Thousands of entertainers toured Britain a century ago, working in urban theatres. Among them were African Americans. Harry Gross came to London in 1908 and was joined the following year by his wife Annie Poke Gross. Their relationship soured: she was twice beaten with a poker and had facial scars, and forced into prostitution. In February 1912 they separated and she obtained a separation order but he did not pay her anything.
In early October 1912 Harry Gross rented a room at 2 Coram Street, Russell Square in London’s Bloomsbury and lived there with fellow entertainer Jessie Mackintosh (also known as Jessie Tricks). The landlady had met Annie Gross in the winter of 1911-12, and was aware that Gross was not married to Mackintosh. Tenants of the house held a party in the kitchen on the night of 30 November 1912, spilling over into the small hours of 1 December. There were ‘about seven black men’ there, with one black woman and two white women.
Shots were fired and Jessie Mackintosh died. Initial newspaper reports indicated that Annie Gross had entered the house by a trick. She declared that she had shot at her husband after he assaulted her, and hit his paramour by mistake. Annie Gross went on trial charged with wilful murder, at the Old Bailey on 7 January 1913. If the jury believed that she had hidden and deliberately killed Miss Mackintosh, the verdict would have been guilty of murder.
Two of the black witnesses were boxers – one was ‘Eugene Bullar [sic]’ surely Bullard (later an American fighter pilot in the French air force), the other Frank ‘Coffee Cooler’ Craig. Craig had purchased a gun, having first obtained a licence for her, on 3 November, and testified ‘she wanted it for protection’.
The landlady said she had heard three shots; a male witness said he had heard four; the Webley pistol had all five cartridges spent. She told a police officer ‘they are all ponces. It was my husband I meant to do’. In court she stated ‘I did not intend to shoot this woman’.
The Times (19 December 1912) said Annie Gross was ‘a married woman of colour’ and a British subject, a matter that was not repeated. The official transcript of the Old Bailey trial (oldbaileyonline.org ref t19130107-50 7 January 1913) shows that the lawyers agreed that had she been provoked by her husband and then killed him, the verdict should be manslaughter and that if, while shooting at him, she shot someone else, that too would be manslaughter. It is silent on what seems to have been an outburst by the judge, reported in the Daily Mail on 11 January 1913: ‘Judge and Negress. Strong Comments at Murder Trial’. He had disagreed with the jury’s decision to bring in a verdict of manslaughter, saying they should have said ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty’ – and he seems to have believed Annie Gross had schemed to kill Jessie Mackintosh. The sentence was five years – Annie Gross is reported to have smiled at the jury as she left the dock.
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