The Saffron Hill Murder (11) — The Final Trial

“On Wednesday, April 12th, Thursday the 13th, and (Good Friday intervening), Saturday the 15th, Seraphino Pelizzioni was put upon his trial for feloniously wounding, with intent to murder, Alfred Rebbeck; the prisoner being, on a second count, further charged with the intent to do him grievous bodily harm” (Montagu Williams).

The third Old Bailey trial — essentially now a tie-breaker — was the focus of intense attention, to the extent that two judges were appointed to oversee it: Mr Baron Channell — Sir William Fry Channell (1804-1873), conscientious and careful — and Sir Montague Edward Smith (1806-1891).  Hardinge Giffard and William Cole Beasley prosecuted, as they had done successfully in the first trial, while Serjeant Ballantine, fresh from the Mogni trial, led for the defence, assisted by William Ribton and Frederic Lewis.

Sir William Fry Channell

The transcript on the Old Bailey Proceedings Online website runs to well over 33,000 words, and that is without including the lengthy addresses of counsel to the jury or the judges’ summing up — Ballantine’s impassioned plea on Pelizzioni’s behalf itself ran to over three hours.  But for all the thousands of words expended, very little new emerged.

Pelizzioni opted for a jury composed half of Italians, but it emerged that none had been summoned.  Ballantine was indignant: it was usual to have a mixed jury in this type of case and the date of the trial was perfectly well known in advance.  This can scarcely have been an administrative oversight.  Negretti eventually prevailed on Pelizzioni to accept an English jury rather than delay matters, but the trial had begun in acrimony.    

Giffard studiously ignored the evidence of the Mogni trial.  Discredited though the prosecution witnesses may have been in the press, he called them all again to insist with even greater fervour that Pelizzioni was the only Italian to have gained access to the bagatelle-room.  A second strand in the prosecution case was to try to overcome the evidence of the hats belonging to the Mogni brothers found in the room.  The third and most difficult strand was to try to account for the absence of a knife with which Pelizzioni might stabbed anyone: the knife found at the “Bordessa” plainly belonged to Mogni.

Sir Montague Edward Smith © National Portrait Gallery

For the defence, Mogni’s confession and subsequent conviction were key, but Ballantine now determined completely to destroy the credibility of the prosecution witnesses.  He was to suggest a degree of premeditation in a planned assault on the Italians, in which the policeman Richard Fawell was almost certainly complicit.  And he was openly to accuse other police officers with the suppression and falsification of evidence.  In his memoirs, published as Some Experiences of a Barrister’s Life in 1882, he was wholly unapologetic: “The police had the practical management of the prosecution … in calling attention to its remarkable details, I am performing a useful duty to society”.  It was a remark which prefaced a fascinating analysis of the psychology of the police, a body of men whom he generally held in high regard, but one which occasionally went badly and dangerously wrong: its necessary esprit de corps was both its great strength and its fatal weakness. 

To commence proceedings, a surveyor named Frederick Caiger (1825-1904) produced a plan of the pub and vouched for the accuracy of a scale-model which had been made to guide the jury through the convoluted narrative.     

The enigmatic ex-policeman Fred Shaw cut a poor figure under searching cross-examination.  He had been locked into the bar-parlour to prevent his joining in the affray.  He denied that Fawell had been inside the pub all along, rather than just passing by.  This was later contradicted by an off-duty police-officer who had seen Fawell chatting to Shaw between three and four o’clock: “He was smoking a cigar … I could see him very plainly”.  Anne Sams saw him at the bar about five o’clock and Gregorio Mogni claimed to have spoken to him inside the pub immediately before the affray.

Hardinge Giffard

A question from Ballantine about whether Shaw was aware that his wife had denied that it was Pelizzioni who had made the “Six Englishmen” remark was withdrawn after an objection.  Shaw insisted that he and his wife were still living together and had not fallen out.  She had not been lying low to avoid being subpoenaed — and as for the charge of assault against his sister-in-law — “I called four policemen to prove that the whole thing was untrue … all the witnesses on the opposite side were Italians”.

It was put to Alf Rebbeck that “You anticipated a row, and so you thought you would give the English the means of a good stand-up fight; that was the history of it, was it not?”  This he denied, but then admitted to talk of Italians and knives the day before the affray.  Maria King got into something of a tangle when confronted with the plan of the pub.  Her husband brushed aside inconsistencies in his evidence as a “misunderstanding”, while Liddle claimed that his words had been “written wrongly at the police-court”.  George Stanley, the painter, was adamant: “I am telling no lie, if I am may God strike me dead — Seraphini was in the room when Harrington fell, and no other Italian”.

A major blow was struck for the defence with the appearance of the third victim, Charles Bannister, who had surprisingly not been called at the two previous trials.  Ballantine suggested why: “I will call your attention to what you said before the magistrate, ‘a number Italians, of whom the prisoner is one, rushed in’; have you no idea now, why you were not called?”  He pressed him still further: “Did you not say to a policeman that you doubted whether it was Seraphini, and did not the policeman say to you something of this kind, ‘Oh, d— it, you funk, do you?’ — Yes, that was said to me at the Police-court … one of them said to me, ‘Well, Bannister, I think you are funking’ … I expressed the doubt as to whether Seraphini was the person, long before I went to the Police-court, to my mother and several others”.

William Ballantine, Vanity Fair, 5th March 1870

The business of the hats was now taken up.  Richard Faithfull or Faithorne, the policeman who had taken Harrington to hospital, confirmed that he had not been wearing a hat.  The point of this became clear when my great-great-grandfather, Lewis Joseph Worms (1836-1885), married to Harrington’s sister (and future brother-in-law of Alf Rebbeck), was called: “My father deals in building-materials, and has a place next to the Golden Anchor — the deceased, Michael Harrington, was a brother-in-law of mine — I gave him a hat some short time before Christmas last; it was a black wide-awake … I saw him on the afternoon of 26th December, about four o’clock, and I saw him about seven, when he was taken out of the Golden Anchor — when I saw him about four, he had the wide-awake with him; he was wearing it — he had not got it when I saw him at seven — I was with him for three hours after he was taken to the hospital — I went back to the house and inquired for it, and they said it was not there — it has never been seen since”.  

This became significant when Gregorio Mogni later admitted that the hat given to him by Eliza Shaw was not in fact his — it was no proof at all that he had been in the bagatelle-room.  But what is really noticeable here is that Lewis Worms was not questioned about what happened at the hospital.  He was there when Harrington was alleged to have identified Pelizzioni as his assailant — Inspector Potter said as much — but the prosecution chose not to ask him to confirm this.  Presumably Giffard knew that he would not or could not.     

Pelizzioni was not in possession of a knife capable of the stabbings when arrested.  If there were no other Italians in the bagatelle-room, then he could not have passed one to an accomplice.  Attention turned to the other knife found in the vicinity — the one with the broken point found by a little boy in “The Ruins”, the rubble-strewn waste-ground behind Saffron Hill.  The somewhat far-fetched suggestion was that Pelizzioni might somehow have thrown it there unobserved.  The boy, George Verge, aged just six, was called as a witness.  He had found the knife “against the arch” and taken it home to his mother.  He later pointed out the spot both to her and Constable John McMahon.  His mother said that the place was some fifty or sixty yards from the pub, but McMahon, who claimed to have marked the spot with a stone back in December, put it very much closer.  Caiger the surveyor had paced the distance out that morning and made it “about twenty-one or twenty-two yards”. 

On the second day of the trial, Eliza Shaw elaborated on her earlier account of the altercation between Gregorio Mogni and Harrington, but had nothing useful to say of the hats.  Inspector Potter adhered to his earlier statements, but drama began to unfold as Ballantine subjected him to relentless questioning — “it was one of the best pieces of cross-examination I ever heard in my life” (Montagu Williams).  It emerged that the statement which Harrington had refused to sign had now mysteriously disappeared.  As for Rebbeck’s similar statement, Potter now tried to distance himself from it by claiming it had been written before he arrived at the hospital.  For that to be true, it must also have been written before Pelizzioni was taken there.  Potter was asked to leave the court and in his absence his testimony was immediately contradicted by Baldock: “That cannot be true; it is not true — I will undertake to swear that the prisoner was present at the time I wrote that paper — I can make no mistake about it at all, it is not a fact that he was sent for after it was written”.  

When recalled, Potter then denied that he had suppressed all reference to the knife found at the “Bordessa” in the earlier hearings.  He denied knowing from the outset that it was the murder weapon and that it belonged to Mogni.  He did not recall saying that the knife with the broken point had been found “just outside the window” of the “Golden Anchor”.  And as for the business of the hats, he had not thought that worth investigation.

At this juncture, Ballantine paused to say that “he charged the police …  with conducting their inquiry in a manner which was not calculated to elicit the truth, and with suppressing material evidence, particularly in reference to the knives” (Weekly Dispatch, 16th April 1865).  To emphasise the point, he subjected Fawell to a similar grilling.  Fawell was eventually compelled to admit, “It is not true that I saw Rebbeck following Pelizzioni into the bagatelle-room … A man was going into the room, I never saw his face”.  He still, however, maintained that it was in the tap-room that Rebbeck told him he had been stabbed.  Rebbeck contradicted him: “I was in the bagatelle-room … I was stabbed in the bagatelle-room — I did not go into any other room after that — I was not in the tap-room after I was stabbed; I am quite sure of that”.

The prosecution case was further damaged by Hill, the surgeon, in attesting to the nature of Rebbeck’s wounds: “I should imagine if the parties met face to face the wound would be produced by the left hand”, a point which Giffard tried hard to minimise: it was soon to be revealed that Gregorio Mogni was left-handed.   

Ballantine opened for the defence with “a most powerful and eloquent speech”, greeted with a quickly suppressed burst of applause.  His central tenet was that “all the difficulty that had been created arose from the police having made a blunder in the first instance, and in their having afterwards persisted in that blunder, instead of having, when they found that they were wrong, done all in their power to remedy the mistake that they had made, and endeavoured to bring the crime home to the party who was really guilty” (London Evening Standard, 14th April 1865).

His first witness was Gregorio Mogni, who (through an interpreter) rapidly confessed to having made the “Six Englishmen” remark to Shaw, having slapped him, having had words with a couple of Englishmen, but then shaking hands with them.  He was subsequently drawn into the incursion into the bagatelle-room, being compelled to use a knife to defend himself and his brother, and to having stabbed Harrington: “I stabbed him in this way, with my left hand”.

He admitted having stabbed Rebbeck, whom he knew, and another man whom he knew by sight but not by name.  Bannister was brought forward and he identified him as the man.  Then he identified Maria King as the woman he had knocked down.  He went on to confirm other elements of the story already told, but did admit that the hat he took from Eliza Shaw was not his own.  Under cross-examination by Giffard, he identified the man he had shaken hands with as Fawell.

Proceedings continued on Easter Saturday and dragged on for ten hours before a packed court.  Rocco Angelinetta added to his previous evidence that Mogni was left-handed and was nicknamed “Mat” — “that means “Madman”, it is a patois; I have heard him called that repeatedly”.

A woman called Jane Miller, who worked at the “Bordessa”, confirmed that she had never been in any doubt about the knife found there being the murder weapon — her husband had told her on the day after the stabbings “that it had been in the row last night, there were spots of blood on it”.     

To counter the evidence given by McMahon, the defence produced Frederick Griffin (or Griffith), an artist and modeller — the man who had made the model of the pub produced in court.  He testified that he had gone to the spot where the knife in “The Ruins” had been found with the boy Verge and his mother, accompanied by Carlo Galli.  He had measured out the distance from the back-window of the “Golden Anchor” — it was fully fifty yards, although “we could not measure close, on account of the timber and high planks in the yard … you could hardly discern the window, only just the top of it”.  There was plainly no way Pelizzioni could have conveyed a knife there.     

Anne Sams caused some laughter in describing the dance she had with Pelizzioni — “I believe it was a polka”.  She saw Pelizzioni leave the pub well before Mogni slapped Shaw and had not seen him again that evening, but she had seen the Mogni brothers charge into and then emerge from the bagatelle-room, with other Italians beaten back to prevent their entering.  When she had said “I saw no blood” at first trial, she was talking only of Gregorio: as for his brother, “the left side of his face, if I am not mistaken, was streaking down with blood”. 

Giovanni Mogni amplified the account he had given at the previous trial.  He was certain that he saw Fred Shaw go into the bagatelle-room and the hat he was later given was certainly his own.

Although never called to testify, it then fell to Saul Worms, the man who had told the police on the very night of the incident that Pelizzioni was innocent and Mogni guilty, to provide the final piece of evidence.  If the knife found in “The Ruins” were ruled out, the only place Pelizzioni might have got rid of a knife was in his yard at the back of the pub.  Rebbeck was asked about it: “There was a lot of window-sashes, one or two doors, and some quartering, twelve, fourteen, and twenty-four feet long, all sizes — the bagatelle-room window opens both upwards and downwards — there are two sashes, the lower part was open when I got out of the window … the timber was always there, but it has been piled up since that by Mr. Worms to show that Seraphini could not have thrown the knife there … Mr Worms employed two men to pack it up”.

At this point a stereoscopic view of the scene across the yard, photographed by Henry Negretti, was produced to illustrate what was being said — the yard scoured and tidied and no knife found.   I am fairly certain that this was the first time a photograph had ever been produced in evidence at a murder trial at the Old Bailey. 

A number of character witnesses then testified that Pelizzioni was “a remarkably quiet, inoffensive man”, before Giffard bravely concluded for the prosecution.  He poured scorn on the attempts to discredit the police, dismissing the notion that the party in the bagatelle-room had premediated an assault — they had been sat around singing songs only moments before the fighting broke out.  What possible motive could they have for trying to hang an innocent man?  If there were a conspiracy, it could only be one to defeat justice.  There were five eye-witnesses who all saw Pelizzioni stab the victims, and “If Gregorio really had committed these crimes was it likely that he would have gone boldly back to the house and demanded his hat?” — it was a powerful speech which brought its own round of stifled applause.   

Mr Baron Channell then summed up at length, suggesting that it need not be a matter of wholesale perjury on one side or the other — there could be genuine error and confusion.  He saw no evidence that the police had been actuated by improper motives, although they might well have acted under a mistaken understanding of the facts.  He concluded by reminding the jury of the doctrine of “reasonable doubt”.

The jurymen were less long-winded.  After an absence of only ten minutes or so, at almost eight o’clock on a Saturday evening, they returned with an emphatically voiced verdict of “Not Guilty”.  The court erupted in cheering and hat-waving: “It was useless to attempt to put a stop to the proceedings; sheriffs, under-sheriffs, and ushers were alike powerless to prevent the unseemly proceeding.  When the cheering seemed to lull a little, it was taken up again and was joined in by the crowd outside the court, and the scene was most extraordinary” (London Evening Standard, 17th April 1865).     

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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