Conrad Berndt: Bakehouse murder victim

by Bob Davenport

berndtportraitellipse

Conrad Berndt (1879–1898), from the Illustrated Police News, 19 November 1898

 

At about 7 o’clock on the evening of Thursday 10 November 1898, 19-year-old Conrad Berndt began his night’s duties in the bakehouse of the baker’s shop kept for the past four and a half years by William Ross at 82 William Street (later renamed William Road), on the corner of Osnaburgh Street, off Hampstead Road in London. Born Johann Konrad Berndt on 9 June 1879 in Wolfhagen in the Hesse region of Germany, Conrad was the son of Heinrich Brandt, a wagon inspector (Wagenmeister), and his wife, Katharine, née Wilke, and had two younger sisters.

Conrad had been in England for about two and a half years and had been working for Ross – who had himself been born in Germany – for about seven months; he lived above the bakehouse and shop, where he occupied the second-floor back bedroom. At work he wore a soft cap, a shirt, and a pair of trousers held up by a blue-striped canvas belt with two buckles. He was dark-complexioned with almost black hair, and Ross regarded him as a very good worker. He was also courting Ross’s niece, 18-year-old Eva Ross. William Wieffenbach, a Paddington master baker married to Conrad’s aunt Elizabeth, described him as ‘one of the quietest of men’, who ‘would not pick a quarrel with anybody’.

Conrad’s first job each evening was to prepare the dough for the next day’s bread, which would take about 45 minutes, after which he would make himself a meal in the bakehouse and go to bed until at about 11.30 Ross – who slept on the first floor – would call him to cut back the same dough, which would take about half an hour. Conrad would then remain in the bakehouse and at about 1 o’clock would prepare a second batch of dough and then light the oven.

On that November night, Ross had not yet called Conrad when at about 11 o’clock a man in his mid-thirties whom he knew as Richard Montague arrived at the shop door. (Montague was also known as Richard Mandelkow and Johann Schneider. The latter is the name used in later reports and official records, and will generally be used here.) Montague/Schneider had worked for Ross for about six months a couple of years earlier, and on the previous Friday he had made contact again to ask about work, having been unemployed for some time; Ross had told him that he did not need anyone else, but gave him two loaves for his children. Now Schneider was asking if Ross would allow him to stay overnight in the bakehouse so that he could get to a baker’s near Oxford Street early the next morning to see the foreman about a job. ‘All right, Richard; I know you, you can come in,’ Ross said. He then went to raise Conrad and give him some instructions, before going down to his own room. About five minutes later he heard Conrad going down into the bakehouse, and he then went to bed to sleep.

At about 3.15 Ross was awoken by someone – who did not speak – knocking at his bedroom door and then going down into the bakehouse. At around this time he would usually be called by Conrad to help him get the dough ready for the oven, which would have been heating up for about an hour and a half; so he got dressed and went downstairs. The bakehouse was in the basement and could be accessed from indoors either via stairs from the parlour behind the shop or via a ladder below a trap door through which bread was passed to the area behind the shop counter. Ross started down the ladder and called out ‘Conrad’. He received no reply, but heard someone on the staircase on the other side of the bakehouse.

Ross then continued into the bakehouse and Schneider came over from the stairs, with his coat on. Ross asked him, ‘Where’s Conrad?’ Schneider quietly replied, ‘He’s gone upstairs to lie down; he has been sick.’ ‘What a funny thing,’ commented Ross: ‘he’s never been sick before, and it’s a good thing that you’re here.’ He then turned towards the oven, which he saw was alight.

oven

A baker’s oven and kneading-trough, from Charles Tomlinson, Illustrations of Useful Arts, Manufactures, and Trades (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, [1858]). The oven door is open at right angles to the picture plane.

 

In turning towards the oven Ross was turning away from Schneider, and he had not taken two steps before he felt a blow on the back of his head. He stood for a moment stunned, then turned round and saw Schneider standing by one of the kneading-troughs with a ‘life-preserver’ or cosh in his hand.

Ross dashed past him and up the back staircase, shouting ‘Police!’ when he was halfway up. But Schneider came after him and grabbed him, and Ross felt the point of a knife against his chest. As Ross seized the knife with his right hand and tried to push Schneider away with his left, he heard his wife and servant calling out upstairs. Schneider then pulled the knife away, badly cutting Ross’s hand, and ran back into the bakehouse.

Ross continued into the shop and opened the street door, calling out ‘Police!’ and ‘Murder!’ As he was doing this, the grating in the pavement through which flour was delivered to the bakehouse flew open and Schneider jumped out and ran down William Street towards Hampstead Road.

wmstreetmap

William Street and its surrounding (from Bartholomew’s Handy Reference Atlas of London & Suburbs, 1908)

 

Constable William Grist, based at the nearby police station in Albany Street, was on duty in Robert Street, and hearing Ross’s cries he ran towards him, as also did Inspector John Gough, who was in Stanhope Street. Finding Ross bleeding from a head wound, Grist was sent to fetch the divisional police surgeon, Dr James Maughan, and Gough took Ross back inside the shop and heard his account of what had happened.

When Grist returned, he and Gough searched the house to look for Conrad. On the stairs from the bakehouse to the back parlour they found an axe, which was usually kept under the kneading-trough. It had hair on the head of it, and wet blood where the handle fitted into the head. On the floor of the bakehouse they found a cosh, the weighted end of which was covered by a rag on which was what looked like blood. Then they turned to the oven, which was alight and very hot. With the help of an iron bar, they opened the oven door – and inside they found the remains of a human body, very badly charred and burned. The head was towards the door, and the skull could be seen to be exposed and smashed in on the right side. Maughan was brought down and found traces of blood where the whitewashed bakehouse wall seemed recently to have been wiped with something wet, and small pieces of human brain elsewhere.

The fire was drawn, but it was a couple of hours before the oven was cool enough for the body to be removed and taken to the mortuary. It was burned beyond recognition, but in the ashes in the oven were found two buckles, one of them attached to a scrap of canvas, which were later identified as belonging to the belt that Conrad wore, and also fragments of a shirt and trousers of his.

The following day, a post-mortem concluded that death was due to fracture of the skull and consequent extensive bleeding on the surface of the brain, leading to asphyxia, as a result of a blow by something like the broad end of the axe that had been found. Conrad would have lived for about half an hour after the blow, but probably would not have regained consciousness and would not have been conscious when put in the oven.

Ross’s servant accompanied the police to Conrad’s room, which was in great disorder – it had seemed tidy when Ross spoke to Conrad earlier. Conrad’s best clothes had been taken from the box in which they were kept and were lying across the bed; a purse in the pocket of a pair of trousers was found to contain 5 guineas, and a receipt for a watch was found in a coat pocket. The cupboard in which he kept a second-best suit was open – the servant testified that Conrad kept his silver watch and chain in the waistcoat of that suit.

Meanwhile, at around 3.30 a.m. police constables Albert John Hearn and Jeremiah Westcote were on duty in Hampstead Road when they saw a man evidently much excited hurrying towards them along George Street. ‘Hallo,’ said PC Hearn, ‘what’s your game?’ At this the man turned tail and ran towards the Euston Road, throwing something away as he went. The policemen caught him by Gower Street station and asked what he had been doing. ‘Nothing,’ he said. He was taken back to George Street, and a knife – open, and with what seemed to be blood on it – was found where something had been thrown. He denied that it was his, though later someone was found who testified that he had given it him. There was blood on his hands: he said he must have cut himself when he was drunk ‘last night’. White marks on his clothing he explained as whitewash from leaning against a wall.

With a constable on each side of him, he went quietly to the police station. While he was being questioned, the inspector on duty received a note that a search was on for someone called Montague, and he asked the prisoner if that was his name. He said it was not, and that his name was Schneider and that he was Russian. (He had also told people that he was German, and was sometimes said to be Polish; his real nationality is uncertain.) He was searched, and a watch and chain later identified as Conrad’s was found in one of his coat pockets. Maughan, the police surgeon, examined him too and found recent blood stains on his hand and clothes and recent burns and blisters on his hands, as well as white marks on him, scrapings of which corresponded with flour scraped from sacks in the bakehouse.

At the Old Bailey on 13 and 14 December, Schneider was tried for the wilful murder of Conrad Berndt. He was found guilty and sentenced to death, and was hanged at Newgate Prison on 3 January 1899. His wife went into service, and their three children were placed in a Roman Catholic orphanage. A model of Schneider in the dock of the Old Bailey was soon placed in Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors, where it remained until at least the early 1960s. (Shortly after the murder it was widely reported that Tussaud’s had bought Ross’s oven, but both Tussaud’s and Ross denied this.)

schneider@tussaud

An advertisement for Madame Tussaud’s from the St James’s Gazette of 15 December 1898

 

Before the murder William Ross had been doing very well, and his customers included many of the residents of the up-market terraces facing Regent’s Park. Immediately afterwards he declared that he was having the oven replaced; but he found that no one would buy bread coming from his premises. The Master Bakers’ Protection Society set up a subscription fund which raised £594 (equivalent to about £77,000 today), and after a grave and a memorial for Conrad in St Pancras Cemetery had been bought, and expenses had been deducted, Ross received £563 to help him restart in business in the Holloway neighbourhood. He also received nearly £200 from the National Association of Master Bakers.

Conrad was buried in St Pancras Cemetery on 17 November 1898. Thousands of people gathered along Kentish Town Road to watch the cortège pass by: the coffin was carried in an open hearse drawn by four horses, and several other vehicles followed it. The inscription on his headstone reads as follows:

In Memory
of
Conrad Berndt
Born at Wolfhagen, Germany,
June 9th 1879
Died at Regent’s Park,
Nov. 11th 1898
Fürchtet euch nicht vor denen, die den Leib töten und die Seele nicht mögen töten.
[Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul.]
Matth. 10.28
This memorial is erected by
London Master Bakers

Conrad Berndt’s grave in St Pancras Cemetery

 

SOURCES

• Hesse State Archive birth records accessed via ancestry.com
Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, 13 November 1898 (’Regent’s Park Horror’), 20 November 1898 (‘The Regent’s Park Murder’), 27 November 1898 (’The Oven Tragedy’), 25 December 1898 (‘Madame Tussaud’s Exhibition’)
Morning Post, 23 January 1899 (‘The Bakehouse Murder’ – subscription for Ross)
• Old Bailey Proceedings Online, December 1898, Trial of JOHANN SCHNEIDER (36), alias RICHARD MONTAGUE RICHARD MANDELKOW (t18981212-85)
• David Snell, ‘No Murders Like British Murders’, Life, 2 February 1962, pp. 80–90
The Times, 12 November 1989 (‘Charge of Murder in St Pancras’), 19 November 1898 (‘The Alleged Murder in St. Pancras’), 25 November 1898 (‘The Alleged Murder in St. Pancras’), 14 December 1898 (‘Central Criminal Court, Dec. 13’), 4 January 1899 (‘Execution in Newgate’)
Western Mail, 23 November 1898 (‘The Oven with a Gruesome Record’), 5 December 1898 (‘The Oven Tragedy: A Correction and an Appeal’), 24 January 1899 (‘The Bakehouse Murder: Assisting the Unfortunate Baker’)