A very ordinary homicide in the extraordinary ‘autumn of terror’

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We have spent the past few days in Whitechapel, looking at the cases selected for reporting at Worship Street Police court before Mr Montagu Williams. On Tuesday there was an illegal boxing match, yesterday an example of an over officious vestryman being brought to book. Today’s case received far fewer column inches but was much more serious than either, because it involved a homicide.

In the autumn of 1888 murder was on everybody’s mind; an unknown assassin had already struck several times in the district and the police were no nearer to catching him. ‘Jack the Ripper’ would kill again that year but for the time being the streets of Whitechapel were relatively quiet.

Serial and stranger murder – the sort the ‘Ripper’ indulged in was (and is) relatively rare. It was (and is) much more common for homicide victims to know their killer. This was the case with Mrs Roberts (we don’t know her first name) who died on the 18 October 1888.

She lived were her husband Joseph, a boot fitter, at Essex Place on the Hackney Road and the pair had a tempestuous relationship. On the 8 October she was drunk and so was Joe and the couple had a furious row in front of one of their children. The little girl told Mr Williams that she’d seen her mother aim a blow at her father as they quarreled in the street. Joe had fallen backwards but regained his feet and retaliated.

The boot fitter, much stronger and heavier than his wife, struck her hard on the head. She fell down senseless and never made a full recovery, dying ten days later. Other witnesses testified that there ‘was an utter absence of intentional violence’. Moreover, the medical evidence suggested that she had died from peritonitis, so not something directly related to the fight that the victim had started herself.

Joseph Roberts was discharged but told he would have to face trial on the coroner’s warrant. On 22 October Joe stood trial at the Old Bailey but since the prosecution offered no evidence against him he walked away a free man. He’d not meant to kill his wife and quite probably he regretted it but his actions would now mean his daughter and her siblings would be without a mother. Sadly, this was an all too familiar story in the Victorian capital.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, October 24, 1888]

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