As panic mounts in Whitechapel the papers provide a welcome helping of the banal

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Less than a week after the Whitechapel murders had reached fever pitch in the newspapers with the discovery of two murders in one night, the reports form the Police courts of the metropolis provide an almost welcome sense of normality. The cases that made the editor of the Morning Post’s selection included someone uttering counterfeit coin, the theft of several items including a watch and chain, and (separately) a box of razors. One man was brought for loitering with intent and another for cruelty to a horse and two for evading the strict licensing laws.

Perhaps the editor felt there was enough violence on the ‘front page’ and calculated that his readership would prefer some reassuring mundane accounts of the everyday.

Esther Robson was still dealt with severely by the court, despite the focus on a crazed animalistic killer elsewhere.  She appeared at Marlborough Street charged with sending begging letters to a number of people ‘of the theatrical profession’ asking for help.

Mr Newton was told that she had written letters claiming that ‘her husband was lame, she was ill, and that [her] family was in very distressed circumstances’.

Using the name ‘Fanny Williams’ she’d penned heartfelt messages to Lady Theodore Martin, Wilson Barnett, Hermann Vezin, a Miss Wadman and Miss D’Arville. She told them that her husband had once worked in the theatre and several of them had sent her money.

For ‘attempting to procure charitable contributions by means of false presences’ ‘Fanny (or rather Esther) was sent to prison for three months with hard labour.

Hermann Vezin had worked as an actor in London, débuting on the stage in 1852. The American born actor went on to have a starred career on the stage. A ‘bright and dapper little man’ (as the London Post described him) he married a fellow actor, Jane Thompson and they worked together for many years. Lady Theodore Martin was in her 60s by 1888. London born she worked as an actress under her given name Helena or Helen and had married Theodore in 1851. Helena published a study of Shakespeare’s female characters in 1885.

Miss D’Arville was probably Camille D’Arville (real name Cornelia Dykstra). The Dutch-born operatic singer worked the London stage in the late 1800s before moving to the USA in 1888. I doubt her decision to quit London had anything to Esther’s attempt to con her, and her photograph (below right) suggests she wasn’t an easy woman to fool either. She enjoyed a long career in entertainment, forming her own company before retiring in 1908. 220px-Camille_Darville_001

Despite declaring after her second marriage (in 1900) that ‘I believe that any other woman who pursues a profession after her marriage makes a miserable failure of it’, Camille went on to do a number of things well into the new century. She died in 1932.

Esther Robson disappears from history in 1888.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, October 05, 1888]

 ‘Silently, swiftly, and remorselessly’: the mythologising of a serial killer in the London press

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On the evening of the 1 October 1888 the Standard newspaper carried this report on page four:

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This was the infamous ‘double event’ when the killer known only as ‘Jack the Ripper’ killed twice within a matter of hours. We might it strange that it wasn’t ‘front page news’ as such a crime would be today but then nineteenth-century newspapers tended to carry adverts on the cover page, not news.

The Whitechapel murders were the news story of the day, relegating almost all other stories to ‘second best’ and bringing hoards of journalists, ‘dark tourists’, and ‘slummers’ to the East End to see where it all happened and to talk to the nervous locals.

The Standard went on to discuss the murders in a longer article on the same page. It described the killer as having an ‘absolutely demonical thirst for blood’ and dubbed him ‘a human fiend’. It also credited the murderer with ‘a swiftness, a dexterity, a noiselessness, and, we might almost say, a scientific skill’ which it suggested was a ‘very rare accomplishment in the class from which murderers are commonly drawn’.

Given that most of the murderers convicted at the Old Bailey in the nineteenth century might reasonably be described as working class and given that the Victorians blamed most serious crime on the so-called ‘criminal class’ (a class existing below the ranks of the working class), it follows that this editorial’s writer held a fairly low opinion of the ordinary working class man in the street.

The Standard launched in 1827 as an evening paper, and later a morning edition as well. It briefly challenged The Times for daily circulation and we might see it as a serious conservative organ. It was hardly likely then to be widely read by the working man.

The report of Catherine Eddowes’ murder in Mitre Square is full of quiet admiration for the ‘skill’ of the murderer:

 ‘Silently, swiftly, and remorselessly , the murderer performed operations which a practiced surgeon, working with all his appliances about him, could hardly have effected in the time; and then, as usual, disappeared, leaving not a shred of evidence behind by which he could be traced’.

The Standard was, like many of the other papers of the day, helping (albeit indirectly) to create the myth of ‘Jack the Ripper’; he was (so this rhetoric suggested) a fantastical figure who roamed the streets and attacked women at will, right under the noses of the impotent police force. He possessed almost super human skills, had a bestial nature, and an intelligence or animal cunning that far exceeded any of the other denizens of the East End or the ‘plod’ that were searching for him.

The Standard did call for calm and dismissed ideas (circulating elsewhere) that the murders were a reflection of the state of Britain in the 1880s:

‘Terrible as they are’, it said, the murders ‘do not show either that society is rotten to the core, or that human life is less safe in the centre of London than it is in the wilds of Texas. We are not all liable to be hacked to pieces in the streets, or murdered in our beds, because some diabolical maniac can decoy the outcasts of the pavement into dark corners and kill them’.

Finally the paper wrote that the killer must be caught and it urged the police to concentrate their efforts on the area in which the murders took place. The killer must be local it stated:

He was either a ‘resident of in a particular quarter of the East End, or, at any rate, an habitué there. He must have a haunt near the western portion of the Whitechapel-road, from which he issues before the commission of one of his crimes, and to which he ventures swiftly after the deed is done’.

The paper was at pains to dismiss the idea that the killer was a doctor or surgeon but it believed that he must have a working knowledge of anatomy, or at least was familiar with the dissection of ‘of the human or animal body’. He could be caught however, by persistent and determined police work, a task the Standard declared, that it had confidence the police could and would fulfil.

So, in this brief editorial from the day after the ‘double event’ we get very many of the themes associated with the Ripper murders. There is the notion of the mythical killer, the press attention, the moral panic that consumed London, the impotence (or otherwise) of the Metropolitan Police, the nature of the victims, elite attitudes towards the lower class, and the idea that the East End of London and killings there reflected in some ways the cancer at the heart of the British Empire.

This is why I continue to research and teach about the Whitechapel murders, because it is a rich source of discussion and debate about so many things in late Victorian London, and this is why so many people remain fascinated by the topic.

[from The Standard, Monday, October 01, 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 here

One of the ‘Buck’s Row Slaughterers’ appears in court in September 1888

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I promised that this blog would return to the events of 1888 and the so-called Whitechapel or ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders. In the early hours of Sunday, 30 September, the body of Elizabeth (‘Long Liz’) Stride was discovered by the gates of Dutfield’s Yard in Berner Street. Her throat had been cut but she hadn’t been mutilated. Most experts agree that Liz’s killer had probably been disturbed in his murderous acts by the return to the yard of a trader in cheap jeweler, Louis Diemshutz, and his cart.

Liz’s death was only the first that night. An hour or so later Catherine Eddowes was murdered in Mitre Square on the City Police’s patch. The killer had much more time to carry out his ‘work’ here and Kate’s body was horribly mutilated.  The pair of killings have been dubbed the ‘double event’ after the press received a letter (and subsequent postcard) from someone purporting to be the murderer. Both missives were likely to have been sent by a journalist or mischief-maker and helped to raise the feeling of panic in the East End.

Meanwhile the police courts continued their business as normal, prosecuting  petty crime, domestic violence, and drunkenness on a daily basis. Liz Stride had herself been before the local magistracy on more than one occasion in the years and months leading up to her death.

On the 30 September that Sunday’s edition of Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper reported that the owner of the slaughter house in Winthrop Street had brought a prosecution for theft against one of his employees. Robert Whiffen (25), a horse slaughterer, was accused of stealing a diamond ring valued at £30.

The proprietor, (who was not named in the report) said he had lost the ring on the 18 August and had asked around at work. No one knew anything, or at least no one would say so. So he pursued his enquiries and when these drew more blanks he went to the police.

Acting on a tip off (in the form of a letter handed to the prosecutor) the police managed to trace the ring to a butcher in Mile End. Moss Joel testified before Mr Montagu Williams at Worhsip Street, telling him that he had bought the ring for £2 from the prisoner and sold it on for £2 15s. He could not recall who he sold it to however, even when Mr Williams pressed him to. The magistrate smelt a rat and suggested that things would go ‘awkwardly’ for Joel if ‘did not find the man’ he sold a £30 ring to. He remanded Whiffen in custody and dismissed the butcher to go and try harder to find the missing jewelry.

The Winthrop Street slaughterhouse was just yards from Bucks Row, where Polly Nichols had been murdered in late August 1888. The paper was well aware of this of course and headlined this report accordingly, terming it the ‘Buck’s Row Slaughterers’. At the time horse slaughters were suspected of being involved in the murders and my recent book presents a likely suspect who works in the horsemeat trade.  I argue that this man (James Hardiman) possibly worked for Harrison and Barber, the capital’s preeminent horse slaughters.

The Winthrop Street yard was owned by Albert Barber and it was he who brought the charge against Robert Whiffen. A ring valued at £30 in 1888 would be worth around £2,500 today so it is clear that Albert Barber was a very wealthy man. There was plenty of money in horse slaughtering, but it was a dirty and very hard trade and someone that was prepared to work hard and whenever required (as we believe Hardiman was) could expect to enjoy the confidence of his masters and the freedom to use their business premises at all hours of the day and night.

Very useful if you want to kill people as a well as horses…

Robert Whiffen was tried for the theft on the 22 October and convicted. He was sent to prison.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, September 30, 1888]

A ‘she cannibal’ in court for biting off her victim’s nose

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I have spent the last two weeks following the metropolitan police courts in one year, 1888, the year of the Whitechapel murders. I’ll return to 1888 in a couple of weeks to pick up the unfolding case at the point of the ‘double event’ – the murders of Liz Stride and Kate Eddowes on the night of the 30 September. But today it is worth reminding ourselves that the area of Whitechapel and Spitalfields was synonymous with violence  throughout the second half of the nineteenth century.

Catherine Simpson was well known to the police, and to her neighbours, as a violent woman. Anne Atkins was no angel but on this occasion she was the victim of a brutal assault which arose out of jealousy and, possibly, a misplaced attempt at defending some sense of ‘respectability’ in a part of London where poverty and degradation was ubiquitous.

The attack in question had happened in late August 1860 but as a result of Anne’s injuries it didn’t come before the magistrate at Worship Street until 15 September. Even then Anne was barely able to stand to give her evidence, and trembled at the very sight of her abuser.  Nor did the court do that much to protect her at first, allowing Simpson to cross-examine her directly for several minutes, something that clearly traumatized her victim.

The court was told that on 21 August Simpson had confronted Anne at her front door in Dorchester Street, Hoxton, demanding to know: ‘what business had you with my husband last night?’

Anne explained that she had seen Simpson’s husband that night but he’d not been with her, he’d been with another, much younger, woman. This didn’t satisfy Catherine who called Anne a prostitute and ‘other bad names’. Clearly Simpson either believed Anne was having an affair with her spouse or was tempting him away from her. She may even have genuinely believed that Anne was a prostitute, although it is more likely that this was simply a convenient and oft used term of abuse in working class communities like this.

Anne’s reacted to being called a ‘whore’ by slapping the other woman around the face and turning to shut the door. Catherine wasn’t easily deterred however, and followed her inside. There she grabbed Anne’s shoulders, pulled her towards her, and bit her nose. She bit down hard and left her victim with a bloody mess where her nose once was. Spitting the end of her nose on to the ground, she left.

Anne was quickly taken to hospital where the house surgeon, George Payne, did his best for her. She had lost a lot of blood he later testified, and it was almost three weeks before she was fit to be discharged. After her initial recovery she developed erysipelas, now described as a rash that can be treated with antibiotics. In 1860 however antibiotics were not available and the doctor feared that Anne might die. Fortunately she didn’t.

Catherine was forthright that the attack she’d made was provoked, not only by Anne’s alleged dalliance with her husband but because not only had she slapped her, she’d also spat in her face. As she defended herself and cross-examined Anne the other woman struggled and trembled in the witness stand. Even when the clerk acted as an intermediary, asking the questions on Catherine behalf,  Anne was so distraught that the prisoner had to be removed from the court for a while.

Various witnesses testified to the assault, including Louisa Cox who had screamed and ran for a policeman when she saw Simpson’s mouth covered in blood as she spat out Anne’s broken nose. Simpson was remanded for further enquiries, the evidence against her being considerable and the court being told that she had ‘a propensity for [this] class of offence’. She’d once served a week in gaol for biting sergeant Copping of K Division and was clearly a violent individual.

Reynolds’s Newspaper described Simpson as a ‘she cannibal’ and the whole sorry incident would have done nothing to dispel the view that the East End of London was a den of iniquity where violence, vice and crime  were rife.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, September 16, 1860]

‘I don’t convict a man for stealing a turnip and I won’t convict a man for stealing an empty champagne case, worth nothing’: A lucky escape in Mitre Square

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Yesterday’s blog concerned a violent assault in Berner Street, where Liz Stide was murdered on 30 September 1888. Today’s is about a theft committed in Mitre Square, the other killing site on the night of the so-called ‘double event’.

A night watchman – whose name wasn’t given in the newspaper’s report – testified at Guildhall Police court to hearing a noise on the International Tea Company’s premises in Aldgate. He went off to investigate and discovered a man trying to carry off a packing case. He called the police and the man was arrested.

On 11 September the man was placed in the dock and gave his name as Andrew Birke, he said he was a shoemaker. The magistrate, Sir Andrew Lusk, asked the night watchman what the value of the packing case –which had been entirely empty when Birke stole it – was.

‘I don’t know sir’, he replied.

‘It isn’t worth much, say 1d’, Sir Andrew suggested.

‘It is worth more than 1d, the man insisted, ‘but its not the value. This man has been convicted before, and I have known a man to be sent to prison for stealing a turnip’.

‘Well, I don’t convict a man for stealing a turnip’ said the justice; ‘and I won’t convict a man for stealing an empty champagne case, worth nothing’.

He then turned to the prisoner and told him ‘ I shall discharge you; but mind you don’t touch anybody’s property, in case you get into trouble’.

Two weeks later PC Watkins found Catherine Eddowes’ body in Mitre Square and one of the first people he spoke to was George Morris, an ex-policeman who worked as a night watchman for Kearly & Tonge, wholesale grocers in the square (see the 1887 map of the square, right). 10Mitre_Square_1887Morris had seen nothing untoward that night and entirely missed the killer brutally murdering Kate and removing her kidney and uterus.

However Kearly & Tonge were tea merchants so perhaps the unnamed watchman was Morris. This would make sense of his desire to see Birke prosecuted and punished as a thief despite the petty nature of the crime. Morris might have known him to be a villain and his comment about knowing someone convicted of stealing a turnip also rings true if he was formally a police officer. Sir Andrew Lusk was – as far as I am aware – no relation to George Lusk, the chair of the Whitechapel Vigilance society who was to receive a portion of a human kidney in the post a few days after the murder. Whether this came from Kate Eddowes is impossible to say.

So, first Berner Street then Mitre Square, it is strange how these coincidental connections appear just before the ‘double event’ happened.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, September 12, 1888]

A mother who’d be glad to see the back of her quarrelling children

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I am a little late in getting this up today because I’ve been working on the final draft of my new solution to the Jack the Ripper mystery. All the writing is completed but I’ve just had to finish my references and bibliography and get the whole in a format compliant with Amberley’s house rules. This is the boring bit of historical research and writing: reformatting and looking for grammatical mistakes!

It is much more fun to read the old newspapers and delve in the archives for new stories and today I’ve gone back to the London newspapers in September 1888 in the week before the so-called ‘double event’ when the ‘Ripper’ struck twice in one night. On the last night of September 1888 he killed Elizabeth Stride in Berner Street before moving on to murder Catherine Eddowes in Mitre Square about an hour later. By killing once in H Division’s patch and then straying over the City border he now had two police forces hunting frantically for any leads that might catch him.

Meanwhile the business of the Metropolitan Police courts went on as normal.

Most domestic violence was between parents and children or husbands and wives (or partners, as not all working class that cohabited were married). At Marlborough Street however a brother was accused of beating up his sister, both being in their early twenties and living at home. John Harrington (a porter)  was actually homeless when he was charged before Mr Newton. His mother and sister had actually moved house to ‘get rid’ of him his sister, Annie, explained.

But Tuesday morning, the 25 September 1888, she’d come home at 2 in the morning from ‘a concert’. Harrington was in the house and tried tried to prevent his mother from letting Annie in. Ellen Harrington was having nothing to do with it however and opened the door to her daughter. John piled into her, calling her names and complaining that she was drunk again and hadn’t given him money she owed him. It ended with him striking her several times.

In court Mrs Harrington declared that she’d had enough of both of them and wished they’d finally leave home. She said she’d be ‘glad to get rid of both son and daughter, and be left in peace to do the best she could’. She lamented that she’d brought them up well and they’d had a good education, her daughter ‘having reached the seventh standard’ but now they only repaid her by quarrelling.

She admitted her daughter was ‘like a maniac’ when she’d been drinking For his part John said his sister had started the fight, and had attacked him with a fork. All he’d done was point out that it was late, she was drunk, and the household had been disturbed by her. The court’s gaoler pointed out that while he’d never seen John before, Annie had been up a few times for disorderly behaviour.

It was a family squabble and it really shouldn’t have reached the courts at all. Mr Newton effectively bashed their heads together and told them to behave themselves in the future. Both Annie and John were  bound over the keep the peace towards each other, and liable for £5 each if they ended up back in his court.

After all in the autumn of 1888 there were much more serious crimes happening in the Victorian capital.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, September 26, 1888]

‘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

“Good-bye, Tom, I have done for my missis, and I am going to do for myself”; murder in the East End 1888

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The Isle of Dogs, 1899 (Manchester Road runs south-east parallel to Blackwall Reach)

In early October 1888 London was gripped by the ‘Ripper’ murders. As far as the press and public were concerned an unknown assassin had brutally murdered six women in a small area of East London and the police had no clue as to his identity. Police patrols had been stepped up and the newspapers were becoming inundated with fake letters from people purporting to be the murderer, and correspondence offering advice on how to catch him. Between the end of September (when both Elizabeth Stride and Katherine Eddowes were murdered on one night) and the 9th November (when Mary Kelly’s body was found in Miller’s Court) the killer seems to have lain low, avoiding the redoubled attentions of the police.

Meanwhile over at the Thames Police Court Mr Lushington was hearing the case of a man accused of murdering his wife. Levi Bartlett was a 57 year-old general dealer who lived and worked in Poplar. He and his wife, Elizabeth, ran a small shop on Manchester Road on the Isle of Dogs, selling mostly milk. He had been held on remand since the incident had happened back in August, because after killing his wife he had attempted to cut his own throat with a razor.

Even by October he was a weak man and was allowed to sit in court rather than stand through the evidence. Elizabeth’s sister, Emma Mears, testified that Levi and her sister had live together for many years before they married, and had now been married for about five years. During all of that time, she said, the dealer was ‘nearly always drunk’.

By all accounts when he was sober, Levi was a good man but that was rare. When in his cups he was abusive and violent and dipped into the shop’s till to feed his drinking habit.  Not surprisingly then quarrels between him and Elizabeth were frequent and loud.

On the 18th August 1888 Emma visited Elizabeth and found her sitting crying. When she asked what the matter was her long suffering sibling said:

‘Can’t you see the old villain is drunk again, and hasn’t been to bed since two this morning’. This was punctuated by the dealer’s loud denials, ‘don’t you believe her’ he shouted. He then asked for 2d for gin.

‘No, you villain, you have had enough now’ was his wife’s response. This provoked Bartlett to threaten her: ‘I will mark you for this tonight’, he declared.

More abuse was exchanged and before she left Emma told her her sister to fetch a policeman if her husband hit her again. Perhaps because Levi was so frequently drunk and abusive no one really expected what was to happen next, although the sights were there. At some point on Sunday morning (19 August) the former stevedore attacked his wife with a hammer, fatally wounding her,  before admitting his crime to George Jones who he had employed as a milk delivery man.

Jones later related the dramatic scene to the Old Bailey court as he was woken up by his master:

‘between 4 and 5 in the morning I was awoke by the prisoner coming into my room—he asked French if he had got any drink—French said no, he had forgot to bring any; the prisoner shook hands with French and said “Good-bye, you won’t see me no more alive”—he then went back to his own room, he seemed sober then—in about twenty minutes he came into our room again, and again bid French good-bye; he then came to me and said “Good-bye, Tom, I have done for my missis, and I am going to do for myself”—he shook hands with me and went out of the room’.

Bartlett then visited his old friend Benjamin French who had lodged with the Bartlett’s for 14 years. He also bids him ‘goodbye’ which left the dock labourer perplexed and not a little concerned. It was French that finally fetched a policeman, police sergeant Doe (30KR), who found Bartlett sitting on his bed ‘in his shirt, bleeding from the throat; the front of his shirt was covered with blood—he had a razor in his right hand’. Having taken the razor from him he summoned a doctor and then took him to hospital.

Bartlett, who had earned the nickname ‘Mad Dick the jockey’ (his middle name was Richard) was fully committed for trial at the Old Bailey. There, on the 22nd October 1888 he was convicted of murdering Elizabeth. Elizabeth’s sister testified to the years of abuse that she had suffered at Levi’s hands while the former dock worker’s best friend Benjamin said he had never heard a cross word between them. Drink was Bartlett’s downfall and it seems he simply could not function with it or without it. Ultimately this cost both him and his wife their lives; having recovered from his own suicide attempt Levi Richard Bartlett was hanged at Newgate Gaol on 13 November 1888.

Such a tragic event may well have created many more ‘headlines’ than it did in 1888 had there not been a supposedly crazed serial killer on the loose. This was, of course, a much more typical homicide for nineteenth century London than the series that has occupied the attention of researchers for over 120 years. Most murderers are men, and most of their victims (many of whom are women) are close to them – as wives, partners, lovers and acquaintances. The ‘Ripper’ killed strangers, and that made him all the more difficult (indeed almost impossible) to catch.

[from The Standard, Saturday, October 06, 1888]

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