A fraudster is exposed at a West London court as a possible copycat killer strikes in the East End

death_of_frances_coles

At 2.15 in the morning on 13 February 1891 the last of the Whitechapel murder victims was discovered, by a raw police constable on his first unsupervised beat patrol. PC Thompson of H Division heard retreating footsteps in front of him as Chamber Street curved away in the near distance and stumbled over the dying body of a woman whose throat had been slashed three times.

The woman was Frances Coles and experts continue to argue as to whether she was killed by ‘Jack the Ripper’ or a copycat killer. In the wake of her murder one man, James Sadler, was arrested and questioned, but cleared of all involvement in her mystery. Coles’ is the last name in the police file at the National Archives, one of nine associated with the as yet unknown serial killer that terrorised East London between 1888-91.

Coles’ murder didn’t trouble the Police Courts on Valentine’s Day 1891, Sadler would appear but later in the week. Over at the quieter West London Police court business went ahead as normal. We should remember that most of the work that the Police Courts did was routine; they dealt with day-to-day petty crime: assaults, thefts, frauds, domestic violence, street disputes, trading violations, drunks and paupers. Murder was unusual, serial murder (outside of 1888) almost unheard of.

John Roberts, a jeweller who lived and worked on Westmorland Road, appeared to answer a charge of obtaining money under false pretences. The prosecutor was a coffee house keeper named John Sparks who explained that he’d answered an advertisement in the newspapers.

The advert offered an incentive for investing in a business via a loan. For anyone putting up £15 a ‘bonus of £7’ was offered and this was unwritten by a security of £160 in jewellery and watches. Thinking that he had nothing to lose Sparks wrote the address given in the advert in early September 1890 and arranged to meet with Roberts. Roberts came to his house and assured him that he had plenty of backers and had ‘a large contract for a city firm’. His business was growing, he employed seven men and he gave him ’19 [pawnbrokers’] duplicates relating to watches and jewellery’. Confident that the offer was genuine the coffee man handed over £18 and was given a promissory note for £25, to be cashed in 14 days later.

Six days later Roberts came to see Sparks requesting a further loan, this time of just £10. Again he offered a premium (£3 on this occasion) and handed him 21 duplicates as security. Sparks gave him the money but, not surprisingly (yo us at least) the jeweller was back again on the 16 September to borrow a further £2. All he got this time was an IOU.

Time passed and there was no sign of Roberts so Sparks, understandably anxious about his investment, went to the address he’d written to expecting to find a jeweller’s shop with Roberts in place but he was disappointed. Instead of a jeweller’s he found a tobacconist, and there was no sign of Roberts at all.

Eventually Roberts was traced and arrested and (five months after the affair began) he was presented at West London in front of Mr Curtis Bennett the sitting magistrate. Was this his first foray into money lending the justice asked? It was, Sparks replied, and ‘likely to be the last’ Mr Bennett quipped. The pawnbroker duplicates were produced and seemed to be genuine, but were all in different handwriting and signatures. Mr Bennet wanted this investigated and granted a remand so that Roberts could be held while further police investigations were made.

Sparks was out of pocket and, unless it could be proven that Roberts had scammed him and, more to the point, the value of the duplicates that covered the loan could be realised, he was at least £30 out of pocket. £30 in 1891 is about £1,800 in today’s money so a not inconsiderable sum to lose. Mr Bennett looked over to the coffee house keeper and advised that in future:

‘to place his money in the Post Office Savings Bank, and not try to make himself rich by lending money to sharks’.

ouch.

[from The Standard, Saturday, February 14, 1891]

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