A Fortune-Teller Extortionist, 1857

16 April 1857

GUILDHALL.Maria Burling, an elderly woman, of a bloated and repulsive appearance, was charged with the following offence:
          Thomas Thompson said, I am assistant to Messrs. Welch and Margetson, of Cheapside. I took the letters produced from our letter box, one on the 24th of March last, and the other on the 1st of April. The first was addressed to Mr. Thomas Welch, and the other to Messrs. Welch, Margetson, and Co. I gave them to the cashier.
          John Mark Bull, a detective officer, said – In consequence of information I received, to the effect that a number of gentlemen and merchants in the City had received letters demanding money under threats of an abominable description, I went with my brother officer, Thain, to No. 3, George's-buildings, Albion-bilding, Goswell-street, where I found the prisoner and four young females.
          Alderman Copeland – What were those young females doing there?
          Bull – They came there to have their fortunes told.
          Alderman Copeland – Is it possible?
          The prisoner said she was a fortune-teller.
          Alderman Copeland – What kind of persons were the females who were with her?
          Bull – They were very respectable persons, sir; in a superior position. I should think they were the daughters of respectable tradesmen.
          Alderman Copeland – Have you taken their names and addresses, because we may want them to attend?
          Bull – Yes, sir; I have taken them all. I told the prisoner we were two police-officers, and that she was concerned with parties in sending threatening letters to various merchants and gentlemen. She said she knew nothing about it; and when I said we must search her room, she said everything that was in it belonged to her. I looked into a cupboard, and found two letters written upon brown paper, similar to those produced. One of these was addressed to Mr. Hitchcock, of St. Paul's Churchyard, and the other to Jarvis, the detective at Bow-lane station. I asked her to account for the possession of those letters, and she said she knew nothing about them. I then took her into custody.
          Reference was then made to other matters supposed to be connected with this case, but which we omit to mention, as it might tend to frustrate the ends of justice.
          Alderman Copeland – Have you any questions to ask the witnesses?
          Prisoner – What am I to say – what am I accused of?
          Alderman Copeland – The charge against you is for sending letters threatening to accuse gentlemen of the most disgusting and unnatural offences unless they complied with your demands.
          Prisoner – No, sir; all I know is, that I have written letters for a tall, dark woman, who could not write, and when I saw what she wanted me to write I objected; and she said it was all right, it was only nnnsense. But I never wrote any on brown paper.
          Alderman Copeland – I never had such a gross case in all my experience of 28 years as a magistrate; and I have made up my mind upon the evidence as it stands to send this case ultimately for trial, and I shall direct the City Solicitor to prosecute.
          The prisoner was then remanded. (Morning Post)

23 April 1857

GUILDHALL. – ATTEMPT EXTRAORDINARY. – Maria Burling, aged 54, who described herself as a fortune-teller, was charged with having sent letters containing threats of a most atrocious character to Messrs. Welch and Margetson, of Cheapside, Messrs. George Hitchcock and Co., of St. Paul's-churchyard, and to other gentlemen of the highest respectability and influence in the City.
          Mr. Martin (the chief clerk) explained to the alderman that the detective officers Thain and Bull had made inquiries since the last examination, and that they now had reason to believe the prisoner had no guilty knowledge of the letters found in her possession.
          The prisoner was dismissed on her own recognisances to appear this day week.
          Rebecca Rice Hamilton, a respectably-dressed female, about 33 years of age, in deep mourning, was then charged on suspicion with having written, or being concerned with the writer of, the letters in question.
          Mr. Thomas Welch said – On the 24th of March and the 1st of April last I received the two letters produced. I know the prisoner as having had work from our factory at Bridge-place. We employed her from the beginning of 1855 until March, 1856; and during the whole of that time, and after she left our employ, I was in the habit of receiving disgusting letters in a siilar handwriting to those produced. I destroyed them at first, but they came at last so frequent that I preserved them. While the prisoner worked for us she brought me several letters precisely similar, which she said had been sent to her at her residence. Some of the letters which the officer has in his possession were sent to persons holding responsible situations in our employ, inciting them to rob us.
          Miss Atkins, a mantle-maker, said the two letters produced were, to the best of her belief, in the prisoner's handwriting.
          Thain then applied for a remand, to enable him to make further inquiries, and to get at other parties concerned in the matter.
          The prisoner was therefore remanded. (Morning Post)

28 April 1857

Rebecca Rice Hamilton, the woman charged with writing and sending threatening letters to numerous merchants, bankers, and others, connected with the City, with the view to extort money from them, was again brought up before Alderman Humphery.
          Mr. William Allingham said – On the 17th of February last I received the letter produced form my housekeeper. The letter commenced with a request that I would send a sovereign by post to either of three addresses named, and threatened that unless I complied she would accuse me of the most awful offences it is possible to conceive. The letter concluded with a caution not to lay any traps to catch her, as no money would be received unless sent by post; and that if I neglected to send, I might expect all kinds of annoyance, as what she began she always went through with.
          Jarvis, the detective officer, said – I have seen the prisoner write upon two occasions, and to the best of my belief the whole of the letters produced are in her handwriting. I have received two letters of the same description, one of which was thrust under the door of the Bow-lane Police Station. One of the letters I received is dated on the same day as that produced by Mr. Allingham, and contained the following remark, "I have sent a letter this morning to Allingham threatening to expose him." Those letters are, I believe, in the prisoner's handwriting.
          Bull, the detective officer, said – When I apprehended the prisoner I took her to the station and searched her. I found upon her a key which she said belonged to her room, and on proceeding to her lodgings I opened the door with the key, and in a box which was open I discovered two letters, the writing and contents of which are similar to those already produced, but they were addressed to other individuals.
          Prisoner – Those were letters I had delivered to me.
          Bull – I also produce two other letters, one of which the prisoner acknowledged to me she had written, and the other I saw her write.
          Thain, the detective officer, said – I was with Bull, and while searching her box I found the book of poems I produce, and upon examining it I find that one of the fly-leaves has been torn out, and upon comparing a letter which I received from Mr. Brought written upon the fly-leaf of a book, I discovered that the torn edges of the letter corresonded exactly with the torn edge of the remnant of the leaf left in the book. The size, quality, and colour of the paper, as well as the three gilt edges, also corresponded with the book. The letter contained similar disgusting and abominable threats to those in the other letters produced.
          Mr. Francis Babb – The prisoner has been in my employ, and I have frequently seen her write; I believe the letters produced are in her handwriting.
          Bull – I have ascertained that these filthy letters have been sent round to every person holding a respectable position in the City. And every one who has employed her during the last five years has been subjected to the annoyance of receiving these abominable letters continually from the time she first entered their service.
          Alderman Humphery – You have heard the evidence; what have yu to say in answer to the charge?
          Prisoner – The officer seems to forget that I have been the first to give information of this matter. I never wrote an anonymous letter to any one in all my life. (London Daily News)

17 June 1857

Rebecca Rice Hamilton, aged 33, spinster, remanded from last session, was indicted for feloniously sending a letter to William Alloingham, threatening to accuse him of an infamous crime.
          The prisoner, who was undefended, pleaded not guilty.
          The prosecutor is a surgeon, residing in Finsbury-square, and formerly resided at 26, Moorgate-street, and previous to the present year went out to the Crimea. On the 17th of Feb. last a letter was delivered to him, said to be written by the prisoner, who is a mantle and stock maker, demanding money, and containing a threat to whisper about that the prosecutor had been guilty of incest and also an abominable crime, so that his practice would be entirely destroyed.
          The letter was read, which was of the most abominable and disgusting description; and at her lodgings a similar letter was found, directed to a Mr. Simmers.
          A number of witnesses were called to prove the handwriting of the letters to be that of the prisoner.
          At the conclusion of the evidence for the prosecution the prisoner denied that the letter in question was written by her.
          The Learned JUDGE having summed up and the jury returned a verdict of Guilty,
          The Learned JUDGE then sentenced the prisoner to transportation for life. (The Globe)

17 June 1857

Rebecca Rice Hamilton, 33, a well-dressed woman, was indicted for feloniously sending a letter to William Allingham, threatening to charge him with an abominable crime, in order to extort money.
          Mr. Bodkin and Mr. Fry conducted the prosecution; the prisoner was not defended by counsel.
          The prisoner was tried for a similar offence at the last sessions and acquitted. The charge arose out of these circumstances:– It appeared that for a considerable period letters of the most atrocious description were received by the members of different mercantile firms in the City, charging them with offences of the most abominable description, unless a sum of money was paid to the writer, and transmitted to an address mentioned in the letter. The City detective officers were employed to endeavour to trace the writers of those letters, but for a considerable time they were unable to obtain any clue to the guilty parties. The letter that was the subject of the indictment was received on the 17th of February by the prosecutor, who is a surgeon, and who at that time resided in Moorgate-street; and it was of the most disgusting character. He at once communicated with the police, and in consequence of information received by Bull and Thain, two constables of the City police, they proceeded to the lodgings of the prisoner, in Bridgewater-square, and in a box in her room they found two other letters of a similar description, which were stated by several witnesses to be in the handwriting of the prisoner, and similar evidence was also given with regard to the letter that was the subject of the inquiry.
          The Prisoner, who was evidently a very shrewd, clever person, cross-examined the witnesses with a good deal of ingenuity, and when called upon for her defence declared that she was innocent, and wished that two witnesses, named Emly Taylor and Mary Ann Cowell, might be called in her behalf.
          They were accordingly examined, and stated that they had received anonymous letters, in which they were requested to say that the prisoner wrote the letters that were the subject of the charge against her.
          Thain, the officer, was re-called, and stated in answer to questions put by Mr. Bodkin that he believed those letters were written by the prisoner.
          Mr. Baron Watson having summed up,
          The Jury, after deliberating about half-an-hour, returned a verdict of Guilty.
          The prisoner was at once called up for judgment, and sentenced to be transported for life. (17 June 1857)

SOURCE: Various newspapers, dates as given.

CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following citation:
Rictor Norton (Ed.), "Fortune-Teller Extortionist, 1857", Homosexuality in Nineteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook, 5 October 2020 <http://rictornorton.co.uk/eighteen/1857rice.htm>.

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