The wild publicity surrounding the Ripper murders in 1888 escalated after the murder of Annie Chapman on 8 September. Lots of suspects began to emerge but one in particular caught the public’s attention following reports in the press in the aftermath of Polly Nicholl’s murder in late August. The name was ‘leather apron’ (aka John Pizer, a 38 year-old cobbler).1
Pizer was apparently a notorious individual, known for his antipathy towards prostitutes and for threatening them with a knife that he carried as part of his work. He quickly disappeared when it became apparent everyone wanted to speak to him (or worse) and it took several days for Sergeant Thicke (H Division) to track him down. Pizer had an alibi for the Nichol’s murder and none of the witnesses the police had identified him either.
He was in the clear but that didn’t stop speculation about ‘Leather Apron’. What if Pizer wasn’t ‘Leather Apron’? The press – notably the Star and the Illustrated Police News published rough sketch images of the mysterious suspect and this led the public to seek out suitable candidates in the street.
One of those unfortunate enough to be misidentified was Thomas Mills. Mills was a 59 year-old cabinetmaker and so, by all the witness statements we have, far too old to be the Whitechapel murderer. Mills was a drunk, but not a dangerous or particularly anti-social drunk. He had been before the magistrate at Worship Street ‘at least 100 times’ for drunkenness but violence doesn’t ever seem to have been associated with him.
He was back in court on the 20 September 1888, 12 days after the Chapman murder (and just over a week before the so-called ‘double event’ that saw two killings on one night). A policeman had found him in Wellington Row, Shoreditch, quite drunk and surrounded by a small crowd. They were ‘pulling him about and threatening him’ the officer explained to Mr Saunders.
‘We’ll lynch him’, they cried. ‘He’s Leather Apron’.
The constable arrested him for his own safety and took him to the nearest police station.
‘It’s quite true, sir’. Mills told the justice. ‘Whenever I go out they say I’m “Leather Apron,” because the Police News published a portrait of the man, and I’m like it’.
‘I was out looking for work, and wherever I go they say, “that’s him”, and I can’t get work’.
The lack of work, he suggested, drove him to drink and the whole cycle started again. Mr Saunders had little sympathy. If he stayed off the booze no one would take any notice of him. He fined him 2s6d and dismissed him.
It is revealing of the panic that gripped East London in the autumn of 1888 and of course the power of the press in creating mythical scapegoats for the murders. Some believe that ‘Leather Apron’ (but not John Pizer) was ‘Jack the Ripper’ and I would agree that it is more likely that the serial killer that stalked London that year was a local man.
I have a different candidate in mind and explain why in my recent book on the subject. 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
[from The Morning Post, Friday, September 21, 1888]
1.Neill R. A. Bell, Capturing Jack the Ripper, p.150