Friday, 18 September 2015

The Wilful Murder of Eliza Roberts

The Wilful Murder of Eliza Roberts, 1898


13 Miller's Court, the room Mary Jane Kelly was murdered in, was in fact the partitioned back room of 26 Dorset Street. Proving that this was one house you really didn't want to find yourself in, 36-year-old Eliza Roberts was murdered by her sister, Kate Marshall, in the early hours of Sunday November 26th 1898. The case received a fair amount of press coverage, partly because of the Ripper connection and mostly because the idea of a woman murdering her sister was particularly offensive to late Victorian sensibilities.

To my mind the case is plenty interesting on its own merits, but it does reveal more about the environs of Miller's Court and some of its residents. Links out go to newspaper reports or Wiki pages, as relevant.




The Crime

Eliza Marshall was born around 1868. She met David Roberts, a painter and decorator, in the 1880s and they lived together a year before getting married in 1888. They went on to have eight children, only three of whom were living in November 1898, and only the youngest of those, a three year old boy, was actually living with them. Eliza's sister, 44-year-old Kate Marshall, had been living with them three months on a ticket of leave - she had been sentenced to five years for stabbing a man she lived with. At the time of the murder the Roberts' had been living at 26 Dorset Street for about seven months.

26 and 27 Dorset Street - otherwise known as the worst street in London - with the entrance to Miller's Court in the middle. 27 was the home and retail premises of John McCarthy who owned dozens of properties in the area, including #26, and was intent on subdividing to make as much money as possible out of them.

From a photograph taken in 1901. Read the accompanying article HERE.

It must have been a squeeze, all four of them living in the small space - a 6ft by 6ft living room and smaller bedroom, theirs for the princely sum of 10d a night - and with Eliza and Kate working at home making toy whips. Charles Amory, a wire-worker who lived in the first floor front room with his current partner Mary Johnson and their lodger Annie Jackson, said that quarrels from next door were a 'frequent occurrence'. For that reason he paid no mind when Eliza and Kate came home from the Britannia (aka 'the Ringer's') at around midnight - David had been home with the baby since he got in at about 6:30pm - and began bickering. This quickly escalated. David recounted at the trial:

"They kept on quarreling, and the prisoner rushed on my wife - I got out of bed - they fell against the table, over-turned it, and both fell on the bed, and then on the floor. I parted them, they left one another, and I went to my bed again - the child was a bit fidgety and crying, and I cuddled it in my arms. The women kept on arguing the point, the prisoner then got hold of part of a broken jug, and dashed it against the window. I got out of bed, and she deliberately rushed at my wife and said, "You thing, I will give you something for this," at the same time rushing at her and striking her a blow in the right breast. I did not see anything in her hand at the time, afterwards I did - she was facing her at the time - my wife turned round and said to me, "Dave, she has stabbed me.""

The back view of 26 Dorset Street as seen from Miller's Court - the bottom room is where Mary Kelly was killed.

Another back view from 1888.

David then pulled Marshall from the room and out onto the landing, where he kicked at the partition wall of Amory's room to get his attention. Eliza followed but fell to the ground. Marshall and David continued struggling until he managed to wrest the knife from her right hand and give it to Amory. When PC Alfred Fry (317 H division) arrived on the scene, David cried out, "Take this woman in charge, she has stabbed my wife." Kate responded with, "Good God, let me see her;" or "let me kiss her." Fry blew his whistle for another constable, and James Randall (154 H division) soon arrived.

Eliza was carried into Amory's room where she was given a drop of brandy by Dr David Hume who had been called to attend. She died a few minutes later. Hume had admitted her to a local infirmary a few weeks before (c. November 5th to 15th), and so saw the case through to its miserable end by carrying out her post-mortem, assisted by the police divisional surgeon Dr Franklin Hewitt Oliver. Hume said at trial: "The cause of death was was an incised wound in the right breast, and puncturing the lung for about one inch - it had gone through the cavity of the chest."

With Eliza dead, Kate was taken to Commercial Street police station where Inspector William Evans (H Division) formally charged her: "The woman who it is alleged you have stabbed is now dead, and I caution you against any statement which you may make, as I shall use it in evidence against you"—she replied, "That woman is my sister; my God, if it had been any other person than my sister I would have done it. Oh my sister! O Liz, O Liz!" On Monday she was brought before the police court and remanded back into custody.

Snippet from the Illustrated Police News, December 3rd 1898.

The coroner's inquest was held on Wednesday November 29th, presided over by the infamous Wynne Edwin Baxter. Kate was still in police custody but, the papers reported, declined to attend. Kate herself complained at the trial that she was not informed about the inquest, and had spent the day ill in the infirmary. Either way, the jury returned a verdict of Willful Murder against her. On December 6th she was further remanded and was then committed for trial on December 13th.



The Trial

The trial began on January 11th, and the full (and very detailed) transcript is available HERE at the Old Bailey Online. David was cross-examined closely, causing him to complain: "You must make some allowance for a man of no education; besides it is a long time ago now, I can't be expected to remember everything." Kate and Eliza were always quarreling, he claimed, and Kate had threatened to stab David on more than once occasion. David, however, was far from a saint. Eliza was, in his own words, "an honest industrious woman and a good wife to me" but that still hadn't stopped him from hitting "her on the head with a poker when I was drunk one Friday night" (around October 28th 1898) and being bound over to keep the peace towards her.

Still, he insisted that he hadn't had anything to drink on this particular day except a glass of beer Eliza gave him when she and Kate returned from the pub. He said: "I did not insult my wife that night while I was in bed; we were on very good terms, until that affair six months ago. ... I did not drop the child into the fire. ... I had the prisoner by the wrists, and she might have thrown the knife down and blamed it all on me - I was certainly afraid that I might be accused of the blow." Charles Amory corroborated his version of events as far as he was able to.

Illustrations of Kate Marshall and David Roberts from Lloyd's Weekly Newspaper, January 15th 1899.

When court reconvened the following day, Kate's story was somewhat different. She claimed David had come home about 1pm and given Eliza 6d to get dinner for all four of them. Eliza allegedly said: "Dave, what do you think I can get for 6d.?" He said, "I will tell you what you will do with it if I send you back to the hospital with the other side of your head" - he was going to strike her with a piece of bent iron which we used as a fender. ... I got the fender away. My sister went out with the 6d. he had given her, and brought in a half-quartern of rum and a pint of ale, and said, "That is the dinner I will get for him." At 7pm Kate and Eliza left to sell whips and ended up in the Britannia, leaving at 11:50 for home.

Roberts was awake when they got in, and had evidently been drinking. Kate reported him as saying: "You pair of—, you have not been selling whips till this hour of the night." Eliza said something 'impudent' and David rushed out of bed. Kate went on: "I knew he was going to do one of us an injury, but I thought it was me, and I jumped back." David then stabbed Eliza and she ran out onto the landing. Kate went after David and struggled with him, thinking Eliza had gone for the police. When David accused her of the murder she claimed it came as a terrible shock, as she had never even seriously quarreled with her sister.

Lloyd's Weekly Newspaper, December 4th 1898.

The murder weapon had been her knife, she admitted, bought the day before the murder to replace their blunt leather working knife. Kate said: "But It must have been Roberts who stabbed my sister. Of course, I did not touch her and there was nobody else there to do it. I swear I saw him strike her. We had been drinking nearly all day, we brought drink in, [but] we had not had too much when we went out at 7 o'clock - we could not sell our work if we were drunk. When we came home at 12 we had had a good deal to drink, but we were not drunk - we knew perfectly well what we were doing." She went on that they were afraid to go home at first, knowing that Roberts was likely to be drunk and violent. He never raised his voice when calling Eliza names, she contended, so that the neighbours wouldn't hear him and think him the type to ill use her.

Next Kate recounted what she had done once the police arrived: "I turned to my sister, and said, "Oh Liz, what have I done?" meaning my sister to speak and say what I had done. I did not say Roberts had done it when I was charged with willful murder, because I was so bewildered. I could not get over the shock when I heard she was dead. I did not break any panes of glass that night in the window - there were none to break it was all patched up with paper. When I was charged with willful murder I said, "Oh Liz, if it had been any other woman who done it," meaning woe be to any other woman to hurt my sister, much less me. I cannot swear that I did not say, "If it had been any other person I would have done it" - [but] I know what I meant to say - if anybody provoked me, and I had a knife in my hand, I do not know if I should stab them."

Mr Horace Avory, prosecuting, suggested the court hear about Kate's criminal record. Mr Counsell, defending, protested but Mr Justice Darling agreed. It didn't do Kate any favours:

"I have been convicted two or three times for wounding people. In 1879 I was convicted at the Middlesex Sessions for wounding [Eugene O'Sullivan] and sentenced to eight months' hard labour - that was with a broken plate. In 1883 I was convicted at the same place of an assault, on Roberts's sister, and sentenced to two months' hard labour. On November 13th, in the same year, I was convicted at the Thames Police-court of an assault on a police-man, and sentenced to two months' hard labour - I was struggling, with the man I lived with for twenty-four-years, and the policeman came up.

In October, 1884, at the Middlesex Sessions, I was sentenced to ten months' hard labour for wounding Roberts's brother with a working knife - I did not then say that it was Roberts, the witness, who had done it; I pleaded guilty to that and every conviction against me. In April, 1889, I was sentenced to eighteen months for wounding a woman [Charlotte Cocklin] with a knife. In August, 1894, I was again sentenced to three months' hard labour for an assault, and in May 1895 I was sent to five years' penal servitude for wounding the man I lived with [Christopher Hayes, a market porter known by the nickname 'The Flower of the Finck'. This attack, said the 11th December 1898 edition of Lloyd's Weekly Newspaper had necessitated a silver plate being fitted into a part of his skull]. I have been convicted about twenty times for being drunk and disorderly but all the assaults were done in self-defence. I have had twenty-seven stabs on my body.

Contemporary newspapers bear this account out:

Morning Post, October 6th 1884.

Pall Mall Gazette, April 17th 1888.

Lloyd's Weekly Newspaper, May 26th 1895.

Under re-examination she finished, "I never on any occasion put the guilt on anybody else [with previous crimes] - I never on any occasion disputed my guilt."  Nevertheless Kate was found guilty and, although, strongly recommended to mercy by the jury on the grounds of the absence of premeditation, and the act being done in a state of drunken frenzy, the judge sentenced her to death. Kate wrung her hands and cried out, "And this is law! - I don't know what to say. I know I am innocent before the Lord Jesus." As the doctor assisted her from the court room she continued, "Oh! Jesus; this is perfect murder. Oh, my God! Oh, Liz! Oh, Dave Roberts, you killed my sister! Where is God? I call upon Him!"

Lloyd's Weekly Newspaper, January 21st 1899.

Mr Counsel did his best; on January 24th he applied to the Queen's Bench for a writ of certiorari in the hope of quashing the verdict - the jury's recommendation, he maintained, meant they had only found Kate guilty of manslaughter. The court refused the application, advising Counsel that the proper procedure was to apply for a writ of error, irrespective of the time and expense so involved. Reprieve did come. January 27th saw the papers reporting that the sentence had been commuted to life imprisonment by the Home Secretary.



The Aftermath

On February 16th the public learned that Marshall had been moved from Holloway Gaol to Wormwood Scrubs, and appeared to be in a weak state of health. (The last woman was moved out of Wormwood Scrubs in 1902, so this must have been a relatively temporary move.) In early March Mr Holloway, solicitor, went to Bow Street police court to apply to Sir John Bridge to grant a summons against the Commissioner of Police on behalf of a Mr Havelock, Marshall's solicitor. She had, apparently, assigned the murder weapon to Havelock and he now wanted it. "What is it made of," asked Bridge incredulously, "ivory? ... There is no doubt that this solicitor wants it for a certain purpose, and I consider that perfectly monstrous." (Presumably to sell it to Tussauds or the like for display.) Needless to say, the knife was not returned.

Kate was mentioned in the press again in July, following the Home Secretary's decision not to reprieve Mary Ansell, a housemaid convicted for poisoning her sister. Said the Gloucester Citizen on July 17th: "What else explains the reprieve of women like Mrs Maybrick - whose crime closely resembled Mary Ansell's - Mrs Carew, Mrs Gibbons, or, to take a case as recent as last November, of the woman Kate Marshall, who stabbed her sister in Spitalfields? In all these cases, the plea of sex was undoubtedly the prevailing cause of mercy."

In 1901, following the strange murder case of Mary Ann Austin at 35 Dorset Street, a number of newspapers printed a retrospective of Dorset Street homicides. Kate Marshall was briefly mentioned as having been 'murdered in the very same house [as the Ripper crime] a little over a year ago'.

Kate was still alive in 1901 - as was David Roberts... Kate eventually died in prison in February 1918, as noted on her entry in the calendar of prisons.





If you liked this, check out my other posts on Jack the Ripper.

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