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]

A man lays about his wife with an iron poker, ‘saying he would have her life’: an everyday domestic trauma in Mile End

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Nowadays we have a number of organizations (state run and charitable) that look out for the interests of women and children, especially those caught up in abusive relationship or poverty. The laws protecting women are also much more stringent and the support mechanisms (if nowhere near perfect) much better than they were in the nineteenth century. Any regular (or even causal) readers of this blog will have seen that domestic violence was a daily event in Victorian London and something many of the Police Court magistrates railed against.

Charities did exist to help, one of which was the Associate Institute for Enforcing the Laws for the Protection of Women and Children (AIELPWC). Organizations such as this were often run by well-meaning members of the middle class, who saw it as their mission to intervene in the ‘savage’ lives of the working class. The AIELPWC were run by Henry Newman and based at 30 Cockspur Street, just off Trafalgar Square. In September 1869 William Moore, a member of the charity, followed a case that was of interest to them at the Worship Street Police court in Stepney.

Benjamin Briggat, a ‘looking-glass frame maker’ from Mile End was up in court, accused of a violent assault on his wife. Mrs Briggat appeared in the witness box swathed in bandages. She was able to give chapter and verse on her husband’s serial abuse of her in the five years they had been married.

Many women suffered for months or years before they built up the courage to take their spouse before a magistrate as Mrs Briggat had done. It took determination and resignation in equal measure, and the outcomes were rarely positive anyway. At best the husband would be locked up and the household deprived of the principal bread-winner, or he was fined (reducing the family budget even further), and worse he’d be reprimanded and she’d have to go back home with him, angered and embittered.

Mrs Briggat told the bench what had happened on the previous Saturday when Benjamin had come home late from work, clearly ‘three sheets to the wind’ (i.e. drunk). She’d made him a stew but he said he didn’t want it.

They argued and he started to kick at her as she was bent over the stove. At this she tried to get away, running to the bed but Briggat ‘seized the iron pot off the fire and beat her about the head with it’.

There was more, she said:

She was soon covered with blood and fell to the floor. The prisoner again kicked her repeatedly while she was down, He also got the poker from the fire-place, and struck her over the back and arms with it, saying he would have her life’.

She must have been terrified and with good reason, most homicide victims in the nineteenth century were wives, children or in some other way relatives or friend of their killers. Her neighbours were too scared of Benjamin too come to her aid but they did call for the police and she was then able to escape from the room. Her husband’s last act was to throw a pail of water over her as she ran out of their home.

It took PC 187H a long time to contain Briggat and get him to the station. It took Mr Newton a few moments to send him to gaol for four months at hard labour. Presumably Mr Moore made a point of recording the incident in his notebook to discuss with his colleagues. Would it make a difference? Sadly, I doubt it.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, September 07, 1869]

‘Oh don’t do that. It is I and not he who should be punished’: A wife’s desperate plea to save her abusive husband

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North-east London, almost a year from the start of the Whitechapel murders and the newspapers reports of the Police courts are full of violence. On the Commercial Road a blind man was repeatedly stabbed in the face, at Wandsworth two lads were summoned for beating up a newsboy so badly he was left hospitalized and unable to walk. In Islington a mother punished her 7 year-old son for losing the money she’d sent him to by bread with. Not content with a clip round the ear she pressed a red hot poker in his mouth, burning his tongue.

Over in Hackney two policemen were patrolling near Cross Street late on Sunday night (4 August 1889) when they heard cries of ‘murder!’ and ‘police!’ They hurried towards the sounds and found a small crowd by a house and a woman bleeding from cuts to her arms. A domestic dispute had occurred – something the police were generally rather keen to avoid but perhaps the heightened tensions in the wake of the ‘Ripper’ caused these officers to intervene.

William Elvidge was standing close to his wife Alice and it seemed he had attacked her. Both parties were taken to the police station to be examined and for Alice’s wounds to be dressed.  She’d suffered two cuts only one of which was at all serious, cutting her muscle but she didn’t want to press charges against William.

‘The police, however, thought themselves justified in taking the responsibility of the charge’, and so the case came before Mr Horace Smith, the sitting magistrate at Dalston Police court. Magistrates were often frustrated by the reluctance of women to prosecute their partners; too frequently they simply dropped the charges before their hearing came on, refused to give evidence against husbands in court, or pleaded for mercy for the when they were convicted.

Alice was a woman in this mould.

The court was told that the incident had resulted from William being ‘late for his tea’. An argument had begun and Alice had thrown a plate at her husband who had retaliated by seizing a knife and threatening to ‘cut her throat’.

The magistrate said this was a case that needed to go before a jury and indicted Elvidge to appear at the next Sessions of the Peace. This sent Alice into ‘violent hysterics’ as she pleaded with the justice not to send her man to trial.

Oh don’t do that. It is I and not he who should be punished’, she cried. ‘He is a good, kind, affectionate husband, and good to his children’.

As she was led away by a policeman she screamed:

Oh, dear, it’s all through me!’

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, August 06, 1889]

‘He trampled on me, and I am suffering from pains all over’; a wife’s testimony sends her husband to gaol

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After yesterday’s light diversion into the music halls we return to the grim reality of the Metropolitan Police courts in the middle of the nineteenth century. Here we find Henry Kirby Turton stood in the dock at Lambeth Police court accused of a brutal attack on his common-law wife.

The case – which is typical of many others I’ve written about – was flagged by the newspaper reporter because the magistrate was empowered to act using recently passed legislation to protect women. Mr Elliot, presiding, took full advantage of this, and applied the maximum sentence.

In June 1853 parliament had passed an ‘Act for the better Prevention and Punishment of aggravated Assaults upon Women and Children’. This was directly concerned with attacks on females and on children under 14 and was aimed at punishing men that committed these sorts of domestic assaults.

The legislation allowed a Police Court magistrate (or two JPs sitting outside of the capital) to deal with aggravated assault summarily (i.e without sending it to jury trial) and this was much more likely to result in a conviction. It was also much easier for a wife to go before a magistrate than to have to cope with the expense and inconvenience of attending the sessions.

So this power was very new in July 1853 although I suspect magistrates had been exercising a similar power unofficially for some time. One of the realities of criminal justice history is that practice usually preceded policy changes, something I try to get my undergraduates to understand.

Elizabeth Lambert was in a dreadful state when she appeared at Lambeth to evidence against her partner.  Her face was:

‘one entire mass of swollen purple coloured flesh, presenting fearful proofs of the most savage ill-usage’.

Elizabeth said she had lived with Turton as his wife (although they’d never formally married) and he’d mistreated her for years, and had recently knocked out one of her teeth. On the previous Monday she’d come from work and he had attacked her. Without the ‘slightest provocation’ she said, Turton had ‘struck her with his clenched fist on her face, and knocked her down’. When she rose, he hit her again and again until she passed out.

‘Had he used anything but his fists?’ the magistrates wanted to know. At first she said he hadn’t but when prompted by Mr Elliot she testified that while she couldn’t recall him kicking her (which aggravated the assault) he ‘trampled on me, and I am suffering from pains all over me, as well as internally’.

The couple’s landlady appeared to support Elizabeth describing Monday’s attack as ‘wanton and brutal’. Finally the justice turned to Turton and asked him to explain himself. The man seemed surprised to find himself in court and tried to justify his actions. He had come home to an empty house, ‘without a fire, and neither dinner nor tea prepared for him’. In his mind then he was perfectly entitled to beat his wife for her neglect of her responsibilities.

Mr Elliot was disgusted by the man and said so. He then sent him to prison for six months at hard labour. Turton, ‘who seemed somewhat astonished at the sentence, was removed from the bar’ and taken to the cells to begin his imprisonment. Elizabeth would then had had six months of peace and perhaps an opportunity to find a better person to share her life with.

[From The Morning Post , Saturday, July 16, 1853]

A series of mini tragedies as Londoners welcome another summer

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Lambeth Bridge in the 1800s

The Standard‘s coverage of the Police Courts of the Metropolis at the engining of June make fairly grim reading. At Lambeth two brothers were arrested for being drunk and disorderly whilst daring each other to jump off Lambeth Bridge. When the case came to court their elderly mother revealed that the wife of one of them had died earlier week, having thrown herself off Shot Tower Wharf.

Suicide was the theme of the day it seems: along at Southwark in the Borough Isabella Soof (a 46 year-old married woman) was charged with attempting to end her own life. She had leapt into the river at London Bridge but a passing labourer heard her scream and dragged her out. As he pulled her to safety she said:

The grave is my home. I have no husband. Let me go and drown myself‘.

Her husband appeared in court and told Mr Slade he could think of no reason why she’d do such a thing. The magistrate, rather unsympathetically, sent her to prison for a week.

He was perhaps mindful that there was something of an epidemic of women trying to do away with themselves and was trying to issue a warning that the action was a crime that would be punished. Ellen Dalman (38) was also charged with attempting suicide. A policeman saw the book folder running down the stairs at London Bridge and intercepted her before she was able to plunge into the murky waters of the Thames.

Slade remanded her for a week so that enquiries could be made into her domestic circumstances and mental health.

At Wandsworth a former major in the army tried to avoid the disgrace of being arrested for drunk and disorderly behaviour by giving a false name. The justice – Mr Paget – saw through his subterfuge and fined him 10s for the drunkenness and gave him a dressing down for not admitting to who he really was.

Over at Bow Street (where the reporter offered a short recap of the cases there rather than any detail) another woman was prosecuted for attempting to drown herself; her mother promised she would ensure no further attempts were made and she was released. A clearly disturbed woman who’d smashed up the windows and property of a man she described as ‘disreputable’ was sent to a hospital instead of being imprisoned, showing some level of appreciation for her condition at least.

Finally a drunken man was prosecuted at Thames before Mr Saunders for beating up a young woman who was his neighbour and damaging property to the value of £4. She might have suffered a worse fate had not several locals ‘rushed in and released her’ from his clutches. The man, Michael Lynch, was sent to prison at hard labour for three months.

All of this was published in the Tuesday morning edition of the paper. The Standard was a daily paper with a morning and evening edition by the 1880s. It was broadly conservative in its outlook and reached an audience of over 200,000 by the turn of the 20th century. It has a long history, surviving into the 21st century under its current Russian owners and becoming a free paper for Londoners.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, June 03, 1879]

‘He said he would have her life, and break every bone in her body’.

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It took a lot for women to stand up to their husbands in the Victorian period. Theoretically the law protected victims of abuse but this often meant that violent men were fined, bound over to the keep the peace, or imprisoned if they beat their wives or partners. None of these options was ideal for the women involved; two of them directly impacted the family budget and the third was often deemed to be ineffectual. Poor Londoners believed that magistrates could enforce separation orders or sanction a divorce of sorts but this wasn’t in their power however much they might have liked to use it.

This didn’t stop women bringing their partners to court however and throughout the 1800s they came in their droves. One such woman was Mary Norris. Mary was a bricklayer’s wife living in the East End of London. She was probably in her late 30s (as her husband Henry was 40 in 1879) and she was regularly abused and beaten by him.

Women put up with a lot before they went to law. This was very much a last resort because taking your husband to court was a drastic move that often had unwanted consequences. Quite apart from the financial consequences of losing a breadwinner or incurring a fine, or the public shame of admitting that your marriage was in trouble, a woman could expect retribution from her partner immediately or soon after the return to the family home.

So Mary was not only desperate for the abuse to stop she was also brave. She explained to the Worship Street magistrate that Henry had come home on Monday night late from work, having been out drinking for several hours. As soon as he stepped through the door the abuse began.

‘he took up a knife and threatened to stab her; said he would have her life, and break every bone in her body’.

It was nothing new, she told Mr Newton (the magistrate), she

was dreadfully afraid of him doing her some violence, as he had repeatedly beaten and threatened her with the same knife. She went in bodily fear’ she added.

Other witnesses testified to Henry being drunk that night, and to his threats and an officer of the Associate Institute for Improving and Enforcing the Laws for the Protection of Women and Children appeared. Mr Moore stated that he believed Norris already carried a previous conviction for assaulting Mary. This is interesting because it tells us that there were organizations involved in prosecuting violent husbands and father at this time, charities that took on a role that is now performed by social services.

His evidence was confirmed by an officer at the court who said Norris had been up before the justice on four previous occasions, ‘three times sent to prison’, and once bound over. The message was clearly not getting through to him and Mary was still at risk. But there was little the magistrate could do. He ordered the bricklayer to find two sureties to ensure he kept the peace for three months (at £10 each) but Henry refused. He opted for prison and was taken away.

Mary’s best option was to leave him and get as far away as possible, but that was almost impossible. The law would only really act when things had gone too far. If Norris did his wife more serious harm – by wounding or killing her – then he would be locked up for a long time, for life or be executed. Not that those outcomes were likely to be of any use to Mary if she was dead.

[from The Morning Post , Friday, May 21, 1869]

Laudanum, primroses and mental health collide as the millennium approaches.

Primrose Day 1885 by Frank Bramley 1857-1915

Primrose Day, by Frank Bramley (1885) Tale Gallery, London

By late April 1899 the old queen was nearing the end of her long reign and Britain was just six months away from the debacle of the second South African (Boer) war. The birth of Duke Ellington (on the 29 April) is an indicator that the ‘modern’ age was just around the corner, and all the horror and cataclysm that accompanied the ‘Great War’ less than a generation away. Yet as the millennium approached London was still very much a Victorian city where people looked backwards as much as forwards, and where ‘respectability’ ‘character’ and social class remained as ingrained as they had been for the last 100 years.

The Police courts of the capital continued to deal with the dregs of society; with the petty thieves, wife abusers, and disorderly prostitutes. Here was also where the poor came for advice or charity, and it was where those that manifestly could not cope with life sometimes turned up.

Jannie McDonald was one of those that struggled with life at the end of the century. Just 18 years of age Jannie was a young woman living in Notting Hill Gate. On the 26 April a policeman was called to her lodgings in Silver Street where he found her collapsed on the floor. She was clutching an empty bottle of laudanum that she has swallowed in an attempt to end her life. When she recovered she admitted that she had tried to kill herself on account of the abuse she received from her husband. The couple had been married less than a year but she preferred death to the prospect of returning to him. In court at West London Police court she changed her story and said she had only taken the drug to ‘procure some sleep and to ease pain’. The magistrate remanded her so that further enquiries could be made into the state of her mental health.

Over at Westminster William Lewis was re-examined having been remanded just over a week earlier. He was accused of criminal damage; he had allegedly ‘damaged the floral decorations at the Beaconsfield statue on Primrose Day’. Until April of this year 2018 (when the statue of Milicent Fawcett was installed) there were several famous people commemorated in Parliament Square, all of them men, one of which was Benjamin Disraeli, the Earl of Beaconsfield.

Disraeli, always Victoria’s favourite prime minister, died on 19 April 1881 and his followers marked his passing each year on Primrose Day. Perhaps Lewis was not a fan or held some grudge against the politician who pioneered what we now call ‘One nation Conservatism’. Like Jannie however, William was suffering from some form of mental illness. In fact enquiries in his case revealed that he had ‘three times been confined in a lunatic asylum’ and was currently out on ‘probation’. This didn’t refer to probation as we understand it within the criminal justice system today, as the first Probation orders were not issued until after August 1907. A district reliving officer from Rickmansworth (where William ‘belonged’) now appeared and he was discharged into his custody to be taken ‘home’ and re-confined.

Both these cases reveal that this was a society that was actually quite similar to our own with people that simply couldn’t cope with day-to-day life for whatever reason. What is noticeably different, one hopes at least, is that today both of these individuals would get more support from the state and local authorities than they did in 1899 at the end of the Victorian period. This change was not about to happen in 1899 of course; it took two world wars to finally overhaul the nature of the British state and create a society, which valued all of its citizens at least a little more equally than it had before. Two wars and the extension of the franchise (something Disraeli experimented with to win greater support for the Conservative Party) led to the election of ‘socialist’ government and the creation of a welfare state that remains (for all its flaws) the envy of the world to this day.

[from The Standard , Friday, April 28, 1899