An Islington murder

Early 19th Century Clerkenwell

Or should I say, TWO Islington murders….

Readers of my blog might know that I have been undertaking research on the area around Clerkenwell and Islington generally as I work to understand the life my London ancestors led.

I have also posted information uncovered about my Great Uncle Alfred Hardiman, who at the end of 1922, at 49 Hornsey Rise, Islington, murdered his ex-girlfriend Mary by cutting her throat. He then turned the blade of the cut-throat razor on himself and ended his own life, which by all accounts had been a miserable one following injuries sustained during WW1.

A quick recap for those that might have missed the post -the subsequent inquest found that Alf had committed ‘murder and suicide’ whilst ‘of unsound mind’ and note was taken of his fragile mental state at the time of his crime. He was buried in Islington cemetery, where other members of my family also lie.

However, in my researches I have recently come across another case, of murders that took place 90 years before Great Uncle Alf’s desperate act. For reasons that will become apparent, the circumstances made me shiver with not only horror but with recognition.

In September 1834 a 25-year-old woman, Ellen Lefeve, was stabbed to death in her home at 17 Southampton Street (now Calshot Street) just off the Pentonville Road. Alongside her were the bodies of her four children aged between six years and just eight months.

There was apparently little doubt about the perpetrator. Johann (known as John) Nicholas Steinberg, aged 45, was Ellen’s husband who earned a living as a whipmaker. No-one ever discovered the motive behind his terrible crime however. When he had finished wreaking havoc on his family he turned the bloodied knife on himself and was found dead in the home they shared.

Steinberg memorial

Locals were horrified that something so seemingly random and terrible had happened and a public subscription raised the money for a stone to be erected. Ellen and her children were buried in the churchyard of St James Clerkenwell where the memorial can still be seen, although the epitaph composed by a Mr Campbell of the Sadlers Wells Theatre can only just be made out.

It is the fate of John Steinberg that most interested me, as a comparison to the outcome for my Great Uncle Alfred.

A newspaper later reported the crime in stark terms:

‘In 1834 a terrible and wholesale tragedy was enacted at No. 17, Southampton Street, by a German whip-maker named Steinberg. On a September night this wretch, from no known reason, but perhaps jealousy, murdered his mistress and her four children, the youngest a baby, and then cut his own throat. It was with difficulty the mob. was prevented from dragging the murderer’s body through the streets. His victims were buried in St. James’s Churchyard, and he himself in the paupers’ burial-ground in Ray Street, the corpse being shaken out of the shell into a pit. No stake was driven through the body, as usual formerly with suicides, but one of the grave-diggers broke in the skull with an iron mallet’

Steinberg was buried in a paupers grave in Ray Street. William Pinks in his History of Clerkenwell describes Steinberg’s funeral as follows:

‘At his ignominious funeral, which took place at night, a peculiar ceremony in lieu of the old custom of driving a stake through the body was observed. The shell containing the deceased was laid by the side of the grave; the body was taken out by two men who held it over the grave; when they gave it a turn it fell to the bottom with the face downwards resting upon the arms. Some earth was scattered over and then one of the assistants struck the earth immediately over the deceased’s skull several times, and as hard as he could with an iron mallet, the object being to break the skull.’

Pinks goes on to say that ‘this dreadful burial of a murder and a suicide attracted together a considerable number of persons in whom a morbid curiosity had been excited’

For me, the parallels between Steinberg’s crime and that of My Great Uncle were clear; the language similar. For Alfred Hardiman, the inquest was an opportunity, in some small way at least, for the family to offer some form of mitigation for his actions. There was of course no possible justification either man could plead, but neither sought to. At least Alf, as far as I know, did not suffer such a brutal burial.

I also feel that I have been able to learn enough to understand something of my Great Uncle’s state of mind, especially in light of my interest in the mental health issues that dogged that branch of my family. Subsequent events in Clerkenwell meant that John Steinberg’s motives were quite put from people’s minds.

In a newspaper, dated 29th September 1834, was printed the following:

‘The Steinberg murder – The House in Southampton Street, Pentonville, was on Monday last taken possession of by the new tenant, to whom it has been let by Mr Cuthbert, the landlord, at a yearly rent of £28 as compared to £30 for Steinberg, and yesterday the premises were submitted to the inspection of the public, each person paying a trifle according to his circumstances’

In fact, the new tenants had left the house exactly as it had been found, using wax dummies clothed in the blood-stained garments the victims had actually been wearing. Over £50 was taken at this macabre ‘exhibition’ on the first day alone and eventually the local residents complained to the magistrate.

William Pinks again:

‘(local residents) were annoyed and disgusted by the gross and indecent exhibition of the figures if the murdered persons, and having the awful circumstances revived in their memory by such proceedings’

Rooftop view over to St James Clerkenwell

Residents also raised the issue of  ‘the injury to property’ in the area (that is, the value of it). The magistrate seemed not to want to take sides and passed the matter to the parish authorities who eventually closed the exhibition down.

John Steinberg’s crime was a terrible one, as was my great Uncle Alf’s. I have had to battle with that part of me that wants to somehow ‘excuse’ Alf on the basis of the circumstances around what happened in Hornsey Rise that day in December 1922. In truth it was terrible and left a legacy of secrecy, shame and anxiety for my mother’s family.

Steinberg and his family were exploited by the very worst of human nature in the 1830s. They are now remembered with more respect as part of Clerkenwell history walks. Despite the parallels between the cases, I am grateful Alf is buried quietly and anonymously – there is no headstone –  in the same place as his father before him.

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One Response to An Islington murder

  1. cassmob says:

    What a gruesome story from the C19th. Yes the practical parallels are very similar and equally tragic. I agree it’s tempting to excuse your great uncle….perhaps the potential was always there but I can’t help thinking theterrible impact of the war would have been pivotal, and at least there were no children involved.. The Steinberg case possibly generated such extreme responses because the children were murdered as well and I can’t help wondering if being German affected people’s views as well. More than anything what this story reminded me of is some of the C20th and C21st crimes against women who try to leave their men. Thank you for sharing this.

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