Murder at Wilton’s Music Hall!

The felonius slaying of Thomas Bunn 1863

Engraving of Wilton’s in the C19th
Today we look at the trial, of Peter Melloy, aged 30, who stood accused of killing Thomas Bunn. The case was prosecuted by Mr Daley on 14th December 1863 with Mr Sleigh acting for the defence. It’s fascinating, both for the location of events that occured and the level of the detail of a performance of a music hall from a contemporary source, without the embellishment of someone in ‘the business’, as well as 19th century medical testimony on the cause of death.

The testimony of Barnett Solomon

The area around New Castle Place

New Castle Place has now gone, but was close to Old Castle Street in Aldgate

The trial first heard the testimony on Barnett Solomon, a cigar manufacturer from 22 Newcastle place, Whitechapel:
on the night of 25th November I was at Wilton’s music-hall, Wellclose-square, Whitechapel, about 10 o’clock I saw the deceased, Thomas Bunn, there with his wife—I was near the end of the hall, and he was next to me—I arrived when he was in the act of leaving the hall, and the waiter was offering him some refreshment;
So, the deceased, Thomas Bunn was out for some entertainment with his wife. Music halls like Wilton’s at some phases in their operations had what might be described as supper clubs, with tables, running perpendicular to the stage, which might explain the presence of the waiter, but later comments that this wasn’t the case here. I’m not clear quite what the function of the waiter would be in this context.

The witness, then introduces the accused:
he would have to pass by the front of the stage to go out—the prisoner was then on the stage singing a sentimental song;

So we discover that the victim was a member of the audience, and the alleged murderer was in fact performing on stage. One can only imagine how anyone in court might have been intrigued by this case.

he had been singing a comic song previously; it was the second encore, I think—when the deceased arrived at the corner of the stage he uplifted his hand and said to the prisoner, “Shut up”—he then moved on till he arrived in the centre of the stage, facing the prisoner, and again said, “Shut up, we have had enough of that”

The first interaction between the victim and the accused is one of heckling, twice telling the accused mid-song to “Shut up” as he walked past. Clearly his behaviour riles the performer:

—the prisoner had an old felt hat in his hand, with which he had been singing, and he threw it; it struck the deceased at the side of the head—thereupon the deceased turned round and made an observation;I did not hear it, on account of the confusion from the singer throwing his hat; a number of people rose at the time—the observation was directed to the prisoner

I’m assuming that in the polite circumstances of the court that an ‘observation’ might be translated into quite different words. Indeed the witness goes on to note:

the deceased said, “Shut up,” in a very offensive and annoying way; nearly every person in the hall could hear it—I only heard him say it twice before the defendant got off the stage—he made some other observation, which I should think was offensively directed to the prisoner, the purport of which I could not hear

Mr Sleigh cross-examined the witness, asking if the hall was busy:

Yes; the hall was crowded—it is a very large hall; it will hold, I believe, about 1,200 or 1,300 people—it was a benefit night for a charitable purpose, and I was on the committee—I have been to the hall before; I believe it is a well-conducted, place—I had heard the defendant sing there previously—there was nothing whatever offensive in the song he was singing; quite the contrary—it was called, “God bless the honest working man”

I’m not certain how accurate the observation on capacity is, but from my experience of Wilton’s, that would make it a rather cosy experience! So how did a performer singing ‘god bless the honest working man’ at a charity concert end up in the dock? It seems that Mr Melloy chose not to respond in a polite manner, leaping down from the stage:

—upon that the prisoner jumped from the stage and struck the deceased twice about the neck and shoulders—I could not exactly tell which, I could not see the exact position

After jumping down and hitting the heckler, he apologises to the crowd, not it seems for the act of violence but for not acting in a professional manner- a true great of the stage! I imagine this was the equivalent of a mobile phone going off at the National Theatre and being scolded by Richard Griffiths:

—the moment he struck the deceased he leaped on the stage again and said, although he was a professional singer, it was very hard to stand in the position he did and be insulted, but he was sorry he had so far forgotten himself as to jump off the stage

Robert Spurnell – victim was not sensible

Next up was Robert Spurnell, of 214 Whitechapel Road, assistant to Mr James Davy a tobacconist and he repeated the same version of events as Barnett Solomon before noting:

 the prisoner then jumped off the stage, and struck the deceased twice at the back, of the head—I saw him fall backwards—I did not see where he fell—I saw him afterwards—I saw that he was insensible—I could not say whether he was dead or not—I went to call Mr. Wilton

So, it looks like our singer appears to have been an effective pugilist. It’s interesting that Mr Wilton has become involved, suggesting he was involved in day-to-day management.

—I afterwards saw the deceased sitting in a small supper-room, and saw him carried from the supper-room, through the small bar, into Mr. Wilton’s bar-parlour—I did not see any more of him—I saw him sitting in the supper-room, I should think, three or four minutes after the blows had been struck—he was not sensible then.

Spurnell was cross examined being asked if he saw Bunn fall. Spurnell gives a bit more detail. Bunn was a particularly large man, and seems likelt that he had been causing a nuisance to members of the audience:

I saw him stagger—I know he had been drinking, because I saw him a little time before—before he said, “Shut up,” he had insulted me, and I noticed that he was intoxicated—he pushed me against the seat—that called my attention more particularly to him; he was a man that would make two of me, sixteen or eighteen stone—I got out of his way to give him room, because he was creating a disturbance, before this matter occurred at all

Spurnell seems to be an even better witness, seated so close:

—I was not more than four yards from him when he fell—he had to pass along immediately in front of the foot-lights—there are chairs and seats in front, where the people sit; but there is a thoroughfare between the seats and the stage—I could not say that the deceased turned round after he received the blows, before he fell; from what I know of the place, I should say that he might have fallen against something—I can’t speak positively, but on other evenings when I have been there, there have been a great many chairs sometimes, and I should think, from being a benefit evening, there were chairs there, and possibly he might have fallen against them.

James Sequira, Medical Examiner

Location of St Mark’s Street
Modern map of St Mark’s Street
However, despite not being ‘sensible’ Bunn seems to have made his way home to St Mark’s Street (see map), to where, James Sequira, a doctor living at 48, Manser Street (I assume Mansell) was called, though it appears too late. The doctor provided evidence:
—on the night of 25th November, shortly after 11 at night, I was called to see the deceased at his own room in St. Mark’s-street—he was then dead—I should suppose he had been dead about half an hour—I made a slight examination at that time—there were no external marks of violence on him, with the exception of a little puffiness at the back of the head—I did not observe any bruise—it was such a puffiness as might have arisen from a blow
Sequira subsequently investiated the cause of death:
—on the Friday morning I made a post-mortem examination—on removing the scalp, there was a large patch of extravasated blood at the back of the head on the right side, behind the left ear, and a similar one on the left side, also at the back of the head; on opening into, the skull, a large quantity of blood escaped—the cause of death was extravasation of blood on the brain; that was the result of violence, either a blow or blows, or a fall or falls, at the back part of the head.
Sequira confirms that Bunn was a larger man, and reports he was a North Sea pilot – possibly suggesting cargo boats bringing coal from Newcastle and the North East.
He was rather over the ordinary size; he was what is called a North Sea pilot, I am told

Apoplexy is ruled out (the term is loose and varies from bleeding as part of a stroke, a hemorrhage of an organ, or just sudden collapse prior to death):

—death could not have been the result of apoplexy in this individual instance—the internal appearances corresponded with the external—assuming that I had heard nothing of these facts, and that he had received violent blows a few hours previously, so as to cause blood to ooze from his ears, the post-mortem appearances would not have been entirely consistent with that state of things, but nearly so

However there appeared to be a hemorrhage resulting from a blow that had developed over several hours:

—I made the post-mortem examination some time after death, and hemorrhage must have been taking place during all that time—had I found this extravasation of blood, and no blows received at a later period than three or four hours previously, I must have ascribed it to that—I find but little variation in the appearances from death by extravasation; there may be some—in this case there was blood around the medulla oblongata, the commencement of the spinal column—immediately on the suspension of that, life would cease, because that is perhaps the most vital part of the human frame—if effusion commenced between 6 and 7 o’clock, it would depend upon where it commenced, whether it produced increased pressure on the medulla oblongata— it would do so if the effusion was on the base of the cerebellum

And his insensibility on being punched, appears to be the result of a blow rather than the drink:

—immediately there is the slightest pressure on the medulla oblongata insensibility would ensue, and death almost directly after—there was nothing in my examination to indicate that the pressure of blood on the spine might not have commenced some hours after the blow which produced it, and gradually gone on to the moment of death.
The questioning on the cause of death continued and Sequira raises the issue that the time of the blow is not readily identifiable:
Q. Looking merely at the appearances on the post-mortem examination, you attribute the death to the blood flowing into the skull, and on to the spinal cord?

A. Yes; that might be a slight oozing originally, continuing for some time—the moment it came on to the spinal cord, it would produce insensibility—I believe there would be no difference in the appearances, whether the blood oozed gradually or came suddenly—there was nothing to indicate whether the blood had been coring into the skull for some time before it reached the spinal cord, and there was nothing to indicate that it came there suddenly—as far as that goes, it might be possible that the violence which produced the extravasation was some time before the death, that is presuming I am to know nothing about the evidence.

What the waiter saw

However, the defence call an important witness, Frederick Smith. Clearly Bunn had been drinking heavily for much of the day (remember that the assault at Wilton’s was at 10 in the evening):
I am a waiter at the Three Tuns, Jewry-street, Aldgate—on 25th November, about half-past 3 or 4 in the afternoon—I saw the deceased at our house—he stayed there an hour, or an hour and a half, perhaps—he was in an out all the afternoon from 2 till 4—he took things in the house once or twice—he had been drinking when he came

And it seems that Bunn didn’t mind causing a nuisance, even with a foreigner!:

—he kicked up a piece of work with a Mr. Bonter, a foreigner, in the parlour—he insulted him, and called him a rogue, and some very bad names, and wanted to fight—Mr. Bonter did not speak to him at first, but when he kept calling him bad names, he was obliged to get up—he put his hand on the deceased’s shoulder, and said, “Don’t call me a rogue and a thief,” and the deceased then fell down, and I picked him up—he was very tipsy indeed—he fell over a chair, and fell on to the floor—we persuaded him to go out of the parlour—Mr. Bonter did not strike him; he merely put his hand on his shoulder, and by the force of that he fell over the chair—I got him out of the parlour as quickly as I could—I saw some blood running down his neck, by the right ear—my master sent me for a policeman—he was in the parlour at at the time.
So the defence has uncovered evidence that Bunn appears already had fallen once that day and that he had been drinking consistently. Furthermore, the defence now has witness testimony that Bunn was bleeding from the ear. It looks like we might have some reasonable doubt creeping in here. Smith is then cross-examined and we learn some more detail:
Q. What did the deceased drink at your house?
A. Some half-and-half—he had two or three pints—he was treating some persons there—he had just come off from a voyage the night before, and was very free with his money—when he first came in he was as drunk as I ever saw any one

So it looks like Bunn decided to enjoy himself on his return from sea, spending his wages for himself and his companions. Note – half-and-half is a mixture of mild ale and bitter – basically a beer cocktail -very daring [a mild ale is less hopped than a bitter (and is thus less ‘tangy’)]. However, Bunn aware of the nuisance he is causing leaves:

—while I was gone for a policeman the deceased put on his jacket and came out of the parlour in front of the bar, and walked away quietly—he was alone

It seems that news of the killing did not travel far – Jewry St is half a mile from Wilton’s and one might expect news of a local being murdered to travel.

—I was not at the Police-court [the old name for the magistrates court who would refer the case to the Crown Court]—I read the account in the papers, but it had nothing to do with me; it was talked about in the parlour, and I was asked to come here one day last week—the prisoner is a stranger to me—I never saw him before, and know nothing about him.

What the boss says goes…

Mr Melloy was probably feeling quietely confident after the previous testimony. That was until the waiter’s boss, the landlord, Laurent Montebruno was called as a witness and testified that Bunn was in the pub and argued with Bonter. However, he went on to state:

I told him I wanted no quarrel in my parlour—Mr. Bonter said, “I want to know what for you call me thief”—the deceased said, “Because you are going to Mr. Sirano,” and he wanted to fight him—I said I did not want any fighting in my house; if he wanted to fight he must go outside—the deceased began again, took his coat off, and wanted to fight in the parlour—I told George to go for a policeman to take him out, and while he was gone the deceased put on his coat, and went out in front of the bar and had some more drink—he was quite tipsy—Mr. Bonter did not lay hold of him, he put his hand on him, and sat him down in the chair—he could hardly stand on his legs—I was in the parlour all the time—I did not see George pick him up from the floor—I did not observe anything the matter with the deceased’s head when he went out—I saw no blood.

So the landlord agrees Bunn was causing trouble, but didn’t see any blood and puts across the view that Mr Bonter merely sits Bunn in a chair, contradicting the testimony of Smith.

The foreign agent…

Nicholas Bonter, the foreigner was called next and denied that Bunn fell to the floor or that there had been any blood.
I am an agent—I was at the Three Tuns on this afternoon with a friend of mine, a captain—after I had been there some time the deceased came in, and began to call me a thief, and vagabond, and other things—I said nothing to him the first three or four times—I then asked him what his object was in calling me such names—he wanted to fight me, and I put him down in the chair—I saw no blood about him—he did not fall on the floor.

Summing up

The witness testimony from the pub is interesting as all three men recount very similar stories but two of the men denied that the victim fell over or that there was any blood. My suspicion is that the landlord and Bonter attempted to downplay the fracas in the pub in case attention was drawn to them – if the defendent were acquitted it seems logical Bonter would be the next suspect.

Whilst medical knowledge at the time might not have been aas advanced today, the doctor who can only have seen Bunn dead at most two hours after the events at Wilton’s certainly allows for the possibility of an earlier incident:

and there was nothing to indicate that it came there suddenly—as far as that goes, it might be possible that the violence which produced the extravasation was some time before the death

Ultimately for me, the thing that tips my view of the crime that the landlord mysteriously refers to Frederick Smith as George; how can you trust a man who can’t remember what his staff are called! That said how Smith new that Bunn walked away quietly when Smith had been sent for the police I don’t know.

The verdict

Melloy was found guilty, but the jury found there to be a significant mitigating factor:

GUILTY.—Strongly recommended to mercy by the Jury, the blows being given under very great provocation.

Indeed, even Bunn’s wife suggested clemency:

The wife of the deceased joined in the recommendation to mercy.

And Melloy’s sentence, quite light for a man found guilty of killing:

—Confined a Fortnight.

However, charity performances clearly continued on as this playbill proves:

Original text

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *