WaywardWomen

Victorian England's Female Offenders

Archive for the tag “family”

Mulling over the Muldoons

Even with the wealth of records at our finger tips for researching lives the dynamic between a women and men who were married, cohabiting, or even courting, is difficult to gage. For those that leave memoirs or are deemed important enough to have biographies written about them we may be lucky enough to get some small insight into their personal lives and the characters of those they loved. Female offenders are rarely so lucky. Researchers of ordinary (and extraordinary) men and women whose significance was not recorded for posterity find themselves in a difficult position. Personal relationships are a hugely important feature of the lives we study. Events, opportunities, and choices are all shaped by those around us – people in the past were no different. The stories of female offenders would not be complete without details of their families and loved ones. To an extent we are able to recapture family and friendship groups. Birth marriage and death records, the odd line in a newspaper report, or even matching conviction records might give us a little piece of information about the men with who female offenders made their lives. This can be recorded and even analysed. Questions like; were the majority of offenders married? How many ‘significant’ relationships might they have in their lives? Were their partners offenders? can all be quantified and analysed. Many intimate questions cannot. Good researchers do their best to draw conclusions only on the evidence they can gather and the ‘facts’ they can confirm. We are only human though. Just because we can’t substantiate ideas and about offenders personal lives, it doesn’t mean we don’t have them. Many researchers have theories about life events and people that they study which are considered in light of evidence very likely even if they can’t prove them. In subtle ways, maybe even without realising it, these ideas can colour how we tell the stories of our subjects. When new information comes to light, the smallest crumb of evidence can cause us to question some of the cases we are most familiar with. If you’ve followed my research, heard me talk, or come across the WaywardWomen site and twitter feed, no doubt the fearsome figure of Margaret Muldoon will be a little familiar. It was her story that first inspired me to blog the history of female offenders.

Margaret Muldoon

PCOM4; Piece: 59; Item: 6

The tale of the ‘Captain and leader of the rough women of Stockdale Street’ was the very first I uncovered, and Margaret’s story of hardship and loss, violence, persecution and redemption has continued to fascinate me. Her tale would not have been complete without the ominous figure of her husband, John, of whom I knew so little, lurking in the background. I knew almost nothing about John – only what the papers disclosed. He’d been sent to Prison just months after they married for an attack on a woman named Ann Hines. Margaret was pregnant with their first child and left to cope alone. Two years later she began her own five year sentence for an attack on the same woman. The pair did not correspond whilst in prison, not even in special circumstances when their son died. After they were both released in 1884 Margaret was never convicted again, seemingly turning her back on the violent life she had lived before. John did not. In 1891 was the victim of a violent attack which almost cost him his life when adversaries from his past caught up with him. He died a few years later at the age of just forty-five. With his death, Margaret was able to extricate herself from the dangerous and difficult community in which she and John had lived their whole lives. John Muldoon Although I was careful never to treat it as evidence, over the course of my research, I’d made some assumptions about John Muldoon that encouraged me to view Margaret’s story in a certain light. I’d imagined him as a domineering presence in her life, a bad influence perhaps. The John Muldoon of newspaper reports was a violent and unsympathetic character. Then, just days ago, Find My Past published a huge collection of criminal records for British including the PCOM 3 Male Licences.   For the first time I had the opportunity to fill in some of the last missing pieces of Margaret’s story – details about John The licences are not only a remarkable resource due to the in depth information they provide about offenders. They are also captivating in the sense that they allow researchers who deal in ‘criminal lives’ to come face to face with their subjects by looking at their mugshots. What I was unprepared for was that coming face to face with John would show me a man I never expected. John Muldoon was not the hulking brute that sources and my own imagination had led me to believe, but a rather diminutive man, just a few inches taller than his wife, who looked swamped by his prison uniform. John Muldoon 1880

PCOM3; Piece: 658

I was also surprised to see that he had fewer – by almost half – convictions for drunkenness and violence to people and property than his wife. Whereas Margaret’s most notable offence prior to her conviction for stabbing Ann Hines had been leading a rabble in an assault against the police, John’s had been to steal a newspaper at the age of thirteen. For that offence he was sentenced to ten days in an adult prison, and five years on the notorious Catholic reformatory ship, the Clarence. It was hard not to feel a little sympathy for a man who had been institutionalised as a child. What’s more, John claimed that he was wrongly convicted of the assault in 1880. This in itself was a normal petition for most convicts to make in a bid for freedom. There were few in convict prisons who openly admitted their guilt. What was more surprising was that John claimed he had been set up to take the fall for somebody else – Margaret’s sister. The validity of John’s claims are impossible to establish. However, his statements and a little more information on his history do provide a fascinating alternative perspective on the Muldoons. Was Margaret’s attack on Ann Hines motivated solely by revenge for her husband or was there a deeper more complex relationship between the two women now lost to history? Perhaps Margaret was not influenced by the violent world of her husband. If anything it would appear it may have been the other way round. Did John stop her leaving the area in later life, or had he been the one making it safe for her to stay? More records always mean more questions – but hold the promise of better and more thorough answers in the end.

Victorian gender norms made it common for newspaper reports and court testimony to paint male offenders as every inch the hardened and dangerous offenders that society held them to be. The sexual double standards of the nineteenth century suggested that if husband and wife were both embroiled in a world of vice and crime, the woman was immoral and weak, but the man was to blame. Criminal men were the seducers of women and the corrupters of their hapless female accessories. Often, with little evidence available to counteract these narratives old assumptions can seep through time and saturate, even unconsciously, our modern interpretation. In the rare cases where we have a chance to trace not only offenders but their partners – in life and in crime – it’s possible to challenge not only what contemporary witnesses and reporters said about them, but also the faulty picture we have formed in our own minds.

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‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there’ – Or perhaps they don’t.

The iconic opening line from L. P. Hartley’s 1953 novel, The Go Between, has come to encapsulate the way many of us think and feel about the past. Whether it is the ninth or the nineteenth century that we look to, the same temptation confronts us; to explain the past as a place intrinsically different from our own, and its people as individuals fundamentally different to ourselves.

Whilst these sentiments may hold true for some of the most visible elements of any age – technology or social customs – other elements of the past often provide a striking mirror in which to examine our own lives and societies.

The history of offending and offenders is one such mirror. In some ways, Victorian England’s female offenders did live in a foreign country. One where employment opportunities, living standards, and state intervention took a very different form to those of the twenty-first century world. However, should their social and personal lives be assumed so very alien to our own?

Perhaps the uncomfortable truth historians must acknowledge is that, in the course of their lives, many wayward women and their families met with the same situations, difficulties, and discrimination that a number of vulnerable individuals and groups face in Britain in the present day.

Mary Brennan’s life and slide into offending offers one such example.

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Home Office and Prison Commission: Female Licences; Class: PCOM4; Piece: 61; Item: ;. Page: 40.

Mary Brennan was born in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire in 1850, the daughter of John and Jane Brennan. The Brennan’s were originally from Scotland, but moved around England during Mary’s early life, due to John’s work as a travelling acrobat.

The Brennans were a large but close family. Mary was one of the youngest, only she and her brother John junior remained at home by 1861. John Brennan made money enough for the family to be solvent without his wife Jane having to work, and for his children to attend school.

This happy and stable life was shattered in the early 1860s. The family had been lodging in Westminster, London, when John unexpectedly died. The Brennans lost a father, husband, and head of the family. Even more devastatingly, they had lost an economic lifeline. Employment for unskilled women in London was not abundant.  Jane was only eligible for the lowest paying and most menial jobs, such as charring or laundering. On such a scant wage, in a period where the only state relief available was the workhouse, Jane was unable to sustain supporting her family. With some of Jane’s older children already moved on and married, and her oldest son off working as a travelling performer, the family unit crumbled. Fourteen year old Mary Brennan found herself cut adrift from her old way life. Like many young teens suddenly without an authority figure, Mary found herself immersed in a new way of existence, fraught with as much danger as there was opportunity.

By the age of fifteen, perhaps out of economic necessity, perhaps out of camaraderie for her new peers – a group of three or four ‘street girls’ of a similar age and economic stance to Mary – or simply out of a need for attention; Mary had been arrested and sentenced to a year in prison for loitering on the street, drinking and picking pockets.

Without  the money or  personal connections needed  to reinvent herself, Mary’s life course was irrevocably altered by the time of her release, aged just sixteen. After her months in prison, Mary did not return home to her mother, who was still living in London. Mary began cohabiting with a petty offender five years her senior – Francis Knight.  No doubt the older and independent Francis seemed an attractive proposition to a young girl with nothing.

Mary and Francis never married, but by the age of eighteen Mary had given birth to two of his illegitimate children – Jane in 1867 and Francis in 1868. These developments further solidified Mary Brennans transition into a life of offending. In the few years she spent  living with Francis Knight, Mary was frequently in the police courts, and in and out of prison several times for various street offences such as drinking, assault and theft. Mary had also gained the infamous label of prostitute.

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1869 was another turning point in Mary’s career of offending. By the age of nineteen she had become notorious with the police and magistrates, so when she was discovered stealing £10 in bank notes from a dwelling house in December that year, the court had no hesitation in handing down the maximum sentence for an ‘old’ offender. Seven years penal servitude.

Her relationship with Knight disintegrated during her sentence – imprisoned for seven years, she was no longer of any use to him. In the mid 1870s after her discharge from prison, Mary formed a new relationship with another offender, Thomas Lawrence.

Mary Brennan had been living a transient life of repeat offending for longer than she had spent as a member of a stable working family in the time before her father’s death. It is perhaps unsurprising that Mary was thoroughly entrenched in her current mode of life, and that on each release from prison her life of vice resumed.  In December 1881 Mary was again brought up at the Middlesex Sessions, charged with stealing £5 from the person, and sentenced to five more years penal servitude.

As Mary entered her late thirties and early forties, the cycle of offending, conviction, release and repetition resumed.

While some elements of Mary’s story are unique, and some of her difficulties and decisions were facilitated by social and cultural infrastructure that no longer exists, other aspects of her story highlight causes and contributions to a life of deviance and offending that are a product of the modern world; poverty, lack of early stage state support, and a punitive, ineffective, prison system.

The past is not a foreign country, but a neighbouring one. A place with which, it may be time to concede, we share a little too much socially, culturally, and politically. The people of the past still needed to eat and pay for housing, just as many struggle with today. Then, as now, people might find their lives spin out of control after life traumas such as bereavement and the disintegration of the family unit. Teenagers then, as now, still longed for independence, rebelled or were mislead by peers, often paying a high price for their transgressions. People in the past, just as now, were capable of making impulsive decisions – the consequences of which could last a life time.

When it comes to offending, perhaps it is most important to acknowledge that  the lack of understanding and level of stigmatisation we see so clearly ruining lives in the past, continues to do so today.

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