Celestina in Newgate Prison: a Christmas tale pt 15

In the last episode of the Celestina Sommer story, we left Celestina in the police van being carried off to Newgate Prison to await trial for wilful murder. Today I’m going to look more closely at what that notorious place was like when Celestina arrived there in 1856.

Newgate, 1st half of 19th century. Print by George Shepherd

Newgate, print from the first half of the 19th century *

Newgate. It was a name to terrify even the most callous and hardened criminals. All Victorian Londoners knew ‘those dread recollections that make the very name of Newgate significant of terror and vain remorse’, as Thomas Archer wrote in 1865, nine years after Celestina went there.

Imprisonment. Fear of trial, fear of sentence. Squalor, filth, depravity, corruption. Little light, little air. Transportation (which didn’t end until 1868). Execution. Despair. These words were all associated with that symbolic prison.

And Celestina would’ve been aware of them all.

What did she see when the van drew up outside Newgate on the afternoon of Tuesday, 26 February, 1856? High, almost windowless walls, soot-blackened, intimidating. The architect George Dance had designed it in the ‘Architecture Terrible‘ style; the French phrase meant ‘terrifying’, not ‘completely rubbish’, of course. The theory was that the prison would repel those who saw its ‘reinforced walls almost without windows, a deliberate inelegance, and overt symbolism such as carved chains over entrances’. It was a monumental, solid, warning.

Even so, the prison had been burned and looted just before rebuilding was finished, during the Gordon Riots of 1780. The rioters set the prisoners free – a London foreshadowing of the storming of the Bastille. The completed building managed to hold undesirables out – and in.

William Hepworth Dixon's description of Newgate, chapter 8

Dixon’s description of Newgate

The large, solid, high-walls of Newgate would be intimidating enough from the outside. But what would Celestina have seen when the heavy door opened?

William Hepworth Dixon described the journey to the women’s wing in his book, The London Prisons, published in 1850 (pp 191-224):

‘Up the narrow steps, into the turnkey’s room, and along a darkish passage, we come into a small open court, surrounded by high walls, between which a scanty supply of air and light finds its way downwards as into a well. Facing us stands a massive building, chary of windows, and those strongly grated: it is the women’s wing of the prison…

‘As soon as the ponderous locks are turned, and the heavy bars removed, we enter the doorway, and ascend the stone staircase. Suites of chambers branch off on either side; these are occupied by the prisoners who are awaiting trial. An attempt is made to classify them according to their degrees of guiltiness; but practically this is of little use, as the matron can only judge of the detenue’s grade from her own statements, or from the offence with which she stands charged.’

The Christian Socialist reprinted extracts from this book in 1851, with some illustrations of the inside of Newgate at the bottom.

Plan of the interior of Newgate, 1800

Plan of the interior of Newgate, 1800 *

The women’s part of the prison was on the right as you entered, next door to the Sessions House (or Old Bailey, as it’s usually called). Charles Dickens described it in Sketches by Boz, published in 1836:

‘Turning to the right, then, down the passage to which we just now adverted, omitting any mention of intervening gates – for if we noticed every gate that was unlocked for us to pass through, and locked again as soon as we had passed, we should require a gate at every comma – we came to a door composed of thick bars of wood, through which were discernible, passing to and fro in a narrow yard, some twenty women: the majority of whom, however, as soon as they were aware of the presence of strangers, retreated to their wards. One side of this yard is railed off at a considerable distance, and formed into a kind of iron cage, about five feet ten inches in height, roofed at the top, and defended in front by iron bars, from which the friends of the female prisoners communicate with them…’

Dickens went on to describe two inmates, ‘hardened beyond all hope of redemption’, and their visitors. He continued:

‘Two or three women were standing at different parts of the grating, conversing with their friends, but a very large proportion of the prisoners appeared to have no friends at all, beyond such of their old companions as might happen to be within the walls. So, passing hastily down the yard, and pausing only for an instant to notice the little incidents we have just recorded, we were conducted up a clean and well-lighted flight of stone stairs to one of the wards. There are several in this part of the building, but a description of one is a description of the whole.

Newgate prison: Cross’s New Plan of London, 1850

Map with Newgate (green) and the Sessions House (red) in 1850 *

‘It was a spacious, bare, whitewashed apartment, lighted, of course, by windows looking into the interior of the prison, but far more light and airy than one could reasonably expect to find in such a situation. There was a large fire with a deal table before it, round which ten or a dozen women were seated on wooden forms at dinner. Along both sides of the room ran a shelf; below it, at regular intervals, a row of large hooks were fixed in the wall, on each of which was hung the sleeping mat of a prisoner: her rug and blanket being folded up, and placed on the shelf above. At night, these mats are placed on the floor, each beneath the hook on which it hangs during the day; and the ward is thus made to answer the purposes both of a day-room and sleeping apartment.

‘Over the fireplace, was a large sheet of pasteboard, on which were displayed a variety of texts from Scripture, which were also scattered about the room in scraps about the size and shape of the copy-slips which are used in schools. On the table was a sufficient provision of a kind of stewed beef and brown bread, in pewter dishes, which are kept perfectly bright, and displayed on shelves in great order and regularity when they are not in use.

‘The women rose hastily, on our entrance, and retired in a hurried manner to either side of the fireplace. They were all cleanly – many of them decently – attired, and there was nothing peculiar, either in their appearance or demeanour. One or two resumed the needlework which they had probably laid aside at the commencement of their meal; others gazed at the visitors with listless curiosity; and a few retired behind their companions to the very end of the room, as if desirous to avoid even the casual observation of the strangers.

Map showing Newgate Prison in the 1890s

More detailed map: Newgate and the Old Bailey in the 1890s *

‘Some old Irish women, both in this and other wards, to whom the thing was no novelty, appeared perfectly indifferent to our presence, and remained standing close to the seats from which they had just risen; but the general feeling among the females seemed to be one of uneasiness during the period of our stay among them: which was very brief. Not a word was uttered during the time of our remaining, unless, indeed, by the wardswoman in reply to some question which we put to the turnkey who accompanied us.

‘In every ward on the female side, a wardswoman is appointed to preserve order, and a similar regulation is adopted among the males. The wardsmen and wardswomen are all prisoners, selected for good conduct. They alone are allowed the privilege of sleeping on bedsteads; a small stump bedstead being placed in every ward for that purpose. On both sides of the gaol, is a small receiving-room, to which prisoners are conducted on their first reception, and whence they cannot be removed until they have been examined by the surgeon of the prison.’

In the following year, James Grant wrote in The Great Metropolis:

‘The remaining or third station forms the south wing, or that part of the building which is nearest to Ludgate Hill. There all the female prisoners are confined. They have two yards allotted them, each of which has sleeping wards and day-rooms attached. One of the two yards is occupied by females who are awaiting their trials. Connected with this department of Newgate, there is a school for girls. The upper story of this yard is used as an infirmary for females. The second yard and attached apartments are reserved for females under sentence of transportation for felonies and misdemeanors.’

Dickens touched on the characters of the women in Newgate. This was a huge concern for the commentators in the Victorian age. In 1852, four years before Celestina was locked up, David W.Bartlett wrote in his London by Day and Night:

Illustration of Dickens's description of Newgate: two women

Illustration of Dickens’s Boz sketch *

‘We now passed into the female department of the prison – the first room we entered contained two quite handsome young women, and as a rule there was a great difference between the appearance of the male and female prisoners. The latter were ashamed, and could not conceal it. One face was really a beautiful one, and crimsoned with blushes, but some of them seemed wholly lost to goodness, and such were indescribably more horrible than my of the men’s faces. Why is it that an utterly depraved woman looks so much worse than a depraved man? It certainly is so, and perhaps the reason is, that we all expect to see virtue and beauty in women, but we are not so confident of men and when we are disappointed, the look of Vice upon the woman’s face looks more hideous than on a man’s.

‘In one ward we saw a woman with as sweet a looking babe as ever we saw out of it. It was a touching sight – such pure Innocence in the arms of Guilt. And when we thought of the cruel scorn of the world, we wished, almost, that the babe might die, instead of living to herd with wicked men, or if among good, to be taunted with its birth. Born in Newgate let the child be gentle as the gentlest, pure as the purest and beautiful as a poet’s ideal, and that stigma would forever banish it from society.

‘There was a young girl in the same ward only eight years old, who looked as if she was frightened at our approach. We wondered how one so young could get to such a place. Her face was very pale, and she was reading a little Testament when we entered the room she curtsied to us gracefully, and as we looked at her, we thought her eyes filled with tears. She did not seem to be at borne with those around her. Close to her side there was one of the ugliest-looking hags we ever have seen, with reddish eyes, and a low forehead. Newgate has its contrasts as well as the world outside its walls.’

Parsian fahion plate, two women, 1850s

Now that’s what women ought to be like *

Women, of course, were the weaker vessel, the fairer, gentler sex, more inclined to virtue than men. So their fall was more shocking. It was… unnatural. And along with the disgust at these unwomanly women ran the fear that the relatively innocent would be corrupted by being shut up with the hardened criminals, the prostitutes, the teachers of vice.

As Dickens described in 1836, prisoners were held together in ‘wards’. Dixon’s 1850 account, earlier in this post, said that those awaiting trial were kept in ‘chambers’, so it seems that there was some segregation for them, at least.

But contemporary accounts of Newgate, complaining about the bad influence of untried prisoners on others, especially the ones found innocent, imply that there was also a fair degree of mixing. And Newgate was ‘a prison of detention, not of correction'; it only held people who had not yet been tried, or those waiting to be transported or executed. So the proportion of potentially innocent, corruptible people was fairly high.

This worry about bad influence had already led to calls for Newgate to be remodelled on the ‘separate system’, with one prisoner to one cell. This was to start in May 1857, with the men’s wards. But for now, Celestina was in with the other murderers.

Celestina Sommer would stay in the ‘awaiting trial’ section of Newgate Prison until Friday, 7 March, when she was to stand in the dock at the Old Bailey.

Further information:
The Newgate Calendar, c 1780
Wayward Women
Victorian London: Newgate Prison
Old Bailey Online: Crime, Justice and Punishment
Sketches by Boz: ebook, University of Adelaide
London-In-Site, a blog post about a visit to Newgate. The comments are worth reading, too.
Gresham College lecture: Newgate: London’s Prototype of Hell

* Picture credits:
West side of Newgate, print by George Shepherd, c 1800: Akigka, Creative Commons via Wikimedia
Plan of the interior of Newgate: Wimstead~commonswiki, Creative Commons via Wikimedia
Illustration for Dickens’ Sketches by Boz: Princeton University Art Museum
Fashion plate: Haabet, Creative Commons via Wikimedia
Newspaper reports: The British Library Board, via Findmypast
Map: Cross’s New Plan of London, 1850, via Mapco
Map: OS London, 1:1,056, 1893-95, via National Library of Scotland


Catch up with A Christmas tale:
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New evidence against Celestina: a Christmas tale pt 14

On Tuesday, 26 February, 1856, ‘the avenues of Clerkenwell police court were [once again] crowded to excess by persons anxious to obtain a sight of the murderess’, Celestina Sommer. She was there to be re-examined for killing her daughter, Celestina Christmas, 10 days before.

However bad the crowding was, the Morning Post added, it was not as bad as it had been at the first police court hearing on Monday 18th:

Morning Post report on the re-examination of Celestina Sommer for murderIt must have been an intimidating sight for Celestina, for the witnesses, and for officials charged with keeping order – especially after the mobbing incident after the inquest held on Wednesday 20th.

This time the court was taking no chances. Celestina’s hearing was scheduled for that morning, so the spectators probably arrived in good time. But the Mount sisters, who’d been chased by the mob after the inquest, were smuggled into the building even earlier to keep them from harm. They were probably terrified.

The police also took them away in a cab after the hearing. But, as the Morning Post said,

Morning Post report on Celestina Sommer's trial: no toruble with the crowdJust before noon Celestina Sommer was ‘placed in the dock’ before William Corrie, the same magistrate who’d tried her at the first Clerkenwell police court hearing. The Morning Post commented that she ‘appeared a great deal better than on the last examination’. Inspector Payne, the N Division (Islington) policeman who’d searched the Sommers’ house for a murder weapon, was also there ‘to watch the case’.

The hearing started with the chief clerk, Mr Mould, reading out the evidence taken at the previous police court hearing. This would’ve taken some time. Then the first witness was called – my 3x great grandmother, Julia Harrington.

Julia Harrington's witness statement. Celestina Christmas born in her house. Her mother took her away.Poor Julia, having to go through the details again and knowing her name would once more be splashed in the papers. I wonder if she was afraid of a negative reaction against her giving evidence, after what had happened to the Mount girls after the inquest? But she was only giving the bare facts of Celestina Christmas’s life with her. It couldn’t be seen as snitching to the peelers.

There’s one new detail there: that Celestina Sommer told Julia that she’d got little Celestina a job as a nursemaid. There’s no evidence that this is true. And, according to the Cheltenham Chronicle, Celestina told her sister Elizabeth Grobe, when she took her daughter away from 16 Murray Street, that she’d found ‘a place for her at a green-grocer’s’. So once again it looks as if the older Celestina had already made her plans to get rid of her daughter… for good.

The only other new evidence apart from Julia’s came from police constable Hone, 134 N Division. He told the court that, after Celestina’d been taken from the courtroom at the end of the hearing on Monday 18th, she was put into the gaoler’s room at the back of the court to wait for a police van. There she began talking in such a bizarre way that I’m going to reproduce the Morning Post report in full:

Celestina Sommer talks about Hamlet, Richard III and her daughter. She said that the child was her brother's, she paid for her keep, and she didn't  want to put her into service.This is odd on many levels. First, talking about performances of Shakespeare plays when she’d just been committed for trial for ‘wilful murder’. Could it have been part of her plan to appear ‘insane’? A way of distracting herself? Or of showing that she was cultured, not a common criminal? Was she genuinely so shocked that she had no idea of what she was talking about? Of course, murder is an important feature of both plays.

Photo of an older Samuel Phelps as Cardinal Wolsey

Samuel Phelps as Cardinal Wolsey *

Then there’s her claim that little Celestina was her brother’s child. She’d said this before Inspector Hatton and Sergeant Edward Townsend had questioned Julia Harrington after the first trial, so at the time she didn’t know that she would soon be revealed as the murdered girl’s mother. Presumably she was still trying to keep up the pretence that Celestina Christmas wasn’t hers. The claim that the child belonged to her brother was repeated in several papers.

Why would she choose her brother as little Celestina’s parent? William and Elizabeth Christmas had two sons, William Foster, named after his father, born in 1820, and Alfred, the one whose birth in 1828 seems to have triggered the Christmas family into having the triple baptism I mentioned at the beginning of the story.

Little Celestina was born in late December 1845 (not November, as Julia said, but there’s no reason why she’d have remembered the exact date 10 years later). That puts her conception in March 1845. Alfred would’ve been old enough at 17 to be the father, but my money’s on the then 25-year-old William as the brother Celestina meant.

There’s a powerful reason for this. William appears in the 1841 census at the Christmas’s house in King Square, but not in the 1851 census. Had he moved away? I found a William Christmas in 1851 in the same parish, St Luke, but he was a journeyman, a basket-maker; not a likely career for the eldest son of a silversmith. There’s another in Shoreditch who’s a house servant. And there’s an entry for a William Christmas in the FreeBMD death register for the last quarter of 1846, also in St Luke. If this is William Foster Christmas the younger, he’d be the ‘poor dead brother’ Celestina referred to. It makes her claim more plausible.

The idea that William was the child’s father hung around for a while, and when it was established that Celestina was the mother, a suggestion of incest could be inferred. It would certainly explain how some man ‘got at’ this young girl. But I’m not convinced. What do you think?

Then Celestina said that she paid for the little girl’s keep, five shillings a week, out of her earnings as a music teacher. We know she was a professional singer, or ‘vocalist’, so this is quite credible.

Except that, again after she made these claims on Monday 20th, the papers, including the Worcester Journal, three days later, had reported:

Celestina Sommer's confession, newspaper reportWhich is interesting. Celestina’s husband Charles Sommer said he was the one who paid for the child’s keep; he paid it willingly; and perhaps most interesting, it had been agreed before the marriage that he’d pay. Presumably this was a condition of his getting the wealthy silversmith’s daughter and a decent dowry, but who knows? I don’t think it was a love match, anyway.

The other important fact in the last newspaper report is that she and Charles quarrelled, and that she said this was the reason why she killed her daughter. Keep that in mind.

Statue of Richard Oastler, campaigner against child labour, and two children

Child labour, statue *

Going back to the Morning Post, though, Celestina Sommer also claimed that she ‘did not like to put the child out to service, for she was not old enough to work’. So much for getting her a place as a nursemaid or at a greengrocer’s. Celestina’s story was unravelling fast.

After PC Hone had finished giving his evidence, the hearing came to a quick end. Celestina’s ‘defence was reserved by Mr Humphreys, junior, who attended for her’. I take this to mean that he preferred not to speak to her defence until the next – and most important – trial.

William Corrie, the magistrate, then committed her to Newgate for trial, ‘upon the charge of having wilfully murdered Celestina Christmas, aged 10 years’. The witnesses were bound over to appear at the future trial and ‘the case, as far as this court was concerned, terminated’. There seems to be a sigh of relief implied in that last sentence. I imagine all at Clerkenwell police court were glad to have finished with this difficult case.

Once again, Celestina’s story raises almost as many questions as it answers. Why had Celestina behaved so strangely in the gaoler’s room? Why tell a different story from Charles’s about how much was paid for Celestina’s keep, and who paid it? Why say her brother was the father? Was she showing signs of mental illness? Deliberately? Or was she so distressed she hardly knew what she was saying? And how significant were those quarrels with her husband?

One thing’s for sure. She’d have been terrified as the van took her away to perhaps the most dreaded and notorious prison in London – Newgate.

* Picture credits:
Suffer the Little Children, photograph of statue of anti child labour campaigner Richard Oastler, Northgate, Bradford: Creative Commons, by Peter Hughes
Photograph of an older Samuel Phelps:  Jbarta, Creative Commons via Wikimedia
Newspaper reports: The British Library Board, via Findmypast


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The mob chases the witnesses: a Christmas tale pt 13

In the last post in this series, we looked at the inquest into the murder of Celestina Christmas by her mother, held at the North Pole tavern on New North Rd. This time I’ll focus on what happened immediately afterwards: the mobbing of two witnesses.

Last time, I mentioned that the jury had no reported qualms about finding that Celestina Sommer, the murdered girl’s mother, had committed ‘wilful murder’. But others, onlookers or locals, disagreed.

As Lloyd’s Weekly newspaper reported on 24 February 1856, four days after the inquest:

Newspaper report of an angry mob after the inquest into the murder of Celestina Christmas

 

 

 

Rachel (or Rachael) Mount (or Munt) was the servant of Charles and Celestina Sommer who overheard the murder of Celestina Christmas, and Elizabeth, her sister, went with her the following day to report it to the police.

They were obviously seen as the star witnesses at the inquest, though the police were also present, as we’ll see.

Metropolitan police, 1860

Metropolitan policemen, 1860 *

What happened was this: after the inquest ended, the room at the North Pole was cleared.

Sergeant Edward Townsend, who was one of the two policemen who arrested the Sommers on Sunday, 19 February, had stayed in the pub, along with Sgt George Bexley, also of N (Islington) Division of the Metropolitan Police. Sgt Bexley was the one who’d found Celestina Sommer’s blood-spotted stockings hidden under her bed. Their evidence was obviously important, too.

‘Two or three persons’ rushed into the pub and ‘begged’ the policemen to help Rachel and Elizabeth Mount. The girls had been on their way to their home in Hoxton, just to the south over the Regent’s Canal, when they were ‘waylaid’ by a group of angry people.

The two sergeants hurried southwards down New North Rd, passing Linton St (where Celestina Sommer had lived) on their right.

Stanford's Library map, 1864, showing the escape of the Mount girls after the murder inquest

Stanford’s Library map, 1864 *

On the map on this page I’ve marked the pub with a pale blue dot and the first part of their route is shown by a pale blue arrow. 18 Linton St is where the red dot is.

It was only a short walk to the bridge over the canal. At the corner just before the bridge the policemen saw what they’d been called to sort out – ‘a mob of about 200 persons surrounding the house of Mr Hurd, a publican’ (shown in purple).

I did wonder if Mr Hurd might’ve been connected with the North Pole, but a crawl round some pub history websites (I’ve put links at the bottom) shows the publican in 1856 to be one J Thornett, and the outgoing licensee in 1857 as Alexander Young. So Mr Hurd’s profession could be just a coincidence.

So there they were, two peelers against an angry mob. It seems that they were able to get into Mr Hurd’s house, or at least to talk to someone inside it, because they found out that the girls were hiding there ‘for the purpose of avoiding the inexplicable fury of their assailants’.

The sergeants, ‘perceiving the females overwhelmed with alarm, and weeping’, did all they could to get the crowd to disperse. But it was no good – there they stayed, and it looked like stalemate. Luckily the house had a side door, which the mob didn’t seem to have found.

Somehow the peelers arranged for the Mount sisters to be smuggled out of this door unseen, and the terrified girls and two policemen scurried away along Arlington St, parallel to the canal, towards the bridge at the top of Shepherdess’s Walk, ‘a circuitous route to their home in Hoxton’. It’s shown with a purple arrow on the map.

For a few minutes it seemed that they’d got away, but the mob soon worked out the route they’d taken and chased down Arlington St after them, ‘yelling and hooting’.

London riot, 1851: policemen fight mob

London riot, 1851 *

Things got so heated that ‘the officers, on reaching the next bridge, situate close to the Block tavern, were compelled to make a stand in the narrow pathway…’

That bridge is shown on the map as the Islington Footpath Bridge (yellow dot) and the Block, renamed the ‘Blockmakers’ Arms’ and now converted to private flats, is just on the other side of the bridge (green dot). I’m sure a footbridge would’ve been narrow enough for the policemen to fend off the mob, at least for a while.

There’s no mention of them summoning help, though I’m sure they’d have whirled their rattles as they ran. Policemen didn’t get their iconic whistles until the 1880s. But it’s impossible that the noise of the ‘yelling, hooting’ crowd wouldn’t have drawn others, whether to join in, watch, or try to help the sergeants and the Mount girls.

So at or near the footbridge the officers decided to make their stand ‘and resist, with some violence, the efforts made to get at those under their protection.’

‘Some violence’. It looks as if they used their truncheons vigorously, and no doubt blows would have hit their reinforced top hats in return. Nothing’s said about injuries. But the stand-off had one sort-of-positive result: two ‘gentlemen’ came to the girls’ help. Presumably the Mounts were hiding behind the policemen and in the commotion each of the gentlemen ‘took one under his care’ and hurried them off in separate directions under cover of the flying truncheons.

There are two streets leading away from the footbridge, so it’s likely that one of the girls was taken down Eagle Wharf Rd and the other south along Shepherdess’s Walk.

‘And fortunately,’ says the Lloyd’s Weekly report, ‘thus the matter ended.’

This post’s almost ended, too. But it’s interesting that 200 or so people were so angry with the Mount sisters for giving evidence against Celestina Sommer that they’d chase them, presumably with a beating in mind.

Did they just dislike sneaks, snouts, grasses and other informers? Or were they sympathetic towards the woman who’d killed her illegitimate child, as so many others had done? Was it because she was young and pretty?

Child-killers

There’s plenty of evidence that ‘the most common form of female homicide, the killing of one’s own infant or young child, almost invariably drew pity’, as Martin J Wiener writes in Convicted Murderers and the Victorian Press: Condemnation vs Sympathy. But these children were usually babies or young children. Celestina Christmas was ten years old when her mother killed her.

Still, there was a widespread and growing unease about the idea of hanging women, and although infanticide was condemned, it was understandable for ‘unmarried young women who were facing lives of social disgrace and destitution, or married women acting incomprehensibly.’

I can write more about the dilemma of what to do about child-killing later, if you like. It’s relevant to Celestina Sommer’s story. Let me know if you’re interested, or if you have any thoughts about the mob and its ‘inexplicable fury’.

* Picture credits:
Stanford’s Library Map 1864: Mapco
Photograph of a group of Metropolitan Police, c 1860, via Epsom and Ewell History Explorer
Lloyd’s Weekly report: The British Library Board, via Findmypast
1851 riot image: via Victorian London

Publican Directory 1856 and list of North Pole licencees: Pubs History. There are more pub tales here, in a post about Julia Harrington‘s future son-in-law, James Thomas Richards

Martin J Wiener’s Convicted Murderers and the Victorian Press: Condemnation vs Sympathy can be downloaded (PDF) here


Catch up with A Christmas tale:
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The inquest in the pub: a Christmas tale pt 12

Where’s the obvious place for a Victorian coroner to hold an inquest into the cause of death of a murdered child?

The pub, of course.

Cruikshank cartoon, 1826: Inquest in a house (©Lewis Walpole Library, via London Lives)

Inquest in a house (©Lewis Walpole Library via London Lives)

No, really. It’s not as daft as it may seem. Some inquests into ‘suspicious’ deaths could be held in the building where the person died, but in 1860s London there wouldn’t have been many public places large enough to hold an inquest. As well as the coroner, there would be a twelve-man jury, one or more witnesses, perhaps a surgeon, and the hangers-on: the gentlemen of the press and the curious public.

A private room at a pub, inn or tavern was ideal. This building was one of the centres of local society, along with the church or chapel. Though easy access to beer, gin and tobacco might not have helped the sobriety of the proceedings.

As Charles Dickens, who’d been at an inquest and wasn’t unfamiliar with London crime, wrote in Bleak House: ‘The Coroner frequents more public-houses than any man alive.’

Thomas Wakley holding an inquest (via The Lancet)

Thomas Wakley holding an inquest (via The Lancet)

The medical journalist and biographer Samuel Squire Sprigge had more to say: ‘The taint of the tavern-parlour vitiated the evidence, ruined the discretion of the jurors, and detracted from the dignity of the coroner. The solemnity of the occasion was too generally lightened by alcohol… where the majesty of death evaporated with the fumes from the gin of the jury.’

This description was of the sort of inquest which took place before the reforming influence of his subject, Thomas Wakley, who was the coroner for West Middlesex (which included Islington and Finsbury) as well as a founding editor of the medical journal The Lancet and an MP. Wakley’s a fascinating man, and might’ve been the coroner at the inquest into little Celestina Christmas’s murder… but on Wednesday, 20 February 1856, he was elsewhere and his deputy, George Smith Brent, was in charge of the event.

North Pole Tavern, near Linton St, shown on Weller's 1868 map. The inquest into Celestina Christmas's murder took place here

North Pole Tavern, near Linton St, 1868 map *

It was held four days after Celestina was murdered, and three days after her body was found. Inquests usually took place within 48 hours. With no refrigerated morgues, speed was necessary, but perhaps the kitchen at the Sommers’ house in Linton St, where the body was left, was cold enough in late February to stop too much decomposition. Let’s hope so for the sake of everyone involved.

The pub or inn chosen for an inquest was usually near where the death had taken place, and, as I’ve mentioned, it needed to have enough space for jury, witnesses and onlookers. Celestina’s inquest was held at the North Pole Tavern, 188-90 New North Rd, just round the corner from Linton St. On the 1868 map on the right I’ve marked the pub in blue, and 18 Linton St in red.

I’d have liked to visit it to get an idea of the size of the place (honest! No other reason!) but at the time I’m writing this it’s being refurbished. From photos I’ve seen of the inside it certainly looks large enough.

The North Pole © David Anstiss, Creative Commons licence

The North Pole © David Anstiss *

But before the inquest took place, something very important had happened.

Celestina Sommer had confessed to the murder.

I haven’t been able to work out from the newspaper reports exactly when she confessed, but it seems to have been after the police went with her husband, Charles Sommer, and my ancestor Julia Harrington to see poor little Celestina Christmas’s body at Linton St. Once the body’d been identified, there was very little reason to pretend that it was an unknown child’s.

Celestina also confessed that she’d used a knife to cut her daughter’s throat; but the police hadn’t been able to find it yet. There seems to be some mystery or significance attached to the murder weapon apart from its importance as evidence.

The inquest itself seems to have been straightforward, with no special pleading from the jury as there had been in Mary McNeil’s case (which I looked at two posts ago). There was little fuss in the newspapers. Here’s the Morning Post:

Coroner's inquest into the murder of Celestina Christmas: newspaper reportWith such a verdict, the coroner’s only option was to make out a warrant for her to be committed to Newgate Prison to await her trial.

There’s one more thing to mention before I end this post.

Although the jury at the inquest didn’t seem to show any sympathy for Celestina Sommer, the crowd of spectators did. Spectacularly. I’ll write about that next time.

This post is long enough already, and I could’ve written so much more. But if you’re interested in more information about the history of coroners’ inquests in the mid-19th century, and indeed Victorian crime, here’s some further reading:

London Lives – a wonderful website, full of fascinating facts about crime in the capital
Coroners in North London
Coroners’ registers for early 1856 (TMA)
LMA‘s leaflet 41, Coroners’ records for London and Middlesex and their Register of inquests held by coroner for Western District, Middlesex (downloadable PDFs. I can’t link to them but just do a search)
Getting Away with Murder? Homicide and the Coroners in Nineteenth-Century London Mary Beth Emmerichs
Bodies of Evidence: Medicine and the Politics of the English Inquest, 1830-1926
  Ian A Burney
Medical Legal Aspects of Medical Records Patricia W Iyer, Barbara J Levin, Mary Ann Shea
The Arsenic Century: How Victorian Britain was Poisoned at Home, Work, and Play James C Whort
Reading Constellations: Urban Modernity in Victorian Fiction Patricia McKee
And two blog posts: the fabby London Historians’ Blog and Coroners vs Police on Victorian Detectives

* Picture credits:
Weller’s 1868 map of Linton St and the North Pole: Mapco
Photograph of the North Pole: © David Anstiss and licenced for re-use under this Creative Commons licence
Morning Post report: The British Library Board, via Findmypast


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A Christmas bonus

In my last post about the murder of Celestina Christmas and the story behind it, we visited Murray Street (now Grove) where Mary McNeil killed her children.

Murray Grove road signAnd over on the Worldwide Genealogy blog, I posted about how I tracked down the two houses, nos 16 and 17, which feature in the story. Here’s a map from 1867, showing them and the two streets nearby which still have houses from the 1850s:

Map of Murray Grove (formerly Murray St) and the area nearby

Murray St (blue), nos 16 and 17 in green and red. Vaughan Terrace is purple, Edward St is yellow *

The houses don’t exist any more, but as a bonus while I work on the next instalment of the story, when we return to Celestina and the murder, here are some photos I’ve taken from just round the corner from Murray Grove, which will give you an idea of what 16 and 17 might’ve looked like. The first is in Shepherdess Walk, which was then called Vaughan Terrace, and I’ve marked the stretch of houses in the photo in purple on the map above:

Shepherdess Walk (was Vaughan Terrace), © Frances Owen and A Rebel Hand 2015 Here’s another, this time from Micawber St, called Edward St in the 1850s. You can see the houses are a little plainer, perhaps because they’re on a side street. I’ve marked the ones in the photo in yellow on the map:

Micawber St (was Edward St), © Frances Owen and A Rebel Hand 2015I hope this gives you an idea of the sort of houses Celestina Sommer would’ve known in Murray Grove in 1856. You can compare them to her home in Linton St here.

* Picture credits:
Kelly’s 1857 map of Murray St and the surrounding area: Mapco
Photographs of Shepherdess Walk and Micawber St: © Frances Owen and A Rebel Hand, 2015. If anyone wants to re-use them that’s fine, if you ask me first! And attribute it, with a link, please. See copyright policy in the right-hand side bar


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Another murder: a Christmas tale pt 11

Could Celestina Sommer have been inspired to cut her daughter’s throat by another child murder? I believe that it’s at least possible.

In the last episode of this story, I mentioned that the two policemen, Inspector Hatton and Sergeant Edward Townsend, and Celestina’s husband Charles Sommer went to see her sister, Elizabeth Grobe.

This was still on Monday, 18 February, 1856, the day Charles and Celestina Sommer were charged at Clerkenwell Police Court. They’d just been to see my 3x great grandmother, Julia Harrington, who’d brought up little Celestina Christmas from birth.

But what I’m looking at today is almost a throwaway comment. Here it is, from the Reading Mercury of 23 February:

Newspaper report on a visit to Murray St during the investigation into the murder of Celestina ChristmasElizabeth and Charles Grobe lived at 16 Murray Street, now called Murray Grove. Next door to them, at no 17, another murder had been committed. Mary McNeil (McNeill, M’Neil in some newspapers) had cut the throats of her two illegitimate sons. Well, OK, you may say, that was a sad and not uncommon crime in Victorian days.

But here’s some more information about the McNeil murder, from the Morning Chronicle of 1 December, 1855:

Morning Chronicle report of Mary McNeil being charged for child murderHere we have ‘intense and painful’ excitement outside the police court as a well dressed, attractive woman is charged with killing two of her children (one was in the country at the time).

As Lloyd’s Weekly said on the following day:

Lloyd's Weekly report about Mary McNeil, who killed her childrenA respectable, genteel person of 25, mother of illegitimate children, who cut their throats with a razor. Is this beginning to look familiar?

1861 map of Murray St and Linton St

Linton St (top left) and Murray St (bottom right) in 1861 *

The news of the McNeil murder was widely reported in the newspapers. It would’ve been the talk of the area, and Murray St was fairly near Linton St, where the Sommers lived.

I’ve shown them on this 1861 map, with Linton St in pale blue at the top left and nos 16 (green) and 17 (red) Murray St bottom right.

And it’s inconceivable that members of the Christmas family, including the elder Celestina, wouldn’t have spoken and thought about a murder which was committed next to where one of them lived.

But you’re canny readers and that’s not enough to convince you that this murder could have any connection with the cutting of little Celestina Christmas’s throat by her own mother. Me neither, until I read more about the McNeil murder case.

Murray Street (Grove) now. © Frances Owen 2015

Murray St (Grove). Nos 16 and 17 were just beyond where the orange-lidded bins are in this photo. © Frances Owen 2015

Briefly, what happened was that Mary McNeil was the mistress of a man who was the father of her three young children. He provided them with enough money to live comfortably. However after the birth of her last child, Mary changed. She was ‘wretched and miserable’, hit her children, and complained that they had no decent clothes to wear. Her lover, James Williams, had taken one of the children away after she’d threatened to harm it.

At the time, people said that she had ‘milk fever’, which is actually a term for mastitis. These days, I imagine, we’d describe what she suffered from as postnatal depression.

On November 29, 1855, Mary’s upstairs neighbour found a cash box on the kitchen stairs, partly covered by a gown. It belonged to Mary, and the neighbour took it to her door, but when he went to give it back to her he saw her baby son ‘lying on the bed… with its throat cut and in a pool of blood.’ He dropped the box and fetched a policeman, who found the four-year-old boy also dead, his throat slit ‘from ear to ear’. By his head lay the razor Mary’d used to kill the boys.

Mary was sitting, ‘rocking herself to and fro’ and wailing “oh, what have I done?” She admitted the murder. The Bath Chronicle added this odd remark about the cash box:

Newspaper report about Mary McNeilDuring the court proceedings that followed, her mental health was mentioned several times. Interestingly, the jury at the coroner’s inquest was very concerned about it. Here’s The Era, published on 9 December:

Coroner's inquest about Mary McNeil's murder of her childrenIt continues:

The Mary McNeil inquest continuedI’ve no idea whether the cash box has any echoes in Celestina’s locked box with three clasps, which her servant Rachel Mount thought important enough to mention, or whether Celestina’s bizarre behaviour in wearing bloodstained clothes after she’d murdered her daughter is connected with Mary McNeil’s story in any way. But they’re more odd coincidences.

The emphasis on Mary McNeil’s mental state at the time she killed her children is much more obviously relevant. In spite of the awfulness of what Mary had done, there seemed to be a feeling of sympathy for her, and a reluctance to find her guilty. And this, I think, is the important point.

Mary McNeil and two other women acquitted of murder - Wells Journal report

Wells Journal report, 12 January 1856  *

Mary McNeil was tried for wilful murder at the Old Bailey (Central Criminal Court) on Wednesday, 9 January, 1856. The prison surgeon, John Rowland Gibson, testified: “my opinion decidedly is, that she was of unsound mind at the time she committed the act.”

Mary’s mother confirmed that her husband, Mary’s father, “was sent to a lunatic asylum in consequence of his deranged state of mind—he was taken to Grove-hall Institution, and from there was removed to Bethlehem Hospital.”

And the court found her ‘Not guilty, being insane. To be detained until Her Majesty’s pleasure be known.’ Two other women were acquitted of murdering their children on the same day.

Celestina’s behaviour has already been seen to be unexpected at times. In the eyes of Victorian society, for a respectable young unmarried girl to become pregnant was surely a sign of something wrong with her. Daughters were locked away in asylums for it. And as you’ll see in another post, Celestina was to act in a very bizarre way after her arrest.

Is it possible that she read about Mary McNeil’s sentence and thought that she had found a way to get rid of the unwanted child who she claimed was telling lies about her and causing quarrels between her and her husband?

The facts are these: on Wednesday, 9 January, 1856, Mary McNeil, next door neighbour of Celestina’s sister, was acquitted of murdering her illegitimate sons by cutting their throats. The newspapers reported the verdict widely over the next few days.

On Thursday, 7 February, Celestina Sommer took her illegitimate daughter away from Julia Harrington’s house, telling Julia that she’d found the girl a place to work – though this wasn’t true. On Saturday, 16 February, she cut Celestina Christmas’s throat.

If it’s a coincidence, it’s a very creepy one. What do you think?

I’ve written about my quest to find where 16 and 17 Murray St were over on the Worldwide Genealogy blog. I’ve also added another post here, which will give you an idea of what 17 and 17 might’ve looked like.

* Picture credits:

Newspaper extracts: The British Library Board, via Findmypast
Cross’s 1861 map of Murray St and Linton St: Mapco
Photograph of Murray Grove: © Frances Owen and A Rebel Hand, 2015. If anyone wants to re-use it that’s fine, if you ask me first! And attribute it, with a link, please. See copyright policy in the right-hand side bar


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Julia Harrington’s evidence: a Christmas tale pt 10

Julia Harrington, wife of Thomas and mother of Catharine, Hannah and of my 2x great-grandmother Rebecca Harrington, was about to have a terrible shock.

Old map of Peter St in 1857 (green), just off Hackney Rd (yellow). Their last house is marked blue

Peter St in 1857 (green), just off Hackney Rd (yellow). The Harringtons’ previous house is marked blue *

It was Monday, 18 February, 1856, the day Charles and Celestina Sommer were charged at Clerkenwell Police Court.

In the Harringtons’ house at 4 Peter Street, Bethnal Green, Julia would’ve been busy, cleaning, tidying or preparing a meal for when Thomas, a dock labourer, got back from work.

Theirs was a newly-built house, and Julia must’ve felt very lucky to be in one of the few in the area with water closets. Hygienic, dry, small (in the 1861 census only three people were listed at the address), it would show that the Harringtons weren’t doing too badly these days.

I imagine Hannah, aged 20, and Rebecca, 14, helping their mother while there was still daylight. It’s possible that Hannah was working outside the home, most likely as a servant, but I’ve found no evidence to show what she did during the day.

There were missing family members, though; Catharine, known as Kate, had married Henry Thomas Drew and was living nearby with him and her 19-month-old son, Harry. And there was little Celestina Christmas, who’d lived with them since her birth just over 10 years earlier. Until she had been taken away by her mother, Celestina Sommer, a few days ago.

1850s Peeler (policeman) like the ones who found Celestina's body

1850s policeman *

Then, in the early afternoon, came the knock. “Police! Open the door!” Not, perhaps, the most welcome of sounds for an East End family. Had Thomas been injured at the docks? Or caught doing a bit of black market work?

But it got worse. When Inspector Hatton and Sergeant Edward Townsend of the Metropolitan Police’s N Division came in, stovepipe hats tall under the low ceiling, and began to question Julia about little Celestina, the terrible truth would soon have become obvious.

The policemen were accompanied by the now freed Charles Sommer, and had come straight from Clerkenwell court.

The newspapers – by now the Standard had lost its exclusive coverage and the story was being picked up by the press as far away as Inverness – printed various versions of what happened next. I’ll use the most coherent ones here.

As the Leeds Mercury says:

Leeds Mercury newspaper report of the police visit to Julia Harrington

And elderly woman? The cheek! Julia was born around 1808, so she’d only have been 47 or so. But putting that aside, two interesting pieces of information come up here. The paper reports that the murdered child was the illegitimate child of either Celestina Sommer – or her brother. Most papers have her as the older Celestina’s child, which is correct. I may go back to why the confusion arose, if you’re interested. Let me know in the comments below!

The other statement is that little Celestina was 10, not 14 as the Standard had reported, and had been ‘under the protection of Mrs Harrington nearly from its birth’.

The papers do tend to refer to the girl as ‘it’, which seems to have been the 19th century way for a child, even though at the age of 10 she had been not far off puberty and definite femaleness. Indeed the age of consent in the 1850s was 12, shockingly to us now.

I’ve already mentioned that little Celestina was probably ‘under Julia Harrington’s protection’ since her birth. A look at a copy of her birth certificate shows that the baby was born at 1 Grove Lane, where the Harringtons had been living from at least the time of the 1841 census.(Grove Lane was, as I’ve mentioned, once called Cut Throat Lane, a creepy foreshadowing of her fate.)

Copy of Celestina Christmas's birth certificateAnd it was Julia who reported the birth, as the ‘occupier of the house’. So baby Celestina had been born at the Harringtons’ house (perhaps Julia helped with the birth?) and lived with them for the 10 years of her short life. Blood ties apart, she was part of the family.

Except, of course, that she was in effect a paying guest. Celestina Sommer was paying 10/- a month towards her keep. That’s 2/6 (two shillings and sixpence) a week, which, calculated using the Retail Price Index, is worth about £10.43 today. It’s not a huge amount, but I expect the Harringtons lived fairly frugally and Celestina’s keep would only involve adding more food and some linen to the family budget. She wasn’t undernourished, we can imagine, if she’d been taken for a girl of about 14 by the police who found her body.

The Chelmsford Chronicle goes on with the story. The two policemen, with Charles Sommer, took Julia to Linton Street:

Chelmsford Chronicle repoert of Julia Harrington's distress at seeing Celestina's bodyPoor Julia. Imagine the horror of seeing her little charge lying dead, the victim of murder. I hope the police had thought to cover the throat wound.

And how she must’ve blamed herself for letting the elder Celestina take her away. The Leeds Mercury report went on to say that Julia’d heard nothing from, or about, the girl since her mother took her. I’m sure Julia was agonising over not trying to find out what had happened to her.

Penny Blood illustration: a woman dressed in black takes a little girl away from a weeping womanBut what could Julia have done? It was little Celestina’s mother who took the girl away. She’d said she couldn’t afford to pay the 2/6 a week any more. Julia’d had no right to stop her. Not that that would help with her grief now. And her name was now in the papers, linked with a sensational crime. Even if people who knew her couldn’t read, word would get round. Her troubles had probably only just begun.

Something happened between the time the police arrived at Peter St and their taking Julia to see Celestina’s body in the Linton St house. The three men went to see Elizabeth Grobe, Celestina Sommer’s sister. It throws a sinister but fascinating light on a possible reason why the little girl was murdered. I’ll come to that next time.

But for now, I have a question for you: are you interested in more of this Victorian murder story? I’ve got to the part where my family’s involved. Do you want more, or would you rather stop reading the Celestina saga and go back to more conventional genealogy?

* Picture credits:
Newspaper extracts: The British Library Board, via Findmypast
Map: Kelly’s Post Office Directory of London 1857 via Mapco
1850s peeler: Hoodinski, via Wikimedia (public domain)
Penny blood illustration: The Mysteries of London, via bl.uk


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Who killed Celestina? A Christmas tale pt 9

So far, at the lengthy procedures at Clerkenwell Police Court, the evidence against Charles and Celestina Sommer given on Monday, 18 February, 1856, has covered the arrest of the couple for the murder of little Celestina Christmas and the witness statement of their servant, Rachel Mount (Mont, Munt).

Now, in the last part of the Standard newspaper report (do I hear a sigh of relief?), the court turned to the medical evidence.

Mr George William Henry Coward, N (Islington) Division’s surgeon, told his audience that he’d gone to the cellar at 18 Linton St and looked at the body:

Surgeon's report on the body of Celestina ChristmasIt seems like a frenzied attack, with much more violence than would’ve been needed to kill a young girl.

1850s women's stockings

1850s stockings *

Sgt George Bexley of N Division then took the stand. He said that he’d searched the first-floor bedroom at 18 Linton St. Under the bed he’d found a pair of stockings, which were now shown to the court.

I imagine there was a double frisson – not just women’s undergarments, but a murderess’s undergarments.

There were spots of blood on one of them, and – damning evidence – the stockings were marked with the letters CC, the initials of Celestina Sommer’s maiden name, which was the same as her murdered daughter’s – Celestina Christmas.

He also found spots of blood on Rachel Mount’s pillow in the kitchen.

The next witness was Rebecca Donnelly, the searcher at Hoxton police station, where the Sommers had been taken after they were arrested. She told the court:

The searcher's report - the murder of Celestina Christmas

First Celestina’s stockings, now her petticoat. How titillating for the court, how humiliating for her. Still, they were evidence. But perhaps the most important piece of evidence was missing.

Inspector Payne of N Division then stepped forwards to say that he had also searched the house, but “could not discover the knife or any weapon with which the wounds were inflicted.”

Are you as puzzled as I  am about this evidence? First the wild attack on poor little Celestina Christmas, with three attempts to cut her throat. It seems like the action of someone in a fury, not the calculated killing you’d expect. (Since I wrote this, the excellent blogger Pauleen Cass of Cassmob has suggested that the stabbing could reflect “ineptitude or ambivalence rather than fury”, which is a very good point.) Certainly these are the actions of somebody who’s in distress or out of control.

Coal hole cover plate, London pavement

London coal hole cover plate *

Then Celestina Sommer seems not to have made much of an attempt to hide the evidence of her crime, except rather pathetically stowing her stockings under the bed. It’s extraordinary that she was still wearing the bloodstained petticoat. And as for trying to pass the blood off as a nosebleed…

Did she think nobody would notice the blood spots, even the body? Perhaps she thought that if she pretended it wasn’t there it would go away. She doesn’t seem to have thought up much of a defence. That an unknown person would dump a child’s corpse through a coal hole, randomly, isn’t convincing.

And yet – the murder weapon was missing. Of all the evidence, you’d think that would be found. Rachel made no mention of it in her statement, either. Very curious.

The hearing ended with a quick wrap-up. The magistrate, William Corrie, said that “there were no grounds for the detention of the male, but he should remand the female till Monday next.”

He then bound the witnesses over to give evidence against Celestina at the Central Criminal Court (the Old Bailey) on the charge of wilful murder. At this Celestina, who had been allowed to sit throughout the proceedings, ‘appeared to become faint, and leaned her head upon the front of the bar.’

Charles Sommer was freed. His wife was taken to the courthouse gaoler’s room and later ‘conveyed in the police van to the house of detention’.

The newspaper report ends with the remark that ‘Mr C Albert, the interpreter… attended to watch the case’. No more explanation is given, so was he there in case Charles, who was German, needed help in understanding the proceedings? Or was he not used because Charles had kept silent? I hadn’t considered the possibility of Charles not speaking English well until now.

So many questions, yet again… but at least one answer is clear. It was Celestina Sommer who killed the girl, who hadn’t yet been named. There was still some doubt over the victim’s identity, but it’ll be cleared up in the next episode, which also introduces my 3x great grandmother, Julia Harrington, to the delights of a murder investigation and newspaper reporters.

Until then here’s another basement in Linton St for you.

Basement area, Linton St © Frances Owen and A Rebel Hand 2015

Basement area, Linton St *

* Picture credits:

Newspaper extracts: The British Library Board, via Findmypast
1850s stockings: Metropolitan Museum of Art via London Street Views
Coal hole cover plate: Mark.murphy, Creative Commons
Photograph of Linton St: © Frances Owen and A Rebel Hand, 2015. If anyone wants to re-use them that’s fine, if you ask me first! And attribute them, with a link, please. See copyright policy in the right-hand side bar


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The murder of Celestina Christmas: a Christmas tale pt 8

A little girl’s body, her throat cut, found in a cellar in respectable Linton Street, Finsbury. Readers of the Standard on 19 February, 1856, would already have an idea of who might have murdered her, as I wrote about in my last post: the respectably-dressed, short, young married couple who lived at the murder scene: Charles and Celestina Sommer.

The newspaper report of the previous day’s proceedings at Clerkenwell Police Court continued with the evidence given by the Sommers’ servant girl, Rachel Mount (also spelled Mont or Munt). She was the one, you’ll remember, who’d told the police about the suspected murder.

The reporter seemed quite taken with her, calling her “a most interesting little girl, about 14 years of age, who gave her evidence in the most clear and artless manner”.

Replica Victorian kitchen, Museum of Lincolnshire Life

Replica Victorian kitchen, Museum of Lincolnshire Life *

Rachel told the court that on Saturday her mistress (Celestina Sommer) had gone out, telling her to go to bed (in the kitchen, where, like many servants in those days, she slept). Rachel didn’t obey, but sat up “making an apron”, but when she heard Celestina come in she put out the candle and hurried into bed.

“I heard my mistress come into the passage, and she had a female with her.” How did she know this? The sound of the shoes? Rachel pretended to be asleep. After going upstairs, Celestina Sommer went into the kitchen and drew the blind at the window down. The report continues:

Part of a newspaper report about the murder of Celestina ChristmasDoes anyone else think that’s odd? Who would want to cut her throat, and why? But back to the story, and I warn you, this is where it gets grisly:

Newspaper report describing the murder of Celestina ChristmasStark and horrific.

Not surprisingly, Rachel didn’t sleep that night. She heard Charles Sommer coming in at one in the morning (where’d he been? That’s quite late). Rachel then said that her mistress had changed her clothes after coming home:

More of the report about the murder of Celestina Christmas

Bizarre behaviour, waking the supposedly sleeping servant and talking about wages. Perhaps she was checking whether the girl was acting in a way that might suggest she’d heard something. Was Celestina in some kind of shock? Or is this a further example of her mental instability?

Rachel then answered a question from the magistrate, William Corrie:

Short newspaper extractShe also said that she’d seen the murdered child once before:

Newspaper report on the servant seeing Celestina Christmas beforeWeird and scary stuff. And puzzling. It’s possible that the box with three clasps – very secure – had been holding money to pay my 3x great grandmother, Julia Harrington, for little Celestina’s keep. Maybe Rachel hadn’t seen the older Celestina take it when she and the child went out.

But she saw the large stone wrapped in a cloth. Very sinister. And how did Rachel know that it was a stone inside the material?

Was Celestina Sommer planning to kill her daughter on that earlier occasion? Is that what Rachel is implying?

I must admit I find this entire story as confusing as it is horrific. Why would little Celestina say that someone wanted to cut her throat? And why would her mother then threaten to do it? What made Celestina Sommer go back into the kitchen and walk around, talking to herself? That was risky behaviour.

Questions

And the two big questions: where was the knife she used to cut her daughter’s throat? Rachel didn’t mention it, though her evidence was full of other details, like the box with three clasps and the Lucifers (matches).

And why did Celestina Sommer want to kill her anyway? Because the girl had been ‘telling lies’ – but what lies? Remember that we know they were mother and daughter, but Rachel didn’t know this, and nor did the court. So had little Celestina been giving away the secret of her birth?

One thing’s obvious. Celestina Sommer was emotionally unstable. Perhaps, to use Victorian language, she was ‘mad’.

I know I’ve asked a lot of questions here, but I do find it puzzling. Of course, the newspaper report has been edited – I can’t imagine that Rachel, under pressure and perhaps frightened, spoke so eloquently. But even so, it’s a bizarre scenario, as well as a horrible one.

What do you think?

Next time I’ll cover the last part of the newspaper report.

* Picture credits:
Newspaper extracts: The British Library Board, via Findmypast
Victorian kitchen: Green Lane via Creative Commons


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The body in the cellar: a Christmas tale pt 7

Clerkenwell Police Court was crowded on Monday, 18 February, 1856, when two prisoners were charged with the murder of a young girl – the Islington Murder, as it came to be called.

Some of the spectators were neighbours of the prisoners, others would have come because of the grisly story in the previous day’s paper – and then there were the usual gawkers who just enjoyed a good courtroom drama.

The police court was in Bagnigge Wells Rd (now King’s Cross Rd). It was demolished later in the 19th century, but here’s a sketch of the beginning of a typical day there in 1883:

Here by ten o’clock in the morning assembles a motley crowd, consisting by far the greater part of women, some who have come to see the “fun,” just as they would go to any other public entertainment… There is plenty of room for the Magistrate, and for counsel, reporters, and witnesses; but as much cannot be said as regards the accommodation provided for such of Her Majesty’s loyal subjects as may choose to avail themselves of their right to be present. The space set apart for this purpose may be, perhaps, a little larger than the interior of an ordinary omnibus; and, if like the vehicle mentioned, it were decently provided with seats, would comfortably contain fifteen or twenty persons. As everybody is compelled to stand, however, with close packing and tight squeezing, the box will hold as many as thirty…
“Silence!” Justice occupies the judgment seat.”
A wonderful picture-gallery the mind of a metropolitan magistrate would be, supposing it retained an impress of all the odd types of civilised humanity that are constantly cropping up before him for his contemplation. (From Mysteries of Modern London)

But today the drama was much more exciting than the usual parade of thieves and drunks. Today there was a murdered child and a foreigner. What true Victorian could fail to be horrified – and thrilled?

London’s Standard newspaper again printed the story:

Standard Islington Murder story, 1st paragraphA very thick foreign red moustache? Short in stature? Obviously dodgy characters.

You’ll have noticed that they call Celestina ‘Celestria Somner’. This is one of several inconsistencies in newspaper reports of the story. But perhaps the journalist was scribbling down the details in great haste and hadn’t had the time, or inclination, to check his facts.

It’s more interesting, perhaps, that the Sommers ‘appeared quite unconcerned’.

1850s Peeler (policeman) like the ones who found Celestina's body

1850s Peeler (policeman) *

Then it was time for the police to give their statements. Inspector Hatton of the Metropolitan Police’s N (Islington) Division said that he and Sergeant Edward Townsend had gone to 18 Linton Street (where the Sommers lived) at about half past four on the previous day.

A girl of about 14 opened the door. The policemen walked along the hall and saw Celestina Sommer coming up the kitchen stairs. When she saw them, she asked: “What do you want?”

Insp Hatton said: “We will tell you after we have looked into your cellar.”

“Good God! What do want to do that for?” Celestina said.

Then Charles Sommer came out of the parlour and all five of them went down the stairs to the kitchen.

Sgt Townsend got a light and went into the cellar. Soon after he came out and said that the body was there. Insp Hatton went to look:

Inspector Hutton's report on finding Celestina Christmas's bodyCelestina and Charles ‘declined’ to say anything, or ask the inspector any questions. At the time, prisoners conducted their own defence and had the right to query the prosecution witnesses.

Then Sgt Townsend gave his statement. It’s slightly different from Hatton’s, but they agree on the main details. He said that the two policemen had gone to Linton St at about four. They asked the servant girl what her master and mistress’s names were. I’ll let the Standard take up the story:

Sgt Townsend's evidence about Celestina Christmas's murderSgt Townsend then went back to Linton St to search the house. In the bedroom, upstairs at the front, he found ‘an old black gown, with spots of blood on it’. Someone had tried to wash the blood out. Then he and ‘the surgeon’, who hasn’t been mentioned before, went down to the cellar and saw that the door was ‘spotted with blood’. There were also ‘marks of blood’ on the kitchen door and a spot on the servant’s pillow.

That was the end of Townsend’s evidence, as reported in the paper.

The magistrate, William Corrie Esq (1806-81), a solicitor and barrister, asked the Sommers again if they had any questions.

Final newspaper extract for this #victorianmurder post The court then went on to hear the evidence of the Sommers’ servant girl. Because it’s very long, I’m going to cover it in my next post.

But before then, I’ve got some photos to show you.

New houses at 2-26 Linton St in 2015 * Copyright Frances Owen & A Rebel Hand 2015

2-26 Linton St in 2015 *

This week I went sleuthing with my camera to Linton St, scene of the murder.

18 Linton St no longer exists. The houses from nos 26-2 have been demolished. In its place is a newly-built terrace of houses, part of many rebuilding projects that stretches along Regents Canal.

The modern no 18 is even newer than the Sommers’ house was when they moved in.

Map of Linton St and nearby, 1868 (Weller)

Linton St and nearby, 1868 *

Here’s a map from 1868 showing Linton St as it would have been at the time of the murder. I’ve marked where no 18 would have been – more or less – with an appropriately blood-red dot.

I love the details on this map – you can even see the separate terraces. It’s by Edward Weller and is thought of as one of the best maps of the mid-19th century, and certainly the largest. If you enjoy old maps as much as I do, the website’s well worth a visit.

Here’s the end of the original Linton St houses that would’ve been near the Sommers':

Old houses in Linton St. Copyright Frances Owen & A Rebel Hand 2015

Old houses in Linton St *

And I’ll end with a peek into nearby basements to give you a flavour of the murder scene. Though I haven’t been poking around cellars, and many of the basements have been converted into what look like pleasant flats.

Linton St basement copyright Frances Owen & A Rebel Hand 2015

Linton St basement *

Basement, Linton St, copyright Frances Owen & A Rebel Hand 2015

Linton St basement *

Further reading:

Crime & Punishment in Islington (PDF)
Victorian Crime and Punishment
Looking for records of a criminal or convict (TNA guide)

* Picture credits:

Newspaper extracts: The British Library Board, via Findmypast
1850s Peeler: Hoodinski, via Wikimedia (public domain)
Weller’s map of Linton St: Mapco
Photographs of Linton St: © Frances Owen and A Rebel Hand, 2015. If anyone wants to re-use them that’s fine, if you ask me first! And attribute them, with a link, please. See copyright policy in the right-hand side bar


Catch up with A Christmas tale:
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11

Posted in Genealogy, London | Tagged , , , , , , | 18 Comments

A horrible and mysterious murder: a Christmas tale pt 6

Londoners reading their local newspaper, the Standard, on Monday, 18 February, 1856, would have been brought up short by this headline, tucked away at the bottom of page three under the ship news:

Newspaper headline: Dreadful murder at IslingtonSome would have been shocked, perhaps afraid or angry. But others would’ve read on with the avidity that only a true-crime thrill could bring to the mid-Victorian mind.

Newspaper report of the 'Islington murder'Horrible and mysterious! A foreigner! Obscurity! Those of us who think our tabloids scrape the bottom of the barrel with their scandal stories today might be surprised to know that similar barrels have been scratched at for centuries.

You might have heard about the Penny Dreadfuls, popular cheap sheets telling supposedly true crime stories from the 1860s onwards. Their predecessors, the Penny Bloods, were perhaps based more on real violent crimes, and were guzzled by the thrill-seeking public. And nothing was as delicious as a murder, whether Maria Marten’s or the ones committed by Sweeney Todd.

The British Library describes it as ‘murder as entertainment’, and historian Rosalind Crone writes about ‘scaffold culture’ and the ‘cult of the murderer’.

Mrs Lovatt's pie shop (Sweeney Todd) #victorianmurder

Mrs Lovatt’s pie shop (Sweeney Todd)

And the so-called Islington murder was committed at the height of this bloodthirsty era.

The story in this (second) edition of the Standard is slightly different from later ones, so I’ll give you a quick summary, since this was all that was known (or at least all the journalists were able to get out of the police).

The servant girl said that, about 11 o’clock at night on Saturday, she was in bed and heard ‘considerable scuffling and noise in the house, followed by the sound of screaming, which she thought was caused by her mistress quarrelling with the supposed niece and locking her up in the cellar.’

She pretended to be asleep when her mistress came up to her bed and ‘press[ed] a hand over her face’.

Next morning ‘her suspicions were… redoubled’ when the ‘niece’ didn’t appear. That evening, she slipped out of the house and ‘bursting into tears related to her companion the above incidents’. This person – and who knows why she was conveniently on the street – advised her to go to the police, who investigated and found the murdered girl.

The report ends with the fact that the body was left in the cellar ‘awaiting a coroner’s inquest’ and that ‘the house [had] been taken possession of by the police’.

Later that day large crowds gathered at Clerkenwell Police Court to get a look at the two accused, and the story was fleshed (ouch) out a lot more, as you’ll read in the next #Victorianmurder post.

Which you won’t have to wait long for this time. I promise.

* Image credits:

Newspaper extracts: The British Library Board, via Findmypast
Penny blood illustration: The Mysteries of London, via bl.uk


Catch up with A Christmas tale:
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11

Posted in Genealogy, London | Tagged , , , , , | 23 Comments

Christmas turns to Sommer: A Christmas tale pt 5

In the last episode, Celestina Elizabeth Christmas’s sisters got married. Celestina was still living with her parents and younger brother Alfred at their house in King Square in Finsbury, north London.

In 1852, at 24, she was still marriageable, but there was the small problem of her illegitimate daughter, also called Celestina, who was being looked after by my 3x great-grandmother, Julia Harrington, in Hackney.

Goldsmiths' House, Hanau http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Goldschmiedehaus_Hanau_856-Lh.jpg

Goldsmiths’ House, Hanau. CC, shared by Pedelecs

What was to be done to marry her off? They’d probably either hope that a man would fall for her and marry her despite the baby, or find someone complaisant enough to take on soiled goods in exchange for a good dowry or a hand-up in his professional life.

Celestina was pretty. Short and slim (‘of spare form’), with fair skin and hair, she looked much younger than she was. She was well-educated, could sing and play the piano, seemed docile, and was generally good wife material – except for her little indiscretion.

It’s reasonable to guess that her parents didn’t plan to trick a suitor by hiding the child forever. Little Celestina was her mother’s liability, and the un-named father hadn’t taken responsibility for the results of his dalliance, so Celestina Elizabeth’s beau would have to know. And she’d already proved she was fertile. Her future husband could confidently expect sons in good time.

Licence for Celestina Christmas and Charles Sommer to marry

Licence for Celestina and Charles to marry *

What luck, then, that her sister Elizabeth Jane had just married a German engraver who had a friend, Charles Sommer, another engraver, who’d settled nearby in the parish of St Mary, Islington.

I’ve found no evidence of whether Charles fell for the older Celestina, or whether her father made him a very good offer. All the records show is that on 10 August, 1854, he got permission to marry her by licence at his local church, St Mary’s.

That’s interesting for two reasons: they were to be married by licence, not banns, and at his church, not the bride’s. Banns were a declaration of a couple’s intention to marry, and had to be read out three times at both bride and groom’s church in the three months before the wedding.

Licences were expensive, and so had social cachet, but they were also a way of getting married in a hurry, and without the couple’s congregations necessarily knowing in advance.

Did paterfamilias William Christmas choose a marriage by banns to show off his wealth? Or did he prefer to avoid making the marriage public knowledge, in case someone caused trouble, or blurted out what should stay unsaid? And was that why the wedding took place at Charles’s local church and not the Christmases’, St Luke’s? What do you think?

Marriage of Celestina Elizabeth Christmas and Charles Sommer

Marriage of Celestina Elizabeth Christmas and Charles Sommer *

The marriage took place two days later and the couple moved into their marital home, 18 Linton St in Islington. You may have noticed that Charles gave this street as his address on the marriage register, above.

Houses in Linton St

Houses in Linton St *

No 18 has since been demolished, but the surviving buildings are neat, classical little houses with two storeys and a basement, just right for a young middle-class couple starting married life. Current prices for a house there now are either side of one and a half million pounds. But that’s London prices for you.

Either Charles Sommer was doing very well as an engraver, or William Christmas helped set his embarrassing daughter up in a respectable home.

So who was this compliant or complacent husband?

Aliens register for the ship Ocean, showing Charles Sommer and Charles Grobe

Aliens register for the ship Ocean *

Charles (or Karl) Sommer had come to London from Hanau in the German state of Hesse in 1849. He’s listed among the ‘Aliens’ in the ship Ocean, sailing from Rotterdam. Next to him on the list is another man from Hanau – Charles Grobe, who was to marry Elizabeth Jane Christmas.

Both listed their profession as ‘graveur’ – engraver. Maybe they’d been friends in Hanau and decided to try their luck in London together; perhaps they met on the ship. At any rate, the two Charleses would end up marrying into the same family.

Hanau’s silverware industry was experiencing a surge at the time. It was later to become notorious for producing antique style silver, with dubious marks, but when the Charleses left this trade hadn’t begun.

Wondering why the two young men left, I thought that they might have found the silver trade overcrowded. Another possibility is that they had to flee after the crushing of the Revolution of 1848.

King Sq, where Celestina Christmas lived, and President St East

King Sq (green dot) and President St E (red) *

By the time of the 1851 census, Charles Sommer was living in a lodging house at 11 President Street East, Finsbury, just round the corner from the Christmas family home in King Square.

The census (see below) shows him as ‘head’ of the household. Perhaps he was responsible for paying Frau von Schiller the rent.

Is it too much to imagine that he chose this place not just because he was living with other German craftsmen, but also because they – or because Celestina – lived there?

Charles Sommer in the 1851 census

Charles (Carl von) Sommer in the 1851 census, two-thirds of the way down *

Charles/Carl seems to have wanted to make himself appear grander by adding a ‘von’ to his name. Or it could have been the census enumerator’s mistake. He’s described as a die sinker, a skill similar to an engraver’s. Maybe he took what metalwork he could get.

I hope I’ve drawn you a well-rounded picture of Charles and Celestina, Mr and Mrs Sommer. Newly married, snug in a well-furnished (more about that later), neat house in Linton St. And so they lived happily ever…

Well, no. Of course not. And I know I’ve made you wait for the gory stuff. Next time, I promise. So as a reward for being so patient, here’s a taster.

Horrible and mysterious murder! Newspaper headline

Picture credits:
Marriage licence and record, aliens register: Ancestry
Census, newspaper headline: Findmypast
Photograph of Linton St: Google street view
Map of King Square and President Street: Mapco


Catch up with the rest of A Christmas tale:
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11

Posted in Genealogy, London | Tagged , , , , , , , | 17 Comments

Findmypast freebies this weekend

Good news from Findmypast UK and Findmypast Ireland for this weekend, 6-9 March.

Not only is FMP Ireland free on Saturday and Sunday, but there’s a UK records bonanza lasting from Friday to Monday.

Their press release says:

… between midday on Friday, March 6th and midday on Monday, March 9th (GMT), absolutely everyone will have access to their comprehensive collections of historical records and innovative research tools, including:

  • Over 900 million census records from across the UK, USA and Ireland
  • Passenger lists for ships sailing to and from Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and the USA
  • The largest collection of Irish family history records available online

… and the FMP newspaper collection, parish records and all the features the site is known for.

But wait a minute, the Shoestring Genealogist grumbles, I’ve just taken up that half-price sub you told us about. Now everyone’s getting free access. Not fair.

Well, there’s good news for those of us with subscriptions, too. FMP also promises:

Local subscribers granted World access, and World subscribers granted 3 extra days to their subscription

Tasty! And there’s more.

To celebrate International Women’s Day, at 3pm GMT on Sunday 8th March, Findmypast will be hosting a webinar on searching for women in their historical records.

Even the Shoestring Genealogist can’t see anything to grumble about with that.

While I’m waiting for the weekend to come, I’ll be watching the new BBC drama, Banished, Jimmy McGovern’s take on the first convicts in Australia. If you’re in the UK, why not join me? It transmits on BBC2 on Thursday, 5 March at 2100.

Posted in Convicts, Genealogy, Ireland | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

FMP UK half-price (be quick!), Google Earth Pro free

It’s the weekend! Time to catch up with blogging. Let’s see what the Shoestring Genealogist has for you…

Findmypast UK has a great offer on – a year’s subscription half-price. But be quick – it closes at midnight GMT on Saturday, 21 January. Use the code RATIONING.

I took up a similar offer last July and it’s been well worth the money for researching my UK ancestors.

Thanks to John D Reid of Canada’s Anglo-Celtic Connections for the tip.

You can be more laid-back about the next Shoestring Genealogist tip. Do you use Google Earth? It’s a great genealogy tool (and fun, too). The good news is that Google Earth Pro is now free.

Thanks to Genealogy in Time for the tip-off, and to Lisa Louise Cooke for the original announcement. Lisa goes through the uses of Google Earth Pro for genealogists. She also hosts a popular video about using Google Earth for genealogy. It’s nearly an hour and a half long, so if you want quick info, Cyndi’s List has plenty of useful links.

I’m a great Google Maps user in my genealogy research, so I’m grateful for the reminder about Google Earth. I wonder what extra insights I could have using it?

Do you use Google Earth for genealogy? Have you got any tips to share with us?

Posted in Genealogy | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

A Christmas tale pt 4 – what next for Celestina Elizabeth?

Welcome back to the Celestina Christmas story. In the previous episode, we left little Celestina (born 1846) living with my ancestors, Thomas and Julia Harrington and their daughters, Hannah and Rebecca (my 2x great-grandmother).

Her mother, Celestina Elizabeth Christmas, was back with her family in their house in King Square, Finsbury, a much more salubrious neighbourhood than the Harringtons’ rented house in the Hackney/Tower Hamlets area of East London.

Whether William Foster Christmas, the older Celestina’s father and a respectable silversmith, and her mother Elizabeth had managed to keep the pregnancy a secret or not I don’t know. But I’m guessing they would have tried to, for the sake of the family’s honour and to keep their daughters marriageable.

Emma Mary Christmas marriage to Charles Grobe

Emma Mary Christmas marriage to Charles Grobe at St Luke, Finsbury *

The eldest surviving Christmas girl, Emma Mary, had married in August 1845, the same year that Celestina Elizabeth became pregnant. Emma’s husband was Henry Thomas Goldham, a nurseryman and son of John Goldham, Gent[lema]n. It looks like a good match.

By this time Celestina was four months pregnant and might have started showing, so perhaps she was sent away, or had an ‘illness’ that meant she had to stay in bed – who knows?

At the time of the 1851 census, the Christmas family was still in King Square in Finsbury. Here they are:

The Christmas family, 1851 census

The Christmas family, 1851 census

There they are, William, his wife Elizabeth, daughter Elizabeth (Jane), son Alfred, Sarah Wilson the servant… wait a minute, where’s Celestina?

Celestina Elizabeth Christmas, 1851 census

Celestina Elizabeth Christmas, 1851 census *

Ah, on the next page, with the other servant. Was this a sign of how she was regarded by her father, or just the enumerator writing down the names in an odd order?

The sister, Elizabeth Jane, married in 1852. At 20 she was five years younger than Celestina, which may have been galling to the older girl, who would’ve expected to be the next to marry – under ‘normal’ circumstances.

Elizabeth’s husband was Charles Grobe, an engraver from Hanau in Germany who’d come over to London via Rotterdam in September 1849. As an engraver, it’s likely that he would’ve come to know William Christmas professionally, and perhaps that’s how he met Elizabeth Jane.

Charles Grobe doesn’t appear in the 1851 census, but since he’s shown arriving back in England in September 1852, it’s possible that he’d gone home to tie up any business he had in Hanau before settling in London for good. His father had a different trade – he was a butcher – so there was no family firm to worry about, but it seems reasonable to think that he’d returned to take a long farewell from his family and friends.

Elizabeth Jane Christmas marriage to Charles Grobe

Elizabeth Jane Christmas marriage to Charles Grobe *

Elizabeth and Charles were married at St Matthew’s Parish Church in City Road on 9 December, 1852, three months after his return. At the time Charles was living near the Christmases, in Goswell Rd, but the couple moved to a newly built house, 18 Murray St, New North Rd.

Murray Grove (was Street)

Murray Grove (was Street), just north of Old Street

The houses there have been replaced with modern buildings and it’s called Murray Grove now. I’d like you to keep it in your mind, because we haven’t finished with the Grobes’ house yet.

The Christmases must’ve been fairly satisfied by now. Two daughters married off, the inconvenient baby a reasonable distance away in Hackney. But what to do with Celestina Elizabeth? Even with her child disposed of, she was still on their hands and getting on a bit at 25. Were they going to be stuck with a spinster?

Enter another young man from Hanau; Grobe’s friend Charles (or Karl) Sommer, also an engraver, who made the journey to England with him back in 1849.

He’s going to be an important part of the story from now on, but as a victim or a villain? That’s for you to decide in the next episode of this #Victorianmurder

* Picture credits:
Parish registers showing marriages and 1851 census: Ancestry
Murray St: Google Maps


Catch up with the rest of A Christmas tale:
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11

Posted in Genealogy, London, Nicholas Delaney | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 19 Comments