The ‘Vampire’of Bergamo: Vincenzo Verzeni, The First Italian Serial Killer

The comune of Bottanuco (Photographer unknown. Credit: http://www.comune.bottanuco.bg.it)

The early mornings of Italy are often crisp. The residents in the area around the then small city of Bergamo as usual knew as they lay in their beds that they would awake feeling less than refreshed. Bergamo situated in northern Italy is situated approximately 40 kilometres from Milan, in Lombardy. Now a thriving city which became one of the most industrialised areas in Italy during the twentieth century, in 1867 Bergamo was like many settlements in the still newly founded Kingdom of Italy beset by both urban and rural poverty. One of the most common ailments suffered by the residents of the area other than low paying and precarious employment was pellagra. Now a largely forgotten malady, pellagra was endemic in Italy in the late nineteenth century and led directly to the death of thousands. Caused by a vitamin deficiency and common amongst the urban and rural poor, for whom maize was a stable of their limited diet, this sickness of the poor could cause long term debilitation and eventual death. Like many residents in the small farming village of Bottanuco on the outskirts of the province of Bergamo, Marianna Verzeni was stricken with mild pellagra and had been in bed for a few days to try and recover from it. The twelve year old was small for her age, and her recent bout of sickness had weakened her. As she lay in the pre-dawn darkness of her small room she found that she was gasping for breath. Stricken with terror, she felt strong hands on her throat as her eyes probed the pitch darkness of the room desperate to see her assailant. Struggling against whoever was seeking to crush the life from her, she struck out, hoping to strike the unseen form in its stomach. The grip of the assailant loosened, and Marianna screamed a long anguished, near hysterical cry, that in all likelihood saved her life.

Woodcut from the Italian press depicting the attack against Marianna Verzeni (artist unknown)

As the screams of Marianna rang through the small farmhouse at around in the early morning gloom, the attacker quickly released his grip and ran from her bedroom. Hearing the screams of the child from her room upstairs, her aunt, Teresa Innocenti quickly roused herself from her sleep, and raced through the small house towards the stairs. As she raced towards the rickety stairs, she saw Marianna’s cousin, Vincenzo on the stairs. He claimed to be heading upstairs to attend to his young cousin, but Teresa was almost sure he was heading down not up. Putting aside her suspicions Teresa passed the then eighteen year old Vincenzo on the stairs, and sped towards the bedroom of the distraught young girl.

Vincenzo Verzeni is little remembered today, and there are scant writings concerning him, and no detailed accounts in English. Before Jack the Ripper began to terrorise Whitehall in London, Verzeni had left a trail of victims of his brutality in and around Bottanuco and is considered by many to be the first serial killer in Italian history. Only a few pages in Italian language books and websites have detailed the brutal and bloody egregious acts enacted by Verzeni, and many contain a variety of conflicting information. There are claims that Verzeni took his own life after leaving a trail of up to twenty victims in his wake, but these claims are provably false. Serial killers are considered to be a distinctly modern phenomenon, but as Verzeni illustrates gruesome and murderous instincts are as old as humanity itself. It is arguably high time that the background and crimes of Verzeni were considered in detail and made accessible to English language readers. By examining his darkness, we may hopefully shed light on or own fractured and brutal age.

Eighteen years prior to the attack on Marianna, her cousin Vincenzo Verzeni was born in Bottanuco during 1849. A year prior to his birth in 1848 Italy had been plunged into revolution. In nearby Milan, revolutionary ardour forced the withdrawal of over twenty thousand Austrian troops, and Sicily and Naples erupted in full-fledged revolt, and by the time of his birth much of Italy had still not resolved from the state of chaos that had been unleashed. For this reason finding records of the birth of Verzeni are significantly problematic. Thankfully despite Verzenis’ parent being peasants the birth was registered in the local parish, and indicates that he was born on 11 April 1849. Details of his family life and relatives are less well defined and recorded however. What can be established about the childhood of Verzeni can be obtained thanks to interviews that were conducted by the Italian psychiatrist, whose work arguably laid the foundations of modern criminology, Cesare Lombroso with Verzeni following the arrest of the latter. According to the accounts that were subsequently published regarding their interview, Vincenzo was not born into a life of either financial or domestic security. By all accounts, Verzeni was born into the peasantry and his parents faced the same privations as many of their peers. In the nineteenth century, Italian peasants faced chronic deprivation which was typically characterised by inadequate housing and widespread disease. This was further compounded by indebtedness to absentee landlords and crippling levels of taxation. Further misery was heaped on them in 1845 by the price of stable foods such as maize and grains increasing sharply in Lombardy and other regions thanks to the majority being purchased by foreign buyers, particularly the British. One reaction to such circumstances was the revolutionary activity that preceded the birth of Verzeni. Another common reaction was alcoholism, and it was this that according to all accounts, Verzenis’ father was to fall victim too, becoming a violent and abusive drunk. Further compounding the family difficulties was the health of Verzenis’ mother who suffered from severe epilepsy in an age where neurology was little understood, and epilepsy carried with it the stigma of lunacy. Years before the introduction of bromide as even a basic treatment option, one of most vivid childhood memories imparted to Verzeni to Lombroso is his recollection of his mother frequently falling to the floor of the small family home as if she was dead. It is not known how many siblings, Verzeni had, and indeed how many survived childhood, but continuing to exist in the rural, although hardly bucolic surroundings of Bottanuco with a violently unpredictable drunken father and a severely ill mother can hardly have provided Verzeni with the security and support so vital in relation to childhood development.

During his trial, the mayor of Bottanuco testified to the taciturn and solitary nature of Verzeni, which was also confirmed by the deputy major, Giuseppe Locatelli who knew the family well, and described Vincenzo as possessing a gloomy and solitary nature. This however was disputed by the testimony of the village schoolteacher, Luigi Ravasio who described Verzeni as neither strange nor exceptional. According to the testimony of the school teacher, Verzeni attended the small village school between the ages of six and ten, and although he was represented in the popular press as having been beaten regularly by his father, the teacher denied ever seeing any physical manifestation. Ravasio did indicate that the young boy limped owing to a job he had outside of his education which involved collecting dung (presumably to be used as a cheap fuel source) in a large basket. Indeed as was later revealed in the trial, this limp became so pronounced during Verzeni’s life that he was exempted from military service.

The only known photograph of Verzeni (photographer and date unknown)

Contemporary accounts that were published in the Italian media of the period indicate that Verzeni was a subdued and solitary child (thanks in no small part from testimony of the political elite of Bottanuco), which given the background and poverty of his family circumstances could hardly be considered a surprise. His ability to develop interpersonal skills became more pronounced as he grew older, and the suppressed rage began to find an expression.  In a series of prison interviews that were later discussed by Lombroso in his work, Verzeni e Agnoletti published in 1874 (Annali universali di medicina, Aprile-Maggio 1874, vol. 228, pp. 3-29), Verzeni details how the isolated and socially awkward youngsters thoughts gradually became more homicidal as he aged. Verzeni details how as he reached puberty, from around the age of twelve he found sexual gratification in the act of slaughtering chickens on the small family holding. The only known photograph of Verzeni, badly damaged, smudged, and obscured over the years, shows a diminutive child, posed in an affectation of a mature pose, within whom dark and dangerous thoughts and deeds were beginning to find expression. These deeds included achieving orgasm through the strangulation of fowl on the family farm, and Lombroso alludes to post mortem bestiality also being enacted during this period, in his work Delitti di Libidine (Second ed., Archives of Psychiatry, Criminal Sciences and Criminal Anthropology, Fratelli Bocca editori, 1886).

The then mysterious attack against the sickly Marianna which occurred when Verzeni was eighteen was the not the last in the area around Bottanuco. In December of 1869, the assailant struck again. A twenty five year old farmer by the name of Barbara Bravi had risen early as farmers are loath to do. By 4.am she was on the small rural road that led from the village of Cerro to the parish church located in Bottanuco. Shortly after leaving her farm and walking in the wintry chill, Barbara was approached on the road by a stranger who ambled towards her, his head down, and obscured. As he passed her, the stranger quickly wrapped an arm around Barbara’s neck and went to drag her from the road towards the undergrowth. Initially, Barbara assumed it was an ill-considered prank by one of her acquaintances, but her initial levity soon turned to panic as the assailant began to tighten his grip, and become more fervent in seeking to drag her from the relative safety of the secluded country road. Like Marianna before her, Barbara fought back as best she could against her attacker, screaming loudly as the arm crushed against her windpipe. Her screams punctured the silence of the countryside, and her still unseen attacker fled into the darkness of the early morning,

Two attacks against young women in and around Bottanuco, had begun to unsettle the local population. Unfortunately, worse events were to follow. On the same morning as the attack against Barbara Brevi, and on the same stretch of isolated country road, another attack was to occur against another solitary female traveller. Margherita Esposito was a local woman from Cerro who like Brevi was travelling to the parish church. Although it is not recorded how old Margherita was, what is known is she was pious. As revealed later during the trial of Verzeni, Margherita was reciting a pater noster as she walked down the road in the still pre-dawn darkness and wore a string of coral rosary beads around her neck. For deprived peasants in rural Italy, such an item would have been expensive and an attractive target for thieves. In a pattern that had only just transpired less than an hour before, Margherita was approached by a stranger on the road. Unlike with Barbara his head was held high, affording her a good look which she would rely upon to make her later identification. As he neared her, the young moustachioed man with his intense glare grabbed Margherita by the throat. To her surprise rather than attempting to snatch her expensive rosary, his fingers closed sharply around her neck. Although Margherita was a pious woman, she was also possessed of a strong temper, and it was this that she unleashed on the attacker. She grabbed the young man by the shirt, and with her free hand sharply punched him in the face, wounding his lower lip. As the assailant loosened his grip, Margherita screamed, and the attacker again fled into the darkness of the countryside. As dawn broke on the December morning, flooding the countryside with light, two young women had been traumatized within mere moments of each other. Although neither of the victims was seriously wounded, the traumatizing attacks had occurred with a few miles of each other. For now at least, during the bright light of day, the attacks had ceased. This cessation however was only to prove temporary respite to the citizens of Bottanuco and the surrounding small settlements.

A few days following the attacks against Margherita Esposito and Barbara Bravi, a local twelve year old girl, Angela Previtali was making her way through the fields near Bottanuco to get to the local school. As she crossed the course Spartan winter fields, she encountered Verzeni who had been hiding in the hedge rows. As the youngster drew near at seven in the morning, Verzeni sprang from his hiding place, and grabbed the terrified child by her wrists, seeking to drag her to a nearby empty cattle shed and away from the route familiar to the sons and daughters of local farmers on their way to school. According to the accounts later published regarding this attack, Angela responded with tears, and imploring prayers that caused Verzeni to cease his assault. Rather than being moved by sympathy for the plight of his would be victim, it is probable that Verzeni was disturbed by the unexpected noise that Angela was making, and rather than risking discovery by other passing school children or their parents, behaved in the same manner he had in all his other assaults, and turned and fled.

His attacks escalating over a very rapid period of time, Verzeni was to strike again on 8 December 1869, and this time even the most naïve writer could not accuse him of demonstrating anything in the way of sympathy. Verzeni struck again in an isolated location in the early morning hours. That fateful morning, the fourteen year old, Giovanna Motta had set out from Bottanuco to the nearby small town of Suisio.  Giovanna like many girls of her age and background had for a number of years been working as a maid in Bottanuco, in the home of Giovanni Ravisio (who may well have been related to the one time school teacher of Verzeni) and Elisabetta Secchi. One of the richer couples in the village, the couple had given the young maid permission to leave their house and her duties for the day, and pay a fleeting visit to her family that lived in Suisio.  The house that Giovanna worked in was nearby that of Verzeni and he had often observed her working in the nearby fields. As she began her walk in the early morning to her parents’ home, she may have observed the strange young man that lived next door, but she probably gave it little thought. Giovanna was never to make it back to visit her relatives in Suisio.

As night closed in on Bottanuco, Giovanni and Elisabetta grew concerned. They had given their maid a day off to visit her family home, but it seemed like she had decided that she would take a longer absence. Upset that their previously reliable maid had decided to punish their generosity the couple retired to bed. The following morning, Giovanna had still not returned. Nor had she appeared the next day. The concerns of the couple only increased when a representative from the Motta family appeared looking both harried and forlorn on their doorstep and reported that the young maid had not returned to their home. Panic rising and knowing of the attacks that had preceded the disappearance of Giovanna, a search of the local area was soon underway.

On the morning of 8 December, a local farmer unearthed a gruesome discovery. In the hollow of a mulberry tree that stood on his land, he discovered what looked at first glance to be the result of an animal attack, a looping pool of intestines, and internal organs. Inured to the harshness of the natural world, the farmer thought nothing of it and continued with his daily tasks. The ragged body of Giovanna was found the following day following a brief search. She was found in the same open fronted cattle shed, had previously attempted to drag Angela Previtali towards. Naked, the young maid was brutally disfigured by the savage wounds that had been inflicted upon her. Her intestines had been removed, and her calf cut away from her right leg. Her lifeless mouth had been stuff with rich earth of Bottanuco. Giovannas’ clothing was found, folded neatly and secreted beneath a pile of maize stalks on a nearby farm, apart her handkerchief that fluttered pathetically in the snow nearby. On a rock near her lifeless corpse, the hairpins that Giovanna had arranged in a fan like pattern in her thick black hair were arranged in the same pattern, laid out mockingly by her attacker.

The recent attacks in the area that had escalated to the gruesome death of Giovanna, sent shockwaves through the small rural community and panic was widespread. Local authorities were as panicked as the general populace, and an alert was raised for the nearby city of Bergamo, that was just beginning its ascent to one of the most industrialised areas in Northern Italy, and had a police force to match. Representatives from the carabinieri quickly flooded the area, moving swiftly to seek to apprehend the brutal attacker. In the small town of Suisio, they thought they had found there man, in the figure of Abramo Esposito (it is not known if he was related to Margherita, the fiery young woman who had injured her attacker, but this certainly seems credible given the limited population of the area). A builder by trade, and a recent arrival in the small town he was arrested by the carabinieri on 18 December, only days after the brutal murder been committed. Although he had an alibi, he was clearly a suspicious character at least in the eyes of the regional police. In addition to being a recent arrival in the area, Eposito had the misfortune to come from Southern Italy. In the eyes of the local police, and residents, the very fact he was almost a foreigner was cause enough for suspicion and arrest. Esposito had to endure a few months in the Bergamo jail, until his alibi was finally confirmed and he was released on March 2, 1871, by a judgement handed down by the Council Chamber of the Court of Bergamo. With the release of the unlucky builder, the memory of the hideous crime of which he had been accused, and the anxiety that a dangerous and predatory killer lurked in their midst lingered in the small community of Bottanuco.

A month after the release of Esposito, another attack occurred in Bottanuco that made the panic rise anew. On the morning of 10 April 1871, a young woman by the name of Maria Galli was walking in the field near her home in Suisius. Galli was walking back from attending church in the nearby small town of Solza. As she walked slowly across the fields, she noticed a young man walking towards her. She was later to identify the man that approached her as Verzeni, but on that fateful morning, Galli was to enjoy what was to be a lucky escape. As he approached her, Verzeni snatched a red scarf Galli was wearing on her head to protect her from the beating heat of the Lombardy sun. According to her later account, Galli first assumed it was a prank of some kind, and challenged Verzeni to return her scarf. The protestations of the young woman had attracted the attentions of other people wandering the sparsely populated route on their way home from church, and seeing them approach, Verzeni chose to flee, clutching the scarf rather than attack another victim.

The spring of1871 turned to summer, and the roads around Bottanuco remained quiet. Villagers remained wary, but slowly it seemed as if normality was finally returning to the area, and the recent spate of attacks against solitary women and girls had ceased. Sadly for the residents in the Bergamo area, this was not to be the case. Many solitary travellers had changed their routines avoiding travelling in the dark to avoid the undue attentions of whoever was still at large and responsible for the savagery unleashed on Giovanna Motta. One such traveller was the local nineteen year old, Maria Previtali. Like Giovanna, Maria was walking along the road from Bottanuco to Suisio, however she had decided to travel when the sun was at its highest apex, and endure the midday heat. As she walked along the familiar route, she was surprised to see the familiar loping gait of her cousin, Vincenzo approaching her from further down the road. Unconcerned now that she saw the male figure approaching was Verzeni not an attacker, Maria relaxed and breathed a deep sigh of relief. Unfortunately, Marias’ relief was to be misplaced. Upon nearing Maria on the road, Verzeni rushed at her, and grabbed her savagely before dragging her into a nearby field. Amidst the stubble of harvested crops, Maria’s cousin savagely threw her to the ground, lifting her skirts, and pinning her to the ground by the throat. The air was soon rended with the screams of Maria. As her screams of terror and fear filled the air, Verzeni stood aside from her prostrate form. At his temporary departure, Maria quickly scrambled to her feet and went to flee. As she turned, Verzeni again grabbed her by the throat. Maria screamed again, and again her would be assailant released his hold, and strangely stayed in place as she fled panic stricken across the desolate field from the savagery of her distant cousin.

On 27 August, the twenty-eight-year-old Elisabetta Pagnoncelli (also known by her marital surname of Frigeni) set out from home to deliver some chickens to a neighbouring farm. What should have been a simple and quick morning trip, extended throughout the course of the day, and as the hours passed her husband grew increasingly worried. He was right to be. As the morning turned to the afternoon, a search party headed by Elisabetta’s anxious husband, Anteo Frigeni, was launched. Her body was found in a nearby municipal field. It had been stripped naked, and Elisabetta had been strangled. Worse still, she had been crudely eviscerated with a nearby sickle, and several hairpins had been jammed into her body. The savagery of the assault and the existence of hairpins at the scene, only served to remind the distraught crowd and the later investigators of the murder of Giovanna Motta.

The discovery of another corpse and the escalating pattern of attacks against local woman, finally prompted action from the local police force. Suspicion first fell upon a brick layer from Suisio, a small village some 14km from Bergamo, by the name of Abramo Esposito. The reason for the arrest of Esposito were spurious at best, and mostly seem to be that as suggested by his surname he came originally from Southern Europe, and the assumption by the local populace and police, is that such savagery could only have been unleashed by a stranger. And a stranger from the supposedly volatile and easy to anger South was as good as any. Thankfully for Esposito he had a solid and unequivocal alibi, which was thoroughly checked by the local police. So thoroughly in fact that the innocent Esposito spent several months languishing in an Italian jail before his eventual release (subsequently described as ‘immediate’ during the trial of the actual killer). Police were again at a loss as to the identity of the killer, and following the release of the hapless Esposito, they turned their attentions to a Bergamo native by the name of Luigi Cornerio. The evidence against Cornerio was even more scant than that against Esposito, and could be reduced to the fact that he made a suggestive pass at Elisabetta which was rebuked. Even for a desperate police force, an Italian man attempting infidelity with an attractive neighbour was too much of a legal stretch, and they found themselves bereft of a supposedly viable suspect in the string of savage attacks and murders that had occurred in the environs of Bergamo.

With no viable suspects and no seeming possible lines of enquiry to follow, the public and local police investigators began to grow increasingly resigned and resentful. In such an environment, gossip began to become a credible source of information, and could provide leads that were lacking. And one name kept cropping up, that of the local youth, Vincenzo Verzeni. Witnesses began to emerge that had seen Verzeni in the same locales as some of the attacks, and survivors could accurately describe him for the most part. Most damning perhaps was the testimony of two local women Rosa and Carolina Previtali who claimed to have seen Verzeni at the cattle shed where Giovanna Motta had been later that very same morning been so brutally murdered. Additional testimony came from Giovanni Bravi (possibly a relative of Barbara Bravi) who would claim to have spotted Verzeni on Sunday 27 August close to the field where Elisabetta was to meet her unfortunate, savage, and untimely end. Although some of the testimony and claims were perhaps somewhat suspect, for the local police they were certainly more definitive than the supposed evidence against Esposito and Cornerio, and on the morning of 10 January 1872 at the family home, prior to his transfer the following morning to the Sant Agata prison in Bergamo to await his trial.

A woodcut of Verzeni which appeared in the Italian press at the time of his arrest (artist unknown)

The trial of Verzeni was as could perhaps be predicted a major event for both the local press and community. It was also to prove a contentious affair for nascent criminologists and witnesses alike. Although the testimony of the supposed witnesses was purely circumstantial, it was for the most part accepted by the jury when the trial of Verzeni finally commenced on 26 March 1873 at the Court of Assizes in Bergamo (it was to conclude ten days later on 9 April 1873). Verzeni faced three charges, namely the attempted murder of his cousin Marianna and the murders of Giovanni Motta and Elisabetta Pagnoncelli. As well as facing the charges he also faced Cesare Lombroso. The expectation of the period is that the figure of Verzeni would resemble that of a monster. As revealed by Claire Valier (Theories of Crime and Punishment, Longman, 2001, Pg. 15) in her discussion of  Patrizia Guarnieris’ essay ‘Alienists on Trial’ (Alienists on Trial: Conflict and Convergence between Psychiatry and Law (1876–1913), Patrizia Guarnieri, History of Science, Vol 29, Issue 4, pp. 393 – 410, 1991) this expectation unsurprisingly to prove false. As detailed by Guarnieri in her description of the trial: “Who would have guessed to look at him that this was the ‘hyena’, the ‘monster’? Professor Cesare Lombroso, however sought for and naturally found that there was something abnormal, though barely evident in the physique of Vincenzo Verzeni. First of all he was to demand that the defendant’s head be entirely shaved, after which his knowledgeable fingers would have felt it all over; measured the distance from certain points to others… comparing the resulting data with averages and percentages for criminals, normal persons, and the insane”. Lombroso was to conclude contentiously with a “diagnosis, which implied that Verzeni could not be held responsible for his crimes” a clinical judgement that was not only out of pace with justifiable public rage and disgust, and “held up to ridicule by the Public Prosecutor and given scant consideration by the judges”. Originally sentenced to death, Verzeni soon found himself languishing back in the harsh and unforgiving environs of the Santa Agata prison.

Following the sensation of the trial, and the hardly surprising verdict, Verzeni was to appeal the decision still decrying his innocence. A juror was to believe that indeed his guilt may be in question, and the Court of Appeal in Brescia was to reduce the sentence of Verzeni to one of forced labour for life, loss of civil and political rights, as well as the payment of court costs and compensation for families of his victims. This too was later to be overturned on 20 January 1890 when the court reduced his sentence to thirty years with a commutation of the forced labour aspect of his sentence.

As for Verzeni and his conduct within the prison environment, a number of accounts related to him report that he committed suicide rather than face the decades that stretched ahead of him. It is certainly true that Verzeni was in a delicate enough psychological state to be transferred to the Pia Casa della Senavra on 13 April 1872, which was the first secure asylum established in Milan which opened its doors as of 1781. It was within the walls of the asylum that Verzeni was subsequently attempt to hang himself as of 23 July 1874, which is the ignominious ending to his history that most writers record. Unfortunately historical fact does not wrap things up so neatly. Indeed it is highly probably that it was within the walls of the Pia Casa della Senavra that Verzeni continued his interviews with Lombroso. Sentenced, convicted, and now interred in an asylum, Verzeni had no need to attempt denial of his heinous crimes, to revel in his own sadism, and was to reveal to Lombroso that, ““I killed those women and tried to strangle the others because I felt a great pleasure in that act. The scratches that were found on the thighs were not produced with nails but with teeth, because after choking them, I bit them and I sucked the blood that was flowing, which I enjoyed very much”. The man who would later come to be known by the tabloid title of the vampire of Bergamo had finally confessed to the depravity of his crimes years after his arrest.

Following his suicide attempt, Verzeni was transferred from the asylum of Pia Casa della Senavra to the Civitavecchia prison located some sixty kilometres from Rome. And here he was to remain until his release in 1902 some twenty two years after his conviction, and presumably with a reduction in sentence owing to his behaviour when in the confines of the prison environment. The Bergamo newspapers were quick to respond to the imminent release of Verzeni and the local L’ Eco di Bergamo reported that a special commission had been called and that Verzeni would for the first five years of his release spend his time under compulsory house arrest. The location for such was the family home he had once tried to strangle his young cousin Marianna within situated in Bottanuco. Here, Verzeni was to spend the next sixteen years of his life as an outcast until his death of natural causes (rather than the suicide reported by many) on 31 December 1918 (as shown by the death certificate uncovered in the comune archives of Bottanuco by Italian researcher, Tania Moscaitoli and presented in her detailed and thorough thesis in 2008 (Analisi di un Serial Killer: Profilo psicologico di Vincenzo Verzeni, il vampiro della bergamasca, Universite Europeenne Jean Monnet, Bruxelles, Belgium, 2008).

Verzeni’s death certificate recovered in the Bottanuco town archives by Tania Moscaitoli in 2008, which shows that he died of natural causes aged 69 rather than the reported asylum suicide.

Following his death in 1918, the body of Verzeni was transferred to Rome and mummified where it was originally displayed in the Museo Criminologico. In the years since his death, the mortal remains of Verzeni have been widely travelled throughout Italy. They now form a macabre centre piece to the collection of criminologist, collector, and artist, Roberto Paparella and his Criminological Museum situated in the town of Casale Monferrato.

Whether it was childhood abuse, mental illness, sexual dysfunction, or a host of other factors, that prompted Verzeni to begin his murderous rampage will never be known. Determining the motivations of psychopaths even with a host of evidence and psychiatric evaluations can present challenges for even the most skilled modern investigator. Peeling back the layers of history to examine such motivations is arguably an exercise in futility. Verzeni however serves as a dark reminder that the past was just as brutish and venal as our own dangerous age, and that danger has always lurked in even the most seemingly bucolic surroundings. Given the fact that Verzeni was the first reported serial killer within Italy and murdered his unfortunate victims in such a brutal manner, indeed akin to the still mysterious figure of Jack the Ripper, it is also perhaps a surprise that he is not better known beyond his native shores. His actions arguably should serve as a historical reminder, and a grim warning regardless of locale.

PS: if you enjoyed this content, please consider buying me a coffee using the link below. Content and research don’t happen for free folks 😉

Buy Me A Coffee

The Good News and The Bad News

So, taking a quick break from historical oddities and such, I have, as the title suggest have some good news and bad news sort of situations to report. The good news is that my first book has now been published by the lovely people at McFarland and is available from all good retailers. If you want to buy from Amazon could be a bit of a problem as they seem to have understocked, which is sort of hilarious really…

Buy my book… go on, you know you want to...

The bad news that I have to disclose is sadly very bad. In July this year after getting mired in my second tome and the day job (hence the staggering lack of updates on this site) I went to the hospital emergency department with what I thought was a bad case of IBS which required medicinal strength flushing. Sadly, my initial self-diagnosis was, to put it mildly, slightly off. Within three days I was vomiting faecal matter (I really don’t recommend that by the way) and being ushered at speed into emergency surgery to remove about three foot of blocked bowel. This left me with a fetching scar, and also a new ileostomy. And thus began the great adventure of shitting in a bag at 42, the only upside of which is that I don’t actually have to move anywhere if I get diarrhoea.

Now you would have thought that for most people, this would have been enough. I am however, nothing if not special. Following the operation and my introduction to crapping from the front and not from the back, I was bought in for another appointment, where it was revealed none too gently that I have Stage 4 metastatic bowel cancer. Now this is something that is meant usually to happen to out of shape, eighty-year olds that eat too much red meat, no people half their age, who are reasonably healthy and have been lifelong vegetarians. Like I say, I get all the luck. Anyone who reads my twitter will now how well my treatment has been going and why I don’t like my oncologist very much, but let’s say it has not been a particularly fun experience and leave it at that for now.

As part of treating bowel cancer they have to administer chemotherapy. One of the interesting things about the chemo that they use is that the patent extends all the way back to the nineteen fifties, which just shows how much effort has gone into researching bowel cancer lately. Rock and roll era chemicals aside, what happens with normal people who are in the same position I am in is that a device called a central catheter is inserted. In most cases they use something called a PICC line (peripherally inserted central catheter) which is a tiny wire that runs the length of the upper arm, coils around and ends about 1.5 cm from the heart. It’s one of the few surgical procedures that can be performed as an outpatient by a nurse and typically takes two hours. Once it is in they send you home with a pump and the several bags of chemo drugs that take about fifty hours to go through the body.

Now this is where me being a bit special comes in. When I went to get my PICC line. I bled. Copiously. For ten hours. Eventually I got bored of bleeding so much and after much debate made them take the PICC line out and went home, feeling a bit wobbly but a far less bloody. After a weekend of wandering what was up with me, I got an emergency call from the hospital telling me check into a ward. Now for being of my age and demographics to get bowel cancer is weird but I am very weird, so I decided to get a side effect called DIC (disseminated intravascular coagulation). As well as being a hilarious acronym that allows me to mention all the trouble my DIC causes, its common during pregnancy, when people have sepsis, and sometimes happens as a side effect of breast cancers. When it comes to bowel cancer though, literally 0.1% of 0.1% of people get it. DIC effectively means that my blood clots internally, but if I bleed externally, I effectively can bleed indefinitely. The way to address it is blood transfusions, and the way to treat it is to nuke the cancer that causes it. What is useful is that depending what the bloods are doing, I can see how the underlying cancer is doing. It’s like a massively useful metric of infection. Which if it goes awry can cause my liver to explode or similar. See; special. As a result of that wonderful state of affairs, I now have to have chemotherapy as an inpatient, which is a bit of pain, but considerably less painful than a blood clot ending up in my brain, or aforementioned organ explosions.

Anyway I started this personal post (which I am not a massive fan of) by saying this was good news, bad news kind of thing. The bad news is I that I have cancer, with fun and surprisingly useful side effects, but there is an upside to that too weirdly enough. I am having to close the company I have been building tooth and nail after six years. That’s left a number of people without jobs, but I can’t feel too shitty about that, as they were not jobless for long, and the one person who still is, will be getting sorted imminently. Everyone who I have worked with over the years, remains a friend, and a brother and sister with whom we shared an amazingly fun journey. I know I helped a few people, and even if the business failed to achieve anything of financial benefit for me, it did for others and for that I am perpetually glad, as my evil plan to build something ethical in an unethical industry for the most part worked. It’s also left a number of business debts unpaid, but most of those are to the government, so I’m have a really hard time feeling much in the way of sympathy. As a result of this (and not constantly having to deal with a clamouring HMRC which act and react like back street Glaswegian debt collectors) my stress levels will be reduced once I put the insolvency nail in the coffin of the company, and I will be in a much happier place when it comes to dealing with my idiot body.

Talking of which I am halfway through my first cancer cycle (which consists of six fifty-hour transfusions of toxic chemicals that are so toxic you can’t leave the environs of the ward) and thus far all the anticipated side effects have been surprisingly mild. The one thing I’m not really enjoying is chemo fog. It’s a weird sensation, but post chemo your brain ends up feeling less able to focus, and you suddenly develop a very reduced attention span. For a supposed writer and obsessive reader, this is not good, but I’m trying to train my brain past it, which appears to be reaping some small dividends. One of the ways I am doing that is by writing my second book which is under contract to Vernon Press in the US and concerns a history of the Makhnovshchyna and civil war in Ukraine during the 1920s. Said book was due for delivery in November, but given the circumstances it’s been delayed just a tad.

Thus far, I am coping surprisingly well with the diagnosis I received. Lots of people break with news like this, I however remain the pragmatic, stubborn individual I always have been. A number of complications have already occurred that should technically have killed me and probably got a lot closer than I really want to think about in too much detail. They have not. This is due in no small part to the skill and expertise of clinicians, but also I’m robust and really not prepared to let me body to attempt to dictate things. As a result, I am fairly resolute and confident that a supposed killer cancer will actually be killed, and I can continue to produce books that may or may not get read for the foreseeable future.

PS: For anyone worrying, this blog is not suddenly going to turn into a “my struggle with cancer” sort of reading experience. There are already too many self-referential resources of that ilk and I have no desire to add to that particular clamour. I’ll carry on writing about obscure bits of history and things here, and save my thoughts about this shitty medical nonsense, for ranting on twitter, and private consideration in a journal, which may see the light of day at some juncture when I edit out all of the quite frankly impressive and consistent swearing.

The Brotherhood in Birmingham: The Sparkbrook Dynamite Plot

“We’ll bow our heads in sorrow, with rage

their hearts we’ll harrow

And cause a brighter morrow with dreaded

dynamite.

To right those wrongs we’re banded, though

 rebels we are branded

We’ll face them single handed with a charge of

 dynamite.” [1]

Figure 1: Shrapnel from an unexploded Fenian bomb found at Paddington Station, 1884 (Photo: Museum of London)

On the afternoon of 11 April 1883, a middle aged man walked slowly towards Birkenhead train station. He was in the process of purchasing a ticket to Birmingham Snow Hill station via Wolverhampton, when he was surrounded by plain clothes English police and members of the Royal Irish Constabulary, who quickly snatched the parcels he was carrying under his arm, and whisked him away from the station and the prying eyes of the curious Liverpudlians. The middle aged passenger prisoner was John Daly (Seán Ó Dálaigh) and it was not his first brush with the law.

Born in Limerick city on 18 October 1845, Daly’s father was employed at the James Harvey & Son’s Timber Yard[2], and at age sixteen, his son joined him working as a lathe splitter. Like many young Irish men of the period, Daly was deeply troubled by the British rule of Ireland, and also deeply disenchanted. Three years after Daly’s birth in 1848, and with most of Ireland still suffering from being ravaged by famine, despite the frequent exports of viable grain and cattle under armed British escort, the Young Irelanders which had been established in the early part of the 1840s, turned from agitation concerning the repeal of British rule, to open armed rebellion. On 28 July 1848, in South Tipperary, in the small town of Ballingarry, William Smith O’Brien, Thomas Francis Meagher and Michael Doheny had given a speech on the town commons calling for revolt against the occupying forces of the British and the establishment of home rule throughout Ireland. All three were impassioned and experienced speakers, and they soon gathered enthusiastic support from the local population of miners, tradesmen and small tenant farmers. Doheny and Meagher moved on from the commons to spread the rising, but O’Brien lingered and assisted in the locals in construction of barricades to repel the police, and the inevitable military intervention. Seeing an agitated and combative crowd that was in no mood for compromise, and formidable barricades when they arrived on 29 July 1848, a detachment of forty six police from the town of Callan in County Kilkenny, led by a Sub-Inspector Trant, veered off the approach to the barricades and made their way to a defensible position of a nearby two storey farmhouse, the crowd hot on the heels[3].

The farmhouse in question belonged to a local woman Margaret McCormack who was in an out building when the police arrived and did not have time to intervene before the police had blocked the doors. Unfortunately the five children of Margaret McCormack were still in the house along with the agitated and scared police who took them hostage. As the crowd led by O’Brien reached the farmhouse, they were approached by the now understandably hysterical Margaret McCormack who told them that as well as the police in the house, so too were her children. O’Brien approached the house with the distraught mother in tow, and attempted to broach a peaceable solution, even going so far as to shake hands with some of the police through the window. Without provocation, and with no warning, a shot rang out from inside the farmhouse and mayhem broke loose. Wounded in the fire fight that ensued, O’Brien had to be dragged out of the line of fire by his supporters who were also wounded by stray bullets. Although the Young Irelanders and the police exchanged bullets, it gradually became clear that the farmhouse was a heavily defensible position, and when reinforcements arrived led by Sub-Inspector Cox although the crowd tried to repel them using what little ammunition they had left, eventually under heavy fire they were forced to withdraw. When the dust and cordite settled, O’Brien was arrested and sentenced to death by being hung, drawn and quartered for the crime of high treason. After receiving a petition for clemency signed by 70,000 Irish citizens, and 10,000 Europeans, the British legal authorities finally conceded and commuted his sentence to transportation for life to Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania). Although this sentence too was eventually commuted and O’Brien was to receive a pardon in 1856, his arrest, the brutal suppression that followed the Battle of Ballingarry, and many leaders of the Young Irelanders being forced to flee abroad led to the failure of the 1848 rising.

The Case of Daly and Egan

Figure 2: Flag of the Irish Republican Brotherhood

From the ashes of the Young Irelanders, the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) was formed.  The IRB was a secret fraternal organisation that sought to establish an independent democratic republic in Ireland free from British rule. Along with their US based sister organisation and financiers , Clan na Gael, the IRB launched a devastating dynamite campaign on British shores in 1881, particularly focused on governmental and infrastructure targets. Many of the attacks were focused on London however both Liverpool, and indeed Birmingham were hotspots. In 1883, John Daly moved from America where he had been in exile following the ill-fated Fenian Rising of 1867 to Birmingham to share the lodgings of a fellow Limerick man, and inactive member of the IRB, James Francis Egan. Events were subsequently to unfold that illustrated “the truly dark side of what the British authorities were capable of” [4]. In his youth James Egan had been an enthusiastic supporter of Irish home rule, but had moved to Wolverhampton in pursuit of employment. Initially he found work as a clerk. In 1879, Egan became the licensee of the Lamp on Froysell Street, Willenhall, Walsall [5]. Egan gave up his license to operate a public house in 1883, to resume employment in the quieter role of a clerk again, and he moved with his wife to a new home with their lodger, a Mrs. Treherne [6]. The house on Kyotts Lake Road in Sparkbrook, Birmingham, was soon also home to his childhood friend Daly, who used the alias Denman, suspecting that he was under surveillance by the authorities, and not wishing to drag his mostly apolitical childhood friend into the fray. As the events that were to transpire began to unfold, Daly was right to be wary.

Daly was under tight surveillance before he even got off the boat. The Royal Irish Constabulary and Major Nicholas Gosselin of the newly minted Special Irish Branch, who was responsible for an intelligence network that stretched across Northern England, contacted Birmingham Chief Constable Joseph Farndale to inform him of the arrival of Daly. Although Farndale was aware that he presided over a detective branch that was “the most corrupt and unreliable force in the country” [7]  he had some experience with the dynamite threat thanks to events earlier in April that occurred in Ladywood where police found a dynamite factory in the house next to the unused shop inhabited by Alfred George Whitehead (although the case of Daly and Egan is often conflated with this discovery, they were separate events and probably not indicative of a wider plot). Gosselin was one of the proponents of secret surveillance of Irish Republicans and also frequently employed a network of informants and agent provocateurs. One such was a Liverpudlian publican by the name of Daniel O’Neill. O’Neill was a long standing contact of Daly and a known Fenian who had been recruited by Gosselin. He was also in receipt of correspondence to and from Daly acting as an intermediary between him and contacts in the United States, in case of his arrest. For the nascent Special Irish Branch he was to prove an excellently placed mole. It was at the request by telegram from O’Neill that Daly travelled from Birmingham to Liverpool.

After traveling from Snow Hill station to Birkenhead via Wolverhampton on 9 April 1883, Daly met the known Irish nationalist, Patrick Fitzgerald [8] and then moved on to spend a few days with his long standing acquaintance, O’Neill. Daly was still under active police surveillance, by the RIC and the Special Irish Branch on his arrival in Liverpool. On the morning of his departure back to Birmingham, O’Neill asked Daly to carry four small parcels back with him. They were to be collected later, and Daly did not enquire as to their contents. Unfortunately for Daly, they were collected far earlier than he could have anticipated, by members of the RIC that affected his arrest and to the surprise possibly only of Daly found to contain explosives. One the same day as the arrest of Daly, a telegram was issued to Chief Constable Farndale to commence a raid against the house in Sparkbrook occupied by Egan. Farndale jumped at the chance, chafing perhaps that an arrest of an Irish radical had been affected in Wolverhampton by the RIC and not by the legal authorities he commanded, and accompanied by a number of detectives and inspectors under his command and members of the RIC swooped on the property in Sparkbrook.

The search of the house in Sparkbrook resulted in a find of a bundle of letters and catalogues and communications to and from a Birmingham publican, William McDonnell which dated back to 1875 and was a one-time IRB member.  As police moved to arrest McDonnell at the Royal Oak pub in Wednesbury [9], and after finding nothing more in Egans’ rooms they turned their attentions to the rear garden of the property. That first day of the search, the police recovered another stash of letters buried in a small metal box, and decided to bring in a gardener to help with their unusual excavations. As the police now aided by a local gardener continued to dig through Egans’ back yard, they discovered a small glass bottle filled with a mysterious liquid. This was quickly sent to Colonel Sir Vivian Dering Majendie who was the Chief Inspector of Explosives to Queen Victoria and one of the first British bomb disposal experts who soon confirmed that the liquid in the bottle was highly concentrated nitroglycerin, an active ingredient in the manufacture of dynamite. The discovery was made the day after the police and the local gardener had already cleared that patch of the garden, which it was decided for seemingly arbitrary reasons to double check. MacDonnell, Egan and Daly were soon languishing in Winson Green prison awaiting their day in court.

The Trials of Justice

Figure 3: The Dynamite Plot: Examination of John F. Egan at the Birmingham Police Court (The Graphic, 3 May 1884 © Alamy)

Initially the plan for the trial of the three prisoners was to conduct it in Birmingham however this was soon discounted as an option. The Victorian legal authorities lived in dread of an attack by Irish nationalist ‘dynamitards’ in an effort to spring their associates, and Birmingham posed too many risks. The venue was moved to the Warwick assizes, and had armed police at every entrance and exit, as well as barricades on the surrounding streets. As it was, the trial commenced on the morning on 30 July 1884 with no incident or much feared attack being enacted. To prevent such, the prisoners were transported under heavy guard, and several decoy vans were used to frustrate any potential rescue. Following the successful transportation of the prisoners, and a brief prosecution and a defence that had to be led by the defendants themselves being as they were unrepresented, the jury retired to chambers for all of fifteen minutes [10]. All three defendants were found guilty following this brief consideration of their fates. John Daly was sentenced to penal servitude for life, and James Egan (who Daly vocally and vigorously denied was involved in any capacity during the trial) for twenty years. McDonnell faired best of all the defendants and was bound over on past charges for the sum of £50. When it transpired that he could not pay he was quietly released on the recommendation of the court. Somewhat unusually the defendants were not tried with possession of explosive materials which would have been a Treason Felony, but rather with their involvement in the IRB. And here the story of the would-be bombers would have ended, were it not for revelations that were to follow.

On Wednesday, 24 September 1890 [11], The Times published an article that was to prove just as explosive as any of the materials that were found in the rear garden of Egans’ property in Sparkbrook. This article referenced a swirl of controversy that had blighted the prosecution since 1886. Daly had always claimed that he did not know what was in the parcels that the RIC informer O’Neill asked him to transport, and that the explosive materials recovered from the garden in Sparkbrook had been placed there by over eager members of the police. This appears as if it may have held a kernel of truth. Following the conviction of Daly and Egan, Chief Constable Farndale gave a statement to the Birmingham Watch Committee in which he implied that a man employed by the RIC had given Daly the bombs in Birkenhead. As was to be proved subsequently, O’Neill was indeed an RIC agent. The Birmingham Lord Mayor, Alderman Manton although not present when Farndale gave his statement, was so troubled by it that he took the opportunity to write to the Home Secretary, Henry Matthews, raising his concerns that the prosecutions may have been based around tainted evidence, and even going so far as to state that Daly and Egan had suffered “wrongs inflicted as a result of a vile conspiracy” [12].

The letter from the Chief Constable became the basis for a strong amnesty campaign for the two prisoners, and was further supported by press reports such as that in The Times which reported that Egan was beginning to lose not only his health but his sight [13].  The Irish Parliamentary Party also began to call for an inquiry into the circumstances of the arrest of Egan and Daly. This wave of public sympathy however may have been misplaced. Farndales’ statement arguably concerned not the justice of the conviction against Daly, but rather the methods of his arrest and the fact it was enacted by the RIC. For the government of the day the case was an embarrassment, and many suspected that extra-legal measures had been implemented against the prisoners, and evidence planted. Daly was finally released from prison on 16 August 1896, with Egan preceding his childhood friend to freedom on 21 January 1893. In 1901 Daly was to become the Mayor of Limerick City, and both he and his onetime co-accused remained active in Irish Republican politics until their deaths.

Whether Daly was guilt of any other charge rather than being in favour of Irish nationalism will perhaps never be known. Birmingham during the period, like much of the rest of the United Kingdom was cowed by fear of the Irish dynamiters, and indeed had been the subject of a largely concurrent dynamite plot in Ladywood and indeed elsewhere through the UK. Legal authorities were overstretched, and there was a reliance on secret policing which often had recourse to extra-legal measures such as the use of paid informants, and agent provocateurs. Record keeping was scant, and transparency was at best an afterthought. In such an environment it is perhaps not an overstatement to consider that the RIC and their local counterparts may have resorted to whatever mechanisms they could to reduce the threat posed by Republicans. The truth of the Sparkbrook dynamite plot and the involvement of Daly and Egan will perhaps never be known in full, much of it being lost to history. It remains however, a “sensational story” [14] from Victorian Birmingham that illustrates that the challenges of combatting terrorism are however, not unique to our own fractured and fraught age. One thing that is known is that the incident in Sparkbrook was part of a much larger campaign by the IRB within the UK which involved another plot in Birmingham which will be discussed in an additional article later.

Notes

[1] Anonymous, England Beware, Dynamite Monthly, May 1884

[2] Helen Litton, Edward Daly: 16 Lives, The O’Brien Press, 2013, Pg. 6

[3] The events of the Young Ireland rebellion of 1848, are discussed in detail in Laurence Fenton, Young Ireland Rebellion and Limerick, Mercier Press, 2006 and Robert Sloan, William Smith O’Brien and the Young Irelander Rebellion of 1848: The Road to Ballingarry, Four Courts Press Ltd, 2000

[4] Joseph McKenna, The Irish-American Dynamite Campaign: A History, 1881–1896, McFarland, 2012, Pg. 72

[5] Tony Hitchmough, Hitchmough’s Black Country Pubs: Willenhall, Longpull, 2016, Pg. 281

[6] The Dynamite Plots, The Investigation in Birmingham, Birmingham Daily Post, April 21 1884, Pg. 5

[7] Bernard Potter, The Origins of the Vigilant State: The London Metropolitan Police Special Branch Before the First World War, The Boydell Press, 1987, Pg. 73

[8] The Nation, Volume 38, J.H. Richards New York, The Nation Company, 1884, Pg. 332

[9] McKenna, Pg. 76

[10] Sean Mcconville, Irish Political Prisoners 1848-1922: Theatres of War, Routledge, 2002, Pg. 352

[11] The Conviction of Daly, The Times, 24 September 1890, Pg. 4; Issue 33125

[12] Hansard, HC Deb 03 August 1891 vol 356 cc1141-93, https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1891/aug/03/second-reading

[13] The Birmingham Dynamite Case, The Times, 15 November 1884, Pg. 10; Issue 31292

[14] Shane Kenna, War in the Shadows: The Irish-American Fenians Who Bombed Victorian Britain, Merrion, 2013