Poor, murdered woman – a refugee’s story

Ruth  Towards the end of the Second World War, a murder hunt took place in north Staffordshire. Mrs. Annie Lovatt was blackberrying with her 12-year-old daughter, Pamela, in a quiet, rural spot called Counslow when she found a young woman’s body in a gravel pit. According to her post mortem, the woman, Ruth Schmerler, a Polish refugee, aged 20, had died from “shock and internal haemorrhage due to stab wounds in chest. Murder by person or persons unknown.” Her clothing was torn and dishevelled and one of her stockings was missing. Police did not think that robbery was the motive for her murder. They had recovered one of her shoes and her necklace, a gold cross which perhaps indicated that she had converted to Christianity – who knows? –  and her black leather suitcase was missing.

I know about this story because my mother grew up in a small market town nearby and her family knew the people who had found the body. My mum would tell me about it, and – as she often did with the family stories she would tell  – she gave it an air of mystery as if she knew that there was something more to the tale (she didn’t). My mother had a big heart and – even though she only knew the story second hand – many years afterwards she would still feel emotional and have such empathy for a young woman who had come to this country as a refugee and died, abused and alone, miles away from home that her eyes would fill with tears.

I researched the background of the story a while ago and couldn’t discover any evidence to support any kind of cover-up or conspiracy about Ruth Schmerler’s death as some writers have alleged. It seems to me that it is simply the old, old story of the “poor murdered woman laid on the cold ground” as the folk song has it. This is as much of Ruth’s story as I can manage to find out.

Ruth Schmerler was born in Poland in around 1924, probably in Galicia. Her family were Jewish, the Schmerlers seem to have been a religious, even Rabbinical family. It seems that most of Ruth’s family were wiped out in the Holocaust. She and her younger brother Kurt, came to England in 1939 as part of the Manchester Children’s Refugee Movement. At some point she worked as an assistant in a pharmacy in Manchester but  – according to some reports – she left her job,  joined the Women’s Land Army and was working in Worcestershire in 1944. Others say that she was taking an “agricultural holiday” with a Jewish group in Bromsgrove. Whichever it was, Ruth decided to travel back to see Kurt, who was by then an apprentice optician in Manchester. He may well be the same Kurt Schmerler who had an optician’s practice in Harley Street after the war, in which case he died in 1999.

During the Second World War, it was common to hitch hike and presumably, this was how Ruth planned to travel to Manchester. She was last seen accepting a lift from a soldier: the Nottingham Post reported on 3rd October 1944 that she was picked up by an “Army touring model motor car” in the outskirts of Birmingham at 1pm on the 21st of September. The police were looking for the driver, a soldier “about 30 years of age, rather tall and of slim build.” Another report described him as “aged 30, height 5ft 10ins, slim build, rough complexon with a full moustache.” When he came forward, he told the police that Ruth had got out of his vehicle and into another that was heading north.

Ruth’s suitcase and her missing stocking were found near Shap Fell in Cumbria where they were probably thrown from a vehicle. A soldier was interviewed at Thornhill, Dumfries in Scotland but no charges were ever brought.

The police made strenuous efforts to find Ruth’s killer. They sent squads of police officers to interview soldiers in barracks around the country, used mine detectors in the quarry at Counslow and even grafted a photograph of Ruth’s head on to a picture of a policewoman dressed in her clothes and carrying a similar suitcase in an attempt to create what they called “a walking picture” of the victim and jog people’s memories.

At a time when there was all kinds of movement around the country and tremendous upheaval, when people of all kinds of backgrounds and characters had been conscripted into the British, US and other military forces, burglaries, rapes and murders were all committed during the war by soldiers away from their home areas who were almost impossible to trace and identify. Ruth Schmerler was one of the victims. It is all the more poignant somehow that this woman, who had fled such persecution and survived the Nazis when most of her family had not, should die in such a lonely, violent and unnecessary way.

I think my mother wanted me to write about Ruth Schmerler, so that she would not be forgotten.

 Schmerler 1

Toby Gill: this is not a ghost story

Slander, Blythburgh church

Slander – a bench end in Blythburgh parish church

One of the highlights of television for me this Christmas was Mark Gatiss’ adaptation of M. R. James’ chilling ghost story, The Tractate Middoth as A Ghost Story for Christmas. James was brought up in Great Livermere in Suffolk. Many of his best stories are set in the county, particularly in east Suffolk and that area – with its mists, marshes, innumerable medieval churches and ruined priories – seems the perfect setting. The young Montague James may well have heard about some of the apparitions that populate the darker corners of East Anglian folklore, including a well-known story set in the village of Blythburgh, about the ghost of “Black Toby,” a drummer boy hanged in chains for the murder of an innocent young woman. This story, however, isn’t a ghost story at all but a true one, which gives us a brief, fascinating glimpse into history.

At Blythburgh, a small village near Southwold that’s surrounded by marshes, heathland and ancient sheep walks, there’s an area known as Toby’s Walks where the ghost is supposed to appear. I don’t believe in ghosts, but I have been intrigued by the identification of a black soldier in east Suffolk in the middle of the eighteenth century. Toby Gill, aka “Black Tob,” existed. He was a drummer in Sir Robert Rich’s Regiment of Dragoons, and as the following report in the Derby Mercury of 14th September 1750, shows, he was no ghost but a man accused of the rape and murder of a local girl who was executed in a most brutal way, by being hanged in chains:

“Our Paper has taken some Notice of the Condemnation of one Toby Gill, a Black, at the last Assizes [at Bury St. Edmunds] … but the Enormity of his Crime which was Murder, has not been sufficiently made known; He was a Drummer in Sir Robert Rich’s Regiment, and a very drunken profligate Fellow. He met, or overtook, the poor Woman he murdered on the Road, and on refusing to comply with his lewd Proposal, strangled her with her own Handkerchief, and then abused her dying and dead. Overcome with Liquor, he was found asleep by the Body, and immediately sent to Prison. He was convicted on clear Evidence, and ordered to be hung in Chains. The very worthy Person who tried him, expressed himself in passing Sentence thus: ‘I never before desired a Power of extending the legal Penalties, but if I had such a Power, I should exercise it in this Case.’ “

One hesitates to imagine what punishment this “worthy person” would have liked to have exercised, given Gill’s fate.

The eighteenth-century press was just as addicted to sensation as our own and – although it’s very difficult to ascertain what really happened – the known facts suggest that the Derby Mercury was reporting the prosecution case. In fact, after Gill’s execution there was a great deal of disquiet, particularly because it became known that the Coroner had not found a mark on the victim’s body.

Sir Robert Rich was a local aristocrat, whose family home was Roos Hall near Beccles. His troop of dragoons had nearly been wiped out during the battle of Dettingen in the War of the Austrian Succession and had fought against the Jacobites at Culloden, where Rich had been badly injured, according to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: “his left hand being clean cut off and his right arm almost severed above the elbow.” Rich was known to be a severe disciplinarian. Exactly a year before Gill’s arrest, in August 1749, Rich became Colonel of the 4th foot, Toby’s regiment and “there appeared a satirical print, The Old Scourge Return’d to Barrels. It depicts Rich, who had a reputation as a disciplinarian, ordering the mass flogging of his men.” (Oxford DNB).

Rich’s troops, who may well have been brutalized by experience of battle and a harsh disciplinary regime, were evidently brought to the area because smuggling was rife on the Suffolk coast and they were unlikely to have been popular. It’s impossible to know if the fact that Gill was black also contributed to his fate. It appears that he may simply have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Contemporary accounts constantly refer to him as “black” and are a little stereotypical, but they mainly refer to his supposed reputation for drunkenness or “lewdness.” There’s no mention as to his age or his origins and it may well be that Gill was recruited along with many others from the sizeable number of black people in England at that time. It’s estimated that, in 1750, there were between 10 and 20 thousand black people out of a total population of around nine million.

There’s an interesting reference, though, in a contemporary newspaper account which describes Gill as “one of the Black Drummers belonging to Sir Robert Rich’s Regiment of Dragoons” which led me to the following passage in Paul Fryer’s brilliant history of black people in Britain, Staying Power (Pluto, 1984):

“The use of black musicians as military bandsmen in the British army, a tradition that reached its height towards the end of the eighteenth century, seems to have started in the second half of the seventeenth. Black drummers were first acquired by English regiments serving in the West Indies. There are several seventeenth-century records of a colonel ‘presenting the slave’ to his regiment to act as drummer. According to Sir Walter Scott, six black trumpeters were attached to the Scottish Life Guards in 1679. He describes them as wearing ‘white dresses richly laced’ and ‘massive silver colours and armlets.’ A black kettledrummer can be seen in the background of Sir Godfrey Kneller’s portrait (c.1689) of Frederick, 1st Duke of Schomberg, who served at a cavalry general in the English army. This drummer wears a scarlet coat with gold-laced seams, embroidered back and front with the royal cipher and crown, and a small white turban bound round a blue cloth cap with a hanging hood or bag.

Kneller

“At least one black drummer was present at the battle of Bleinheim in 1704, serving under Marlborough in the English army that defeated the French and Bavarians. … A contemporary account of a parade of the 4th Dragoons at Stirling in 1715 said: ‘this was a show we could not pass by without looking at and to say truth I scarse think there is the most showy regiment in Europe.… The six drumers were mores with bres [i.e. brass] drums… and they roade upon gray horses.’ In 1755 [5 years after Toby Gill’s execution] the 4th dragoons inspection returns recorded that ‘the drummers are all Blacks.'”

Hanging in chains or “gibbeting” was a brutal punishment which was only recognized by law in England in 1752. It involved hanging someone, usually in a cage-like structure made of hooped iron bands, from a gibbet, often at a crossroads. Death could take a very long time and the body would remain exposed to the elements and passers-by until it deteriorated to nothing, or presumably was taken away by birds and other animals. In 1785, the Reverend Thomas Kerrich made a sketch of two men who had suffered this method of execution at Brandon Sands in Suffolk (reproduced below from Hanging in Chains by Albert Hartshorne, published by T. Fisher Unwin, 1891). In the legend that surrounds the execution of Toby Gill, it’s always said that he begged to be dragged to his death by being tied to the local mail coach in preference to the fate awaiting him, but that particular mercy was denied.

Hanging in chains, 1785

Rev. Kerrich’s sketch of two men hanging in chains.

Gill”s transformation into a ghostly legend is thought to have been found useful by the area’s smugglers. The story is still told and has become commonplace on the websites of those who love the supernatural and Tourist Information organizations. The real horror, though, may well be in the true story of Toby Gill and how cruelly human beings can behave towards one another.

Hypocrisy

Hypocrisy – also in Blythburgh church.

A heavy price to pay

According to Peter Ackroyd, there was a “thriving homosexual community” in London in 1339  (London: The Biography). You would not know this from reading most history books about the city or, indeed, anything very much about homosexuality before or after the 14th century. However, historiography has caught up a little in recent years so I am only going to give one small example of what happened to gay men in the early 18th century.

The following are verbatim accounts of cases that were tried at the Old Bailey in the year 1726-7 [taken from the wonderful Old Bailey Online website, http://www.oldbaileyonline.org/ ]. The charges were what was almost invariably described as “the heinous and detestable Sin of Sodomy.” Interestingly, in similar accounts of the time, reference was also often made to the fact that the “crime” was “unknown in Christian countries” although this was rather belied by the number and regularity of the charges brought. In most cases the defendants were acquitted for lack of evidence. I have chosen all of my extracts from the year 1726-7, although the accounts are quite typical of any in the late-17th and 18th centuries. Some of the 17th–century cases aren’t suitable for a blog, not this blog anyway, as the accounts are quite detailed and luridly (I hesitate to use the word ‘lingeringly’) described. Some of them are taken from Ordinary’s Accounts, which were written up by the chaplain of Newgate prison after a last interview with a condemned prisoner. They were supposed to give an opportunity for the admission of guilt and repentance. Sometime they were.

The events below mostly took place in the unfortunately-named Mrs. Clap’s house in Holborn, London. She kept what was well-known as a “molly house,” a pejorative name for a place where homosexuals and cross-dressers met. Three of the men who were convicted, Gabriel Lawrence, William Griffin and Thomas Wright, were hanged at Tyburn on 9th May 1726. Others were sentenced to a time in the public pillory. In case anyone thinks this was a lenient sentence, contemporary accounts describe prisoners being pelted with “with tubs of blood, garbage, and ordure from their slaughter-houses, and with this ammunition, plentifully diversified with dead cats, turnips, potatoes, addled eggs, and other missiles.” Homosexuals who were pilloried were quite often also hit by stones and bricks and it was not uncommon for them to receive fatal injuries. It all seems to me to be a heavy price to pay for love.

“9th May 1726, Ordinary’s Account

Gabriel Lawrence was indicted for feloniously committing with Thomas Newton, aged 30 Years, the heinous and detestable Sin of Sodomy. Thomas Newton thus depos’d. At the End of last June, one Peter Bavidge (who is not yet taken) and – Eccleston (who dy’d last Week in Newgate) carry’d me to the House of  Margaret Clap (who is now in the Compter) and there I first became acquainted with the Prisoner. Mrs. Clap’s House was next to the Bunch of Grapes in Field-lane, Holbourn. It bore the publick Character of a Place of Entertainment for Sodomites, and for the better Conveniency of her Customers, she had provided Beds in every Room in her House. She usually had 30 or 40 of such Persons there every Night, but more especially on a Sunday. I was conducted up one pair of Stairs, and by the Perswasions of Bavidge (who was present all the Time) I suffer’d the Prisoner to commit the said Crime. He has attempted the same since that Time, but I never would permit him any more. When Mrs. Clap was taken up, in February last, I went to put in Bail for her; at which Time, Mr. Williams, and Mr. Willis told me, they believ’d I could give Information, which I promis’d to do, and I went next Day, and gave Information accordingly. – Samuel Stephens thus depos’d. Mrs. Clap’s House was notorious for being a Molly-House. – In order to detect some that frequented it, I have been there several Times, and seen 20 or 30 of ’em together, making Love, as they call’d it, in a very indecent Manner. Then they used to go out by Pairs, into another Room, and at their return, they would tell what they had been doing together, which they call’d marrying. The Prisoner acknowledg’d, that he had been several Times at Clap’s House, but never knew that it was a Rendesvouz for such Persons. – He call’d several to his Character. Henry Hoxan thus depos’d. I have kept the Prisoner Company, and served him with Milk these 18 Years, for he is a Milk Man , and I am a Cow-Keeper, I have been with him at the Oxfordshire Feast, and there we have both got drink, and come Home together in a Coach, and yet he never offer’d any such thing to me. Thomas Fuller thus depos’d. The Prisoner married my Daughter, 18 Years ago; She has been dead these 7 Years, and he has a Girl by her, that is 13 Years old. – Several others deposd, that he was a very sober Man, and that they had often been in his Company when he was drunk; but never found him inclinable to such Practices. Guilty . Death . He was a 2d. Time indicted, for committing Sodomy with   Mark Partridge , Nov. 10 . But being Convicted of the Former, he was not Try’d for this.

“20th May 1726

William Griffin was indicted for Committing Sodomy with Thomas Newton, May 10. Thomas Newton thus depos’d. The Prisoner and Thomas Phillips (who is since absconded) were Lodgers for near 2 Years at Clap’s House. I went up stairs, while the Prisoner was a Bed, and there he committed the Act with me. Samuel Stevens depos’d, That he had seen the Prisoner, and his Gang at Clap’s House. Guilty. Death.

“20th May 1726

George Kedear, alias Kegar, was indicted for committing Sodomy with Edward Courtney, aged 18 Years, July 15. Edward Courtney thus depos’d. I first became acquainted with the Prisoner, when I was a Servant at the Yorkshire Gray in Bloomsbury Market, but I went afterwards to live at a Cook’s Shop in  St. Martins Lane and there the Prisoner follow’d me He came there to Dine in July last, and sat in a back Room in the Yard. I went to fetch away the Plates, he took me in his Arms and kist me, and sollicited me to let him commit Sodomy with me. I consented, and he committed the Fact. I afterwards went to live at Thomas Orme ‘s a Silk-Dyer, at the Red Lyon in Crown Court in Knaves Acre, and he kept a House for entertaining such Persons, and sold Drink in private back Rooms; and there the Prisoner came often after me to persuade me to do the same again. The Prisoner thus made his defence. Ned Courtney ask’d me to do it; but I told him I could not, for I had got an injury. What, says he, I suppose I am not handsome enough for you, but if you don’t like me, I have got a pretty younger Brother, and I’le fetch him fir you. – As for going to Tom Orme ‘s, he was my School Fellow, and sold a Pot of good. Drink Ned there again solicited me to do it, and beg’d me to go into the Privy . He was afterwards turn’d out of his Place, and I met him in a very poor Condition, and he told me that he had nothing to subsist upon but what he got by doing such things. – I advis’d him to leave off that course of Life; but he said he wanted Money, and must have it, and if I would not help him to some, he’d swear my Life away. The Prisoner call’d 2 or 3 Women to his Character, who Swore that he was a very civil courteous Fellow. The Jury found him Guilty. Death .

“22nd Feb 1727

Richard Skews and  James Coltis, were indicted for Sodomitical Practices at a  Tavern in Drury-Lane, (where ’tis thought they might had a more Natural Entertainment) on the 19th of Jan. last. Roger Davis depos’d. That some Time after the Prisoner came to his House, his Drawer told him there was two Men above Stairs, which he did believe to be Sodomites, for he heard them kissing each other, and saw such Actions as was very unseemly for Men to offer; upon which he raised a Ladder in the Yard, and which the Drawer look’d into the Chamber-Window; where they both had an ocular Proof of what they both suspected: But the particular Relation being too Beastly to appear in this Paper, we refer the Reader to the Pillory, where he may see the Heads, &c. the Jury found them both guilty .

“Richard Skews and James Coltis, for Sodomitical Practices, to stand on the Pillory, to suffer one Year’s Imprisonment, and to give Security for one Year more.”