Strange 19th Century Court Cases

Strange 19th Century Court Cases


XJF872807 Advertisement for the Carbolic Smoke Ball Company, 1893 (engraving) by English School, (19th century); Private Collection; ( Published in “The Illustrated London News”, 10th June 1893); English, out of copyright

Carlill v the Carbolic Smoke Ball Co.

In the 19th century Carbolic smoke bombs were a quack cure for influenza and they were selling like hotcakes in the deadly flu pandemic of 1891 which killed over a million people. The ‘cure’ involved sticking a tube up your nose which was attached to a ball of carbolic acid. The acid made your nose run and that was thought to prevent the flu. The Carbolic Smoke Ball Company were so confident in the quality of their product that they offered a £100 reward to anyone who used a Carbolic Smoke Ball regularly and subsequently got the flu – and it’s worth bearing in mind that £100 is the equivalent of around £12200/$15,861.26 in today’s money.

Mrs Carlill used the Carbolic Smoke Ball religiously, and came down with the flu all the same. The Carbolic Smoke Ball Co. had said in their advertisements, “£100 reward will be paid by the Carbolic Smoke Ball Company to any person who contracts the increasing epidemic influenza colds, or any disease caused by taking cold, after having used the ball three times daily for two weeks” and also added, “£1000 is deposited with the Alliance Bank, Regent Street, showing our sincerity in the matter” but when Mrs Carlill requested her money, they refused to pay up. The court held that they had entered into a valid contract with Mrs Carlill, and ordered them to hand over the money.


R v Dudley and Stephens    

Necessity isn’t always an adequate defence against murder, and that was vividly shown in the case of R v Dudley and Stephens. In 1884, Tom Dudley, Edwin Stephens, Edmund Brooks and Richard Parker were shipwrecked and adrift in a lifeboat 700 miles from the nearest land with no freshwater and only two tins of turnips to eat. This was on the 5th July. By 17th July, they had eaten the turnips and the entirety of a turtle they had managed to catch, and by 24th July, Parker had slipped into a coma. Realising there was no other way to survive, Dudley and Stephens killed Parker, and the three remaining men (including Brooks) resorted to cannibalism in order to survive. On the 29th of July, they were rescued.

When the case was brought to trial, public opinion was highly sympathetic to Dudley and Stephens, to the extent that their defence was paid for by public opinion. At the same time, the judiciary wanted it established that necessity was not a defence for murder. The ultimate outcome of the case was something of a compromise: Dudley and Stephens were convicted of murder, but sentenced to just 6 months in prison.


The Case of the Sleepwalking Killer 

The Victorians had a fascination with the mobile but unconscious female body. Sleepwalkers, or ‘somnambulists’ as the Victorians called them, Male somnambulists may have been news, but they were never Illustrated so vivildy in the pres, even if they performed a tap-dance on the roof of the House of Lords. Pictured somnambulists were all young, female, and scantily clad.

One of the earliest IPN somnambulists was the 17-year-old Clara Dalrymple, from a small village near Glastonbury. She was well known to often go walking in her sleep, but in May 1868, she rose from her bed in her bedroom on the second floor and walked out on a plank that a workman had put between her father’s house and the one opposite. She fell, but her dress caught in a lamp-post and she was saved. Madame Broneau, a French somnambulist, was less fortunate: she fell to her death in Belfast after walking out on the roof.

In 1885, a Kidderminster police constable heard screams from the roof of a house, and he observed a young lady somnambulist, dressed only in her night-shirt, who had got through a window out onto the roof, where she awoke. Her father and the police constable threw her a rope, and she was rescued from her perilous position. Finally, in 1897, somnambulist Miss Charlton took a walk on the parapet of her family’s house in Manchester, with a lighted candle in her hand. Fortunately, she fell only four feet, onto the flat roof of a neighbouring property, and thus survived her ordeal without any permanent harm.

Around 4:30 a.m. on October 27, 1845, the body of Mrs. Mary Ann Bickford (also called Maria Bickford), age 21, was found in a “disreputable” boardinghouse on Cedar Lane in the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Boston. She lay on her back in her nightgown, nearly decapitated, her neck wound measuring six inches long and three inches deep. The room was clogged with smoke; someone had set fire to the bed. A bloodstained razor was found at its foot. The victim’s hair was singed, her skin charred. Part of one ear was split open and missing an earring. A man’s vest and a cane were spattered with blood. Albert Tirrell, who had been seen with the victim earlier that night, was nowhere to be found. One witness spotted him bargaining with a livery stable keeper. He was “in a scrape,” he reportedly said, and had to get away.

He drove south to the house of some relatives in the town of Weymouth, who hid him from police and gave him money to flee the state. The following day he headed north into Canada and wrote to his family from Montreal, announcing his plans to sail to Liverpool. Bad weather forced the crew to turn back, and instead he boarded a ship in New York City bound for New Orleans. After receiving a tip that the fugitive was headed their way, authorities in Louisiana arrested Tirrell on December 5, while he was aboard a vessel in the Gulf of Mexico. Boston newspapers identified the captured man as “Albert J. Tirrell, gentleman, of Weymouth.”

Albert Tirrell and Mary Bickford had scandalized Boston for years, both individually and as a couple, registering, as one observer noted, “a rather high percentage of moral turpitude.” Mary, the story went, married James Bickford at 16 and settled with him in Bangor, Maine. They had one child, who died in infancy. Some family friends came to console her and invited her to travel with them to Boston. Like Theodore Dreiser’s protagonist Carrie Meeber, fifty years hence, Mary found herself seduced by the big city and the sophisticated living it seemed to promise. “While in the city she appeared delighted with everything she saw,” James Bickford said, “and on her return home expressed a desire to reside permanently in Boston.” She became, he added, “dissatisfied with her humble condition” and she fled to the city again, this time for good.

Mary Bickford sent her husband a terse note:

I cannot let you know where I am, for the people where I board do not know that I have got a husband. James, I feel very unsteady, and will consent to live with you and keep house; but you must consent for me to have my liberty.”

James came to Boston at once, found Mary working in a house of ill repute on North Margin Street and returned home without her. She moved from brothel to brothel and eventually met Tirrell, a wealthy and married father of two. He and Mary traveled together as man and wife, changing their names whenever they moved, and conducted a relationship as volatile as it was passionate; Mary once confided to a fellow boarder that she enjoyed quarreling with Tirrell because they had “such a good time making up.”

On September 29, 1845, he was indicted on charges of adultery, an offense the press described as “some indelicacies with a young woman,” and eluded arrest for weeks. After his capture and arraignment, numerous friends and relatives, including his young wife, besieged the prosecutor with letters requesting a stay of proceedings in the hope that he might be reformed. His trial was postponed for six months. Tirrell came to court, posted bond and rushed back to Mary at the boardinghouse on Cedar Lane, where the owners charged exorbitant rents to cohabitating unmarried couples, and where Mary would soon be found dead.

Tirrell retained the services of Rufus Choate, legal wunderkind and erstwhile United States senator from Massachusetts, an antebellum Johnnie Cochran renowned for his velocity of speech. He once spoke “the longest sentence known to man” (1,219 words) and made his mentor, Daniel Webster, weep during a talk titled “The Age of the Pilgrims, the Heroic Period of Our History.” Choate derived much of his courtroom strategy from Webster, drawing particular inspiration from his performance at the criminal trial of a client charged with robbery. Webster’s defense was based on offense; he impugned the character of the alleged victim, suggesting that he’d staged an elaborate sham robbery in order to avoid paying debts. Webster’s alternative narrative persuaded the jurors, who found his client not guilty.

Choate kept that case in mind while plotting his defense of Tirrell, and considered an even more daring tactic: contending that Tirrell was a chronic sleepwalker. If he killed Mary Bickford, he did so in a somnambulistic trance and could not be held responsible. Choate never divulged the genesis of this strategy, but one anecdote suggests a possibility. Henry Shute, who would later become a judge and well-known writer for The Saturday Evening Post, was a clerk in the law office of Charles Davis and William Whitman, two of Choate’s close friends. Choate stopped by often to play chess, and visited one afternoon shortly after agreeing to defend Tirrell. The famous lawyer noticed Shute reading Sylvester Sound, the Somnambulist, by the British novelist Henry Cockton. He asked to have a look. “Choate became interested, then absorbed,” Shute recalled. “After reading intently a long time he excused himself, saying, ‘Davis, my mind is not on chess today,’ and rising, left the office.” It was an unprecedented approach to a murder defense, but one that Choate believed he could sell.

On the first day of the trial, prosecutor Samuel D. Parker called numerous witnesses who helped establish a strong circumstantial case against Tirrell, but certain facets of testimony left room for doubt. The coroner’s physician conceded that Mary Bickford’s neck wound could have been self-inflicted. A woman named Mary Head, who lived near the boardinghouse, testified that on the morning of the murder Tirrell came to her home and rung the bell. When she answered he made a strange noise, a sort of gargle captured in his throat, and asked, “Are there some things here for me?” Mary was frightened by his “strange state, as if asleep or crazy.” The oddest recollection came from Tirrell’s brother-in-law, Nathaniel Bayley, who said that when Tirrell arrived in Weymouth he claimed to be fleeing from the adultery indictment. When Bayley informed him of the murder, Tirrell seemed genuinely shocked.

Rufus Choate allowed one of his junior counsel, Anniss Merrill, to deliver the opening argument for the defense. Merrill began, in homage to Daniel Webster, by maligning Mary’s character, repeating the possibility that she cut her own throat and positing that suicide was “almost the natural death of persons of her character.” Furthermore, Tirrell had been an honorable and upstanding gentleman until he met the deceased. “She had succeeded, in a wonderful manner, in ensnaring the prisoner,” Merrill insisted. “His love for her was passing the love ordinarily borne by men for women. She for a long time had held him spellbound by her depraved and lascivious arts.” It was an argument that resonated with the moralistic culture of early Victorian America, playing into fears about the growing commercialization of urban prostitution. City dwellers who witnessed a proliferation of dance halls and “fallen women” distributing calling cards on street corners could easily be persuaded that Mary was as villainous as the man who had killed her.

Merrill next introduced the issue of somnambulism, what he acknowledged was a “peculiar” and “novel” line of defense. “Alexander the Great penned a battle in his sleep,” he said. “La Fontaine wrote some of his best verses while in the same unconscious state; Condillac made calculations. Even Franklin was known to have arose and finished, in his sleep, a work that he had projected before going to bed.… Evidence will be produced to show that it had pleased Almighty God to afflict the prisoner with this species of mental derangement.”

One by one Tirrell’s family and friends recounted strange ways he’d behaved. He began sleepwalking at the age of six, and the spells had increased in frequency and severity with each passing year. He forcibly grabbed his brother, pulled down curtains and smashed windows, yanked a cousin out of bed and threatened him with a knife. While in this state he always spoke in a shrill, trembling voice. Their testimony was corroborated by Walter Channing, dean of Harvard Medical School, who testified that a person in a somnambulistic state could conceivably rise in the night, dress himself, commit a murder, set a fire and make an impromptu escape.

On the morning of the trial’s fourth day, spectators swarmed the courtroom eager to hear Rufus Choate—that “great galvanic battery of human oratory,” as the Boston Daily Mail called him. He began by ridiculing the prosecution’s case, pausing for dramatic effect after each resounding no:

How far does the testimony lead you? Did any human being see the prisoner strike the blow? No. Did any human being see him in that house after nine o’clock the previous evening? No. Did any human being see him run from the house? No. Did any human being see him with a drop of blood upon his hands? No. Can anyone say that on that night he was not laboring under a disease to which he was subject from his youth? No. Has he ever made a confession of the deed? To friend or thief taker, not one word.”

One stenographer later expressed the difficulty in capturing Choate’s thoughts: “Who can report chain lighting?”

During the last hour of his six-hour speech, Choate focused on the issue of somnambulism, stressing that 12 witnesses had testified to his client’s strange condition without challenge or disproof. “Somnambulism explains… the killing without a motive,” he argued. “Premeditated murder does not.” Here he approached the jury and lowered his voice. The courtroom hushed. “In old Rome,” he concluded, “it was always practice to bestow a civic wreath on him who saved a citizen’s life; a wreath to which all the laurels of Caesar were but weeds. Do your duty today, and you may earn that wreath.”

The jury deliberated for two hours and returned a verdict of not guilty. Spectators leapt to their feet and applauded while Albert Tirrell began to sob, his first display of emotion throughout the ordeal. Afterward he sent a letter to Rufus Choate asking the lawyer to refund half his legal fees, on the ground that it had been too easy to persuade the jury of his innocence.

The Plumstead Ghost

The next case was more a series of cases involving prosecutions for rowdy behaviour, assault, and even commital to an insane asylum. In a story worthy of an episode of Scooby Doo, a group of meddling kids brought in the man masquerading as The Plumstead Ghost.

In October 1897, many people saw a ‘ghost’ flitting about near St James’s Church and school, Plumstead. Sensitive little girls had fainted when the white spectre approached them; some were still in bed, said the Daily News, suffering from nervous exhaustion. A timid schoolmaster had been frightened out of his wits when the ‘Plumstead Ghost’ suddenly grabbed hold of him from behind and shouted ‘Boo-hah!’ at the top of its voice. An old couple visiting the churchyard received a similar shock when the ghost hailed them from a tree, making use of the same uncouth outcry. 
When another schoolmaster was taking an evening walk, he heard rustling in the hedges nearby, and a shout of “Boo-hah!” He had brought with him a large Newfoundland dog, which he set on the spectre. Since the master distinctly heard the ghost give a yelp when the dog’s fangs made contact with its buttocks, he became convinced that the Plumstead Ghost was flesh and blood. He spoke to both masters and schoolboys, asking them not to be fearful, but to teach the ghost a hard lesson if they came across it.
The rowdy schoolboys decided to do just that. One evening, after scouts had reported that the ghost was at large, a troop of schoolboys, a hundred strong, stormed the churchyard. Shouting and yahooing, they pelted the ghost with stones, but without scoring any hits on the absconding spectre. Instead, their missiles broke some valuable stained glass. Pursued by the Newfoundland dog, the ghost was seen to disappear into the hedges.
The schoolboys had been so rowdy that the police arrested two of the ringleaders and brought them to Woolwich, but after the masters had explained the extraordinary circumstances of their riot, they were both discharged. The evening after, the Plumstead Ghost was seen in the grounds of Mr JR Jolly. Arrayed in white attire, and wearing some kind of grotesque mask, the spectre was sitting in a tree, shouting its usual “Boo-hah!” to frighten some female domestics. Mr Jolly was not at all amused: he sent for the police and the ghost was arrested. It turned out that the spectre’s white garb had been torn, and his buttocks badly bruised, from his two encounters with the fierce Newfoundland dog. He turned out to be a local engineer. He was placed under restraint in an asylum, and the Plumstead Ghost was laid to rest.
A Welsh hermit defended by rats, 1879

In January 1879, an old man named Joseph Mason was prosecuted for failing to support his wife, and leaving her chargeable to the Aberystwyth union workhouse. It turned out that he had deserted her and become a hermit up in the mountains, miles above the lead mines of Goginan. After the workhouse had appealed to the Llanbadarn Fawr petty sessions, an officer named Jones was sent out to track down the 70-year-old Mason, described as a former shoemaker. At Goginan, the mountain men directed Jones toward Mason’s abode, far up beyond the old mines and the village. After a good deal of searching, he finally found the hermitage, which was in the most miserable condition. Although the locals had warned Jones not to approach the angry, unpredictable hermit, he bravely opened the door. Looking around the gloomy, unlit interior, he could see a heap of turf on the floor of this wretched dwelling, and also some rags that served Mason as a bed. In a corner, he could only just make out the sinister-looking, hunched old hermit glaring at him.But there was something else – an army of large rats scurrying about. Jones stamped his foot to scare the rodents away, but instead they attacked him, leaping up and biting at his trousers. Having received the shock of his life from the furious rodents, Jones was put to headlong fright. According to the Welsh mountain men, the old hermit had “tamed and trained his strange companions during his sojourn in the mountains, and encouraged them into his house.” Since Joseph Mason was on the verge of starvation himself, the charge against him was dismissed. It does not seem to have occurred to any person that perhaps he was in need of some help himself, sitting alone in his wretched hermitage above Goginan, with only his rats for company.

The Case of The Female Errand Boy

In January 1886, a cheeky-looking young lad who gave his name as Dick Schick was employed as an errand-boy by Messrs Goodman & Davis, the Oxford Street tailors. Dick said that he was 15 years old, and that since his mother’s work as a furrier could not support the family, he decided to get a job himself. Dick seemed an honest and upright young lad, and although he had a fondness for drinking and smoking at various pubs, his partying habits did not differ much from those of other young London errand-boys. But worryingly, various garments started disappearing from the tailor’s shop. Another boy was dismissed on suspicion, but the thefts continued. One day, Mr Davis saw that the dapper-looking Dick Schick was wearing a pair of trousers and a waistcoat made from his own stolen material.

After being fired by Goodman & Davis in June 1886, Dick quickly secured another job as an errand-boy, this time for the respectable glover Frederick Noble Jones, of Burlington Arcade. When gloves and other garments started disappearing, Dick became a suspect. This time, the cunning Dick wrote an anonymous note blaming another boy, but after this individual had been dismissed, the thieving continued. One day in October, Mr Jones got the idea to compare the anonymous letter with some of Dick’s handwriting; they were an excellent match. The police raided the Schick lodgings and found some of the missing garments, along with 40 pawn tickets for other items of clothing. This was not the only noteworthy discovery of the day, however; when examined by a doctor, ‘Dick’ turned out to be a woman. The 20-year-old Miss Lois Schick had successfully masqueraded as a 15-year-old London errand-boy for nearly a year.

There was a good deal of writing about the ‘female errand-boy’ in the London newspapers. Motivated by a mixture of sensationalism and vague proto-feminist sentiments, the rabble-rousing editor WT Stead tried to put a spin on the ‘Dick Schick’ case: was it not a shame that young women were so discriminated against, and had young Lois Schick not been forced by poverty to don male attire? Some other newspapers followed suit, calling young Lois a brave lass, who had just wanted to get a job and support her family. In an interview, Mrs Schick praised her daughter for helping to save her younger siblings from starvation. There was even a Schick Relief Fund, organized by the solicitor Bernard Abrahams; in its first week, it collected £10.

When Lois Schick was charged with theft at the Marlborough-street police court on October 13 1886, she seemed quite undeterred by having to wear her male attire in court. The momentum was clearly against her, however: in relentless testimony, her career of dishonesty was exposed. In particular, it was considered ‘not cricket’ that this artful young woman had twice successfully framed other errand-boys for the thefts, causing them to be dismissed from their jobs. An uncharitable clergyman pointed out that the Schick family had been supported by the parish for some time, that Lois’ younger sister Mary had found employment without resorting to cross-dressing, and that Lois had actually posed as ‘a nephew’ for four years or more. At the Middlesex Sessions, Lois Schick was sentenced to eight months in prison with hard labour, for stealing articles to the value of £75.

Why would Lois have chosen to live as a boy? Quite apart from the obvious gender issues surrounding many transvestites of the era, they got paid more, had more freedoms than their female counterparts, and as poor people the males were not sexually preyed upon  to the extent girls were.





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Books: Daniel A. Cohen, Pillars of Salt, Monuments of Grace: New England Crime Literature and the Origins of American Popular Culture, 1674-1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993; Silas Estabrook, The Life and Death of Mrs. Maria Bickford. Boston, 1846; Silas Estabrook, Eccentricities and Anecdotes of Albert John Tirrell. Boston, 1846; Edward Griffin Parker, Reminiscences of Rufus Choate: the Great American Advocate. New York: Mason Brothers, 1860; Barbara Meil Hobson, Uneasy Virtue: The Politics of Prostitution and the American Reform Tradition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.