A hanging outside Newgate Prison. Image by Wikimedia via creative commons
A hanging outside Newgate Prison. Image by Wikimedia via creative commons

Mary Emsley, an elderly widow, lived at no 9 Grove Road in London’s Stepney. She owned many properties left to her by her husband and lived comfortably, though frugally, on the rents collected from tenants.

On Thursday, 17 August, 1860, Walter Emm, a shoemaker who often collected rent on her behalf, reported her missing to the police.

The police found her, lying dead in a bedroom in her house, in a pool of blood, her head violently beaten. A large footprint in blood pointed out of the bedroom door. She had been attacked with an instrument that could have been a hammer.

Time of death
The time of her death was suggested by Samuel Gill, a surgeon, to be on or around Monday 13 August. Mrs Emsley was seen alive that evening between 7 and 8pm, but not afterwards.

On Tuesday 14th and Wednesday 15th, several callers failed to get a response when they came to her house. A neighbour noticed her window had been open, unusually, after 10pm on Monday, and that it remained open.

The time of death was therefore set between 8 and 10 on Monday 13th August.

There were two main suspects in the case. One was James Mullins, a plasterer and ex policeman from Ireland who also worked for Mrs Emsley. The other was Walter Emm.

For two weeks, no arrest was made. Then, Mullins visited a police officer with a tale that appeared to show Emm’s guilt. He said he had seen Emm hide a small parcel in a shed beside his house.

At first, the police failed to find the parcel: then, Mullins showed them where it was, behind a stone.

The parcel contained newspaper, blotting paper, a silver table spoon, 3 silver teaspoons and 2 magnifying lenses, plus a cheque for £10. All the items belonging to Mrs Emsley. The cheque proved to be from a John Carrier in payment of his rent. The parcel was fastened with waxed string and a piece of tape.

Walter Emm soon proved to have an alibi for the evening of Monday 13th. He had been driven to Stratford along with his wife, by a Mr Rumble, who corroborated his story. He produced a dated toll ticket as proof.

Mullins, on the other hand, found it less easy to prove innocence. There were several circumstances that pointed to his guilt.

The police found a plasterer’s hammer on the floor of his rooms. The surgeon believed it could have inflicted the appalling blows to the head that killed the poor old woman: one injury was measured at 1 ½ inches, corresponding to the sharp edge of the hammer.

Emm’s daughter testified she had seen Mullins near the shed where the parcel was found on the Saturday two weeks after the murder.

Two witnesses identified Mullins, one seeing him in Grove Road on the evening of Monday, 13th August, the day of the murder, and another reporting he had not come to work in the Tuesday. Both agreed he wore a wide-awake, or billy-cock hat, although he denied owning one. It later emerged that his son had such a hat.

Mullins’ landlady said she saw a boot thrown from Mullins’ window two weeks after the murder, when he had been interviewed by the police. The boot had a blood spot, although forensic tests were not available then to detect whether the blood was human. The boot also appeared to correspond slightly, although not conclusively, to the bloody footprint.

A neighbour saw someone moving paper-hangings around in Mrs Emsley’s room and saw the window open a little on Tuesday morning. This was twelve hours after the expected time of death.

A builder said he saw a man called Rowland emerge from a house in Grove Street holding wallpaper on Tuesday morning, although it appears Rowland may have been papering the house next door. Rowland’s response, however, was that the witness was unstable.

These circumstances did not convince the jury, and nor did the garbled and contradictory evidence of Mullin’s adult sons who became confused in the witness box as they struggled to give him an alibi.

Mullins was found guilty and sentenced to death. The judge, though, did not appear as convinced as the jury, suggesting that if Mullins could “make it manifest that you are innocent of the charge … every attention will be paid to any cogent proof.”

Nevertheless, Mullins was hanged on 19 November 1860, leaving a statement still claiming his innocence.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle took a keen interest in murder cases at the Old Bailey. He believed Mullins may have been mistakenly blamed for the murder of Mrs Emsley, and that his execution was little short of judicial murder. Conan Doyle thought the Scottish verdict of “not proven” which was not, and still is not, available in England, would have been a more appropriate verdict.

His detailed account, raising doubts about the safety of the verdict, are in the British Newspaper Archive.

Header image by Tom Murphy VII via Wikimedia Commons


4 thoughts on “Victorian Crime: Murder in the East End

  1. What an interesting post! I had no idea the “not proven” verdict was not available in England. Yes, Sir Arthur had it right – sounds like someone got away with murder…


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