As the ‘Ripper’ strikes in Whitechapel a wannabe Charlie Peace is nabbed in Clapham.

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The 31stAugust 1888 is etched on the memory of anyone familiar with the biggest crime news story of that year. It was at about 3.45 that morning that PC John Neil (97J) found the body of Mary Ann (‘Polly’) Nichols lying dead in near the entrance to a stable yard in Buck’s Row. Her throat had been cut and (although the constable could not have known this at the time) her abdomen had been ripped open. Polly Nichols is largely accepted to have been the first victim of the killer most commonly named ‘Jack the Ripper’.

Personally I think it quite unlikely that Mary Ann Nichols was the first of the murderer’s victims and, in a new study I hope to publish early next year, myself and a colleague will reveal the person we think responsible for Polly’s, and another dozen or more, murders and assaults.  But that, as they say, is a story for another day, so let us return to late August 1888 and see what was troubling the police court reporter at The Standard that day.

While he didn’t garner many column inches (and nothing that compared to the Whitechapel murderer later that autumn) John Terroad did reckon himself some kind of ‘super villain’.

220px-Charlie_Peace_executionPerhaps likening himself to the infamous Charlie Peace – the self-styled ‘king of the lags’ – Terroad claimed to  have committed over 120 burglaries in London in his short career. Given he was only 23 years of age in 1888 this was some résumé, but on this occasion he’d been caught.

[Right: Charles Peace and his executioner, William Marwood, in Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors]

Up before the ‘beak’ at Wandsworth he was charged with entering the house of Mr Harry Bishop in Manor Street, Clapham, as well as that of a Mr Williams in Putney Common, and Edward James’ home in Ilchester Gardens, Lavender Hill. An older accomplice (Frederick Merce, 45) was also charged with aiding and abetting in the Clapham break-in. Both men were committed for trial. They pleaded guilty at the Old Bailey and were sent to prison for ten months each at hard labour.

Charles Peace was hanged for the murder of Arthur Dyson at Leeds in February 1879, a decade before the ‘Ripper’ eclipsed him as the most famous criminal of the nineteenth century.

[from The Standard (London, England), Friday, August 31, 1888]

‘A pack of untruths’ in the case of the missing diamond

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When Mr Abrahams returned from a visit to the music hall on the 2nd of January he realised he’d lost a scarf pin. It was a valuable item, set with a diamond, and worth around £7 (or about £300 in today’s money). The Clapham jeweller reported the item missing, presumed stolen, and enquiries were made.

Some time later the pin turned up at a pawnbrokers, presented by Joseph Smith, an elderly cook who lived in Caversham Street, Chelsea. Unfortunately for Smith the ‘broker had seen notices warning that a stolen diamond pin was in circulation and he detained the jewel and alerted the police.

When the case eventually came before the magistrate at Westminster Smith denied stealing it and instead mounted a convoluted defence. He said that he’d received the pin in the post as a present, so had obtained it lawfully. Since such a valuable parcel would have been sent by registered post Richard Dyer, the local letter carrier was summoned to give evidence.

Dyer stated that ‘he knew the prisoner but did not recollect leaving a registered letter at his house about the time named’. Moreover, ‘there was no signature for a registered letter on the day in question’.

Smith’s story then, didn’t add up.

The 70 year-old cook now called his son in to back him up. The younger man confirmed that he had received the parcel but had burned the wrapper. I’ve no idea whether this was a normal thing to do but it didn’t convince the magistrate that Smith’s story was true. In fact it did quite the opposite and angered him in the process.

‘Mr Partridge said the prisoner had aggravated the case by calling his son to tell a pack of untruths, which he (the magistrate) did not believe’.

But he was minded to be lenient with someone who bore a previously good character and where there was ‘some doubt about the matter’. After all, it had not been proved that Smith had stolen the pin; he may have found it at the theatre. So Mr Partridge decided not to send him to prison as he might have done, but instead fined him 40s and let him go. Mr Abrahams had been reunited with his property and there was little to gain (in terms of deterrence) in sending an old man to gaol. However, if he failed to pay the fine that is where he would go for a month.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, January 21, 1885]

A cheesemonger runs, but he can’t hide

Ludgate Hill by Camille Pissarro, 1890

John Alfred Smith worked for a cheesemonger in the City of London (who had premises on Ludgate Hill), but in October 1890 Smith was summoned before Mr Denham at Wandsworth Police Court, to answer a charge that he had deserted his wife and family.

The prosecution was brought by the Poor law Guardians of Clapham and Wandsworth and therefore fell under Denham’s jurisdiction. Prosecuting, Mr Charter explained that Smith’s wife and her five children had applied for relief on the 30th August of that year.The circumstances of her application are not made clear, but it would seem that at some Smith simply didn’t come home.

What was established was that Smith had run his own business in Battersea but this seems to have collapsed and forced him to seek work elsewhere. With his business in tatters it the man appears to have decided his family was just too much for his pocket to maintain, and he abandoned them to the parish. However, there may have been another reason for his flight: in short, another woman.

Answering the summons before the magistrate Smith made the bold move of denying that he was married to the woman at all. He said no proper marriage had taken place and added that they had never lived together long enough for the relationship to be established as such. One wonders then how she managed to produce no less than five children.

Mrs Smith’s sister was called to give evidence and she described how Smith had taken her sibling, aged just 16, to Brighton ‘on the pretense of marrying her’. While no record of the marriage could be found it seems that there was at least anecdotal evidence of the union. Smith had, his sister-in-law swore, declared on their return that they were married. Mrs Smith also appeared in court to confirm that she was indeed married to the man in dock.

This was good enough for Mr Denham. Regardless of the veracity of her statement or that of her sister he thought it appalling that a woman and five children could be abandoned  in such a way. Smith ‘was morally guilty, whether she were his wife or not’. Moreover now it emerged that Smith had taken a new wife since his desertion, ‘a young woman who was suffering from nervous prostration brought about by his arrest’.

So it would seem that Smith had simply had enough of his former life. Abandoning Battersea, his failing business and its debts, and his wife and kids he relocated to the City and found work and a new (and younger) partner. Unfortunately for his attempt to disappear completely failed just as his business had, the state (in the person of the Clapham and Wandsworth Poor Law Union) caught up with him. The magistrate, angered both by Smith callousness towards his family and his blatant disregard for his responsibilities sent him to prison for six weeks at hard labour.

[from The Standard, Friday, October 17, 1890]

‘An extraordinary story’ of a missing boy in North London

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Mrs Ada Wigg was clearly at her wits end when she presented herself at the North London Police Court in early September 1898. She said she needed the magistrate’s helping in finding her missing son, Frank. The Wiggs lived in Shrubland Grove, Dalston and on Saturday 3 September she had despatched Frank (who was aged 11 and a half) to Sailsbury Square in the City on business.

The boy came home in a hansom cab paid for by a ‘gentleman’ he had met. This man had apparently bought the young boy dinner, given him a shilling and told him that if he came again he would  ‘keep him and make a gentleman of him’.

For a young lad from East London (even one from a family that sounds like they were doing ok) this might have sounded very tempting, to his mother it must have been horrifying. Ada told her son that he was forbidden from ever seeing the man again and hoped that was that. Unfortunately on Sunday Frank went off to church as usual at 10.30 in the morning, but hadn’t been seen since. Mrs Wigg went to the police and they followed up enquiries around the boy’s known haunts, even sending a telegraph to Lichfield where they had friends, but to no avail.

It is hard to look back in time with any degree of certainty but it looks from here as if young Frank was being groomed. Mr D’Eyncourt thought it an ‘extraordinary story’ and hoped that by reporting in the newspapers the boy might be noticed and found. His mother gave a description that was carefully recorded by the court reporter. Frank was:

‘Tall, fair and good looking, with blue eyes. He was wearing a light Harrow suit and patent shoes, and carried a silver lever watch and chain’.

Mrs Wigg had not seen the gentleman concerned but the boy had told he was aged ‘about 50, tall and grey’.

Two days later The Standard carried  brief follow up to the story. The reporter at North London said a telegram had been received at the court which read:

“Frank Gent Wigg found safe at Clapham. Grateful thanks to Magistrate, Police and Press”, Mrs A Wigg.

So the publicity worked on this occasion and whatever the mysterious gentleman had in store for Frank – even if it was simply a benign desire to give him a leg up in life – was averted.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, September 06, 1898; The Standard, Thursday, September 08, 1898]

Who on earth was Countess Nelson?

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In early 1838 a man appeared at Marlborough Street Police Court charged with embezzling ‘sums of money’ from Countess Nelson.

This caught my eye because my boyhood was Horatio Nelson. From an early age (I think I remember having a Ladybird book on Nelson) I was fascinated by his story. I suspect much of Nelson’s history is suffused with myth; a result of distortions by his early biographers (like Southey) and the repetition of heroic tales over time. But I liked the fact that this man from relatively humble origins in Norfolk rose to be the greatest warrior that England has produced.

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Whether he shot a polar bear as a teenage midshipman is unimportant, as is the exact story behind him ‘turning a blind eye’; the brilliance of his victory at Aboukir Bay and the vital importance of defeating the combined French and Spanish fleet at Trafalgar were thrilling to me as a young boy.

There is an adage of course that one should never meet your heroes. The closest I have ever got to Nelson is his tomb at St Paul’s or his memorial in Trafalgar Square (although I have made the pilgrimage to Burnham Thorpe in Norfolk where he was born and trod the decks of HMS Victory  at Portsmouth).

As an adult the biographies I have read of this greatest of English heroes have been careful to present his other side. The vanity of the man must have been awful, his treatment of Frances Nisbet his wife, his galavanting with the wife of his friend Lord Hamilton, and his oppression of popular uprising in Naples; all jar against the popular image of Horatio Nelson.

Ultimately I remain a fan. I can separate the sea captain, the patriot, the strategist and the brave leader who cared for his troops, from the arrogant, illiberal, self-centred man who cheated on his wife. But while we have had a recent exhibition focused on the life of Nelson’s love, Emma Hamilton, what of the lady she replaced?

Nelson married Frances Nisbet in 1787 after they had met on the Caribbean island of Nevis. Frances had been married before but her husband, a doctor, had died. Military marriages are difficult to maintain over distances, and naval ones in the 18th century even more so given that men were at sea for months on end. When Nelson met Emma at Naples the writing was on the wall for Frances and his marriage.

After the admiral’s death in 1805 at Trafalgar she herself fell ill but made a recovery. She moved to Paris for a while (to live with her son) before returning to England and setting down in Exeter. She died in 1831 in London, in Harley Street.

So who, I wonder, was the Countess Nelson who appeared as part of a court case in January 1838?

Francis Wright, ‘a respectable looking man’ was brought before the magistrate at Marlborough Street for embezzlement. The court heard that Wright had left the Countess’ service some weeks before and had set himself up in business with a beer shop on the Clapham Road.

Wright was charged with ‘forging a certain receipt with intent to defraud Lady Nelson’ and a warrant was executed to bring him in. He was asked to produce his account book but told the justice he was unable to as he had torn it up to ‘make pipe-lights for his customers’. How convenient. He was remanded for further enquiries.

The case didn’t reach the Old Bailey but it may have been too trivial for that and been dealt with later by the summary process. The nature of the court reportage means its not always possible to trace these cases further.

However, I can reveal who Countess Nelson was. She was most probably Hilare (more properly Mrs George) Knight. She had previously been married to William Nelson, Horatio’s brother. William had been given his more famous brother’s title (including that of the Duke of Bronte, Sicily) and so when the couple married in 1829 she adopted the title of Countess Nelson.

In 1835 William died and in 1837 (one year before this case) she remarried, to George Knight, a relative of Jane Austen – so as one researcher noted she was well connected with two famous literary names!

Interestingly as a footnote, neither the original Lady Nelson or Emma Hamilton would live to see the monument to the admiral open in their lifetime. Nelson’s column was erected between 1840-3 at a cost of £47,000 (over £2m today), much of it from public subscription. Frances Nelson died in 1831 and Emma died, penniless, in 1815. Countess Nelson however lived until 1857 so may have strolled beneath the gaze of her illustrious relative by marriage.

[from The Morning Post, Sunday, January 29, 1838]

Several burglaries as the Ripper strikes…

At 3.40 am on the morning of the 31 August 1888 Charles Cross made a startling discovery on Buck’s Row in Whitechapel. He was on his way to work at Pickfords in the City when he found a woman’s body lying in front of the entrance to a local stable yard. Cross was soon joined by Robert Paul who was following his route along the road now renamed Durward Street. The two men could see the woman had been attacked and ran off in search of a policeman.

The woman was Mary Ann Nichols, commonly known as ‘Polly’. She was the first ‘canonical’ victim of the Whitechapel murderer; or ‘Jack the Ripper’. Polly’s death heralded the start of the so-called ‘autumn of terror’ and would dominate the news hole for most of the rest of 1888.

However, the papers on that day were too late to carry the story of Polly’s brutal murder. Instead the Standard supplied its crime reading public with more tales from the Police Courts, on this day they were mostly burglaries – the archetypal crime of the eponymous ‘criminal class’.

At Greenwich James Clark and John Roberts (both listed as ‘of no home’) were accused of breaking into a stable in Deptford. They stole a pony and cart belonging to a grocer. Clark had previously been convicted and sent to prison for 3 months for embezzling funds from a previous employer. Both were committed for trial.

Henry Walter Barry, a 21 year-old clerk, was accused at Marylebone of burgling a house in Kilburn. He got away with a silver watch and chain and other goods belonging to a warehouseman. Barry was also charged with stealing some boots from a bootmaker who had initially let him borrow them as ‘he was a good customer’. When he never reappeared with the boots or any money he pressed charges. Barry was remanded for further enquiry.

John Terroad topped the bill however. He came up at Wandsworth Police Court charged with ‘burglariously entering the residence of Mr. Harry Bishop of Manor Street, Clapham, Mr. Edward James of Ilminster Gardens and a Mr Williams at Putney. In fact Terroad had boasted of ‘having committed 120 in various parts of London’. The justice committed in to trial.

With these three in custody Londoners could sleep a little easier in their beds that night, well at least until they read the breaking news about the ‘Whitechapel fiend’.

[From The Standard, Friday, August 31, 1888]

What does ‘drunk and incapable’ actually mean?

In mid June 1877 PC Savage was called to the Two Brewers pub in Clapham, south London, to deal with a drunken woman. Sarah Weller was very drunk and the landlord had described as being ‘riotous’ and had refused to serve her any more alcohol.

Savage helped Sarah from the pub but she soon fell over and so he arrested her and took her back to the police station. When she came up at Wandsworth Police Court she was charged with being ‘drunk and incapable’. This puzzled the magistrate, Mr Briggs; ‘he did not know why the word “incapable” was put in, as it was not an offence’.

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[NB this is not Sarah but a 16 year-old girl from a 1893 book of police mugshots depicting Dundee citizens banned from drinking houses]

The constable’s inspector now appeared and stated that it was the old form of charge and they still used it. Mr Bridge restated his view that it was no crime to be incapable and Sarah’s defence lawyer insisted her behaviour was due to an illness. The justice agreed, suggesting that perhaps Savage had mistaken hysteria for drunkenness and so Sarah should be discharged.

Under the terms of the Intoxication Act it was reasonable to take individuals into custody for their own safety and then let them go once they had sobered up.In some cases a summons might be appropriate but not all. Mr Briggs therefore released Sarah but accepted that the police were not to blame for interpreting the law as they had.

I can’t find the specific act that Briggs was referring to but it is interesting that law, in essence, doesn’t seem to have changed much. It’s not a crime to be drunk; it is what you do that matters. So disorderly or riotous behaviour can be penalised. Today police are obliged to arrest drunk and incapable persons for their own safety and safety seems to be paramount. These people will be released when sober unless they have previously been arrested for the same offence or they are acting in a  disorderly manner, then they might well face a charge and a magistrate’s court appearance, like Sarah.

[from Daily News, Monday, July 9, 1877]