One can imagine that with tension riding high in September 1888 violence was on everyone’s mind, even violence that might have seemed ‘commonplace’ previously. Assault was one of the most frequently prosecuted crimes at the police courts but penalties were usually small – fines or short period of summary imprisonment – it wants normal to send cases up into the trial court system unless they were serious.
However, in times of ‘moral panics’ the authorities tend to react by clamping down on even small acts of anti-social behavour and petty theft, using the courts as a blunt instrument to reassure the public that they are ‘doing something’. In 1888, with a serial killer on the loose and the police unable to catch him pressure was building on the forces of law and order to do something about it.
So perhaps that’s how we should read the fact that the Morning Post chose two assault cases to feature as its daily look into the work of the Thames Police court on 14 September that year.
The first was the case of Suze Waxim, a Japanese sailor who was charged with stabbing a local woman, Ellen Norton. Ellen was drinking in a Limehouse beerhouse when she heard screams from across the street. She ran out towards the noise and found Waxim standing over her friend Emily Shepherd about to thrust a knife into her.
Ellen tried to intervene and was stabbed in the head. The sailor ran off but was captured nearby, in the backyard of the Stranger’s Home, by PC 448K. The man was washing his hands when the officer found him and arrested him. Ellen had only suffered a superficial flesh wound and wasn’t in danger but a knife wielding foreigner on the streets was not what society needed. Waxim spoke no English and while they had translators for languages such as Italian and Yiddish, I doubt the police would have found anyone able to speak Japanese.
Waxim was committed for trial.
Next up was a local man, Frank Kersey, who was also accused of assaulting a woman, Frances Cocklin. She testified that on the 3 September he had stabbed her and beaten her while they were at Canning Town. She’d suffered bruising and cuts but was not seriously injured. He had multiple previous convictions for assault and wounding and it seemed he had also tried to rob her. Mr Lushington also committed him for trial.
Both cases were serious but I have seen cases like this dealt with summarily before, with the defendants being fined or sent to gaol for a few weeks or months. That Lushington decided to send them to the Old Bailey is indicative, I believe, of a wider concern about violence, especially violence involving knives. It may also reflect police practice – were they particularly targeting assaults where a knife was used in the hope of finding the ‘Ripper’? It is possible, if not provable.
[from The Morning Post, Friday, September 14, 1888]