A ‘she cannibal’ in court for biting off her victim’s nose

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I have spent the last two weeks following the metropolitan police courts in one year, 1888, the year of the Whitechapel murders. I’ll return to 1888 in a couple of weeks to pick up the unfolding case at the point of the ‘double event’ – the murders of Liz Stride and Kate Eddowes on the night of the 30 September. But today it is worth reminding ourselves that the area of Whitechapel and Spitalfields was synonymous with violence  throughout the second half of the nineteenth century.

Catherine Simpson was well known to the police, and to her neighbours, as a violent woman. Anne Atkins was no angel but on this occasion she was the victim of a brutal assault which arose out of jealousy and, possibly, a misplaced attempt at defending some sense of ‘respectability’ in a part of London where poverty and degradation was ubiquitous.

The attack in question had happened in late August 1860 but as a result of Anne’s injuries it didn’t come before the magistrate at Worship Street until 15 September. Even then Anne was barely able to stand to give her evidence, and trembled at the very sight of her abuser.  Nor did the court do that much to protect her at first, allowing Simpson to cross-examine her directly for several minutes, something that clearly traumatized her victim.

The court was told that on 21 August Simpson had confronted Anne at her front door in Dorchester Street, Hoxton, demanding to know: ‘what business had you with my husband last night?’

Anne explained that she had seen Simpson’s husband that night but he’d not been with her, he’d been with another, much younger, woman. This didn’t satisfy Catherine who called Anne a prostitute and ‘other bad names’. Clearly Simpson either believed Anne was having an affair with her spouse or was tempting him away from her. She may even have genuinely believed that Anne was a prostitute, although it is more likely that this was simply a convenient and oft used term of abuse in working class communities like this.

Anne’s reacted to being called a ‘whore’ by slapping the other woman around the face and turning to shut the door. Catherine wasn’t easily deterred however, and followed her inside. There she grabbed Anne’s shoulders, pulled her towards her, and bit her nose. She bit down hard and left her victim with a bloody mess where her nose once was. Spitting the end of her nose on to the ground, she left.

Anne was quickly taken to hospital where the house surgeon, George Payne, did his best for her. She had lost a lot of blood he later testified, and it was almost three weeks before she was fit to be discharged. After her initial recovery she developed erysipelas, now described as a rash that can be treated with antibiotics. In 1860 however antibiotics were not available and the doctor feared that Anne might die. Fortunately she didn’t.

Catherine was forthright that the attack she’d made was provoked, not only by Anne’s alleged dalliance with her husband but because not only had she slapped her, she’d also spat in her face. As she defended herself and cross-examined Anne the other woman struggled and trembled in the witness stand. Even when the clerk acted as an intermediary, asking the questions on Catherine behalf,  Anne was so distraught that the prisoner had to be removed from the court for a while.

Various witnesses testified to the assault, including Louisa Cox who had screamed and ran for a policeman when she saw Simpson’s mouth covered in blood as she spat out Anne’s broken nose. Simpson was remanded for further enquiries, the evidence against her being considerable and the court being told that she had ‘a propensity for [this] class of offence’. She’d once served a week in gaol for biting sergeant Copping of K Division and was clearly a violent individual.

Reynolds’s Newspaper described Simpson as a ‘she cannibal’ and the whole sorry incident would have done nothing to dispel the view that the East End of London was a den of iniquity where violence, vice and crime  were rife.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, September 16, 1860]

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