Monday, 12 November 2012

The Horrific Homicide of the Female Felon

                          At the same time as Bishop, Williams and May were standing trial for the murder of Carlo Ferrier in November 1831, another case of murder was under investigation. The accused were Edward Cook and his common law wife Elizabeth Ross (sometimes, not unreasonably, known as Mrs Cook), who were said to have murdered Caroline Walsh. 

London Tenement
The investigation began when the granddaughter of Mrs Walsh, Ann Buton, went to Lambeth Street police station to report her grandmother’s disappearance. Caroline Walsh had been a decrepit old lady of eighty-four years, who scraped a scant living selling threads, bobbins and stay-laces on the streets of London. She had lived at No 2 Red Lion Square with her granddaughter, where their next-door neighbours had been Cook and Ross. 

Goodman's Yard and Rosemary Lane

They had moved to nearby Goodman’s Yard (marked in red on the map) and pressed Mrs Walsh to move there too, but the old lady was not too enthusiastic about leaving her current lodgings and Buton actively tried to talk her out of it. Ross was persistent and badgered Walsh into submission until, on August 19th 1831, she went to the Cook’s room at No 7 Goodman’s Yard. Ross had a bad reputation as a gin drinker, was a dealer in hare skins and, it was said, cats had started to mysteriously disappear from the neighbourhood soon after she moved in. Edward Cook had a local reputation as a body snatcher, was also a drinker and was a known bully. They lived in one room with their twelve-year-old son, also called Edward (but known as Ned). Mrs Walsh had been seen going into the building with the Cooks, but had not been seen again afterwards. Ann Buton became suspicious when she had not seen her grandmother after August 19th, so she went to Goodman’s Yard to look for her. She asked Ross where the old woman was, to be told that she had gone out earlier, and Buton’s suspicions began to grow as Ross’s answers to her questions became increasingly evasive. 

London Gin Shop

Ross asked Buton for money for gin, Buton offered to buy beer for her but was told she did not drink beer, so the two women went to nearby Brown’s pub, where they drank gin and two pints of beer. Buton told Ross that she thought it was strange that her grandmother should have gone out, as she thought she would have been expecting her to visit, to which Ross replied,
“You seem to think from what you say, that we have murdered the woman.”
“I hope not, Mrs. Cook,” said Buton.
“From what you seem to say, you think we have destroyed her at our place,” said Ross.
“Mrs. Cook, you put the words into my mouth, but what I think I don't speak now, but you will know of it hereafter,” replied Buton.
Ross then asked Buton for money and was given 3 ½ d which she said she would spend on bread and cheese and went out. Buton waited for three quarters of an hour but Ross didn’t return, so Buton walked the streets of the area, hoping to find her grandmother. After three or four hours, Buton went back to the Cook’s room, where she found Cook to be red-faced and bruised – Cook had beaten Ross for ‘getting drunk’ with her. She asked again where was the old lady, only to be told that she had not yet returned. Over the next few days Buton called on Ross several times, but Mrs Walsh had always just ‘gone out,’ and she also went to nearby poor houses, hospitals and prisons looking for her, but no one had seen her. Eventually, she became so concerned that she went to Lambeth St Police station, from where officer James Lea began his inquiries. 

Penny Broadsheet

On October 28th, Lea and Buton went to Goodman’s Yard, where they found Elizabeth Ross coming out of the close. Lea confronted her and asked the events of August 19th. Ross said that Mrs Walsh had been brought to her door by her granddaughter, Mrs Lydia Basey, (Buton’s sister), who had left her there. The family had had a pleasant evening talking, they had had cold meat and coffee for supper and had gone to bed about nine o’clock. The following morning, Edward Cook had got up at about 4 o’clock and gone to work and Mrs Walsh had risen at seven. Lea and Buton took Ross to the docks where Cook was working, and where Lea put the same questions to him. Cook said that after a supper of tea and hot meat, they had gone to bed at about a quarter past eleven. That discrepancy was enough to get the pair arrested. Lea’s next act was to go to the local charity school, where he also arrested young Ned Cook. 

Trial of Ross and Cook - Old Bailey Proceedings 1832

On January 6th 1832, Cook and Ross stood in the dock at the Old Bailey before Mr Justice Park. The principal witness was their own son, twelve-year-old Edward Cook, who told the court that on a Friday night, he didn’t remember the date, an old woman he knew had come to the house and they had drunk coffee before going to bed. During the night, he heard his mother get up and go to the old lady, onto whose face she had put one hand and the other on her chest, and held her there for half an hour. His father had stood at the window, looking out, with his back to them. After that time, his mother had lifted the old lady up like a baby and carried her down to the cellar. Ned went back to bed and got up in the morning to go to school. 

G Dore - London Slums

Another boy called Shields, who lived in the same tenement block, had some ducks that he kept in the cellar and Ned went down to see them. He went into the cellar and saw the old lady’s body in a sack, so he went straight to school, where he didn’t speak to anyone. When he came home at the end of the day, he found his father beating his mother for, he thought, going drinking with a young woman, so he went out to play and did not return until late. At about half past ten, from the window, he saw his mother carrying the sack down in the street. She told him later that she had taken the old lady to the hospital. Elizabeth Ross cried out in court,
Good God! How could I have borne a son to hang me!
but Ned burst into tears and said he was only telling the truth. 

Penny Broadsheet

Further witnesses, used clothes and rag buyers from the Rag Fair on Rosemary Lane (marked in blue on the map), testified that Ross had brought and sold various items of clothing to them in October, and when these were produced in court, Buton and Basey identified them as having belonged to their grandmother – indeed, Buton had made some of them with her own hands. 

The Rag Fair - Rosemary Lane

The defence lawyers tried to prove that Mrs Walsh had been seen, and had died, in Tibble’s Poor House some time later, and although a decrepit old woman had been identified as being there, her description in no manner matched that of Mrs Walsh. The jury retired for their deliberations and returned the verdict of guilty on Ross and not guilty on Cook. Ross protested her innocence and said Ned had been schooled in his evidence, implying that she was being made the scapegoat for some unidentified ‘gentleman’, but on Monday January 9th 1832, she was taken to the gibbet outside the Debtor’s Gate at Newgate prison and hanged. Her body was then handed over to the anatomists for dissection. Elizabeth Ross was the only woman convicted and executed for murder by ‘Burking’ her victim. 

W Clift - Elizabeth Ross - 1832

A drawing of her, made in death by the anatomist Dr William Clift, shows a woman who looks much older than her thirty-eight years, although gin and an intemperate life in the stews of Regency London had undoubtedly played their parts in her apparent decline. In a little over fifty years, ‘Burking’ would give way to a different method of murder in that part of London where Elizabeth Ross had lived – Whitechapel.

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