Linking offenders to the fragments that their lives and offences have left behind has never been easier than it is now, in the digital age. Criminal records, census entries, newspapers and more are all at our disposal through a search box and the click of a mouse. Entering a name in a search engine can instantly reveal a lifetime of love, loss, family, and crime. However, whether we are family historians or academic researchers, we all recognise that some searches are easier than others. A Phillis Eastmond will be easier to identify as the one we search for than a Sarah smith. A uniquely named individual is easier to find in a sea of information than a common one.
Any database in which offenders can be found will reveal this, from the Old Bailey Online, to the newspapers and the census. For example, there were more than one hundred women with the name Mary Brown tried at the Central Criminal Court in London during the Victorian Period. A newspaper search for Margaret Jones will produce results that number in their thousands. In the same period, historical record will tell us, there was but one Florence Maybrick.
However, even the exceptional offender, with name and story to match, can prove problematic to trace. Whilst we can be more sure in their identity, it does not mean the search for them is always easier. We can still find ourselves left with nothing but a single flash of their offending and no way of tracing what came before, or how events unfolded afterwards.
I was recently captivated and frustrated by such a case when an unusual name caught my eye in a register of female licences for parole. These licences are often the endpoint of a wayward woman’s story. Paroled convicts have offended, been caught, tried, found guilty, served their time in prison, and been released by the time their name appears on such a list.
Amelie Decuypere was paroled from Fulham Prison in 1864 having served five years of a six year sentence. Her licence was not revoked, and no note was made of her having been returned to prison. From here we must assume, as for so many others, that she went on to live a normal life. But how, does a French woman find herself in an English prison?
Amelie, or Amelia as she was also known had been convicted alongside her husband Paul in 1859 for the theft of several articles worth upwards of £35 from the house of a man named Raymond Collins. This had, according to the court, been the latest in a long line of similar offences. Whilst they were on trial for this offence alone, the prosecutor suggested “at least a dozen could have been brought forward by the police”.
Amelie and Paul had a well-practiced scheme, they would take well furnished lodgings, and make off with the contended of the house at the first available opportunity.
The back story of two such uniquely named convicts, or at least some more information about them should have been relatively easy to find. Like many other offenders, they had many other names under which they worked, but each was more distinctive than the last. They might also be Amelie and Paul Thuillier, and a marriage licence signed by the mayor of Paris in 1849 revealed that in fact they might be Antoine Thuillier and Louise Claudine Margaret.
This pair of Parisians were also no ordinary house thieves. An inspector of the metropolitan police provided evidence that a year previously they had stolen, from the museum of Amsterdam, a painting of a religious scene, worth £2000 (around £90,000 today). They were apprehended in London, but due to no treaty of extradition existing between England and the Netherlands, there was no choice but to release them without charge.
Evidence was also found that in Paris a trial of both Amelie and Paul had been held, despite their absence, and they had been convicted of ‘swindling’ and ‘fraudulent bankruptcy’ and sentenced to 10 and 20 years hard labour respectively.
A document sent from the French government sent to England whilst the Decuyperes served their sentence here indicated that once released, they were to be deported to France so that their standing sentences of imprisonments could stat to be served. A special request was even made that Paul not be listed for transportation to Western Australia so that the French legal system could apprehend him.
There are no census records of a couple who came only briefly to live freely in London in 1858 before their conviction the following year. Likewise there is no trace of Amelie after her release and, we must suppose, extradition back to France. For Amelie, we have at our disposal much more information than for many others. We know her name and aliases. We know those of her spouse and even her mother. We know the locations and natures of her previous crime. Yet just as national boundaries prevented her apprehension for some time, they continue to shield her from the prying eyes of history.
Amelie was a fine art thief, a notorious fraudster, an offender across Europe. She was a French woman, with a name unlike any other, but still no easier to find and follow than any Mary Smith.