FROM the harsh punishments dished out to criminals in the 19th century to mysterious unsolved murders, reporter BECKY CARR looks at crime in Gwent.
ON a rainy summer evening in 1925, a 21-year-old stationer’s shop assistant from Blackwood told her grandmother that she was popping to the post box down the road to post two letters.
The letters reached their destinations the following day, August 12, but Lucy Iris Grace Watkins, known to everyone as Iris, did not return home from her short walk.
Her death remains a mystery.
The Daily Mail reported on August 22, 1925, 11 days after Iris went missing, that her mother Mrs Morris had received a letter, postmarked ‘Newport’ signed ‘The Silent Strangers’.
It read: “Do not worry about your daughter, she is quite safe and will be returned to you unharmed if you put this letter in the daily papers. We kidnapped your daughter to hold for ransom, but we did not know you were poor people, so we are returning her to you. Open your door at 2 am on 22nd this month and you will find her lying outside, chloroformed.
“I demand you to put this in the papers for the benefit of a rich man’s daughters. If you do not do this you will never see your daughter again. P.S. – Get this in the papers as soon as possible.”
Local miners and their wives organised parties to keep a vigil but the letter was a cruel hoax.
Iris’s body, was found six weeks later on Tuesday, September 22 in a stream at Cwm Gelli Brook, about a mile from the home she shared with her grandmother.
Police Constable Williams, of Blackwood, said: “The body was 30 yards from the exit of a culvert, the legs, arms and head were under the water. A fawn overcoat was around her shoulders with the girl’s hand inside just one sleeve.”
Her grandmother Mrs Watkins identified Iris by her shoe, a portion of clothing and a bangle as the condition of her skin and hair was so poor.
Hundreds of people attended the inquest into the death of Iris at the coroner’s court on Friday, September 25.
Dr HT Evans, one of the four doctors at the post mortem examination, said that Iris did not die by drowning as there was no water in her lungs. Dr Evans thought that Iris had been dead for more than 20 days.
He said: “There was on the skin a kind of wax, usually found on a body which had been exposed to the air for some time, and which, if the body had been under water for six weeks, would have disappeared.”
The jury at the inquest returned a verdict of murder against some person or person unknown.
The coroner said: “I am bound to take your verdict, but I profoundly disagree with it. In summing up, it would be unsafe for the jury to say on the evidence that violence was used.
“There was no evidence whatever which would justify a verdict other than the open one of Found Drowned.”
This verdict did not satisfy the people of Blackwood, who were convinced that the murderer may still be in the town.
They pleaded for Scotland Yard to be called in.
It was said Sherlock Holmes’ creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and crime investigator W Harold Speer became involved in solving the mystery and the case was even brought up in Parliament.
In September 1926, the chairman of the Monmouthshire standing joint committee received a petition signed by 3,595 people, calling for the case to be reopened.
Councillor Vaughan, of Blackwood, said: “Thousands of women believed there was a murderer still at large, and they had fears for their own daughters. Moreover, persons who were probably innocent were being mentioned in connection to the case.”
Despite strong local pressure Scotland Yard refused to become involved in the matter stating they could see “no useful purpose” in doing so.
l Lenient is not a word that could be used to describe court judges in Gwent during the 19th century.
The Monmouthshire Merlin documented the harsh punishment handed out to criminals for relatively minor crimes.
On October 24, 1840, the paper recorded: “Ben Mills, 22, charged with having on 13th August stolen a cotton pocket handkerchief from the person of W Gwynn. Prisoner pleaded guilty. Being his third conviction, he was sentenced to seven years transportation to the colonies.”
Another criminal sent to the colonies for seven years was Hannah Willis, who along with Edward Bryant was found guilty of stealing gin from the Tredegar Arms in Newport in 1836.
The Merlin wrote on July 2: “Lord Somerset in passing sentence on Willis said that in this case it was necessary to inflict a severe punishment. He hoped the punishment inflicted on the prisoner would serve as an example to other servants and deter them from the commission of a similar offence. His Lordship then sentenced Hannah Willis to seven years transportation and Bryan to twelve months imprisonment and hard labour.”
l Described as an “unfortunate victim of seduction”, Sarah Jones, of Usk, was executed for murdering her new-born child.
The Times reported on April 24, 1827 of the trial of Miss Jones, 26, and her mother Mary Jones, who was charged for aiding and assisting in the crime.
The first witness in court was next-door neighbour Ann Jones, a servant at The Tredegar Arms in Bassaleg.
Ann, who gave evidence through an interpreter as her first language was Welsh, said she had “observed an alteration in the size of Sarah Jones. I thought she was with child and told her so. She denied it. She was very large before October 23, 1826, and small afterwards. She told me she had the dropsy.”
On Saturday 28, gamekeeper Peter Potter found a bundle tied in a handkerchief in the cart-house of Sir Charles Morgan, of Tredegar House.
On investigation he saw the body of a child.
He immediately approached one of his labourers John Flook and showed him the bundle.
In evidence he said: “He took the parcel and we went together to the prisoner’s house and found the father and the two prisoners in a room downstairs.
“Flook laid it down on the chair and I said to the mother ‘do take it and let it be buried like a Christian and not like a dog’.”
Newport surgeon Jehoida Brewer said the child had been dead for four or five days and had two cuts in his throat.
The jury retired for half an hour, they acquitted Mary Jones but found Sarah Jones guilty and she was sentenced to death.
Sarah was to hang on Wednesday April 11, 1827, and during her last few hours, admitted her crime.
Three months before giving birth she discovered that her seducer, Flook, had married another woman.
She hatched a plan to take revenge on him by murdering his child. On Monday 23, while her mother was downstairs, she delivered the baby and slit its throat.
When Flook came to see her on the Friday, she told him what she had done and he hid the body.
Flook disappeared before the trial and was never tried for his part in the crime.