Cowboys in the dock at Westminster as the ‘Whitechapel fiend’ makes his first appearance.

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On the 3 August 1888 two Americans appeared before the magistrate at Westminster Police court. John Dunn was probably every small boy’s idea of an American – a cowboy and ‘professional horseman’, part of Buffalo Bill’s travelling Wild West Show, he would have cut an exotic figure in the dock. The other man was darker skinned, described as a Mexican and giving the name Richard Chester Dare.

Dare (described as ‘a powerful man’ with the press) was charged with assault, and Dunn with aiding him. On the Thursday night both had been drinking at a pub on the Broadway when they had fell into an argument with a gun maker’s assistant called William Head. We can probably imagine the nature of the dispute, two US citizens in London arguing with a local about the merits of American vs British firearms.

Head left the pub but Dare hadn’t finished the quarrel and took it outside. As the gun maker walked home Dare and two others came up behind him and pushed him. A fight ensued and Head was knocked to the ground. Head and Dare grappled together before William escaped and made his way home.

He had been wounded quite badly, sustaining a bruise to the side of his face which had closed his left eye and had been stabbed in his side. It is likely that in the chaos of the moment and being a little the worse for drink he hadn’t noticed the American pull out a knife at the time. However, in court before Mr Partridge he testified to seeing a knife in the cowboy’s hand.

Both men were remanded to appear again but on application Dunn was granted bail. His was the less serious charge and Mr Partridge was told that Dare was supposed to be on his way to Brussels to join up with ‘Mexican Joe’s’ troupe, so perhaps the chance that he might slip away from justice was uppermost in the magistrate’s mind. He also instructed the police to inform the American consul of the men’s arrest.

William ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody toured Europe several times between 1887 and 1906, the first in 1887 which coincided with Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. One of the reviews of the 1887 show in London (at the American Exhibition) gives us a flavour of the event:

The size of the enclosure was one element of the impressiveness of the coup d’œil and this was cleverly increased by the picturesque scenery which enclosed half of the circle. At the edge of the ash-covered circle in the center were drawn up on parade the whole strength of the Wild West company. There were the various tribes of Indians in their war-paint and feathers, the Mexicans, the ladies, and the cowboys, and a fine array they made, with the chiefs of each tribe, the renowned Sergeant Bates, the equally celebrated Buffalo Bill, the stalwart Buck Taylor, and others who were introduced by Mr. Frank Richmond who, from the top of an elevated platform, described the show as it proceeded. 

Cody took his troupe back to the USA in May of 1887 having performed for both the Queen and the Prince of Wales. Yet some of the performers stayed behind, enjoying the life they found in London’s bustling city streets. Presumably two of these were Dare and Dunn. Sadly, at this point they both vanish from the pages of the Victorian newspapers so we don’t know what happened to them.

A few days later the body of Martha Tabram was discovered on a landing in George Yard, in the heart of the Whitechapel slum. She had been viciously stabbed and her killer was nowhere to be seen. Although there is considerable dispute as to whether Martha was the first victim of ‘Jack the Ripper’ a consensus is developing that suggests she was killed but he same person that murdered five or more women that summer and autumn.

As the police searched for a serial killer in 1888 the idea that the killings might have been perpetrated by a native American or another member of Buffalo Bill’s travelling Wild West circulated. After all, it was said, what Englishman could do such a terrible thing?

[from The Standard Saturday 4 August 1888]

‘If you had been pursued all over London and were hated by the government, you would wish to shoot yourself’: drama at Bow Street as a respectable citizen tries to take his own life.

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This story is both sad and dramatic as it concerns a man’s very public attempt at suicide. Most of the cases that I’ve written about previously that have involved suicide have been women and most of those have chosen to end their lives by throwing themselves into the River Thames or one of the canals that ran through the capital. Most were prevented by quick-thinking policemen or passers-by and ended up before magistrates because attempting to take one’s life was against the law in the 1800s.

In this example the defendant was a man, and a respectable one at that. Robert H. Rhodes lived in St John’s Wood and worked for the Land Revenue Record Office. So Robert was a middle class white-collar worker, he was married and he had children and so was a very long way, it would seem, from the desperation of the usually poor and destitute women (and men) who chose to throw themselves from the various bridges that crisscrossed the Thames.

Appearances can be deceptive of course, and mental illness is no respecter of class or wealth. Rhodes was under some sort of pressure: in his appearance that Bow Street he told Mr Bridge (sitting as the duty magistrate) that he had ‘been pursued all over London, and [was] hated by the Government and bullied by everyone’.

While we don’t know why exactly Robert decided to end his life we do know how. In mid September 1886 the revenue man walked into a gunmaker’s shop in Cockspur Street near Trafalgar Square. He showed the assistant a cartridge he’d brought with him and asked to see some revolvers that might fit it. The shopkeeper brought out some examples and Rhodes calmly selected one and loaded it with his cartridge.

Then he ‘turned the revolver round till the muzzle pointed to his head and was trying to pull the trigger when the shopkeeper seized his arm’, and saved his life. The police were called and Rhodes was led away. As the constable took him to the nearest police station Rhodes begged him to let him end his life saying that otherwise ‘his wife and family would be forever ruined’.

We get no further clues as to what had led Robert Rhodes to make this terrible decision to kill himself but perhaps he was about to lose his position, or owed a large amount of money, or was suffering in some other way with the pressures of his job? Two gentlemen approached the bench and said they would take care of him and be responsible for his future conduct. I presume these were his friends or colleagues.  They agreed to be bound for six months as sureties at £250 each (about £16,500 today, so a huge sum of money) and Mr Bridge duly released Robert on the condition he did not repeat his attempt within that period.

[from The Standard , Tuesday, September 21, 1886]

For other cases involving attempted suicide see:

A man is driven to attempt suicide because of his ‘reduced circumstances’

A bad week in London, full of personal tragedy

A destitute Essex girl in London makes the news

A circus artist for whom the show cannot go on alone

Pickett climbs a fence and saves a life