A cross-dressing copper and the Whitechapel murderer?

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The ‘From Hell or ‘Lusk’ letter 

In mid October 1888 the London, national and even the world’s press were full of the news of the Whitechapel murders. It was the sensation story of its day and has remained one of the most discussed crime news stories of all time.

On the evening of the 16 October George Lusk, a builder and head of the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee, received a disturbing parcel in the post. The parcel contained a badly written letter and a piece of human kidney. The so-called ‘From Hell’ or ‘Lusk’ letter has been the subject of fierce speculation amongst those interested in the case. It was not signed ‘Jack the Ripper’ and the portion of kidney gave it extra credence, since it was commonly known that the killer had removed one of Kate Eddowes in Mitre Square.

Ultimately we can’t be sure if the ‘From Hell’ letter, or any of the communications received by the press and police, were from the murderer or the work of attention seekers and cranks. They all, however, demonstrate just how much public interest there was in the Ripper case.

The police hunt for the killer was at its apogee in October and may have contributed to the fact that there was a lull in murders that lasted just over a month. The police were out in force and watching anyone they suspected might be involved. Evidence of this can found in all sorts of places including this report of proceedings in the Clerkenwell Police court.

James Phillips and William Jarvis, two cab washers, were brought before Mr Bros charged with a serious assault on a police detective. The court heard that on the 9 October detective sergeant Robinson was on duty in Phoenix Place. DS Robinson was in disguise, dressed in women’s clothing so he could watch ‘a man supposed to be the Whitechapel murderer’.

According to the report Jarvis attacked him, throwing him to the ground and stabbing him before Phillips rushed in and started kicking him. A man named Doncaster came to assist the policeman and he was also wounded. Eventually the pair were arrested and charged.  Mr Bros committed the men for trial, accepting £20 each in bail. Jarvis was tried at the Middlesex quarter sessions where he was convicted and sent to Pentonville prison for six weeks.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, October 17, 1888]

Two tragedies narrowly averted as life takes its toll on two Londoners

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April 1889 must have been a hard month for those living in London. The 1880s were a period of economic slump, if not a full-blown depression, and unemployment, homelessness and poverty were all rife. A year today I wrote up the story of a young woman that arrived from India, penniless and in need of kind advice and support, who got little of either from the Westminster magistrate. In the same set of daily reports from the Police courts two more tales of personal distress and tragedy caught my eye today.

Mr Bros was the sitting magistrate at Dalston Police court in northeast London when George King was brought before him. King was a 48 year-old stonemason but he was out of work. He’d lost his wife some years ago and was attempting to support his family on his own. Recently however, the state of trade meant he’d little or no money coming in and his sons and daughters were going hungry.

At some point in the spring it all became too much for George and he decided to end his own life. He swallowed a quantity of oxalic acid (used to bring a shine to marble, so something he’d have used in his work) and almost died. Fortunately oxalic acid is one of the least toxic of acids and while it causes considerable harm (notably to the kidneys) its misuse is survivable.

George King did survive but was later arrested and charged with attempting to take his own life. Mr Bros said he was inclined to make an example of the stonemason since ‘such cases were too frequent’ but thought better of it. Taking the circumstances of his plight into consideration he bound him over on his own recognizes (of £5) to never try to do such a thing again.

If George King’s story was a narrowly tragedy avoided then Thomas Burrows was equally distressing. Thomas was only 14 years of age when he attempted to kill himself by lying on the tracks of the North London Railway. At midday on the 10 April Thomas had been seen jumping ‘excitedly’ off the platform at Mildmay Park station onto the tracks below. Observers rushed to pull him up and a constable was called to take him home to his parents. He was later summoned before Mr Bros at Dalston.

The magistrate asked him if he knew it ‘was an extremely wicked thing to attempt to take your life?’  ‘Yes, sir’, Thomas replied meekly.

The boy’s father explained that he understood that the lad had had a ‘tiff’ with his sister. It was something minor, involving carrying home a basket of work in the rain, but it had upset the boy and he had taken this drastic course of action. Normally Thomas was ‘a very good boy, and was fond of his home and of his brothers and sisters’. This had been out of character and he was sure it would never be repeated.

Mr Bros was shocked but also recognized that it was a ‘one off’. Indeed, he said he was almost inclined to laugh’ had there not been ‘such a serious aspect to the case’. He decided to reserve judgment but released Thomas to his father’s care and set bail  (set at £5 again) to ensure the pair returned again to hear what the court decided.

Both these cases are revealing of a society where mental health care was nothing like as advanced as it is today. The attitude of the courts was to punish those that struggled with their personal demons not to support them. Nor was their the state support for men like King who wanted to work but couldn’t; he had at least four other mouths to feed and the only recourse he had was the workhouse (where he’d most likely lose his children altogether).

We are understandably concerned about the mental health of our children in today’s multi-media society where they are exposed to all sorts of challenges on a daily basis. It is often suggested that mental health problems amongst teenagers are more widespread than ever before. This may be true but cases like Thomas’ suggest that such problems existed in the past, but were treated very differently or simply not recognized at all.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, April 18, 1889]

Making explosives at home is a very bad idea

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It is that time of the year again. The period when all the supermarkets stock fireworks for Guy Fawkes and Diwali. Last Wednesday I was walking out of Finsbury Park station on my way to the football when there was a loud bang, the sound of crackers going off, and screams of fear and delight. Suddenly a young man in a hoodie came charging away from the noise followed soon after by three other excited teenagers.

He had thrown a parcel of fireworks into the street by the traffic lights, causing chaos and amusing himself and his friends. Its hardly the worst crime in the world but perhaps, in these dark days of urban terrorism, it wasn’t the most sensible thing to do.

Kids eh?

Such irresponsibility isn’t restricted to children or young adults of course and in 1888 it landed William Seal in court. Seal – who was described as ‘a cripple’ (meaning he was disabled in some way) – was hailed before Mr Bros at Dalston Police court for manufacturing fireworks in a  private house.

He was prosecuted under the Explosives Act (1875) and the case was brought by James Gibbons of the Metropolitan Board of Works and their solicitor, Mr Roberts. The court heard that Seal lived in the upstairs room of a house in Dunster Square, Hackney. The square was home to several houses, each of four rooms, and formed a cul de sac. It was a densely populated area and so very many families lived nearby to where Seal made his pyrotechnics.

Seal lived in a room that was just 9 feet by 7, not much different, in fact, than a standard cell in a Victorian prison. The room was heated by an open fire which was unprotected by any screen or grate, and the table on which Gibbons found Seal’s explosives being made was less than 4 feet away. The table very close to the open fire but the bed was even closer, and Seal stored fireworks under this as well.

The risk of a catastrophic accident, he figured, was very high indeed.

Seal’s landlady was called to give evidence and she testified that she believed he was a toy maker, she never knew he made fireworks and was shocked by the news. She lived downstairs and was ‘very indigent when she discovered the peril in which she and her four children had been placed’.

Mr Bros ordered that all Seal’s stock and manufacturing equipment be seized and brushed aside the defendant’s complaints that it would take away his meagre livelihood. He only made a shilling day from selling fireworks which was barely ‘enough to keep himself out of the workhouse’.

The magistrate was insistent and told the man that by breaking the terms of the act he had rendered himself liable to a fine of £100 a day, and endangered the lives of dozens of people nearby. He fined him £5 or a month’s imprisonment. Shaking his head Seal sloped away from the dock, ‘its the workhouse for me then’, he declared.

[from London Evening Standard, Monday, 5 November 1888]

Angry shoemakers take to the streets of Hackney

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One Sunday in early October 1892 a grim looking band of men started marching up and down a street in Hackney, north-east London. The men marched to the musical accompaniment of a motely band playing the ‘death march’ and every now than then the group turned to point accusingly at towards the occupants of the houses they passed, shouting out ‘scabs!’, ‘rats!’ and ‘gaol birds!’

Several men broke ranks and rushed over to the homes shoving handbills under the portals. These printed bills carried a foreboding message:

‘To all Trade Unionists, – Under the auspices of the National Union of Boot and Shoe Clickers and Rough Stuff Cutters, a few Sunday morning demonstrations against sweaters, and scabs, rats and other vermin will be given in the London Fields district, commencing on Sunday October 2, and will be continued until further notice’.

London Fields was large open area that had once been home mainly to sheep and highwaymen in the previous century. By the late 1800s it was ‘a hard unsightly, dismal plain’, when it rained it became an ‘impassable swamp’. It was uncultivated and so idea for demonstrations.

The handbill continued:

‘All Unionists […] who believe in giving sweaters, scabs, rats, and other vermin a musical lunch will confer a favour on the above Union by meeting on London Fields next Sunday at 10.30, when they will form in procession, headed by bands and banners, and pay each of these social parasites and bloodsuckers a visit’…

The noise and the threats prompted at least two individuals to complain at the North London Police court. Both men said they had been targeted directly. They said they worked in a shop where a dispute was underway but denied being scabs (strike breakers).  Mr Bros (presiding) suggested that they applied for a summons against those responsible for a breach of the peace, and sent them on their way.

The actions of the trades union members seems to be a cross over from traditional acts of ‘rough musicing’ (literally banging pots and pans outside someone’s home to show community disproval) and more ‘modern’ acts of picketing (as demonstrated during the 1889 Dock Strike).

The Boot and Show Union had formed in 1873 and within a decade boasted 10,000 members. It had merged with the Rough Stuff and Clickers Union in 1892, the year this case occurred, but split soon after. They had one big strike, in 1897, in support of a minimum wage and 54 hour week but unlike the Match Girls (in 1888) and the Dockers (1889) they weren’t successful.

We don’t have a large scale boot and show industry anymore, but several firms in Northamptonshire (where I teach) continue to produce top quality leather shoes many of which are exported across the world. In London in the late 1800s the competition form cheap foreign labour (‘sweaters’) was intense and only the larger factories (in Northants) survived into the 1900s.

[from The Standard (London, England), Tuesday, October 04, 1892]

An elderly kleptomaniac in North London

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From about the middle of the nineteenth century mental weakness was used to explain some forms of petty offending, usually by women. The idea that female shoplifters were impelled to steal as a result of their ‘inferior’ or ‘weak’ minds helped explain, if not entirely excuse, those ‘respectable’ women caught stealing small items from London’s new department stores.

I’ve nearly always heard kleptomania associated with women but in this case the suggestion was that an elderly man could also be susceptible to this form of ‘brain fever’. This fits the underlying narrative however: women, children and the elderly were all ‘weak’ in the eyes of Victorian society. All required some level of protection, and sometimes from themselves.

Robert Lacey was working in his yard on Hertford Road in Kingsland one evening in July 1892 when an old man entered. The visitor offered  Lacey a whip socket for sale but he wasn’t interested and the man went away. As he was leaving however Lacey saw him take a waterproof knee-length apron from the ‘rail of a pleasure van’. The old man calmly folded the apron up, ticked it under his jacket, and walked away.

Lacey followed after and caught him, waiting until a policeman came into view before handing him over. When he was searched at the station the police found the apron (worth just 6s) and the whip socket plus ‘four carriage-handles, three knives, a billiard-ball case, eight pawn-tickets, and two bottles of oil’. Quite how he carried all these is a mystery!

In court before the North London Police Magistrates the man gave his name as John Clark, 60 years of age and said he was very sorry. He’d only recently been released from Banstead Lunatic Asylum ‘where he had been detained as a kleptomaniac’. The magistrate – Mr Bros – called for enquiries to be made by the surgeon at the gaol to determine ‘the state of his mind’. He remanded him in custody in the meantime.

Judging by the eclectic list of things that Clark had in his possession he certainly seems to have been someone ‘collecting’ things by impulse rather than a determined thief but one wonders if the unforgiving justice system of the time was able to appreciate that.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, July 9, 1892]

An episode of ‘officious bumbledom’ as an 1890s dustman gets into hot water

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John Rooney had ‘parked’ his dust cart as he often did while he went to see he if there was any need for his services. The Lambeth based dustman had not been gone long but when he returned he found it had moved. As he looked around he saw the horse and cart being led away slowly by another man in the direction of the Vestry Hall.

Rooney ran after the cart and remonstrated with the man. The pair wrestled as the dustman attempted to get hold of the reins and the other resisted. In the melee the other man claimed he was ‘struck a violent blow in the chest and also behind the ear’. As a result he pressed charges against the dustman and Rooney found himself in court at Clerkenwell in front of Mr Bros the sitting magistrate.

His victim was a vestryman, a member of local (parish) government whose name was Joseph Walton. Walton explained that he had seen the dustcart standing unattended and had watched it for 10 minutes. When no one returned to it he decided to impound it and drew it away to the Vestry Hall.

Rooney’s lawyer, a Mr Cowdell, said his client had no idea who Walton was and so was understandably annoyed to see him ‘stealing’ his cart. It was normal custom for dustmen to leave their carts unattended ‘in a manner difficult for the horse to run off’ while they searched out work. In his client’s view, ‘it was a piece of “officious bumbeldom” for [Walton] to inferrer’ in this way.

We’ve all encountered a jobsworth at one point or other in our lives and know how annoying they can be. Walton was probably just following procedure however, and he could count on the support of the magistrate. Mr Bros determined that it was a violent assault and sentenced the prisoner to 21 days in prison. He later relented and changed this to a 40s fine.

I doubt it made Rooney much happier though; he had been dragged through the courts and fined for reacting to seeing his livelihood being taken away. I suspect Harold Steptoe would have sympathised with him.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, February 28, 1892]

You are ‘ruining my brains’:the effects of imprisonment on one Londoner

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Kate Driscoll was a regular in the Clerkenwell Police Court. The 25 year-old book folder* of ‘no fixed abode’ had been sent to prison on numerous occasions in the late 1890s for acts of violence or criminal damage, usually when she was much the worse for drink.

On Saturday, the 7 January 1899 she was entered Frederick Glover’s music shop at 185 Upper Islington. It was just before midnight (and so we learn that in those days shops were sometimes still open, even very later a night) and, as usual, Kate was drunk. This time her ‘poison’ was rum but I imagine she drank whatever she could get her hands on.

Having pushed her way into the shop she collided with a music stand sending it, and the musical score on it, tumbling to the floor. Mr Glover, understandably concerned for his merchandise, remonstrated with her and got a mouthful of abuse for his trouble. As Kate tried to pull over another display Glover grabbed her and managed to manhandle her off of his premises and in to the street.

Kate sat down on the pavement, and removed one of her boots. Slowly pulling herself upright she turned and aimed the heel at the window to express her displeasure at being so rudely ejected. As the boot made contact with the shop window it smashed the plate glass, doing an estimated £4 10s worth of damage.

The sound alerted PC Jones (222C) who arrested her and marched Kate off to the station, but not before she had managed to land him a punch in the face. On Monday she was back in court at Clerkenwell before Mr Bros, the sitting magistrate. There Kate admitted the damage and the assault on the constable.

‘I admit I struck him and knocked his helmet off’, she told Mr Bros, ‘but the officer threw me down. What I did was in self defence’, adding that ‘the drink was in me’.

‘I have no doubt about that’, countered the magistrate, ‘what have you to say’?

”Well these long terms of imprisonment you are giving me are ruining my brains’ was Kate’s riposte; ‘I only came out after doing six months on Saturday last, and, you see, the least drop [of alcohol] upsets me’.

There was little alternative to prison for Kate in 1899; the Police Court Missionary Service had been attending courts for the last couple of decades but they only really helped those willing to ‘take the pledge’ to abstain from alcohol and Kate wasn’t quite ready for that. After 1887 courts could release offenders convicted of certain crimes on their recognisances but this applied only to first offenders, and Kate Driscoll hardly qualified.

So Mr Bros, whether happily or against his better judgement, did what he had to do and sent her to gaol once more. She got two months for the criminal damage and three for the assault.’Five months, oh my heart!’ cried Kate, ‘I can do it’ she added, before she was taken away to start her latest period of incarceration.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, January 10, 1899]

*someone employed by a printer or bookbinder to fold sheets of paper to form the pages of a book. We can now do this mechanically. 

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