Crime has been an everpresent aspect of society and although the way that criminals have been punished has changed a great deal over the years, many of the crimes have not.
It is often intriguing to read about criminals who plied their trade at a time when the local police force was still in its infancy, back in Victorian times, when the urban landscape was a higgledy-piggledy affair of back-to-back houses and narrow, muddy streets, cobbled ginnels, and the location of factories, foundries and coal mines had no apparent plan.
The most famous of all Victorian criminals was of course Jack the Ripper who stalked the streets of Whitechapel in London in the 1880s, preying on women of the night. He was never identified and a great mystery has built up around his horrific crimes.
Here in the Black Country we have had our fair share of murderers, but it was the common criminal, so to speak, the thief or the burglar, who often captured the headlines of the local newspapers, and Bugle reader Stan Hinks from Walsall has provided us with details that were reported in March 1860 of a certain female imposter who carried out a series of well planned house robberies in Dudley and its neighbourhood, but when detected always displayed fits and insensibility to disguise her guilt.
“In Dudley she gave the name of Elizabeth Gwilliams, but she has assumed the names of Allcroft, Williams, and half-a-dozen other aliases. She is 26 years of age, florid complexion, and of a respectable appearance. She represents herself as the wife of a man named Thomas Allcroft, who is now suffering imprisonment in Stafford Gaol for horse stealing. In various parts of the district she has committed petty robberies, but has generally managed to escape. The authorities at Walsall, Wednesbury and Tipton, are well acquainted with her, although no one could ever tell for long where she resided – so strictly nomadic was she in character and habits. The cognomen of ‘the female Jack Sheppard’ was given to her in consequence of an attempt she once made to get out of the Walsall Borough Gaol by climbing up the chimney, and by that cognomen she is well known at Stafford, where she has been incarcerated six times. A gentleman who occupies a high judicial position in the district once endeavoured to reclaim her by offering her every inducement to alter her course of life; but he entirely failed.
“Subsequently to being confined to Walsall Gaol, and in consequence of it being supposed that she was really afflicted with some malady or other, she was sent to the workhouse. Pauper life, however, didn’t suit her, and ultimately she escaped out of a third story window by tying some of her bed clothes together, and thus letting herself down. She was then almost in a state of nudity, only having one of the blankets by which she had descended to cover herself with.
“Various robberies have come to the knowledge of the police, most of them committed in the morning, after the master of the house had gone to work, and probably left the door unfastened; but the first robbery actually brought home to the prisoner in Dudley was one at the house of Mr Beardsmore, a cooper, at Shaver’s End, on the morning of the 30th ult. Mrs Beardsmore had heard the door tried before, but on this occasion she opened the window, and looking out, saw the prisoner – dressed as a widow – running into the water closet. Mr Beardsmore immediately went to her place of hiding, and as soon as she saw him she began her old trick, and fell down, apparently into a fit of insensibility. These fits were often accompanied with the effusion of blood from the nose and mouth, which the prisoner very effectually produced by pricking the inside of her nose with pins.
“On the occasion referred to Mr Beardsmore thought she was really ill, and consequently took her into the house and behaved very kindly to her. Eventually Police-constable Crane – who had been an active officer in the matter – took the prisoner into custody, and lodged her in the police station. Upon searching her a watch and various pawn tickets were found upon her; but, as she still remained in the fit she commenced at Mr Beardsmore’s, she was sent to the Union.
“As Police-constable Cowell was taking her thither in a cab, he observed her covering her face with her dress, but did not interfere. When she uncovered her face it was found that she had been pricking her nose again, and she was consequently bleeding as usual.
“While at the Union she recovered. In her boots were found various other pawn tickets relating to articles which had been stolen. The House Surgeon to the Workhouse said there was nothing the matter with her, and she was an impostor, as did also W.E. Johnson, Esq., surgeon.
Accordingly she was sent away from the Union back to the police station. Here she began again to go into fits, and appear insensible. Tickets were found upon her for two watches stolen from the house of John Evans, a butty collier of Netherton, and one watch was found upon her.
She was informed that there were various charges of robbery against her and that she would be brought up before the magistrates and promised to go through her examination quietly.
On Wednesday last she was brought before A.B.
Cochrane and J.K. Swindell, Esqrs., and in order that she might be kept quieter it was arranged that the case should be heard in the Chief-Superintendent’s office. As soon, however, as the policeman showed himself at the door of the cell, with the intention of taking her before the Magistrates, she fell down into another fit, and remained rigid, and to all outward appearance insensible – despite various attempts to rouse her – until the Magistrates were compelled to leave without starting the case, remanding it to the following Monday. When the Magistrates were gone she suddenly recovered, and told Chief Superintendent Burton that as she knew the worst she would not practice those tricks any more. On the Friday therefore she was taken before Captain Bennitt, W.
Haden, and F.G.W. Barrs, Esqrs., and examined on various charges of robbery from different houses. She carried out her promise not to go into any more fits, and displayed a great deal of acumen in crossexamining the witnesses. She had evidently been taking minute notice of everything which had been done with her when she was in her assumed fits, and although she had apparently her eyes shut at those times, she recollected nearly everything that had taken place.
“Ultimately she was committed for trial on three separate charges of robbery – from the house of Mr Evans of Netherton; Mr Francis of Abberley Street; and from the house of Mr Hartland of Highside. She left the court vowing that, if possible, she would make her escape from Worcester Gaol.” lHave you uncovered any criminal elements in your family tree? Send your stories to the usual address.