Evil Female Murderers. Part 8
Masset, Louisa, Josephine, Jemina.
Louisa was the first person to be executed in Britain in the 20th Century. She was aged 36 at the time, having been born in 1864 in France.
She was half-French on her father’s side as well as being half-English.
She was described by many as being a ‘cultured’ woman.
On the 24th April 1896 she gave birth to an illegitimate son called Manfred. She felt forced to leave her home due to the stigma that always was attached to these births. It was considered scandalous to give birth to children out of wedlock.
She came to England and settled down at No. 29, Bethune Road, Stoke Newington, London with her sister, Leonie Cadisch and her husband, Richard. Having had her son it doesn’t seem as if she was very maternal as she soon placed her son, Manfred just a few weeks old, in care with a Mrs. Helen Gentle who lived 210, Clyde Road Tottenham.
Mrs. Gentle was paid 37 shillings a month, which allegedly came from Manfred’s father who was still in France. This arrangement allowed Louisa to work by day as a day-governess for a very wealthy family. By night she was able to give piano lessons as she was a very accomplished pianist.
The playing of the piano was a very popular form of entertainment in those days which was long before the advent of cinema, radio or TV.
Living next door to Louisa was a 19 year old Frenchman, Eudor Lucas and hey soon formed a relationship, friends at first but it wasn’t long before the friendship grew and soon after a weekend away in Brighton was suggested by Louisa.
Eudor was training in finance and was paid £3.00 a week, in which they both agreed was totally out of the question of marriage. It was quite clear hat Eudor knew that Louisa had a son, which currently was in care.
On the 16th October 1899 Mrs. Gentle received a letter from Louisa telling her that Manfred’s father wanted the boy to go back to France to live with him. And Louisa would be collecting her son to take him to France. On Friday the 27th October she collected him, but not to take him to France.
She had made other arrangements; she was going to spend the weekend in Brighton.
Just before Louisa picked up the boy from Mrs. Gentle Louisa placed a clinker brick from her garden into her ‘Gladstone’ bag and went off to Stamford hill to meet Mrs. Gentle and her son, Manfred. After tearful farewells, she led Manfred away together with a parcel of clothes that Mrs. Gentle had packed for the little boy’s journey to France.
He was a very smart little boy
Louisa together with her small son caught a bus to London Bridge railway station. Manfred was dressed in a blue ‘frock’ and was wearing a sailor’s hat. Frocks were quite normal for small boys to wear in those days. He was a very smart little boy and very distinctive to other people. Mother and son were seen at London Bridge station’s first class waiting room at 1.45pm on the Friday. Around 3pm, Mrs. Ellen Rees, the attendant in the waiting room noted that the boy seemed a little distressed and politely suggested to Louisa that perhaps he was hungry. Louisa and Manfred then left hurriedly with Louisa stating they were off to buy a cake.
About three hours later Louisa returned to the railway station but without Manfred, in order to catch a train to Brighton to meet Eudore.
She caught the train to Brighton and met Eudore at a ‘back street’ hotel where they enjoyed the weekend sleeping in the same bed and it is said they ‘had connection.’
At Dalston Junction station, an unsuspecting lady had a horrible shock when she went to the ladies’ toilets about 6.30 that same day. She discovered the body of a small male child who was naked apart from a black shawl. The face and head had been battered and there were two pieces of a broken clinker brick lying close by the body. These were of the same type found in Louisa’s garden. Manfred had been beaten unconscious and then suffocated, perhaps by placing a hand over his mouth and nose according to Dr. J. Fennell, the doctor who examined the still warm body. Louisa was familiar with this station as she went there regularly on her journey to one of her piano pupils.
The Saturday’s newspapers were full of the story of poor Manfred’s discovery – The Victorians were very fond of a ‘good murder’ and every little detail was reported in the newspapers.
Louisa had sent Helen Gentle a letter which arrived on Monday the 30th saying that Manfred was missing her and that he had been sick while crossing the Channel on the ferry but he had now recovered. Helen Gentle felt uneasy about the letter and became suspicious, having read the newspapers about the discovery of a child’s body confirming the age as that of Manfred. She took her suspicions to the Police. She later identified the baby’s body was in fact Manfred and was also able to identify the body as being that of Manfred. She also identified the parcel of clothes that had now been found in the left luggage office at Brighton Railway Station. She further identified the frock and sailor’s hat.
Back in Stoke Newington, the black shawl found on Manfred was identified by the shop assistant as having come from his establishment and being sold by him on the 24th October to Louisa, who being half-French had a very distinctive voice.
Louisa was also identified by a number of witnesses at London Bridge railway station as having been with the child that day.
Meanwhile, Louisa had read about finding Manfred’s body and when she went to visit her sister later, she was in a very distressed state. She is reported to have said, ‘I’m hunted for murder, but I didn’t do it’ and actually implicated Eudore in the crime.
She was soon arrested while at her other sister’s home and taken to the police station for questioning. She was ‘put up’ at an identity parade and soon picked out by Mrs. Rees, the waiting room attendant. She was then duly charged with the murder of Manfred and committed for trial at the Old Bailey in December 1899.
Her trial commenced between the 13th and 18th December 1899 before Mr. Justice Bruce. Her defence was led by Lord Coleridge. He claimed that Louisa had entered an agreement with two women, named Browning on payment of some £18 per year to look after Manfred through and into his older years. This may sound ‘far-retched’ but ‘baby farming’ was very popular around this time.
After extensive searching by the police for the two Browning’s and they couldn’t be found as well as the receipt having been lost.
This story was not believed by the Jury as the evidence against her was overwhelming. The Jury returned a ‘guilty’ result.
On hearing the Jury’s result, Louisa collapsed in the dock and had to be revived by a warder before the Judge could give her sentence. The Judge in a very serious mood said that she will be hanged by the neck until dead.
She was taken from the Court to Newgate Prison and placed in the condemned cell to await her hanging.
She asked for a reprieve but it was refused. At 9am on the 9th January 1900 she met James Billington, the hangman from Bolton. As was customary she wore a long black dress and was attended by the prison chaplain, the Rev. Mr. Ramsey. Two male warders and the assistant hangman accompanied her along theshort walk to the gallows.
James Billington placed a body belt around her waist, to which her wrists were pinioned and then led her across the yard to the execution shed and then onto the trap of the rather large gallows. Once there in that position her legs were pinioned by a leather strap outside of her skirt to stop it blowing up as she dropped through the trap doors. Then the noose was placed around her neck. When James Billington was finally satisfied that everything was ready, he placed a white hood over her head and quickly pulled the lever dropping her through the trap doors and to her death. The popular expression at the time was that ‘she was launched into eternity.’
Her body was left hanging for an hour and then removed for the inquest. It was said at the inquest that her features looked very peaceful and only the rope mark on her neck bore witness to her violent death. She was later buried in an unmarked grave within the prison walls.