Entertainment mingled with disaster in 1880s Spitalfields

Scene of the late Disaster in Spitalfields, at the Hebrew Dramatic Club, Princes-Street

All sorts of business came before the Metropolitan Police courts, much of it very far from what we might describe as ‘criminal’. The reportage of these courts therefore offers us an interesting glimpse into London life in the nineteenth century.

Take this case for example: three men from Spitalfield’s Jewish immigrant community were brought before a magistrate for staging unlicensed entertainments.

The hearing, on 12 November 1889, was the second one before Mr Bushby so most of the arguments had already been made a week earlier.  Several witnesses, including the police (represented by Inspector Reid1) testified that they had watched dramatic productions and imbibed ‘spirituous liquors’. The defendants, most notably the proprietor Solomon Barmash, had argued that the performances were ‘for social improvement’, but this didn’t convince the magistrate.

All venues putting on plays had to have a license issued by the Lord Chamberlain of letters patent, from the Queen, allowing them to do so. Barmash and his Hebrew Dramatic Club on Prince’s Street had no such license. He and his fellow defendants were accused of staging The Double Marriage and The Convict and selling drinks to the paying customers, which was prohibited under the licensing laws of the day.

The magistrate, Mr Bushby, fined Barmash £36 plus £3 costs, some of which was to be born by his co-defendants Joseph Goodman and Charles Dickerson (the younger). This covered both the sale of alcohol and the staging of plays without a license.

I found it interesting that both plays were performed in Yiddish and these made the magistrate question whether they were in fact ‘educational’. Although he agreed with the prosecution that the law had been broken it does show us that there was a thriving local immigrant community which wanted to see and hear cross cultural entertainments. The Double Marriage was apparently a ‘French’ play according to the court report although there was a Jacobean play of this name.

In January 1887 17 people lost their lives at the Hebrew Dramatic Club when a reported gas leak and fear of fire and explosion caused panic in the club.

‘The scene at the time was one of intense excitement’, reported the Pall Mall Gazette. ‘Screams of terror and cries of appeal and advice mingled while the mass wedged in the doorway struggled and surged’.

Although three of the victims were unidentified the other 14 were all ‘foreign’ Jews, and were mourned by their community in the days that followed.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, November 13, 1889]

  1. Possibly Edmund Reid (of ‘Ripper Street’ fame) or the less well known Joseph.

An unwanted ‘guest’ under a Whitechapel grocer’s bed

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Harris Rosenthorn ran a small grocer’s shop on Plummer’s Row, Whitechapel. For a few days he’d noticed a young immigrant loitering nearby and suspected he was up to no good. Then, on Thursday 2 November 1893 the lad had come into the shop and bought some butter. From his accent Mr Rosenthorn determined that the teenager was probably a Russian Pole, one of many in the East End.

At around 9.30 the grocer went upstairs to the second floor and into one of the bedrooms. The candle lighting the room had just gone out and worried, Rosenthorn lit another. He soon found the strange young man hiding under the bed. The lad crawled out and, before the shopkeeper could stop him, he pushed past and down the stairs.

He ran straight into one of the Rosenthorns’ servants, who, alerted by her master’s cries of alarm, tried to tackle him. She was punched in the chest and pushed to the floor and the man got away.

He didn’t get far however, soon several neighbours were after him and overpowered the burglar a few streets away. As he ran he dropped a chisel he’d been carrying, either to use as a jemmy or a weapon. His captors handed him over to the police and on Friday 3 November he appeared before Mr Dickinson at the Thames Police court.

The young man gave his name as Max Landay. He was just 17 years of age and under the powers bestowed on magistrates by the summary jurisdictions acts of the 1800s the justice decided to deal with him without recourse to a jury trial. Max was sent to prison for six months with hard labour.

[from The Standard, Saturday, November 04, 1893]

‘Did you accidentally throw you arms around their waists?’ Sexual assault in early Victorian London

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The law is supposed to deal with everyone equally, regardless of race, gender, or class. The law supposedly protects the poorest in the land and the richest, without favour. However, that was (and is) not always the case.

The courts (and gallows and prison cells) of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were overwhelming stocked with members of the laboring poor (however we define them).

Wealthy defendants were occasionally prosecuted and convicted but they often received more lenient sentences or escaped justice altogether. They certainly weren’t the targets of a justice system that was keen to make examples of some the deter others.

When it came to the lower courts, like the metropolitan police courts of Victorian London, a person with money and ‘respectability’ could hope to pay their way out of trouble, a situation that was generally unavailable to most working class defendants. Take the example of these two ‘gentlemen’, brought before Mr Grove at the Worship Police court in October 1839.

William Cooper and Henry Gordon were described as ‘fashionably dressed young men’. We might find other epithets for them today.

They were charged by Emmanuel De Palva (a ‘foreign gentleman’) with insulting and assaulting his wife and daughter in the street. M. De Palva was on his way he to Stoke Newington with his family after an evening out. As the women  walked along a few yards ahead of M. De Palva two men came up in the other direction and accosted them.

At first they ‘stared rudely under the ladies’ bonnets’, which was intimidating, but then they grasped the women around the waists and hugged them. It might seem like high jinx and far from serious but this was the beginning of the Victorian era and social norms were not what they are today. This was an act of unwanted intimacy, a sexual assault in all but name, and the ladies were outraged by it.

The women screamed for help and De Palva came running up. He grabbed hold of the men, and then handed them over to a policeman who had also rushed up having been alerted by the cries for help.

All of this evidence was confirmed by Madame De Palva, who said the men seemed quite sober.

In court Cooper took upon himself the role of spokesperson. He tried to say that it had been a foggy night and they hadn’t been aware of the women. Perhaps they had accidentally jostled them as they passed, for which they were sorry.

The magistrate asked him: ‘Did you accidentally throw you arms around their waists?’

Having now heard ‘two respectable ladies’ swear to what happened he was ‘perfectly staggered’ by the suggestion. M. De Palva now added that he had been visited by Cooper’s father that morning, who had offered an apology on behalf of his son. De Palva refused on the grounds that he would only accept a public apology, one that cleared his wife and daughter of any taint on their reputations.

Mr Grove said that an apology could now be made and would then be ‘conveyed into the required channel’, in other words be printed so everyone would know whom was at fault. It was a disgrace, but the disgrace was to be owned by Cooper and Gordon and not be allowed to damage the reputations of Madame De Palva or her daughter.

He was also instant that some form of financial penalty be extracted from the young men so he suggested they make an contribution to the local poor. Both defendants issued their unreserved apologies and donated 10each to the poor box.

Had the young men been working class I doubt they would have got away with an apology and such a small fine. Had the women been working class and unaccompanied I doubt the case would ever have reached the courts.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, October 15, 1839]

A drunken German attracts the attention of police hunting Jack the Ripper

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Given the prevailing climate of fear that gripped the East End in the autumn of 1888 it is hardly surprising that Charles Ludwig found himself in court. He’d been in custody for two weeks by the time he was reexamined before Mr Saunders at the Thames Police court on the morning of the 2 October. This was just a day after news broke about the discovery of the bodies of two more victims of ‘Jack the Ripper’ and this effectively exonerated Ludwig of any connection to the murder series.

He was in custody because he was accused of threatening two people with a large knife whilst he was drunk. Mrs Elizabeth Burns had been confronted by Ludwig near the Minories on the outskirts of the City of London. When she saw the knife in his hand she screamed and two policemen came running up.

Elizabeth was so scared by the incident she quite forgot to tell constable John Johnson (366 City Police) that the man had got a  knife. PC Johnson said he been alerted to Elizabeth’s screams of ‘murder!’ as he perambulated his beat on the Minories. The sound came from a nearby alley that led to some railway arches, well known as ‘a dangerous locality’, he told the court. He found the woman but it was only after he had escorted her to the end of his beat that she mentioned that the strange man who had confronted her had ‘pulled a big knife out’.

‘Why didn’t you tell me that at the time?’ PC Johnson asked her.

‘I was too much frightened’, Elizabeth replied.

The copper raced off to see if he could find the man but he’d long gone. He gave a description to other officers he found but it was  a constable from K Division (PC 221K) that eventually made an arrest. He was called to a disturbance at a coffee stall on the Whitechapel Road. A drunken German (Ludwig) was remonstrating with the coffee stall owner who had refused to serve him.

Another customer, Alexander Finlay, was stood nearby and perhaps said something which brought him to Ludwig’s attention. Turning round Ludwig growled at him: ‘What are you looking at?’ and pulled out a long bladed knife which he threatened Finlay with. When the policeman arrived he took the ‘excited’ man into custody and since then they had been investigating his circumstances.

They may have thought he was the ‘Ripper’ or simply believed he was a possible suspect. He was potentially dangerous at least, so he was remanded in custody, being brought before the magistrate on a number of occasions. Now Inspector Pimley of H Division told Mr Saunders that Ludwig had ‘fully accounted for his whereabouts on the nights of the recent murders’ (meaning those of Polly Nichols and Annie Chapman presumably) and so all that rested against him was the charge of threatening behavior.

Ludwig was clearly guilty of that charge but since he’d already served two weeks in gaol the magistrate told him he was now free to go. Ludwig was just one of many men arrested on suspicion of being the Whitechapel murderer. In those months, when tensions were so high, the police and public were seeing killers in every dark corner of the East End and immigrants like Ludwig were top of the list of possible suspects.

In reality it is much more likely that ‘Jack’ was part of the indigenous population of the capital, someone who didn’t attract the attention that a drunken knife-wielding foreigner might.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, October 03, 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

‘Skylarking’ leaves one youth in hospital when he picks on the wrong victim

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Historians of crime have estimated that in the 18thand 19thcenturies only a small percentage of assaults (even fairly serious ones) reached the courts. Even when prosecutors did bring assaults before the magistracy in 18thcentury London the most common outcome was a settlement between the two parties, often brokered by the justice.

Arguably, this was mostly because inter-personal non-fatal violence was treated as a civil rather than a criminal offence, and so did not always need a jury’s deliberations. In the previous century and for much of the 1800s it was property crime that occupied the minds of legislators and the justice system. However, it seems to be the case that over the course of the nineteenth century violence increasingly became the focus of concerns about crime.

Perhaps this is reflected in this case from the Thames Police court in 1864 which occurred just 3 years after parliament had consolidated the various laws concerning interpersonal violence in one piece of legislation: the Offences Against the Person Act (24 & 25 Vict. c.100).

Herman Menus, a German immigrant, was charged with cutting and wounding Timothy Bryan, an Irish labourer. The victim was not in court to press the charge and Mr Partridge was told this was because ‘he either did not care about the wound as a serious one’ or had been compensated by some of Menus’ friends.

Nevertheless the case against the 38 year-old skin-dresser proceeded because, as Mr Partridge said, it was serious. He stated that ‘cutting and wounding cases had become so alarmingly common that the investigation must be continued’ and he remanded the German in custody.

The facts presented were that a police constable from H Division was called to a disturbance in Lambeth Street where he found Bryan lying in the gutter with a long cut to his face. He took the injured man back to Leman Street police station where he was treated. Whilst there he had some sort of fit but was now stable.

John Conley, a surgeon living on Whitechapel High Street, deposed that the wound was serious but not life threatening. In his defence Menus told the court that he had been attacked by a group of lads as he was going home from work. He was struck twice about the head and reacted, using the two cans he was carrying with him. One of these connected with Bryan’s cheek causing the injury. He used no knife at all.

The police confirmed that Bryan was one of the groups of lads that were involved in baiting the skin-dresser, which perhaps explains his reluctance to appear in court against him. Bryan was most likely part of the gang or group of ‘roughs’ who were known to pick on foreigners or anybody else they might like to terrorize on the capital’s streets. Unfortunately for him he had selected a victim who was quite capable of defending himself.

The prisoner was brought up the following day to be questioned again and so Mr Partridge could finally decide his fate. Now the court heard that Bryan was a fireman on a steam ship bound for Bordeaux in France. Menus had hired a solicitor to represent him.

Bryan appeared and said he was having some difficulty in speaking due the injuries he’d sustained in the attack on him. He told the court that he and his mates had just been ‘skylarking’ when Menus had said something to him. One thing led to another and blows were exchanged. He was drunk at the time he admitted, so his memory of the events was hazy at best. Several witnesses for both parties testified that there was equal fault on each side.

In the end the magistrate decided the best thing was this to be sorted out by a jury and so he committed Menus to take his trial.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, September 24, 1864; The Standard, Monday, September 26, 1864]

Two knife assaults in the East End: evidence of targeted police action to find the ‘Ripper’?

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One can imagine that with tension riding high in September 1888 violence was on everyone’s mind, even violence that might have seemed ‘commonplace’ previously. Assault was one of the most frequently prosecuted crimes at the police courts but penalties were usually small – fines or short period of summary imprisonment – it wants normal to send cases up into the trial court system unless they were serious.

However, in times of ‘moral panics’ the authorities tend to react by clamping down on even small acts of anti-social behavour and petty theft, using the courts as a blunt instrument to reassure the public that they are ‘doing something’. In 1888, with a serial killer on the loose and the police unable to catch him pressure was building on the forces of law and order to do something about it.

So perhaps that’s how we should read the fact that the Morning Post chose two assault cases to feature as its daily look into the work of the Thames Police court on 14 September that year.

The first was the case of Suze Waxim, a Japanese sailor who was charged with stabbing a local woman, Ellen Norton. Ellen was drinking in a Limehouse beerhouse when she heard screams from across the street. She ran out towards the noise and found Waxim standing over her friend Emily Shepherd about to thrust a knife into her.

Ellen tried to intervene and was stabbed in the head. The sailor ran off but was captured nearby, in the backyard of the Stranger’s Home, by PC 448K. The man was washing his hands when the officer found him and arrested him. Ellen had only suffered a superficial flesh wound and wasn’t in danger but a knife wielding foreigner on the streets was not what society needed. Waxim spoke no English and while they had translators for languages such as Italian and Yiddish, I doubt the police would have found anyone able to speak Japanese.

Waxim was committed for trial.

Next up was a local man, Frank Kersey, who was also accused of assaulting a  woman, Frances Cocklin. She testified that on the 3 September he had stabbed her and beaten her while they were at Canning Town. She’d suffered bruising and cuts but was not seriously injured. He had multiple previous convictions for assault and wounding and it seemed he had also tried to rob her. Mr Lushington also committed him for trial.

Both cases were serious but I have seen cases like this dealt with summarily before, with the defendants being fined or sent to gaol for a few weeks or months.  That Lushington decided to send them to the Old Bailey is indicative, I believe, of a wider concern about violence, especially violence involving knives. It may also reflect police practice – were they particularly targeting assaults where a knife was used in the hope of finding the ‘Ripper’? It is possible, if not provable.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, September 14, 1888]

‘He is taking the bread out of the mouths of Englishmen’: racism in 1880s’ Whitechapel

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Anti-immigrant sentiment was on the rise in the 1880s fueled by racists (anti-alienists) like Arnold White, a populist politician in the Farage mold. White attempted to undermine a parliamentary committee investigating ‘sweating’ (the use of cheap labour in poor conditions in the East End) by paying witnesses to lie under oath. He also gave public speeches that blamed the  problems of society on those migrating to London from Eastern Europe.

In reality London was experiencing a large influx of foreign Jews in the late 1800s because of the persecution they were suffering at the hands of the Russian Tsar and his policies towards non-Christians. Many fled pogroms and forced enlistment in the Imperial army to seek a better, safer, life in England and, hopefully in the USA if they could get there.

Many settled in Whitechapel and Spitalfields because it was close to the docks, where they landed, and because there was an established Jewish community here. That meant there were people that spoke their language, practiced the same faith, and observed the same customs. ‘Ghettos’ exist because people naturally gravitate towards those that understand and support them.

Arnold White wasn’t the only anti-alienist in London. One of the East End’s Police Court magistrates seems to have held very similar and equally distasteful views.  When a poor Polish man applied at Worship Street for help he was summarily dismissed by the justice. The man spoke no English so a friend was there to help him. He said his employer had refused him his wages and wanted the court to intervene.

‘Why doesn’t the man speak for himself?’ Mr Saunders demanded.

‘He can’t, he is a native of Poland’, his friend replied.

‘Well, let him go to Poland’.

‘He has no business in this country’ declared the magistrate. ‘He is taking the bread out of the mouths of Englishmen. You may have a summons, but I hope you won’t succeed’.

It was a typical response for someone ignorant of the ways of working in the Jewish community but Saunders should have known better. Jewish businesses did not employ gentiles (non-Jews) and – generally speaking – vice versa. Jews needed to keep the Sabbath sacred and so did no work after sundown on a Friday and throughout Saturdays. English businesses could not operate like that and so tended not to employ the immigrants. So immigrants worked in established Jewish firms (like this man’s tailors) and were taking no Englishman’s job at all.

In the autumn of 1888 the prevalent anti-immigrant feeling encapsulated by Saunder’s comments and exacerbated by men like White help fuel anti-semitism and violence towards the Jewish community. This was exacerbated by the Whitechapel murders that year and then, and since, it has been common to blame a Jew for the killings. Currently that suspect is Aaron Kosminsky even though there remains little evidence to tie him to the killings. Some people want it to be an outsider like Kosminsky, because the alternative, that ‘Jack’ was an local and an Englishman, means we have to examine our own society rather than blaming it on others.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, September 13, 1888]