‘ A revolting’ scene: The Pritchett Street Murder

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At 8:15 am on Sunday, March 5th 1876,  Police Constable Oram of the Third Division found himself in the kitchen of Isaac Elwell. He had been called to number 4 court, 5 house, Pritchett Street by a woman in some distress. Oram described the kitchen as ‘having the appearance of a slaughter house’. Isaac Elwell was lying on an old coat on the floor of the kitchen, still alive, but in a very dangerous state. The Daily Post reported that ‘the floor was covered for a space of several yards with blood, among which were a number of small pieces of flesh’. Elwell himself was in a pool of blood, his right arm described in the report as ‘frightfully mutilated’, providing a further and very graphic account of numerous cuts along Elwell’s arm, right to the shoulder. When PC Oram lifted the poor man’s body, he found a small clasp knife, which was presumed to have been the weapon used to inflict the injuries.

Elwell was barely clinging to life, crying out for water as the surgeon, Mr. Joyce (who had been called for at the same time as Oram) carried out an examination. The surgeon shook his head and advised the police officer that  Elwell’s case was ‘hopeless’. Nevertheless he was sent to the General Hospital, transported on a handcart with an old door for a stretcher on which to carry his rapidly failing body. At the hospital it was discovered that a main artery had been sliced and Elwell, ‘in spite of every attention’ died within half an hour of his arrival.

An inspection of Elwell’s house revealed a scene of great disarray. The furniture was ‘very much disarranged’ and spattered with blood, ‘as if a great struggle had taken place’, and spots of blood were also found on the pantry door. Oram began making enquiries among the neighbours, and by 11:30 am a 36 year old woman named  Mary Ann Boswell was under arrest on suspicion of the murder. Mary Ann was described as a nail stamper, and lived at the same address as Elwell. In fact, she was his common law wife of more than a decade, and the pair had three children together. According to witnesses it was not a happy relationship,  that ‘they were both of dissipated habits, and that he was addicted to drinking’. Elwell was married to another woman, with whom he also had children, but they had been separated for a number of years.

On Saturday afternoon Elwell and Boswell went out together, returning to the house on Pritchett Street around 4pm. After tea ‘as was his custom’ Elwell headed back out ‘evidently for the purpose of drinking’. At around 10pm on Saturday night Elwell and Boswell were seen quarrelling on Brearley Street and Elwell was reported to have assaulted Boswell and pulled her bonnet off. The witness stated that Elwell was clearly drunk. Neighbours heard arguing coming from the Pritchett Street house at 1am on Sunday morning, and a ‘noise resembling the smashing of crockery’. Shortly after this time a widow named Mrs Tain saw Mary Ann Boswell and her three children out on the street; Mary Ann was crying and said that Elwell had ‘turned them all out on the street’. The kind widow offered to take Mary Ann and the children in for the night.

At 8am on Sunday morning, Caroline Clements, a relative of Mary Ann, went to the house on Pritchett Street. She said that the door was locked and, upon knocking, was aware of the sound of low groans and ‘her suspicions excited that something was wrong’, she alerted the neighbours who helped her to break the door down, finding Elwell in the condition as described above.

Mary Ann Boswell’s statement:- Emphatically denying the charge, Mary Ann confirmed that she and Elwell had argued in Brearley Street and after he assaulted her she went ‘elsewhere’, only going back to the house to check on him at around half past midnight. She claimed that ‘he was drunk, kicking about and making a great disturbance’. It was then that she left with her children and went to stay with Mrs Tain. She said that when she last saw Elwell he did not appear to be injured.  However, she did ‘intimate’ that she had  two men, whom she did not name, had entered the house and assaulted the victim. It is not clear if Mary Ann actually saw this happen, and if so at what time she witnessed it. But Elwell had been subjected to a violent assault just a few weeks earlier, when he had been so badly injured that he had to attend the General Hospital for his wounds. This happened shortly after yet another violent altercation with Mary Ann.

What do you think? Was Elwell the victim of ‘persons unknown’, or did Mary Ann reach the end of her tether and resort to horrific violence? What about the story of Mrs Tain? It seems a bit different to Mary Ann’s – and how had the door come to be locked, if there had been intruders?

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Hair loss: a caution against ‘violent exercise’

From an advert in Aris’s Birmingham Gazette, February 4th 1839. *Other hair restorers were doubtless available* 

The Hair:- “In cases where total loss of hair takes place, it will be found to originate from various causes, but in particular from violent exercise, for thus the perspirable fluid is secreted in too great an abundance for the healthy condition of the Hair, which becomes gradually destroyed – a relaxation of the beautiful and delicate bulbous roots first occurs; then the acidity, which is natural to the perspirable fluid, injures the medullary or colouring particle of the Hair; a change of hue takes place, and after a short period baldness is invariably the result.” [From the 31st edition of a Treatise on the Hair by Alex. Rowland and given (gratuitously) with each bottle of Rowlands’ Macassar.
Agent:- M. Elmore, Perfumer, &c., 31 Bull Street, Birmingham.

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‘Mysterious Tragedy in Birmingham’

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The Illustrated Police News of October 29th, 1898 carried the dramatic illustration and story of a woman who had been gagged and murdered in her bed. The crime took place at number 60 Latimer Street. This road no longer exists, but was near Bath Street. It was demolished in the 20th century to make way for the inner ring road. The victim is named as Miss Mary Aliban, aged ‘about sixty two years of age’ and the report suggests that she had in the past been an ‘inmate of Winsor Green Asylum’ (clearly a misprint).

The picture is a bit startling, depicting how poor Mary might have suffered at the hands of her murderers. A smaller, inset picture shows her collecting rent, for she was in possession of some properties which, the report reveals, gave her a moderate income of about thirty-two shillings a week. She was in the habit of collecting her rent with the assistance of two boys, whom she employed to carry her money bags. Neighbours described a woman of ‘miserable disposition’ and many reported that the ‘chink of coins’ could be heard from her home as she counted up her savings.

The house in Latimer Street was a front house, with one room upstairs and one room downstairs, occupied by Mary Aliban. The back of the house was occupied by someone else.  Mary was usually an early riser, but on Thursday her shutters remained down all day. A neighbour recalled seeing her shortly before 11pm on the Wednesday evening ‘fetching some beer’, and appeared ‘in her usual health’. The unusual occurrence attracted the attention of some of her neighbours, who found that the front door was open, prompting them to call for a police officer.

Police-officer Waters entered Mary Aliban’s house and went upstairs to her room, where he found her body, on the bed ‘a piece of calico tied tightly around her neck, a handkerchief stuffed into her mouth, and both arms tied to the rails of the bedstead’. The evidence pointed to the act having been carried out by a labouring man, or men (as the illustration garishly suggests). ‘The arms were tied with cheap silk handkerchiefs, of the description usually worn by men of the labouring class when dressed up.’ The piece of calico, pulled so tightly around Mary’s neck and which was likely the cause of her death, had been torn from a garment pulled from a box near the end of the bed. Strangulation was assumed, undertaken with violent determination. Knuckle marks were seen on the victim’s face, and it was suggested that there had been two assailants, one who attempted to suffocate her with his hands while a second found the material with which to strangle and gag her. ‘It was abundantly clear that the murderer, or murderers, had carried out their work with the utmost ferocity.’

The motive had, doubtless, been Mary Aliban’s cash. One of the bags which she used for rent collection was found empty on the floor. The second, described by her neighbours, was missing altogether. There was no sign of forced entry and it was concluded that ‘whilst the victim left the house for the supper beer on Wednesday night the murderers had entered unobserved and secreted themselves in the cellar until their victim had gone to bed’.

Mary Aliban was probably in possession of considerable savings, most of which she carried about with her in an old carpet bag. One neighbour, Mrs Hewlett, claimed that Mary had once asked her to feel the weight of the bag, ‘I lifted it up’ said Mrs Hewlett, ‘and it was remarkably heavy for its size’. A search of the house found some cash overlooked by the murderer/s – police found a quantity of gold, silver and copper to the value of £108, hidden in a saucepan. Most of the neighbourhood were aware that Mary carried her savings around with her, and that she might have a considerable sum of cash in the bags she persistently carried around, or got others to carry for her.

For some time police were at a loss as to the identity of Mary’s murderer/s, but a breakthrough came through the witness statement of yet another neighbour who recalled seeing two youths leaving Mary’s house at 8am on Thursday morning. She thought they were about nineteen or twenty years of age and  of the ‘peaky blinder class’. On Friday afternoon police received information from the landlady of a lodging house in West Bromwich regarding the ‘extraordinary behaviour’ of a tenant named Frank Jones, who had bought copies of each evening newspaper as they were published, taking them to his room to read. It was soon found that Jones, who was unemployed, had previously lived in Latimer Street, and would have known of Mary’s supposed fortune. On being searched he was found to have a sovereign, which he claimed to have found when he was walking back to his lodgings in West Bromwich, admitting that he had been in Latimer Street until one o’clock on Thursday morning. ‘There is no trace of the second man supposed to be involved in the affair, nor is it known how much money has been stolen from the house.’

What do you think? Do you reckon it was Frank Jones who murdered Mary? And did he act alone? If so, what might have happened to the money?