A detective uncovers smuggling by Horsleydown, but a much worse discovery is made there in 1889

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Detective sergeant Howard was watching the comings and goings of ships and sailors by Horselydown Stairs on the River Thames. Situated near to what is now (but wasn’t then) Tower Bridge and opposite St Katherine’s Docks. In 1881 this was a busy stretch of the river with shipping bringing in goods from all over the world. Now, of course, it’s mostly a tourist area, but it is just as busy.

As DS Howard waited he saw a man he recognized go on board a steamship which had a Hamburg registration. He was sure the man was John Michael, someone he knew well as a smuggler, so he kept on watching.

Sure enough, about 30 minutes afterwards Michael reemerged and made his way on to the docks. The officer followed and then stopped him nearby. When he searched him the detective sergeant found seven pounds of tobacco and ¾ lb weight of cigars. The duty alone on these amounted to nearly £3 and so he arrested him.

When questioned Michael denied all knowledge that the goods might in any way be dodgy. He merely stated that a man on board had asked him to carry the goods ashore and was going to meet him in Tooley Street later. It was a weak defense and he probably knew it, but what else could he say?

When he was up before the Southwark magistrate he said very little at all expect to confirm his name, age (42)  and occupation (labourer). DS Howard was also there and told Mr Bridge that the man was well known as someone who earned money by carrying goods ashore to help seaman avoid the excise due on it. He got paid sixpence for every pound he smuggled, so he stood to make about 3-4s  for the haul that DS Howard confiscated.

He was ordered to pay £1 149d for his crime but since he didn’t have anything like that money he was sent to prison for two months instead.

On 4 June 1889 a human a parcel was found floating in the river just near St George’s stairs, Horsleydown. Some small boys had been lobbing stones at it but when it was recovered it was found to contain a decomposing lower torso of a woman. A leg and thigh turned up days later by the Albert Bridge and the upper torso was found soon afterwards by a gardener in Battersea Park. It was quickly linked to the Whitehall and Rainham torso mysteries that had been overshadowed in 1888 by the infamous Jack the Ripper or Whitechapel murders. Fig 2.1

For most of the last 130 plus years researchers have concluded that there were two serial murderers running amok in late Victorian London but was this really the case? A new book, penned by Drew with his fellow historian Andrew Wise, sheds new light on the torso and Whitechapel series and argues that one man might have been responsible for both.

Jack and the Thames Torso Murders: A New Ripper is published by Amberley Books and is available to order on Amazon here:

[from The Standard, Tuesday, June 21, 1881]

Jack and the Thames Torso Murders – a new Ripper?

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Today’s blog is something different. As I’m sure many regular readers will have noticed on Saturday my latest book is released by Amberley Books.  Instead of delving into the pages of the Victorian press I thought that today I would give you an overview of the book and some of my reasons for writing it.

Jack and the Thames Torso Murders: A New Ripper?, is, as it title suggests a study of two sets of murders that took place in London between 1887 and 1891. I’ve not written this alone; the idea for the book and much of the research to discover the identity of the killer, has been carried out by my co-author, friend and former student, Andrew Wise. Andy first brought the culprit to my attention and he worked very hard to persuade me to co-author this with him.

I was never keen to get involved in the unmasking of a long dead serial killer; I’ve studied the Whitechapel Murder case for over a decade, teaching it at Northampton University and giving talks on it to all manner of groups up and down the country. I’ve always thought there is much to learn from the dark history of ‘Jack the Ripper’ but, strangely, identifying ‘Jack’ wasn’t always at the top of my agenda.

I thought it impossible and somewhat beside the point but Andy persuaded me that if we applied solid historical research methods and rigor not only might we uncover the killer we might also be able to shed some light on his motives and the reason he was never captured. This would then provide some sort of closure for the victims and remind society that this was an extremely unpleasant and damaged individual and not some anti-hero who stepped – caped and top hatted – from the pages of some mythical Victoriana. Unmasking ‘Jack’ then had as much to do with dispelling some well-worn myths about the murders and the murderer as it did with bringing a serial killer to face some form of ‘justice’.

pinchinThe book links two sets of murders – the famous ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings of 1888 and the less well-known Thames Torso murders of 1887-89. While the unknown killer who has been given the sobriquet ‘Jack the Ripper’ is usually credited with killing five women between late August and early November 1888 we brought his tally to 13, with an additional three attempted murders.

So, alongside the well know ‘canonical five’ of: Mary Ann ‘Polly’ Nichols, ‘Dark’ Annie Chapman, Elizabeth ‘Long ‘Liz’ Stride, Catherine ‘Kate’ Eddowes, and Mary ‘Marie Jeanette’ Kelly we add the names of Rose Mylett, Alice McKenzie, Elizabeth Jackson, Frances Coles and three other unidentifiable torso victims. We believe he also tried to kill Annie Millwood, Ada Wilson and Anne Farmer, and possibly several others. This then was a ruthless serial killer whose impact on the area in which he lived and worked was much greater than history has previously recorded.

In researching this book we chose to look at the sort of man that might be capable of such a horrific series of killings and at his motivations. Means, motive and opportunity are at the heart of any murder investigation so we decided to place them front and centre of ours. Instead of relying on historical artifacts (like the blood stained shawl supposedly left on the body of Kate Eddowes, or the killer’s confessional diary) we looked at the nature of transport links, at the geography of London in relation to the murders, and at the kind of work that might allow someone the opportunity to kill and evade the law for several years.

We named our suspect as James Hardiman, a local man who lived in a variety of homes in the 1880s. He lived with his wife in Heneage Street at the centre of the Whitechapel ‘killing zone’ (see map below – just above the entry for Emma Smith) . He also had digs in Central London not far from the Thames and the site of more than one of the Torso discoveries.  Hardiman’s family even lived in Hanbury Street where Annie Chapman’s mutilated body was found in September 1888. They had also lodged in Dorset Street, where Mary Kelly was so fearfully murdered in November.

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It was out belief that the killer had to be local and had to be able to blend into the background – to hide in plain sight – so the idea that he could have been an aristocrat of prince of the realm, or even a doctor with a  Gladstone bag made no sense to us. Instead Hardiman was a slaughterman working for the largest firm of horse slaughterers in London with access to all their many yards across the capital. He had total freedom of movement after his wife was taken ill and then died and he used the transport networks of the city extensively to travel all over and commit his crimes with virtual impunity.

His motivation was revenge, but revenge augmented by a deep-seated misogyny made worse by his deteriorating mental health. He had contracted syphilis for which he blamed local prostitutes. He passed the disease to his wife and thence to their unborn daughter who barely survived a year from her birth. Instead of looking at his own responsibility for this tragedy Hardiman struck out at that vulnerable class of women that society increasingly demonized in the late Victorian age.  Driven half mad by grief, anger and self medicating with mercury it is our contention that James Hardiman was the killer known to history as ‘Jack the Ripper’.

We don’t expect everyone to be convinced by our thesis but we think it bears scrutiny at least. I found  it fascinating to write and in a final chapter I have tried to make sense of our seemingly endless fascination with ‘Jack’. Have we solved the 130 year old mystery?  That’s for others to decide, I just hope Andy and I have produced a book that people will want to read and to discuss.

Drew Gray

Jack and the Thames Torso Murders: A New Ripper? is published by Amberley Books on June 15 2019 and is available to order here.