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]

Gin Lane revisited in 1888

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One the most powerful images of the negative effects of alcohol is William Hogarth’s ‘Gin Lane’. The engraving is Hogarth’s attack on the evils of imported ‘foreign’ liquor – ‘jenever’ or Dutch gin. He produced this to contrast with ‘Beer Street’ drawing a clear comparison between ‘honest’ English beer and the stronger more dangerous spirit that gripped so many Londoners in the 1700s. London suffered a  ‘gin craze’ at mid century that forced government to act against it, passing the last of several gin acts in 1751 aimed at reducing consumption by raising prices through taxation. Actually it was rising prices for grain that weaned Londoners off gin by the 1760s, coupled with higher food costs people simply couldn’t afford it.

Hogarth’s Gin Lane (above) has a woman holding (or rather dropping) a baby at its centre. It is this image that sums up the affect of alcoholism on the addict; a total abdication of responsibility in pursuit of the next ‘fix’ of gin. Anyone familiar with modern drug addiction will recognize this as having very similar consequences.

Gin did not go away in the 1760s and remained a popular and cheap way to get drunk in the 1800s. By then campaigners against alcohol had developed more sophisticated ways to encourage abstinence – as the Temperance movement and the Salvation Army attest. Sadly, they don’t seem to have been able to do much for Mary Sullivan.

In September 1888 Sullivan, a 44 year old mother, was found dead drunk in Woolwich High Street by PC Williams (127R). The policeman had been alerted to Sullivan by the large crowd that was quickly gathering around her. She was drunk and had a baby in her arms, which she was flailing about. The child was crying and Mary was angry with it.

As he approached her he saw her dash the baby’s head against a nearby wall. He rushed over, secured her and the child and asked her where she lived. Mary had no home; homeless, impoverished and probably abandoned by the child’s father, she was at her wits end. It was not uncommon in the poorer districts of London in 1888.

A woman standing nearby offered to pay for a night’s lodging for Mary but she refused the charity. The baby seemed ok so PC Williams warned her and carried on his beat. Some time later he found her again, sitting on a  doorstep holding the child in front of her. The child was naked and another crowd were berating her, some threatening to lynch her for her cruelty.

For her own safety, and that of her baby, PC Williams now arrested her (as he probably should have done earlier). At the station the child was examined by the police surgeon and was taken away from Mary and sent to the workhouse infirmary to be cared for. At Woolwich Police court Mary Sullivan was sent to prison for 14 days hard labour. At least there she might have a chance to sober up.

[fromLloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, September 9, 1888]

‘There’s never a policeman here when he is wanted’: criticism of the police is nothing new

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Police Court magistrates didn’t work for the police and often didn’t even support the police, even when they brought accusations against individuals for assaulting them. I think the law is much more likely today to protect officers, even those who, like the case I bring you today, could be said to have acted rashly or at least, might have made better decisions.

Police constable 405T (no name is given sadly) was off duty and had gone to fetch himself a jug of beer to enjoy at home. As he reached his home in Rock Avenue, Fulham one of his neighbours from across the road hailed him.

‘There’s never a policeman here when he is wanted’, cried Mrs Baxter, who may have just been on the end of bit of verbal or even physical abuse from her husband. Frederick Baxter was drunk and he wandered out of his home just in time to see the officer, standing toe-to-toe with his missus, declared: ‘One here’.

Tearing off his shirt Baxter squared up to the policeman and challenged him to fight. The constable carefully took off his hat and coat and put up his fists. Baxter struck first and, despite being the worse for drink, connected powerfully. The policeman reeled backwards sporting a rapidly blackening eye. A small crowd watched as they fought for four or five ‘rounds’ like a couple of prizefighters. Eventually, and possibly because he was coming off much the worst, the PC revealed who he was and told his opponent his was arresting him for assault.

The next morning Baxter was brought from the cells to face an examination before Mr Paget at Hammersmith Police court. Baxter claimed he had no idea that his opponent was a policeman, even though he lived opposite. He said he believed that his wife was being insulted, and perhaps was being propositioned. The officer thought he would have known but he wasn’t in uniform so, in his drunken state, he may not have. Mrs Baxter had no complaint against the office but he had ‘knocked up against her’ so we can see why Baxter might have been angered.

The magistrate reserved his ire for the policeman who he clearly believed had acted inappropriately. He should have declared that he was a police officer straight away, not halfway through a fistfight. ‘He was not entitled to because he was a constable off duty to take the law into his own hands’.

To put it mildly, he concluded, the officer had behaved ‘most injudiciously and in an improper manner’. He discharged the prisoner and recommended that the constable’s conduct should be investigated by his inspector, to see if any disciplinary action was necessary.

This incident happened in early September 1888 and by the end of that autumn the reputation of the metropolitan Police had been dragged through the mud yet again as they failed to catch ‘Jack the Ripper’. This – mostly unfair criticism – was added to deep-rooted working-class dislike of the police for their role as instruments of enforcing moral and economic rules, and as ‘class traitors’ in their own communities.

The 1880s, with Bloody Sunday, the Great Dock Strike, Fenian Terrorism and a serial killer on the loose, was not a happy decade for the ‘boys in blue’.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, September 06, 1888]

‘I did it, and I wish the knife had gone in deeper’: Life goes on as a killer stalks the streets of Whitechapel

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As the main crime news of 1888 continued to unfold on the ‘front pages’ of the London newspapers the inside pages carried on reporting the ‘daily doings’ of the Metropolitan Police courts. Readers of the Sunday papers might have been shocked by the horrific murder of Polly Nichols in Whitechapel but when they had digested that they could reassure themselves that the usual fare of petty crime, disorderly behaviour and mindless domestic violence was still being dealt with by the capital’s magistracy.

The editor of  Lloyd’s Weekly  chose to carry two cases from the Worship Street Police court in Bethnal Green, not far from Whitechapel and the site of Polly’s murder. The first was fairly light-hearted and involved a pub landlord. The second was sadly typical of the darker side of working-class life in the 1880s.

George Saunders was leaning on a lamppost outside his pub – The Admiral Keppel on Hoxton Street (pictured above in about 1930) – when a policeman approached him. The PC asked him if he was ‘waiting for a friend’ and then suggested he move along. Saunders growled at him and stayed put, indicating the sign over the doorway, which had his name as the licensee.

Whether the officer failed to notice this or was simply being difficult Saunders couldn’t tell but when PC 211G moved closer and trod on his boots (accidently or otherwise) the publican reacted. He shoved the policeman backwards and aimed a punch at his retreating back. A nearby colleague of the copper saw this (or said he did) and came to his rescue. Saunders was arrested and brought before Mr Bushby.

It was a trivial case and the magistrate may well have harbored doubts as to the veracity of the two policemen’s version of events. He declared that a man ‘had a right to stand in the street, unless seen to do any overt act, without being catechised by a constable’. The arrest was unlawful and the prisoner was discharged.

If this was trivial the other case was far from it. John Agas, a 34 year-old hawker, was charged with ‘maliciously wounding’ Henry Watson in a row over a woman. Watson explained that on Saturday night (this would have been the week before, the 25 August 1888) Agas had called at his home in Kingsland Road, Dalston. The hawker demanded to see his wife who was now cohabiting with Watson. Watson refused to let him in or see her and this sent Agas into a fury. He threatened him and then made good his threat by drawing a knife and stabbing him in the shoulder.

A cry of ‘murder!’ went up and several people set off after the assailant. He was caught by the police and taken into custody. At the station he supposedly admitted his crime stating:

‘I did it, and I wish it (the knife) had gone in deeper’.

Mr Bushby cautioned him and then asked why he’d done it. Agas replied that he was upset and angry because the other man had ‘led away’ his wife. In other words this was an act of revenge. He was fully committed for trial. Perhaps his resort to violence might explain why his wife had left him in the first place.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, September 2, 1888]

A sorry tale of an old abuser who finally went too far

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Isaac Jones was a violent man when he was in his cups. He had that in common with very many in nineteenth-century London and his poor wife and family suffered for it.

On the 21 July 1860 he’d come home late, drunk as he often was, and belligerent with it. His wife and he had the usual exchange of words and a fight broke out. The exact details are not clear but at some point Isaac lunged for his wife Jane who, fearing for her life, grabbed the nearest weapon she could and defended herself.

She selected a poker but she might have easily picked up an iron, a saucepan or a rolling pin; when women fought with their menfolk it was often one of these they used (or had used against them). The poker connected with Isaac’s leg and he slipped and fell, unable to maintain his balance as he was so drunk after the evening’s excesses.

He cried out and his groans brought a policeman to the door of the house. PC 256M came into the room and found Isaac on his side his leg bent horribly under him and ‘the bone of the fractured limb protruding through the skin’. A cab was called and the injured man was ferried to Guy’s Hospital where his leg was amputated. Since it seemed evident that Jane was to blame she was arrested and taken into custody.

Events unfolded with some inevitability given the state both of Isaac’s general health (he was an elderly man with a drink problem) and Victorian medicine. The local magistracy were informed that the old man was dying so went to see him in hospital to ascertain who was responsible for his condition. Jane went along as well and he kissed her warmly saying ‘that it was the last time’.

Isaac was too ill to say anything else, and did not condemn his wife in the presence of the justices. He died a day later and so Jane was taken before Mr Maude at Southwark Police court accused of causing his death by striking him with the poker.

An inquest had concluded that he had died from the injury but ‘there was nothing to show how it was done’. Isaac’s daughter (also named Jane) gave evidence of the row and the fight but said she’d not seen her mother hit her father with the poker, adding that she’d told her she had not. She elaborated on the fight saying that Isaac had a knife and was threatening her mother with it.

Mr Maude heard a report form the surgeon at Guy’s which was pretty clear that the leg was broken by an impact injury not a fall but he was trying to find a way to clear Mrs Jones if at all possible. Isaac Jones had been a wife beater, she was a domestic abuse survivor and, on this occasion, the tables had turned on the old man. There was clear evidence that Jane had been defending herself and that the attack – if attack there was – had been spontaneous not premeditated.

There was also sufficient doubt over the exact cause of death to give Jane the benefit of the doubt. It is unlikely that a jury would have convicted her anyway and she was evidently remorseful at the death of her husband, however bad a man he was. It would do no one any good to see her go to trial much less go to prison so Mr Maude commented that it was ‘a very painful case’ but he would detain her on longer; she was free to go.

Mrs Jones, who had ben allowed to sit the clerk’s table instead of occupying the dock wept throughout the examination but was helped to her feet and led out of court on her daughter’s arm.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, August 28, 1860]

It is a year before the first ‘Ripper’ murder but the portents are visible in East End life

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In August 1887 London had little inkling of the terror that was to haunt the East End in just a year’s time. There was violence and crime aplenty of course, but no more or less than usual, and nothing to suggest that Whitechapel and the East End was soon to be the focus of world attention as a serial killer struck again and again with impunity.

Despite the ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders being extraordinary by any standards I wonder if the foundations for the unknown killer’s actions were already well established in the community he later terrorised. Domestic violence was endemic; linked to alcoholism and poverty, and patriarchal attitudes towards women. With the campaign against contagious diseases and the well-publicized attack on vice and immorality prostitution was also in the spotlight with sex workers demonized as the carriers of diseases which had decimated the army in the Crimea.

But it was the causal, commonplace brutality eked out daily by working-class men towards their wives and common-law partners that really empowered the actions of the ‘Ripper’.

Men frequently beat and abused their womenfolk in the East End and while murders might have been relatively unusual, manslaughter and grievous bodily harm was not. Unless the police actually saw it happen they weren’t able to interfere and even then many if not most were reluctant to get involved in a ‘a domestic’.  The survivors were also reluctant to press charges against their abusers; in fear of retaliation or the loss of the main breadwinner. Magistrates were frustrated but there was little they could do save deal with offenders when they did come before them.

Frederick Smith was a 35 year-old milkman living in Britannia Street, off the City Road. In late August 1887, a year before the Ripper murdered Polly Nicholls in Bucks Row, Smith was brought before Mr Bushby at Worship Street Police court. The milkman was accused of violently assaulting his wife.

PC 63G testified that he had been called to an incident at the defendant’s home and found Mrs Smith ‘lying insensible and bleeding on the pavement’. A few people had gathered and they told him that she fallen out of a window above. He got her into a cab and took her to the London Hospital to be treated. She regained consciousness on the journey and told him that he husband had attacked her and thrown her out of the window to the street below.

When he’d deposited her at the hospital he went back and arrested Fred who, he now realized, had been part of the crowd gathered around Mrs Smith’s body in the street. When he’d seen the policeman the milkman had quickly made himself scarce. Since Mrs Smith was still in hospital and unable to give evidence Mr. Bushby remanded the prisoner for a week and the gaoler locked him up.

We don’t know if Mrs Smith made a full recovery or, if she did, whether she pressed charges against her husband. There’s no record of a Frederick Smith being prosecuted at the Old Bailey for murder or manslaughter, which makes me hopeful that his wife survived.  Fred Smith is hardly an unusual name however, so newspaper searches are problematic.

I think it does indicate the casual nature of violence meted out to working-class women in the 1800s; when ‘ordinary’ me could do this and (mostly) get away with it then surely its not too far of a leap to understand why a disturbed individual could feel emboldened to take that violence much further.

[from The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, August 27, 1887]

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 life destroyed by the ‘demon drink’

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Alcoholism is a debilitating addiction than ruins not only the life of the person affected but that of those around them. Since the Second World War most of the attention of the police, courts, and prison service has been on  drugs such as cannabis, heroin, cocaine, and MDMA (with all the various derivatives and combinations) and with good reason. All these drugs have the capacity to destroy lives as well. But while all of the above are proscribed and subject to sanctions under the criminal law, alcohol remains legal and freely available. Like tobacco, alcohol is recognized as being harmful but is simply taxed, not banned.

In the 1800s the negative effects of drink were well understood; drink was blamed for all manner of society’s problems form unemployment to fecklessness, poverty to mental illness, domestic violence to mental illness and suicide. All of these social issues were linked to the excessive consumption of the ‘demon drink’. In the early years of Victoria’s reign the Temperance movement established itself; from small beginnings in the late 1820s it had grown into a significant lobbying group by the 1850s. It attempted, unsuccessfully, to  get parliament to pass a prohibition bill in 1859 but it continued to promote abstinence by urging working men and women to sign the pledge.

It was recognized from the middle of the century that alcoholism was a disease and not simply a vice. Since it was not merely a weakness of character it was possible to treat it, and cure it and this was the beginning of modern efforts to deal with addiction to all sorts of substances.

Margaret Malcolm was a good (or perhaps ‘bad’) example of the evils of drink. She was brought before the sitting magistrate at Westminster Police court in August 1878 for being found drunk and disorderly in the Vauxhall Bridge Road. She’d been carried to the local police station on one of the new Bischoffsheim hand drawn ambulances, being incapable of walking.

That was Friday 16 August and the magistrate fined her 8which her husband  paid to keep her out of gaol. On Monday (the 19th) she was back in court and this time Mr Woolrych fined her 21sand told her she was an ‘incorrigible drunkard’. Margaret pulled out a card to show that she had ‘joined the teetotalers’ and promised that she ‘would never drink again’.

Her pledge didn’t last the day: at around five in the afternoon PC Charles Everett (185B) found her drunk, ‘stopping the vehicles in the street, [and] making a great noise’. When he went to arrest her she threw herself to the ground and refused to budge. It took some time to get her up and into custody and in the meantime a large crowd had gathered to see what all the fuss was about.

Back in court before Mr Woolrych she had nothing to say for herself. The magistrate was told that Margaret had been in court on at least fifty occasions previously. Her long-suffering husband had paid nearly £200 in fines in just a few years. To put that in context £200 in 1878 is about £13,000 today. It would have represented almost two years wages for a skilled tradesman, or you could have bought 7 horses with it. Margaret must have had a loving husband (more than many working-class women had in the 1870s) and one who was, whenever possible, determined to keep her out of prison.

He hadn’t always succeeded; she’d been to prison several times when magistrates like Mr D’Eyncourt had refused the option of a fine in the forlorn hope that it would curb her drinking. On this occasion the law continued to be a blunt instrument: with no option available to him to send Margaret for treatment (as a court might today) she was fined 25(£80) or three weeks’ hard labour. The court report doesn’t tell us whether Mr Malcolm dipped into his pocket this time.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, August 25, 1878]