Mysterious Slayings & Crimes Of The Victorian Era
Mysterious Slayings & Crimes Of The Victorian Era

Mysterious Slayings & Crimes Of The Victorian Era

Khalid Elhassan - August 15, 2023

Mysterious Slayings & Crimes Of The Victorian Era
Victorian female shoplifter. Wikimedia

The Formidable Forty Elephants

The Forty Elephants stole thousands of pounds worth of goods, which was serious money in the Victorian era. It was enough to financially support gang members and their male spouses and allow them to live in relative comfort. They also forged documents, which helped in another side hustle: they got hired as housemaids with fake reference letters, then robbed their employers’ homes. They were also blackmailers. Members seduced men of respectable backgrounds into brief affairs, then threatened to ruin their reputations unless they were paid. As evidenced by their willingness to kidnap, torture, and dish out beatings to exact tribute, the Forty Elephants were not squeamish when it came to violence. Nor did they shy away from a rumble. They were reportedly able to duke it out with an equal number of men, and their toughness earned the respect of male gangsters.

Mysterious Slayings & Crimes Of The Victorian Era
Newspaper coverage of the Forty Elephants. Pinterest

They lasted past the Victorian era, and into the 1950s. In the interwar years, they associated with the Elephant and Castle Gang, a huge male collection of burglars, receivers, smash-and-grab artists, and assorted criminal roughnecks that operated in south London. Unlike their often messy male allies, however, the Forty Elephants were well-organized, disciplined, and tightly run. While they stole expensive clothes, they never wore them. Instead, they distributed them through a network of fences, and to unscrupulous store owners who altered their labels and got fake receipts – often furnished by the Forty Elephants – to show that they had been legally purchased. That brains-before-brawn attitude helps explain the Forty Elephants’ longevity. They lasted for nearly two centuries, while the Elephant and Castle mob lasted for barely a decade before rivals put it out of business.

Mysterious Slayings & Crimes Of The Victorian Era
A young Queen Victoria. Art Might

Queen Victoria’s Security Sucked

The young Queen Victoria charmed Britain when she ascended the throne. Her two predecessors, her uncles, had been old, ineffectual, and corrupt, while their predecessor, the Mad King George III, had been, well… mad. Victoria arrived as a breath of fresh air: a young, pretty, innocent, and clean new slate. Admirers tossed letters into her carriage, the bolder ones visited the palace with marriage proposals, and the creepier ones stalked her. Britain’s royal household bureaucracy was inept. When Victoria once asked a servant for a fire, she was told his job was to arrange and prepare the wood for a fire. A separate department was responsible for actually lighting it. In another example, cleaning palace windows was divided between two departments, one to clean the outside, another for the inside.

Mysterious Slayings & Crimes Of The Victorian Era
Buckingham Palace, circa 1837. Pinterest

Security was also inept. Buckingham Palace had low walls topped with tree branches, and lax guards. Drunks and the homeless were often found sleeping in the garden, propped up against the inner wall or passed out beneath the trees. Staggering drunks had little trouble getting into the palace grounds to sleep off a bender in the royal garden. Less innocent interlopers, such as stalkers, easily progressed past the garden, and into the royal palace. Such was the case with silversmith Thomas Flower. One of Victoria’s persistent admirers, he was found sleeping in a chair near the queen’s bedroom in the summer of 1838. He entered the palace, then wandered around for hours trying to find the queen. Finally, after he tired of the search, Flower fell asleep. He was arrested and imprisoned, until friends bailed him out for £50.

Mysterious Slayings & Crimes Of The Victorian Era
Colorized photo of Buckingham Palace in the Victorian era. Pinterest

The Weird Urchin Obsessed With Queen Victoria

Thomas Flower was creepy, but nowhere close to the creepiness of Edward Jones, a teenager dubbed “Boy Jones” by palace staff. Around 5AM on December 14th, 1838, a palace servant saw a hideous face in a window. It was smudged with soot, and belonged to an ugly youth who impishly grinned at him. Investigation revealed that a palace room had been ransacked, so the alarm was sounded, and the hunt for the intruder was on. A constable spotted a teenager outside the palace, gave chase, tackled, and seized him. The arrestee was an unfortunately featured young man, whose face and clothes were covered in grease and soot. He had on two pairs of pants, and when the outer one was removed, several pairs of ladies’ drawers fell out – Queen Victoria’s panties.

Mysterious Slayings & Crimes Of The Victorian Era
A soot and grease begrimed urchin. Timeline

The kid gave his name as Edward Cotton – subsequent investigation revealed his real name to be Edward Jones, a fourteen-year-old urchin. He had gotten into Victoria’s bedroom, and along with her panties, had stolen a letter, her portrait, and assorted linens. That he had gotten that close to the queen was bad enough. Discovering how long he had been in the palace was worse: Edward Jones had lived in the royal residence for a year. In the daytime, he hid behind furniture, or in the chimneys and other spaces in the palace walls. At night, he wandered Buckingham’s halls. When he hungered, he raided the kitchen, and when he got too dirty, he rinsed his shirt in the wash. During meetings between the queen and her ministers, he sometimes hid under the table and eavesdropped.

Mysterious Slayings & Crimes Of The Victorian Era
Boy Jones eavesdropping on Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Daily Mail

A Persistent Victorian Stalker

Edward Jones’s court appearance was packed with journalists and curiosity seekers. The kid was a lovable tramp, and the fact that he had lived undetected in Buckingham Palace for so long testified to his intelligence. He was tried for theft and trespass, but after a trial filled with laughter and incredulity, the jury found him not guilty. The police congratulated him and wished him well – and that he would put his undoubted talents to better use. Boy Jones thanked them, and left. Two years later, on December 3rd, 1840, shortly after Queen Victoria had given birth to her first child, Edward Jones was found beneath a sofa in a room next to Her Majesty’s boudoir. Whatever the public’s perception of Boy Jones as a lovable tramp, Queen Victoria was not amused.

Mysterious Slayings & Crimes Of The Victorian Era
Queen Victoria was stalked by a dirty urchin. Illuminasi

As Her Majesty put it: “Supposing he had come into the Bedroom, how frightened I should have been!” He was rearrested, retried, and got three months’ probation. Soon thereafter, he was arrested again, trying to break into the palace. This time, he got three months hard labor. The authorities were stumped. Jones’ crimes were not felonies, so a lengthy stint behind bars was not an option. After he was arrested for a fourth, and then a fifth time, when caught loitering near Buckingham Palace, they finally shipped him to Brazil. There, he was kept in an offshore prison ship for six years. He returned to Britain, and was deported to Australia, but snuck back to London. Jones finally returned to Australia, where he became Perth’s town crier. He died in 1893, after falling off a bridge while drunk.

Mysterious Slayings & Crimes Of The Victorian Era
Contemporary coverage of Montreal’s 1885 smallpox outbreak. Wikimedia

Victorian Anti-Vaxxers

There has never been a shortage of a vocal – and often irrational – minority to whip up a panic against inoculation efforts to combat the spread of infectious diseases. With the spread of education and public knowledge of vaccination, such anti-vaccine activists usually lose – but not before they cause significant damage. Sometimes, though, they win. One such anti-vaxxer victory occurred in the Victorian era in Montreal, in 1885. That April, smallpox arrived in the city, and by late summer, it had spread all over. The region experienced an epidemic with shockingly high fatality rates. More than 6000 died, and 13,000 were disfigured, most of them children. The majority would not have gotten sick in the first place, if not for the success of an irrational anti-vaxxer campaign.

By then, nearly a century had passed since Edward Jenner had developed a vaccine, and its effectiveness had been amply proven. Nonetheless, Montreal suffered an epidemic that killed off 40% of those who came down with an easily preventable disease. The reason was a successful anti-vaxxer campaign that stoked a panic about the inoculation. It was most effective in Montreal’s east side, inhabited mostly by poorer and less educated French Canadians. Misguided by unscrupulous and irrational anti-vaxxers, they made up nine tenths of those killed by the contagion. A prominent anti-vaxxer was a Dr. Alexander M. Ross, who edited a publication called The Anti-Vaccinator. In it, he falsely claimed that vaccination was “a fearful engine of destruction and death to children“.

Mysterious Slayings & Crimes Of The Victorian Era
Cartoon depicting a working man held by a policeman while he is forcibly vaccinated. Hathitrust Digital Library

A Victorian Anti-Vaxxer Riot

Dr. Ross peddled conspiracies about the medical establishment’s greed, exaggerated vaccine risks, and cherry picked “evidence”. He also made up sensationalist lies. They included false claims that officials invaded women’s bedrooms to tie them and their children down and forcibly vaccinate them. His efforts triggered a violent anti-vaccine riot. Montreal’s Board of Health estimated that there were 2000 smallpox cases in the city by September 2nd, 1885. Within a few weeks, the numbers doubled to more than 4000. So the authorities took sterner measures. They included the forcible removal of people from crowded housing – mostly in poor neighborhoods, such as predominately French-Canadian ones in the city’s east side – where isolation was impossible. On September 28th, vaccination was made mandatory.

Mysterious Slayings & Crimes Of The Victorian Era
Montreal police forcibly removing those infected with smallpox from the public. Washington Post

That triggered “a howling mob“, primed for weeks and whipped into a frenzy by publications such as The Anti-Vaccinator. They surrounded the Board of Health’s East End Branch Office, and destroyed it. Police tried to intervene, but were routed and chased away by the mob. The anti-vaxxer crowd then rampaged through the city, smashed the windows of pharmacies that sold the smallpox vaccine, and vandalized the homes of health officials. The Central Police Station’s windows were broken, and the chief of police was stabbed and pelted with stones. Rioters fired at the cops, who armed themselves with rifles and bayonets, and fired above the rioters’ heads. Policemen finally clubbed the mob until it dispersed into small groups. They continued the violent assaults and destruction of property around Montreal. Eventually, 1400 soldiers were summoned to patrol the city and prevent a recurrence, and health workers were issued revolvers.

Mysterious Slayings & Crimes Of The Victorian Era
The Zanzibar Navy’s only ship, the sloop and royal yacht HHS Glasgow. Wikimedia

Forgotten Anglo-Zanzibar War

In the Victorian era, the Sultanate of Zanzibar in what is now Tanzania consisted of the islands of Zanzibar off the East African coast, and the mainland across the water from them. In 1890, the British and Germans divided Zanzibar amongst themselves: Germany got the mainland, while the British got the islands. That same year, Zanzibar’s sultan accepted a British protectorate. Its terms included the requirement that his successors had to be preapproved by the British. When the Sultan died in 1893, the British used that provision to install a puppet replacement, Hamad bin Thawani. He ruled for three years, then died suddenly shortly before noon on August 25th, 1896. It was suspected that his twenty-nine-year-old nephew Khalid bin Bargash had poisoned him.

Mysterious Slayings & Crimes Of The Victorian Era
Zanzibar’s defenders prepare to fight the British. Cultura Colectiva

Khalid immediately moved into the palace in Zanzibar Town, and without British approval as required by the terms of the protectorate treaty, declared himself sultan. The British preferred a more pliant successor, Hamoud bin Muhammad. So they rushed three cruisers, two gunboats, 150 marines and 900 African soldiers to Zanzibar Town. They gave Khalid an ultimatum to vacate the palace by 9 AM, August 27th, or else. He refused, gathered a force of about 2800 men, and barricaded himself in the palace. When the ultimatum expired, the British ships were ordered to open fire, and they commenced a bombardment at 9:02 AM.

Mysterious Slayings & Crimes Of The Victorian Era
Victorian gunboat diplomacy: The bombardment of Zanzibar Town. Wikimedia

The Victorian Era Witnessed History’s Shortest War

By 9:40 AM, the palace and the royal harem next door were on fire, the sultan’s flag had been cut down, and the gunfire ceased. A journalist reported that the sultan had “fled at the first shot with all the leading Arabs, who left their slaves and followers to carry on the fighting“. Others, however, stated that he stuck around for a bit longer. However long he stayed, the sultan was not in the palace when the British reached it shortly after the bombardment stopped. Khalid, with dozens of his followers, fled to the German consulate, where he sought refuge. By that afternoon, the British had installed their favorite, Hamoud bin Muhammad, as sultan in his place.

Mysterious Slayings & Crimes Of The Victorian Era
Ruins of the sultan’s palace and harem after the British bombardment. History of Yesterday

The war had lasted roughly thirty eight minutes, during which time the British fired about 500 artillery shells, 4100 machinegun rounds, and 1000 rifle bullets. Zanzibaris losses were around 500 men and women killed or wounded, while British casualties consisted of a single petty officer, who was injured aboard a warship. The British sought Khalid’s extradition, but the Germans granted him asylum and transported him to German East Africa. He fell into British hands during World War I’s East Africa Campaign, and was exiled to the Seychelles and then Saint Helena. He was eventually released, and returned to East Africa, where he died in 1927.

Mysterious Slayings & Crimes Of The Victorian Era
Nikola Tesla. Pinterest

The Victorian Era’s Revolutionary Changes

Just like the rapid pace of change in our world today bewilders many, the Victorian era witnessed massive and revolutionary changes, not just in Britain, but all over the world. Chief among those changes was the introduction of electricity into everyday life. Across the Pond from Britain, railroads knitted America together, the importance of factories, mining, and finance increased by orders of magnitude, immigrants arrived by the tens of millions, and cities and homes began to be lit and powered by electricity.

Electricity had been around for some time. However, it took Nikola Tesla (1856 – 1943), a Serb inventor who arrived in America with four cents in his pocket, to make the things that made electricity a part of everyday life. Among other things, he invented fluorescent lights, electric generators, the FM radio, spark plugs, remote controls, robots, and the Tesla Coil that is used to transmit radio and TV broadcasts. Shortly after Tesla arrived in the US, Thomas Edison hired the brilliant but naïve new immigrant to redesign his electrical generators and perfect his light bulb.

Mysterious Slayings & Crimes Of The Victorian Era
Thomas Edison. Conhecimento Cientifico

A Great Inventor Screwed Over by Another Inventor

Thomas Edison promised Tesla $50,000 if he succeeded in his assigned, but he broke his promise. Tesla did what Edison had asked of him. After he perfected the light bulb and redesigned the generators, Tesla asked for what he had been promised. Edison laughed it off and said: “Tesla, you just don’t understand our American humor. When you become a full-fledged American, you will appreciate an American joke“. Understandably upset, Nikola Tesla took his talents to Edison’s greatest rival, George Westinghouse.

Nowadays, alternating current (AC) lights up our homes and workplaces, and powers up our appliances through wall sockets. By contrast, direct current (DC) is relegated mostly to batteries. In the Victorian era, however, the issue was undecided, and powerful interests fiercely competed to decide whether AC or DC would dominate the world. Alternating current was championed by George Westinghouse, who pushed AC as the best means to bring electricity to the masses. On direct current’s side was Thomas Edison. There was serious money at stake, and Edison had cause to regret screwing his former employee over.

Mysterious Slayings & Crimes Of The Victorian Era
Lord Palmerston. Imgur

The Victorian Prime Minister Who Died While Getting It on With a Maid

Henry John Templeton (1784 – 1865) Lord Palmerston, formally the 3rd Viscount Palmerston, dominated the Victorian era’s foreign policy from 1830 to 1865, when Britain stood at the height of her power. He served as Secretary at War from 1809 to 1828, as Foreign Secretary from 1830 to 1841 and again from 1846 to 1851, and twice as Prime Minister, from 1855 to 1858, and again from 1859 to 1865. In his private life, he seems to have been a randy old goat who tried to get it on whenever and wherever he could, with eventually fatal consequences.

Lord Palmerston is the only British Prime Minister to have ever died in office, and oh what a death it was. On October 18th, 1865, the eighty-year-old Prime Minister, who enjoyed robust health well past his biblical three score and ten, reportedly was getting it on with one of his maids on a billiard table. He seems to have overexerted himself, which led to his demise in the midst of his passionate endeavors, just two days short of his eighty first birthday.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

BBC – Story of Boy Jones Who Stole Queen Victoria’s Underwear

Bondeson, Jan – Queen Victoria’s Stalker: The Strange Story of the Boy Jones (2012)

British Battles – Battle of Kabul and the Retreat to Gandamak

Canadian Encyclopedia – The 1885 Montreal Smallpox Epidemic

Carlson, W. Bernard – Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age (2013)

Cheney, Margaret – Tesla: Man Out of Time (2011)

Conversation, The, October 4th, 2020 – Covid-19 Anti-Vaxxers Use the Same Arguments From 135 Years Ago

Courier Evening Telegraph, November 15th, 2021 – Love and Arsenic: The Strange Affair of Madeleine Smith

Culture Trip – The Story Behind London’s Notorious Girl Gang, the Forty Elephants

Daily Best – What the Hell Has Hollywood Got Against Nikola Tesla?

Darlymple, William – Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan (2013)

Deer, Brian – The Doctor Who Fooled the World: Science, Deception, and the War on Vaccines (2020)

Encyclopedia Britannica – Battle of Balaklava

Guardian, The, December 27th, 2010 – Girl Gang’s Grip on London Underworld Revealed

Herrnon, Ian – Britain’s Forgotten Wars: Colonial Campaigns of the 19th Century (2003)

Hertfordshire Life – The Dramatic Life and Passing of Prime Minister Lord Palmerston

Historic UK – The Shortest War in History

History Collection – Here’s the List of Queen Victoria’s Burial Requests in Her Final Moments

Listverse – 10 Unsettling Unsolved Victorian Slayings

McDonald, Brian – Alice Diamond and the Forty Elephants: The Female Gang that Terrorised London (2015)

Owlcation – Did Adelaide Bartlett Get Away With Murder?

Social History, 392:2, 248-266 – ‘I Am Just the Man For Upsetting You Bloody Bobbies’: Popular Animosity Towards the Police in Late Nineteenth Century Leeds

Undiscovered Scotland – Madeeline Smith

University of Leicester Academic and Staff Blogs – Dismemberment in Victorian London: The Thames Torso Murders

Woodham-Smith, Cecil – The Reason Why: Story of the Fatal Charge of the Light Brigade (1954)