‘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 

‘I’m a teetotaller and don’t like to see him drink spirits’ says a thieving 14 year-old poisoner

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In early September 1888, just before real panic set in across London as a result of the Jack the Ripper (or Whitechapel) murders, a 14 year-old lad was brought before the Lambeth police court charged with theft and poisoning.

John Voisey accused the lad, Alfred Ellis, who was employed alongside him at  a cabinet makers in Peckham, of drugging his drink and stealing a sovereign from his pocket. He said that on the 29 August he’d entered the workshop on Victoria Road, and hanged his waistcoat in the ‘back shop’. In the pockets were three sovereigns, worth around £80 each in today’s money.

At half twelve he sent Alfred off to fetch him a quartern of gin (a quarter of a pint), and gave him one of the sovereigns to pay for it with. The boy soon returned with the gin and the change. However, when he checked his money one of the sovereigns in his waistcoat was missing.

Moreover when he tasted the gin it wasn’t right, and he suspected something else had been added to it. That something, he resumed, was ‘spirits of salts’ which were used in the workshop and a bottle of which was kept in the backroom, where he’d stored his waistcoat. Spirits of salts was actually hydrochloric acid, a dangerous poison but one with a quite distinctive smell.

Fortunately Voisey hadn’t imbibed much of it but he clearly thought  Alfred was responsible and collared him. Had the boy stolen his money and tried to distract him by making him ill? This was what Mr Chance at Lambeth had to decide.

The magistrate asked for medical evidence, which was provided by a chemist named Barithwaite. He declared that the gin was indeed adulterated with spirits of slats but not to degree that would kill. It could give the victims severe stomach cramps however. More seriously even for Alfred was the fact that a police search found that he had 17s6on his person that he couldn’t account for.

Alfred denied stealing but confessed to poisoning John Voisey’s drink. He didn’t mean any harm he said, but didn’t approve of him drinking. ‘I am teetotaler’ he declared (mindful perhaps of winning magisterial approval) ‘and don’t like to see him drink spirits’. Mr Chance said he would consider the case for a day or so and wanted a second opinion on the poisoning from the police surgeon. He remanded Alfred in custody in the meantime.

The remand was not good news for little Alf; on the 17 September 1888 he was tried at the Old Bailey and pealed guilty. The jury strongly recommended him to mercy on account of his youth and this probably saved him from further punishment. Judgment was respited by the judge and I can find no record of him ending up in prison.

[from The Standard, Saturday, September 08, 1888]

It was on Saturday 8 September 1888 that Annie Chapman’s mutilated body was discovered in the rear of a property in Hanbury Street, off Brick Lane in Spitalfields. 29 Hanbury Street was home at the time to Harriet (sometimes ‘Annie’) Hardiman, who ran a cat’s meat shop from a room on the ground floor. In my recent study of the Whitechapel murders I suggest that Harriett was even more closely linked to the ‘Ripper’ murders than being living on the premises where one of the victims was found.

The 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

‘I did it!’ A young servant confesses to being the Lavender Hill poisoner

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The watching public at Wandsworth Police court witnessed an unusually dramatic case on 23 August 1886. Emily Parry, an 18 year-old domestic servant, was placed in the dock and charged with attempted murder. The girl was an unlikely murderer and what made the matter all the more sensational was that she confessed in full.

Inspector Lusk explained that on the previous Saturday Miss Parry had walked into Battersea Police Station and told the desk sergeant she wished to make a confession in the ‘poisoning case’.  She was referring to the attempted poisoning of Mrs Rose Darling at Lavender Hill in February that year. At the time another servant – Alice Tharby – had been accused and Emily had even given evidence at the pre-trial hearing. The case was thrown out by the Grand Jury and Alice was released but she had been out of work ever since and was living with her mother.

Now Emily admitted that she had put poison in Mrs Darling’s tea and milk because she had fallen out with Alice and wanted to get her ‘into a row’ (into trouble in other words). She’d used laudanum and chloroform that she’d found in the pantry; fortunately Mrs Darling quickly realized that the tea was ‘bad’ and hadn’t drunk too much. She was ill was several days but no serious damage was done. Alice tasted the milk and was ‘a little sick’ as a result.

At Battersea police station Emily declared: ‘I did it; I put the poison in the teapot’. She then made a full statement that was read out before Mr Bennett at Wandsworth.

I, Emily Parry, formerly Vass, understanding the probable serious consequences of what I am about to do, desire to make the following statement:—

On 26th February last I was in service at Dr. Bayfield’s, Soames Villa, Lavender Hill. My fellow-servant, Alice Tharby, and I quarrelled on that day. The same afternoon Alice made some tea for Mrs. Darling, Mrs. Bayfield’s mother, who was staying in the house, which she placed on the dining-room table. She then went upstairs. I was in the scullery at that time, and wishing to spite Alice I determined to put some poison into the teapot, thinking that blame would fall on her. I did not think of what might happen to other persons. I ran from the scullery and took the teapot off the dining-room table out to the surgery. I poured something from several bottles into it, one of which was labelled ‘laudanum, poison,’ and then put the teapot back on the table in the dining-room. I went to the pantry, took the jug of milk into the surgery and put some chloroform into it, and replaced it in the pantry. It only took me about five minutes to do all this. I had no thought or intention of poisoning any one; my only idea was to get Alice into a row. When Alice was locked up I was afraid to tell the truth. I have often since half made up my mind to make this statement, but could not find courage to do it until to-day. I make this statement to clear all blame from Alice Tharby and to ease my own mind.”

She’d given her statement through floods of tears, mindful of what might happen to her but also probably relieved to finally tell someone the truth. It was a straightforward decision for the magistrate: he committed her to take her trial at the Old Bailey and she appeared there in October. This time a chemist was called to examine two bottles which contained samples of the tea and milk that been given to Mrs Darling. He confirmed that there were traces of laudanum and chloroform present. Rose Darling, Alice Tharby and the surgeon that treated Rose all gave brief evidence in court but Emily said nothing.

The jury found her guilty on her confession and the other evidence and the judge sent her to prison for three months at hard labour.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, August 24, 1886]

‘He would have been alive only for my giving him what I did’: an 11 year-old admits to murder

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In April 1883 a lad of 11 named Arthur Harris Syres was brought before the Lambeth Police court magistrate where he confessed to causing the death of his little brother in early February. Arthur admitted that he had given his infant brother – who was just 12 months old – rat poison and gave the address of the shop that he bought it from. The magistrate decided that the full details of the case needed more careful investigation and remanded Arthur to the care of the local workhouse so they could be carried out.

A week later Arthur was back in court and more details emerged. His home address was given as Park Row, Peckham and his dead brother was named as Alexander Syres. A police sergeant (26P) deposed that Arthur had been brought to the station house by his stepmother. She explained that he child had been taken ill and had been vomiting. The poor thing had died soon afterwards but the doctor she consulted initially thought it might have been a complication of teething. It was only after this that Arthur admitted that he had given Alexander some rat poison that he’d purchased specifically for that purpose.

The magistrate, Mr Ellison, thought it all sounded very strange and once again remanded Arthur in custody. One of the first reforms of juvenile justice in the nineteenth century had been to stop sending children to adult prisons whilst they were on remand, which was why he was secured at a workhouse.

Another week passed before the case returned to Lambeth. More details emerged: the police now believed that it was ‘vermin poison’ that was used and that Arthur had bought ‘a pennyworth’ at a doctor’s shop. The doctor appeared and said the boy’s confession didn’t hold up because he’d said he’d purchased it from another boy working there. He denied that any lad dispensed poisons on his counter but of course he might have been trying to distance himself from the tragedy.

The discussion returned to the initial hypothesis that Alexander had died as a result of complications in teething. Mr Ellison wanted to know if the symptoms of this might be similar to those caused by poison. Dr Hemmings, who treated the child, agreed that they might.  Since little Alex had already been buried the only way to establish the truth for certain was to have his body examined and for that the justice would have to apply to the Home Secretary for a legal exhumation.

On May 4 Arthur learnt that while no decision had yet been made as to digging up his brother’s body it had been decided that he had a case to answer. It was now likely that the 11 year-old would face trial for causing the death of his brother and he was remanded in custody once more. This meant that he had now been in custody and separated from his family for three weeks, not knowing the outcome of the case against him and most likely not having any meaningful legal support. It is hard to imagine the torments he was going through.

On Friday 25 May Arthur was again set in the dock at Lambeth and again asked whether he had given his brother poison.  The lad continued to admit his guilt and so although no independent verification of his story could confirm this to be true the justice, this time Mr Chance, had little choice but to formally commit him to take his trial at the Old Bailey.

The trial took place on the 28 May and was quite short. Sergeant Ledger gave evidence as did Arthur’s stepmother, Margaret Syres. She told the court how while they had all believed that baby Alex had died as a result of his teething Arthur had admitted his role in the baby’s death to his sister Ada.

‘He would have been alive only for my giving him what I did’, he reportedly said and, when questioned by his parents, said he’d taken rat poison himself before.

However, doubts remained as to whether Arthur had administered rat poison or red precipitate poison (mercurite oxide) and Dr Butters (where Arthur claimed to have bought a twist of powder from an errand boy) was adamant that his servant would not have been able to have sold the boy the former.

It then emerged that on New Year’s Eve 1882  Arthur had been charged with attempting to take his own life. Inspector Thomas Worth told the Old Bailey court that on that occasion Arthur had ingested phosphorous paste (which was sometimes used as a rat poison). When asked why he replied that he’d run away from home because his parents ‘ill used him’.

Arthur’s confession was again given in court but when asked the defendant had nothing to say for himself. The jury acquitted him of manslaughter and he was free to go after several weeks of trauma. Whether he was able to return home however, or wanted to, is quite another matter. While the court was unable (and perhaps unwilling) to prove that an 11 year-old boy was a killer it is clear that Arthur Syres was a very troubled youth. His mother had died and his father had remarried and started a new family. It seems as if he was struggling to cope with the adjustment and acted up in the most extreme of ways.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, April 14, 1883; The Hull Packet and East Riding Times, Friday, April 20, 1883; The Standard (London, England), Friday, April 27, 1883;The Standard, Saturday, May 05, 1883; Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, May 27, 1883]

NB: If you enjoy this blog series you might be interested in Drew’s jointly authored study of the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders which is published by Amberley Books on 15 June this year. You can find details here:

‘Distressing accidents and dreadful diseases’: attempts to weed out fake beggars in early Victorian London

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Just recently there was a news items which suggested we need to examine the hands of those asking for money on the streets of London and other British cities. Despite the fact that homelessness as risen by 170 per cent in the last eight years and food bank use has also increased the focus seems to be on weeding out the fake poor from the deserving ones.

I’m comfortable with the idea of prosecuting fraudsters  but I do wonder what sort society we have become when our reaction to someone sitting on a cold wet London street in the middle of winter is to ask ourselves ‘is he trying to con me out of 50p?’

Sadly this is nothing new. The early Victorians were just as concerned with the idea of fake beggars as we seem to be. This was a society which passed the Poor Law Amendment Act in 1834, a piece of legislation that demonized those who asked for help and attempted to discourage benefit dependency but breaking up families and locking up paupers.

It also created the Mendicity Society (or, to give it its proper names: the Society for the Suppression of Mendicity). Formed in 1818 its aim was simple – to prevent people begging in London. It tried to move beggars along and encourage them to leave the capital if possible by giving them small amounts of charity. However, it eschewed the gift of money, preferring instead to give tickets which recipients could exchange for an investigation into their circumstances. This was presumably designed to root out the scammers, who would not want to have their case considered.

Men like William Horsford worked as mendicity officers, looking out for beggars on the streets and hauling them before the magistrates. Begging was an offence under the terms of the 1824 Vagrancy act which allowed the police and others to take people off the streets for having no visible sign of maintaining themselves. This legislation is still in operation today.

In early December 1839 Horsford was on the case of two people who he knew to be incorrigible beggars. Edward Johnson (alias Watson) and Mary Carrol were known to him and the police. Mary dressed in widow’s weeds and made herself look as desperate as possible in order to attract sympathy from passers-by; Johnson was described as a ‘miserable wretch’. Horsford spotted the pair in Pall Mall and decided to tail them, calling on a police constable to help.

He followed them through St James’ Park and then to a pub in Pimlico, called the Compasses (which had existed since the 1640s at least).  They left the pub after an hour and moved on to Sloane Sqaure where they started to knock on door. At one house, where the lady resident had a reputation for charity, Mary Carrol handed over a letter to the servant that opened the door.

The servant declined to accept it, or to give them anything so they headed for Chelsea and tried their luck at a chemist’s shop.  Horsford felt he had enough ammunition now and snuck into the shop behind them. As they tried to beg money using the letter he arrested them and confiscated the letter.

The pair appeared before Mr Burrell at Queen’s Square Police court where the letter was read out. It detailed the ‘facts’ that Mary was a ‘widow afflicted with rheumatism and divers other complaints – that she had a large family, and that her husband had been killed but a few weeks ago by a gentleman’s carriage running over him’.

It was signed by a ‘Mr Churton of Ebury Street’ who recommended the reader to assist Mary ion any way they could.  When searched Johnson was found to have a number of other letters on his person, each addressed to a different but well heeled recipient (the Bishop of London, Marquis of Londonerry, and Countess of Ripon) and each of which carried their own particular ‘sob story’ of ‘distressing accidents and dreadful diseases’.

The pair were clearly poor but Johnson at least was literate. He admitted writing the letters himself but justified by stating that Mary was a deserving case and he was only trying to help. The magistrate had no sympathy (just as the vigilantes who target ‘rogue’ beggars to day have none) and he sent them to prison for three months at hard labour. At least they would be fed and housed over winter, if not very comfortably.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, December 06, 1839]

for more on the work of the Mendicity Society see:

Little help (and no sympathy) for Heroes

A simple case of imposture or a glimpse into the transgender community of Victorian London?

‘She has been very low spirited lately’: The early casebook of the ‘Ripper’ surgeon reveals the extent of mental illness in London

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One of the most recognisable names in the Whitechapel murder case is that of Dr George Bagster Phillips, H Division’s divisional surgeon. Dr Phillips carried out the post mortem examinations of Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Kate Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly. He famously noted of Chapman that:

‘the work was that of an expert- or one, at least, who had such knowledge of anatomical or pathological examinations as to be enabled to secure the pelvic organs with one sweep of the knife’.

This, and other remarks by doctors examining the victims, have led some to suggest that the murderer was a member of the medical profession (a ‘Dr Jack’) and has fuelled the ‘royal conspiracy’ theory that links the killings to Prince Albert Edward, the grandson of Queen Victoria, and Dr William Gull, her majesty’s surgeon.

For all sorts of reasons many (myself included) dismiss the idea that the killings were carried out by a doctor, but it is possible (probable even) that the murderer has some ‘knowledge of anatomical or pathological examinations’.

Dr Phillips started his career with H Division in 1865 and so these cases, in late September, are from the very beginning of his time in the East End. On Thursday 28 September that year there were three charges of attempted suicide heard at Worship Street Police court and Dr Phillips gave evidence in at least two of them.

James Munday (a 42 year-old french polisher) apparently swallowed oxalic acid in an attempt on his own life. He took the poison because his wife had left him but fortunately he had coughed it all up at the police station after his son had called for help. Dr Bagster Phillips (misreported as ‘Baxter’) told the court that Munday was lucky that he’d swallowed the poison on top of a ‘much larger quantity of some more palatable fluid’ (probably alcohol). His son’s quick think also helped. James was sorry for what he’d done and promised not to repeat it but the magistrate remanded him, just to be safe.

Caroline Cleal – in a separate incident – had also tried to kill herself with oxalic acid. Oxalic acid was used in a variety of applications mostly in cleaning products. It wasn’t as lethal as some other potions but in quantity it could cause death from kidney failure. Caroline was also a french polisher. She was also having problems at home and had bought a pennyworth of the acid at chemist in Whitecross Street. Dr Phillips told the court that such a small amount wouldn’t harm her and the magistrate remanded her for a week so that the police could make some enquiries and keep an eye on her.

Finally that day Ellen Read was brought up charged with trying to cut her own throat with a razor. PC Horne (178H) reported that he had been called to Read’s home in Dorset Street where he found her ‘bleeding frightfully from a wound in her throat’. Dorset Street was perhaps ‘the worst street’ in London and was where the body of Mary Kelly was to be found, brutally mutilated, in November 1888.

Ellen had been depressed her husband told the justice, and he’d tried to take her away for a few days to the country (probably hop picking in Kent, as many Eastenders did) but it hadn’t effected a change in her spirits. Ellen said nothing in court and the magistrate had little choice but the remand her as well.

What this shows us I think is that mental illness was endemic in Victorian London. Alcoholism, poverty, domestic violence and a range of other pressures undoubtedly contributed to making poor people’s lives incredibly challenging. Dr Phillips was provably called to more than one suicide or attempted suicide on a weekly basis and that, along with the street attacks, wife beatings, road traffic accidents, and more deliberate murders, must have inured him to violence by the late 1880s. Whether that prepared him for the horrors perpetrated that summer however, is debatable.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, September 29, 1865]

Hard choices for an unmarried mother in Spitalfields

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Spitalfields (in the early 20th century) by the photographer C. A. Mathew 

Sophia Higgins, the wife of a chemist in Spicer Street, Spitalfields was making her way home at 11 at night when something caught her attention.  She was crossing the market when she heard what she thought was a baby crying.

Moving towards the sound she soon discovered an infant ‘lying on the pavement, wrapped in a piece of blanket’. Horrified she stopped it up, went to find a person nearby to care for it, and then rushed off to the nearest police station.

The police arrived and collected the child, taking it to the Whitechapel workhouse to make enquiries there. Having established from the porter who they thought the mother was, another officer was despatched to find her and arrest her.

Eventually Ellen Lehain was identified as the child’s mother and questioned by the police before being summoned before the magistrate at Worship Street Police Court in October 1853. A witness, Ann Buskin (described as an ‘unmarred female’) said she had lodged with Ellen at a property in Holborn and testified that she had recently given birth to an illegitimate child.

Ann explained that her fellow lodger had ‘nursed it for a few weeks, when she left there to go into the union house’ (meaning the local workhouse for the poor).

The child was produced in court and  Ellen admitted it was hers. When the policeman had asked her what she had done with it she had told him she’d left the baby at the door of the workhouse. So how did it come to be in the middle of Spitalfields market the court wanted to know? Ellen’s response to this question is not recorded.

In her defence the girl simply pleaded poverty and distress as the reason for abandoning her new born baby. Mr D’Eyncourt sent her to the house of correction for three months, the fate of her child was not something the newspaper reporters seems to have thought important enough to write down. Perhaps it was obvious: the child would become another mouth for the parish union to feed, until at least he or she could be apprenticed out into service.

No one seemed to be in the least bit interested in the fate of its mother, who must have been in considerable distress to give up a child she had been caring for for several weeks.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, October 14, 1853]

An attack in Berner Street in 1888, but not the one you’ve all heard about

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On Saturday 29 September 1888 a man appeared at Thames Police Court on a charge of attempted murder. It wasn’t William Seaman’s first appearance, he had previously been remanded in custody because his victim was too weak to attend court.

Seaman was a builder who gave his address as 11 Princess Street, St George-In-theEast. He was accused of attacking Thomas Simpkin, a chemist, by  ‘striking him on the head with a hammer’. In court Inspector Thresher of H Division, Metropolitan Police informed the magistrate that the chemist was still unable to come to court and requested a further period of remand. The justice agreed to the request and the builder was taken back to police custody.

On the following Tuesday the case resumed, as Simpkin had recovered sufficiently to give evidence. He explained that at about 10 minutes to midnight on Saturday 8 September (some three weeks earlier) the builder had entered his shop and asked to buy some zinc ointment and then some alum powder. Then suddenly, and seemingly without provocation, Seaman leaned across the shop counter and struck the chemist violently with a hammer.

A warehouseman,  Henry John Smith (who lived at 6 Chamber Street) said he was across the road from the chemist’s shop at the time and heard a scream. The chemist’s daughter then came running out into the street shouting:

‘They are murdering my father!’

When Smith ran over and entered the shop he found Seaman covered in blood with one hand around Simpkin’s throat, while he punched him in the chest. The man was clearly drunk he said, and extremely violent. Despite this he managed (with the help of another passer-by, Charles McCarthy) to get him off the chemist and hold him until a police constable (PC 85H) arrived.

Dr Francis Allen (1 Dock Street) told the court that the injuries were serious and consistent with being caused by a hammer. He added that at one point the chemist’s life had been in danger.

The dispute seems to have been over the price of alum powder, or presumably the amount you got for  penny (as that is what Seaman asked for). It was a pretty poor excuse for such a brutal onslaught but Seaman was drunk and perhaps agitated by something else that night. As we will see, however, Seaman was a violent man and perhaps had some underlying psychological condition.

The justice, Mr Saunders, committed him for jury trial.

That trial took place at the Old Bailey on 22 October 1888 and Seaman was duly convicted and sentenced to 7 years penal servitude. The long sentence was probably because he had previously been convicted before at the Bailey, something he admitted in court. Seaman was 38 at the time but the experience of imprisonment didn’t have the deterrent effect society might have hoped for. In 1896 he was back at the Central Criminal Court, and this time he had taken his violence a step further.

On Good Friday (April 3, 1896) he broke into the home of John Goodman Levy, in Turner Street (Whitechapel) presumably with the intention of burgling it. In the early hours of Saturday morning the dead body of Mr Levy was found with his throat cut. When the police arrived they soon discovered that the burglar was still on the premises and a chase began. Eventually Seaman fell through a ceiling, was badly injured and apprehended. The police reportedly found the following on his person:

‘a lady’s gold watch, a gold diamond and turquoise pin, a watch-chain, a gilt half-crown brooch, a pair of gilt threepenny piece earrings, another imitation gold ring set with rubies and pearls, two cigars, a plated caddy spoon, a wedding ring, a single-stone diamond ring, a piece of wash-leather thereon, 10s. 6d. in silver and a penny, the works of a watch, an old purse, a pocket knife, an old comb, and a brass stud ‘.

Quite a haul.

This time penal servitude wasn’t an option and William Seaman was sentenced to death.  Before the judge passed sentenced however, Seaman was asked if he had anything he wanted to say.

[He] stated that he had nothing to say about the case, but that he desired to complain about a statement in a newspaper to the effect that he had previously been charged with an attempt to murder, and assault and theft, and that that statement was false.

William Seaman was hanged at Newgate prison on the 9 June 1896, he was 48.

There is a footnote to this story. The chemist’s shop was at 82 Berner Street, off the Commercial Road, Whitechapel. That little detail may seem insignificant for the case but for the fact that on the 30 September 1888 (the day I took this story from the newspapers)  another violent act took place in Berner Street. Between houses at 42 and 44 Berner Street (now renamed Henriques Street) was what was ‘colloquially known as Dutfield’s  Yard’* and home to the International Working Man’s Educational Club.

At just after 1 am Louis Diemshitz (club steward and ‘jewellery hawker’) turn this horse and cart into the yard when the animal shied at something lying beyond the gates. When Diemshitz investigated he found the body of a woman. She had been attacked and her throat had been cut.

Her name was Elizabeth Stride (or ‘Long Liz”) and she was to be the first of two women murdered that night by a killer whose identify remains a mystery. He will forever be known to history however, as ‘Jack the Ripper’.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, September 30, 1888; Birmingham Daily Post, Wednesday, October 3, 1888]

*Neil R.A. Bell, Capturing Jack the Ripper, (Amberley, Stroud, 2016), p.158

The case of the ‘detonating grave digger’

The object of today’s post had a rather Dickensian name, Mr Wackett.

Wackett (no first name was given, if indeed he had one) declared himself to be a grave digger in Bethnal Green. One Sunday evening in early June 1839 Police constable Smith (171G) was strolling his beat in Shoreditch when he heard screams up ahead.

Moving along he quickly came upon several alarmed if not terrified persons, mostly women, who were trying to get away from a man in the street. Wackett was in the thick of things, apparently hurling small bags at passers-by, which appeared to explode on contact.

As the bags landed they ‘exploded with a report that could be heard at a considerable distance’, he later told the Worship Street court.

PC Smith arrested the grave digger and took him back to the station to search him. A number of bags, containing what seemed to contain gravel, were found on his person . On the orders of a magistrate these were taken away and examined by a local chemist.

When Wackett appeared before the Worship Street justice (Mr Broughton)  it was reported that:

‘intermixed with the gravel [was] a detonating powder which,  when thrown at any person, particularly a female, might create much alarm, but was not likely to destroy, or sensibly damage the dress’.

So it was an unpleasant thing to do, but one designed to upset and alarm and not to hurt or damage clothing. As a result Mr Broughton gave the grave digger a lecture on behaving more decently in future and let him go with a small fine.

[from The Operative, Sunday, June 9, 1839]

I hadn’t heard of the The Operative before, but it seems to have come out of Chartism. The paper’s ‘mission statement’ was “Established by the working classes for the defence of the rights of labour. Also for a ‘fair day’s wages for a fair day’s work.’