‘Leather Apron’ is rescued from an angry mob.

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The wild publicity surrounding the Ripper murders in 1888 escalated after the murder of Annie Chapman on 8 September. Lots of suspects began to emerge but one in particular caught the public’s attention following reports in the press in the aftermath of Polly Nicholl’s murder in late August. The name was ‘leather apron’ (aka John Pizer, a 38 year-old cobbler).1

 Pizer was apparently a notorious individual, known for his antipathy towards prostitutes and for threatening them with a knife that he carried as part of his work. He quickly disappeared when it became apparent everyone wanted to speak to him (or worse) and it took several days for Sergeant Thicke (H Division) to track him down. Pizer had an alibi for the Nichol’s murder and none of the witnesses the police had identified him either.

He was in the clear but that didn’t stop speculation about ‘Leather Apron’.  What if Pizer wasn’t ‘Leather Apron’? The press – notably the Star and the Illustrated Police News published rough sketch images of the mysterious suspect and this led the public to seek out suitable candidates in the street. Unknown

One of those unfortunate enough to be misidentified was Thomas Mills. Mills was a 59 year-old cabinetmaker and so, by all the witness statements we have, far too old to be the Whitechapel murderer. Mills was a drunk, but not a dangerous or particularly anti-social drunk. He had been before the magistrate at Worship Street ‘at least 100 times’ for drunkenness but violence doesn’t ever seem to have been associated with him.

He was back in court on the 20 September 1888, 12 days after the Chapman murder (and just over a week before the so-called ‘double event’ that saw two killings on one night). A policeman had found him in Wellington Row, Shoreditch, quite drunk and surrounded by a small crowd. They were ‘pulling him about and threatening him’ the officer explained to Mr Saunders.

‘We’ll lynch him’, they cried. ‘He’s Leather Apron’.

The constable arrested him for his own safety and took him to the nearest police station.

‘It’s quite true, sir’. Mills told the justice. ‘Whenever I go out they say I’m “Leather Apron,” because the Police News published a portrait of the man, and I’m like it’.

‘I was out looking for work, and wherever I go they say, “that’s him”, and I can’t get work’.

The lack of work, he suggested, drove him to drink and the whole cycle started again. Mr Saunders had little sympathy. If he stayed off the booze no one would take any notice of him. He fined him 2s6and dismissed him.

It is revealing of the panic that gripped East London in the autumn of 1888 and of course the power of the press in creating mythical scapegoats for the murders. Some believe that ‘Leather Apron’ (but not John Pizer) was ‘Jack the Ripper’ and I would agree that it is more likely that the serial killer that stalked London that year was a local man.

I have a different candidate in mind and explain why  in my recent book on the subject. 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 

[from The Morning Post, Friday, September 21, 1888]

 

1.Neill R. A. Bell, Capturing Jack the Ripper, p.150

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

Violence: its time we listened to the experts and not the politicians

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The Phoenix in East Smithfield

Yet again this week we have witnessed some terrible examples of violence in the domestic news. Yesterday a policeman was killed while investigating a burglary, last week an officer was hacked with a machete when stopping a suspected stolen vehicle. Knife crime is reportedly on the rise in several smaller provincial towns and there have been some horrific stories about two different mothers killing their children (one because her husband had left her, the other simply because they interfered with her social life). In one incident an immigrant was nearly killed in his car by a racist right wing thug who wanted to emulate the murderous actions of a terrorist in New Zealand. It is hard to listen to the news then, without wondering what on earth has happened to our society.

Sadly history tells us that the answer to that question is that this is actually pretty normal for British society; violence is part of life and vicious, uncaring and cruel individuals exist today as they have always existed. Moreover, while we have made important advances in treating mental illness we have not been able to prevent some of those so affected from causing harm to others in the community.

This case from Lambeth Police court in 1839 (fully 220 years ago) was labeled by the press as ‘Disgraceful conduct’ and by witnesses who saw what occurred as ‘the most unmanly and disgraceful they had ever beheld’. On Friday 16 August that year two young women were having a drink of porter at the Phoenix pub in East Smithfield, in Aldgate. As Mary Ann Ryan and Catherine Kitton left they noticed stall selling artificial flowers, and stopped to have a look.

A sailor was also perusing the stock and was holding a stem in his hand. Catherine stood next to him and leaned in to look at his flower, touching it as she did so. The man exploded with rage, completely overreacting to this contact and punched her in the face, knocking her over, and then kicking her while she lay on the ground. Catherine managed to crawl away, rise and stumble towards the pub but fainted clean away.  It took some time before she could be revived.

Mary now remonstrated with the seaman, telling him he was ‘most unmanly’, shaming him in public. The man didn’t like this and turned on her, threatening to ‘serve her ten times worse’. When she continued to berate him he struck her in the mouth, almost knocking her unconscious. Recovering her wits she ran away and up a nearby alley but he chased her. He hit on the temple, drawing blood and forcing her to fall to the ground. Now he kicked her in the side as she curled up to protect herself.

It was horrific and several people saw it happen and so the police were called and the sailor arrested. The man was brought before Mr Coombe at Lambeth and said he was a sailor attached to a ship docked at St Katherine’s Dock near the tower. He gave his name as James Boardman and his vessel as the President American.

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Both young women were in court to give evidence but Mary was in such a state that the magistrate ordered her to be sent to the London Hospital to have her injuries treated. She’d been waiting in the ‘outer office’ and had fainted several times from the loss of blood she’d sustained as a result of the head wound. Amazingly she’d been able to tell some of her story which was corroborated by Catherine and a number of witnesses. Mr Coombe ordered the prisoner to be taken down to the cells while the court waited for news of Mary Ann’s condition from hospital.

A little while later a policeman returned with a  note from the house surgeon at the London. It read:

‘I hereby certify that Mary Ryan, just brought to the hospital laboring under a fractured rib, a cut to her forehead, and several contusions on different parts of her body, is in great danger’.

Boardman was once more set at the bar of the court and the magistrate glowered at him. Mr Coombe told him that he would be remanded in custody for the assault but that if Mary died ‘he would be placed on his trial for her murder, and in all probability hanged’.

I can’t see a trial for Boardman and so I am hopeful that Mary survived. If that was case then I suspect Boardman would have been sent to gaol for a while and then released back to go to sea again. It is remainder though that senseless brutality is not a new thing or a product of ‘modern’ society and so all the bleating about tougher sentences and threats to make criminals ‘feel afraid’ ring pretty hollow. Education, proper levels of street policing, and zero tolerance for violence , weapons, intimidation (online and in person) and hate speech are the only ways to stamp out violence in society.

Locking violent offenders up for even longer in prisons which entirely fail to rehabilitate them is a very expensive waste of time and does absolutely no good for the poor individual who has been critically injured or killed. talking tough on crime is the easiest thing in the world, actually doing something useful about it is much harder and will cost real money. Its time we demanded that our politicians stopped paying lip service to the issues and listened to the experts in policing, law, probation, psychoanalysis, and yes, even history.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Saturday, August 17, 1839]

  1. It is possible that the President was the same ship lost at sea two years later in 1841 with all hands. The packets were equipped with paddles and entirely unsuited to the Atlantic crossing.

‘A Mysterious tragedy in London’, as Martha Tabram’s murder sets off the hunt for ‘Jack the Ripper’.

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“Mysterious tragedy in London”.

This is how one regional English paper reported the death of a woman in East London in early August 1888.  At that point they didn’t know that this was about to become the story of 1888 and one of the most notorious crime stories of this or any other age.

The Sheffield paper described how John Reeves was on his way to work, descending the stairs from his room in George Yard Buildings in what is now Gunthorpe Street, Whitechapel, when he came across the body of a woman. She was lying in a pool of blood and Reeves rushed off in search of a policeman. PC Barrett (26H) quickly found a doctor who examined the woman in situe.

Dr Keeling ‘pronounced life extinct, and gave it as his opinion that she had been brutally murdered, there being knife wounds on her breast, stomach and abdomen’. It was hardly a contentious conclusion to draw, the poor woman had been stabbed 49 times and only one of those blows (to the area close to her heart would have been needed to kill her.

The paper reported that the victim was ‘unknown to any of the occupants of the tenements on the landing of which’ she was found, and no one had heard ‘any disturbance’ that night. A killer had apparently struck and killed with extreme violence without anyone seeing or hearing anything.

The murder had, the paper continued, been placed in the capable hands of Inspector Reid of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), who was now ‘conducting inquiries’.  So far these inquiries had not resulted in any clues being found but that didn’t stop the press from speculating. There were dark muttering about the type of wounds that the unknown woman had suffered, some of which were described as ‘frightful’, one described as being of ‘ almost revolting nature’.

While the identity of the victim was just as much as a mystery as her assailant the papers did agree that she was ‘undoubtedly an abandoned female’. By this they meant that she was a prostitute and so speculated that her client might have killed her. Moreover it was stated that her wounds were ‘probably inflicted by a bayonet’ and so the search was soon on for one of the several soldiers seen drinking near the scene of the crime earlier that night.

The woman was Martha Tabram (or Turner) and although DI Reid followed up the soldier angle it was soon clear that no squaddie was responsible for Martha’s murder. While her death has previously been only loosely linked to the series of killings history has called the Whitechapel Murders I think we can now be fairly sure was among the first of ‘Jack the Ripper’s victims. Killers MOs develop over time and adapt to circumstance (the Zodiac killer in California in the 1960s is a good example of this) and so while Martha’s throat was not cut they are similarities in respect of the other murders in 1888-91.

I believe Martha Tabram was actually the third person that the serial killer known as ‘Jack the Ripper’ murdered, the first being over a year earlier in May 1887. Along with my co-research Andrew Wise we have set out our arguments for drawing link between the Whitechapel murders and another set of unsolved homicide (the Thames Torso mystery) which occurred at the same time. While London might have had two serial killers operating at exactly the same time we think it is unlikely and we believe we might have uncovered a possible suspect to hold responsible. Obviously proving someone is guilty after 130 plus years has passed is all but impossible and so we offer our suspect as a possible killer, not the killer.

The pursuit of Jack the Ripper has become a parlour game which anyone can play and we are not so arrogant as to believe that solving it is easy or straightforward. We’ve presented our case in our new book – Jack and the Thames Torso Murders: A New Ripper? (published by Amberley this summer) – give it a look if you are interested in finding out more about the case, our suspect, and late Victorian London. It is available in all good bookshops and online.

[from Evening Telegraph and Star and Sheffield Daily Times, Wednesday, August 8, 1888]

A wary theatre man avoids the ‘dippers’ and H H Holmes is linked to London

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Distraction theft is still one of the commonest forms committed by pickpockets in London. There are frequent warnings on the underground of ‘thieves operating’ and crowded areas like Oxford Street, Camden Town and Covent Garden are happy hunting grounds for ‘dippers’. If someone stops and asks you the time, says they know you from somewhere, or points out that you’ve dropped something – maybe even just brushes against you in the street and apologies – check your pockets!

Edward Walpole was pretty clued up and had his wits about him as he strolled along Shaftesbury Avenue one morning in July 1894. The concert agent lived in Pimlico and was presumably in the West End for work. He knew the area, was no stranger and certainly no wide-eyed tourist.

Two men approached him and one of them started to talk to him. ‘We’ve met before’, he said, ‘in Chicago, at the exhibition’. Walpole had never seen the pair before in his life, and had never been to the USA. He was suspicious, and uncomfortable as one of the men had got very close to him.

He looked down and saw that the chain of his watch was hanging loose from his waistcoat pocket and the watch itself was in the other man’s hand. As soon as they realized they’d been rumbled the other man told his companion to give Walpole his watch back and began to move away.

Edward seized the thief and the two of them struggled, falling to the pavement in the process. The fracas alerted a policeman and having ascertained that a theft had been attempted he arrested the stranger. The man gave his name as Henry Saunders but he was also known to the police as Henry Reginald Mason. He was charged before Mr Hannay at Marlborough Street Police court and sentenced to a month’s imprisonment.

The Chicago Exhibition that the men mentioned was the World Fair (or the ‘World’s Columbian Exposition’) that took place in 1893 and drew people from all over the globe to Illinois. Many locals profited from this influx of business but one man allegedly, exploited the event for a much darker purpose. Dr Henry Howard Holmes (or HH as he is almost always referred to) had built a hotel to accommodate gests for the fair but rumours soon circulated that several individuals, mostly women, had disappeared whilst staying there (although he never traded as a hotelier). HHH

Holmes (right) was a serial fraudster, coming money out of businesses and making false insurance claims and eventually when the going got too hot he quit Chicago. He was tracked down to the east coast where it was suspected he’d killed his business partner Benjamin Pitezel for the insurance money.  Meanwhile agents operating on behalf of companies Holmes had defrauded searched the hotel in Chicago. The property was very odd, with secret passageways, trap doors and windowless rooms.

Holmes was convicted of the murder of Pitezel and admitted killing many more (some of which were false claims, as the people concerned were still alive!). The hotel (dubbed ‘the castle by locals) was searched more thoroughly and human remains were found there. HH Holmes was executed in 1896 and remains a mysterious figure and possibly America’s first serial killer. Indeed, some people have suggested that he might have come to London to commit the Whitechapel murders, but having studied that case I think it unlikely. In fact if you want to know who I believe was ‘Jack the Ripper’ you might find my latest book interesting. Holmes, however, will form a small part of my next one.

[from The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, July 21, 1894]

“Stab me you b——if you are a man, stab me, stab me”: Drink and domestic violence end in tragedy

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John Wicks and his wife had both been drinking on the 14 April. John was well known in the community as a drinker and for being violent when he was under the influence. His wife, Elizabeth, could also resort to violence when her temper flared. The couple lived in Kensal New Town in northwest London and Wicks earned his money as a chimney sweep.

When John came home on the 14than argument flared about money. He was drunk and Elizabeth had shared two or three pints with a friend, so she wasn’t sober either. Wicks complained that he had nothing and demanded she hand over the money she’d sewed into the pocket of her skirt. She refused and they came to blows.

Reports are mixed with conflicting evidence from Wicks, his mother-in-law, and other witnesses (domestic fights like this were quite often public affairs, given the crowded accommodation of late Victorian London). It is possible that in order to defend herself Elizabeth picked up the fender from the fire and threatened her husband with it. He pulled a knife and she threw the fender at him as he retreated out of the room. His wife then seized the next available weapon she could find, a large spoon, and came after him.

The pair ended up in the garden which was where George Abbott, a van boy who lived opposite, saw them. He’d been drawn to the quarrel by the noise, as had Henry Stacey (another neighbour) and both saw Elizabeth strike John with the spoon. Stacey later testified that Elizabeth was in a rage and was shouting: “stab me you b——if you are a man, stab me, stab me” at John. Soon afterwards the sweep aimed a blow at her neck and when his hand came away blood spurted from the wound.

John Wicks had stabbed his wife in the neck.

He was arrested and she was taken to hospital where despite the best efforts of the surgeons at St Mary’s, Paddington, she died 10 days later. ‘Inflammation of the throat’ had ‘set in the same night as she was stabbed, and she was unable to swallow anything except iced water’. She died as a result of ‘exhaustion caused through not taking food and inflammation of the lungs’. It must have been a terrible and extremely distressing way to die.

On 23 May after a number of appearances before him Mr D’Eyncourt formally committed John Wicks to take his trial for murder at the Central Criminal Court. He had pleaded not guilty and claimed that she must ‘have fallen against the knife’. He admitted he’d been drunk, and offered that in mitigation.

The police detective that interviewed Elizabeth in hospital confirmed the pattern of events as she described them but added that she had, at the last, described her husband as a gentle man when he was sober. ‘There is not a kinder man or a better husband’ she had insisted.

It is a familiar story for anyone who has looked at domestic violence in the past or worked with abuse survivors in the present. Women only went to the law when they had tried all other means to curb their partner’s violence. The courts fined or locked men up but little else was done to support the victims and in a society where women so often depended on men to survive there were few alternatives open to a wife than to take her man back again and hope for the best.

In court after the evidence of witnesses had been heard the house surgeon at St Mary’s testified. He described the wound and speculated on it cause. The court wanted to know if it could have caused by accident, as John had suggested. He doubted it was likely but admitted that it was possible: ‘it is unusual to get such a wound in that way, but it might be’ he observed.

That was enough for the all male jury. Despite the glaring evidence that John Wicks had killed his wife in a drunken rage while he was holding a sharpened knife in his hands, the jury acquitted him of all charges, manslaughter included. He walked free from the Old Bailey exonerated by men who clearly believed that he was provoked and that his incapacitation due to alcohol absolved him of the responsibility for his wife’s death.

Wicks died a few years later in 1884 at the relatively young age of 54. I like to think that the guilt he felt played a role in his death but it is more likely that he succumbed early to the ravages of alcoholism which had already consumed him in 1877 and must have got worse following this tragic sets of events.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, May 24, 1877]

This case is not untypical of many cases of domestic violence in the nineteenth century, not all of course ended in tragedy. For me though it is indicative of the prevailing attitudes towards women, attitudes which I believe directly fuelled the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders. My co-authored study of those murders is published by Amberley Books on 15 June this year. You can find details here:

‘He would have been alive only for my giving him what I did’: an 11 year-old admits to murder

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In April 1883 a lad of 11 named Arthur Harris Syres was brought before the Lambeth Police court magistrate where he confessed to causing the death of his little brother in early February. Arthur admitted that he had given his infant brother – who was just 12 months old – rat poison and gave the address of the shop that he bought it from. The magistrate decided that the full details of the case needed more careful investigation and remanded Arthur to the care of the local workhouse so they could be carried out.

A week later Arthur was back in court and more details emerged. His home address was given as Park Row, Peckham and his dead brother was named as Alexander Syres. A police sergeant (26P) deposed that Arthur had been brought to the station house by his stepmother. She explained that he child had been taken ill and had been vomiting. The poor thing had died soon afterwards but the doctor she consulted initially thought it might have been a complication of teething. It was only after this that Arthur admitted that he had given Alexander some rat poison that he’d purchased specifically for that purpose.

The magistrate, Mr Ellison, thought it all sounded very strange and once again remanded Arthur in custody. One of the first reforms of juvenile justice in the nineteenth century had been to stop sending children to adult prisons whilst they were on remand, which was why he was secured at a workhouse.

Another week passed before the case returned to Lambeth. More details emerged: the police now believed that it was ‘vermin poison’ that was used and that Arthur had bought ‘a pennyworth’ at a doctor’s shop. The doctor appeared and said the boy’s confession didn’t hold up because he’d said he’d purchased it from another boy working there. He denied that any lad dispensed poisons on his counter but of course he might have been trying to distance himself from the tragedy.

The discussion returned to the initial hypothesis that Alexander had died as a result of complications in teething. Mr Ellison wanted to know if the symptoms of this might be similar to those caused by poison. Dr Hemmings, who treated the child, agreed that they might.  Since little Alex had already been buried the only way to establish the truth for certain was to have his body examined and for that the justice would have to apply to the Home Secretary for a legal exhumation.

On May 4 Arthur learnt that while no decision had yet been made as to digging up his brother’s body it had been decided that he had a case to answer. It was now likely that the 11 year-old would face trial for causing the death of his brother and he was remanded in custody once more. This meant that he had now been in custody and separated from his family for three weeks, not knowing the outcome of the case against him and most likely not having any meaningful legal support. It is hard to imagine the torments he was going through.

On Friday 25 May Arthur was again set in the dock at Lambeth and again asked whether he had given his brother poison.  The lad continued to admit his guilt and so although no independent verification of his story could confirm this to be true the justice, this time Mr Chance, had little choice but to formally commit him to take his trial at the Old Bailey.

The trial took place on the 28 May and was quite short. Sergeant Ledger gave evidence as did Arthur’s stepmother, Margaret Syres. She told the court how while they had all believed that baby Alex had died as a result of his teething Arthur had admitted his role in the baby’s death to his sister Ada.

‘He would have been alive only for my giving him what I did’, he reportedly said and, when questioned by his parents, said he’d taken rat poison himself before.

However, doubts remained as to whether Arthur had administered rat poison or red precipitate poison (mercurite oxide) and Dr Butters (where Arthur claimed to have bought a twist of powder from an errand boy) was adamant that his servant would not have been able to have sold the boy the former.

It then emerged that on New Year’s Eve 1882  Arthur had been charged with attempting to take his own life. Inspector Thomas Worth told the Old Bailey court that on that occasion Arthur had ingested phosphorous paste (which was sometimes used as a rat poison). When asked why he replied that he’d run away from home because his parents ‘ill used him’.

Arthur’s confession was again given in court but when asked the defendant had nothing to say for himself. The jury acquitted him of manslaughter and he was free to go after several weeks of trauma. Whether he was able to return home however, or wanted to, is quite another matter. While the court was unable (and perhaps unwilling) to prove that an 11 year-old boy was a killer it is clear that Arthur Syres was a very troubled youth. His mother had died and his father had remarried and started a new family. It seems as if he was struggling to cope with the adjustment and acted up in the most extreme of ways.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, April 14, 1883; The Hull Packet and East Riding Times, Friday, April 20, 1883; The Standard (London, England), Friday, April 27, 1883;The Standard, Saturday, May 05, 1883; Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, May 27, 1883]

NB: If you enjoy this blog series you might be interested in Drew’s jointly authored study of the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders which is published by Amberley Books on 15 June this year. You can find details here: