Sunday, February 27, 2011

March 5, 1896 --- The Case of Adolf Beck

Adolf Beck is sentenced to seven years in prison for defrauding a fashionable London prostitute. While a rather petty crime, the case of Adolf Beck would not be settled for nine years. Over that time, the public was treated to numerous sensational revelations and the British courts would be reformed.

In December, 1895, Mme. Ottiline Meissonier had charged that a gentleman, claiming to be related to Prime Minister Salisbury, invited her to the Riviera. He wrote her a check to purchase a suitable wardrobe and took from her several rings, bracelets, and watches which he said he would exchange for finer pieces. Not surprisingly, he never returned; the check was worthless and Mademoiselle was out her jewelry. Weeks later, on Victoria Street, she spotted Adolf Beck and shouted, "I know you." Beck, to his ultimate regret, ran but could not evade a policeman.

The consequent publicity brought forth 23 other women, all victims of the same ruse, ten of whom identified Beck. Adolf Beck was a Norwegian born adventurer of sorts whose life had included stints as an opera singer in Paris and war profiteer in South America. Shortly after Beck's arrest, Scotland Yard - relying on an anonymous tip - accused him of being the John Smith who was jailed in 1877 for the same scheme.  They had convincing handwriting samples to back the claim. At his trial, Beck vainly insists he had been in Peru in 1877. Protesting his "absolute innocence," Beck is nonetheless found guilty on ten counts.

His lawyer, T.D. Dutton, doggedly pursued the case. In 1900, he found proof that "John Smith" was one Wilhelm Mayer who, although he bore some resemblance to Beck, was a circumcised German Jew. Beck is uncircumcised. In the photo here (of their faces!), Beck is the gentleman at the top; Smith/Mayer below.  Public pressure now coaxed the Home Office to grant Beck a reluctant parole in 1901. Almost immediately, inconceivably, the frauds began anew. Beck was re-arrested and again ID'd as the con man. Only two days before Beck was to stand trial anew, John Smith/WilhelmMayer fell into the clutches of the law at last. He was nicked hocking jewelry at a pawn shop.

In 1904, Beck received a King's pardon and £4000 pounds for his troubles. He was broke and dead within five years. His treatment - and similar cases of suspect verdicts - led to the creation of Britain's first-ever Court of Criminal Appeal.

March 4, 1869 --- A Literary Tea

Shortly after the publication of the Queen's Balmoral memoir Leaves From the Journal of Our Life in the Highlands, she takes five o'clock "pink tea" with the literary intelligentsia. The setting is the Deanery at Westminster Abbey.  Dean Henry Stanley and his wife, Lady Augusta are dear friends of HRH. 

For the Queen, who could hardly be described as an intellectual and whose tastes in reading were decidedly middle-brow, this is entirely new territory. In her journal, she concedes, "It was, at first, very shy work speaking to them." She notes meeting Robert Browning ("a very agreeable man") and, less successfully, Thomas Carlyle ("a strange looking eccentric old Scotchman.") The 74-year old Carlyle insists upon sitting in the Royal presence, citing his age and infirmity; the Queen, unruffled, asks all to take a seat. A third guest is the eminent Sir Charles Lyell, whose three-volume Principles of Geology was not likely to be on the Queen's reading table.

Browning recalls, "We took tea together and pretended to converse." At one point, the Queen and Carlyle cross swords on the question of poverty in London; the "Chelsea sage" insists that there is "very little unavoidable and involuntary" destitution, which Victoria "unhappily" denies, claiming there is "widespread evidence of poverty, produced by misfortune." Carlyle writes to his brother, "Sacred Majesty was very good; thing altogether decidedly insignificant, ditto tiresome."

There is one embarrassing moment as Victoria asks Browning if he had written anything recently, apparently unaware that he had just published his epic poem, The Ring and The Book. The gaffe notwithstanding, Browning leaves impressed, recalling the Queen's parting handshake, he writes, "I have seen, felt and through white gloves, handled a true affectionateness not unmingled with awe." Carlyle is not so romantic, noting how "Little Queen Victory... sailed out as if moving on skates, and bending her head towards us with a smile."

March 3, 1890 --- Charge of a Cover-Up

In the House of Lords, the Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, denies obstructing justice in the seamy Cleveland Street Scandal (see 16 January). Such allegations, he insists, are the product of "the wildest and most malignant imagination." The PM, no doubt, refers specifically to Henry Labouchere MP (left) who had been suspended from the House of Commons for declaring in debate, "I do not believe Lord Salisbury."

In both his newspaper, Truth and on the Commons floor, "Labby" had claimed the existence of "a criminal conspiracy by the very guardians of public morality ... with the Prime Minister at their head." He stopped short of pointing an accusatory finger at the Prince of Wales, whose trusted equerry is at the center of the scandal. Lord Arthur "Podge " Somerset, son of the Duke of Beaufort and manager of the Prince's stables, was reportedly a frequent visitor to the iniquitous establishment. At first, the loyal Prince refused to believe it. He told friends he'd find charges against the Archbishop of Canterbury more believable.

But, as the evidence mounted, the wheels of power turned and Somerset could be protected no longer.  The young Lord managed to absquatulate for France the night before a warrant was issued for his arrest. Labouchere claimed Somerset had been tipped off.  He said it was done to silence a scandal that "would deal a blow to the reign of the classes and to the social influence of the aristocracy."

The uproar prompted by Labouchere's implication that the PM had lied all but forced Salisbury to address the question in the Lords. He admits meeting with General Dighton Probyn, the Prince's counsel and "fixer." Salisbury insists "I certainly conveyed no secrets ... for the best of all possible reasons, that I had no secrets to convey." Yet, it was known to all that Probyn had left that meeting to meet with Lord Somerset, who fled within hours. History records more damning evidence: there is a private note that Lord Salisbury received from the Prince expressing thanks for allowing Somerset - a man he now conceded was "an unfortunate lunatic" - to slip away, rather than face "this awful charge."

As for "Podge," he settled on the French Riviera where he remained until his death in 1926. He never returned to England.  The warrant for his arrest was never withdrawn.

March 2, 1882 --- An Attempt on the Life of the Queen

A deranged gunman fires upon Queen Victoria at Windsor railway station. The Queen and her daughter, Princess Beatrice, had just returned by rail from London.  The Queen had just taken a seat in her waiting carriage.  The assailant can get off but one errant shot before he is subdued by an angry crowd, including several boys from nearby Eton. One of the valiant lads pummels the would-be assassin with his umbrella until Inspector Fraser of the Royal Household Police "bade him desist."

The royal carriage is hastily removed from further danger. In fact, although the Queen heard a loud report, she was unaware of the attempt on her life. In her journal, she recalled: No one gave me a sign to lead me to believe anything amiss had happened. [The indispensable John] Brown however, when he opened the carriage, said, with a greatly perturbed face, though quite calm, "That man fired at Your Majesty's carriage."
Safely back at Windsor, she repairs to Prince Albert's mausoleum to offer prayers of thanks.

The "young wretch" is identified as Roderick Maclean, an unemployed grocer's clerk from Portsmouth. A would-be poet, his unsolicited verses to the Queen had been returned unopened. In his pockets, police find not poetry, but a letter in which he raves about, "Those bloated aristocrats ruled by the old lady, Mrs. Vic., who is a licensed robber in all senses." Maclean had spent several years in an asylum after a head injury left him rather witless. In late 1881, his "mad doctors" had declared him cured and ordered his release, although they admitted Maclean remained terrified of the number 4 and anyone wearing blue clothing.

Found not guilty, but insane," Maclean is bundled off back to the asylum. A few days after the shooting, the Queen hosted ceremonies for 900 Etonians in the Castle quadrangle, shaking hands with the boys who helped thrash Maclean. Victoria received thousands of congratulatory messages, several from America where President Garfield had been slain the previous year - ironically, shot down in a railway station.  The Queen noted in her diary, "It is worth being shot at to see how much one is loved."

March 1, 1842 --- Death of a Rake

One of the last of the Regency rakes, Francis Charles Seymour-Conway, third Marquis of Hertford, dies, at Dorchester House, Park Lane.

Near 65 at his death, Hertford had lived a life of what the diarist Charles Greville called "undisguised debauchery." In fact, he passed away only days after a whorish orgy at an inn in Richmond. He lived openly with the former maid of his ex-mistress. According to Greville, the mistress (one Lady Strachan) left the Marquis once "his habits became ... so ostentatiously crapulous that her residence in his house ceased to be compatible with common decency."  Hertford's valet, Nicholas Suisse, was both pimp and procurer, supplying the aging satyr with young people of both sexes. In his final years, Hertford was grossly fat, swollen with gout, infected with venereal disease and given to slurred, foul speech.

The Marquis' few remaining friends blamed his extraordinary conduct on "a diseased brain," but Greville's verdict stands: 
"Without a serious thought or kindly feeling, lavishing sums incalculable on the worthless objects of his pleasures, never-doing a generous or charitable action, caring and cared for by no human being [he was] surrounded to the last by a venal harem who pandered to [his] disgusting exigencies."
Seeing the long line of carriages which followed the Marquis' cortege to the graveyard, including that of, of all people, the abstemious Prime Minister Peel, the Duke of Bedford wrote, "What is this use of character and conduct in this world?"

Hertford survives in Victorian literature, serving as Thackeray's model for the leering Lord Steyne in Vanity Fair, and Disraeli's dissipated Lord Monmouth in his novel Coningsby. The Marquis leaves an estate estimated at £2,000,000, much of it in priceless art. The 4th Marquis and, in turn, his illegitimate son, Sir Richard Wallace, expanded the collection. Considered one of the world's finest private art collections, it is now on public display at Hertford House, London. The family's official biographer concedes that long dead collector had lived "engulfed in a swirl of nauseating pleasures," but reminds us "When we feast our-eyes at the Wallace Collection, we must not forget that we owe much of our pleasure to the 3rd Marquis of Hertford.'

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

February 28, 1874 --- "The Claimant" Goes to Jail

Ending seven years of legal wrangling and following a ten-month trial (still England's longest), the infamous Tichborne Claimant is found guilty of perjury and sentenced to 14 years in jail. The Pall Mall Gazette argued for the noose.  The Daily Telegraph noted: "It seems at first sight wonderful that the Tichborne Claimant should ever have found a single adherent or follower."

All Britain had suffered from "Tichbornitis", fiercely arguing whether the man was "butcher or Baronet."  From our standpoint in the post-DNA world, the claim appears ludicrous. The background: Sir Roger Tichborne was lost at sea off South America in 1854. His mother persisted in hope, advertizing around the world for news of her son. In 1866, a man claiming to be Sir Roger arrived from Wagga Wagga, Australia, and Lady Tichborne - to the amazement of her incredulous family -- accepted him as the son she hadn't seen in a dozen years. Guardians of the Tichborne estate did not and a suit in Chancery was begun in 1867. 

In March, 1872, after a 26-day(!) closing statement from the Attorney-General, a jury found against the Claimant, who was promptly indicted for perjury.  The second great trial began in April 1873, covering now well familiar territory.  Was the Claimant really a Wapping butcher's son born Arthur Orton? While steeped in Tichborne lore, the Claimant bore only the slightest physical resemblance to Sir Roger and was missing a documented tattoo. Further, despite Roger's public school education, the Claimant could not tell Latin
from Greek.

Pity the jurors. The Claimant's counsel took six weeks to sum up his case, the prosecution took two weeks and Chief Justice Cockburn's jury charge consumed the entire month of February. After all that, the exasperated jury takes less than a day to find that the Claimant had indeed falsely sworn.

He was denounced from all sides; The Standard called him "the most audacous rascal that ever devised a scheme to delude a nation," and The Times cheered at the exposure of such a "low-born, illiterate, vulgar scoundrel."

The legal battle had drained the Tichborne estate by £90,000.  Lady Tichborne died before the verdict, still believing her missing son had come home at last.  Orton was freed in 1884.  He became a regular music hall figure, still claiming his inheritance.  He died penniless in 1898.

February 27, 1872 --- Thanksgiving for the Life of the Prince

13,000 people squeeze into St. Paul's Cathedral for a service of Thanksgiving in appreciation for the recent recovery of the Prince of Wales from typhoid. Thousands more line the streets for the procession from Buckingham Palace; a great roar is heard when the Queen, at Temple Bar, holds her son's hand aloft and then kisses it.

The Prince had fallen gravely ill in October, sickened by foul drains at Londesborough Lodge in Yorkshire where he'd been visiting. Two other members of the party, including the Prince's groom, had died and the Queen had been told that her Bertie's demise could be expected at any time. Her prayer to "spare my beloved child" was answered. In fact, it was on the very anniversary of Prince Albert's death that his son's fever broke. The Prince emerged from delirium to request a Bass ale.

For almost two months, the recuperating Prince remained secluded at his Norfolk estate at Sandringham. So huge are the crowds to welcome him back to London, that many are injured in the crush and an infant is trampled to death. The watchful Press thought the Prince appeared pale and frail but deeply moved. Writing his mother that evening, Bertie admits being "gratified and touched" by the whole day.

The outpouring of emotion comes amid increasing talk of "Republicanism." The Duke of Cambridge believes the public display of affection for the Royal family proves once again that Britain shall remain "a great and powerful monarchical nation." The Queen, who first feared the celebration would overtire her son and degenerate into "merely a show," thought it all "a wonderful demonstration of loyalty." Her lone quibble was that the great Cathedral, which she rarely visited, appeared "dreary and dingy."

An interesting side issue developed over the many claims that it was the power of prayer which saved the Prince. The leading medical journal Lancet felt the need to respond: "While we recognize the hand of Providence, we still claim for modern medical science that she has signally won fresh laurels in the recovery of the Prince of Wales."

(Sketch from The Penny Illustrated Paper)

February 26, 1852 --- The Wreck of the Birkenhead

At two in the morning, the troopship HMS Birkenhead - carrying some 630 souls - runs aground three miles off Danger Point, north of Capetown, South Africa.

A hole is torn in her port side below the paddlewheel and the Birkenhead  founders in twenty minutes. Water quickly fills the forward compartments; dozens of sleeping soldiers are drowned in their berths. The ship carries few lifeboats and, of those, only three are fit for use. The women and children, numbering twenty, are put to sea along with as many men as safety will allow. Others try to swim to shore; in the darkness most find only sharks or treacherous reefs of entangling seaweed. There are 194 survivors.

At the inquest, the legend of the Birkenhead begins. A surviving officer, one Capt. Wright, told how the remaining men - tough young Scots from the 74th Highland Regiment - were assembled in formation on deck and advised by their commanders that there was no hope and the best course is to go down with the ship. And 438 men do, remaining - again, according to legend - in their ranks on deck to the last. Said Wright: "Every one did as he was directed, and there was not a murmur or a cry."

The Times declares that there was "something inexpressibly touching" about it all; a public subscription was launched to honor the "matchless chivalry" of the lost troops. The tragic tale of the Birkenhead soon became a fixture in Victorian schoolbooks: young readers learned how the doomed men "stood, as if on parade, no man showing restlessness or fear, though the ship was every moment going down, down." Other survivors who remembered more pathetic scenes of desperate men scrambling over the sides found it hard to win an audience for their version.

Rudyard Kipling was one of several poets who wrote of the wreck, concluding memorably:
To stand and be still to the Birkenhead drill
Is a damn tough bullet to chew.
(The Wreck of the Birkenhead by Thomas Hemy)

February 25, 1870 --- The Mordaunt Divorce

After ten days of frequently disgraceful testimony, Sir Charles Mordaunt (left) is denied his requested divorce. The highlight of the trial - certainly for the scandal-seeking public - had been the seven minute appearance in the witness box of the Prince of Wales. Appearing decidedly uncomfortable, the Prince denies any impropriety in his relationship with the beautiful, but sadly now quite mad, Lady Harriet Mordaunt.

The Mordaunts had been members of the "Marlborough House Set," so-named for the Prince's London home. Lady Harriet had been frequently unfaithful.   The birth of her first child had been extremely difficult; worse when doctors feared the infant would be blind.  Lady Harriet, whether from panic or madness, went to her husband and confessed everything.  Her lovers had included Sir Frederick "Freddy" Johnstone, one the Prince's best friends.  The gossip in London was that Freddy suffered from a disease which would be passed on to any of his children. Lady Harriet soon became totally deranged and had to be sent to an asylum.

Johnstone, Lord Cole, and others were named in the divorce suit but NOT the Prince.  Still, Bertie's "friendship" with Lady Mordaunt is well known.  In Divorce Court, the Prince admits to writing letters to Lady Mordaunt, including one thanking her for her "very pretty muffetees."  Indeed.  Mordaunt servants had already testified that the Prince made many calls at 6 Chesham Place to visit her ladyship whilst the inattentive Sir Charles was away.  Asked if he and Lady Harriet had been lovers, the Prince answered firmly, "No, never." 

Cheered as he left the court, the Prince's public reputation was nonetheless tarnished. He complained about "gross imputations" in the press; the unfriendly Reynolds Newspaper wonders whether the Queen's successor will have "the tact and talent to keep royalty on its legs and out of the gutter." The Queen was equally displeased. She thought her son's attendance upon a young married woman showed "an amount of imprudence which cannot but damage him in the eyes of the middle and lower classes, which is to be most deeply lamented." For weeks after the trial, the Princess of Wales received sympathetic cheers in her public appearances, while the Prince was frequently hissed.

Yet, Sir Charles is the big loser. Due to his wife's insanity, his divorce plea was denied and it would not be until 1875, after lengthy appeals and with his wife still committed, that he would be granted his divorce.

(Photograph at

February 24, 1857 --- The Victoria Cross

Buckingham Palace announces that 62 veterans of the Crimean War will be the first-ever recipients of the V.C., the Victoria Cross.

Navy Captain William Peel shall receive three, most notably for retrieving a live Russian shell that landed in the magazine of his battery, and racing to throw it over the parapet before it burst and likely would have killed the entire detachment. Four survivors of the "Charge of the Light Brigade" make the list, including Private Sam Parkes. Under heavy enemy fire, Private Parkes fought off numerous Cossack swordsman and saved the life of the Brigade Trumpet-Major who had been shot from his horse.

The medals are handed out in Hyde Park ceremonies that summer. In the shape of a Maltese cross, the first VC's are crafted of metal made from the Russian guns taken at Sebastopol. The Cross is conceived of and designed by Prince Albert, who had urged that it be open to all ranks for "personal deeds of valor" in the face of the enemy. He also proposed "that an annuity (say of £5) be attached to each cross." After the embarrassing Findlater affair (see 31 May) the annuity was significantly increased. The Queen suggested the motto "For Valor" be stamped on the medal rather than "For Bravery," fearing the latter might imply that the great mass of her troops, without VC's, were somehow less brave.

At first glance, the VC fails to impress; The Times frowns: "Never did we see such a dull, heavy, tasteless affair ... [a] most shapeless mass. Valor must, and doubtless will, be still its own reward in this country, for the Victoria Cross is the shabbiest of all Prizes."  Nonetheless, the VC remains the most coveted military honor in Britain, "the proudest honor an Englishman's blood can buy."

February 23, 1885 --- The Man They Couldn't Hang

After the retirement of the "official hangman" Mr. Marwood, (see February 22) Britain struggled to find a sober and competent replacement.  There were many disastrous incidents at the gallows but none more shocking than this day in Devon.  In a display of shocking incompetence, the Exeter hangman fails not once, not twice, but three times to execute a convicted killer.

John Lee, an ex-convict hired out of pity by an elderly spinster, had violently turned on his mistress. 68 year old Emma Keyes was found in her home at Babbacombe, near Torquay, with her head crushed in by a hatchet. A clumsily started fire failed to cover the crime. Lee, covered with blood and reeking of paraffin, was quickly arrested, tried, and condemned.

On the morning set for his execution, Lee walks firmly to the gallows. The burial service is read, the noose placed around his neck, and the lever thrown. Nothing happens. His eyes closed in terror, Lee reopens them "as if from a nightmare." The condemned man is led away while Berry the hangman rechecks the equipment. Lee returns, an onlooker noting the man's attitude of "perfect physical surrender." Again, the deadly contraption fails. Berry even tries jumping up and down on the trap door, to no effect. The eyewitness continued: "It was very evident that [Lee's] spirit was very much broken, and those in charge of the gallows were very nervous." When Lee returns a third time and the machine again fails, he faints in a swoon and must be carried off. All this happening in the space of a half an hour. The hangman blames the problem on weekend rains that had swollen the wood.  He recommends waiting several days for the gallows to dry.

Queen Victoria is horrified, she wires the Home Secretary: "Surely he cannot now be executed? It would be too cruel." Mr. Harcourt agrees, telling the Commons: "It would shock the feelings of everyone if a man had twice to endure the pangs of imminent death." The sentence is commuted to life. Not all agreed; The Times thought it displayed a "lamentable tendency to prefer sentiment to justice." "A Friend of the Murdered Woman" wrote The Times: "It should be announced that, in the future, executions will take place weather permitting." Most anger, however, is directed at the bungling hangman. The Spectator suggests that the Government consider employing a "tranquil, conscienceless, teetotal Chinaman, the nearest approach among man to a machine."

John Lee was now dubbed "The Man They Couldn't Hang." He was freed from prison in 1907 and emigrated to the U.S. where he died in 1933.

February 22, 1864 --- The Flowery Land Mutineers

The streets near Newgate Prison - from Ludgate to Smithfield - are packed with 20,000 people; the London mob drawn to the first mass hanging in half a century. In the apocalyptic prose of The Daily News, the grim "entertainment" of the day produces "an open expression of abandoned depravity and rampant sin [which] has probably not been exceeded since the world began."

Five men, 4 Filipinos and a Turk, will swing for a brutal mutiny aboard the Flowery Land. Capt. John Smith had sailed for Singapore out of London in July. His crew of 19 was almost entirely foreign. Although Smith was supposedly a reasonable master, there was trouble from the outset, Six weeks out, in the waters off Brazil, and fortified with wine looted from the hold, several of the men mutinied. They murdered and savaged the bodies of the only three Englishmen aboard: the Captain, his brother and the first mate. The second mate, the only experienced sailor left, was ordered to head for Buenos Aires. Off Montevideo, the Flowery Land was scuttled. The Chinese cook and cabin boy were left to go down with the ship, the steward was thrown into the sea.

Once ashore, Taffir, the surviving mate escaped from the mutineers and told his horrible story, repeating it at the Old Bailey. 7 men were condemned, two of those respited. The five men march to the gallows, passing their freshly dug waiting graves. Marwood, the legendary Victorian hangman (left), has prepared the ropes.  The raucous crowd falls briefly silent, quiet enough for The Times to report "the gibbet creaked audibly, for the five murderers hung dying side by side."

While no one wept for the condemned, the bloodthirsty crowd disquieted many. The Standard commented, "Vice and crime were holding their Saturnalia, while Folly looked on from dear-bought seats in adjacent windows." The latter a comment on those gentry who paid £75 for a private viewing. The Home Secretary rejected a call for an end to public executions. Sir George Grey conceded that the behavior of some in the crowd may have been, in his word, "revolting," but overall such events do serve a public good.  He told the House of Commons that many of the onlookers "left with impressions that may be salutary." The Times agreed, "It is but natural that a more ... horrible crime than usual should be followed by a more horrible punishment than usual."

Nonetheless, by 1868, Parliament banned public hangings.