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By Margaret Drinkall
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CASE ONE 1839
MURDERED BY HIS FATHER
Suspect: Eli Lumb
In September 1839, the people of Halifax heard of the atrocious murder of a son by his father. The murderer was a man named Eli Lumb, aged forty-four, who traded in multiple things including weaving, butchery and farriery. He lived with his wife and seven children – four sons and three daughters – in an overcrowded cottage. The cottage was made up of four rooms with two on the ground floor, one of which was used as a weaving shed and held two looms, and the other as a kitchen. Upstairs there were two bedrooms. The first bedroom contained two double beds, one shared by the oldest son Thomas, aged thirty, and his brother Joseph, aged twenty-three, and in the other bed was John, aged sixteen, and Eli junior, aged ten. Eli senior and his wife occupied the second bedroom, whilst in a corner, under a bundle of clothes, slept thirteen-year-old Elizabeth. Lumb's eldest daughter was married and lived next door in another cottage which was attached to the same building as her parents' house. Thomas was expecting to leave the family home following his marriage to a local girl. It was reported that Lumb became increasingly addicted to alcohol. Unfortunately, this combination of drunkenness and overcrowding led to many incidents of domestic abuse against his long-suffering wife and children.
On Thursday 19 September, Lumb was due to butcher a cow belonging to Mr Thomas Hitchen of Ripponden Wood. In the afternoon he set off to Ripponden Wood, only to find upon his arrival that the cow had died and been taken away to the knacker's yard. No doubt furious about this unexpected loss of income, he called in at the New Shop, a public house owned by James Heaps in the little township of Sowerby.
Later in the day he was joined by his son Joseph, who spent some time drinking with his father. About 7 p.m. Joseph told his father that he was going home, to which his father replied, 'I'll be along in a short while'. Just before 9 p.m. his wife, who was standing in the lane leading to their cottage, heard him coming towards her shouting and making a great noise. She castigated her husband for causing such a fuss and he told her to 'hold her tongue'. Once inside, Mrs Lumb continued to berate her husband and he threatened that if she did not desist he would run away and leave her. After further altercations the irate Lumb punched his wife several times and then pushed her towards the front door. Before she could protest, he bundled his wife out of the house and locked the door. Pocketing the key he went upstairs to bed, leaving her in the garden. Normally he would leave the leather pouch containing his three butchering knives downstairs in the kitchen. This time, however, he took the knives upstairs with him. Blowing out the candle, Lumb got undressed and climbed into bed.
Thomas, hearing his mother shouting outside, went downstairs to let her back in but when he reached the front door he found the key missing, so he went to retrieve it from his father. By this point, Lumb – who had been woken up – was infuriated with his son, who he now accused of taking his wife's side; he threatened that if Thomas let his mother back into the house he would 'stick him'. The two men started to scuffle in the darkened bedroom. Upon hearing the noise, the other children woke up and ran to the bedroom, where they witnessed the sight of their father struggling and punching their oldest brother. They ran to the bottom of the stairs, in fright, where they could hear their mother pounding on the door. It was at this point that Lumb drew out one of the knives from the pouch at the side of the bed and lunged at his son, stabbing him in the thigh. Holding his leg, Thomas made his way downstairs and got a fire iron from the kitchen, which he carried back up the stairs. He hit his father twice across the head before Lumb, now incredibly angry, attacked his son once more, delivering three more stab wounds – two to his side and one fatal wound to his left breast, burying the knife to the hilt. By this time it was half past ten in the evening, and the younger son, John, managed to get the key out of his father's pocket and let his mother in. The two younger children – Eli junior and Elizabeth – ran next door to the safety of their sister's house, whilst Joseph, John and their mother went to tend to Thomas' wounds.
Lumb could now see the state of his eldest son's health and he gathered him into his arms, crying out, 'Oh Tom, speak to me, cannot thou speak to me?' The father, mother and two sons looked upon the scene in the bedroom with horror; the silence only broken by Thomas's last sobs as he died. When he realised that his son was dead, Lumb hastily donned his outdoor clothes and ran downstairs, crying out, 'I shall be hanged for this'. Lumb's other son, Joseph, followed him and tried to hold on to him, but he dashed out of the house and up the lane.
A constable was called to the house and, after listening to Mrs Lumb and her sons, ordered that the surrounding fields and sheds be searched. By now, other neighbours had gathered, having heard the commotion, and joined in with the search. Within a short distance of the house the two remaining knives were found and the constable tracked Lumb's footprints towards a nearby dam. The constable thought that Lumb was going to drown himself but was astonished to see that the footprints carried on past the dam, heading in the direction of a place known locally as Cobs Castle. The search for Eli Lumb continued and he was finally found in Bradford two days later and brought back to Halifax, where he was arrested for the wilful murder of his son.
On Saturday 21 September an inquest was held at the Sportsman Inn, Halifax, before the coroner Thomas Lee Esq. Prior to the inquest, as was customary at the time, the jury were taken to the house where the dead man lay in order to view the body. A reporter, who accompanied the jury, stated that:
The body provided a dreadful spectacle. The deceased man had a wound in his right thigh; his hand had also been stabbed, as was the right breast. But it was the wound in the left breast which had killed him. The dead man was shirtless although the blood-soaked shirt lay on the floor of the bedroom.
One of the jurors picked up the shirt and noted that the cuts and blood on the shirt corresponded with the cuts on the body. It was reported that the bedroom was in a terrible state, with blood and gore stains splashed all over the walls and floorboards. Lumb, who had been captured that morning and was now in custody, attended the inquest and wept bitterly throughout the proceedings. Mrs Lumb told the coroner about her life with her husband, admitting that he was not the soberest of men. The coroner asked her about Lumb's relationship with his sons and she told him that they argued from time to time, but he had always got on well with all of them, in particular Thomas.
Lumb's neighbours gave their own detailed descriptions of the altercation and how they had joined in the search that night. A female neighbour told the coroner and the jury that Thomas was a sober and hard-working young man, who had been employed as a weaver at Makin Place, Soyland, and had the respect and good opinion of all who knew him. The next to give evidence was Joseph, who stated that while in the public house, he and his father had about four pints each. Joseph left around seven o'clock and tried to get his father to come with him but was unsuccessful; his father remained in the pub drinking with his friends. He said that when he got home, he told his mother that Lumb had stayed on and she began to fret.
Mr Bland, the surgeon who examined Thomas's body at the house, described the wounds that he had found. He said that three were slight, only one of them going into the cartilage of one of the ribs, cutting it in half. However, it was the fourth stab wound which has been the cause of death. The surgeon told the jury that he had completed the postmortem the following day and had found the fatal wound to be two inches long. The knife had gone through the chest and straight into the heart, causing an almost instant death. Lumb told the coroner, 'I cannot remember anything except him striking me with the fire iron. I was dizzy for a long time, I cannot tell how long.' The jury took very little time in finding Lumb guilty of wilful murder and he was sent to the spring assizes to stand trial.
On Thursday, 11 March 1840, Lumb appeared before Mr Justice Erskine and the jury found that there was no true bill to answer. It was common practice before each assizes started for the jury to examine every bill of indictment for each prisoner. If it was felt that the prisoner was not guilty, there was not enough evidence or there were other mitigating circumstances, the action would be dropped and no true bill found. In this case, Mr Knowles, for the prosecution, rose and stated that no evidence would be offered and the jury, by the direction of Mr Justice Erskine, found a verdict of acquittal in favour of the prisoner, which allowed Lumb to be discharged.CHAPTER 2
CASE TWO 1865
'OH MOTHER, DON'T POISON ME'
Suspect: Leah Atkinson
During the Victorian period, having a child out of wedlock was most definitely frowned upon. It was usually deemed to be the woman's fault for allowing herself to be seduced by a man; little blame was attached to the putative father of the child, resulting in both the mother and child usually being shunned by 'respectable' society.
Leah Atkinson lived with her daughter, Betty, on Portland Road, Range Bank, Halifax, in a lodging house kept by Martha Booth. On 12 June 1856, Leah and a neighbour, Elizabeth Holgate, went to the market place in town to collect some laudanum for Betty, who was ill and had been steadily getting worse. Entering the druggists owned by Mr Wood, she asked the boy who served in the shop for a pennyworth of laudanum. He said that he was not authorised to serve this to her, as it was poison. He called for his master, Mr Wood, who came into the shop from the back room. He asked Atkinson how old her daughter was and she replied that she was almost twelve. He stated that he would give her some laudanum, providing she gave her daughter no more than ten drops. Atkinson promised that she would not, so Mr Woods gave her the medicine in a bottle clearly marked 'laudanum poison'.
On her return to the lodging house, Atkinson found Betty in the kitchen, along with some of the other lodgers; one of whom, Emma Heywood, took the bottle from her and stated that it read 'poison' on the label. Atkinson, who was unable to read, went to give her daughter some of the laudanum in a cup of tea. Betty was clearly unhappy and said to her mother, 'Oh mother, don't poison me,' and her mother replied, 'Thou fool, thou's no occasion to be frightened of me poisoning thee, I like thee too well for that.' Fellow lodger Emma Heywood, in order to reassure the little girl, took a spoonful herself but, despite all of her assurances, Betty died the next morning.
Mr Laurence Bramley, the surgeon who had been treating Betty for a disease of the lungs, was called; he saw the body and signed the death certificate. Suspicions surrounding the death of the child, however, would not go away and it was not long before they were brought to the attention of the Halifax police force. Atkinson, after being interviewed by the police, was arrested and charged with poisoning her daughter with laudanum. The coroner was informed and the decision to exhume the child's body was approved. The coroner also instructed surgeon Mr Bramley to conduct a post-mortem on the body.
An inquest was held before coroner Mr George Dyson Esq. on Friday 20 June at 3.30 p.m. at the Bay Horse Inn. The jury was selected and a local manufacturer, Mr John Foster Esq., was elected to act as foreman. The first witness called forward was Elizabeth Holgate, who had accompanied Atkinson to Halifax for the laudanum. She talked about the exchange in the chemists shop and stated that she had seen Atkinson give the drops to Betty, but said that she did not see exactly how many she had put into the tea. Mrs Holgate was asked about Atkinson's relationship with her daughter and said that Leah had spoken very disparaging about Betty on several occasions. She claimed that Atkinson had told her, 'If the child does not die, I will give her some stuff to make it so.' The coroner asked her what her own relations with Atkinson were and Holgate told him that Atkinson had confronted her about all the lies she claimed Holgate had told the neighbours just that week.
Emma Heywood then gave evidence and said that she had lodged at the house for about two months and that she had always seen Atkinson deal with the child in a kind manner. She told the jury that Betty had been ill for all of the time that she had lodged at the house, and it was generally known that Betty had problems with her chest and had not been expected to live for much longer. She proceeded to tell them about the night that Atkinson had brought home the bottle and how the child had reacted when she had read out the label. Witnesses assembled in the courtroom heard how she had tried to reassure the child by consuming about half a teaspoon of laudanum, roughly the same quantity that she saw Atkinson give to her daughter. However, she claimed that the liquid was given on a teaspoon and not in tea as the previous witness had testified. Elizabeth Holgate was recalled and stated that although Emma Heywood had taken the laudanum by teaspoon, Atkinson gave Betty the laudanum in a cup of tea, which she particularly remembered seeing on the table.
Mr Benjamin Wood, the druggist of Northgate, stated that he remembered the prisoner coming into his shop and asking for the pennyworth of laudanum, which was approximately two drachms (approximately 120 drops). He described how he had labelled the bottle 'Poison', and he brought a similar one with him to the inquest for the jury to see. He told them that after he had enquired what she needed the laudanum for, he instructed Atkinson to give her daughter just five drops, and not to exceed ten drops. He stated that when he had examined the remainder of the laudanum which was left in the bottle, he discovered that, out of the 120 drops issued, 30 drops had been used.
Atkinson then gave her evidence and sobbed bitterly throughout. She told the court that a friend had recommended giving the drops to Betty and that when she got home she intended throwing the bottle away. However, her landlady, Martha Booth, had urged her not to throw it away and to give the child some in order to ease her breathing and the constant pain in her chest. Sobbing, she told the coroner that she had always done her best for the child and had starved herself to make sure that Betty had all the medicine she needed.
Mr Lawrence Bramley, the surgeon, was called and was asked to give his opinion on how much laudanum Betty would have ingested. He informed the court that, allowing for the amount taken by Emma Heywood, he judged it to have been around 15 drops. He also reported the results of the post-mortem, which had revealed that Betty had been very emaciated, but there was little sign of decomposition. There were signs of recent inflammation of the lower bowels, as well as signs of older inflammation. The stomach contained about an ounce of what he described as gritty fluid, but apart from that the stomach was very healthy. There was extensive disease of the right lung and he had no doubt that the child had died from an effusion on the chest. He also told the coroner that, in his opinion, he had been surprised that Betty had lived as long as she had and that the laudanum could have had no effect on the cause of death. The coroner thanked Mr Bramley for the clarity of his account before he proceeded to tell the jury that they needed to keep this in consideration when deciding their verdict. Without leaving the room the jury returned a verdict of death by natural causes.
It seems, in this instance, that this case was the result of a gossiping neighbour, Elizabeth Holgate, who seemed determined to vilify Leah Atkinson. Her supposed comments about wanting to be rid of Betty were not corroborated by other lodgers in the house, who had clearly stated that the child had been ill for a long time. Modern medicine now finds it astonishing that laudanum was acceptable as a soothing medicine in the Victorian era, but it was widely given to even the youngest of children; it was used extensively during teething to enable the child to have a good nights' sleep. The inaccuracy of measuring the drug was also an issue; what is an acceptable drop to a chemist might not be the same for a mother of a distressed child.
Excerpted from Halifax Murders by Margaret Drinkall. Copyright © 2013 Margaret Drinkall. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
Case One 1839 Murdered by his Father,
Case Two 1865 'Oh Mother, don't poison me',
Case Three 1857 'I came to murder him and I have done it',
Case Four 1858 Murder in a Newspaper Office,
Case Five 1864 'I've don't it and what's done can't be undone',
Case Six 1864 A Canal Side Rescue,
Case Seven 1865 Child Murder,
Case Eight 1865 Death of a Sister,
Case Nine 1868 Murder at the Parsonage,
Case Ten 1870 Murdered by his Son,
Case Eleven 1872 Saved by a Thick Overcoat,
Case Twelve 1889 'Acting like Jack the Ripper',
Case Thirteen 1892 Murder in the Cellar,
Case Fourteen 1866 Murder and Suicide,