A book that I dip into occasionally is Murderous Leeds, by John J. Eddleston. Subtitled The executed of the Twentieth Century, it is a volume of short case studies, sourced from newspapers and court reports, of the trials of people convicted of murder in the first half of the twentieth century in Leeds.
Some of the murders were horrifically brutal; some were pathetic. The extreme poverty of most of those convicted was usually one of the most significant factors in their turning to crime. Many of these people – most were men, but some of the stories are about women – were of no fixed abode and drifted from one tawdry lodging-house to another or picked up women – or men – who were prepared to take them home. Some of the women paid for their generosity with their lives. Yet most of the convicted had jobs of some kind. It is hard to believe that, just two generations ago, many working men could not earn enough money to pay for a roof over their heads.
The saddest of all the stories is the first. It tells how, in 1900, a man called Thomas Mellor, aged 29, killed his two small daughters because he no longer had the means to support them. The jury that found him guilty commended him for his kindness in rescuing them from destitution in this way. He still paid for the crime with his life.
Among the most horrific tales is that of William Horsely Wardell, who persuaded a woman called Elizabeth Reaney to give him shelter and then brutally battered her to death. Attracted by the small reward on offer, her neighbours fell over themselves to ‘shop’ him.
Some of the accounts are bizarre, some are almost funny and a few exhibit a certain amount of intelligence on the part of the perpetrator. Most, however, portray a depressing picture of the grubby chaos and casual brutality of everyday urban working-class life. Many of the murders were not planned, but the result of drunken arguments, some of them ‘domestics’. The banality of these stories is one of the two reasons why I only dip into the book; I still have not read it all the way through. The other reason is that the author has decided to rely on verbatim accounts given by witnesses and judges’ summings-up. Whilst this is in many ways commendable – a treasure trove of fact of this kind is invaluable to a crime fiction writer – it has the drawback of resulting in a certain sameness if more than two or three of the stories are read in one go.
I do plan to tackle the book in one sitting at some point, though, because, as it spans the period 1900 – 1961, I know that a careful reading of it will show me how police methods improved during that time. It strikes me that, in 1900, real villains (as opposed to the desperate and probably mentally ill Thomas Mellor) could get away with almost anything; on the other hand, the forensic evidence produced in court in 1961 in order to convict Zsiga Pankotia, a Hungarian, of the murder of prosperous market trader Eli Myers was very sophisticated indeed.
When I’m walking through the streets of Leeds, especially in the market area, it often strikes me that the people I see may be the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of some of the victims whose fates are described in this book. Some may even be the descendants of their murderers. Sixty-seven people were hanged in Armley Gaol in the sixty-one years that the book covers. Apart from the exotically-named Pankotia and one Wilhelm Lubina (executed in 1954), almost all of them had good, sturdy Yorkshire names. I do hope that their descendants enjoy a more privileged existence than they did.