The Newgate Calendar - HARRIET MAGNIS

HARRIET MAGNIS

Tried for child stealing, 1811

   THIS was a very singular and mysterious affair. It greatly excited public curiosity; and though every means was taken, even to the proclamation of the lord mayor of London, offering a reward for the recovery of the lost infant, and describing the person and dress of the woman suspected of the crime, the offender with the stolen boy long remained undiscovered. The woman was described to have been genteelly dressed, and that she had purchased some pastry to treat the child, and a hat and feather for it, at a hatter's shop, on Fish-street-hill.

   Suspicion fell upon an innocent lady, the wife of a surgeon in the navy, and, sad to relate, she was brought before his lordship, who, after two examinations of several witnesses, all of whom, it will be found, mistook her person, committed her for trial at the Old Bailey. It is true she was acquitted, but what alleviation could be offered to her feelings what reparation made to an injured husband and distressed relatives?

   The trial of this lady, whose name it would be indecorous to mention, discovered the whole proceedings of this very singular offence; just as practised by the guilty woman, who we shall soon introduce to the reader; and which were to the following effect.

   Mary Cox, who keeps a green-grocer's and fruiterer's shop, in Martin's-lane, Cannon-street, deposed, that about half past ten o'clock on the morning of Monday the 18th of November 1811, Mrs Dellow, the mother of the lost child, came to her shop, told her she was going to consult a medical gentleman on some complaint in her eyes, and left the little boy and another child, his sister, in her care, until her return. The witness was sitting shortly afterwards with one of the children on her knee, when a lady answering to the prisoner's description came in, and called for two penny-worth of apples. She put down the child, and served her. Immediately afterwards some other person came in for some of her merchandize, whom she also served. She then, missing the children from the door, called them to come in, but neither answered. She ran into the street, but could not find them. Alarmed at this, she went up the street, and called frequently, Rebecca (the little girl's name), but received no answer. After a short time, she saw the little girl, without her brother, returning down Fish-street having an apple and a small plum cake in her hand. She asked her who had given her them, and where her mother was? The child replied, she bad got them from the lady who, just before, had bought the apples at her shop, and had taken her little brother with her to his mother. The woman made every enquiry about the neighbourhood, but could find no satisfactory traces of the lady. Witness could not, however, positively swear to the identity of the prisoner.

   Two witnesses from a pastry-cook's shop, on Fish-street hill, the one a shop-woman, and the other the daughter of the master, proved, that on the morning, and about the hour stated, a lady, attired in a dark gown, blue cloth cloak, and black straw bonnet and feather, came into the shop with two children; one, the little girl now produced in court, and the other a little boy, about four years old. They had neither hats not tippets on, and the boy had his hair turned up on one side of his forehead, answering to the description of the lost child. The lady bought some buns, of which she gave two to each of the children, and immediately went out with them. Both these witnesses looked at the lady, and felt every reason to be convinced she was the same person, although she was now dressed quite differently. being attired in a scarlet cloth cloak, and figured silk coiffure. The uncle of the child stated, that having heard his brother's little son had been stolen, he made every enquiry into the circumstances, and round the neighbourhood, in order, if possible, to discover some clue to the person who had taken off the child. He learned what had occurred at the pastry-cook's: and afterwards was informed at the shop of Mr Shergold, a hatter, on Fish-street-hill, that a lady answering the same description had purchased the same morning a hat and feather for a little boy, whose appearance agreed with the person of little Dellow; but all farther enquiries were in vain, until some days afterwards, when a gentleman of his acquaintance, to whom he related the story, told him of a woman who lived at a house in Trafalgar-place, Southwark, whose person corresponded with the description he gave. Thither he went, accompanied by a police officer from Union-hall, and one of the young women from the pastry-cooks. Unwilling to excite any alarm, be first rapped at the door, and enquired if Mrs R--- was at home; and was told she was not by the person who opened the door. He said he would wait for her, and he was shewn upstairs to the front apartment of two which the lady occupied. After waiting a few minutes she came in. He engaged her by some conversation, still casting his eye about for some traces of the child, but saw none. He asked if she had not another apartment, to which she answered, 'Yes,' and shewed him into the next room. He discovered no clue there to his object. She then asked him who the persons were who waited below stairs? He said they came with him; and, requesting her not to be alarmed, told her the nature of his business, and asked her if she had any objection to see and speak to the girl from the pastry-cook's shop? She answered she had no objection to see any person upon the subject. The girl was then called upstairs, and on seeing and hearing the defendant speak, said she was the very person. The witness cautioned her at the time to be very circumspect, but she was positive as to the defendant's identity. The witness again requested the lady not to be alarmed; but told her it would be necessary for her to accompany him with the officer to the hatter's shop before-mentioned. She came without hesitation; but at the hatter's, the female who had sold the hat and feather, could not speak positively to her person, but merely to her size; and she herself positively denied having ever been either at the hatter's or the pastry-cook's. She was, however, held in custody, and her apartments were afterwards searched, but no such cloak or hat as those described to have been worn by her on the former day, nor as that said to be purchased for the child, were discovered, nor anything that could give any information respecting her.

   The lady positively denied any knowledge of the transaction, and added, that she was confined within her lodgings by illness the whole of the day, and the two days preceding this transaction, except going out on the Monday afternoon about four o'clock; and this, she said, could be proved by two witnesses; the owner of the house where she lodged, and another female, who is also an inmate.

   Several witnesses were then examined to the prisoner's character, who all bore testimony to her general good conduct.

   The recorder, in summing up the evidence, observed, that there was nothing to fix the prisoner with guilt but her identity; he then instanced a case in which six witnesses had sworn to the person of a gentleman as having committed a robbery at Hampstead, who afterwards proved, to demonstration, that he was in London at the time at which it was said he had been guilty of the offence imputed to him. Having then adverted to the alibi, proved on the part of the prisoner, he exhorted the jury to divest their minds of all prejudice, and form their judgment wholly upon the facts before them. If they had any doubt as to her guilt, her good character ought to be thrown into the scale of mercy -- if, on the contrary, they were fully convinced of her criminality, they would return a verdict accordingly.

   The jury, after a short consultation, returned a verdict of -- Acquittal.

   Several females were carried out of the court in a state of insensibility during the trial, from the crowded state of every part of it. The trial lasted from 5 until nearly 10 o'clock.

   At length this mystery began to develop. The first information received in London, was from a magistrate in Gosport, acquainting Mr and Mrs Dellow of the discovery that their child was safe there, and ready to be delivered to its parents. The father instantly set off, and was once more blessed by enfolding his infant in his arms.

   Soon after Mr Dellow's return home with his son, he was required to appear with him, before the lord mayor of London, where he found William Barber, the keeper of the Gosport bridewell prison, ready to give evidence against a woman of that town of the name of HARRIET MAGNIS in whose possession the child was found.

   This man informed his lordship that having seen a hand-bill describing a child lost or stolen from London, he got information that this child was at Gosport, that he communicated the same to the magistrate, who granted him a warrant to bring the woman and child before him for examination, that he went to the lodgings of Mrs Magnis, who lived in a very respectable way, that he asked her if she had a child; she said she had; he then asked her if it was her own, to which she replied rather faintly, that it was; but upon his saying that he doubted it was not her child, and desired to see the child, she took him very readily to the room where the child was in bed, and confessed to him that the child was not her own, and that she had found the boy in London, and said she had taken the greatest care of him, and had bought him a great many clothes, which she produced; being taken before the magistrate she confessed everything. The keeper handed a copy of her confession and examination at Gosport, to his lordship. Mrs Dellow was present with the little boy: she gave an account to his lordship that her husband had brought her child home alive and well, though not quite so lusty. The lord mayor said he must remand the prisoner for further examination; but wished to know in the mean time if she had anything to say for herself; she said she was willing to do anything, and confessed she had taken the child from a little girl, and said it was to please her husband, and was very sorry for it, and seemed very much affected. She was very genteelly dressed, and much resembled the woman who was tried for this offence, as she had on a dark green mantle trimmed with fur, and a straw bonnet.

   On her second examination, it appeared, that a woman at Gosport observed a neighbour of hers in possession of a boy, bearing the marks described, and answering to the age of three years old. She immediately thought it was Thomas Dellow, who had been so long missing; the more so, as she had reason to believe that the pretended mother had never borne a child. She communicated her suspicions to the gaoler, and he to the nearest magistrate, who sent for Mrs Magnis, the pretended mother. The moment she was interrogated on the subject, she confessed the whole affair, and her motive for the robbery; that Magnis her husband, who was a gunner on board one of his majesty's ships, and had saved a considerable sum of money for a man in his station of life, was extremely partial to children, and had often expressed his most anxious wish to have a little darling, as he used to term it. His wife, not less anxious to gratify him in this respect, wrote to him while at sea, that she was in the family way. The gunner, highly delighted that he had obtained his desired object, sent home the earnings of many a cruise, amounting to 300L. with a particular charge that the infant should be well rigged, and want for nothing: if a boy, so much the better.

   The next letter from his hopeful wife announced the happy tidings that his first-born was a son: and that she would name him Richard, after his father. -- The husband expressed his joy at the news, and counted the tedious hours until he should be permitted to come home to his wife and child.

   At home he at length arrived, but at an unfortunate time, when the dear Richard was out at nurse, at a considerable distance; change of air being necessary to the easy cutting of his teeth. The husband's time being short, he left his home with a heavy heart, without being able to see his offspring; but he was assured that on his next trip to Gosport be should have the felicity he had so often pined for, of clasping his darling to his bosom. It was not until November last that he was at liberty to revisit home, when he had again the mortification to find that his son, whom he expected to see a fine boy of three years old, had not yet cut his teeth, or that he was from home on some other pretence. The husband, however, was not to be pacified thus: he would go and see his son, or his son should come to him. Mrs Magnis, finding him determined, thought the latter much the best way; and accordingly set off to fetch the boy. The metropolis occurred to her as the market best calculated to afford her a choice of children; and passing down Martin's-lane, she was struck with the rosy little boy, Thomas Dellow, and at once determined to make him her prize. He was playing with his sister at the greengrocer's shop-door, into which Mrs Magnis went, with the double view of purchasing some apples, and carrying off the boy. -- She made much of the sister, caressed the boy, and gave him an apple. The children being pleased with her attention, she asked the little girl to shew her to a pastry-cook's shop to buy some cakes, whither she took both the girl and the boy. She got clear off with the latter, and left the girl behind. Magnis, supposing all his wishes realized, was made truly happy.

   It is no exaggeration to say, that poor Magnis felt a parental affection for the boy; and that when the imposition was discovered before the magistrate, he was grieved to the heart at being obliged to part with him even under all the circumstances of the transaction.

   Harriet Magnis was committed to Winchester gaol; and was brought to trial for the offence at the Assizes for Hampshire; and, after many arguments urged by counsel on both sides, it was agreed the offence was committed in London, and not in Hampshire, consequently she was --acquitted!!!

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