A guest post by David J. Vaughan
As with any historical event, rediscovering the truth behind a Victorian crime and its key protagonists requires access to as many archives as might survive. When the main character’s journey takes them from murderess to death row prisoner, penal servant to asylum inmate, its availability – and perversely, relative scarcity – soon becomes the be-all-and-end-all of the researcher’s task.
This post looks at each of the social and administrative stations the criminal and her case encountered; how the vagaries of each affected what material was produced for the modern day researcher to discover; and how each directly influenced the biography and criminal history of a given individual.
A Case History: Celestina Sommer, London 1856
Celestina Sommer gained international notoriety after murdering her illegitimate daughter in the cellar of their Islington home. Her unrelenting tale of sorrow, infanticide, capital punishment and an unchecked descent into madness, paints a vivid picture of the darker elements of institutional Victorian England – at exactly the time when organisations and social administrations were changing, for ever.
Digging deep into the surviving archives a century and a half later, The Secret Life of Celestina Sommer* has emerged as the first (as far as I know) full and accurate retelling of one of the period’s most notorious but since inexplicably forgotten killers and the awful crime she committed.
Researching the truth/dismissing the lies: the vagaries of institutions and the records they created
Putting flesh on the bones of both Celestina Sommer the woman and her case required availability of records from before, during and after the central, horrific event. The breakthrough came with the online transcript of her Old Bailey trial, and marked the beginning of the period during which she ‘justified’ the numerous, extensive records that were created about her short, eventful life.
1. The Proceedings/Old Bailey Online/London Lives – These “quasi-official” records of court proceedings (trials) at the Old Bailey are an invaluable source of information and social data. From their advent in 17th century – more as a popular account than an authoritative record – were soon seen to be the only means of accessing events in the Central Criminal Court outside the courtroom. The survival – and digitisation – of the trial of Celestina Sommer (t18560407-457) gave arguably the clearest opportunity to unravel this woman’s crime and, by extension, to delve into her short yet eventful life story.
A word or two of warning – trying variations of spellings, especially of names, was essential. Celestina was recorded as Celestika [to be rectified], so that it took several attempts to locate her records on the otherwise faultless Old Bailey Online website. Furthermore, as with all research that uses primary and secondary data (shouldn’t it all?), everything was double-checked and verified, while bearing in mind any subjectivity inherent in any written text. The commercial reality behind the original Proceedings meant very little of the defendant’s perspective was heard, making it far more salacious if less equivocal!
Finally, no matter how exciting it was to find what I was looking for, I was never misled into thinking there were no other records – accounts or official documents – including those that may not survive. For example, Celestina faced two magistrates hearings and two Old Bailey appearances. Only records of the main hearing were found.
2. Police records, from the earliest days of the Metropolitan Force, proved scarce in Celestina Sommer’s case. Despite their central role in the unfolding drama, the police archives failed to provide even scant information about the crime or the accused under investigation.
3. At Magistrates hearings – in Celestina’s case at Clerkenwell Police Court (not to be confused with its police station namesake) – no formal transcripts were likely to have been made. Instead, press reports (full of subjectivity and prejudice) were relied on and, even in the arguably more bowdlerized 19th century, their practices and writings were far from reliable. For example, they prematurely reported the “facts from” the second magistrate’s hearing before the hearing was held. Sub judice, indeed!
4. Coroner’s Inquest reports – Like the magistrates, but for different reasons, very few CI reports survive at London Metropolitan Archives; just one (local) newspaper account was discovered which, in truth, was of even less value than those of the magistrate’s hearings…
5. Parliament – Celestina Sommer’s criminal ‘career’ received great political and legal attention – both for her act and for her subsequent treatment by the Victorian social system(s). That she featured in several debates on crime, insanity and the death penalty, in both Houses, is testament to the uncertainty surrounding her treatment, and her infamy. Transcripts of these debates were retrieved from Hansard et al; while comments, both favourable and hostile, were delivered through the writings of penal reformers like Alfred Dymond, Secretary of the Society for the Abolition of Capital Punishment.
6. Prison – Her prison records are equally as limited: the registers captured little more than her physical and legal attributes – name, age, marital status, ability to read or write, crime, conviction and sentence. Yet, by augmenting this limited primary data with interpretative secondary sources – such as Dixon’s London Prisons (1850) and Mayhew and Binny’s Criminal Prisons of London (1862) – it was still possible to build a reliable picture of Victorian penal life. Elements of greatest import to the Victorians – those of religion, education and, crucially, prescribed gender roles – all received undue attention in the records of the institutions and their undertakings.
7. Fisherton House Lunatic Asylum – In the early to mid-Victorian age, with its uncertain understanding of insanity and its role as an exculpatory factor for criminal acts (viz. the insanity plea), a diagnosis of the defendant’s mind was fiercely debated and his or her future precariously balanced. The political writings from both sides of the debate are now all we have to go on – along with modern day academic assessments by people like Roger Smith and Andrew Scull.
As soon as Celestina Sommer’s insanity was eventually acknowledged, she was transferred to Britain’s largest criminal lunatic asylum, near Salisbury Wilts. Records there, though limited to her medical history and records of administration, allowed a detailed portrayal of her final days on earth and deductions about her underlying conditions.
8. The press – As already inferred, detailed comment and passing references alike were often subjective and derogatory. For example, Sommer was spared the gallows because she was German (actually not, though she was married to a Prussian immigrant; a woman; a pretty woman; any other spurious reason the reader can think of! The truths and inaccuracies within this particular source were recognized when comparing the scores of articles and reports found within a multitude of surviving and/or digitized titles.
From the execution of her crime, to her final demise within the confines of a lunatic asylum, compassion for Celestina Sommer’s mental health was seldom forthcoming. No reference to any discussion/debate on her possible madness was found, despite the prevalent taste for insanity and criminal lunacy in this age of social reform. In consequence, a huge slice of the peculiar circumstances behind her experiences was potentially overlooked. Nevertheless, through careful and thorough research of all known available sources, facts were unearthed, verified and used.
Primary and secondary source material may have its depth and accuracy devalued by an inherent lack of hard evidence, hidden agenda and ample rhetoric, but by working, dare I say, systemically, I was at least able to retell her story by judiciously piecing together the records – and rejecting the rhetoric – from her short and tragic life.
As a professional historian and author, David’s first published book is due out this summer: (Bloody British History – The History Press). His full-length narrative non-fiction title, ‘The Secret Life of Celestina Sommer, Victorian child killer’, has been self-published on Amazon Kindle etc.
Other published works include:
- Contributor to NOTCHES – (re)marks on the history of sexuality– on the subject of Crime, Insanity and Sexuality
- Article on the debates surrounding crime and insanity and how they contributed to those on trial escaping the death penalty; with a supporting podcast from The Secret Life of Celestina Sommer – both for History Is Now magazine
- Victoria County History – Wiltshire vol. XIX (Institute of Historical Research and Boydell & Brewer) forthcoming
- Internet Archaeology (Council for British Archaeology) http://intarch.ac.uk/(peer reviewed) forthcoming
For further details:
- if you would like to follow a history of crime and insanity in 19th century England, David also owns and writes the http://criminalunacy.blogspot.com
- Twitter @David_J_Vaughan