It was on Thursday, 10 April, 1856 that Celestina Sommer’s fate was to be decided: death by hanging or incarceration in an asylum. The evidence against her, and her own confession, made her guilt plain. But what would the verdict be?
Rachel Mount, the Sommers’ servant, had finished her witness statement. She’d described the events of little Celestina Christmas’s murder. To what was already known, she added that Charles and Celestina Sommer quarrelled, and that Charles beat his wife, who (not surprisingly) ‘seemed very unhappy’ and ‘frequently cried’.
Sergeant Edwin Townsend then took the stand. He repeated the evidence he’d given at Clerkenwell Police Court on Monday, 18 February: that he’d gone to 18 Linton Street (the Sommers’ home) on the day after the murder, with Rachel’s sister and Inspector Hutton; that he’d seen the body in the cellar; that Celestina ‘had said, “Me! I did not do it; I know nothing of it,” and then she said, “I heard a noise outside the area railings last night, but I not tell you, dear” (addressing her husband), “as I thought it would make you timid”.’
Later, Sgt Townsend said, he’d searched the house on 17 February and found a black dress with partly washed out bloodstains on it, hidden under Celestina’s bed. This was produced for the court. He said he’d also found bloody marks on the cellar and kitchen doors, on the sheet on Rachel’s bed in the kitchen, and on a lucifer (match) box.
Rebecca Anne Donovan was the next witness. She was the ‘female searcher’ at Hoxton Police Station in Robert Street (which no longer exists but may be the current Prestwood St, off Wenlock St, near Shepherdess Walk).
She stated that she took Celestina to an upstairs room to search her. ‘After taking her dress off, she saw me look down at her petticoat, which I here produce, with marks of blood on it – she said, “I am subject to a bleeding at the nose, and I have used my petticoat; my husband can, tell you that, for he lent me a silk handkerchief” – she then said, “I have a coal cellar in my house without a coal plate; a girl was found there stabbed with a knife; I know nothing about it, for my house was fastened up by 10 o’clock that night.”‘
Sgt George Bexley (or Beckley) then gave evidence. He showed the jury the bloodstained stockings he’d found ‘between the bed and the floor – under the bed seemed to be the extent of Celestina’s hiding of bloodied clothes – and a knife.
At the first hearing at Clerkenwell Police Court there was no recorded mention of the murder weapon having been found. But now Sgt Bexley showed it to the court, saying: ‘I looked into a cupboard in the back parlour shortly afterwards, that same evening, and found this knife there (produced) – there were no other knives with it – there appeared to be a little red round this part of the handle – it appeared like blood.’
It’s odd that the sergeant was saying he’d found the ‘large sharp carving-knife’ on the day Celestina was arrested and the Sommers’ house was searched, 17 February. Yet at the police court hearing Inspector Payne had testified that he’d searched the house on the same day, but ‘could not discover the knife or any weapon with which the wounds were inflicted.’
How likely is it that an inspector of N (Islington) Division would be unaware of the appearance of such an important piece of evidence? Or that one of his sergeants would forget about finding it, or not mention it to his superior?
The knife handle also ‘appeared’ to be stained with red, which ‘appeared’ like blood. Was this cautious legal language? Yet the dress, petticoat, stockings, lucifer box and so on had definite blood on them, not apparent blood. However there’s no record of anyone picking up on this discrepancy.
Joseph Howe (or Hone), a police constable, was next. He repeated the evidence he’d given at the second hearing at Clerkenwell about Celestina’s bizarre behaviour while in the gaoler’s room at the back of the court.
He stated: ‘After I had been there a few minutes, she began talking to herself about Hamlet and Richard the Third – after she had been talking some time, she put her handkerchief to her face, and said, in a low tone, that it was her brother’s child that was dead (that was said to herself), and he was dead, and when he died, she took the child to keep it, and she paid 5s. a week for it, which she paid out of her own earnings, as she taught music, and she did not wish to put the child to service, she was not big enough – she said, “I did it; it is no use telling a lie about it, for I did not know what to do for the best” – she said nothing more about the child – she was talking the whole of the time she was there, about her husband, what he was, and where she lived before they were married – she said her husband was an engraver – I do not remember anything else that she said.’
Was Celestina really talking to herself? The policeman said that ‘she knew that I was in the room.’ But when asked: ‘Was she speaking to you, or muttering to herself?’ he answered: ‘No – she was talking aloud to herself – I sat at the back of her – I do not know whether she saw me or not’. He was under orders not to speak to her.
He described Celestina talking about Hamlet and Richard III and commented: ‘She did not appear to be rambling’. Which suggests that if Celestina was trying to act ‘mad’ (like Hamlet?) she didn’t succeed.
The police surgeon, George William Henry Coward, testified to what he’d found at the Sommers’ house on 17 February:
His language was cautious, but he, too, mentioned the carving knife and said that he’d seen it at the Coroner’s inquest – again, something which hadn’t been mentioned in newspaper reports.
Then it was Julia Harrington‘s turn. She told the court:
I wonder why Celestina’d written Julia a letter. For evidence? When she married Thomas, Julia hadn’t signed the register, just made her mark. Perhaps she could read but not write? She didn’t mention what was in Celestina’s letter.
The fact that Celestina had been paying less does suggest that what she’d said about not being able to afford her daughter’s keep might have been a fact. Yet if her husband Charles was telling the truth, he’d always paid for the child’s keep as part of an arrangement made before they married. Maybe Celestina had topped up Charles’s 2/6 from her own earnings as a ‘vocalist’.
Apart from having her name in the papers yet again, the Old Bailey appearance was the end of my 3x great-grandmother Julia’s association with this story. But who can tell what pain it had caused her: losing the child she’d brought up from birth, the news of the murder, having to see little Celestina’s body and giving evidence in two courts, including the forbidding Old Bailey? I imagine it was traumatic for her.
The last witness was Charles Grobe, husband of Celestina Sommer’s sister Elizabeth Jane, who lived in Murray St. He said that he’d last seen little Celestina on the 16th of February, when her mother came to take her away, saying she’d got her a post as a greengrocer’s servant. They left at about 10 at night and he’d followed them (why? Did did he suspect something?) until they were inside 18 Linton St, when he went home.
That’s where the account in the Old Bailey Proceedings ended, apart from the verdict. The Times continued with William Ballantine’s address to the jury on Celestina’s behalf.
It was brief. He suggested that ‘there were circumstances in the case that would justify the jury in coming either to the conclusion that at the time the act was committed the prisoner, from some cause or other, was not in a state of mind to be responsible for her acts, or else that she was not actuated by that malice required by the law to constitute the act of murder.’
The Reading Mercury and Leeds Times elaborated, saying that he ‘urged that the ill-usage [Celestina] had received from her husband had so preyed upon her mind as to render her not a responsible agent.’
William Ballantine finished by suggesting to the jury that ‘they might find her guilty of a lesser crime which would still entail upon her the most severe punishment.’ A verdict such as ‘guilty but insane’ would mean a custodial sentence – but not death.
It was in vain. The chief judge in Celestina’s case, Charles Crompton, summed up and, as The Times put it, ‘the jury almost immediately found her guilty.’
The judges put on their black caps – a well-known sign that the death sentence was to be passed – and Justice Crompton said: ‘You have been convicted… of the dreadful crime of murdering your own child, a girl ten years of age. The evidence shows that you designedly took her away from the person in whose charge she was to your husband’s house, and that you there committed the dreadful crime.’
He went on to comment on the verdict:
It seems to overstate things for him to say that he didn’t remember a clearer case of murder. But Celestina’s crime had already become in some way special, and it would grow into an iconic cause célèbre.
Justice Crompton would not go into details of the crime, but continued:
We know that what Celestina had expected was to be found insane and to be released after a short time. But the judge went on, in the familiar and terrible words of the death sentence:
The Essex Standard added:
Charles Crompton asked ‘the usual formal question in such cases, whether the prisoner had anything to urge in stay of execution’, but the answer was no.
The papers ended their reports by describing Celestina’s anguish:
The Hereford Times described her as being in ‘an almost senseless state’.
Whether Celestina’s ‘intense mental agony’ during the trial was because she was hearing, again, the details of what she’d done to her daughter, or because these details sounded so damning, or perhaps because her defence lawyer, William Ballantine, had warned her that she was likely not to be found insane, we can only guess.
But it’s easy to imagine why she collapsed when she heard the sentence. All her hopes and fantasies were crushed. She was to hang, and the judge had warned her not to expect mercy.
Celestina Sommer was escorted along Dead Man’s Walk back to Newgate Prison, where she was to wait for her execution.
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
Caricature from London Characters and the Humorous Side of London Life
William Ballantine, photograph: via Wikipedia
Newspaper reports: The British Library Board, via Findmypast, and The Times Digital Archive