‘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? 

Murder in Paradise Street: the first execution at Winson Green prison

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At 8 am on  Tuesday March 17th 1885, Henry Kimberley was the first man to be executed within the walls of Birmingham prison. The press reported that the hangman was James Berry of Bradford and that ‘the sentence could scarcely have been carried out better than it was’. Kimberley was said to have shown ‘unexpected fortitude’.

Henry Kimberley was a 53 year old screw-tool maker, described as being ‘thick-set, about 5ft 6in high, with a low beetling forehead above which rises a tangled mass of brown hair, the lower part of his face being long and thin with a slight moustache’. The press reported that he looked older than 53, adding that his wife had claimed he was ‘nearer 60’. Kimberley had been separated from his wife for many years and had been cohabiting with 39 year old Harriet Steward for at least 17 years at 24, Pershore Rd. Although they lived in relative comfort, the relationship had become tempestuous and Harriet and Henry agreed to separate. The Daily Post reported that a formal solicitors agreement had been reached by which Harriet would keep the house whilst Henry would receive £20 and a piano. His plan upon the separation had been to leave Birmingham, but it appears that he changed his mind and returned to try and win Harriet back.

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Henry’s efforts were futile and, according to the Post, goaded into madness by her fixed resolve, he seems to have conceived the fiendish idea of taking her life. Several witnesses claim to have heard Henry saying that he was going to shoot Harriet if he would not have her back. Over the course of the Christmas holiday, Henry continued his harassment, even breaking into the house on Pershore Road in the middle of the night. On December 27th Harriet went to see her friend, Emily Palmer, whose husband owned a number of pubs in the town. Emily and took Harriet to one of those pubs, the White Hart on Paradise Street for a drink and perhaps to offer support to her friend. Henry Kimberley arrived and spent around 45 minutes trying to convince Harriet to take him back. At around 7:45 pm, Kimberley asked one last time, have you determined? Are you going to live with me or not?  Harriet replied that she was not. A barmaid who witnessed the incident said that Kimberley then calmly pulled a revolver from his pocket and fired it directly at Harriet’s head, catching the left side of her skull. She jumped up before falling to the ground. As her friend moved to tend to her Kimberley turned the gun and shot Emily in the neck.

As Emily staggered along the bar, holding her bleeding neck, Harry Parsons,  the potman behind the bar attempted to detain Kimberley, who turned the gun on him. With the assistance of another man in the pub, Parsons was able to wrestle Kimberley to the ground and take the gun from him. Police-Constable Hart, who had heard the shots and cries of ‘Murder!’ then arrived on the scene and Kimberley was taken away. Both women were taken to the Queen’s hospital; sadly, Emily Palmer died from the wound to her neck; her funeral, at St. Mary’s Church Acocks Green was attended by a large crowd that assembled along the Stratford Road.

Kimberley was charged with the capital offence on ‘coroner’s warrant’. This was a notification ordering the constable to summon a jury and was issued whenever the coroner deemed a death ‘suspicious’. Kimberley’s defence upon his arrest was that they have ruined me. They have broken up my home worth £150. They have harboured her up there and at the Gem (here Kimberley was referring to Emily Palmer and her husband, the ‘Gem’ being another of their hostelries) and ‘ticed her away from me.  At trial he pleaded ‘not guilty’, but the evidence was overwhelming. Not only had he issued threats several days before the murder, he had also purchased a revolver at Snow Hill for 15 shillings on Christmas Eve.

There would be 39 further executions at Winson Green, the last being that of 20 year old Oswald Grey in 1962.

Information in this post taken from Birmingham Daily Post – copies of Birmingham nineteenth-century newspapers are available to view online by subscription to the British Newspaper Archives and free of charge at the Library of Birmingham Archives and Heritage, 4th floor. Please support our local archives.