September 1888: A killer in the East overshadows the everyday reality of domestic abuse in Victorian London    

Catching Jack

I have just completed the final draft of my ‘Ripper’ solution book and its now off with my co-author for his last amendments. We have to do a little work on the images and maps but it looks like we will comfortably meet our end of September deadline. Having put down my pen (so to speak) on the project I thought I’d return to Whitechapel in 1888 to see what was going on in the Police Courts of the capital in the midst of the most infamous murders London has ever known.

For context, by Wednesday September 18 1888 the murders of four women were being investigated by the police: Emma Smith (4/4/88), Martha Tabram (7/8/88), Mary Ann Nichols (31/8/88), and Annie Chapman (8/9/88). Within  less than two weeks both Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes would be added to that list, their murders occurring within an hour of each other.

Very few people (including me) believe Smith to have been a ‘Ripper’ victim and some dispute whether Tabram was. Either way, by this time 130 years ago the police were desperate to catch a murderer who was mutilating defenseless women in the heart of the East End.

Meanwhile over the river at Lambeth Henry Baker (alias Williams) was being charged with the attempted murder of Mary Cowen. The attack had taken place in mid July but Mary was dangerously ill in St Thomas’ Hospital, and was too weak to attend court until early September. However, on the day of the first committal hearing she failed to appear in court to prosecute the case against Henry.

The policeman in charge of the case, Chief Inspector Chisholm, had then told the magistrate at Lambeth Police court that he was convinced that friends of the prisoner had conspired to prevent Mary giving evidence that day. Mr Biron had granted the police a warrant to force her to attend at a subsequent date, and therefore she was in court on the 18 September to start the case against her attacker.

Mary Cowen was still suffering the effects of the assault: ‘she appeared very ill, and evidently was most reluctant to give evidence against the prisoner’, the paper reported. The case was opened by the Treasury solicitor Mr Pollard. He ascertain (‘with some difficulty’) that Mary had lived with Henry in Birmingham but they had been separated ‘for some time’. As was the case much more frequently than we might imagine today, many working class couples lived as man and wife without ever formally marrying.

In July the couple had met in London and had a violent argument. She admitted striking her ex-partner in the face with her bag and calling him ‘foul names’. That was the 10 July 1888 and on the following Monday, the 16th, he found her again and this time he attacked her, stabbing her two or three times with a knife. Mary collapsed and lost consciousness. Someone must have helped her because she woke up in hospital.

Henry Baker denied the attack and objected when the solicitor played his trump card and produced a written statement, from Baker, admitting his guilt. Baker said no one could prove it was his handwriting but Mr Pollard begged to differ. The crucial witness was Mary however, and having finally persuaded (or forced) her to testify against her former lover the police must have ben relatively confident of securing a conviction. Mr Biron now fully committed the man to trial at Old Bailey for the attempted murder of his common-law wife.

The trial did take place, on 22 October 1888 and ‘Harry’ Baker was convicted, not of attempted murder but of the lesser offence of wounding. The court report stated at the end that:

the prisoner, ‘in his defence stated that he had been subjected to great annoyance by the prosecutrix, whose habits were very intemperate, and that he pleaded guilty to assaulting her after great provocation’.

An all male jury clearly agreed with him and even when he’d admitted having a previous conviction (from 1887 in Chester) the judge merely sent him away for a year’s imprisonment.

This is the surgeon’s report of the injuries Mary had sustained (and that Baker admitted inflicting):

The prosecutrix was brought there [St Thomas’ Hospital] with a deep incised wound on the right side of the chest, penetrating into the cavity of the chest, between 3 and 4 inches long and 1 inch deep or more, and another wound in her back behind the right shoulder blade an inch and a half long and half or three-quarters of an inch deep; there was considerable bleeding from the wound in front, a large artery was divided—she was in very great danger for some time—she remained in the hospital till September 3rd and after having recovered to some extent was allowed to go—her life was in danger till July 22nd

When juries were prepared to accept as mitigation the accusation that a ‘wife’ was ‘intemperate’ and that being called ‘foul names’ and slapped in the face with a bag counted as ‘provocation’ it is quiet easy to understand why women were so reluctant to prosecute their husbands and partners in the late Victorian period.

We should also see the actions of a misogynistic serial killer in the context of the way women were treated everyday in the 1880s, and not view him as an aberration (a ‘monster’) or some sort of criminal mastermind. Women were beaten up, stabbed, abused, raped and murdered on a very regular basis in the nineteenth century and ‘Jack’ wasn’t the only one to get away with it.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, September 19, 1888]

The old ‘money changing’ scam on the Docks

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For many people arriving in London in the 1880s the capital was a stopover en route to somewhere else; for many European Jews that ‘somewhere else’ was the golden medina, the United States of America. This had been the case for thousands of Irish migrants in the 1840s, fleeing famine and poverty after potato blight devastated their lives. Very many settled in London, Liverpool and Birmingham but plenty had the ambition to make a fresh start outside of the British Empire, an empire that had palpably failed to support them when they needed it.

London’s docks must have heaved with people looking for a passage across the Atlantic in the 1800s and a similar scene would have played out at Liverpool. Men like Messers, Koosch and Schack, two German travellers, asked around to find a berth on a steamer bound for Ellis Island. These two had struck lucky and secured a place on the Etna which had been built and launched in Greenock in August 1854.

However their luck was soon to run out when they were taken in by a fairly straightforward conman. John Louis befriend the pair and explained that he was a provisons dealer and was also travelling on the Etna. They had plenty of English money but no American dollars. That was no problem, Louis assured them, he was in an ideal position to change the money for them so they’d welcomed on to US soil with open arms.

Delighted, the two friends handed over all their money (about £10)  and arranged to meet Louis the following day. Of course he never showed up and they soon realised they’d been scammed and  robbed.

With the help of the local police Koosch and Schack traced Louis and he was arrested and brought before the Lord Mayor at Mansion House Police court. He was represented by a solicitor and he promised to return every penny that his client had taken. This must have been a relief for the two Germans whose chances of making a new life in America would have been devastated before they’d even arrived had they been force to travel with nothing.

But for the Lord Mayor this wasn’t enough; he needed to demonstrate to the public that anyone behaving in such a ‘villainous and disgraceful way’ could expect no mercy in his court. He sent Louis to prison for four months with hard labour.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, September 18, 1883]

Unhappy patient bites porter at one of London’s finest hospitals

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On Wednesday the 6 September 1883 the assistant medical officer at the Highgate Infirmary on Dartmouth Park Hill ordered that Eli Sparksman be discharged. The 20 year-old gardener had no home to go to however, and seemed reluctant to leave. The assistant MO ordered one of the porters to find him and escort him off the premises but this seemingly simple instruction resulted in a court case at Highgate Police court.

Highgate Infirmary had opened in 1870 and quickly established itself; none other than Florence Nightingale described it as ‘the finest metropolitan hospital’. Until 1893 it was part of the Central London Sick Asylum district, thereafter reverting to the St Pancras Poor Law Union. It served the poor of north London and in 1930 became the Highgate Hospital. In 1948 it was incorporated into the Whittington (where I was born) as its Highgate wing, close to the cemetery at Highgate.

Sparksman had reacted badly to be told to change his clothes and leave the institution, and refused, demanding instead to be seen by Dr McCann the head of the hospital. Acting on the instructiosn he’d been given Walter Bowen went looking for Eli Sparksman, and the porter eventually found the young patient wandering in the infirmary’s garden.

He tried to lead Sparksman back inside the building but as they were climbing the steps up from the garden Eli became ‘very violent’, and threw himself to the ground. As Bowen tried to drag him to his feet the patient attacked him, biting his hand ‘in a very savage manner’.

Despite his injury the porter got his charge back inside to the ward where Sparksman threatened to ‘knock his head off with a stone’ if he got him outside again. Hospital staff today continue to be attacked and abused by patients, some of them drunk and disorderly others, like Eli I suspect, suffering from a form of mental illness. In this instance the police were called and PC Deeks arrived to take the man into custody. The policeman later testified that Sparksman was both violent and verbally abusive towards him as he took him back to Kentish Town nick.

The case came up before the magistrates at Highgate where no account seems to be taken of Eli’s mental health. The police knew him as ‘a very bad boy’ (which given that he was 20 and not 12 suggests again that this was a person who today would be diagnosed with a learning difficulty or mental illness and not treated as a criminal).  The bench had no truck with violence towards medical or police officials and sent Eli to prison for a month at hard labour.

[from The Morning Post , Tuesday, September 11, 1883]

A mother’s cruelty and a son’s desperate violence as news of the latest Whitechapel ‘horror’ emerges.

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On the 9 September 1888 London was still digesting the news of Annie Chapman’s murder in Hanbury Street, Spitalfields. The full details of this latest ‘horror’ wouldn’t become public knowledge until after the inquest on the 13 September but there was sufficient rumour and speculation to throw the capital into a panic in the meantime.

There was no mention of Chapman’s killing in Lloyd’s Weekly’s daily summary of the police courts of the metropolis but there was plenty of reference to violence. Frederick Percival was charged at Lambeth Police court with shooting at his own father with a revolver. The incident had followed an argument during which Fred, a clerk, had thrown a cup and then ran out of the room, turning once to fire his weapon at the door. It seems that suicide was actually uppermost in the young man’s thoughts and he was remanded so the doctors could examine him.

Also at Lambeth Henry Baker was fully committed to trial for the attempted murder of Mary Cowan whom, it was alleged, he had stabbed in the chest and back in July. The case had taken so long to come before a magistrate because Mary had been dangerously ill in hospital.

At Woolwich PC Williams (127R) reported that he had been called to an incident in the High Street where a woman was mistreating her child. It was late at night and when he arrived he found Mary Sullivan, quite drunk, in the processing of dashing her baby’s head against a wall. He intervened to stop her and told her to go home. She had no home, she replied. A few onlookers had gathered and one offered to pay for bed for the night, something Mary indigently declined.

PC Williams moved her on but when his beat brought him round again he found her ‘sitting on a doorstop with the child exposed’. A crowd had gathered and was berating her for her conduct, and some ‘threatened to lynch her’. As she should probably have done on the first occasion he now took her into custody and escorted her back to the station. After being checked out by the police surgeon her child was taken to the workhouse. Mary was brought before the magistrate in the morning and sent to prison for 14 days.

There were a number of other assaults, acts of cruelty, and an attempted suicide by a woman throwing herself into the Thames. All of this was recorded as part and parcel of everyday life in the city. So we should consider the Whitechapel murders in context; they were exceptionally brutal killings but their victims – poor working-class women – were the usual recipients of casual violence in late Victorian London.

This violence was frequently punished and often condemned but little if anything was done to prevent it, or to prevent the associated causes of violence, or improve the environment in which so many Londoners lived. The ‘Ripper’ shone a spotlight on East London in the autumn of 1888, and so is credited with forcing the ruling class to act to clean up the appalling poverty and housing conditions of the East.

That this ‘improvement’ was both half-hearted and temporary is less often reported. Inequality, unemployment and want continued and within a few years the authorities turned their attention elsewhere; it took two world wars and a socialist government to really tackle the endemic problems of poverty in British society and, some might say, even that progress has largely been lost given the prevalence of food banks and homelessness in modern Britain today.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, September 9, 1888]

A wilful act of youthful vandalism that echoes down the centuries

RAGGED TRUANTS CAPTURED

I used to live opposite a bus stop on a busy route into Northampton. The stop had a glass shelter to protect passengers from the elements, and buses called every 10-15 minutes at peak times. Behind the shelter was one of the town’s larger parks, laid out in the Victorian period for the good people of Northampton to enjoy. However, the park at night (while locked up) also provided a suitable hiding place for a group of small boys who took great pleasure in aiming small stones at the bus shelter whilst remaining hidden from prying eyes.

With depressing regularity the youths smashed the glass in the shelter which was then cleaned up within a few days and the glass replaced. Only, of course, for the cycle of criminal damage to begin again. One of my neighbours decided to watch the shelter from an upstairs window and called the police when the boys started their attack. I’m not sure they were caught but the violence stopped and the bus company’s property has only suffered more mild forms of vandalism since.

I can almost hear the complaints about ‘cereal’ modern youth, with no respect for property, and no curbs on their behaviour. ‘Young people these days…’ and all that.

But the reality is that teenagers behaving badly is not a new phenomena; it has little or nothing to do with the internet, with computer games, with modern divorce rates, or the end of corporal punishment in schools or any of the reasons the Daily Mail and its ilk like to present as symptoms of the decline of a once great Britain.

Take this tale, from 1881, a mere 137 years ago (when we had corporal – and capital – punishment, divorce was all but impossible, and women hadn’t yet got the vote). George Martin, the verger of the presbyterian church in Upper George Street, Marylebone, was fed up with arriving in the morning to find the windows of his church broken during the night.

Martin decided to set a trap for the culprits (whom he suspected to be a group of local lads) and he lay in watch to see what happened. A about six o’clock on the evening of Friday 2 September 1881 he watched as a group of four lads entered the churchyard. They picked up some stones and started to lob them at the church’s windows. As one hit and broke a pane Martin leapt out from behind a tree and chased after the now fleeing boys. Three escaped but he managed to catch one on of them, and hands him over the police.

On the Saturday morning Edgar Ashworth – a 13 year-old milk seller from Paddington appeared in court at Marylebone charged with breaking the church’s windows. George Martin had helpfully produced a drawing of the church windows, indicating where the damage was. He put the cost of the broken window of the previous night at 1s but said that upwards of 70 small panes had been broken in the last fortnight.

The magistrate, Mr De Rutzen was appalled; he ‘said he’d never heard a more miserable case that this’, and was determined that someone should be held responsible. ‘The evidence against the prisoner was as clear as noonday’, he said and he decided to fine him 40s for the criminal damage plus 1costs. His father was in court to hear this and said he had no intention of paying for his son’s actions.

As a result Edgar would be obliged to suffer the alternative: he was sent to prison for seven days.

My modern vandals would have been dealt with quite differently of course, but it is sobering to think that even the prospect of a hefty fine or imprisonment did not deter Edgar and his chums from a similar act.

[from The Standard, Monday, September 05, 1881]

The RSPCA exposes appalling cruelty to a cat

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By 1883 the Society for the Protection of Animals had received royal approval and so carried the name we know it by today – the RSPCA. Britain prides itself on being a nation of animal lovers, and pets are very much a part of family life in this country. I’m on holiday at the moment and our villa is overrun with the local feral cats which we – as cat lovers – dutifully feed morning and night. As a result the pair of cats that turned up on day one has grown to a pride of 5-6 daily.

Not everyone shares our affection for cats however and plenty of people would rather not share the planet (or at least their neighbourhood) with our feline friends. There are still daily instances of animal neglect and animal cruelty which necessitates having an organisation dedicated to protecting them.

The RSPCA was founded in 1824 (more than half a century before the NSPCC, indicating , perhaps, where British priorities lie) and campaigned to protect animals from routine exploitation and cruelty. Officers of the charity investigated and brought prosecutions against abusers, as this example from 1883 shows.

Thomas Scoines, a bookmaker living near Berkeley Square in central London, was summoned before Mr Mansfield at Marlborough Street Police court, accused of maltreating a cat. The summons was taken out by John White, an RSPCA inspector and he produced three witness to testify to Scoines’ cruelty.

Mrs Hannah Beattie said that she’d seen the bootmaker beating a cat to try to get it out of his rooms. She challenged him and said such violence was unnecessary. It was also ineffective, as the cat kept coming back (as the one’s round our holiday home do). Here they try to sneak into the building and we shoo them out (in Greek!) but they still try. She added that Scoines had finally drowned the cat in a copper kettle.

Scoines was much less tolerant than us however, and William Stone declared that he’d seen the defendant knocking a cat out through a window with a broomstick. Another witness said he’d later seen that the poor animal’s back legs had been broken, allegedly as a result of Scoines’ violence.

In court he defended himself, denying cruelty but admitted he’d killed the animal. The cat’s legs had been broken as he shoved it into the kettle, but he clearly didn’t think he’d done anything wrong. The cruelty was appalling and the magistrate saw it for what it was. Mr Mansfield told Scoines that he was guilty of cruelty and declared that the ‘unfortunate cat had been brutally treated’. He fined him 20with 126d costs, so the RSPCA was not out of pocket for bringing the prosecution.

I can understand that stray cats can be a nuisance but I can’t understand why people feel the need to hurt them. Cats can be chased away with a simple spray of water and if you don’t feed them they will quickly realise that there might well be better pickings somewhere else.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, September 2, 1883]

‘The most merciful thing I can do for you is to send you to prison for a month’: a magistrate’s advice to a ‘fallen’ woman

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A year after the Ripper first struck in Whitechapel the problem of vulnerable, often homeless, ‘streetwalkers’ remained. The police had urged all of the East End’s prostitutes to refrain from trading in the aftermath of the ‘double event’ (when both Liz Stride and Kate Eddowes were murdered on the same night in September 1888) but that was hardly likely to be a request that was complied with for very long. The vast majority of London’s sex workers were forced – by their bullies or by circumstances – to prostitute themselves, and very few could afford the luxury of being able to bring a client back to their rooms.

Elizabeth Sinclair may not have been a prostitute but she had certainly fallen on hard times and existed in the liminal space between legitimate and illegitimate work. Once upon a time she had been ‘a successful music-hall artiste’ but in late August 1889 she was mentally and physically unwell.

On Monday, the 26 August, she was found wandering in the streets in the early hours of the morning. She was dressed in just a ‘man’s old flannel shirt, and a ragged black skirt, wrapped tightly around the lower part of her body’. She had no shoes or stockings on. This was not a ‘normal’ or ‘respectable’ look for the late 1800s.

She was picked up by a policeman (PC 37C) who discovered her lying on her back and screaming at no one in particular in Compton Street. Elizabeth was quite drunk and abusive. Seeing she was incapable he decided to take her back to the police station but she wasn’t keen to walk, and told him to ‘fetch his barrow’ (meaning the Bischoffheim handcart the police used to ferry bodies, like that of Polly Nichols the previous year)*. The constable got her back without the ambulance and she was booked into a cell for the night.

In court she was loud and antagonistic, as I imagine she was at the station. The court was told she was regularly up before the magistracy, was suffering from an incurable disease (which may have been syphilis), and was an unrepentant drunk.

The most merciful thing I can do for you is to send you to prison for a month’, Mr Hannay told her.

I do not care whether you give me forty months’ Elizabeth declared from the dock.

Why don’t you send me up for six while you are about it?’

As the duty officer dragged her away to the cells she cried out:

‘Give us a drink, old chap, when I come out, won’t you?’

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper , Sunday, September 1, 1889]

*See Neil Bell’s Capturing Jack the Ripper,p.123-3