Celestina Sommer was eventually tried for the murder of her daughter, Celestina Christmas, at the Old Bailey on Thursday, 10 April, 1856, over a month after her first appearance in the Central Criminal Court.
The newspapers reported the trial with their usual enthusiasm, and I’m going to use their accounts as well as the Proceedings of the Old Bailey to tell the story, as they cover different aspects.
As you’d expect from the interest in Celestina’s case (by now she was famous, or infamous, enough not to need much introduction) the court was crowded.
The judge in her case was Charles Crompton, whose portrait you can see here. He was considered one of the best judges on the bench, and ‘had a character as open and winning as it was upright and high-principled, with a lively humour that in youth was apt to brim over and later was sometimes rather caustic but which grew mellow with age.’ (Wikisource)
The newspapers opened with more comments about Celestina’s appearance. Here’s the Leeds Times:
Several papers again commented on how small and young-looking Celestina Sommer was, and that she must’ve been quite young when she gave birth to her daughter.
The trial began with William Bodkin briefly stating the facts in support of the charge of wilful murder. Then it was time for the ‘principal witness’ to be questioned. This was, once more, Rachel Mount (or Mont, or Munt). One more piece of information about this ‘interesting little girl’ was that she originally came from Littleworth, in Oxfordshire. It was a local paper, the Oxford Chronicle and Reading Gazette, which mentioned that, not surprisingly.
Most of Rachel’s evidence was similar to her account from the hearings at Clerkenwell Police Court. She repeated that Celestina went out at about 10 o’clock one Saturday night in February, telling her that she was going to Murray Street, and that she expected Rachel to be in bed when she got back. But Rachel stayed up, sewing a silk apron for herself, and hurried into bed when she heard her mistress come back.
After telling the unknown visitor to wipe her feet and wait in the parlour, Celestina went upstairs to change out of her ‘black dress, with flounces to it, and bugles up the sleeves’ into a plainer one. She came down into the kitchen and told the girl, who we know was her daughter, Celestina Christmas, to come in. According to The Times, Rachel said that she’d seen the girl before, ‘and knew she was the prisoner’s child’, which is different from her evidence at earlier trials.
The two Celestinas went into the cellar, where the conversation about throat-cutting took place:
I have to say I find this puzzling. Why would little Celestina have said ‘someone’ was going to cut her throat? Who would have told her that, and why? Or how else would she know? But great stress seems to have been placed on this conversation, and I suppose it was to show that the murder was premeditated.
Rachel’s account, in the Proceedings, continued: ‘Mistress said, “Oh! was she?” and the girl said, “Yes” – then mistress said, “Supposing I cut it” – then the child said, “Oh! you are going to cut my throat,” and mistress said, “Hush! hush” – the little girl said that she was going to the devil, the devil would take her, she was going to hell and she said, “I am dying! I am dying” – then the candle was put out, and mistress walked about the front kitchen, and she said, “You b—— I will kill you! you b——, I will kill you! I will teach you telling any more lies about me: you are a liar, and you are a thief” – at that time the child was making a groaning noise in the cellar – the groaning noise was before what my mistress said, whilst she was saying it…’
The older Celestina then went to the kitchen, lit a candle and went back into the cellar. ‘I did not hear the deceased make any noise after this,’ Rachel continued. Not long after, her mistress came back and said: ‘There, you b——, you must be dead now.’
Rachel went on to describe how her mistress then tapped her shoulder to wake her up and asked if she’d gone out to get soap, which Rachel had. Celestina spent about half an hour in the back kitchen, washing, then went upstairs to the parlour, where she paced around for a while before going up to bed.
Charles Sommer, Celestina’s husband, had been out since about eight that evening. Presumably Celestina had known that he’d be out late, which is why she chose that night to kill her daughter. He came home at one in the morning; Rachel said that she’d hear him say so to his wife. Unsurprisingly, Rachel didn’t sleep that night, and stayed in bed late in the morning. Perhaps she felt safer there, or was putting off checking that the unbelievable event she’d witnessed had really happened.
Rachel also spoke about going to look in the cellar on the next morning, and telling her sister some of what had happened.
William Ballantine, counsel for the defence, cross-examined her. She told him that, although the master (Charles Sommer) was kind to her, he was less than kind to his own wife. Celestina, in turn, scolded Rachel. The Times reported:
It was William Bodkin who asked the second question, as the Proceedings’ report of the cross-examination says:
So Charles beat Celestina. Could it really have been because, as Rachel told the prosecution, dinner was late? Celestina was unhappy, cried a lot, and possibly took it out on Rachel. Charles, meanwhile, stayed out until one in the morning. The marriage of convenience seemed to be falling apart after not much more than a year.
That was the end of Rachel Mount’s evidence. And because there’s still plenty of the trial to cover, I’m going to end this post here. I did put it all in one post, but it was far too long and I didn’t want you to fall asleep or get bored halfway through.
So watch this space for more witnesses, a pair of stockings, a petticoat and a knife. Oh, and a verdict.
Old Bailey Online. Extracts quoted: Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 7.2, 08 August 2015), April 1856, trial of Celestina Somner (t18560407-457)
* Picture credits:
Old Bailey Proceedings (book form): Old Bailey Online, from microfilm produced by Hudson House Associates, Inc, under the imprint of Trans-Media Microfilms
Punch cartoon: Punch Historical Archive, 188.8.131.524
Caricature from London Characters and the Humorous Side of London Life
Newspaper reports: The British Library Board, via Findmypast, and The Times Digital Archive