‘Another Whitechapel outrage’ in Berner Street

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The panic over the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders were really beginning to set in by the second week of September 1888. Martha Tabram, Polly Nicholls and Annie Chapman had all been murdered in the past few weeks. Annie was found in the back yard of 29 Hanbury Street in the early hours of Saturday 8 September, and crowds soon gathered to watch the police investigation unfold.

On the 10th William Seaman, a local builder, was accused of attempted murder at the Thames Police court.  Charles McCarthy testified that he had been walking along Ellen Street at about midnight on Saturday when he’d heard a scream. It seemed to be coming from Berner Street and he hurried off in that direction.

There was a chemist’s shop at number 82 and McCarthy found the chemist, John Simkin, his beard covered in blood, slumped over his counter. A hammer was on the counter and Seaman was standing nearby. The elderly chemist was hurt but still alive and conscious. He told McCarthy ‘here is the hammer he hit me with’ and handed it to him.

Seaman made no attempt to run away and when the police arrived he was taken quietly into custody. Constable 85H deposed that when he arrested Seaman his prisoner declared: ‘I shan’t tell you what I did it for, but I will tell the magistrate’. The man had been drinking he added. Since John Simkin was bedridden and recovering from his injuries the justice, Mr Saunders, remanded Seaman in custody while enquiries continued.

The chemist didn’t recover sufficiently until early October and so Seaman remained in custody till then. On Sunday 7 October Reynold’s carried areport of his committal for trial. The senior investigating officer was Inspector Thresher of H Division (who presumably wasn’t otherwise busy with the ‘Ripper’ case). Simkin testified that Seaman had entered his shop and asked to purchase some alum and zinc. While the chemist sorted the order hit him twice with the hammer, for no obvious reason. Having promised to explain his actions the accused chose now to keep silence and was fully committed for trial at the Old Bailey.

He appeared there on the 26 October 1888 and all he would say in his defense was that he’d been drinking. The jury convicted him of grievous bodily harm (rather than the more serious offence of attempted murder). The court was told he had a previous conviction for burglary – a sentence of 14 years  – and so the judge now sent him away for a further seven years of penal servitude.

By then Whitechapel was in full ‘Ripper panic’ mode. On the 30 September, a few weeks after the incident Liz Stride had been found dead in Berner Street, just yards away from Mr Simkin’s chemist’s shop. An hour later Catherrine Eddowes was brutally murdered in Mitre Square. The pair of murders have been dubbed the ‘double event’ after the Central News agency received a handwritten letter and then a follow up postcard from someone purporting to be the killer. The postcard read:

I was not codding dear old Boss when I gave you the tip, you’ll hear about Saucy Jacky’s work tomorrow double event this time number one squealed a bit couldn’t finish straight off. had not the time to get ears for police. thanks for keeping last letter back till I got to work again.

It was signed ‘Jack the Ripper’.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, September 11, 1888; Reynolds’s Newspaper , Sunday, October 7, 1888; The Morning Post, Saturday, October 27, 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 and other bookshops 

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