Polish ‘moonshine’ and a police stakeout in Whitechapel 1888

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Detective supervisor Llewhellin [sic] had organised a stakeout to watch two properties in Whitechapel in March 1888. This had nothing to do with the infamous murders in that district because, in the spring of that year, no one suspected that the name ‘Jack the Ripper’ was about to become a byword for brutality against women.

Instead Llewhellin and the two detective constables under his orders were acting on information that a number of people were involved in buying and selling spirits without paying the tax due on them. As they waited they saw two men – Aaron Klausner (34) and Aaron Cohen Zeitlin (17) – enter the house in the middle of the night, carrying ‘a hamper partially filled with straw’. Not long afterwards they reappeared outside 72 Whitechapel High Street with the same hamper, but this time it seemed to be a lot heavier, as they were struggling a little to support it.

As the men moved off Llewhellin and his team followed at a distance tracking them to a house known to be the home of a local Rabbi. Just as they were about to go inside Llewhellin pounced, ordering his men to arrest them. Zeitlin took to his heels but was picked up soon afterwards, hiding in a nearby loft. The rabbi was Zeitlin’s father but he seemed to know nothing about his boy’s activities. The place was searched nevertheless and a quantity of wine was found there.

More wine (some being made) and two barrels of spirits were discovered at Klausner’s home and it was clear some sort of illegal operation had been exposed. In court Klausner admitted that he had been making a white spirit distilled from plums. This could be a ‘moonshine’ version of slivovitz, which is widely drunk in Central and Eastern Europe. It is a plum brandy which has very long association with Jewish cultural traditions in Poland, where many of the Jewish community living in Spitalfields and Whitechapel had emigrated from.

Aaron Klausner dealt in spirits and the police undercover team had purchased nine bottles from him only days before as part of their operation. However, in court Klausner claimed that he’d paid duty for the spirit and hadn’t known it was against the law to take it from one place to another without paying additional excise charges. According to an officer from the Inland Revenue who was present it was, and of course ignorance of the law is no defense for breaking it.

Mr Hannay, who was the duty magistrate at Worship Street Police court, took pity on the pair however. The fine they were both liable to was substantial but the prosecution was, he said, ‘somewhat novel and unusual’ so he would mitigate it. The minimum fine of £10 each would be levied, but that was still a very large sum for them to find.

At first both men were taken away to begin the 21 days imprisonment that was the default punishment for those unable to pay that fine  but Klausner was later released, his friends and relative shaving brought the money to court. Young Zeitlin would have to stay where he was for three weeks and then explain himself to his father on his release. One imagines that would be the most difficult of conversations.

[from The Standard, Thursday, March 22, 1888]

The gin craze in 1890s Mile End

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It is a great time to be a gin connoisseur; there are new brands or artisanal gin popping up seemingly every week and a collection of tonics that complement them beautifully. I think I’ve currently got about eight different sorts of gin in my cabinet but until the weather improves that’s probably where they’ll stay.

Gin is relatively easy to produce and since it is a white spirit it can be flavoured with pretty much any sort of botanical. In Victorian London gin was a cheap alcohol favoured by the masses (rather like the cheap nasty gin that Winston Smith and everyone below the elite ranks of the Party consume in Orwell’s 1984). Gin palaces sold cheap liquor to working-class Londoners, many of whom drank it to drown out the depressing reality of their impoverished daily lives.

As a result there was always a market for cheap ‘booze’ and in 1899 Louis Wormker and his mates decided they might as well profit from it. Wormker, along with Solomen Rosenbloom, Abraham Rosenbloom, his wife Sarah, and their friend Levi Kalhan were immigrants or the descendants of immigrants living in East London’s Mile End district.

They had set up an illegal still at 1, Bohn Street which held 10-15 gallons of spirit. In the back parlour the gin was flavored with caraway and other essences while being stored in large casks each holding 36 gallons. At nearby Ellen Street (where Abraham Rosenbloom lived) investigators from the Inland Revenue found more evidence of the illegal operation to bottle and distribute unlicensed alcohol to clubs and pubs in the area.

The four men and one woman were brought before Mr Mead at Thames Police court and prosecuted on behalf of the Inland Revenue Commissioners (since this was a case of the evasion of tax and duty). The IRC employed its own detectives  to investigate the case and, at this stage, wanted the culprits to enter into bail to appear at a later date. Sarah Rosenbloom was asked to find £50 bail, the others £100 each. This done they were all released.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, March 01, 1899]

‘Leather Apron’ at Marylebone Police court?

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As London woke up to the news that two women had been murdered in one night of horror in the East End the search for the murderer known to history as ‘Jack the Ripper’ continued. The police pursued all the leads they got, some of which were clearly red herrings.

In the immediate aftermath of Catherine Eddowes’ murder a policeman found a piece of bloodied cloth in Goulston Street. Above it was a chalked message which seemed to infer the murders were being committed by a member of the Jewish immigrant community.

The idea that the killer was Jewish had surfaced soon after Annie Chapman’s inquest when one witness said the man she had seen with Annie just before her death ‘looked foreign’. Anti-alienism (racism) was endemic in Victorian society and it was easy to point the finger of blame at local Jews.

One man in particular felt the pressure of this local xenophobia. John Piser was arrested and questioned when he was thought to be a suspect. The Star newspaper even ran with the story, claiming that the mysterious character ‘leather apron’ was in custody for the killings. leatherapron

‘Leather Apron’ was the name given to a local Jewish man who had a reputation for violence against women. He may well have been an unpleasant character and he may have attacked women but that hardly made him unique in Whitechapel. As for whether Piser and ‘Leather Apron’ were one and the same person, the jury is out’.’

In the end Piser was able to provide Sergeant Thicke for an alibi to cover his movements at the time of the murders so he was released. Many local Jews ran the gauntlet of being arrested by the police or chased through the streets by lynch mobs. It is always much easier to pin the blame for something awful that happens on an outsider, rather than look for the suspects within your own community.

On the day that news of Stride and Eddowes’ murders hit the newsstands a man appeared at Marylebone Police court seeking compensation. The complainant was ‘a man of the artisan class’ and if accused a ‘gentleman’ of injuring him while making a citizen’s arrest. No names were given but the court heard that the man had been working on repairs to the organ at St Saviour’s church  in Paddington. As he walked home a stranger ran up to him and declared that he was ‘Leather Apron’ and tried to take him into custody.

He was dragged to the nearest police station, held for three and half hours, and then released. He wanted compensation for the hurt done to him but the magistrate was unable to help him. Mr De Rutzen explained that he would have to take his claim to a county court.

I wonder how often men were chased, abused, arrested and falsely accused in that ‘autumn of terror’? The press whipped up a storm with their wall-to-wall coverage of the story and the wild speculation as to the murderer’s identity must have caused dozens or more men to be looked on with suspicion.

In reality the killer was probably must closer to home and to the community within which all the victims lived and worked. It is highly unlikely that he was a ‘champagne Charlie’ or a ‘mad doctor’, or even a ‘desperate foreigner’. I believe he was a local Gentile who had grown up in Whitechapel and knew its streets like the back of his hand.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, October 02, 1888]

The old ‘money changing’ scam on the Docks

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For many people arriving in London in the 1880s the capital was a stopover en route to somewhere else; for many European Jews that ‘somewhere else’ was the golden medina, the United States of America. This had been the case for thousands of Irish migrants in the 1840s, fleeing famine and poverty after potato blight devastated their lives. Very many settled in London, Liverpool and Birmingham but plenty had the ambition to make a fresh start outside of the British Empire, an empire that had palpably failed to support them when they needed it.

London’s docks must have heaved with people looking for a passage across the Atlantic in the 1800s and a similar scene would have played out at Liverpool. Men like Messers, Koosch and Schack, two German travellers, asked around to find a berth on a steamer bound for Ellis Island. These two had struck lucky and secured a place on the Etna which had been built and launched in Greenock in August 1854.

However their luck was soon to run out when they were taken in by a fairly straightforward conman. John Louis befriend the pair and explained that he was a provisons dealer and was also travelling on the Etna. They had plenty of English money but no American dollars. That was no problem, Louis assured them, he was in an ideal position to change the money for them so they’d welcomed on to US soil with open arms.

Delighted, the two friends handed over all their money (about £10)  and arranged to meet Louis the following day. Of course he never showed up and they soon realised they’d been scammed and  robbed.

With the help of the local police Koosch and Schack traced Louis and he was arrested and brought before the Lord Mayor at Mansion House Police court. He was represented by a solicitor and he promised to return every penny that his client had taken. This must have been a relief for the two Germans whose chances of making a new life in America would have been devastated before they’d even arrived had they been force to travel with nothing.

But for the Lord Mayor this wasn’t enough; he needed to demonstrate to the public that anyone behaving in such a ‘villainous and disgraceful way’ could expect no mercy in his court. He sent Louis to prison for four months with hard labour.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, September 18, 1883]

‘A very serious thing’ means a birching for one young boy

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When Louis Perry sent his errand boy off to deliver some work for him he gave him strict instructions. Lipman Forkell was to take some boots to his customer on a barrow and then drop the barrow off at the hire place. The lad was told not to forget to collect the 10change due from his deposit of a shilling.

However young Lipman – a 12 year-old boy who lived in Eastman Court, Whitechapel in London’s East End – carried out the task but failed to return Mr Perry’s money. This was a second chance for Lipman; he’d been accused of stealing money before but had been let off with a warning. He wasn’t to get a third chance and the boot maker was determined to teach him a lesson.

On Thursday 7 August 1879 the boy was brought before Mr Bushby at Worship Street Police court and formally charged with stealing 10in silver coins. The magistrate warned Mr Perry that he was also liable to be prosecuted, ‘for employing  a lad under age’. On this occasion he got off with a warning.

Lipman was not so fortunate. The magistrate told him that to have taken to stealing at such a young age was very serious and he would be punished for it. On top of sending him to prison for three days Mr. Bushby ordered that the boy be given ‘twelve strokes of the birch rod’. These would be administered by a local policeman, which helps explain why the ‘old bill’ were far from popular in the district.

[from The Standard, Friday, August 08, 1879]

A little bit of clarity on Sunday trading

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One of the delights of the Police Court reportage is the additional information it gives me about the way society operated in the Victorian period. Because Police Court magistrates were called upon to deal with such a large amount of ‘civil’ business we get a real insight into how people lived and worked.

One of the things that interested me when I was writing about immigration to the East End in the 1880s was the patterns of work for Jewish businessmen and their employees. Because Jewish law forbids the faithful from working after sunset on Fridays and all day Saturday I wondered if they closed their shops and factories or employed gentile (non Jewish) workers to keep them running. Moreover since the laws forbade Sunday trading did this seriously impact Jewish businesses which would have had to shut?

I was also interested to know whether Jews would be able to work for non-jewish businesses given the restrictions their religion placed on them. This matters because accusations of ghettoisation often stem from fears that migrant groups stick together and don’t integrate. However, its quite hard to integrate if you were unable to find work that allows you to have time off to practice your religion.

Isaac Rishfield was a cap maker. He ran a workshop on Houndsditch, on the edge of the City of London close to the large Jewish community in Whitechapel and Spitalfields. In July 1884 Rishfield was summoned to appear at the Guildhall Police Court charged with ‘having contravened the Factory and Workshops Act’.

Prosecuting, Mr Lakeman told the court that under law Jewish businesses were entitled to employ people to work for them on Sundays, for half a day. This mirrored the time lost on Saturdays when workers tended only to work from early morning to the afternoon.

Very many Jewish owners took advantage of this legal loophole, Lakeman explained, and some, like Rishfield, were exceeding the regulations by employing too many. This, he continued, gave them an unfair advantage over gentile businesses in the area and complaints were made. The cap maker had employed ‘one Gentile on the Saturday and two Jewesses on the Sunday, which he was not entitled to do’.

Rishfield didn’t dispute the facts and pleaded guilty to the charge. He said he wasn’t aware he’d done anything wrong but ignorance is no defence in law so he was fined 20for each breach with 10s costs. In total he was fined the equivalent of £300 in today’s money. We know that Jewish households in the East End employed non-Jewish women as casual servants and now I’ve confirmed that this extended to other areas of the world of work and business.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, July 08, 1884]

‘I am absolutely lost in London’: bureaucracy and callousness combine to mistreat a servant of the Empire.

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A Hindu temple in Bangalore in the 1880s

 This week the news is rightly dominated by the scandalous treatment of the Windrush generation. This country had a proud history of supporting and welcoming immigrants because it recognized the tremendous value they brought to these islands. The first discordant voices in the immigration debate were raised in the late 1800s as large numbers of Eastern European Jews arrived in London, fleeing persecution in the Russian Empire. Anti-Semitism mixed with protectionism meant that politicians on the right (like Arnold White) and left (H. M. Hyndman) used immigration as a political weapon and argued that Britain was too full, and needed to look after its own people first.

Racism and anti-immigration rhetoric often raises its ugly head when there is an economic crisis. We saw this in the 1880s, in the 1930s, the 1970s and today, in this prolonged period of austerity and concern around our impending exit from the European Union. Blaming immigrants focuses attention on the symptoms not on the causes of economic hardships and helps keep the working classes divided. Moreover it also reveals that when times are hard governments attempt to save money by reducing the amount of benefits that are paid out to those at the bottom of society, rather than raising the contributions made by those at the top. There are lot more people at the bottom than there are at the top and those in power (at national, local and parochial levels) have always been closer, in terms of social class, to those at the top.

Consider this case from 1889, a time of serious economic downturn if not quite a depression. The payments for poor relief had been rising across the second half of the 1880s and London was receiving thousands of political and economic migrants from Europe as well as very many from across the UK and wider Empire. If these migrants arrived (as many of them did) without much or any money; without jobs to go to: without homes or friends and family to stay with, then they had few choices but to appeal to charity or the state for help. The reaction they got was often uncaring and unhelpful even, as in this case from Westminster, they seemingly had every right to assistance.

In April 1889 a ‘poorly-dressed woman’ (we are not told her name) presented herself at Westminster Police court asking for help. She was Irish and she had been married to a serving British soldier in India, a sergeant major in the Nilgiri Rifles. The Rifles was a volunteer regiment raised in Madras in 1878 and while she had lived with him she had drawn a small government allowance as she was deemed to be ‘on the staff’ of the regiment.

However, at some point the couple had separated (‘through no fault of her own’ she told the magistrate at Westminster, Mr Partridge) and he, on leaving the regiment at the red of his period of service, had returned to England with their two children. The woman had followed him, taking a boat a Bangalore in March 1888 after gaining a certificate from the District Staff Officer there, which entitled her to free passage. She had just eight rupees left for the whole of the voyage and arrived in London on the 14 April. She headed to the War Office with her papers with the intention of being sent on to Ireland where ‘her friends were’.

However, there she was met with a similarly uncaring bureaucracy as that has recently confronted the Windrush generation. She was entitled to help from the British state but the paperwork had not arrived or could not be validated. Until ‘the order’ came from India nothing could be done for her. Even the certificate from the ship’s captain that declared she had forgone her beer allowance (and was thus entitled to some money for that) could not be processed. She ‘was transferred from one to the other, only to be told that nothing could be done for her at present’.

The previous night she had slept at the workhouse casual ward in Buckingham Palace Road and now she asked Mr Partridge for help. ‘She was absolutely lost in London’, she said, ‘having never been here before’. Without some temporary help she said would have to ‘walk the streets or starve’ – suggesting her only alternative was to beg or to prostitute herself.

The magistrate was cold. There was nothing he could or would do for her he said. He told the clerk to give her the fare to get to Thames Police court so she could plead her case there. ‘The docks are in that district’ he added, suggesting that since she’d arrived by boat she wasn’t his problem. The poor woman was dispatched with a shilling, not knowing what to do or where to go.

[from The Standard, Thursday, April 18, 1889]