‘You will meet a tall dark stranger’: a fortune teller fails to predict her own demise.

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Did you watch the recent BBC drama, The Pale Horse? It is an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1961 murder mystery in which a dying woman leaves a list of names of people who die in unexplained circumstances.

The drama centres around three ‘witches’ in the village of Much Deeping (below right) , who tell fortunes and (at least in the mind of one of the characters) place curses on victims, causing them to die.images

The idea of having one’s fortune told has a very (very) long history. From ancient times those with the gift of prophesy or ‘sight’ have been sought out by kings and chieftains, and those who just want to know who and when they’ll marry.

Until the eighteenth century those deemed to be practicing witchcraft could hanged if convicted and although the laws against witchcraft were repealed in 1736 so-called witches were still targeted well into the 1800s. The 1735 Witchcraft Act had effectively abolished the crime of witchcraft but made it illegal to claim magical powers. This continued to be used against those who said they could ‘summons spirits’, as both Helen Duncan and Jane Yorke discovered in 1944 when they were last two people to be prosecuted under the act.

According to the Police Code Book of 1889 fortune telling was also prohibited. The section reads:

‘Every person pretending of professing to tell fortunes, or using any subtle craft, means, or device, by palmistry or otherwise, to deceive and impose on any one, may be treated as a rogue and vagabond, and sentenced to imprisonment with hard labour’.1

This offence fell under the ‘catch all’ terms of the Vagrancy Act (1824) and in February 1884 it ensnared an elderly woman called Antonia Spike. Spike appeared before Mr Lushington at Thames Police court. She’d been brought in on a warrant by sergeant White of H Division who’d been watching her for weeks.

White testified in court that he’d often seen women going coming and going at the house where Spike lived, sometimes as many as 8 or 9 in a single day. On the 18 February Eliza Weedon (a tenant on Whitechapel High Street) and Annie Wheeler, who lived in Shadwell, were among Spike’s visitors.  Somehow the police sergeant persuaded them to give evidence before the magistrate.

They said that they had entered the house and Antonia  Spike asked them if they wished to have their fortunes told. They said they did and Spike proceeded to shuffle and a pack of cards before giving them to Wheeler to cut

‘Are you married?’ she asked Annie, who said she was.

‘You will have a letter from a fair man, with a present, and you will be pleased. You will hear of the death of a dark woman, and you will come into some money. You will cross the ocean, and be married a second time, and be very well off’.

She also read Eliza’s fortune but presumably that was less interesting so the reporter didn’t write it down. Both women paid Antonia sixpence for reading their futures.

Mr Lushington, not a man to suffer fools or charlatans easily, sent the old lady to prison for a month with hard labour.

I had my fortune read once, in Aylesbury by a man who described himself as a warlock. He used the tarot and had an impressive statue of Anubis over his front door. He said I’d travel overseas, and that someone close to me, and elderly, would die. I paid more than 6d.

[from The Standard, Monday 25 February, 1884]

  1. From Sir Howard Vincent’s Police Code 1889, (ed by Neil. A Bell and Adam Wood, Mango Books, 2015), p.88

The case of the missing bridegroom and his distraught newlywed wife

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You have to feel sorry for Mrs Alice Lisle. The ‘petite, fair, blue-eyed, young lady’ appeared at the Bow Street Police Magistrates court in late August 1897 to ask for help. Her husband, she explained, had disappeared.

As she explained to Mr Lushington Alice, then Alice Elizabeth Hunt, had married Edward Montague Balmerino Lisle (33) at St. George’s Church, Bloomsbury (pictured above) on 14 July 1897. He was, she said, a gentleman of ‘independent means’ that she’d met at Bunhill Fields Coffee Tavern near Aldersgate Station (now Barbican underground) where she was working behind the counter. Having ‘paid his attentions’ to her for two months he proposed and they married.

It had been a very happy (if short) marriage. They honeymooned in Windsor, in sight of the castle, and on 11 August he returned in advance to London to settle some financial business.

Alice hadn’t seen him since.

I do wonder at Mr Lisle’s honesty. Apparently he liked to gamble (if not excessively) and his letters to her suggest he spent most of his time at the races. His full name was – slightly unbelievably – Just Henry Edward Montague Elphinstone Balmerino Lisle – and he claimed to have been a pupil at the Marlborough School and to have returned there to look up an old friend shortly after leaving Windsor.

The magistrate could not help much beyond recommending that the newspapers – starting with the Daily Mail (who had a reporter in court that day) – should publicise the case in the hopes that someone knew something. In the meantime, all Alice could do was go back to her lodgings at Hunter Street, Brunswick Square and wait.

That really was the last Alice saw of her bridegroom. Whether he ran away to avoid a previous marriage (bigamy was not uncommon at the time), or to outrun his creditors (debt was equally familiar to many men of his generation), he doesn’t seem to met a sticky end. At least not in 1897 that is. Oddly I did find a mention of man with his name being fished out of the Thames, presumed dead by his own efforts, 30 years later

[from Sheffield Evening Telegraph, 28 August, 1897]

“Good-bye, Tom, I have done for my missis, and I am going to do for myself”; murder in the East End in 1888

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The Isle of Dogs, 1899 (Manchester Road runs south-east parallel to Blackwall Reach)

In early October 1888 London was gripped by the ‘Ripper’ murders. As far as the press and public were concerned an unknown assassin had brutally murdered six women in a small area of East London and the police had no clue as to his identity. Police patrols had been stepped up and the newspapers were becoming inundated with fake letters from people purporting to be the murderer, and correspondence offering advice on how to catch him. Between the end of September (when both Elizabeth Stride and Katherine Eddowes were murdered on one night) and the 9th November (when Mary Kelly’s body was found in Miller’s Court) the killer seems to have lain low, avoiding the redoubled attentions of the police.

Meanwhile over at the Thames Police Court Mr Lushington was hearing the case of a man accused of murdering his wife. Levi Bartlett was a 57 year-old general dealer who lived and worked in Poplar. He and his wife, Elizabeth, ran a small shop on Manchester Road on the Isle of Dogs, selling mostly milk. He had been held on remand since the incident had happened back in August, because after killing his wife he had attempted to cut his own throat with a razor.

Even by October he was a weak man and was allowed to sit in court rather than stand through the evidence. Elizabeth’s sister, Emma Mears, testified that Levi and her sister had live together for many years before they married, and had now been married for about five years. During all of that time, she said, the dealer was ‘nearly always drunk’.

By all accounts when he was sober, Levi was a good man but that was rare. When in his cups he was abusive and violent and dipped into the shop’s till to feed his drinking habit.  Not surprisingly then quarrels between him and Elizabeth were frequent and loud.

On the 18th August 1888 Emma visited Elizabeth and found her sitting crying. When she asked what the matter was her long suffering sibling said:

‘Can’t you see the old villain is drunk again, and hasn’t been to bed since two this morning’. This was punctuated by the dealer’s loud denials, ‘don’t you believe her’ he shouted. He then asked for 2d for gin.

‘No, you villain, you have had enough now’ was his wife’s response. This provoked Bartlett to threaten her:

‘I will mark you for this tonight’, he declared.

More abuse was exchanged and before she left Emma told her her sister to fetch a policeman if her husband hit her again. Perhaps because Levi was frequently drunk and abusive no one really expected what was to happen next, although the signs were there. At some point on Sunday morning (19 August) the former stevedore attacked his wife with a hammer, fatally wounding her,  before admitting his crime to George Jones who he had employed as a milk delivery man.

Jones later related the dramatic scene to the Old Bailey court as he was woken up by his master:

‘between 4 and 5 in the morning I was awoke by the prisoner coming into my room—he asked French if he had got any drink—French said no, he had forgot to bring any; the prisoner shook hands with French and said “Good-bye, you won’t see me no more alive”—he then went back to his own room, he seemed sober then—in about twenty minutes he came into our room again, and again bid French good-bye; he then came to me and said “Good-bye, Tom, I have done for my missis, and I am going to do for myself”—he shook hands with me and went out of the room’.

Bartlett then visited his old friend Benjamin French who had lodged with the Bartlett’s for 14 years. He also bids him ‘goodbye’ which left the dock labourer perplexed and not a little concerned. It was French that finally fetched a policeman, police sergeant Doe (30KR), who found Bartlett sitting on his bed ‘in his shirt, bleeding from the throat; the front of his shirt was covered with blood—he had a razor in his right hand’. Having taken the razor from him he summoned a doctor and then took him to hospital.

Bartlett, who had earned the nickname ‘Mad Dick the jockey’ (his middle name was Richard) was fully committed for trial at the Old Bailey. There, on the 22nd October 1888 he was convicted of murdering Elizabeth. Elizabeth’s sister testified to the years of abuse that she had suffered at Levi’s hands while the former dock worker’s best friend Benjamin said he had never heard a cross word between them. Drink was Bartlett’s downfall and it seems he simply could not function with it or without it. Ultimately this cost both him and his wife their lives; having recovered from his own suicide attempt Levi Richard Bartlett was hanged at Newgate Gaol on 13 November 1888.

Such a tragic event may well have created many more ‘headlines’ than it did in 1888 had there not been a supposedly crazed serial killer on the loose. This was, of course, a much more typical homicide for nineteenth century London than the series that has occupied the attention of researchers for over 120 years. Most murderers are men, and most of their victims (many of whom are women) are close to them – as wives, partners, lovers and acquaintances. The ‘Ripper’ killed strangers, and that made him all the more difficult (indeed almost impossible) to catch.

[from The Standard, Saturday, October 06, 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

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]

A ‘lunatic’ with a hammer stalks the East End – could he be ‘Jack’?

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I imagine the police in the East End of London were on high alert in the late summer of 1888. Two women had been brutally murdered in the space of a couple of weeks – Martha Tabram and Mary Ann ‘Polly’ Nicholls – and in early September no one had been charged with their deaths.

All sorts of ideas floated around as to the killer’s identity. At first Martha’s killer was believed to be an off duty guardsman but enquiries there had drawn a blank. Perhaps he was a slaughter man, or a foreign sailor, or a deranged member of the local immigrant community, a butcher perhaps? This speculation would continue throughout the autumn as three more women were killed by the serial murderer known to history as ‘Jack the Ripper’.

At 4 in morning on the 4 September 1888 as PC Eugene Murphy (25H) was perambulating his beat on Carr Street in Limehouse a man walked past him ‘in a very excited state’. The officer caught up and stopped him, to ask what he was doing.

He was clutching a hammer and looked quite distracted. He said his master had stolen £133 from him – a huge sum ( about £11,000 today and so hardly likely) – and added that others had borrowed money, leaving him impoverished. He looked threatening and PC Murphy judged he was ‘of unsound mind’ so took him back to the police station.

There he was examined by the divisional surgeon who concurred with the policeman’s judgment of his mental state. As a result Charles John Matthews (aged 41) was charged with being a ‘wandering lunatic, not under proper control’ and appeared before Mr Lushington at Thames Police court. The worthy magistrate sent him to the parish workhouse for a week. Hopefully there he would get some help.

The Ripper’s murders weren’t committed with a hammer of course, but the person that did kill all those women was probably suffering from some form of illness that affected his mind. He was certainly a local man and probably someone the police had in custody at some point.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, September 05, 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

A child has a lucky escape in Poplar

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John Ridley was standing at the corner of Stainsby Road in Poplar, East London at a quarter past five in the afternoon. Thomas Jackson was walking along East India Dock Road at the same time. Both saw two men stirring pitch in a boiler. A group of small children were playing near a puddle of pitch they’d found and perhaps they were annoying the men.

Suddenly one of the men – a 32 year-old man named Alfred Hunt – emptied the contents of a pail of pitch he was using into the boiler and threw the dregs towards the children. He also aimed a ladle-full of hot pitch at them, but both fell short. He tried again this time he hit a three-year old girl named Ann Harris. When Jackson remonstrated with him he chucked a ladleful in his direction, which soiled his clothes but did no other harm.

The little girl was burned by the hot pitch and was quickly rushed to the Poplar Hospital where her injuries were treated by the house surgeon, Mr Bristoe. She was treated for burns to the hands and face but later released. She’d had a lucky escape and her injuries were ‘slight’ but it must have been a traumatic experience for the poor child.

Hunt was tried before Mr Lushington at Thames Police court but despite what I think we would consider a serious act of mindless violence he was discharged. The girl was fine of course and Mr Jackson may have accepted compensation for the damage to his clothes. Alfred Hunt had had a lucky escape as well it seems.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, September 03, 1888]

A boy steals a horse and cart as Whitechapel wakes up to news of a serial killer in its midst

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On Saturday 1 September 1888 the East End was digesting the news that a woman’s dead and mutilated body had been discovered in the early hours of the previous morning. At some point around 3am an unknown killer had attacked and murdered Mary Ann ‘Polly’ Nichols as she walked near the board school in Buck’s Row (now renamed as Durward Street). No one had heard anything despite several people living nearby and there being workmen in the knackers’ yard around the corner.

Polly was the first of the ‘canonical five’ female victims of  ‘Jack the Ripper’ and her death sparked the attention of the world’s press to cover what became known as the ‘Whitechapel murders’. Polly was a desperately poor woman who lived a hand-by-mouth existence, supporting herself by prostitution when she had no other options. She wasn’t alone in being poor, Whitechapel was among the poorest quarters of Victoria’s empire.

Despite the murder in Buck’s Row life went on as normal in the capital police courts and reading the reports from these you would be forgiven for thinking that nothing untoward had happened that week. On the Saturday The Morning Post reported goings on at the Thames Police court, the magistrates’ court that covered part of the East End of London (Worship Street being the other).

There an eleven-year old boy was charged with stealing a horse and cart from a carman while he was delivery goods in Lower East Smithfield. The boy had climbed into the cart and was driving it along Worship Street when he was stopped by PC William Thames (421G). When he asked him what he was doing with a cart the lad replied:

‘I am going to take it home. I have been with the carman to take some goods to Wood-green but the carman got drunk and had to go home by train’.

Later he claimed that the carman had fallen out of the cart. It was a lite and in court it was revealed that this was the firth time young John Coulson had been found in possession of someone else’s vehicle. Given that he was so young this was quite an amazing record and the magistrate  Mr Lushington told his mother that she would be best advised to get her son into an industrial school.

Lushington then had more serious case to deal with. Nathanial Rose was charged with violently assaulting a police officer. PC William Gunther (133H) had been called to attend to an incident on Betts Street, near Cable Street by several local tradesmen. A group of local ‘roughs’ were terrorizing passers-by; pushing them off the street, verbally abusing them, and generally behaving in an anti-social manner. When the policeman reached the scene there were about 10 lads gathered there and he told them all to go home.

He then strolled off thinking his work was done. It wasn’t. Within minutes they jumped him. He was jostled by several lads before Rose hit him on the side of te head with a bottle, cutting his eye. As he recovered they ran off.

PC Gunther knew who the culprit was and once he’d been patched up went round to Rose’s lodgings and arrested him. Mr Lushington sent him to prison for 10 weeks with hard labour.

Over the next three months or more the police of Whitechapel and the East End were kept very busy as a manhunt developed in response to Polly’s killing and the subsequent murders of at least four more poor local women. No one was ever successfully prosecuted for the murders and to this day there is considerable debate as to how many victims were killed and who exactly ‘Jack’ was. We all have our own theories and if you’d like to read mine it is available to buy from Amazon and all good booksellers.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, September 01, 1888 ]