Stories from Suffolk Gaol Books

As you may imagine, Gaol Books and Prison Registers can reveal much about crime and punishment for anyone interested in the subject, and as they are very name-rich sources, family historians find them invaluable  – many of us have an ancestor who fell on the wrong side of the law at some point!

Many of Suffolk’s Gaol Books are now searchable by name, date and place – as we’ve been scanning and indexing them, we’ve been noting some of the unusual stories and insights that have emerged.  The following gives you just a little taste of the stories that lie hidden in these treasure troves!

A double bigamist?

Cataloguing the entries for Ipswich Gaol for 1851 can become a little predictable when most of the crimes involve poaching and all the answers for 2 particular questions are as follows: “Can Prisoner read or write?”  “No” and “Where did Prisoner go to school?”  “Never”.

But then along comes a gem  – the entry for prisoner Joseph Butcher of Coggeshall (Ref: A609/11/182) has answers “Reading and writing sup” (superior) and “Cambridge and Eton”.  And what crime had this highly educated person been guilty of?  “Bigamy” – not just once but twice.  A double bigamist!

Page entry for Joseph Butcher of Coggeshall

Page entry for Joseph Butcher of Coggeshall (right side)

The Acton Dumpling Murderess

Some of our volunteers made a terrible discovery in one gaol book volume – young Catherine Foster, charged with the wilful murder of her husband, John, by poison.

She was sentenced to death and the case was reported in the Bury & Norwich post, December 15, 1846; a pudding bag containing traces of arsenic was implicated.  John and Catherine had not been married more than a few weeks and the motive for the crime, if indeed she had committed it, remains a mystery.

Catherine was only 18 years old when she was executed (April 17, 1847), and was the last woman to be hanged in public at Bury St Edmunds.  The case was notorious in the extreme.  Read more about the details and similar examples at the website of author Richard Clark.  The transcript of the case is also available on the website of the Foxearth and District Local History Society.

Catherine's entry in the gaol book (Ref: BRO/BA/500/D/4/3/3 Page 379)

Catherine’s entry in the gaol book (Ref: BA/500/D/4/3/3 Page 379)

Old-timey ink!

It’s always fascinating to come across a page where the gaol clerk has taken the trouble to sketch the tattoos of prisoners.  Here are some of our favourites.

A609/1/34 A mermaid with combs for arms? Tattoos belonging to John Syret, fisherman of Bungay St Mary, convicted of stealing a ‘fishing net called a drag net’ from a meadow in 1842

Tattoos belonging to John's partner in crime - George Preston, also a sailor

Tattoos belonging to John’s partner in crime – George Preston, a sailor of the same parish.  Both John and George sported a nautical star and anchor motif.

A609/5/146 Tattoo belonging to Thomas Tricker, labourer of Stowmarket, who stole a great coat, 4 bushels of barley, and a wheelbarrow to carry it all

A609/5/146 Tattoo belonging to Thomas Tricker, labourer of Stowmarket, who stole a great coat, 4 bushels of barley, and a wheelbarrow to carry it all

Harsh times – click here for discoveries revealing harsh attitudes towards minor misdemeanours