Walter Thomas Emm (1817-1868) is now a character in ‘The Mile End Murder, the Case Conan
Doyle couldn’t solve,’ a new book by journalist Sinclair McKay published by Autumn Press.
Walter’s life is the theme of many of my articles. Nineteenth century working class lives were difficult enough but cordwainer Walter contended with more than most.
He was witness at the family apprentice’s Old Bailey trial, 1835, where 11 year old Thomas Fisher was convicted of stealing from the family. Walter and Thomas had shared a bedroom. The child was condemned to death but, because of his age, was transported to Australia following two years in Newgate Prison. The trial transcriptions are on Old Bailey Online.
In 1860, Walter was accused of murdering his erstwhile employer, 70 year old Mrs Mary Emsley bludgeoned to death in her house. Also tried for the murder was James Mullins, a former Irish policeman who had attempted to frame Walter. Walter’s children swore under oath that their father was at home on the night of the murder and James Mullins was found guilty. On the 19th November 1860, he was publicly executed outside Newgate Prison. It must have been a ghoulish spectacle attended by an estimated 20,000 people, largely women, where printers sold commemorative leaflets and poems about the murder.
Eight years later, financially embroiled in Mrs Emsley’s probate, Walter hanged himself from a tree on Wanstead flats.
Obviously I have a vested interest in Walter; as an Emm researcher, he is one of mine – DNA proves that, although not directly descended from these London Emm(s), we are genetically related.
I wasn’t entirely convinced of his innocence – why would an innocent man hang himself?
It took a trip to London’s National Archives to find documents concerning Mrs Emsley’s will for me to understand Walter’s last solitary walk. This chap, a lowly shoemaker, was out of his depth. After two previous skirmishes with the death penalty followed by eight years of expensive legal shenanigans over a disputed will, it must have been the last straw.
Sinclair McKay’s book reinvestigates the case and has come to a different conclusion on who struck the fatal blow. I’m pleased to announce (spoiler alert) it wasn’t Walter.