I imagine the police in the East End of London were on high alert in the late summer of 1888. Two women had been brutally murdered in the space of a couple of weeks – Martha Tabram and Mary Ann ‘Polly’ Nicholls – and in early September no one had been charged with their deaths.
All sorts of ideas floated around as to the killer’s identity. At first Martha’s killer was believed to be an off duty guardsman but enquiries there had drawn a blank. Perhaps he was a slaughter man, or a foreign sailor, or a deranged member of the local immigrant community, a butcher perhaps? This speculation would continue throughout the autumn as three more women were killed by the serial murderer known to history as ‘Jack the Ripper’.
At 4 in morning on the 4 September 1888 as PC Eugene Murphy (25H) was perambulating his beat on Carr Street in Limehouse a man walked past him ‘in a very excited state’. The officer caught up and stopped him, to ask what he was doing.
He was clutching a hammer and looked quite distracted. He said his master had stolen £133 from him – a huge sum ( about £11,000 today and so hardly likely) – and added that others had borrowed money, leaving him impoverished. He looked threatening and PC Murphy judged he was ‘of unsound mind’ so took him back to the police station.
There he was examined by the divisional surgeon who concurred with the policeman’s judgment of his mental state. As a result Charles John Matthews (aged 41) was charged with being a ‘wandering lunatic, not under proper control’ and appeared before Mr Lushington at Thames Police court. The worthy magistrate sent him to the parish workhouse for a week. Hopefully there he would get some help.
The Ripper’s murders weren’t committed with a hammer of course, but the person that did kill all those women was probably suffering from some form of illness that affected his mind. He was certainly a local man and probably someone the police had in custody at some point.
[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, September 05, 1888]
Drew’s new book (co-authored by Andy Wise) is published by Amberley Books. It is a new study of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 which offers up a new suspect, links the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings to the unsolved ‘Thames Torso’ crimes, and provides the reader with important contextual history of Victorian London.
The book is available on Amazon