"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, July 4, 2016

The Strange Death of George Austin

London Bridge, late 19th century


In February 1835, the corpse of a fifteen-year old boy named George Austin was found floating in the Thames.  The assumption was that he had thrown himself off London Bridge.  The inquest into his death brought out a very strange story. It was told mostly by a boy named William Barstolen, who worked at the same brass foundry as the deceased.

Barstolen said that a few days before Austin died, the boy was in an obviously troubled state. He was “confused and dull,” and had trouble doing his usual work. Austin said he “was distracted in his mind,” and threatened to stab himself “or make away with himself somehow, and end his miseries.” Austin explained that about three weeks earlier he had called on his brother-in-law, who gave him more to drink than he was accustomed to. After he left, he encountered a young woman named Sarah, who persuaded him to go home with her. He “stopped at her lodging some time,” and then proceeded to his father’s house. A short time later, he visited the girl again. On his third visit, he found her with another woman, both of whom were extremely drunk “and danced about the parlour.” Sarah went upstairs, after which Austin heard a child let out a scream. After a few minutes, Sarah came back down announcing that “she had done for the buntling,” by smothering him in a feather bed. She went back upstairs, returning with a baby’s corpse. The horrified boy desperately wanted to leave, but as there was a knife on the table, he feared the girls would murder him if he tried.

Barstolen went on to say that Austin told him that the girls buried the baby under the stairs. Unsurprisingly, he vowed never to see either of these viragos again. However, a few days later, a boy known only as “the Countryman” told him that the girls frequented the Brown Bear “opposite the London-dock gate.” He (the Countryman) had met them there, where he heard that Sarah was accused of having murdered a child. She denied it, asserting that George Austin was the killer. The Countryman gave Austin the sage advice, “Keep away from them, if you don’t wish to be hanged.”

Barstolen said that Austin expressed “the greatest dread and horror at the situation he had placed himself in by his own imprudence,” and added that a couple of days previously Austin had encountered Sarah in the street, and when he declined to go home with her, she angrily retorted, “Then so help me God, I will split about the murder and get you scragged! [hanged]” She threatened that if he did not get her some money by the following morning, she would have him arrested. When Austin tried running away from her, she chased him yelling “Stop thief!” but he managed to elude her. He reached his father’s home “in a state of great distraction."

Testimony was then given by a policeman named Pennington. He stated that he had investigated one Sarah Luff, the girl believed to be Austin’s Sarah. He learned that she did indeed frequent the Brown Bear, and had known Austin. He also ascertained that she had had a baby about the time Austin said the murder had taken place, but he also discovered that the child had been put in the Foundling Hospital. Pennington added that the only other girl Austin had been familiar with was one “Dosey Bet,” but there was no evidence she had ever been pregnant.

“The Countryman”—whose name, it turned out, was Peake--denied ever having warned Austin about his danger of being arrested for murder, although he admitted often accompanying the deceased to the Brown Bear, where they associated “with the worst characters.”  (It was noted that Peake was exceedingly uncomfortable about being questioned.)

The jury, after expressing their disapproval of “such mere lads frequenting such a house; it necessarily led to ruin,” returned a verdict of suicide due to insanity.

So…what to make of this long-forgotten little tragedy? Was young George Austin delusional? Was "The Countryman" telling the truth at the inquest, or was he hiding something?  Did Barstolen, for reasons unknown to us, invent his bizarre little melodrama? Or is the answer that Sarah Luff killed a baby that was not hers—perhaps the child of her unnamed female companion? Was Austin's death conceivably not suicide, but murder?

This is just one of those obscure little stories that defies an easy resolution.

3 comments:

  1. It sounds like poor Austin was a victim of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and Sarah and her pals killed him to keep him from talking about the baby. No justice for George - or the baby.

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  2. Sounds to me like an entrapment/blackmail racket

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    1. Agreed, the idea that a callous murderess would spontaneously confess to her crime in front of a distance acquaintance seems pretty unlikely. It’s much more likely that the scene in Sarah’s parlour was a masquerade to convince a suggestible young man that he was present at the scene of a murder so that he could be blackmailed or intimidated into handing over whatever money he had. Instead it had the effect of terrifying George Austin so much that he took his own life to escape a terrible dilemma that didn’t really exist.

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