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Old March 16th, 2014, 02:31 PM   #1

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Violent Criminals of Victorian Britain


In the early summer of 1840, three then-notorious criminals did time together in London's famous Newgate Prison. In many respects, their fates were archetypal for violent felons in early Victorian England - one was publicly hanged, another was institutionalized as insane, and the third spent his life as a forgotten exile in Australia. Two of the offenders were cold-blooded murderers, but the third had achieved his thirty seconds of fame by aiming his pistols at a Queen.

On St. Patrick's Day, 1840, John Templeman of Islington was found murdered. Local rumor claimed that Templeman was sitting on a small fortune, and now someone had broken into his house during the night, tied him up and blindfolded him, and then tortured and killed him. Suspicion fell on three individuals, one Richard Gould and a neighboring married couple. Only Gould was formally charged with the murder, however, and he was acquitted due to the lack of physical evidence. Gould was a careless man, however; not long after his release, a policeman tricked him into describing his role in the crime. Gould was arrested, and this time was charged with burglary.

Nearly two months later, another murder occurred, but this one scandalized the highest elements of British society. Lord William Russell was found in bed on May 6th, 1840, with his throat cut; suspicion immediately fell on his Swiss butler, Francois Courvoisier. Despite his charming professions of innocence, the case against him grew when it was discovered that he had stashed valuables belonging to his former employer, within his own room. The Russell Murder left the high-born in British society wondering if any of their own servants were capable of thievery - or throat-cutting.

Perhaps the most notorious crime of 1840, however, occurred on June 10th. Eighteen year-old Edward Oxford fired two pistols at a carriage riding up Constitution Hill - a carriage containing the pregnant Queen Victoria, and her young husband, Prince Albert. Albert shielded his wife, and, in a display of royal bravado, the carriage continued on its way, rather than returning to the Palace. Oxford, in the meantime, was swiftly tackled and apprehended. A slight boy of eighteen, he came from a family with a long history of mental illness. He was also of partly African ancestry - which, according to a visiting American abolitionist, spawned a fierce outburst of racist hostility.

Oxford, Courvoisier, and Gould all coexisted in Newgate Prison for much of June. Oxford was amused at all of the attention he was receiving, Gould was caught attempting to escape, and Courvoisier finally confessed to his crime - claiming he had 'fallen under the dominion of Satan' by reading novels that glorified the exploits of historical criminals.

Justice came swiftly for this trio of rogues-cum-celebrities. Gould was found guilty of burglary, but in light of his presumed guilt in the murder of John Templeman, he received a harsh sentence - a life of penal servitude in Australia. Before the end of July, 1840, he was on his way to Sydney, in chains, and destined to be forgotten by history.

Ironically, the would-be regicide probably received the most lenient sentence of the three. Oxford was found insane and sent to an asylum, where he was to spend most of the rest of his life. Finally released in the 1880s, he created a life for himself in Melbourne, Australia, where he married and found work as a house-painter. He died in the spring of 1900, just nine months before the death of Queen Victoria herself.

Francois Courvoisier had became the most infamous of the three, however, and his fate was the cruelest. Sentenced to hang, he was publicly executed at Newgate Prison on July 6th, 1840. Among the 40,000 raucous spectators were at least three celebrities - Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray were present to condemn capital punishment, while the infamous hangman William Calcraft was there to carry it out.

Calcraft was the official hangman of Newgate Prison from 1829 to 1874, and crowds loved him for his cheerful incompetence at his job. Any person hanged by Calcraft was likely to strangle at the end of a short rope. The crowd didn't want to see a quick, clean death with a broken neck, and Calcraft was nothing if not crowd-pleaser. Such was the fate of the Swiss butler who had sliced his employer's throat.

The Victorian Era witnessed the decline and fall of capital punishment as a means of public entertainment. It also witness a rise in literacy, and the subsequent flowering of newspaper journalism. Courvoisier's gruesome and humiliating execution was one of the last of its kind, whereas the comparative humane punishments of Oxford and Gould - along with the extensive media coverage all three received - were trends that would continue throughout this period.

Last edited by Salah; March 16th, 2014 at 02:44 PM.
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Old March 16th, 2014, 06:08 PM   #2

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Not so much "British" criminal history, but more a London local everday event .
This was a few months after the more significant physical force Chartist rebellions. Newport in South Wales in the november and other popular working class uprisings throughout the country (including London) . Two years before the 1842 general strike.


.Newport Chartist rebellion, 1839

Bradford Chartism, 1838-1840 - Alfred James Peacock - Google Books

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Old March 17th, 2014, 02:16 AM   #3

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Oxford always maintained that the pistols contained only gunpowder, and no shots were ever found?

He served time in the notorious Broadmoor for 24 years and was a model patient, learning several languages and wood carving.

Freed upon promise that he would live out his life in the colonies, he eventually died in Australia in 1900.
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Old March 17th, 2014, 05:54 AM   #4

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I think I read in a Gangland of London book that gin consumption in about 1830 for London was 3,600,000 gallons per year whilst the population was 600,000 ish.

6 gallons for every man woman and child - no wonder it was violent. Something to do with there being no clean drinking water but the inherent crime was finally tackled by raising the tax on gin.

Film director Carol Reid paints a grim picture via Dickens in 'Oliver!' which cant be far from the truth.
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Old March 17th, 2014, 09:53 AM   #5

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In "The Fatal Shore" a history of convicts in Australia their is an account of a convict murdering another in a work party because he knew that he would be given tobacco before he was hanged.

There was another of 3 convicts who escaped together and lived in the wild, 2 of them spoke Gaelic the other didn't. One day the man whom didn't speak Gaelic murdered one of the men who did, so as he all conversations would now have to be carried out in English.

Their where many such accounts of violence in the book life was truly brutal in the early days of the convict colony.
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