By Jo Faulkner, Record Assistant
Please note that this post contains themes of attempted suicide which some people may find upsetting.
In a society where male voices dominated, many women of the poorest classes, living on the edges of mainstream society, lived their lives unnoticed. The ‘mug shots’ from the police charge book (QS) and documents from the Quarter Sessions bundles offer a fascinating glimpse into the lives of those whose stories may otherwise have gone untold. These records cut across this section of society, exposing the reality of life for many Victorian women. In doing so, these records uncover some of the faces, which may otherwise have remained hidden, and touch upon some of the most taboo subjects.
In her charge book photograph, Hannah Chapman wears clothing high around her neck, hiding an injury, which she inflicted upon herself as she attempted to take her own life. Today, with our increased understanding of mental health, it may seem absurd to punish someone for attempting suicide; however, it remained a criminal offence in England until as recently as 1961.
The deposition of Hannah’s son Christopher, reveals the circumstances under which he found his mother at home in South Stockton. Christopher, who was around 10 years of age, took a razor from his mother before sending for a neighbour, who sent for a doctor, who in turn sent for a police officer.
Deposition of Witnesses
The Examination of Christopher Chapman of the Township of Thornaby in the said riding Juvenile taken on Oath, 21st June 1875 at South Stockton, before the undersigned three of Her Majesty’s Justices of the Peace in the presence and hearing of Hannah Chapman who is charged on the 5th June 1875 at Thornaby unlawfully did cut and wound herself with a certain razor with intent thereby their feloniously wilfully and of her malice after thought to kill and murder herself.
QSB 3/7/28 Deposition of Christopher Chapman
It is interesting to note the differences between the account of events stated by witnesses in their depositions and the reporting of events in the press. Asked informally, why she had done it by acting Sergeant Bewick, he stated that she ‘muttered something about dying’. In her formal answer to the charge she stated ‘I have nothing to say’. One press report later stated that ‘In answer to the charge the prisoner pleaded that she wanted to die’.
Typically, articles that reported the story of Hannah’s crime were not lengthy, though they all include the fact that she was a single woman and mother. Female suicide was widely regarded as an emotional act generally brought on by a romantic disappointment. One press article suggested that Hannah’s attempt was the result of an argument with a man believed to be the father of her baby. This way of reporting the image of the fallen woman committing suicide seems to be have been a warning to women of the consequences of dishonourable behaviour.
Historically suicide was regarded as the most immoral of crimes and attitudes to ‘self-murder’ were akin to murder. As the 19th century progressed attitudes became slightly more sympathetic and suicide was considered a form of insanity. Hannah was acquitted on the grounds of insanity and though the doctor believed she should be sent to an asylum, she was discharged to the care of her sister, who promised to take care of her.
Mary Ann Kemp
It is unusual to find Victorian photographs of women, showing any form of disfigurement. Women with facial disfigurement often covered their faces. Having committed an offence, Mary Ann Kemp had no choice but to be photographed for police records in 1869.
There are no records to determine whether Mary Ann’s unusual face was a result of what we might today know as one of several recognized genetic disorders, or whether some external factor such as an accident had caused changes. None of the records relating to the trial of Mary Ann refers to her appearance or to any medical condition. It is notable that whereas other photographs in this series of mug shots include a physical description beneath the image, the photograph of Mary Ann is the only one where headings are noted, but the details were not completed. It is not clear why this should be so. Newspaper reports on her crime are brief and do not refer to her appearance. Attitudes towards disfigurement in Victorian society were ambivalent, varying from fear, to pity to discomfort.
Mary Ann’s crime was a common one, the theft of clothing and bed linen from a washing line at Hawsker. In her statement, Mary Ann claims to have urged her accomplice George Green, who had previous convictions, only to take a sheet to sleep in. The pair were sleeping rough in an outbuilding. The sentence handed down was imprisonment for 6 months.
George Green and Mary Ann Kemp stand charged before the undersigned three of Her Majesty’s Justices of the Peace this 29th May 1869 for that they on the 26th May 1869 in Hawsker cum Stainacre did then and there feloniously steal take and carry away one print dress, one chemise, one pair of stockings, one white shirt, four widths of Coburg and one checked handkerchief then and there being the goods and chattels of Charles Harrison
QSB 1869 3/8/16 Statement of Mary Ann Kemp
These records relating to Mary Ann Kemp provide little information on her experiences of life. Her face among the many mug shots testifies to her existence.