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Midnight Tragedy: The Murder of "Poor Kitty" Roman

Midnight Tragedy: 1909 Murder of Poor Kitty Roman

Last week I wrote about the 1898 murder of Eliza Roberts in the same house the Ripper had killed Mary Kelly. This week we have yet more proof that Miller's Court had some seriously bad vibes, with the murder of 24-year-old Kitty Roman in the cottage opposite, at around midnight Thursday 1st July / very early Friday 2nd July 1909. Links out generally go to Wiki, newspaper reports, or contemporary records, as relevant.

The Victim

Kate Roman was born in 1884/5 to Andrew Martin Roman, a house painter. Roman had been born about 1855 in New York, as was Kate and her siblings Gertrude, Annie and Joseph (1883). Roman married Margaret Hart Mulligan on June 18th 1889 but the arrangement clearly didn't suit him; within months he had moved to England and taken Katie with him. Family tradition has it that Andrew came over with the '89 European Buffalo Bill tour which, true or not, is totally irrelevant but rather cool.

Andrew set up home with an Oxford born woman named Annie Monk who he made his common law wife (they didn't officially marry until 1915). The 1891 census found the Roman family at 12 Rylston Road in Fulham. By 1901 Kitty had gained six new siblings, and the family were living at 67 Prothero Road. In 1911 there were another two younger sisters, and Andrew's son Joseph was visiting - perhaps as a result of the news. The family was solid and respectable, but Kitty was a free spirit and disappointed her father by choosing to leave home and go into domestic service.

[Some newspapers carried a story around July 8th that Mrs Edith Dresch, of Probert Street, Hoxton, had identified the body as that of her 22-year-old daughter, Edith E. Dresch whom she hadn't seen for two years. As best as I can make out this was either a misprint by the press, or a sad case of mistaken identity. Kitty's body was identified by her father before the inquest began on July 4th.]

Kitty last saw her family in 1908, when she went to visit Andrew and Annie in Fulham. The estranged relationship is not surprising, as in 1907 Kitty had gravitated towards Whitechapel, where she made money ironing, selling flowers - and herself. According to the press, Kitty was of "a quiet, inoffensive disposition, but was known to police". Detective Inspector Fred Wensley, who worked the case, said during the trial: "The deceased was a prostitute and her friends are. She mixed with all sorts of characters. We have a good many crimes of violence in the neighbourhood."

Said neighbourhood - this is the junction of Crispin Street and Duval Street in April 1912.

In May 1909 Kitty moved in with Henry Benstead - 5 weeks and 3 days before her death, by Benstead's reckoning. Benstead is generally described as a market porter, though some reports say he told the coroner's inquest that he was a "waitress" in a coffee shop. He also said that two women sometimes visited Kitty, whom she said were her mother and sister. That seems unlikely, given Duval Street's reputation, but you never know!

On Kitty's lifestyle, Benstead said that he had heard she was an unfortunate, but that he had not seen her in the company of other men. She was not earning any money, so far as he knew, as he went out to support her. DI Wensley asked him at the inquest: "Would you be surprised to know you are the only person in Miller's Court who does not know the deceased was an unfortunate?" Benstead's answer was: "Well, many people told me, but if I took notice of what they said there would always have been rows down there." (Wensley is said to have been implying that, actually, Benstead was a ponce - in 1909 another word for 'pimp'.)

The Crime

On the night of the murder Benstead saw Kitty with a female friend at 9:30pm, on their way to get some ointment from a chemist's shop in Commercial Street. He gave Kitty a shilling and a few coppers, and told her to get herself something to eat. It was the last time he saw her alive. He was on his way to visit his father, and afterwards visited a lodging house in Brick Lane known as "The Beehive". (There is a great account of The Beehive HERE; it's from 1886, but I doubt it would have changed much.)

Rose Duckwell, a 20-year-old flower seller, told the coroner's inquest she had seen a woman matching Kitty's description just before midnight, sitting on a step in Shoreditch. Two yiddish looking lads put their arms around her waist, but she walked away.

Alfred Wilkins, a 19-year-old market porter who knew Kitty by sight (and knew her to be a prostitute), saw a stranger milling around the entrance to Miller's Court at around midnight. Wilkins himself was stood outside 17 Duval Street, and said the man appeared to be about 27 or 28 years of age, 5ft6 or 5ft7, with dark hair and a dark slight moustache. He had a darkish complexion and was dressed in a dark suit. He seemed to have the appearance of having been in the army. The stranger stood there for a little while, and then moved to the top of the street. He saw the deceased woman speak to the stranger and go with him into Miller's Court. This was about midnight, and he saw the man again about 20 minutes later, around 12:15am, when he came out of the court and walked towards Commercial Street. Wilkins related all this to Patchy Macquire (police? press?) at about 1:30am on July 2nd.

Charles Watson, an organ grinder who was with Wilkins, told a similar story. He apparently - according to the July 17th edition of the Leicester Chronicle - said to Wilkins that the stranger looked like a "split" (slang term for a police officer).

Dorset Street in 1901 - it was renamed Duval Street in June 1904, but it did little to change the reputation of the place.

Andrew Stevens, a 17-year-old market porter, told the Illustrated Police News on July 10th a full account. This may well have actually been a merged version of Alfred Wilkins and Jeremiah O'Calligan's stories: "I was standing out in the street opposite the court about five minutes to twelve last night and I saw Kitty come down the street with a strange man, pass up the court and enter her house. About 12.20 I saw him come down the court again. He looked round sharply once or twice and the walked briskly up to Commercial Street. From what I remember of him he struck me as being a man of military appearance or perhaps a sailor; but he was well set up.... he had a moustache and was wearing a dark suit and a dark cloth cap.

When I went upstairs I saw Kitty was lying in bed fully clothed. There was blood on the bedclothes. The room did not appear to have been disturbed in any way and there were no signs as if there has been a struggle. It looked to me as if she had been strangled first, and then her throat cut afterwards. On the floor I saw an ugly looking knife with blood on the it. It was a pocket knife but the blade was a thin one. I should think it was about three and a half inches long. The point of the knife was about half an inch in length. At the time of the crime the court was quite deserted. You can hear everything in the ordinary way, but nobody heard a sound or a scream. The only sound was the footfalls of a man coming out of the court. One of the neighbours I believe heard the sound of footsteps coming down the stairs, but nothing else."

That neighbour was Alice Smith, a charwoman who lived in 11 Miller's Court, the room below Kitty's, who got in about 12:30 am and soon dosed off. She said she heard heavy footsteps coming down the stairs, at some point between 1 and 2am.

The plan of Miller's Court drawn up by PC Harry Woodley of H Division. #12 was 12ft by 12ft2. The 8ft mantelpiece was opposite the bed, and a small table stood under the window with its torn and dirty blinds.

How the plan translated into houses.

Not long after 1:30 am Benstead returned home to find both the downstairs door and the door to their room open. By the light of the street lamp shining through the window, he saw Kitty lying fully dressed on the bed. Thinking her asleep he went over and tapped her on the shoulder. Benstead told the inquest: "I said, "Poor Kitty," and noticed blood on the side of her neck. I ran downstairs and down the street, and I said, "Somebody has cut Kitty's throat."" He went to his landlord John McCarthy's shop (27 Dorset Street) and found Jeremiah O'Callighan. His next stop was the police station.

Standing in Miller's Court between one and two am, John Day, a costermonger from White's Row, said Benstead actually cried, "Somebody has done my old woman in!" Day had been standing there since just before 1am, and hadn't seen anything suspicious. As for what he was doing loitering about, nobody seems to have been interested enough to ask him.

The view to the other end of Miller's Court. The narrow passageway lead out onto Dorset Street ('The worst street in London').

Jeremiah O'Callighan, a stableman, went up to number 12 and found a knife lying on the bed near Kitty's head. O'Callighan said: "I rushed up to his room from what he told me. There was no light there but I could see a little. John Day came up with me and struck a few matches. I sent for two candles when the inspector came. Kitty Noran was lying on her back on the bed. Her eyes were wide open and she appeared to be breathing when I put my face by her mouth. I found this knife on the bed on her left side. It was covered with blood and I put it on the edge of the table. The blood was just drying. I did not disturb the body and waited for the inspector."

Inspector Thomas Travis, of H Division, entered the room at 1.55 a.m. At the trial he said: "I went to the room. Jeremiah O'Callighan was there. I found the body of deceased lying on its back. Her dress was turned up to the neck. The knife was on a towel on the dressing-table at the head of the bed. I took possession of it. There was no sign of a struggle. There were two candles freshly lighted in ornaments on the mantelpiece, and a portion of a candle not lighted in an egg-cup. ... I did not know deceased. I do not think that part of prisoner's statement, 'I flew in a rage, caught her by the throat, threw her on the bed, and took out my knife,' truly represents the murder, as there was no sign of a struggle. She was lying in a position to indicate recent sexual intercourse."

Changing police procedures are obvious. The press reported: "The body was not removed from the house for several hours as, owing to the absence of more direct clues, the police were desirous of taking photographs of the exact position of the body and the furniture of the room and to make a thorough search for finger prints of anything that might be of assistance, before the room was disturbed."

Next on the scene was Dr Percy John Clarke, the divisional surgeon (he had also served as assistant to Dr George Bagster Phillips, a previous surgeon to H Division). At the trial Dr Clarke told the court how he "found the body lying perfectly flat There were appearances of intercourse having taken place within a couple of hours of my seeing the body. Her clothes were up. I saw the knife, which was covered with dried blood. There was a wound in her throat which had apparently caused death by dividing the large vessels and nerves on the right-hand side of the neck. A good deal of force must have been used because the knife is not at all sharp. Death would be almost immediate. The wound could not have been self-inflicted."

He went on: "I did not detect marks of fingers on the throat, The excessive bleeding would have obliterated them. The tongue was between the teeth and the pupils dilated, and at the postmortem examination I found both lungs engorged with blood. That might be caused by blood going into the windpipe on the throat being cut. Strangulation was the more likely cause. If blood went into the windpipe it might cause certain signs of suffocation, but hardly such marked signs as I found. The signs were consistent with the woman having been strangled with the hand first and then cutting her throat." The cause of death was loss of blood.

The first newspaper reports appeared on July 2nd, with hopes that Kitty Norman's relatives would come forward. Kitty's surname was variously reported as Norman, Ronan, and Roran. Early pieces also claimed somebody had been detained (possibly Benstead, who was under suspicion) and that Kitty was 19. Perhaps it did the job, perhaps the police tracked him down; either way Andrew Roman, then said to be living in Antill Street, Fulham, identified Kitty's body at the mortuary.

The inquest was held at Stepney, beginning on Monday 4th July before being adjourned and recommencing on July 12th. Press reports said that the coroner "commented upon the way in which men and women lived in the vicinity of the place where the tragedy took place, and said it was possible that a man going into the room with the deceased might have had the knife open for self protection, if necessary." The jury returned a verdict of 'murder against a some person or persons unknown'.

Lloyd's Weekly News, 4th July 1909. Note how Ripper victim Mary Jane Kelly aka Marie Jeanette Kelly had become Marian Kelley. Memories might be long but they are far from infallible - never be afraid to search for every spelling variation you can think of!

The Confession

Police had made no headway on the case when a man walked into Bridewell Police Station in Bristol on Sunday July 18th, announcing that he was the murderer. Sergeant Sidney Richards of the Bristol police recounted at the trial: "I was on duty in Bristol on the evening of July 18, when prisoner came up and said his name was Harold Hall and he was wanted in London for the murder of a woman whose name he believed was "Kate Rooney" in a house in a street off Commercial Street, London, at about 12 midnight on July 1. He explained the reason why he thought the name was Rooney—that he had seen an account of the murder in newspaper, but could not give the name or the date of the paper—that he was a labourer it of employment and worked his passage from Spain to Liverpool, and went from there to London as a stowaway, and that sometimes he went by the name of William Johnson.

He seemed to have a great load on his mind, so I cautioned him as to the serious charge he was making against himself and told him that what he was saying sight be given in evidence against him. I then asked him if he would like to make a statement. He said he would, and I took down a voluntary statement. This is it (produced). I read it over to him and he signed it. I told him that he would be detained on that statement, and, in consequence of a wire from Scotland Yard the following morning, he was charged on his own confession with the murder' of Kate Rooney and cautioned. The charge was read over to him and he replied, "Yes, sir," and he was taken before the justices on the 19th and handed over to the custody of Detective Inspector Wensley. Prisoner appeared to be in great trouble and not to have had much rest for some time and not much food. He was not very tidy. His boots were worn and dilapidated."

Gloucestershire Echo, July 20th 1909.

Hall gave Sgt Richards a detailed statement: "I went with her to a room at the top of the house. I asked her to light the gas. She replied there was none. She asked me to light a candle. I struck a match, and found a candle on the mantelpiece at the side of the bed. I turned my head round and saw her drawing her hand from my inside coat pocket. I said, 'Is that your game?' At the same time I flew at her in a rage and strangled her, and thrust the knife in the side of her neck."

He later elaborated that he 'flew in a rage, and catching her by the throat threw her on the bed and held her there. She never spoke, and he took out his knife, which he opened with his teeth, and stuck it in the side of her neck, and then threw the knife on the bed. He became frightened and came out. There was no one about, and he walked to the Sailor's Rest at Limehouse, where he booked a bed in the name of Johnson. The following day he left and had been tramping about ever since.' The Sailor's Rest was actually Queen Victoria Seamen's Hospital in Poplar. A hospital porter, John Arthur Thompson, confirmed that a man named Johnson had arrived at about 1:30am, though he could not identify him.

Detective Inspector Wensley and Sergeant Caban went to Bristol, arriving at the Central Police Station - where Hall was being detained - at about 3pm on 19th July. Sergeant Richards and Inspector Hopkins of the Bristol police showed their Scotland Yard counterparts Hall's confession and, duly satisfied, Hall was arrested and charged. Hall responded to the charge with: "Yes, I did it, and I intended when I came here to act like a man, and I mean to see it through."

Book available at Amazon.

Wensley and Caban took Hall up to London, and Hall used the trip as an opportunity to tell them his life story, uncaring of their warning that anything he said could and would be used in court. He had no friends in the UK, he told them, as he and his three brothers had been sent to Canada from Manchester's Strangeways Workhouse as children. Born in 1882, Hall became a sailor and in Johannesberg was robbed of £30 by a French prostitute. "I didn't do anything to her," he told Wensley, "but I made up my mind, if it occurred again, what I would do." From Spain he worked his passage on the SS Thelma to arrive in Liverpool on October 22nd 1908. He soon made his way to London, where he went to the Seamen's Hospital suffering from rupture. About six weeks before the murder he began working at the Salvation Army Shelter in Bermondsey. He quit the very day of the murder, spending the evening at the Shoreditch Empire which he left some time before midnight.

At some point after arriving back in London Wensley had Alfred Wilkins called to the police station, where he identified Hall as the man he had seen with Kitty from a line up of 7 or 8 men in the yard. He appeared before Old Street Police Court on July 20th and was remanded for a week. The Western Daily Mail of July 21st reported: "The accused, a tall, dark young fellow, appeared much distressed as he entered the dock, and was charged on his own confession with murder." He went back before the police court on the 27th and this time retracted his confession, though was still committed for trial.

The Trial

The trial was held at the Old Bailey on September 14th. You can read the full trial transcript HERE. Richard Muir and Mr Leycester prosecuted, Mr H.D. Harben defended, and Mr Justice Coleridge presided. The Sheffield Telegraph of the same day reported that Hall was "an unkempt and miserable looking man, whose age was given as 25, but who looked 35, and who gave no address".

Alfred Wilkins, who had identified Hall as the man he had seen with Kitty from a line up of about eight men in the police yard, now said he could not be sure. He had just woken from a drunken sleep when he made the original identification, he claimed. By this time Wilkins was in custody himself, for highway robbery with violence. THIS (and THIS) is probably referring to our Wilkins, even though the birth date is out.

John Cunningham identified the murder weapon as Hall's knife, recognising it from when they had been working together as paper sorters at the Salvation Army home in Spa Road, Bermondsey. They had found it, broken blade and all, and used it for cutting the threads of book bindings. Cunningham said he last saw Hall on the afternoon of July 1st, some time between 1 and 2pm, when Hall finished work. Hall told him then that he would not be returning. Benstead told the court that the first time he saw the knife was at Commercial Street police station. Inspector Wensley said Hall had admitted it was his knife: "I went to Commercial Street police-station that day when prisoner was charged. He made no reply. The knife was lying on the Inspector's desk, and prisoner said, "That is my knife."

The murder weapon. The penknife is now held at the National Archives.

Detective Inspector Wensley delivered the bulk of the evidence: "Soon after 2am on July 2nd I went to the top room, 12, Miller's Court, where I saw the body of deceased. Her left hand was under her left hip and when the body was moved a penny dropped from the hand on the bed. The body was searched and a purse found containing 3s. 6d. in silver, 8 1/2 d. in bronze, and the photo of a girl. There were no signs of a struggle. There were then two candles alight and a piece in an egg-cup on the mantelpiece not alight; also some cigarette ash in this. I was at the inquest on July 12th, up to which time no one was in custody. I was in Bristol on the 19th, where I saw prisoner. I saw a copy of this statement, which I read. Inspector Hopkins, of Bristol, also gave me some information."

He went on: "This passage in the "Morning Advertiser": "The doors of the houses in this court are never locked at night, so that anyone might enter," is the only reference that I know of to the door being open. There was nothing said about there being no gas in the room, or about a candle being found on the mantel-piece, or about the mantel-piece being by the side of the bed. I have looked through the newspaper reports with considerable care with the view of ascertaining the facts I have been asked. It was, of course, a good deal discussed, and the representatives of various papers came to inquire. I have in my experience met with bogus confessions. ... The inference I drew from the penny in her hand was that she was in the act of robbing someone and I reported to the effect that she had been murdered practically in the act or immediately after connection. I was present when Wilkins identified prisoner. I was present at the inquest and heard the evidence of Charles Watson. He said that at 11.45 on the Thursday night he set Alfred Wilkins outside 17, Duval Street—that they were talking, sad he noticed a man standing at the corner of Miller's Court. They then called to identify prisoner failed to do so. My report on the posy incident was sent to the Assistant Commissioner of Police. It was confidential and has not been published."

Counsel for the defence in his address to the jury reminded them that Hall had withdrawn his confession and was now pleading Not Guilty. His commitment to seeing it through to the end had been so much hot air, after all. Hall was found guilty and sentenced to death by Mr Justice Coleridge. Hall apparently showed no reaction and, when it was done, "walked lightly from the dock".

Sevenoaks Chronicle and Kentish Advertiser, September 17th 1909.

The Aftermath

19 days after the verdict was brought down, Inspector Wensley was summoned to the Home Office to give his views on the possiblity of a reprieve. His advice was enough for the Home Secretary, Herbert Gladstone, to commute Hall's sentence to life imprisonment.

In 1912 Kitty's name was used for the 'heroine' (a bad angel who glitters and sparkles in the sun like broken glass, according to the May 18th 1912 edition of the Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligence) of Peter's Chance, written by Alfred Lyttelton's second wife, Edith Balfour. You can find it on Amazon. Kitty's father Andrew lived until 1922, Annie Roman lived until 1953. Kitty's half sister Mabel Maria was 93 when she died in 1989. With genes like that it makes you wonder how much of the 20th century Kitty might have seen, had Harold Hall not crossed her path.

Short summary of the play from the Derby Daily Telegraph, May 18th 1912.

On March 26th 1917, Hall was released from prison to go fight for King and Country. He served in France and reached the rank of sergeant. The Criminal Record Office listed that Hall was coming from Parkhurst prison, being released into the hands of the Central Aid Association. He was described as being 5ft 7 and half inches, with a dark complexion, black hair and brown eyes. His left cheek bore a scar, and he had a mole just under the right eyebrow. Perhaps most interesting is that his birthplaces is recorded as Belville, Canada in 1881.

In 1929 Hall turned up on Inspector Fred Wensley's doorstep to thank the man for sparing him from the gallows. Unlike "Poor Kitty", Harold Hall's story was far from over.


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