Saturday, 28 February 2015

The Paraffin Lamp Tragedy

One of the most horrific killings by a female in the 19th century saw a woman kill her landlord and landlady by setting them on fire after throwing a paraffin oil lamp at them. However, despite the gravity of the crime she was spared the death penalty.

26 year old fruit hawker Catherine Levens lived with her husband in a court in Lower Blenheim Street, lodging with a couple called Mr and Mrs Tracy, who were in their early 30s. In the early hours of Sunday 30th April 1899 Mr and Mrs Levens were arguing over insurance money, causing John Tracy to shout upstairs for them to quieten down.

They did for a short while then Catherine threw a boot at her husband, which then bounced out of the window and into the yard. She then went down to the Tracy's room and asked for the key to the back door, but they refused to give it to her and said she should just go to bed. Catherine then shouted at them that she would roast their eyes out. During this commotion her husband left the house, perhaps knowing what his wife was capable of doing.

After returning upstairs and breaking a window Catherine then took hold of a paraffin oil lamp and went back down to Mr and Mrs Tracy. With their two daughters watching, Catherine threw the lamp at Mary Tracy, hitting her on the forehead. The glass broke, causing the bedclothes and Mary's chemise to catch fire. As John tried to put the fire out, his shirt was set alight and after the couple ran into the yard, two neighbours heard their screams and came to put the flames out.

A police officer arrived and arranged for them to be taken to the Northern Hospital in a horse ambulance. Mary died soon after arrival, a post mortem establishing that the cause of death was cardiac arrest which had been caused by the shock of the burns which covered her face, body, thighs and arms.

Catherine had escaped to a friends house in Limekiln Lane but she was soon arrested, giving herself up when a police sergeant knocked. She was charged with the wilful murder of Mary and grievous bodily harm to John. As she was taken into custody she said 'I did throw the lamp but I had good cause for it, if he had given me the key there would have been nothing of this.'

Later in the day a magistrate took a deposition from John in the presence of Catherine, which stated that she had thrown the lamp at his wife. An inquest into Mary's death was opened and adjourned pending the condition of John but when he died on 10th May, also of cardiac failure, it was resumed. On the recommendation of the Coroner, Catherine was found guilty of wilful murder in both cases and committed to the assizes for trial.

On 2nd August Catherine appeared at the assizes charged only with the murder of Mary, as was the norm at the time. Mr and Mrs Tracy's fourteen year old daughter described what she had seen, as did Mrs Tracy's brother who had been in the kitchen at the time. Some neighbours told how the shouting was so loud that they heard the threat by Catherine to roast Mr and Mrs Tracy. Catherine's defence counsel had a difficult job to do but tried to suggest that the lamp was not thrown at all, instead it had come out of her hand in a struggle and accidentally set light to the clothing.

The jury deliberated for an hour and a half before returning to tell the judge they believed she had thrown the lamp with the intention of causing grievous bodily harm but there had been no intent to kill. Justice Wills advised them that if that was their belief then the only verdict they could return was guilty of murder. They then did so with a strong recommendation for mercy and as Catherine was sentenced to death she screamed loudly and had to be carried to the cells.

Catherine's solicitor William Quilliam, who had converted to Islam and opened the country's first mosque at Brougham Terrace ten years earlier, immediately made representations to have the death sentence commuted. The Home Secretary acted fast and just five days after the trial the Governor of Walton gaol received communication that her sentence had been commuted to penal servitude for life. She was then transferred to Aylesbury prison in Buckinghamshire.

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