Vitriol to Corrosive Fluid: ‘Acid’ Assault in the Twentieth Century

By Cassie Watson; posted 26 September 2021.

With recent posts having examined the eighteenth-century origins of acid throwing and some of its main nineteenth-century characteristics, this one considers the use of corrosive substances in twentieth-century assaults to ask what, if anything, changed. It remained a relatively rare crime, numbering in the dozens rather than hundreds of incidents reported to the police each decade, but front page newspaper headlines attest to its continuing power to shock. Perpetrators’ motives, jealousy and revenge chief among them, were little different to those of their Victorian counterparts. Both men and women opted for this form of assault, occasionally injuring themselves as well as their victims. And the casualties continued to be romantic partners, love rivals, co-workers, neighbours and other acquaintances of the offenders; robbery was as infrequent a motive as it had always been.

Judges and juries continued to respond with a sometimes surprising degree of sympathy, albeit framed more overtly in terms of mental health. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose? Not quite. One thing changed significantly around the 1940s: it became inaccurate to refer to vitriol throwing, and even to acid assault. Instead, the more precise term was “throwing a corrosive fluid.” After the war, ‘vitriol’ throwers rarely threw vitriol, or any strong acid, reaching instead for convenient household or workplace products. This in turn affected the likelihood that serious damage would be inflicted; those who used the most dangerous substances inevitably received the longest sentences.

Twentieth-Century Figures

There are no official statistics recording the number of incidents of what the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act defined as casting or throwing “any corrosive fluid or any destructive or explosive substance” with intent “to burn, maim, disfigure or disable”,[1] because these crimes cannot be easily disaggregated from the totals for malicious injury and wounding.

24 & 25 Vict c.100, An Act to consolidate and amend the Statute Law of England and Ireland relating to Offences against the Person (6 August 1861).

Cases compiled from archives and newspaper reports – 207 out of a total of 488 (1766–1978) show that the crime was nearly as common as it had been in the Victorian era, but declined substantially after the outbreak of war in 1939. While the table below does not record all cases, it does present an accurate overview of the relative frequency with which cases were notified to the authorities; not all of these resulted in a criminal trial.   

Reported Cases of Throwing a Corrosive Fluid in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, 1900-1978. Compiled by the Author from The Times, The Scotsman, National Records of Scotland, The National Archives and The British Newspaper Archive. All rights reserved. ©Katherine D. Watson, 2021.

Prior to 1900, most attacks were committed with vitriol, concentrated sulphuric acid, though nitric acid was used occasionally too. After 1900, however, a much wider range of substances was employed. While vitriol remained the most typical choice until the war, it is clear that perpetrators were already using a number of different acids: most often hydrochloric, but also nitric, carbolic and oxalic acid. Sometimes the reports do not specify the exact substance, referring only to a “corrosive fluid”. This was evidently because the fluid had not been analysed but was believed to come under the terms of the statute. Defence lawyers could of course challenge indictments of this kind if the actual substance was not a corrosive, or if it had not been thrown (one could argue for accidental spillage, for instance).

It seems likely that the increasingly frequent use of hydrochloric acid was related to the fact that it was a key component in some cleaning products, especially ‘spirits of salt’, which is still in use as a drain cleaner. In a case that occurred in April 1913, Eddie Guerin, Devil’s Island escapee and career criminal, was alleged to have thrown a corrosive disinfectant into the face of a prostitute with whom he got into an argument. The exact nature of the substance was not identified, the woman suffered no permanent damage, the Director of Public Prosecutions declined to take action, and the charge of causing bodily harm was dismissed. In the end, Guerin was fined 10s. for being drunk and disorderly.[2]

Reynolds’s Newspaper, 21 January 1912, 11. Newspaper image ©The British Library Board. All rights reserved. With thanks to The British Newspaper Archive (www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk).

Post-War Assaults

Of the total of 44 cases that occurred between 1945 and 1978, only ten were committed with vitriol. In part this may relate to the terms that legal officials chose to employ, as sulphuric acid also made an appearance. In these cases, however, it seems likely that the acid was in a significantly weaker solution than vitriol, which was about 98% acid. Perpetrators could get sulphuric acid from car batteries (29-32% concentration) and manufacturing premises, but it is unsurprising that the really strong vitriol that the Victorians had such easy access to was no longer the first choice. Legislation of the 1930s had finally made it more difficult to buy, and although perpetrators certainly did still plan to attack a specific victim, the substance used was generally something easily to hand, such as ammonia, caustic soda, paint stripper, and hydrochloric acid.

The relative ease of access to corrosives suggests that a more gendered pattern might emerge, as women typically did not work in the sorts of professions where strong corrosives were used. While the number of Victorian perpetrators was fairly evenly divided between males and females, after World War Two the overwhelming majority were male. Of 44 cases, 37 were committed by a man, six by a woman; one case involved a couple who used caustic soda. Of the female perpetrators, half used ammonia, with the other crimes involving caustic soda, hydrochloric acid and “disinfectant” – all undoubtedly cleaning products.

In a highly unusual case that occurred in February 1948, the assistant matron of the Royal Earlswood Institution, Miss Kathlyn Seaby (aged 47), was accused of throwing ammonia at a teacher, Margaret Walker, following a campaign of harassment alleged to have begun soon after Walker joined the hospital staff in January. Seaby had already been there for five years without any problems, no one saw the alleged incident, and she categorially denied wrongdoing of any kind. Despite a spirited defence by her barrister, experiments made by a retired police officer that showed Seaby could not have thrown any liquid as the victim had described, and a titled character witness, she was convicted. The judge was most definitely not convinced by her denials:

“Addressing Seaby, Mr. Justice Oliver said ‘You have been convicted of a dreadful offence; I know you say you are innocent, but I don’t think anyone who heard the evidence could doubt that is wrong, or that you are guilty. That means that you have done this desperate thing—put some sort of fluid into this unfortunate woman’s eye. I am quite sure there is something wrong with you. You are willing, I understand, to go to a mental institution where you will be taken care of as a voluntary patient. If not, I shall have to send you to prison.’”[3]

Seaby proved to be a remarkable character. She spent a year in a mental hospital, emerged feeling emotionally strong, and got a new job. And then she was vindicated. In 1950, “new evidence” that showed she was completely innocent emerged. The nature of this evidence was not revealed, but it can only be that Walker — the main witness against her — had told a tissue of lies. The Home Office granted a pardon and paid Seaby £400, but would not admit liability.[4] Sadly, I can find no evidence that Walker was prosecuted for perjury.

Daily Herald, 8 March 1950, 5. Newspaper image ©The British Library Board. All rights reserved. With thanks to The British Newspaper Archive (www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk).

Most perpetrators were guilty as charged. Five other offenders were detained under mental health legislation, two were unfit to plead, two were placed on probation, and the rest served prison terms ranging from 6 months to 10 years. The longest sentences, of 8 and 10 years, were given in 1967 to men who had both used nitric acid to attack an ex-girlfriend. Winston Keith Black got 10 years for blinding his victim in one eye with acid bought from a chemist,[5] while Reginald Kenneth Everest already had a conviction for assaulting his former partner and was sentenced to 8 years; she had to have skin grafts.[6] Both men were immigrants — Black from Jamaica, Everest from Malta, but their longer sentences were clearly related to the serious injuries they inflicted on their victims. Two other men who attacked women in 1967 did not cause such severe damage and were both sentenced to 5 years: Alan Yeoman stole strong sulphuric acid from his place of employment, Imperial Chemical Industries Ltd, to attack his estranged wife;[7] John Joseph Oates flung an unspecified fluid into the face of the wife of a bookie he robbed in a home invasion and was sentenced to 10 years for the robbery, the two terms to be served concurrently.[8]  

Conclusion

There seems to have been a spike in cases in the late 1960s, but the pattern established in the nineteenth century was clearly at an end. With fewer cases occurring, and fewer making headline news, the incidence of this unique offence continued to fall until its reappearance in a different guise in the twenty-first century.[9] However, the ongoing digitization of late twentieth-century newspapers may yet reveal further cases.


References:

Main image: Vitriol Outrage by Jealous Woman, The Illustrated Police News, 27 April 1922, 6. Newspaper image ©The British Library Board. All rights reserved. With thanks to The British Newspaper Archive (www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk).

[1] The Act was unchanged until 1991, since when eight clusters of amendments have been made. Section 29, which covers throwing any corrosive fluid, remains as it was first enacted in 1861. For a timeline of changes made to the Act, see https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/Vict/24-25/100.

[2] Sheffield Evening Telegraph, 9 May 1913, 7.

[3] Surrey Mirror and County Post, 26 March 1948, 5.

[4] The pardon was widely reported. See for example Yorkshire Observer [Bradford], 8 March 1950, 1; The Scotsman, 8 March 1950, 8.

[5] Daily Mirror, 4 April 1967, 2; The National Archives, Kew, ASSI 36/583, Winston Keith Black, 1967.

[6] The National Archives, Kew, ASSI 45/898, Reginald Kenneth Everest, 1968; The Times, 9 February 1968, 2; Birmingham Daily Post, 9 February 1968, 1. The judge roundly criticized the magistrates who dealt with the first assault with a summary fine rather than an indictment.

[7] The National Archives, Kew, ASSI 52/1785, Alan Yeoman, 1967.

[8] Liverpool Echo, 5 July 1967, 20.

[9] Matt Hopkins, Lucy Neville and Teela Sanders, Acid Crime: Context, Motivation and Prevention (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2021), 13: the book is based on data relating to over 600 corrosive substance attacks recorded by the police in England and Wales between 2015 and 2017.

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