Representing the Ripper: some lessons from Whitechapel and West Yorkshire

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If, like me, you watched the BBC’s recent three-part documentary on the Yorkshire Ripper case you might have been left pondering some of the conclusions that might be drawn from that awful episode in our recent history.  Tonight the BBC offers a less in-depth and more problematic documentary, which has already been criticized for its approach. At 9 o’clock Silent Witness star Emilia Fox presents a forensic reexamination of the  ‘Jack the Ripper’ with the help of criminologist Professor David Wilson. So the question I’d like to ask is what, if anything, can we learn from this sudden flurry of serious television aimed at two of the most high profile serial murder cases of the last 150 years?

Haille Rubenhold tweeted that documentaries like the one Fox will front this evening:

‘only feed the exploitative Ripper industry’, adding: ‘Trying out modern tech on some of the most defamed women in history just for the sake of entertainment is pretty low’.

So if exploiting the murders of five or more women in 1888 was ‘pretty low’ can we accuse Liza Williams of doing something similar in her recent series on Peter Sutcliffe’s crimes? I don’t think we can; Williams’ documentary was very careful not to ape some of the voyeuristic tendencies of modern ‘true crime’ programmes. The victims were placed centre stage and considered as real people (somebody’s mother, daughter, or friend) not as bodies to be dissected yet again. She stressed that all of Sutcliffe’s victims (the 13 he killed and the seven or more he attacked) left behind families that were and still are being affected by his casual inhumanity. It was extremely moving to hear interviews with Olive Smelt’s daughter, Wilma McCann’s son, and one of his earliest victims,  Tracey Browne who was just 14 when he hit her five or more times with a hammer in a country lane at Silsden.

Williams also focused her study on the police investigation and its failure to catch Sutcliffe. Although the investigation, led by Assistant Chief Constable Godfrey Oldfield and DCS Dennis Hoban, did eventually take credit for catching the killer Williams shows that Sutcliffe was caught despite the police team chasing him not because of it.

West Yorkshire police questioned Sutcliffe on no fewer than nine occasions and five times in the context of following up a lead directly linking him to one of the murders.  They ignored Tracey Browne’s description of her attacker as they didn’t believe the man they were hunting could have attacked her. This was because Oldfield and Hoban were convinced the murderer was only targeting prostitutes (despite him killing six women with no connection to the sex industry) and then because they believed that a tape sent to them was from the killer, and he had a Sunderland accent not a Yorkshire one.

In 1888 the police failed to catch the killer of five or more women (I believe the number he murdered was certainly in double figures, and that there were at least three non-fatal assaults). Again this might have been because the Victorian police were focusing on the wrong sort of killer, someone from outside of the community he terrorized. In this they were ably abetted by the media, just as the West Yorkshire force were in the late ‘70s and early 1980s. What Williams’ revealed was the way in which the British press (local and national) helped create an image of a monster – a master criminal with supernatural powers that helped him avoid capture.

When Sutcliffe appeared in the dock at Number One Court, Old Bailey in 1981 several journalists commented that he didn’t look or sound like the character they had imagined him to be. Instead Sutcliffe was a very ordinary sort of man, not larger than life at all.

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In 1888 the terror created by the original ‘Ripper’ was fueled by the intense press coverage of his attacks and the speculation as to his identity and his motives. Whitechapel and Spitalfields was overrun by journalists all searching for angles on the case and, just as the media did 100 years later, all intent of finding witnesses to interview, regardless of how it might undermine any future case the police might be trying to build against the culprit.

Moreover the press played its part in judging the victims by the prevailing standards of the day. In 1888 The Timespretty much stated that since the women killed by ‘Jack’ were ‘unfortunates’ (a contemporary euphemism for  prostitutes) they were culpable in their own demise. As Ripperologist Donald Rumbelow  has sometimes stated the Ripper killings were viewed as ‘so much street cleaning’ by some sections of Victorian society. Liza Williams’ documentary on the Yorkshire case reveals that a very similar mindset persisted there; the women killed by Sutcliffe were divided into ‘respectable’ and ‘immoral’ women when, after all, they were all simply innocent women.

Rubenhold’s new book on the victims (which has its flaws, be in no doubt) champions the lives of the women the Victorian Ripper murdered, just as Williams tries to do in her work. Both remind us that in every murder the killer is only one small part of the story. His name (and it is usually a ‘he’) is often the one that best remembered however, even if that name is often confused and (as with ‘Jack’) mythologized.

So what can we take from these two cases and the way they’ve been presented recently? I would say this: both reveal how hard it is to catch someone who preys on the most vulnerable in society. All of the victims of the Victorian killer were very poor women found out on the street at night, some of them intoxicated or at least befuddled by drink. Many of Sutcliffe’s victims were engaged in prostitution for the simply fact that society had failed them and they believed it was the only way they had to feed their families. Inequality and poverty runs through both these cases.

Moreover, the way these women were viewed also coloured the way the press reported their deaths and the police investigations that tried lamely to catch their killers. Frankly then society let these women down in the first place and then compounded that failure by blaming them for becoming victims.

We need to get away from the societal condemnation of anyone who sells sex for whatever reason. Prostitution is rarely a positive life choice; it is born of desperation, poverty, and (usually male) exploitation of women. A woman that is forced (by circumstances or someone else) to prostitute herself is no less of a woman than anyone else. She deserves the right to live every bit as much as we all do; no one has the right to take away her life and the sooner society recognizes this the better. Where I disagree with Rubenhold’s thesis that the five ‘canonical’ victims of the Whitechapel murderer were not all prostitutes is this: why does it even matter?  That there is evidence for or against them being prostitutes is immaterial in my view; they were all innocent regardless.

Finally what Liza Williams reminded me was that Peter Sutcliffe was no mythological demon possessed of supernatural abilities to evade capture. He was an ordinary nonentity – someone you’d not look at twice in the street. A quiet neighbour who lived with his wife and went to work each day driving a lorry. No one suspected him, not even the police when they interviewed him.

This very much fits the profile of the man Andy Wise and I think responsible for the Whitechapel series of murders between 1887 and 1891. A man we think hid in plain sight and melted away into the alleys and courts of the East Ed which knew like the back of his hand.  The police may have arrested and questioned him as they did many others, but they let him go off to kill again because he didn’t fit the false profile of the monster they were hunting.

‘Jack and the Thames Torso Murders’, by the author and Andy Wise, is published by Amberley in June 2019

Polish ‘moonshine’ and a police stakeout in Whitechapel 1888

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Detective supervisor Llewhellin [sic] had organised a stakeout to watch two properties in Whitechapel in March 1888. This had nothing to do with the infamous murders in that district because, in the spring of that year, no one suspected that the name ‘Jack the Ripper’ was about to become a byword for brutality against women.

Instead Llewhellin and the two detective constables under his orders were acting on information that a number of people were involved in buying and selling spirits without paying the tax due on them. As they waited they saw two men – Aaron Klausner (34) and Aaron Cohen Zeitlin (17) – enter the house in the middle of the night, carrying ‘a hamper partially filled with straw’. Not long afterwards they reappeared outside 72 Whitechapel High Street with the same hamper, but this time it seemed to be a lot heavier, as they were struggling a little to support it.

As the men moved off Llewhellin and his team followed at a distance tracking them to a house known to be the home of a local Rabbi. Just as they were about to go inside Llewhellin pounced, ordering his men to arrest them. Zeitlin took to his heels but was picked up soon afterwards, hiding in a nearby loft. The rabbi was Zeitlin’s father but he seemed to know nothing about his boy’s activities. The place was searched nevertheless and a quantity of wine was found there.

More wine (some being made) and two barrels of spirits were discovered at Klausner’s home and it was clear some sort of illegal operation had been exposed. In court Klausner admitted that he had been making a white spirit distilled from plums. This could be a ‘moonshine’ version of slivovitz, which is widely drunk in Central and Eastern Europe. It is a plum brandy which has very long association with Jewish cultural traditions in Poland, where many of the Jewish community living in Spitalfields and Whitechapel had emigrated from.

Aaron Klausner dealt in spirits and the police undercover team had purchased nine bottles from him only days before as part of their operation. However, in court Klausner claimed that he’d paid duty for the spirit and hadn’t known it was against the law to take it from one place to another without paying additional excise charges. According to an officer from the Inland Revenue who was present it was, and of course ignorance of the law is no defense for breaking it.

Mr Hannay, who was the duty magistrate at Worship Street Police court, took pity on the pair however. The fine they were both liable to was substantial but the prosecution was, he said, ‘somewhat novel and unusual’ so he would mitigate it. The minimum fine of £10 each would be levied, but that was still a very large sum for them to find.

At first both men were taken away to begin the 21 days imprisonment that was the default punishment for those unable to pay that fine  but Klausner was later released, his friends and relative shaving brought the money to court. Young Zeitlin would have to stay where he was for three weeks and then explain himself to his father on his release. One imagines that would be the most difficult of conversations.

[from The Standard, Thursday, March 22, 1888]

An enterprising mother and daughter team come unstuck

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St Botolph’s, Aldgate from the Minories

Cordelia Johnson ran a small manufacturing workshop in the Minories, on the borders of the East End of London and the City. The wife of a commercial traveller, Mrs Johnson employed a number of women to make up work shirts which were sold to a number of ‘outfitters and slopsellers’ in the City.  For weeks now items of her stock had been going on a daily basis and Cordelia was unable to discover how.

Eventually she turned to one of her most trusted employees, a young woman named Mary Ann Cantwell who she trusted to run errands for her as well as in the workshop sewing shirts. Mary Ann promised to help by keeping her eyes open and her ear to the ground for any hints of who was responsible for the pilfering.

Unfortunately for Mrs Johnson however, Mary Ann was the culprit. She was in league with her mother Harriet and the pair of them were engaged in a clever racket by which they stole material or fully made up shirts and pawned them at one or more of East London’s many pawnbrokers’ shops.  Mary Ann must have felt untouchable when her boss trusted her with the effort to trace the thieves and it emboldened her.

On Saturday 14 March 1857 Mary Ann spoke to one of the other younger women in the workshop and suggested she steal a pile of clothes and pawn them in Poplar. The girl, like Mary Ann, was Irish and the funds raised, she said, could be used to fuel the forthcoming St Patrick’s Day festivities. The girl was not so easily tempted however and went straight to her boss and told her what had happened. Mrs Johnson went to see the police and Police Sergeant Foay (7H) – ‘an intelligent detective officer’ – decided to follow Mary Ann to see what she was up to.

From his hiding place in Mrs Johnson’s house Sergeant Foay watched the young woman leave the factory take a pile of shirts from a cupboard and walk out of the building. He tracked her to Cannon Street Road, on the Ratcliffe Highway where she met her mother and handed over the clothes. Foay pounced and grabbed at the pair of them. HE got hold of Mary Ann but Harriett put up ‘a most determined resistance’ hitting and biting him in the process. Eventually he had them both under arrest and when they were safely locked up the police went off to search their lodgings at 13 Cannon Street Road.

There they found more evidence, namely a great number of pawnbrokers’ duplicates. These were cross checked with several ‘brokers who confirmed that they had been exchanged for shirts and materials brought by Harriet or Mary Ann. Four duplicates were found on the younger woman who, in front of Mr Selfe at Thames Police court, tried to take all the blame herself, saying her mother knew nothing of the crime.

The magistrate acknowledged this act of selfless filial duty but dismissed it. The evidence against both of them was overwhelming and both would be punished. Mary Ann was fined £6 for illegally pawning items (with a default of two months’ imprisonment if she was unable to pay, which I suspect meant she did go to gaol). If so she might have joined her 40 year-old mother whom the magistrate sent straight to prison for two months’ hard labour without even the option of paying a fine.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, March 20, 1857]

The gin craze in 1890s Mile End

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It is a great time to be a gin connoisseur; there are new brands or artisanal gin popping up seemingly every week and a collection of tonics that complement them beautifully. I think I’ve currently got about eight different sorts of gin in my cabinet but until the weather improves that’s probably where they’ll stay.

Gin is relatively easy to produce and since it is a white spirit it can be flavoured with pretty much any sort of botanical. In Victorian London gin was a cheap alcohol favoured by the masses (rather like the cheap nasty gin that Winston Smith and everyone below the elite ranks of the Party consume in Orwell’s 1984). Gin palaces sold cheap liquor to working-class Londoners, many of whom drank it to drown out the depressing reality of their impoverished daily lives.

As a result there was always a market for cheap ‘booze’ and in 1899 Louis Wormker and his mates decided they might as well profit from it. Wormker, along with Solomen Rosenbloom, Abraham Rosenbloom, his wife Sarah, and their friend Levi Kalhan were immigrants or the descendants of immigrants living in East London’s Mile End district.

They had set up an illegal still at 1, Bohn Street which held 10-15 gallons of spirit. In the back parlour the gin was flavored with caraway and other essences while being stored in large casks each holding 36 gallons. At nearby Ellen Street (where Abraham Rosenbloom lived) investigators from the Inland Revenue found more evidence of the illegal operation to bottle and distribute unlicensed alcohol to clubs and pubs in the area.

The four men and one woman were brought before Mr Mead at Thames Police court and prosecuted on behalf of the Inland Revenue Commissioners (since this was a case of the evasion of tax and duty). The IRC employed its own detectives  to investigate the case and, at this stage, wanted the culprits to enter into bail to appear at a later date. Sarah Rosenbloom was asked to find £50 bail, the others £100 each. This done they were all released.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, March 01, 1899]

The NSPCC steps in to ‘save’ four kids from their drunken mother

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The NSPCC was founded in 1884 (notably a lot later than the charity for the protection of animals) with the mission to force society to take much more care over the neglect and abuse of children. In 1889 it had its first breakthrough when it successfully campaigned to get parliament to pass legislation to protect children and at this point the London Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children added the word ‘National’ as it expanded nationwide.

Mr and Mrs Farrant must have been amongst the first wave of parents to be prosecuted as a result of the society’s actions. In February 1896 the couple were summoned before the magistrate at West Ham Police court charged with neglecting their four children.

The case was brought by the NSPCC and prosecuted by Mr Moreton Philips on their behalf. The parents were defended by their own solicitor, Mr Fred George. The NSPCC were alerted to the plight of the children by the Farrants’ landlady and visited their home in Wharf Road, Stratford. Inspector Brunning of the Society found the kids living in desperate conditions, the three youngest being left home alone for long periods.

All four children – James (7), Racheal (5), Minetta (3) and George (1) lived in a condition ‘likely to cause them unnecessary suffering or injury to health’. The inspector reported that ‘the children were dirty and insufficiently clothed’ and they were ill. He told Rachael Farrant in no uncertain terms that she must act to improve things or a prosecution would follow.

The family moved – to Tenby Road – but there was no improvement. When Brunning tracked them down again he found them in the same situation only now both James and George had developed opthalmia (possibly conjunctivitis) in their eyes and the ‘place was in a horrible state’. If the eye disease was not treated it could lead to blindness but the state of the place and the mother suggested that the care of the children was hardly top of Mrs Farrant’s ‘to-do- list.

In court while James Farrant – a cooper – was said to be a hard-working man who gave his wife 20-30sa week for the family, Racheal was ‘addicted to drink’. The neglect was proved beyond doubt and so it only fell to the magistrate to determine punishment. This might have severe consequences for the children because both parents were now liable to be imprisoned.

In the end the magistrate decided that James was less culpable than his wife, since he gave her ample money to look after the children and household. So he fined him 20s and let him go. That would still make a dent in the £3 he earned a week (about £230) but it kept him out of gaol. Racheal was not as fortunate. Since she was held most to blame the justice sent her to prison for two months, with hard labour. It was hoped, the magistrate added, that the ‘rest’ from the drink would help her quit.

He didn’t say what would happen to the children if James Farrant had no one he could turn to look after them but with four children under 7 it was imperative that he found a family member of female friend to step in quickly, or they’d end up in the workhouse. The NSPCC might have saved them from neglect but its actions may well have resulted in a worse and more uncertain future for the Farrant children.

[from The Standard, Thursday, 7 February, 1895]

A warning: if you have a sense of fair play and justice this may annoy you.

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Lewis Wills was a respectable small businessman who ran a trimming workshop in Mile End. At premises in Raven Row he employed a large number of women  who undertook piece work there and from home. One of these women was Mrs Emma Davis and on the 22 December 1847 she had an unfortunate meeting with her employer.

Emma and her husband, like many in the East End, were poor and lived a hand-to-mouth existence, relying on what ever the pair of them could bring in by working every possible hour and hope it was enough to meet the rent, feed their children, and heat their rooms. Winter was always harder and in the run up to Christmas Richard Davis was unemployed.

Richard was no slouch however and (as Norman Tebbit would have no doubt approved) he got on his metaphorical ‘bike’ and traveled to Southampton to look for work. Meanwhile Emma continued to take in trimming work to keep the family solvent. One of the advantages she had enjoyed was that Mr Wills was generous enough to advance money to his workers, to help them meet their obligations to landlords and local shopkeepers.

As a result Emma, and others in the workshop, were literally indebted to him. Sadly, surrounded by young women this proved quite a temptation to Wills, and one he could not resist. On the 22nd Emma came to him to ask for the advance of a shilling against her wages.

Knowing her husband was away Wills decided to turn this encounter to his advantage and he suggested to Emma that if she was willing to allow him to take what she described as ‘improper liberties’ with her he would lend her a half sovereign. Emma was deeply shocked and offended, especially when Wills pressed his case and grabbed hold of her. She had been propositioned and sexually assaulted by her employer and she ran home as fast as she could.

When her husband came back she told him and he was furious, wanting to press charges against Wills but Emma was cautious. She still owed him money and had work to complete; she was worried she’d lose her job and then how would they cope. Richard went to see Wills and remonstrated with him but the man denied doing anything and sent him away. Emma decided to go and see Mrs Wills, to plead with her woman to woman but at first she was prevented from doing so by the trimmings manufacturer and then, when she did finally see her, she was dismissed out of hand. Wills had got to his wife first and warned her that a hysterical woman was about to make false accusations against him.

Unless the couple formally went to law they were unlikely to get any justice from the situation. So in January, when all the work was completed and no debts were owing, Richard applied for a warrant to bring Lewis Wills before the magistrate at Thames Police court. To get such a warrnat the case was recounted to Mr Yardley (the magistrate on duty) and Wills was defended by his lawyer, Mr Pelham.

Pelham went on the attack demanding to know why it had taken so long to bring his client to court. Emma and Richard explained (as detailed above) but it fell on deaf ears. The lawyer rejected the suggestion that Wills effectively exploited his female workforce for sexual favours by inveigling them into his debt and dismissed Emma’s testimony as nonsense.

Then Emma produced another worker, this time a much younger girl, who was being led to the witness box to support a claim that Wills’ predatory sexual behavior was widespread when Mr Yardley stopped her. He said ‘the girl would not assist the case, and he refused to examine her. It was quite impossible’, he added, ‘to trust to the evidence’. As far as he was concerned Richard Davis was at fault here: he should have brought the case immediately and implied that he’d only done so when Wills had refused his wife any more work.

Thus in his view this was a malicious prosecution and he dismissed it.

Emma and Richard left court without ever being able to bring her abuser to a public hearing to defend himself. That was exactly what his lawyer intended and in this he had the full cooperation of the magistrate, a man drawn from a similar social class. The court was in effect deciding, without a ‘trial’, that such a person could not be deemed to have done such a thing and that, therefore, Emma was a liar.

This was a crushing defeat for the Davis family and probably meant that Emma would have to seek work elsewhere, but with all local businessmen knowing she was marked out as a ‘troublemaker’. In the meantime a ‘sex pest’ was free to exploit and abuse his small army of female   workers, who were made even more vulnerable by the failure of the law to protect one of their own. This kind of behaviour has recently been called out by the ‘MeToo’ movement but it is nothing new of course, and men like Wills continue to take advantage of the power they have over vulnerable women.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, January 19, 1848]

Murder most foul in Old Nicol Street

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Old Nicol Street (from an image on the St Hilda’s East Community Memories blogsite)

James Muir had spent the whole of Christmas in gaol. He’d been accused in mid December of the murder of Abigail Sullivan, with whom he ‘at times’ cohabited in Shoreditch. The couple had a tempestuous relationship and arguments (often drunken ones) were frequent.

It was a familiar story in the East End, where domestic violence was endemic and murder or manslaughter all too often the result. At some point the pair had separated, with a suggestion that Muir had been seeing someone else, a lodger at the house in Old Nichol Street where Sullivan had lived with him. This woman was Selina Lewis and she was present when the fatal attack occurred.

Lewis told the magistrate at Worship Street Police court (a Mr Rose) that Abigail Sullivan had been speaking with Muir in her room when things got heated. He hit her and she fell down. Muir then made to leave, saying he was off to get a drink. Selina left as well but came back a few minutes later with a boy. Since Abigail was still lying prone on the floor Selina told the lad to fetch over a lamp so she could examine her. When he did so they both saw that the poor woman was dead and blood was flowing from a wound in her chest.

The police were called and the body was assessed by Percy Clark, an assistant to Dr Bagster Phillips, (the police surgeon who had presided in several of the ‘Ripper’ murders in 1888). He testified in court that Abigail had suffered a fatal wound that had ‘penetrated the lung and divided the aorta. The cause of death was syncope [loss of consciousness] and loss of blood’. The weapon was produced in court, a ‘thin-bladed butchering knife’ and the police inspector present said it must have been wielded with ‘considerable force’.

Selina admitted that the quarrel had been about her and Muir’s relationship with her. The knife also hers but she’d not seen the prisoner Muir use it. That he had was not in doubt however, as he’d been arrested outside in the street by PC Brown (389H) who picked it up as the killer tried to throw it away. Muir was remanded in custody again so that Mr Sims, the Treasury solicitor, could summon five more witnesses for the prosecution.

It took until early February for the case to make it to the Central Criminal court at Old Bailey but then it didn’t trouble the jury for too long.

Muir, described elsewhere as a 39 year-old shoemaker, was found guilty of killing his former partner and the mother of his child, a baby whom Abigail had given into the care of another resident while she spoke to her errant common-law husband. One witness knew the pair well. Caroline Hall lived at 67 Old Nicol (while Sullivan had a room at number 4) and she told the Old Bailey court:

‘I have heard him threaten her—I heard him say that he would give her a good hiding some night, and that he would swing for her’.

James Muir did ‘swing for her’ on 1 March 1892 at Newgate Prison. He was hanged by James Billington and the motive given at the time was that although he and Abigail had split up she ‘still pestered him for money’. Presumably to support her little baby girl, who was now an orphan.

A very happy New Year to everyone reading this and especial thanks to those who’ve been reading my posts on a regular (or irregular) basis for the past year or more. In 2019 my next book will come out – a co-authored analysis of the Whitechapel and Thames Torso murders with my friend and fellow researcher Andy Wise. Hopefully it will be published by Amberley in June, but I’ll keep you posted on here.

[from The Standard, Friday, 1 January, 1892]