Sunday, 29 April 2018

Suicide Note

On the evening of November 1st 1911, Mrs Cole of 33 Stowe Street, Lichfield opened the door to find Master Marshall. The young lad clutched a note marked URGENT which he said had been given to him by a "big boy" earlier that day with instructions not to deliver it until the evening. By now a Mr Griffin, having found a neatly folded jacket and cap on the canal bridge at Shortbutts Lane, had found what he presumed was the owner of the discarded clothing under that bridge having drowned in the canal.

Earlier William Henry Mears, aged just sixteen, had left the offices of Mr C. J. Brown, a solicitor of St John Street, for whom he had worked for the last six weeks. William was the son of a widower but since the death of his mother in Hanley two years earlier had lived with his aunt, Mrs Cole. He had left his employer's offices at 1:30pm that day. When Mrs Cole opened the note she found it contained the following message: "Dear Aunt - I am tired of Lichfield. I am starting with chilblains again and I can't stand it. With best love your broken-hearted nephew, Willie. Give my love to cousin Sarah and all. I have no fault against my aunt. You will find me in the canal up the Birmingham Road. I would sooner die happy than live miserable."

At the subsequent inquest the aunt told of how he had complained of voices in his head and seemed quite stupid. He was deaf in one ear and restless at night. He suffered badly of chilblains the previous year, the discomfort causing him to cut his hand, his ear, feet, legs and arms to rid himself of the torture. With the advent of winter he complained often of how much he feared they would return. It seems he had returned to his aunt's house that afternoon, presumably when he wrote the note. He was seen by his aunt's cook, Louisa Phillips. He brought her a parcel, saying in contained chocolates but when she opened it found it contained shampoo powder. Next to see him was Mr Gilbert who pulled him from the bottom of the canal but he was stone cold.

The coroner in his summing up noted how the note had been dated two days prior to his death but thought this was likely because he had not known the correct date. This seems odd considering how erudite the letter and accurate the punctuation. However he went on to make even more extraordinary comments. Telling of how he had recently sat on another case of a young person committing suicide and wondered if this was not the result of them becoming "overly educated". The coroner also asked if young William had read the newspapers as, if so, could consider this to be further evidence of "a copycat suicide".

Sunday, 22 April 2018

Herbert and Maud Freeman

We have all known couples who should never have been together. A marriage doomed from the onset or two people who should never be seen in the same room together. This is such a story. It culminates in the extraordinary events of September 4th 1911 at Hanch north of Lichfield and near the present-day golf club but had been causing much more than ripples in southern Staffordshire before then.

Herbert Freeman, aged 46, was charged with attempting to kill his wife Maud, aged 33,. They had been living at Craddock's Yard, Wilcox's Entry, Tamworth Street, Lichfield and married on August 8th 1911. To show just how big a mistake this marriage was we need look no further than the wedding reception at the Windsor Castle Inn, Lichfield. The 'happy couple' had fought and fought so bitterly and loudly the landlord had been forced to send for the police who, having failed to quieten them, arrested and charged the couple to appear before the magistrates next day.

Next month things had not improved. They were out on Cannock Chase and called at the Roe Buck Inn, Wolseley Bridge. Here they met none other than Alfred Black, a dreyman from the Lichfield Brewery Ltd, who managed to be convinced how it would be a very good idea to give them a lift back to Lichfield on the back of his float. All seemd to be proceeding surprisingly well until they reached Handsacre when Maud reached out and felt inside Herbert's pocket. He claimed she was trying to rob him, although she claimed it had been a joke. Words were exchanged and then he pulled out a long-bladed knife, threatening to kill both his wife and the driver. Alfred was understandably alarmed but offered to take them to the nearby nursing home at Lichfield when she said she was hurt. They never got further than Hanch Hall, where both passengers alighted and Albert drove away.

Later the police and a doctor travelled to Hanch Hall. Here they found the Freemans lying in a pool of blood. Both had had their throats cut, he quiet dead but she unconscious. She was taken to Rugeley District Hospital where she regained consciousness and babbled incoherently for a while. Maud Shipley, as she had previously been known, was previously married to a workman for the local council until he met with an accident at Lichfield Isloation Hospital in 1910 and died at Birmingham Accident Hospital from the resulting injuries.

Herbert's daughter Alice said at the inquest her mother had died in December 1903. Her father had had no regular employment for the last twelve months but she thought him a good father who had fed and clothed his children well. Since the fight on their wedding night she had witnessed many quarrels. On the day in question the couple had taken the train from Lichfield Trent Valley to Hagley, he seeking employment in the track widening while she looking for a home at Hagley as they had been given notice to quit Wilcox's Entry. The inquest was adjourned at this point while further witnesses were summoned.

Reconvening on October 3rd, the court heard from dreyman Alfred Black. He spoke of how Herbert had knocked his wife to the floor of the float before throwing her from it. Maud had appeared hurt but Herbert said he would take of her and he left them. Soon after a car driver stopped when he saw two people fighting near Hanch Hall. Picking up the story he spoke of how he raised the alarm when he discovered the woman on the ground, he thinking her dead, with the man still alive and he went to Hanch Hall to call for help. When the police and doctor arrived they found Maud with two deep cuts to her neck and Herbert with one deep cut severing the windpipe and he clearly dead. Another witness, an employee at the hall, described how he saw the man strike the woman twice with an umbrella, words were exchanged and both were pushing the other in an aggressive manner.

When the police officer gave evidence he identified the knife found at the scene as that know to poachers as a rabbit-legger or a buck sticker. The doctor estimated the man had been dead for around 90 minutes, the woman found to have two deep cuts about three inches in length to the side of her neck. She also sported a black eye, finger-shaped bruises to her arms, and other bruising about her arms and legs. Examining the man he found fingernail scratches to his arms and face, a four-inch wound to the throat and deep enough to expose the back of the palate, his jugular was severed and eath would have occurred in a matter of seconds. Earlier signs of alcohol abuse was found at the post mortem along with an old injury which meant he was missing a finger and thumb from one hand.

Having recovered sufficiently to give evidence, Maud Freeman took to the witness stand. She told of how, on the afternoon of their marriage, he had tried to strangle her. Later he had pinned her to the sofa with a knife at her throat, not releasing her until someone tapped on the window pane. Sober he was a good man but with drink in him a changed person. On August 27th he had forced her upstairs and threatened to kill her, even sleeping with the open knife in his hand should she attempt to move. When drunk he was a jealous and violent individual, but when sober constantly complained of pain in his arms and head.

She confirmed how that last afternoon had seen them fight as others had described. Maud added how he had grabbed her around the neck with his left arm, he was too strong for her and she could not get away. Twice he pushed the knife to her throat before laying her down and kissing her forehead whereupon she passed out. When she came around she saw him lying three feet away from her on his right side and unaware of the knife on the ground beyond him. He was clutching his throat.

The jury retired and returned to deliver their verdict. They were in no doubt the location of the knife on the far side of Herbert's body from Maud, showed beyond reasonable doubt that he had committed suicide after attempting to murder his wife.

Friday, 20 April 2018

Don't Pull the Communication Cord

July 1st 1907 and at 2pm the London and North West Railway's express from Liverpool stops at Tamworth after someone had pulled the communication cord. When the guard investigated he found it had been pulled by Mrs Higham, none other than the wife of the MP for Sowerby in Yorkshire. She claimed her son of 3.1/2 had fallen from the train. Quickly all stations and signalmen on the line between Tamworth and Stafford were alerted and all traffic stopped as the search began.

By 4:30pm news filtered through that the child had been found near Hademore Crossing and was being treated by a district nurse at the cottage of a Mrs Smith near Whittington Bridge. In Tamworth the stationmaster, a Mr Matthews, stopped the down train and accompanied Mrs Higham as she went to check on her son. They arrived at the same time as Dr Homan who reported the child to have been badly hurt but would live. He had been discovered by a platelayer ganger working on the line. Noticing movement at the side of the line he investigated and found the young boy. He had carried the child to the cottage after sending his colleague for the district nurse whom he had seen cycling past just moments earlier.

How the door came open on a train travelling at 60mph was never explained, although he was a large child for his age and perhaps he had done something to contribute to the accident. Indeed, his bulk will have helped protect him as an examination of the trackside revealed he had collided with and broken a number of large stones as he bounced along for some 40 yards before coming to rest alongside the line used by traffic in the opposite direction. Although conscious he had not attempted to move which was fortunate indeed as the down express had passed him two minutes after he came to rest here. The driver of the down train had seen the body of the child but surmised he must have hit the mother, hence stopping at Lichfield to raise the alert.

Later that evening Mr Higham MP arrived from London Euston. He made a statement in the House the following day, thanking all those who had had a hand in the rescue and informing them his son was "progressing nicely".

Perhaps the oddest part of this potentially tragic tale came in the form of the newspaper headline, for the Lichfield Mercury led with the odd choice of EXCITEMENT ON THE TRAIN LINE NEAR LICHFIELD.

Sunday, 8 April 2018

Widowed in the Orchard (Twice!)

Thomas Frederick Young died on December 27th 1906 aged 44 years. A native of Lichfield, where his mother and siblings still lived, he had lived for a number of years at the Eagle Inn, Pitchcombe, near Stroud. On his marriage to the daughter of the former owner in 1895 he had taken over as landlord. moving to Gloucestershire.

With snow still lying on the Cotswold Hills, Thomas Young collected his double-barrelled shotgun and, as the clock struck one, told his wife not to hold dinner for him should he return home late. Next time she saw him was three hours later when she went out to feed the pigs. A glance in the direction of the adjacent orchard and she spotted her husband lying by the hedge. Returning to the pub she asked a Mr White, a military man with medical training, to investigate. He discovered the landlord lying face down in the orchard, on top of the shotgun which had been discharged at point-blank range into the owner's bowels. Clearly he had been dead for some time.

When the police arrived he traced the footsteps in the still-lying snow. These showed he had walked to a neighbour's property and back to the orchard, presumably looking for game, and something he would often do and share any rabbits with the neighbour for Thomas Young was known as the very best of marksmen. The inquest heard the evidence and came to the conclusion the man had placed the gun on the orchard side of the fence before climbing over. A wise precaution but a fatal one for as he grabbed the barrel of the gun and lifted it, twigs of the hedge caught on the trigger and fired the gun.

Back in Lichfield the news was met with dismay for Thomas Young and his family were well liked in the city. Many will have remembered the man who had worked as butler and gamekeeper for Mr. J. C. Little when in Lichfield a decade earlier. With his body interred in Gloucestershire, a memorial service was held in the place of his birth.

It was here that rumours began to circulate and questions asked. It seems the widow Young had been married before. Her first husband, also landlord of the Eagle Inn, had also meant an untimely end. Furthermore this had also been the result of a gunshot wound and also in the orchard adjacent to the inn. Any suggestion of foul play was dismissed as mere coincidence, but still many questioned how the wife had failed to hear the gun going off when his body was discovered just 75 yards from their home.

Sunday, 1 April 2018

A Tale of Misery

John and Sarah-Ann Langley lived in Tamworth Street, Lichfield in 1904 when hauled before the authorities charged with the neglect of five-year-old John Langley. The case attracted a lot of interest from the people of Lichfield. Although it may seem quite extraordinary today, the court was crowded, with large numbers gathered outside, from the moment the session opened at 11am until the judge ended proceedings at 11:45pm. It should be noted they did hold for both lunch and tea for a total of 75 minutes (how very cricket!)

John senior had had four children from a former marriage, the youngest Arthur Langley was six years old. His latest wife, Sarah-Ann, had several children by a former marriage, three of which were still under her care at this time. Back in July 1903 John Langley had visited a Dr Rowland and said nothing could be done to stop John junior's odd habits, including going into the streets picking up refuse and eating it.

As a result the child was admitted to the workhouse. Notes show he was a good weight and exhibited no odd behaviour nor was he seen as troublesome, although below average size for his age and academically inferior to his peers. He stayed at the workhouse until the end of August 1903, mainly because of an unexplained weakness to one arm, during which time he seemed fine and none saw any reason for concern following his release.

On December 22nd 1903 Dr Rowland was again called to the Langley's home. Since his last examination in July the child had certainly lost weight, he noted abrasions to the neck, small of the back, the left knee and bruising to the right thigh. Again taken to stay in the workhouse, young John Langley's condition could easily be explained by normal childhood bumps and knocks. Furthermore, although he had lost weight there was no evidence of him overeating, as would be expected if he had been starved. Yet it was noted that, while no sure diagnosis could be given, in general the child seemed unwell.

The father protested at the possible return of the boy to their care - he complaining young John could not be controlled, he frequently wandered out into the street, and regularly found to be feeding on offal or horse dung (commonplace sights in town streets at the time) - the child thus remained under the supervision of the workhouse and at this time magistrates began to take an interest despite the five-year-old's weight having increased from an appalling low of just 29 pounds.

A baker employed by Langley was called to give evidence and, finally the truth began to emerge. He spoke of how he would see the boy tethered by way of a muffler tied to the chain supporting the swing from 9am until midday. This he saw from September onwards, the child wearing inadequate clothing for the cold weather. He also spoke of the boy being tied up there by his sister almost as soon as the household had awakened.

At mealtimes he could be seen peering in through the window, one sister may pass him a crust on occasions but was more often to be seen eating our of the swill bucket or picking crumbs from the floor of the back yard. Another employee, one John Millington, had taken pity on the boy and passed him food, sending him to the bottom of the yard to eat in secret. The boy's father was witnessed knocking him across the yard on a number of occasions, apparently for no reason, further torture imparted by tethering his left arm to his left leg. Unlike the other children of the house he wore no cap, not a single button sewn on his jacket, he wore no muffler nor scarf, leaving his neck exposed to the elements.

Fearing repercussions he only spoke to the father concerning his paralysed arm, warning both him and his wife to take him to a doctor. Langley told him it was pointless, the paralysis the result of an illness when he was just two years of age. He pitied the child, saying he was heard to cry a number of times, unable to climb down from the swing without help. Since that time both Millington and another employee by the name of Statham had left the employment of the Langleys and reported them to the NSPCC. Statham, when questioned, also spoke of him seeing Langley plunging the boy into a could water trough in all weathers, again seemingly for no reason. These reports were further endorsed by a neighbour, he adding the boy had an awful cough, would be seen walking continually to keep warm, and known to eat anything within his reach. The NSPCC backed up these claims, saying their investigations had also revealed this atrocious behaviour.

Others disagreed, the defence arguing, rather predictably, this was a bad child, born of a consumptive mother who died shortly after his birth. He had been offered plenty of food but it was his choice to eat from the gutter. Furthermore another of his siblings had died young, a clear indication of mental problems suffered by the mother, she the former Mrs Langley.

The defence called a witness, another baker and friend of the Langleys who swore nothing could be further from the truth. The boy had eaten well, from his father's dinner plate no less, supplemented by a diet of eggs, boiled milk and port wine (strange diet for a five-year-old). He also said the child had been allowed to warm himself in the boiler house where a fire burned constantly - this confirming the child was kept outdoors during the day. This witness accused the witnesses for the prosecution of having an axe to grind with the Langleys and in particular the new Mrs Langley. Even his eldest half-sister came forward to give evidence, saying he was treated no differently from the rest and his mental problems were her brother's own fault.

Quickly a verdict was reached. Cheers both inside and outside the court rang out as midnight approached and the Langleys were found guilty. This quickly turned to anger as the crowd threatened to riot, windows of the nearby bakery broken, as they heard the sentence. Given two weeks to pay, the Langleys were fined £25 each - a large sum in 1904 but surely inappropriate for such crimes. Even worse, when explaining the leniency of the sentence the court spoke of how a custodial sentence would have deprived the many other children of both parents.