September 1888: A killer in the East overshadows the everyday reality of domestic abuse in Victorian London    

Catching Jack

I have just completed the final draft of my ‘Ripper’ solution book and its now off with my co-author for his last amendments. We have to do a little work on the images and maps but it looks like we will comfortably meet our end of September deadline. Having put down my pen (so to speak) on the project I thought I’d return to Whitechapel in 1888 to see what was going on in the Police Courts of the capital in the midst of the most infamous murders London has ever known.

For context, by Wednesday September 18 1888 the murders of four women were being investigated by the police: Emma Smith (4/4/88), Martha Tabram (7/8/88), Mary Ann Nichols (31/8/88), and Annie Chapman (8/9/88). Within  less than two weeks both Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes would be added to that list, their murders occurring within an hour of each other.

Very few people (including me) believe Smith to have been a ‘Ripper’ victim and some dispute whether Tabram was. Either way, by this time 130 years ago the police were desperate to catch a murderer who was mutilating defenseless women in the heart of the East End.

Meanwhile over the river at Lambeth Henry Baker (alias Williams) was being charged with the attempted murder of Mary Cowen. The attack had taken place in mid July but Mary was dangerously ill in St Thomas’ Hospital, and was too weak to attend court until early September. However, on the day of the first committal hearing she failed to appear in court to prosecute the case against Henry.

The policeman in charge of the case, Chief Inspector Chisholm, had then told the magistrate at Lambeth Police court that he was convinced that friends of the prisoner had conspired to prevent Mary giving evidence that day. Mr Biron had granted the police a warrant to force her to attend at a subsequent date, and therefore she was in court on the 18 September to start the case against her attacker.

Mary Cowen was still suffering the effects of the assault: ‘she appeared very ill, and evidently was most reluctant to give evidence against the prisoner’, the paper reported. The case was opened by the Treasury solicitor Mr Pollard. He ascertain (‘with some difficulty’) that Mary had lived with Henry in Birmingham but they had been separated ‘for some time’. As was the case much more frequently than we might imagine today, many working class couples lived as man and wife without ever formally marrying.

In July the couple had met in London and had a violent argument. She admitted striking her ex-partner in the face with her bag and calling him ‘foul names’. That was the 10 July 1888 and on the following Monday, the 16th, he found her again and this time he attacked her, stabbing her two or three times with a knife. Mary collapsed and lost consciousness. Someone must have helped her because she woke up in hospital.

Henry Baker denied the attack and objected when the solicitor played his trump card and produced a written statement, from Baker, admitting his guilt. Baker said no one could prove it was his handwriting but Mr Pollard begged to differ. The crucial witness was Mary however, and having finally persuaded (or forced) her to testify against her former lover the police must have ben relatively confident of securing a conviction. Mr Biron now fully committed the man to trial at Old Bailey for the attempted murder of his common-law wife.

The trial did take place, on 22 October 1888 and ‘Harry’ Baker was convicted, not of attempted murder but of the lesser offence of wounding. The court report stated at the end that:

the prisoner, ‘in his defence stated that he had been subjected to great annoyance by the prosecutrix, whose habits were very intemperate, and that he pleaded guilty to assaulting her after great provocation’.

An all male jury clearly agreed with him and even when he’d admitted having a previous conviction (from 1887 in Chester) the judge merely sent him away for a year’s imprisonment.

This is the surgeon’s report of the injuries Mary had sustained (and that Baker admitted inflicting):

The prosecutrix was brought there [St Thomas’ Hospital] with a deep incised wound on the right side of the chest, penetrating into the cavity of the chest, between 3 and 4 inches long and 1 inch deep or more, and another wound in her back behind the right shoulder blade an inch and a half long and half or three-quarters of an inch deep; there was considerable bleeding from the wound in front, a large artery was divided—she was in very great danger for some time—she remained in the hospital till September 3rd and after having recovered to some extent was allowed to go—her life was in danger till July 22nd

When juries were prepared to accept as mitigation the accusation that a ‘wife’ was ‘intemperate’ and that being called ‘foul names’ and slapped in the face with a bag counted as ‘provocation’ it is quiet easy to understand why women were so reluctant to prosecute their husbands and partners in the late Victorian period.

We should also see the actions of a misogynistic serial killer in the context of the way women were treated everyday in the 1880s, and not view him as an aberration (a ‘monster’) or some sort of criminal mastermind. Women were beaten up, stabbed, abused, raped and murdered on a very regular basis in the nineteenth century and ‘Jack’ wasn’t the only one to get away with it.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, September 19, 1888]

A mother’s cruelty and a son’s desperate violence as news of the latest Whitechapel ‘horror’ emerges.

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On the 9 September 1888 London was still digesting the news of Annie Chapman’s murder in Hanbury Street, Spitalfields. The full details of this latest ‘horror’ wouldn’t become public knowledge until after the inquest on the 13 September but there was sufficient rumour and speculation to throw the capital into a panic in the meantime.

There was no mention of Chapman’s killing in Lloyd’s Weekly’s daily summary of the police courts of the metropolis but there was plenty of reference to violence. Frederick Percival was charged at Lambeth Police court with shooting at his own father with a revolver. The incident had followed an argument during which Fred, a clerk, had thrown a cup and then ran out of the room, turning once to fire his weapon at the door. It seems that suicide was actually uppermost in the young man’s thoughts and he was remanded so the doctors could examine him.

Also at Lambeth Henry Baker was fully committed to trial for the attempted murder of Mary Cowan whom, it was alleged, he had stabbed in the chest and back in July. The case had taken so long to come before a magistrate because Mary had been dangerously ill in hospital.

At Woolwich PC Williams (127R) reported that he had been called to an incident in the High Street where a woman was mistreating her child. It was late at night and when he arrived he found Mary Sullivan, quite drunk, in the processing of dashing her baby’s head against a wall. He intervened to stop her and told her to go home. She had no home, she replied. A few onlookers had gathered and one offered to pay for bed for the night, something Mary indigently declined.

PC Williams moved her on but when his beat brought him round again he found her ‘sitting on a doorstop with the child exposed’. A crowd had gathered and was berating her for her conduct, and some ‘threatened to lynch her’. As she should probably have done on the first occasion he now took her into custody and escorted her back to the station. After being checked out by the police surgeon her child was taken to the workhouse. Mary was brought before the magistrate in the morning and sent to prison for 14 days.

There were a number of other assaults, acts of cruelty, and an attempted suicide by a woman throwing herself into the Thames. All of this was recorded as part and parcel of everyday life in the city. So we should consider the Whitechapel murders in context; they were exceptionally brutal killings but their victims – poor working-class women – were the usual recipients of casual violence in late Victorian London.

This violence was frequently punished and often condemned but little if anything was done to prevent it, or to prevent the associated causes of violence, or improve the environment in which so many Londoners lived. The ‘Ripper’ shone a spotlight on East London in the autumn of 1888, and so is credited with forcing the ruling class to act to clean up the appalling poverty and housing conditions of the East.

That this ‘improvement’ was both half-hearted and temporary is less often reported. Inequality, unemployment and want continued and within a few years the authorities turned their attention elsewhere; it took two world wars and a socialist government to really tackle the endemic problems of poverty in British society and, some might say, even that progress has largely been lost given the prevalence of food banks and homelessness in modern Britain today.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, September 9, 1888]

‘The most merciful thing I can do for you is to send you to prison for a month’: a magistrate’s advice to a ‘fallen’ woman

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A year after the Ripper first struck in Whitechapel the problem of vulnerable, often homeless, ‘streetwalkers’ remained. The police had urged all of the East End’s prostitutes to refrain from trading in the aftermath of the ‘double event’ (when both Liz Stride and Kate Eddowes were murdered on the same night in September 1888) but that was hardly likely to be a request that was complied with for very long. The vast majority of London’s sex workers were forced – by their bullies or by circumstances – to prostitute themselves, and very few could afford the luxury of being able to bring a client back to their rooms.

Elizabeth Sinclair may not have been a prostitute but she had certainly fallen on hard times and existed in the liminal space between legitimate and illegitimate work. Once upon a time she had been ‘a successful music-hall artiste’ but in late August 1889 she was mentally and physically unwell.

On Monday, the 26 August, she was found wandering in the streets in the early hours of the morning. She was dressed in just a ‘man’s old flannel shirt, and a ragged black skirt, wrapped tightly around the lower part of her body’. She had no shoes or stockings on. This was not a ‘normal’ or ‘respectable’ look for the late 1800s.

She was picked up by a policeman (PC 37C) who discovered her lying on her back and screaming at no one in particular in Compton Street. Elizabeth was quite drunk and abusive. Seeing she was incapable he decided to take her back to the police station but she wasn’t keen to walk, and told him to ‘fetch his barrow’ (meaning the Bischoffheim handcart the police used to ferry bodies, like that of Polly Nichols the previous year)*. The constable got her back without the ambulance and she was booked into a cell for the night.

In court she was loud and antagonistic, as I imagine she was at the station. The court was told she was regularly up before the magistracy, was suffering from an incurable disease (which may have been syphilis), and was an unrepentant drunk.

The most merciful thing I can do for you is to send you to prison for a month’, Mr Hannay told her.

I do not care whether you give me forty months’ Elizabeth declared from the dock.

Why don’t you send me up for six while you are about it?’

As the duty officer dragged her away to the cells she cried out:

‘Give us a drink, old chap, when I come out, won’t you?’

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper , Sunday, September 1, 1889]

*See Neil Bell’s Capturing Jack the Ripper,p.123-3

As the ‘Ripper’ strikes in Whitechapel a wannabe Charlie Peace is nabbed in Clapham.

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The 31stAugust 1888 is etched on the memory of anyone familiar with the biggest crime news story of that year. It was at about 3.45 that morning that PC John Neil (97J) found the body of Mary Ann (‘Polly’) Nichols lying dead in near the entrance to a stable yard in Buck’s Row. Her throat had been cut and (although the constable could not have known this at the time) her abdomen had been ripped open. Polly Nichols is largely accepted to have been the first victim of the killer most commonly named ‘Jack the Ripper’.

Personally I think it quite unlikely that Mary Ann Nichols was the first of the murderer’s victims and, in a new study I hope to publish early next year, myself and a colleague will reveal the person we think responsible for Polly’s, and another dozen or more, murders and assaults.  But that, as they say, is a story for another day, so let us return to late August 1888 and see what was troubling the police court reporter at The Standard that day.

While he didn’t garner many column inches (and nothing that compared to the Whitechapel murderer later that autumn) John Terroad did reckon himself some kind of ‘super villain’.

220px-Charlie_Peace_executionPerhaps likening himself to the infamous Charlie Peace – the self-styled ‘king of the lags’ – Terroad claimed to  have committed over 120 burglaries in London in his short career. Given he was only 23 years of age in 1888 this was some résumé, but on this occasion he’d been caught.

[Right: Charles Peace and his executioner, William Marwood, in Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors]

Up before the ‘beak’ at Wandsworth he was charged with entering the house of Mr Harry Bishop in Manor Street, Clapham, as well as that of a Mr Williams in Putney Common, and Edward James’ home in Ilchester Gardens, Lavender Hill. An older accomplice (Frederick Merce, 45) was also charged with aiding and abetting in the Clapham break-in. Both men were committed for trial. They pleaded guilty at the Old Bailey and were sent to prison for ten months each at hard labour.

Charles Peace was hanged for the murder of Arthur Dyson at Leeds in February 1879, a decade before the ‘Ripper’ eclipsed him as the most famous criminal of the nineteenth century.

[from The Standard (London, England), Friday, August 31, 1888]

A London ‘scuttler’ in the dock at Marylebone?

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Throughout the last quarter of the nineteenth century the subject of gang crime periodically troubled the newspapers. Concern about ‘roughs’ first surfaced in the 1870s in London and elsewhere, with specific incidents involving ‘corner men’ in Liverpool, and ‘scuttlers’ in Salford before the ‘hooligan panic’ broke in the 1890s. I’ve written about gang fights (including one fatal stabbing) before but the pages of the newspapers would suggest that while youthful ‘bad behaviour’ was endemic, fatalities were rare.

Today we have a fairly clear idea of what we think a ‘gang’ is even if very few of us are qualified to judge. So called ‘post code wars’ involving territorial disputes have dominated press coverage along with shootings and the seemingly routine carrying of knives in some parts of London and other major British cities. Those involved are usually young – below 25 – working class, and often from the poorest, most marginalised sections of society.

When I looked at the make up of the ‘gang’ responsible for the murder of Joseph Rumbold in 1888 only one of the 10 young men that appeared at the Old Bailey accused of his murder was unemployed. That was 18 year-old George Galletly, the person who actually stabbed Joe by the York Gates at Regent’s Park. Galletly was the only one convicted and his sentence of death was quickly commuted to life imprisonment on account of his tender years.

I’m not clear that the Victorians believed they had a problem with gang violence in the way that we do today; crucially while the Pall Mall Gazette ran one of its periodic ‘exposés’ on the London gang issue the papers mostly dealt with the topic as a routine, if unpleasant, consequence of urban living. Even when a case like the Regent’s Park murder was fresh in the memory the papers weren’t always keen to hype an incident like the one that I’ve picked for today’s visit to the police courts.

Rumbold had been killed on the 24 May 1888 and the trial had taken place at the Old Bailey in August and Galletly set to hang on the 21st, exactly 130 years ago today. By the 21 August 1888 however Galletly had already been reprieved by Henry Matthews, the Home Secretary and the press had moved on. After all, an even more sensational murder story was just around the corner…

At one in the morning on Sunday 19 August 1888 PC Nicholas (100D) was walking his beat in Lisson Grove when he came across a group of young men in the street. There was about a dozen of them and they were rowdy, quite possibly drunk, acting ‘in a very disorderly fashion, and fighting’. The copper did what he was expected to do and asked them to go home quietly.

This seems very like the Fitzroy Place or the Lisson Grove ‘Lads’ that had been involved in the Regent’s Park murder earlier that year. Groups of young men, aged 18-25, wandering the streets late at night, under the influence of drink, pushing, shoving and abusing passers-by; this has all the hallmarks of late eighteenth-century ‘hooliganism’.

One of the group, William Murphy (a 20 year old carman from Marylebone) took exception to being asked to ‘go quietly’ by a policeman. He squared up to PC Nicholas and took off his heavy leather belt. Wrapping it around his wrist, with the large brass buckle to the front, he aimed a blow at the officer.

PC Nicholas avoided being hit on his head but the buckle landed with force on his hand, doing some damage. He blew his whistle and help soon arrived; Murphy was overpowered after a short struggle and the others scattered. On Monday the carman was up in court before Mr De Rutzen at Marylebone Police court, where he’d been before.

The magistrate recognised him and dismissed Murphy’s claim that he was only defending himself against the policeman. He had previous convictions for assault, including at least one where he’d served 2 months for violence that involved him using his belt as he’d done the previous night. As Andy Davies’ work has shown the Salford and Manchester ‘scuttling’ gangs decorated their heavy leather belts with horse brasses that doubled as offensive weapons in their fights with rivals; it seems the tradition had also reached Marylebone.

De Rutzen sent him down for three months this time, but probably felt it would do little to change his behaviour. I suspect he was correct, most young men like Murphy seemed to treat gangs as stage on their journey to adulthood. Once they found a sweetheart to settle down with and the demands of a family intruded they left their wayward youth behind them. The violence didn’t necessarily stop of course, but the target became much closer to home.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, August 21, 1888]

‘Here are people dying of cholera owing to the most foul and disgusting nuisance’: an East End landlady is brought to book.

nightsoil

In August 1849 Mrs Isabella Blaby was summoned before the magistrate at Thames Police court to answer a charge that she was exposing her neighbours to a most ‘intolerable odour’.

The now widowed Mrs Blaby was well known to the court as her husband had worked there until his death a few years earlier. But any sympathy that Mr Combe (the sitting magistrate) might have had for her quickly evaporated as he heard the evidence against her. Mrs Blaby ran a number of lodging houses in East London: one in Batty Street (a street later to become infamous as home to Israel Lipski, hanged for murder in 1887, and Francis Tumblety, a suspect in the ‘Ripper’ case) and two others in Charles Street.

A cess pit at the rear of her properties in Charles Street was overflowing into the yards at Phillip Street nearby via damaged wall, and the stench was unbearable. This caused the tenants there to complain and Thomas Overton, the local inspector of nuisances, was sent round to investigate.

He had already had dealings with Isabella having previously ordered her to deal with a similar problem at her Batty Street tenement, but she clearly hadn’t taken his orders seriously enough. He now discovered that as well as the smell there were potentially fatal health consequences associated with the ‘nuisance’. Given that there had been several outbreaks of cholera in the area, and she seemingly wasn’t  dealing quickly enough with the problem, Overton had no alternative but to bring Mrs Blaby to court.

At the Thames Police court hearing Mr Combe was told that two people were in hospital and the surgeons had warned that unless the cesspit was emptied immediately, and thereafter more regularly, there was a very real risk of further outbreaks.

In her defence Mrs Blaby said she had ‘compoed’ the wall that surrounded the pit (which was was found to be in a poor state of disrepair thus causing it to leak into the adjoining yards) and added that the cess pit had been emptied just six months earlier.

Six months ago? Asked the justice, that was ‘too long, too long’, he told her. ‘Empty them immediately, or you will be liable to a fine of 10s a day’.

Mrs Blaby said was happy to get someone to empty the cess pit of ‘night soil’ the following day, but this was not good enough for Mr Combe.

‘I can’t give you authority to remove night soil in the day time’, he insisted, ‘You must do it this very night, and before five o’clock tomorrow morning. Here are people dying of cholera owing to the most foul and disgusting nuisance’.

The landlady left court agreeing to sort out the issue straight away but her cavalier attitude towards her tenants and her neighbours can’t have filled the bench or the local health inspectors with confidence and it speaks volumes about the conditions people in the East End were living in at the time.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, August 17, 1849]

A remarkable woman challenges the patriarchy

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Mrs Georgina Weldon

In August 1883 a woman appeared at the Bow Street Police court to ask for a summons against a psychiatrist whose name is perhaps family to researchers interested in the ‘Jack the Ripper’ case. Lyttelton Forbes Winslow was born in London in 1844 and trained as a physician, like his father. He became a psychiatrist like his father but was a controversial figure, falling out with his family and making seemingly spurious claims about his knowledge of who the Whitechapel murderer was.

Winslow believed the killer was the Canadian born G. Wentworth Smith who had arrived in London for work and lodged with a couple in Finsbury Square. Smith was apparently overheard declaring that ‘all prostitutes should be drowned’ and this was reported to Winslow by Mr Callaghan, the Canadian’s landlord.

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Winslow told the police, who investigated and dismissed his thesis, but the doctor persisted to talk it up at every opportunity. When he was eventually interviewed by Chief Inspector Swanson Winslow crumbled and said he’d been misrepresented in the press (which had carried the story). One Ripper theorist (Donald McCormick) suggested that the police even suspected Winslow himself of being the murderer.

Forbes Winslow’s real notoriety however, and his rejection by the mainstream medical community, was down to events before 1888 and linked in fact to this case at Bow Street. In 1878 he had attempted to commit Mrs Wheldon to a lunatic asylum at the request of her husband. This ended up in a long running court battle of which this request for a summons seems to have been a part.

Georgina Weldon was an opera singer who led a colourful life and become estranged from her husband Harry, a former officer in the Hussars. She’d filled her house with orphan children and when Weldon became increasing exasperated at the expense of keeping his ex-wife (at £1,000 a year) he tried to do what many Victorian men did and have his wife put away as a lunatic on account of her interest in spiritualism (which was increasingly popular at the end of the 1800s).

Her examination was conducted in an underhand manner by doctors who pretended they were interviewing her about her orphanage and Georgina soon realised something as amiss. She couldn’t sue her husband directly until the law changed in 1882 but seems to have sued everyone involved at some point and to have been a champion of litigation (‘the Portia of the Law Court’s as she was dubbed).

At this appliance in August 1883 Georgina had requested a summons to bring Dr Forbes Winslow to court to prove she was not insane. Mr Flowers, the Bow Street magistrate, declined her a summons but stated that he was entirely satisfied she was not mad. He added that she could of course apply at a higher court to bring Dr Winslow to book, which of course she went on to do.

Georgina Weldon went to prison, gave public lectures, wrote a number of books and articles about her experiences and sang and published songs. She died just over six months before the outbreak of the First World War and perhaps deserves to be better known than she is. She certainly stands out as a woman who was not prepared to accept the lot that life dealt her; that is (or was) to be a submissive wife of a Victorian military man.

She carved out her own destiny and challenged the medical and legal patriarchy at every turn and its a shame she didn’t make it to the end of the war to see the sisterhood win the right to vote. She was a quite remarkable Victorian lady.

[from Morning Post, Monday 13 August 1883]