September 1888: A killer in the East overshadows the everyday reality of domestic abuse in Victorian London    

Catching Jack

I have just completed the final draft of my ‘Ripper’ solution book and its now off with my co-author for his last amendments. We have to do a little work on the images and maps but it looks like we will comfortably meet our end of September deadline. Having put down my pen (so to speak) on the project I thought I’d return to Whitechapel in 1888 to see what was going on in the Police Courts of the capital in the midst of the most infamous murders London has ever known.

For context, by Wednesday September 18 1888 the murders of four women were being investigated by the police: Emma Smith (4/4/88), Martha Tabram (7/8/88), Mary Ann Nichols (31/8/88), and Annie Chapman (8/9/88). Within  less than two weeks both Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes would be added to that list, their murders occurring within an hour of each other.

Very few people (including me) believe Smith to have been a ‘Ripper’ victim and some dispute whether Tabram was. Either way, by this time 130 years ago the police were desperate to catch a murderer who was mutilating defenseless women in the heart of the East End.

Meanwhile over the river at Lambeth Henry Baker (alias Williams) was being charged with the attempted murder of Mary Cowen. The attack had taken place in mid July but Mary was dangerously ill in St Thomas’ Hospital, and was too weak to attend court until early September. However, on the day of the first committal hearing she failed to appear in court to prosecute the case against Henry.

The policeman in charge of the case, Chief Inspector Chisholm, had then told the magistrate at Lambeth Police court that he was convinced that friends of the prisoner had conspired to prevent Mary giving evidence that day. Mr Biron had granted the police a warrant to force her to attend at a subsequent date, and therefore she was in court on the 18 September to start the case against her attacker.

Mary Cowen was still suffering the effects of the assault: ‘she appeared very ill, and evidently was most reluctant to give evidence against the prisoner’, the paper reported. The case was opened by the Treasury solicitor Mr Pollard. He ascertain (‘with some difficulty’) that Mary had lived with Henry in Birmingham but they had been separated ‘for some time’. As was the case much more frequently than we might imagine today, many working class couples lived as man and wife without ever formally marrying.

In July the couple had met in London and had a violent argument. She admitted striking her ex-partner in the face with her bag and calling him ‘foul names’. That was the 10 July 1888 and on the following Monday, the 16th, he found her again and this time he attacked her, stabbing her two or three times with a knife. Mary collapsed and lost consciousness. Someone must have helped her because she woke up in hospital.

Henry Baker denied the attack and objected when the solicitor played his trump card and produced a written statement, from Baker, admitting his guilt. Baker said no one could prove it was his handwriting but Mr Pollard begged to differ. The crucial witness was Mary however, and having finally persuaded (or forced) her to testify against her former lover the police must have ben relatively confident of securing a conviction. Mr Biron now fully committed the man to trial at Old Bailey for the attempted murder of his common-law wife.

The trial did take place, on 22 October 1888 and ‘Harry’ Baker was convicted, not of attempted murder but of the lesser offence of wounding. The court report stated at the end that:

the prisoner, ‘in his defence stated that he had been subjected to great annoyance by the prosecutrix, whose habits were very intemperate, and that he pleaded guilty to assaulting her after great provocation’.

An all male jury clearly agreed with him and even when he’d admitted having a previous conviction (from 1887 in Chester) the judge merely sent him away for a year’s imprisonment.

This is the surgeon’s report of the injuries Mary had sustained (and that Baker admitted inflicting):

The prosecutrix was brought there [St Thomas’ Hospital] with a deep incised wound on the right side of the chest, penetrating into the cavity of the chest, between 3 and 4 inches long and 1 inch deep or more, and another wound in her back behind the right shoulder blade an inch and a half long and half or three-quarters of an inch deep; there was considerable bleeding from the wound in front, a large artery was divided—she was in very great danger for some time—she remained in the hospital till September 3rd and after having recovered to some extent was allowed to go—her life was in danger till July 22nd

When juries were prepared to accept as mitigation the accusation that a ‘wife’ was ‘intemperate’ and that being called ‘foul names’ and slapped in the face with a bag counted as ‘provocation’ it is quiet easy to understand why women were so reluctant to prosecute their husbands and partners in the late Victorian period.

We should also see the actions of a misogynistic serial killer in the context of the way women were treated everyday in the 1880s, and not view him as an aberration (a ‘monster’) or some sort of criminal mastermind. Women were beaten up, stabbed, abused, raped and murdered on a very regular basis in the nineteenth century and ‘Jack’ wasn’t the only one to get away with it.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, September 19, 1888]

The old ‘money changing’ scam on the Docks

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For many people arriving in London in the 1880s the capital was a stopover en route to somewhere else; for many European Jews that ‘somewhere else’ was the golden medina, the United States of America. This had been the case for thousands of Irish migrants in the 1840s, fleeing famine and poverty after potato blight devastated their lives. Very many settled in London, Liverpool and Birmingham but plenty had the ambition to make a fresh start outside of the British Empire, an empire that had palpably failed to support them when they needed it.

London’s docks must have heaved with people looking for a passage across the Atlantic in the 1800s and a similar scene would have played out at Liverpool. Men like Messers, Koosch and Schack, two German travellers, asked around to find a berth on a steamer bound for Ellis Island. These two had struck lucky and secured a place on the Etna which had been built and launched in Greenock in August 1854.

However their luck was soon to run out when they were taken in by a fairly straightforward conman. John Louis befriend the pair and explained that he was a provisons dealer and was also travelling on the Etna. They had plenty of English money but no American dollars. That was no problem, Louis assured them, he was in an ideal position to change the money for them so they’d welcomed on to US soil with open arms.

Delighted, the two friends handed over all their money (about £10)  and arranged to meet Louis the following day. Of course he never showed up and they soon realised they’d been scammed and  robbed.

With the help of the local police Koosch and Schack traced Louis and he was arrested and brought before the Lord Mayor at Mansion House Police court. He was represented by a solicitor and he promised to return every penny that his client had taken. This must have been a relief for the two Germans whose chances of making a new life in America would have been devastated before they’d even arrived had they been force to travel with nothing.

But for the Lord Mayor this wasn’t enough; he needed to demonstrate to the public that anyone behaving in such a ‘villainous and disgraceful way’ could expect no mercy in his court. He sent Louis to prison for four months with hard labour.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, September 18, 1883]

‘I believe this to be an act of extortion’: a cab driver and his passenger clash at the Guildhall.

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So, Cabbies, how long would you wait for a fare to come back and pay you?

John White drove a hansom cab in 1856 (cab no. 3,264) and he had a fairly regular customer in Mr Kelly, a Holborn surgeon. It was often the case that the medical man asked White to wait for him, usually for a few minutes but on one occasion for up to an hour.

So when he’d ferried the doctor to his destination from his Fetter Lane residence and been left waiting again, White did so. He’d dropped his passenger off at 2.45 in Blackfriars but after the man had ran off he saw nothing of him. The cabbie waited; an hour passed, then another and it was only when the clock sounded nine in the evening that White gave up and moved off.

He’d waited over six hours to get his payment and decided to summon the surgeon to court to extract the fare plus the waiting time, which he put at 12and sixpence.

The case came up before Alderman Carter at the Guildhall Police court in the City. White made his case and the magistrate questioned him. Why had he waited so long, he wanted to know, did he know the gentleman well?

Yes, I know him well. I have taken him twenty times before. I waited, thinking he would come back, but, finding he did not come, I sent  a man to his house to see if it were right to wait any longer’.

Next he turned to Kelly to see whether he could offer any explanation for the accusation that he’d run off without paying what he owed. He could:

I certainly did run away when I got out of the cab’, he admitted, presumably because he was racing to a medical emergency. ‘but before doing so, I put my hand through the door at the top of the cab, and placed a shilling on the roof for the complainant’s fare’.

So he had paid, he insisted, but had White seen him do so, or collected the money? Seemingly not. The alderman wondered if the coin had rolled off. The doctor was adamant that the cab driver would have noticed however: ‘he could see my hand’, he declared and suggested White was try to get more money out of him than was reasonable.

I believe this to be an act of extortion’, he said, ‘and therefore it is I defend it at great inconvenience to myself’.

However, he admitted that he’d not seen the cabbie take the shilling so could not be sure that he had, in reality, paid him.

Alderman Carter decided on a compromise. He told White that while waiting for so long was ‘ridiculous’, he might have been justified in waiting two hours and so he was entitled to claim the fare for that, which was 4s. In addition he could have his fare (sixpence) and costs of 2for the summons.

The surgeon seemed satisfied with this and paid immediately, donating a further 10sto the Poor Box. What White thought of it is not recorded but I doubt he’d be driving the good doctor around again anytime soon.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, September 17, 1856]

Is there ‘anything more shocking than a woman teaching a child to rob its parents’?

Worship Street from Builder

When Mr and Mrs Thomas French began to notice money was missing from the till they scratched their heads for an explanation. The couple ran the Chequers pub in Worship Street, Finsbury and the only other person they thought could be responsible was their young son, a child of just nine years of age.

Ada French decided to collar her boy and make him tell her the truth: had he been stealing, and if so, why? The poor lad confessed but said a woman named Bencker who lived in Fitzrovia had put him up to it. Ada resolved to find out if he was lying so set a trap for him (and his partner in crime).

Acting on the advice of the police she marked a handful of sixpence pieces and put them in the till. Soon afterwards she saw her son take coins from it and leave the pub. She followed afterwards  with a police constable and tracked the lad to Windmill Street, Fitzrovia, where Louise Bencker lived.

Ada found her boy inside the 36 year-old fur sewer’s home and the policeman discovered the two marker coins in Bencker’s possession. She was arrested and brought before Mr Bushby at Worship Street Police court in the morning. The magistrate was horrified:

He told the prisoner

that anything more shocking than a woman teaching a child to rob its parents he could not conceive’,

and he sentenced Louisa to three months at hard labour.

But what exactly did Louise Bencker have on the unnamed nine year-old? What do she say or do to induce him to risk a beating at the very least, and possibly worse, by stealing from his family? And what was he doing all the way over in Fitzrovia? Sadly of course, that bit of the story we will probably never know.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, September 16, 1877]

A suggestion of Police brutality in Limehouse as a porter is attacked.

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Deal porters on the London Docks

There was plenty of violence in nineteenth-century London. Much of it was drunken and most of the perpetrators and women were often the victims. Policemen were also assaulted, not infrequently when they tried to move on drunks in the street or intervened to stop a crime, but it was relatively rare for them to be charged with violence.

So this then is a rare example of a summons being issued against a serving Victorian policeman. In September 1865 Thomas Marshall, a porter, appeared at Thames Police court in the East End of London to complain about being assaulted the previous night.

Marshall looked pale, he’d lost a great deal of blood and the top of his head was covered by a large ‘surgical plaister’. He told Mr Paget  (the presiding magistrate) that he’d been to the Five Bells pub in Three Colt Street, near Limehouse church.

That was at about nine in the evening. Thomas was a deal porter who worked on the docks. This was a physically demanding occupation requiring considerable skills in ferrying and stacking softwood into tall stacks on the quays. It is quite understandable that Thomas quickly fell asleep in a corner of the pub  after a few pints.

However, at midnight the landlord, Mr Wright, woke him gently and said: Now, York [which was his nickname] you must leave’.

For whatever reason Marshall refused and the landlord called in a passing policeman. The copper was heavy handed, dragged him out on the street and then, according to the porter:

struck him on the tip of his nose, hit him on the arm, and nearly broke it, and then struck him on the head with his truncheon. He received a dreadful wound, and the people who looked out of the windows called out “shame”.’

Why did he do this the magistrate wanted to know. Because he was drunk, the porter explained.

He didn’t know his name but he had got his number. Mr Paget turned to the policeman who’d appeared that morning to represent the force, sergeant Manning (15K). Would there be any difficulty in identifying the officer Mr Paget asked him.

None, sir, if he had mentioned the right time and place’, the sergeant replied.

The magistrate agreed to issue a summons and ordered the sergeant to speak to the station inspector to ascertain exactly whom the summons should be issued for. While the magistracy generally backed up the police, cases like this, where an officer appeared to have overstepped his authority and, more importantly even, had allegedly been drunk on duty; they were quite capable of siding with the public.

Whether this policeman was summoned to appear, let alone convicted of assault, remains unknown however, as I can’t easily find any reference to the case in the next couple of weeks at Thames. It doesn’t mean he wasn’t of course, the newspapers rarely followed up all the stories they printed and perhaps they felt they’d said all they needed to here.  Quite possibly however, the police simply closed ranks and protected their own, concluding that it would be quite hard for the porter to prove anything.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, September 15, 1865]

‘She is a most dangerous woman, your Worship, I assure you’. A butcher’s warning at the Guildhall.

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William Brennan made a robust defence of his actions when he appeared before Alderman Lawrence at Guildhall Police court in September 1848. The City of London butcher had been summoned for detaining property belonging to Mrs Low, a ‘tall, good looking, elderly woman’ who had lived at a house in Lamb’s Passage.

Mrs Low stated for the record that eleven weeks previously she had left London to work in the country. Having been living with Brennan she told the court that he had asked her to leave behind several items of her property, including a table and chairs and a number of boxes. The butcher would be able to use them but not lend or rent them to anyone else. When she came back she took away some of her things but he refused to allow her all of them, hence the summons. The relationship between Mrs Low and the butcher was confusing and led to some amusement in the Guildhall.

Brennan denied withholding Mrs Low’s property but said she had come to lodge with him 15 months ago. She was a widow but had been ‘courting a bit’ before she took up her position outside of the capital.  He said she’d left some things in his shed and sold the rest; he denied unlawfully retaining anything.

Alderman Lawrence questioned the butcher:

how did you become acquainted with her, and what sweethearting took place between you?

Brennan was horrified.

Sweethearting with me, your worship! No, no not so bad as that , although I had enough of her [which prompted laughter in court]. I have a delicate little wife of my own, and this ere woman has frightened her out of her wits [more laughter].’

He continued:

Why, this woman lodged with me, and I couldn’t get quit of her; she would stop in my house whether I would go or no, and so to get quit of her I had to leave the house. She stole my saw, my chopper and other things, and fixed herself in my house like a post.

He again denied holding on to her property and said that in all the time she’d stayed with him and his wife she’d ‘never paid a farthing’ in rent. ‘She is a most dangerous woman, I assure your Worship’.

The gathered audience in court was probably in fits by now, delighting in Brennan’s discomfort as he revealed that he – a butcher – had been bested by a supposedly weaker older woman. The alderman couldn’t pick a winner here however and sent one of the court’s officers to investigate who owned what and whether there was any truth in the accusation leveled against the city butcher. One imagines that either way Brennan was not going to live this down anytime soon.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, September 14, 1848]

The histrionic farrier from Luton who drank himself silly at Barnet Fair

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I grew up in Finchley in North London. It was then (and is now) a multi-cultural  suburban centre with a busy high street, a couple of nice parks, and good transport links to central London. However, a quick glance at G. W. Bacon’s atlas of the capital (see below right) shows that in 1888 (when the map was published) there was very little of the modern Finchley in evidence.

finchley

Church End (where I went to school) is just a small village and there are open fields all the way to what is now East Finchley. The railways (The Edgware, Highgate & London line) is there, as is the main southbound road towards Temple Fortune, Golders Green and then the main metropolis. Barnet, in the late nineteenth century then, was a largely rural place with pockets of suburban growth. This is reflected in this case from Highgate Police court in September 1898.

Thomas Hopkins, a 48 year-old farrier was brought up to answer a charge of being disorderly and of damaging a police cell.  The man wasn’t from Highgate or Finchley but had travelled down to the Barnet Fair from Luton in Hertfordshire. He’d been found at Whetstone on a Monday night, drunk as a lord, ‘behaving in a very disorderly manner’. The local police arrested him and locked him in a cell to sober up overnight.

Hopkins was belligerent however and made a great deal of fuss. He demanded water and complained that he was being allowed to die in the cell. When Sergeant Goodship went to see what all the noise was about the farrier threatened him saying:

‘If you don’t let me out, you will be hung in two minutes’.

It was an empty threat but typical of Hopkins’ histrionic manner. Throughout his arrest, incarnation and appearance in court Thomas managed to embroider his tale with exaggeration and melodrama. It amused the court’s audience if not the magistrates sitting in judgement on him.

‘I’m dying’, he told the police who had locked him up.

As he attempted to destroy his cell he promised to pay for all the damage, ‘even if it’s a thousand pounds’.

For context £1,000 in 1898 equates to about £78,000, which would pay a skilled tradesman wages for almost a decade!).

In court he was asked to explain himself and told the bench that on the previous Sunday he’d got two horses ready in Luton. One he intended to ride, the other would led by his assistant. But his wife refused to allow ‘his man’ to travel as well (perhaps thinking she’d need him at the stables).

He rode for 20 miles and called ahead for someone to meet him (who never showed up). He carried on and said he’d now walked for 200 miles, which collapsed the court in laughter. Luton is about 30 miles from Barnet so Hopkins was exaggerating wildly for effect. He wanted to show how far he’d tramped and how thirsty he was.

He was worried about falling victim to robbers as well. ‘There are any number of roughs lying about there’, he explained and revealed that he always carried a knife up his sleeve. When the police arrested him they took his knife away, and he lay still on the floor and pretended to be dead, ‘but I knew I wasn’t’, he added with perfect (if not necessarily deliberate) comic timing.

As the magistrates struggled to contain the laughter in the courtroom Hopkins played his final card. He claimed the police had try to kill him.

‘They gave me enough poison to kill the whole world’ he told his enthralled audience.

Sergeant Goodship gave a more rational explanation:

‘He told me he’d been drinking hard for a fortnight’.

The court was told that a doctor had been supposed to examine him in Luton before he left for the fair but hadn’t managed to before the farrier set off. Perhaps his wife and friends had been worried about the sate of his mental health. The bench could see that all was clearly not quite right with Thomas Hopkins and remanded him to the nearest workhouse infirmary so he could be checked out by a doctor. Ultimately, ‘mad’ or not, he would be sent back to Luton and his wife, though what fate awaited him there was unclear.

Barnet has had a horse fair since the middle ages and it would have drawn men like Thomas Hopkins from all over the south east of England. Horses and cattle were traded there and there was racing as well, at least till 1870. Now it exists as annual local festival, not a horse fair. The name of course is probably better as coated with cockney rhyming slang – Barnet Fair = Hair. So on Friday, after work, I’m off to get my Barnet snipped.

[from The Standard , Tuesday, September 13, 1898]