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:
It seems like a frenzied attack, with much more violence than would’ve been needed to kill a young girl.
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:
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.
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.
* 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