‘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

It is a year before the first ‘Ripper’ murder but the portents are visible in East End life

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In August 1887 London had little inkling of the terror that was to haunt the East End in just a year’s time. There was violence and crime aplenty of course, but no more or less than usual, and nothing to suggest that Whitechapel and the East End was soon to be the focus of world attention as a serial killer struck again and again with impunity.

Despite the ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders being extraordinary by any standards I wonder if the foundations for the unknown killer’s actions were already well established in the community he later terrorised. Domestic violence was endemic; linked to alcoholism and poverty, and patriarchal attitudes towards women. With the campaign against contagious diseases and the well-publicized attack on vice and immorality prostitution was also in the spotlight with sex workers demonized as the carriers of diseases which had decimated the army in the Crimea.

But it was the causal, commonplace brutality eked out daily by working-class men towards their wives and common-law partners that really empowered the actions of the ‘Ripper’.

Men frequently beat and abused their womenfolk in the East End and while murders might have been relatively unusual, manslaughter and grievous bodily harm was not. Unless the police actually saw it happen they weren’t able to interfere and even then many if not most were reluctant to get involved in a ‘a domestic’.  The survivors were also reluctant to press charges against their abusers; in fear of retaliation or the loss of the main breadwinner. Magistrates were frustrated but there was little they could do save deal with offenders when they did come before them.

Frederick Smith was a 35 year-old milkman living in Britannia Street, off the City Road. In late August 1887, a year before the Ripper murdered Polly Nicholls in Bucks Row, Smith was brought before Mr Bushby at Worship Street Police court. The milkman was accused of violently assaulting his wife.

PC 63G testified that he had been called to an incident at the defendant’s home and found Mrs Smith ‘lying insensible and bleeding on the pavement’. A few people had gathered and they told him that she fallen out of a window above. He got her into a cab and took her to the London Hospital to be treated. She regained consciousness on the journey and told him that he husband had attacked her and thrown her out of the window to the street below.

When he’d deposited her at the hospital he went back and arrested Fred who, he now realized, had been part of the crowd gathered around Mrs Smith’s body in the street. When he’d seen the policeman the milkman had quickly made himself scarce. Since Mrs Smith was still in hospital and unable to give evidence Mr. Bushby remanded the prisoner for a week and the gaoler locked him up.

We don’t know if Mrs Smith made a full recovery or, if she did, whether she pressed charges against her husband. There’s no record of a Frederick Smith being prosecuted at the Old Bailey for murder or manslaughter, which makes me hopeful that his wife survived.  Fred Smith is hardly an unusual name however, so newspaper searches are problematic.

I think it does indicate the casual nature of violence meted out to working-class women in the 1800s; when ‘ordinary’ me could do this and (mostly) get away with it then surely its not too far of a leap to understand why a disturbed individual could feel emboldened to take that violence much further.

[from The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, August 27, 1887]

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

A ‘most daring (and painful) robbery’

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Fanny Corzinski had just left home with her husband to go to a wedding. She was dressed in her best outfit and was wearing gold earrings for the occasions. They hailed a cab and had just sat inside when a large crowd of boys and young men appeared, and proceeded to ‘mob’ the hansom.

One of the youth reached through the cab’s window and struck at them, hitting Mr Corzinski on the head with a walking cane. He hurriedly pulled up the window and urged the driver to move. The cab was going nowhere however, stranded as it was in the crowd of riotous lads.

Another lad smashed the window with a stick and tried to grab at Corzinski’s watch and chain. When he failed in this attempt he noticed Fanny’s earrings and lunged for them, pulling one off and getting away. In doing so he tore the lobe of her ear, injuring her.

Her husband wanted to run after the lad but it was simply too dangerous. Fortunately the crowd soon dispersed and the river was able to effect an escape from the danger. In the days following the robbery Fanny had noticed the main culprit and pointed him out to police. The lad was identified as Patrick O’Leary and he was picked up by PC Bolton and brought before Mr Hosack at Worship Street Police court.

The prisoner had no defense for his action and admitted his guilt, hoping for a more lenient sentence. Mr Hosack told him it was a ‘most daring and painful’ robbery and sent him to prison for three months with hard labour.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, August 14, 1884]

Caveat Emptor is the watchword on the Ratcliffe Highway as an Italian sailor strikes a hard bargain

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The Ratcliffe Highway in the late 1800s

Here’s a case of caveat emptor (‘buying beware’) from the Ratcliffe Highway, where in the nineteenth century unwary sailors and other visitors were frequently separated from their hard earned wages.

Marion Madria was an Italian seaman, one of many in the multi-cultural district close to the dockyards that stretched along the East End’s riverfront. As he walked along the Ratcliffe Highway in early August 1857 he passed a jewelry shop. One of the store’s employees stood outside offering items for sale to passers-by, tempting them to enter with special offers and ‘bargains of the lifetime’. Their tactics were much the same as those of retailers today, but relied on the spoken word more than print (sensible in a society with much lower levels of literacy than today’s).

Madria was hooked and reeled in to the shop where he was offered a gold chain for just £3. It was a ‘too-good-to-be-true’ bargain but £3 was still a lot of money so the sailor bartered the price down to £2 9s. He didn’t have all the money but that was no problem, the shop assistant said he could pay a deposit of 9and bring the balance back later. Moreover, he could even take the chain away in the meantime.

I suspect Madria might have been a little drunk when he bought the chain, which would hardly have been unusual for a sailor on the Highway. Later that day as he showed his prize off to his mates he soon realized he’d been ‘done’.  The ‘gold’ chain was nothing more than brass and worth barely 6not nearly £3. It should have been obvious that a chain of that eight made from gold would have cost nearer £300 than £3. It really was too good to be true.

Enraged and not a little embarrassed the Italian obtained a summons to bring the shop’s owner to court to answer for his attempt to defraud him. In consequence Samuel Prehowsky appeared at Thames Police court before Mr Yardley. Since Madria’s English was limited at best the case was presented by a lawyer, Mr Young.

Young set out the details of the case and showed the justice the chain in question. He said he’d had it valued at between 4 and 6 pence and it was clearly not even worth the 9sthat Madria had left as a deposit. Mr Yardley agreed but he was far from certain that any fraud had taken place. He couldn’t quite believe that anyone would have fallen for it anyway. Young said that his client had ‘been dragged into the shop, and done for’. The magistrate replied that had he indeed been ‘dragged in he would have dealt with this as an assault, but he’d entered of his own volition. There was no assault involved at all, just incredible naivety.

Mr Prehowsky was an immigrant himself, a long established Jewish trader in clothes and jewelry who had come to London from Poland many years earlier. He explained that he’d not been in the shop that morning but would be able to bring witnesses to prove that Madria was not charged £30 but just 10s, which he bargained down to 9s and paid.  At this Madra cut in:

‘He say all gold, only £2 9s. – you leave me de money, all you have got, -9s and bring me de money, all the rest of it’.

‘You have not paid him the other £2 I hope?’, the magistrate asked him.

‘No Senhor, all brass, like the Jew [who] stand there’.

This last exchange brought the house down, laughter filling the courtroom.

It was a cautionary tale for the paper’s readership – be careful when you are buying jewelry on the Highway or you might get less than you bargained for. It was also an opportunity to make fun at the expense of a foreigner (Madria) and remind English readers that Jews were untrustworthy and avaricious. But no crime had been committed. Prehowsky confirmed that he was not seeking the extra £2 in payment for this goods (he said he never had anyway) and the Italian had his chain so as far as Mr Yardley was concerned that was that. He advised Madria not to buy jewelry in future and let everyone go.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, August 6, 1857]

Casual racism from the lips of someone who should know better: Anti alienist in nineteenth-century Whitechapel

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This morning I’m off to Whitechapel to show some friends of mine around the area. If the weather is kind to us (and it’s not looking good!) I will take them to see the strange sights of one of the most interesting parts of the capital. This was the area where Jack the Ripper selected and killed his victims, from amongst some of the poorest people in London.

In the nineteenth century it was an area that was home to a vibrant community of mixed ethnicities, and it must have been filled with a cacophony of competing languages. It was dangerous, exciting, troubling and fascinating and it drew visitors from across London of all classes to gawp at what they saw there. Soon after the Whitechapel murders began ‘dark’ tourists started to come to see where ‘Polly’ or ‘Annie’ were attacked and left mutilated, a phenomenon that has continued to this day.

We’re not going on a ‘Ripper tour’; while very good ones exist I’m not entirely comfortable with the whole industry that surrounds the case and anyway, I know the sites well enough to show my friends should they want to have a look. Hopefully I can contextualize them within the social history of the 1880s.

One thing I hope they do notice today (given that they are coming south from ‘middle England’) is the diversity of the modern East End and how this echoes the Whitechapel of the 1880s. In the last quarter of the century this was home to tens of thousands of immigrants fleeing persecution and hoping for better life in the West. Ashkenazi Jews from the Russian Empire (from modern day Lithuania, Poland, and Ukraine) escaped from the Tsar’s terror and came to London and settled (or continued their journey to the USA).

Most stayed close to docks where they arrived and where there was already a well established Jewish community (so they had places to worship, kosher food they could eat, people that understood their language, and opportunities to work). They found work as boot and shoemakers, bakers, and in ‘rag trade’ sweat shops. They certainly impacted the area and tensions were often raised – no more so than during the Ripper case when some people pointed the finger of blame at the Jews, suggesting ‘no Englishman could have done this’.

While England in the 1880s had no laws against immigration there was racism, better known then as ‘anti-alienism’. Men like Arnold White stoked the fires of xenophobia, publishing lies and preying upon people’s fears of the ‘other’ and arguing that the new arrivals took locals’ jobs or deflated wages. Just like the lies spread by modern racists the claims were not true but the lies stuck. When times are hard it is easy to blame those that look different from the majority for all the problems in society.

This clearly wasn’t helped by the attitudes of those in positions of authority, or by the actions of influencers like the editors of newspapers. In 1891 The Standard newspaper reported the daily news from the Police Courts with the following story from the East End.

The sitting magistrate that day was Montagu Williams , QC. The clerk had handed him a list of summonses, the first six of which were applications from ‘foreign Jews’ who had taken them out against their co-religionists for threats and assaults. The report went on to say that, ‘as usual in such cases, some of other of the parties was unable to speak the English language, and there was a rush of persons to offer their services’ as translators.

Mr Williams had a rule that only one person should act as interpreter for the court, and he charged a fee. A solicitor for one of the men in court told the justice that his client could not afford that fee as he was a poor man. Williams said ‘he did not care’, adding:

It was not for the Court to pay the interpreter in these wretched squabbles. If these foreigners were allowed to flock into this country and, when settled here, were to disturb the peace by quarrelling and fighting among themselves, it would soon be necessary that they should have a Court with the officers and Magistrate speaking their language’.

This drew laughter from the public gallery.

As the cases were heard the same solicitor (Mr Bedford) was attempting to make his case about the threatening language used by one of the accused, referring to the ‘hard swearing’ that was common in the community.

‘You need not trouble about the language, Mr. Bedford’, Montagu Williams told him. ‘These people cannot speak the truth in any language. They are none of them to be believed on their oath’.

This then was the prevailing attitude towards Eastern European immigrants in late nineteenth-century London and it contributed towards the passing of the first anti-immigrant legislation (the Aliens Act) in the early twentieth century. Nowadays the dews have mostly gone from Spitalfields  (although there are traces of them in old shops signs and other buildings). They worked hard and prospered and moved north into the suburbs. Other groups followed them and now this area is home to many Bengalis.

Racism and xenophobia has not moved on sadly, and continues to blight society. London’s success (and that of Britain as a whole) is built on the industry of millions of immigrants over a thousand years or more and we would do well to remember and celebrate it, not immediately point the finger at ‘them’ when times are hard.

[from The Standard, Thursday, July 30, 1891]

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

History in the making as the Match Girls’ strike meets the Police courts

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On occasion ‘bigger’ history touches the reports from the metropolitan police courts as the magistracy sought to deal with everyday issues in London. This is one of those.

Lewis Lyons appeared at Worship Street Police court in July 1888 to answer a charge that he had obstructed the highway in Fairford Row, Bow. The law of obstruction was one of the most frequently prosecuted actions at summary level since it was a misdemeanor that was usually brought by the police. They patrolled the streets and so anyone blocking the road, whether by selling from a coster’s barrow, gambling with dice, busking with an organ and monkey, or lecturing the public on politics or religion, was liable to be asked to ‘move on’ by a policeman. If they refused then they would have their name and address taken and be escorted to the nearest police station.

Lyons was addressing the crowd that had gathered there to listen, most of them young women who worked nearby. He was talking to them about their conditions of work, how they were being exploited by their employers and, presumably, urging them to resist. He was a well-known socialist agitator who counted Annie Besant amongst its circle of acquaintances. Fairford Road was the home of Bryant and May, the match manufacturers. The firm paid their workers very little and forced them to work in appalling conditions. Lyons told the gathered crowd that Bryant and May were ‘sweaters’, who ‘employed girls who had no organization at low wages, and reduced that wage by fines’.

Trouble had started in June when Annie Besant’s article on conditions in the factory had been published in The Link, a radical newspaper. The article had been informed by whistle blowers amongst the match girls and when Bryant and May reacted by sacking an employee a strike committee was organized.

Lyons was speaking on the 6 July 1888 which was the day when nearly the whole factory had downed tools and come out in solidarity to protest the conditions and poor pay they had to put up with. While Besant’s article might had helped precipitate the action she wasn’t the leader of the Match Girl’s strike. As Louise Raw has shown this was an action organized by the working-class women of Bryant and May themselves, although with support from middle class Fabians and socialists like Besant, Lyons and Charles Bradlaugh, the Northampton MP. Besant helped broker a deal with Bryant and May’s management and on 16 July the strike ended with the employers acquiescing on all of the women’s demands. Meals would be taken off the ‘shop floor’ (and so away from the noxious phosphorus that was central to the manufacturing process), unfair deductions and fines were stopped, and grievances were no longer to filtered through the male foreman on the shop floor but would go directly to management.

Lyons was unable to persuade the magistrate at Worship Street that he was not guilty of obstruction. He claimed that the crowd was caused by the police not by himself, that the crowd was already there, and that anyway the police had ensured that carts and wagons could get in and out of the factory the whole time. He had plenty of support in court, including a woman named Sarah Goslin who several of the watching match girls in court mistook for Besant, rushing over to say ‘It’s all true!’.

Mr Bushby was unmoved, perhaps unsurprisingly given the challenge to his class that the Match Girls strike represented. He fined Lyons 20s or 14 days imprisonment. I imagine he paid because he wasn’t a poor man. He later bailed out Besant when she was arrested. The strike was an inspiration for the trade union movement and the 6 July 1888 was a key point in that ongoing battle between workers and bosses, with the following year saw the successful Great Dock Strike, which also started in the East End of London.

The scenes of police grappling with protestors in Fairford Street must have shocked the reading public, especially those with property and businesses but within a few weeks a new story would dominate the newsstands of the capital. By the end of August 1888 it was clear that a brutal serial killer was stalking the streets of the East End, the killer known to history as ‘Jack the Ripper’.

[from The Standard, Saturday, July 14, 1888]

Drew’s new book (co-authored by Andy Wise) . 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 is published by Amberley Books and is available on Amazon

A baby on the tracks and a child in a dustbin; two horror stories from the 1880s

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Lloyd’s weekly round up of ‘Police intelligence’ on Sunday 13 July 1884 contains a fascinating variety of human greed, misery and criminal artfulness. There are possibly a dozen or more cases from a betting scam in the City of London to an assault in Highgate, and the stories reveal the diversity of life in the Victorian capital. Two cases stand out amongst the petty thefts, domestic violence, fraud and juvenile crime reported. Both involve some form of child abuse, and both are quite shocking examples.

Clara Wardle was prosecuted at Thames Police court in the East End of London in very strange circumstances. Clara was seen to place a small child, her own baby, on the tram lines on Commercial Road and then run away. Luckily for the infant John Kerr saw what happened and rushed over and snatched up the child before a rapidly approaching hose and van crushed it under its hooves and wheels. The young lad handed the baby over the police.

Meanwhile another man who had seen what Clara had done chased after her and caught her in a side street. He marched her off to find a policeman and PC Newport (44H) took her into custody and ensured she appeared before Mr Lushington in court the next day.

Clara stood in the dock clutching her baby to her breast and listened as the evidence against her was read out. She told the magistrate that she never intended to hurt the child. She was ‘merely laid the child down to frighten her husband, who she thought would have picked the baby up’.

A report of the incident in a provincial newspaper gives us a little more insight into the case. John Kerr (the rescuer) is reported as telling the magistrate that he saw Clara and a man (presumably her husband) ‘running after a tram-car in Commercial Road’ at about 6 o’clock in the evening. The man boarded the tram ‘leaving the prisoner [Clara] standing in the road. She then deliberately laid her baby on the rails and ran away’.

So her action was part of an argument between her and her husband that almost led to the death of a baby. Perhaps he was leaving her, or simply had had enough of the row and saw an opportunity to escape quickly. Lushington remanded her for further inquiries, presumably to bring her husband in to see what he had to say about the matter.

South of the river, at Lambeth, two young boys were placed in the dock once more having been remanded a few days earlier by Mr Chance. Their crime was arguably even worse than Clara, since they acted deliberately and with malice. The lads were about 10-12 years of age and they were accused of having taken away a boy of 7 or 8 and forcing him inside a dustbin.

George Steeden and Stephen Murphy had taken Henry Douglas to a house in Penge and imprisoned him in a dustbin by loading bricks on the lid so he couldn’t climb out again. They’d trapped him in the 4 ½ foot deep bin at around five in the evening and by their own confession had left him there ‘to be found dead, so they might afterwards get a reward for the discovery of the body’.

Young Henry was locked into his intended tomb for nearly 17 hours, being discovered around one in the afternoon of the following day. It must have been a terrifying and traumatizing experience for the child. The magistrate said it was one of the ‘most serious cases he had ever had before him with regard to boys’. Steeden had been in trouble with the law before so Mr Chance ordered that he be given ‘six strokes of the rod’ before being sent to an Industrial School until he reached 16. Murphy was sent back to the workhouse where he’d been held on remand while the court decided what to do with him.

Despite the newsworthiness of both of these stories the papers seemed to have lost interest at this point. I’ve therefore no idea whether Stephen Murphy was considered the lesser of the two ‘evils’ and allowed to go home or if he too was sent to a reformatory or industrial school. Clara clearly needed help or at least a reconciliation with her husband. The court might have had her examined to determine the state of her mental health; if she was found to be insane then she risked being sent to an asylum. If her husband had abandoned her then the 28 year-old women might end up destitute and in the workhouse. Either way her future looked uncertain at best.

For many of those reading the ‘Sundays’ over their breakfast or supper these were the lives ‘others’; part of the world outside their comfortable homes and about people that they did not know, nor wanted to know. They would have been shocked certainly, disgusted and angered probably, but amused and entertained as well, such was the purpose of the ‘crime news’ in the nineteenth century.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, July 13, 1884; The Hampshire Advertiser, Saturday, July 12, 1884]