An attack in Berner Street in 1888, but not the one you’ve all heard about

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On Saturday 29 September 1888 a man appeared at Thames Police Court on a charge of attempted murder. It wasn’t William Seaman’s first appearance, he had previously been remanded in custody because his victim was too weak to attend court.

Seaman was a builder who gave his address as 11 Princess Street, St George-In-theEast. He was accused of attacking Thomas Simpkin, a chemist, by  ‘striking him on the head with a hammer’. In court Inspector Thresher of H Division, Metropolitan Police informed the magistrate that the chemist was still unable to come to court and requested a further period of remand. The justice agreed to the request and the builder was taken back to police custody.

On the following Tuesday the case resumed, as Simpkin had recovered sufficiently to give evidence. He explained that at about 10 minutes to midnight on Saturday 8 September (some three weeks earlier) the builder had entered his shop and asked to buy some zinc ointment and then some alum powder. Then suddenly, and seemingly without provocation, Seaman leaned across the shop counter and struck the chemist violently with a hammer.

A warehouseman,  Henry John Smith (who lived at 6 Chamber Street) said he was across the road from the chemist’s shop at the time and heard a scream. The chemist’s daughter then came running out into the street shouting:

‘They are murdering my father!’

When Smith ran over and entered the shop he found Seaman covered in blood with one hand around Simpkin’s throat, while he punched him in the chest. The man was clearly drunk he said, and extremely violent. Despite this he managed (with the help of another passer-by, Charles McCarthy) to get him off the chemist and hold him until a police constable (PC 85H) arrived.

Dr Francis Allen (1 Dock Street) told the court that the injuries were serious and consistent with being caused by a hammer. He added that at one point the chemist’s life had been in danger.

The dispute seems to have been over the price of alum powder, or presumably the amount you got for  penny (as that is what Seaman asked for). It was a pretty poor excuse for such a brutal onslaught but Seaman was drunk and perhaps agitated by something else that night. As we will see, however, Seaman was a violent man and perhaps had some underlying psychological condition.

The justice, Mr Saunders, committed him for jury trial.

That trial took place at the Old Bailey on 22 October 1888 and Seaman was duly convicted and sentenced to 7 years penal servitude. The long sentence was probably because he had previously been convicted before at the Bailey, something he admitted in court. Seaman was 38 at the time but the experience of imprisonment didn’t have the deterrent effect society might have hoped for. In 1896 he was back at the Central Criminal Court, and this time he had taken his violence a step further.

On Good Friday (April 3, 1896) he broke into the home of John Goodman Levy, in Turner Street (Whitechapel) presumably with the intention of burgling it. In the early hours of Saturday morning the dead body of Mr Levy was found with his throat cut. When the police arrived they soon discovered that the burglar was still on the premises and a chase began. Eventually Seaman fell through a ceiling, was badly injured and apprehended. The police reportedly found the following on his person:

‘a lady’s gold watch, a gold diamond and turquoise pin, a watch-chain, a gilt half-crown brooch, a pair of gilt threepenny piece earrings, another imitation gold ring set with rubies and pearls, two cigars, a plated caddy spoon, a wedding ring, a single-stone diamond ring, a piece of wash-leather thereon, 10s. 6d. in silver and a penny, the works of a watch, an old purse, a pocket knife, an old comb, and a brass stud ‘.

Quite a haul.

This time penal servitude wasn’t an option and William Seaman was sentenced to death.  Before the judge passed sentenced however, Seaman was asked if he had anything he wanted to say.

[He] stated that he had nothing to say about the case, but that he desired to complain about a statement in a newspaper to the effect that he had previously been charged with an attempt to murder, and assault and theft, and that that statement was false.

William Seaman was hanged at Newgate prison on the 9 June 1896, he was 48.

There is a footnote to this story. The chemist’s shop was at 82 Berner Street, off the Commercial Road, Whitechapel. That little detail may seem insignificant for the case but for the fact that on the 30 September 1888 (the day I took this story from the newspapers)  another violent act took place in Berner Street. Between houses at 42 and 44 Berner Street (now renamed Henriques Street) was what was ‘colloquially known as Dutfield’s  Yard’* and home to the International Working Man’s Educational Club.

At just after 1 am Louis Diemshitz (club steward and ‘jewellery hawker’) turn this horse and cart into the yard when the animal shied at something lying beyond the gates. When Diemshitz investigated he found the body of a woman. She had been attacked and her throat had been cut.

Her name was Elizabeth Stride (or ‘Long Liz”) and she was to be the first of two women murdered that night by a killer whose identify remains a mystery. He will forever be known to history however, as ‘Jack the Ripper’.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, September 30, 1888; Birmingham Daily Post, Wednesday, October 3, 1888]

*Neil R.A. Bell, Capturing Jack the Ripper, (Amberley, Stroud, 2016), p.158

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