs.
ABOVE: Morgan sniffs at the fireplace.
BELOW: A portrait of the barber William Fish. All pictures are taken from Famous Crimes Past & Present.
ABOVE: A portrait of William Fish, and other scenes from the Blackburn murder case, from the Illustrated Police News, 6 May 1876.
ABOVE: Front and back of a contemporary cabinet card celebrating Morgan’s great exploit. Note that the dog is not looking very formidable for being a bloodhound cross.