The Murder Of Celestine Christmas

An extremely common crime in Victorian London was child murder.

The birth of a child could cause no manner of hardships for parents – and especially for single mothers – and so the crime pages of the 19th-century newspapers are full of cases of infanticide.

However, whereas you can feel some sympathy for some of those who saw their only option was to commit an act of murder, for toehrs you can only feel disdain, as the way in which the murder was carried out was absolutely horrific.

The Lancaster Gazette, in its edition of Saturday the 23rd February 1856, reported on one such case:-


Between four and five o’clock on Sunday afternoon, in consequence of private information received by the police authorities, Inspector Hutton and Sergeant Townsend of the N division, proceeded to the house at No. 18, Linton Street, New North Road, Islington, knocked for admission, and asked if Mrs. Sommer resided there, and was at home.

A servant girl, in manifest trepidation, replied in the affirmative; and the officers walked forward to the kitchen stairs, where they were met by a young woman ascending to the passage and a man who came from a back parlour, whence an instant before the tones of a pianoforte were heard to proceed.


The inspector inquired of the woman if her name was Sommer.

She answered, “Yes, what do you want?”

The authority said, “We wish to go into the cellar of this house.”

“For what purpose – who are you and what do you mean?” was the rejoinder by the woman, who evinced a determination to oppose their progress, while the man stood by in apparent surprise without making any remark.


Finally, the inspector and sergeant proceeded in their quest, crossed the kitchen and front area, where the inspector detained the parties while his sergeant opened the door of a cellar, entered, and discovered a young girl about 11 years of age, dressed in a dark frock, old boots, and the head nearly severed from the trunk, which lay in a pool of blood.

The body was cold, and, apparently, death had taken place some hours before.

On the discovery being mentioned to the presumed guilty parties, they both denied all knowledge of it, the woman remarking, “I did not do it, I know nothing of it, but, subsequently, she said, “Oh, yes, I recollect. I heard a noise, but (addressing the man) would not mention it to you lest I should alarm you.”


When told that they were in custody the female prisoner resisted, but, eventually, both were removed in a cab to the Robert Street Poice station-house, where they gave the names of Celestine Sommer, 25, and Carl Sommer, 22.

A valuable gold watch was taken from the male prisoner, but no marks of blood were seen; while on the woman’s petticoat, dress, and stockings, several large stains of blood were discovered.

The prisoner, who is a very pretty woman, has not manifested any feeling.

She asserted herself to be a singer at St. Martin’s Hall, and a card to that effect was found in her pocket.

The man is a German and by trade an engraver.


Up to a late hour on Sunday night, not any weapon had been discovered with which the deed could probably have been committed.

This (Monday) morning Mr. Inspector Hutton and Mr. Coward, surgeon, made a minute search for the instrument with which the wound was inflicted. Nothing was found; but little doubt, however, is entertained that it was a razor.

The murdered child was brought home on Saturday by the female prisoner.

The body will remain at the house until the inquest, which will be held by Mr. Baker, on Wednesday.


The name of the servant girl is Rachel Munt. She appears to have communicated the sad intelligence to her sister.

The two prisoners, upon being placed at the bar, gave the names of Celestine Sommer, aged 26, and Charles Sommer, aged 29, an engraver.

They were charged on the sheet on suspicion of causing the death of a female, name unknown, but apparently about fourteen years of age, at their residence, No. 18 Linton-street, Islington.

The court was crowded to excess.


Inspector Hutton and Sergeant Townsend narrated the circumstances under which the arrest was made.

Rachel Munt, the servant, said that her mistress went out on Saturday night, and told her to go to bed. She, however, sat up making an apron.

Shortly before her mistress came in she said, “Are you a-bed, Rachel?”

She made no answer; her mistress went upstairs and came down with a little girl.


The witness then proceeded as follows:-

“Mistress went into the cellar, and the little girl stopped at the kitchen door. She said, ‘I am not afraid, but it is a strange place to me. I have not been here before.’

When they were in the cellar, the little girl said, ‘Oh, you want to murder me,’ and called out ‘Murder’ several times.

She afterwards said, ‘The devil will take you, the devil will take you – you will kill me, you will kill me – I am dying, I am dying.’

Mistress said, ‘Hush,’ and I then heard a noise as if she was breathing hard.


Mistress then put out the candle, came into the kitchen, walked about and said, ‘I will kill you.’

She came and lit the candle and went into the cellar again, but I never heard the girl speak again.

Master was out at the time, and he did not return until one o’clock.

The little girl I had seen once before, on one Sunday evening, with my mistress.

After my mistress came out of the cellar, on Saturday night, she then came and touched me, and said she had been out to market to get change to pay her the money, but would not give it her then.”


Mr. Corrie said that there was no evidence against the man, and he would be discharged.

The female would be remanded for a week.


By the untiring zeal and intelligent perseverance of Inspector Hutton and Sergeant Townshend, of the N division, circumstances have come to light which seem to establish the fact of the poor child whom they discovered so horribly mutilated in the cellar of the house at No. 18, Linton Street, Hoxton, being either the illegitimate offspring of the murderess, Celestine Sommer, or the illegitimate offspring of her deceased brother.

Immediately after the examination of the prisoner on Monday, the officers mentioned proceeded, in company with Carl Sommer, the husband, to a house, No. 4, Peter-street, Hackney Road, inhabited by an elderly woman, named Harrington, and her two daughters.


Here it was ascertained that a child, aged 10 years, who had been under the protection of Mrs. Harrington nearly from its birth, was taken away by its mother last Thursday week, because she declared her inability to continue longer payment of ten shillings a month for its keep; since which time Mrs. Harrington had not heard nor seen anything of the child.

The officers next went to 18, Murray-street, New North Road, and found it occupied by a sister of the prisoner’s, whose husband is also a German and engraver.

Here they learnt that, on the evening of the day, the girl had been taken from Mrs. Harrington, she was brought by the prisoner, and kept until ten o’clock last Saturday night, when the wretched woman took her child away, without shawl or bonnet, under the pretext that she had obtained a place for her at a greengrocer’s in the neighbourhood.


Finally, Mrs. Harrington, Mr. Sommer, and the authorities, went to the scene of the murder; and the former there identified the victim, who was lying on the servant’s bed in the kitchen, as the child she had raised from infancy.

She said that the child went by the name of “Celestine Christmas,” and subsequent enquiries elicited the fact of that having been the maiden name of Mrs. Sommer, whose parents are most respectable silversmiths, residing in King Square, Goswell Road.


A direct confession of the murder has been since made by the miserable parent, she alleging that the act was committed with a knife and that she was impelled to the commission of it by frequent quarrels with her husband, who was obliged to pay five shillings a week for upkeep, but at the same time she asserts it to be her brother s offspring.

Mr. Sommer distinctly denies this and states that 2s. 6d. a week only was paid by him by agreement before his marriage with the prisoner – and that such a sum was always paid willingly by him.

The prisoner has not made any remark relative to how she has deposed of the knife, nor can any clue be found to the place of its deposit.

She had been married two years, and Mr. Sommer’s circumstances were very respectable.

The house, No. 18, is elaborately furnished.


At her Old Bailey trial, on Thursday the 10th of April 1856, Celestine Sommer was found guilty of the murder, and was sentenced to death.

She was taken from the dock to Newgate Prison where she was placed in a cell to await her fate.

A photograph showing the exterior of Newgate Prison.
The Exterior of Newgate Prison


However, on the afternoon of Tuesday the 22nd of April, the Governor of Newgate Prison, where she was awaiting the carrying out of her sentence, received word that an official respite had been issued and that the sentence had been commuted to one of transportation for life.

He duly went to her cell to inform her of this.

According to Bell’s News, she, “received the welcome tidings with earnest thankfulness.”