John Wicks and his wife had both been drinking on the 14 April. John was well known in the community as a drinker and for being violent when he was under the influence. His wife, Elizabeth, could also resort to violence when her temper flared. The couple lived in Kensal New Town in northwest London and Wicks earned his money as a chimney sweep.
When John came home on the 14than argument flared about money. He was drunk and Elizabeth had shared two or three pints with a friend, so she wasn’t sober either. Wicks complained that he had nothing and demanded she hand over the money she’d sewed into the pocket of her skirt. She refused and they came to blows.
Reports are mixed with conflicting evidence from Wicks, his mother-in-law, and other witnesses (domestic fights like this were quite often public affairs, given the crowded accommodation of late Victorian London). It is possible that in order to defend herself Elizabeth picked up the fender from the fire and threatened her husband with it. He pulled a knife and she threw the fender at him as he retreated out of the room. His wife then seized the next available weapon she could find, a large spoon, and came after him.
The pair ended up in the garden which was where George Abbott, a van boy who lived opposite, saw them. He’d been drawn to the quarrel by the noise, as had Henry Stacey (another neighbour) and both saw Elizabeth strike John with the spoon. Stacey later testified that Elizabeth was in a rage and was shouting: “stab me you b——if you are a man, stab me, stab me” at John. Soon afterwards the sweep aimed a blow at her neck and when his hand came away blood spurted from the wound.
John Wicks had stabbed his wife in the neck.
He was arrested and she was taken to hospital where despite the best efforts of the surgeons at St Mary’s, Paddington, she died 10 days later. ‘Inflammation of the throat’ had ‘set in the same night as she was stabbed, and she was unable to swallow anything except iced water’. She died as a result of ‘exhaustion caused through not taking food and inflammation of the lungs’. It must have been a terrible and extremely distressing way to die.
On 23 May after a number of appearances before him Mr D’Eyncourt formally committed John Wicks to take his trial for murder at the Central Criminal Court. He had pleaded not guilty and claimed that she must ‘have fallen against the knife’. He admitted he’d been drunk, and offered that in mitigation.
The police detective that interviewed Elizabeth in hospital confirmed the pattern of events as she described them but added that she had, at the last, described her husband as a gentle man when he was sober. ‘There is not a kinder man or a better husband’ she had insisted.
It is a familiar story for anyone who has looked at domestic violence in the past or worked with abuse survivors in the present. Women only went to the law when they had tried all other means to curb their partner’s violence. The courts fined or locked men up but little else was done to support the victims and in a society where women so often depended on men to survive there were few alternatives open to a wife than to take her man back again and hope for the best.
In court after the evidence of witnesses had been heard the house surgeon at St Mary’s testified. He described the wound and speculated on it cause. The court wanted to know if it could have caused by accident, as John had suggested. He doubted it was likely but admitted that it was possible: ‘it is unusual to get such a wound in that way, but it might be’ he observed.
That was enough for the all male jury. Despite the glaring evidence that John Wicks had killed his wife in a drunken rage while he was holding a sharpened knife in his hands, the jury acquitted him of all charges, manslaughter included. He walked free from the Old Bailey exonerated by men who clearly believed that he was provoked and that his incapacitation due to alcohol absolved him of the responsibility for his wife’s death.
Wicks died a few years later in 1884 at the relatively young age of 54. I like to think that the guilt he felt played a role in his death but it is more likely that he succumbed early to the ravages of alcoholism which had already consumed him in 1877 and must have got worse following this tragic sets of events.
[from The Morning Post, Thursday, May 24, 1877]
This case is not untypical of many cases of domestic violence in the nineteenth century, not all of course ended in tragedy. For me though it is indicative of the prevailing attitudes towards women, attitudes which I believe directly fuelled the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders. My co-authored study of those murders is published by Amberley Books on 15 June this year. You can find details here: