A ‘she cannibal’ in court for biting off her victim’s nose

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I have spent the last two weeks following the metropolitan police courts in one year, 1888, the year of the Whitechapel murders. I’ll return to 1888 in a couple of weeks to pick up the unfolding case at the point of the ‘double event’ – the murders of Liz Stride and Kate Eddowes on the night of the 30 September. But today it is worth reminding ourselves that the area of Whitechapel and Spitalfields was synonymous with violence  throughout the second half of the nineteenth century.

Catherine Simpson was well known to the police, and to her neighbours, as a violent woman. Anne Atkins was no angel but on this occasion she was the victim of a brutal assault which arose out of jealousy and, possibly, a misplaced attempt at defending some sense of ‘respectability’ in a part of London where poverty and degradation was ubiquitous.

The attack in question had happened in late August 1860 but as a result of Anne’s injuries it didn’t come before the magistrate at Worship Street until 15 September. Even then Anne was barely able to stand to give her evidence, and trembled at the very sight of her abuser.  Nor did the court do that much to protect her at first, allowing Simpson to cross-examine her directly for several minutes, something that clearly traumatized her victim.

The court was told that on 21 August Simpson had confronted Anne at her front door in Dorchester Street, Hoxton, demanding to know: ‘what business had you with my husband last night?’

Anne explained that she had seen Simpson’s husband that night but he’d not been with her, he’d been with another, much younger, woman. This didn’t satisfy Catherine who called Anne a prostitute and ‘other bad names’. Clearly Simpson either believed Anne was having an affair with her spouse or was tempting him away from her. She may even have genuinely believed that Anne was a prostitute, although it is more likely that this was simply a convenient and oft used term of abuse in working class communities like this.

Anne’s reacted to being called a ‘whore’ by slapping the other woman around the face and turning to shut the door. Catherine wasn’t easily deterred however, and followed her inside. There she grabbed Anne’s shoulders, pulled her towards her, and bit her nose. She bit down hard and left her victim with a bloody mess where her nose once was. Spitting the end of her nose on to the ground, she left.

Anne was quickly taken to hospital where the house surgeon, George Payne, did his best for her. She had lost a lot of blood he later testified, and it was almost three weeks before she was fit to be discharged. After her initial recovery she developed erysipelas, now described as a rash that can be treated with antibiotics. In 1860 however antibiotics were not available and the doctor feared that Anne might die. Fortunately she didn’t.

Catherine was forthright that the attack she’d made was provoked, not only by Anne’s alleged dalliance with her husband but because not only had she slapped her, she’d also spat in her face. As she defended herself and cross-examined Anne the other woman struggled and trembled in the witness stand. Even when the clerk acted as an intermediary, asking the questions on Catherine behalf,  Anne was so distraught that the prisoner had to be removed from the court for a while.

Various witnesses testified to the assault, including Louisa Cox who had screamed and ran for a policeman when she saw Simpson’s mouth covered in blood as she spat out Anne’s broken nose. Simpson was remanded for further enquiries, the evidence against her being considerable and the court being told that she had ‘a propensity for [this] class of offence’. She’d once served a week in gaol for biting sergeant Copping of K Division and was clearly a violent individual.

Reynolds’s Newspaper described Simpson as a ‘she cannibal’ and the whole sorry incident would have done nothing to dispel the view that the East End of London was a den of iniquity where violence, vice and crime  were rife.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, September 16, 1860]

‘You rascal you’: An early tale from Bow Street reveals contemporary prejudices

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This case is amongst the earliest I’ve looked at for the Metropolitan Police Courts predating in fact, both the beginning of Victoria’s reign and the creation of the Metropolitan Police. The style of the early reports from the Police Courts seem to suggest that the writers are working out how to present their stories in an entertaining way, while by 50 or 60 years later a more formulaic style of reporting has developed.

In the 1820s and 30s the audience for newspapers was smaller and less demographically brand;  papers were generally read by the well-do-do and wealthy. By the second half of Victoria’s reign the improvements that technology brought both to the production of newspapers and their distribution, along with a rise in literacy, meant that the reports of the summary courts (along will all other news) reached a much larger and better read audience.

Many of those reading the reports from the Police Courts in the 1880s (where I have spent much of this year so far) were members of the working class and they were often reading about people just like them. In the 1820s I suspect most of those reading about the goings on at Bow Street and elsewhere were reading about people  not like them, unless they were the prosecutors in these courts.

Regardless, editors still operated on the principle of mixing information with entertainment and a heavy dose of social comment. Class is clearly important, as is the maintenance of social position and ‘respect’. This case provides plenty of opportunity to smirk at the pretensions of youth, at respectability, and class, all served with a dash of prejudice on top.

Mr Merix was a ‘dashingly dressed young man’ who appeared at Bow Street to make a complaint about another young man that he said had assaulted him. For no obvious practical reason the The Morning Post’s reporter tells us that Merix was ‘a Jew’ and describes him as self-obsessed and vain: ‘no man or boy ever appeared on better terms with himself’, notes the writer. In addition Merix spoke with a mild stutter which the report delights in rendering in print.

It is pretty clear then from the start of this short court report that the editor is using this story as entertainment and an opportunity to poke fun at Merix and those like him.

The person accused of assaulting Merix was a Mr Zinc, a ‘Musician in the Orchestra at Covent Garden Theatre’. He appeared ‘voluntarily’ we are told, and this helps establish where the paper’s sympathy lies.

Merix complained that on the previous Thursday evening he had met Zinc in the street and the other man had knocked him down without the slightest provocation.

Mr Halls, again for no obvious reason, asked him who he was.

‘Why, Sir – a – I, Sir – a – the fact is, Sir – I am – a – no – thing, Sir’

he answered, provoking a laugh in the court.

‘How do you live’, asked the magistrate, ‘are you of any business or profession?’

‘I am – under the protection of – a – my father – who is a diamond merchant’, stammered the complainant.

At this point we might well remember that Mr Merix was the supposed victim in this case, yet it seems to be him who is on trial.

Next the magistrate turned his attention to the defendant who seemed perfectly relaxed and happy to be in court. He admitted knocking Merix down but said he had plenty of good reasons to do so.

He told Mr Halls that he had lodged with the prosecutor and after a quarrel, Merix had challenged him to a duel which he declined ‘with silent contempt’. Thereafter Merix never missed an opportunity, he said, to insult him. This happened regularly at Zinc’s place of work, the theatre, as he described in detail:

He (Merix) ‘sometimes placed himself in a  conspicuous situation in the Theatre and curled his nose, and directed the most offensive gestures towards him, and when he met him in the street, it was his constant practice to spit on the ground in a marked manner, and turn up his nose as he passed’.

Given Merix’s ethnic background I think it is pretty clear that Zinc is making as much of the young man’s physical appearance as he could to denigrate him. Nearly every depiction of Jews in nineteenth-century popular culture make a point of emphasising the size and curl of their noses (see Fagin in Oliver Twist as just one example).

On the night in question Zinc says he reacted to Merix’s now routine insults by threatening to pull his nose, prompting the other man to call him a ‘rascal’. This was enough for Mr Halls; the magistrate thought it outrageous that a respectable citizen like Zinc should be called a ‘rascal’ and said Merix deserved the treatment he had received.

‘Any man who called another rascal, deserved to have his nose pulled’ he declared, ‘or to be knocked down, and still more did he merit punishment who could be guilty of such a filthy, low, blackguard trick as that which was ascribed to the Complainant’.

He would not remand or even bail Zinc for the assault but if Merix wished he could indict him at the next Session of the Peace, not that he thought he ‘was likely to get any good by it’. He dismissed the case and left Merix looking ‘very crestfallen’ as a result’.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, April 15, 1826]