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Myra Maybelle Shirley Reed Starr (1848 – 1889), better known as Belle Starr, a notorious American outlaw.
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Only one photograph is known to exist of Harriet Staunton, nee Richardson: it was taken to mark the occasion of her engagement at the age of 33 to a hard-up auctioneer’s clerk, Louis Staunton, in 1874. At first glance, she looks like any other woman of her class. Her dress is modestly high-necked; her toque, worn stylishly forward, is lavishly trimmed; her hair, drawn back to reveal the ears, ends in a confection of coiled plaits (these would have been made of “false” hair, which remained fashionable until the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine sounded its death knell in 1876). Examine the image more closely, though, and instinct suggests that all is not as it seems. The woman’s eyelids are heavy and drooping; her smile, stretched like soft leather over bony knuckles, is more grimace than grin. The impression is of a woman who, being not entirely sensible of the world, is only playing the part of excited bride-to-be.
The facts back up one’s instincts. Harriet Staunton had what we would call learning difficulties: her ladylike appearance was the result of dogged coaching by her mother, Mrs Butterfield, who had always made sure her daughter was clean and well turned out, with the result that, in time, Harriet grew to be rather particular about her appearance. Happily, both women could afford to be sartorially indulgent. Harriet’s other advantage in life, besides her devoted and forward-thinking parent, was a legacy of £5,000 (about £500,000 today), courtesy of a great aunt. Though prone to rages and queer moods, Harriet was not confined to home. She loved to make shopping trips, on one of which she must have bought her pretty hat. She also made regular visits to relatives, who sometimes received money for taking care of her, giving her mother a little respite – and it was during one of these, in 1873, that she met Louis Staunton. Thomas Hincksman, the son of Harriet’s aunt, Mrs Ellis, had married a widow, and in doing so had gained two stepdaughters: Elizabeth, 23, and Alice, 15. Elizabeth had recently married an artist, Patrick Staunton; his elder brother, to whom Patrick was passionately devoted, was 23-year-old Louis.
Louis was at this point already deeply in love with his brother’s sister-in-law, Alice Rhodes. But he was also a ruthless fortune hunter and, after only the briefest of courtships, he and Harriet were engaged. Naturally, Mrs Butterfield, who had never expected to see her daughter the object of any man’s desire, was suspicious. But her opposition to the match – at one point, she tried to place her daughter under the protection of the court of chancery as a lunatic – did no good. Harriet, enraged, left her mother’s house to live with Mrs Ellis in Walworth, south London, and it was from there that she was married, on 16 June 1875.
Eager not to lose touch with Harriet, Mrs Butterfield, who did not attend the wedding, called at a house the couple had taken in Brixton three weeks later. This meeting was, she reported afterwards, civil. Soon after, however, she received a letter from Harriet in which she wrote that “her husband objected to my calling upon her, and she thought I had better not come, to prevent any disturbance between them”. She also received a note from Louis: he would not have her in the house again. The next time Mrs Butterfield saw her daughter, in April 1877, she was in her coffin. Like the baby to which she had given birth only months before, Harriet had apparently starved to death while her new relatives – having smoothly banked her cash – looked coolly on.
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Newspaper report on the ‘Whitechapel murderer’ aka Jack the Ripper. The Illustrated Police News, 1888
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Mary McDonald prisoner number 2424, convicted of theft in 1873
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Christiana Edmunds was a respectable young woman who moved to Brighton in the 1860s. In 1869, she met and fell in love with Dr Charles Beard, a married man whose surgery on Grand Parade was not far from her home in Gloucester Place. Their romance is said to have lasted about a year, during which time they exchanged love letters, but in the summer of 1870, Dr Beard ended the affair.
Soon after, Christiana visited the doctor’s wife Emily, bringing a gift of chocolate creams. After eating one, Mrs Beard was sick and her husband, suspecting foul play, banished Christiana from their home. He said nothing to the police, however. People in the town continued to fall ill after eating sweets or chocolates, though none were seriously affected until four-year-old Sidney Barker died in June 1871. The chocolates he had been given were found to contain strychnine (a form of pesticide), but a verdict of accidental death was recorded.
Despite this tragedy, the poisonings continued. Prominent families were targeted and even Christiana herself claimed to have been a victim. The police had no leads and no way of reassuring the public, until Dr Beard told them of his suspicions. Christiana was arrested and charged, first with the attempted murder of Emily Beard and later with the murder of Sidney Barker.
The trial began in Brighton, where it caused a sensation, and was moved to the Old Bailey in January 1872. Witnesses came forward to testify that Christiana had sent children to buy chocolates from Maynard’s, a well-known confectioner in West Street; she then injected them with poison and returned them to the shop, claiming they were not what she required. Her goal was to kill Mrs Beard but, to divert attention from herself, she was obviously prepared to risk the lives of many others.
The Victorians were fascinated with tales of true crime and Christiana’s story contained all the key ingredients – criminality and passion, deceit and disguise, beneath a veneer of respectability. Dubbed ‘the chocolate cream poisoner’, she was found guilty of murder and, declared insane, was sent to Broadmoor, then a criminal lunatic asylum. Vain, coquettish and apparently showing no sign of remorse, she remained there until her death in 1907.
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The Ancoats scuttler Alexander Pearson, pictured in 1892.
In the 1880s – as today – gangs were clustered in areas of chronic poverty, unemployment and ill-health. Neighbourhoods renowned for their gangs, such as Ancoats and the Greengate quarter of Salford, were hotbeds of tuberculosis too: a map compiled by a Manchester physician to show the districts worst affected in 1887 might have served equally well as a map of gangland. Fifty per cent of families in a sample district in Ancoats were classified as “very poor” in 1889. With household incomes of less than four shillings per adult per week, they were “always face to face with want”. For many young men growing up in Bengal Street, gang membership offered one of the few available sources of status, excitement and – in the eyes of their peers, at least – respect.
In a stark parallel with present-day responses to gangs, scuttlers were routinely demonised by politicians and sections of the press. Victorian gang members were derided as ruffians, brutes, barbarians, savages and “juvenile terrorists”. To Justice Wills, pronouncing sentence on Owen Callaghan in 1887, they were “like different tribes of wild Indians … with apparently no other motive than a ferocious love of fighting”.