Saturday, 31 December 2016

Military Crime in Britain in the 19th Century

Some young men found it difficult to surrender to the stringent discipline of military life. The consequences could be disastrous, both for the perpetrators of crime and for their unfortunate victims, while the executioner pursued what he did best with unswerving dedication. However, just occasionally, with a little cunning and guile, a wrongdoer might actually get away with it. 

Crazy with Jealousy

A sergeant, Patrick Feeney, had a fancy for a young private's pretty wife - at least, that's what the private believed. Crazy with jealousy, Private Benjamin Gardiner of the 50th Regiment went looking for Sergeant Feeney and shot him dead. In July 1834, Private Gardiner was hanged on Chatham Lines for the sergeant's murder. His execution was meant as a warning to his comrades, but during the proceedings, a storm blew up and it became very dark. People thought this was the wrath of God and many of them ran away to hide from God's anger.

Mad with Greed

On 10 August 1830, according to the Medway News, John McAlister was indicted with assaulting William Rogers, a soldier at Chatham. McAlister stole from Rogers a watch and two sovereigns. William Rogers was on his way home to his quarters at Fort Pitt about 10.00pm. McAlister and another soldier approached him, saying, "How d'ya do, comrade" and immediately knocked him down, kneeling on him as he lay helpless on the ground. McAlister then rifled the pockets of his victim, tearing his trousers as he removed the watch. Rogers yelled, "Murder!" and the guard heard and came to his assistance. McAlister ran off, but he was chased and captured with the stolen articles in his possession. He was found guilty but the paper made no mention of his punishment.

Desperate for Freedom

During Nelson's time in the 1800s, a sentry with a peg-leg and crutch was on his way through the oldest part of the Naval Barracks at Chatham, known as Cumberland Block. His destination was Room No. 34, where the next man on the duty roster was still sleeping. The sentry was desperate for a break himself and meant to waken the oversleeping sentry, but before he reached Room No. 34, the sentry was set about by a crowd of prisoners who were intent on escaping. Without a second thought, the mob bludgeoned the sentry to death. During and since the 1940s, several people have claimed to see and hear the sentry's ghost, limping and tapping through old Cumberland Block.

The Dashing Deserter

According to the Kentish Independent dated Saturday 13 January 1900, a young sapper of the Royal Engineers deserted from the Corps at Chatham. He tried to enlist in a regiment of Hussars intending to go to war, but his military appearance alerted the authorities, especially when his account of himself seemed so evasive. Immediately, he was placed under arrest, pending a court martial at Chatham on the following Thursday. However, while being escorted across the parade ground on the Wednesday afternoon, he managed to escape, taking the corporal in charge by surprise. So the dashing deserter got away.

Fuelled by Anger

In August 1865, a soldier shot dead an officer on the parade ground at Bromton Barracks in Gillingham. The officer was Major Francis Horatio de Vere, a veteran of the Crimea, and his murderer was Sapper John Currie, who showed no remorse for his action towards his superior. It happened on 11 August when the nineteen-year-old sapper fired, just as the 400 men were standing to attention. Lieutenant Arthur Durnford rushed to help the fallen major, who was gasping, "Oh, my God!" It was Lieutenant Durnford who later entered the barracks and discovered Currie alone in his cell, which reeked of gunpowder. Currie calmly admitted his guilt.

At first, it was feared that the wound to the major was fatal. Later, the surgeons felt that the victim would live, but they were wrong, and within a week, Major de Vere had died. At his trial at the Central Criminal Court, the unsavoury facts emerged. John Currie simply never got it right, while Major de Vere was among the most stringent officers of the Royal Engineers, demanding no less than the best from those under his command.

The crunch came when Currie took a cut in pay for a misdeameanour that had taken place a few months previously. Currie's laziness continued, perhaps more out of grievance than for any other reason, and he ended up in the guard house, then later his commanding officer had him shut in his cell for six days. John Currie decided he was being picked on, so he loaded up his rifle and shot the major from the window, over the heads of the assembled officers.

The defence claimed that John Currie, driven out of his mind by the alleged grievances, had been insane when he had committed the murder. However, the plea was rejected by the judge, Mr. Justice Sheet, who sentenced John Currie to death. Later, it was claimed by a minister that John Currie had expressed remorse for killing the major and he was well-supported by his family. Comforted by the Presbyterian minister, Mr. John Greener, John Currie asked for a prayer to be said as he was prepared for death. On the fateful day, as the hangman placed the noose around his neck, he waited for around five minutes for the duration of the prayer.

Once the drop fell, Currie took a couple of minutes to die, as was usual with those who suffered at the hands of the dreaded executioner William Calcraft.

Newspapers as stated in text.

Murder and Crime Medway, Tempus Publishing, 2008.

1 comment:

  1. Shared to my author page on Facebook - fascinating. I've recently been researching cannibalism at sea in the nineteenth century, for a planned fact-based short story. There's an article in it, too. Would you be interested in accepting a guest post?