We all have the odd skeleton or two lurking in the family cupboard, and most of us would happily keep them there, but that may no longer be possible as a new archive of criminal records becomes available in Britain for those eager to find the ‘black sheep’ of their family.
More than 2.5million records from 1770 to 1934 have been put online by family history website findmypast.co.uk and Britain’s National Archives, chronicling the fates of fraudsters, counterfeiters, thieves, murderers and drunkards in England and Wales.
For example, if your name is ‘Dyer’ you might like to look up dear old great, great aunt Dolly and learn how she strangled up to 400 adopted infants with dress ribbon in the 1880s and dumped them in the Thames. She was hanged at Newgate Prison in 1896, aged 58.
Or perhaps you’re a ‘Smith’ – plenty of those about. You could be related to the ‘brides in the bath’ killer George Joseph Smith, a bigamist and serial killer whose crime was one of the first to be solved by forensic analysis back in 1915. It’s a gruesome family factoid, and not one I would recommend sharing at any relation’s wedding.
Any ‘Websters’ out there might want to look away now. The newly released records tell of Catherine Webster, who killed widow Julia Martha Thomas by pushing the poor woman down the stairs and then strangling her. As if that wasn’t enough she outdid herself with the next part – by chopping up Thomas’s body and boiling it. Julia’s head was found in TV presenter David Attenborough’s garden in 2010.
The collection contains mugshots, newspaper articles scanned images of court documents as well as appeals for clemency. Crimes are catalogued by name, age, occupation, court date, area, victim’s name and sentence.
To find villains in your family, type your surname into the ‘crime and punishment’ section of the findmypast.co.uk website. A further click takes you to scanned images of the original handwritten records.
Think of all the fascinating hours ahead, learning about those relatives who were transported to Australia, left to languish in prison hulks or dangled at the end of the hangman’s noose.