The Saffron Hill Murder (4) — The Inquest

Pelizzioni was brought before the local police court again on the Wednesday — two days after the stabbings.  This was a formality: proceedings were essentially on hold until news of Alfred Rebbeck came through.  Was the charge going to be one of single or double murder?


Clerkenwell News — Saturday 31st December 1864. © British Library Board.

Inspector Potter corrected something said on the previous day:  Michael Harrington had left a widow and six children, not five.  Mary Harrington, Irish like her husband and then in her late thirties, was present in court.  The magistrate dealt with her kindly — “I deeply sympathise with you in your terrible misfortune.  I am informed that you are a person of sober and industrious habits” — and said that she had only to apply to the Chief Clerk if she needed further assistance.  Elsewhere in the newspapers on this and on following days there were many notes of generous donations made to assist her from individuals across the whole spectrum of the community.

There had been further disturbances in the area and opinion was hardening.  Alongside its brief account of the hearing, the London Evening Standard launched into an uncompromising editorial.  Fighting with knives was cowardly and un-English — a view undiminished by time — I can recall my father (who went to the Italian school on Little Saffron Hill, by the way) saying exactly the same thing to me a hundred years later.  And as for Pelizzioni, minds were already made up: “Forthwith, he gets an Italian gang around him — and Saffron-hill, the most dilapidated and neglected part of London, is a perfect Calabria in that respect — returns to the house, knocks down and stuns a woman, rushes upstairs, and stabs three utterly inoffensive people, who had taken no part whatever in expelling him from the Golden Anchor.  There can be no question about it.  In ordinary cases of murder, involving issues of life and death, we naturally shrink from reviewing the circumstances before they have been solemnly proved in a court of law.  Here, however, the assassin was taken red handed; the deed was witnessed by half a score of eyes; the guilt of the ruffian is palpable, and nothing remains except for justice to deal with him as, we trust, it will deal, unflinchingly and unsparingly.  In England the Thugs of the Continent require to be taught a sharp lesson” (Thursday 29th December, 1864).     

A formal inquest into Harrington’s death was held at Bart’s Hospital on the following Friday before Serjeant William Payne (1799?-1872), long-experienced Coroner for the City of London.  Having been sworn in, the jury were invited to view the body.  Thomas Wakeling again led the prosecution and — once again — the prisoner had no legal representation.  This was queried by the Coroner, but the proceedings were allowed to continue.  Apart from the occasional interjection from members of the jury, the witnesses again went unchallenged.

It was essentially a matter of all the same witnesses saying all the same things they had said in the magistrate’s court three days earlier.  No point in repeating it all, but there had been time for reflection and there were some amplifications, some shifts of emphasis, little differences and anomalies here and there — some of which might better be labelled discrepancies.  The press reports also differ in some details, so precisely what was said remains a little uncertain. 

Fred Shaw, the landlord, now added that his wife had walked away from Pelizzioni when he spoke to her — a point which only became relevant later.  He also now quoted the Italian as saying he could “kill him”, rather than the more ambiguous “settle him” he had previously claimed.  And he now named the Italian who had hit him — one “Gregorri” — adding that “I was about to get over the bar to him, when I was pulled back”.

The first serious discrepancies were introduced by Richard Mellowship, the button-maker. Having previously said that, “The prisoner rushed into the room first, and several behind him, all Italians”, he now claimed that “Only the prisoner got into the room, others were knocked back”.  This was clearly a crucial point — the entire prosecution ultimately rested on Pelizzioni being the only Italian to enter the bagatelle-room.  It was also a radical change of story.  To further confuse matters, the witness also claimed to have seen the knife — the alleged murder weapon — at the “Golden Anchor” on the day following the stabbings.  As the evidence still to come was that no knife had been found there, it is difficult to know what to make of this — unless perhaps the police had been showing a knife around the neighbourhood looking for an identification.

John Liddle repeated his previous evidence, but added that the group in the bagatelle-room had been given some clear forewarning that “that the Italians were going to murder the English”.  He was then challenged by a juryman as to how certain he was of his identification of the murderer — “l might have seen the man before, but should not have known him.  I am positive he is the man who struck Harrington”. 

The policeman Richard Fawell reiterated that he had first seen Pelizzioni in the tap-room and witnessed him “rush into the bagatelle-room”, followed not by a group of Italians but by Rebbeck the potman, who had already been stabbed.  For this to make sense, this must have been before Harrington had been stabbed.  But everything happened very quickly, it was Boxing Day, and clearly a great deal of drink had been taken.  That said, there appears to be no plausible point in the narrative for the stabbing of the third man, Charles Bannister.  The most telling piece of evidence from Fawell was that he returned to the pub after having taken the prisoner to the police-station to search the premises for the murder-weapon — but could not find one anywhere.

Constable Elliott added to his previous testimony that they had to force open the door of the bagatelle-room and also said that when they arrested Pelizzioni he was armed — not with a knife — but with a broom-handle.  Sergeant Baldock noted in passing that the prisoner was quite capable of conversing freely in English.

Although two knives had been found in the vicinity and handed into the police, Inspector Potter chose to produce only one.  It was a clasp-knife with a single blade, smeared with blood, the point of which had recently been snapped off.  It had been found by a little boy in “The Ruins” — the rubble-strewn cleared space between the backs of the houses on the east side of Saffron Hill and the newly-made Farringdon Road.  Close to the “Golden Anchor”, but not quite “just outside” as one newspaper reported Potter as saying.  Charles Pearless, the young surgeon, was of the view that this knife could have inflicted the fatal wound, but probably not unless it still had its point on it.  And as for the blood, he could not tell just from looking at it whether it was human or animal.  There was very little in the way of forensics in 1864 — even fingerprint evidence was as yet unknown.

The Coroner summed up at considerable length, reviewing all the evidence.  It was only in hindsight that the flaws in the testimony began to appear.  He concluded by telling the jury that he did not see how they could do otherwise than to bring in a verdict of “wilful murder” against the prisoner.  There were no mitigating circumstances to reduce the charge to one of manslaughter.  The jury duly and swiftly obliged.  They then generously offered to donate their fees to Mary Harrington.

Things could not have been bleaker for Pelizzioni.  Although a full-scale trial had still to be scheduled, the inquest jury and the press had already found him guilty.  He was destined to hang.

To be continued …      

About Laurence Worms - Ash Rare Books

Laurence Worms has owned and run Ash Rare Books since 1971. He represented the antiquarian book trade on the (British) National Book Committee from 1993 to 2002 and has been six times an elected member of the Council of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association. He was largely responsible for drafting the Association’s Code of Good Practice first introduced in 1997 (and its recent update), served as Honorary Secretary of the Association from 1998 to 2001 and as President from 2011 to 2013. He is a former member of the Council of the Bibliographical Society and continues to serve on the Council of the London Topographical Society. He writes and lectures on various aspects of the history of the book and map trades, and has lectured at the universities of Cambridge, London, Reading and Sheffield, as well as at the Bibliographical Society, the Royal Geographical Society, the Warburg Institute, the National Library of Scotland and at Gresham College and Stationers' Hall. He teaches annually at the London Rare Book School, University of London. Published work includes the compilation of fourteen ‘lives’ for the “Oxford Dictionary of National Biography”, a number of articles for “The Oxford Companion to the Book” and the chapter on early English maps and atlases for the fourth volume of “The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain”. Essays on the British map trade are also appearing in “The History of Cartography” published by the University of Chicago Press. His long-awaited “British Map Engravers”, co-written with Ashley Baynton-Williams, was published to critical acclaim in 2011. He also contributed the numerous biographical notes to Peter Barber’s hugely successful “London : A History in Maps”, co-published by the British Library and the London Topographical Society in 2012.
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