Procrastination, distraction and unexpected discoveries: the Coppetts Wood murder of 1882 (part one)

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There are moments in historical research when you discover something that distracts you from your core purpose and sends you in a different direction. One of the most famous examples of this (in academic history terms anyway) was Vic Gatrell’s Hanging Tree which examines in detail the history of public execution in England in the period 1770 to 1868. Gatrell wasn’t intending on writing a history of hanging, instead he made ‘a chance discovery’ whilst ‘working on something quite different’.

This led him to start browsing through a set of judges’ reports in the National Archives at Kew and he came across the story of the rape of Elizabeth Cureton and the petitions for mercy made on behalf of the man found guilty of assaulting her. The Hanging Tree is one of the seminal works in the history of crime and the idea that it was the product of a momentary desire to of break the ‘tedium’ of archival research (something I’m sure very many historians can empathise with) is enlightening.

I am (slowly) finishing a book on eighteenth-century homicides. It is a project which started life about 9 or 10 years ago when I began researching a murder in Northamptonshire. It had odd elements to it, but mostly it was interesting because it seemed to offer an opportunity to explore the system by which convicted criminals might avoid the death penalty, even for a crime as heinous as murder. Working with my PhD supervisor, a very eminent historian of crime, we published an article on the case in a historical journal. I then went on and started work on other articles and books.

There was something about that case that always niggled with me and made me want to see if other examples could be found where convicted murderers had tried to avoid the noose in the 1700s. Cutting a long story short I found four cases (including the Northamptonshire one) that seemed worth exploring. One involved two brothers murdering a watchman, the next concerned the public stoning to death of an informer in Spitalfields, and the last was a prostitute who was accused of killing a minor celebrity musician. I pitched the project to a publisher and they were kind enough to give me a contract.

In the meantime one of my former undergraduates approached me and told me he had ‘solved’ the Ripper murders. He believed he had uncovered the identity of the Whitechapel murderer of 1888 and had linked him to a second series of contemporary murders. I was skeptical, but intrigued. Over the course of the next few years I worked with Andy on this project alongside my other one until, in the summer of last year, we had the bulk of a manuscript to pitch to publishers. It wasn’t easy to sell because the market for Ripper books is pretty well saturated, but in the end we found a home for it with Amberley. A note here: if you are an author who wants to get something published, keep trying – if it’s good enough someone will take a chance on it, eventually.

While all this was going on I decided to start this blog. Daily writings on the police courts of the Victorian metropolis, a way of keeping me focused on writing and research every day. It was also born of my desire to return to a study of the magistracy, the subject of my original PhD research back in the early 2000s. My intention (after the homicide and Ripper books) was and is to write academic and more popular histories of the magistracy in England.

So, where is this rambling blog going right now? Well, this morning I’ve found a report of a 24-year-old man named Frederick Cheekly who was set in the dock at Southwark Police court in late April 1884 charged with stealing a watch. Cheekly lived at 113 the Borough in south London with his common-law partner Maud Norton. She was older, 29 years of age, and appeared in the dock with him as an accessory to the theft. A second charge was preferred against the pair, also for stealing, and this time a third person – Minnie Lewis – was also charged. The solicitor for the Treasury brought the charges and the trio were committed for trial.

What happened to them after that is unclear but I doubt it would necessarily have resulted in convictions. I suspect the house in Borough was a brothel and the two women acted as prostitutes and/or madams. The men robbed were risking their property simply by entering a house of ill repute and I doubt the Surrey jurors would have had much sympathy for them.

But what struck me was a comment made by the Police News’ reporter who stated that Checkley was ‘said to be a companion of the Finchley-wood murderer’. Given that I grew up in Finchley and I hadn’t heard of this case I thought I’d do some quick digging this morning.   I soon found a report form March 1882 which describes the discovery a the body ‘of a young man’ in woods near Finchley. A little bit more research established that these were Coppetts Wood, near Colney Hatch. At first the police thought they’d found the body a dead gispy since the woods were a popular transit point for travelling people. But the hair on the corpse was fair, not dark like most gipsies. The papers now speculated that the victim might have been part of a criminal gang operating in the area, committing burglaries and street robberies.

Suffice to say, for now at least, that I think I have worked out what happened and how this case unfolds but it is going to take me some time to unpack it all. So, if you would like to know what happens in the Finchley Wood murder mystery stayed ‘tuned’ for further articles over the week as I get to the bottom of who was left buried in Coppetts Wood and who put him there.

In between, that is, finishing off the book I’m supposed to be writing!

[The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, April 26, 1884; Daily News , Tuesday, March 7, 1882]

Representing the Ripper: some lessons from Whitechapel and West Yorkshire

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If, like me, you watched the BBC’s recent three-part documentary on the Yorkshire Ripper case you might have been left pondering some of the conclusions that might be drawn from that awful episode in our recent history.  Tonight the BBC offers a less in-depth and more problematic documentary, which has already been criticized for its approach. At 9 o’clock Silent Witness star Emilia Fox presents a forensic reexamination of the  ‘Jack the Ripper’ with the help of criminologist Professor David Wilson. So the question I’d like to ask is what, if anything, can we learn from this sudden flurry of serious television aimed at two of the most high profile serial murder cases of the last 150 years?

Haille Rubenhold tweeted that documentaries like the one Fox will front this evening:

‘only feed the exploitative Ripper industry’, adding: ‘Trying out modern tech on some of the most defamed women in history just for the sake of entertainment is pretty low’.

So if exploiting the murders of five or more women in 1888 was ‘pretty low’ can we accuse Liza Williams of doing something similar in her recent series on Peter Sutcliffe’s crimes? I don’t think we can; Williams’ documentary was very careful not to ape some of the voyeuristic tendencies of modern ‘true crime’ programmes. The victims were placed centre stage and considered as real people (somebody’s mother, daughter, or friend) not as bodies to be dissected yet again. She stressed that all of Sutcliffe’s victims (the 13 he killed and the seven or more he attacked) left behind families that were and still are being affected by his casual inhumanity. It was extremely moving to hear interviews with Olive Smelt’s daughter, Wilma McCann’s son, and one of his earliest victims,  Tracey Browne who was just 14 when he hit her five or more times with a hammer in a country lane at Silsden.

Williams also focused her study on the police investigation and its failure to catch Sutcliffe. Although the investigation, led by Assistant Chief Constable Godfrey Oldfield and DCS Dennis Hoban, did eventually take credit for catching the killer Williams shows that Sutcliffe was caught despite the police team chasing him not because of it.

West Yorkshire police questioned Sutcliffe on no fewer than nine occasions and five times in the context of following up a lead directly linking him to one of the murders.  They ignored Tracey Browne’s description of her attacker as they didn’t believe the man they were hunting could have attacked her. This was because Oldfield and Hoban were convinced the murderer was only targeting prostitutes (despite him killing six women with no connection to the sex industry) and then because they believed that a tape sent to them was from the killer, and he had a Sunderland accent not a Yorkshire one.

In 1888 the police failed to catch the killer of five or more women (I believe the number he murdered was certainly in double figures, and that there were at least three non-fatal assaults). Again this might have been because the Victorian police were focusing on the wrong sort of killer, someone from outside of the community he terrorized. In this they were ably abetted by the media, just as the West Yorkshire force were in the late ‘70s and early 1980s. What Williams’ revealed was the way in which the British press (local and national) helped create an image of a monster – a master criminal with supernatural powers that helped him avoid capture.

When Sutcliffe appeared in the dock at Number One Court, Old Bailey in 1981 several journalists commented that he didn’t look or sound like the character they had imagined him to be. Instead Sutcliffe was a very ordinary sort of man, not larger than life at all.

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In 1888 the terror created by the original ‘Ripper’ was fueled by the intense press coverage of his attacks and the speculation as to his identity and his motives. Whitechapel and Spitalfields was overrun by journalists all searching for angles on the case and, just as the media did 100 years later, all intent of finding witnesses to interview, regardless of how it might undermine any future case the police might be trying to build against the culprit.

Moreover the press played its part in judging the victims by the prevailing standards of the day. In 1888 The Timespretty much stated that since the women killed by ‘Jack’ were ‘unfortunates’ (a contemporary euphemism for  prostitutes) they were culpable in their own demise. As Ripperologist Donald Rumbelow  has sometimes stated the Ripper killings were viewed as ‘so much street cleaning’ by some sections of Victorian society. Liza Williams’ documentary on the Yorkshire case reveals that a very similar mindset persisted there; the women killed by Sutcliffe were divided into ‘respectable’ and ‘immoral’ women when, after all, they were all simply innocent women.

Rubenhold’s new book on the victims (which has its flaws, be in no doubt) champions the lives of the women the Victorian Ripper murdered, just as Williams tries to do in her work. Both remind us that in every murder the killer is only one small part of the story. His name (and it is usually a ‘he’) is often the one that best remembered however, even if that name is often confused and (as with ‘Jack’) mythologized.

So what can we take from these two cases and the way they’ve been presented recently? I would say this: both reveal how hard it is to catch someone who preys on the most vulnerable in society. All of the victims of the Victorian killer were very poor women found out on the street at night, some of them intoxicated or at least befuddled by drink. Many of Sutcliffe’s victims were engaged in prostitution for the simply fact that society had failed them and they believed it was the only way they had to feed their families. Inequality and poverty runs through both these cases.

Moreover, the way these women were viewed also coloured the way the press reported their deaths and the police investigations that tried lamely to catch their killers. Frankly then society let these women down in the first place and then compounded that failure by blaming them for becoming victims.

We need to get away from the societal condemnation of anyone who sells sex for whatever reason. Prostitution is rarely a positive life choice; it is born of desperation, poverty, and (usually male) exploitation of women. A woman that is forced (by circumstances or someone else) to prostitute herself is no less of a woman than anyone else. She deserves the right to live every bit as much as we all do; no one has the right to take away her life and the sooner society recognizes this the better. Where I disagree with Rubenhold’s thesis that the five ‘canonical’ victims of the Whitechapel murderer were not all prostitutes is this: why does it even matter?  That there is evidence for or against them being prostitutes is immaterial in my view; they were all innocent regardless.

Finally what Liza Williams reminded me was that Peter Sutcliffe was no mythological demon possessed of supernatural abilities to evade capture. He was an ordinary nonentity – someone you’d not look at twice in the street. A quiet neighbour who lived with his wife and went to work each day driving a lorry. No one suspected him, not even the police when they interviewed him.

This very much fits the profile of the man Andy Wise and I think responsible for the Whitechapel series of murders between 1887 and 1891. A man we think hid in plain sight and melted away into the alleys and courts of the East Ed which knew like the back of his hand.  The police may have arrested and questioned him as they did many others, but they let him go off to kill again because he didn’t fit the false profile of the monster they were hunting.

‘Jack and the Thames Torso Murders’, by the author and Andy Wise, is published by Amberley in June 2019

‘These cabmen always drive furiously’: Lord Rothschild has a lucky escape

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An 1891 caricature of Nathan (‘Natty’) Rothschild by Lockhart Bogle in The Graphic

It seems as if traffic accidents were just as likely to occur in late nineteenth-century London as they are in the modern capital, and that the roads were just as crowded. Moreover the image of the policeman directing the flow of vehicles – one we probably now associate with the 1950s and 60s – may be just as appropriate for the 1890s.

In early March 1890 Nathan, the first Baron de Rothschild, was being driven in brougham coach along Queen Victoria Street in the City. A policeman was holding the traffic and had his arm extended up, palm out to signal this. Lord Rothschild’s driver eased his horses to a halt to wait for the officer’s signal to continue.

Suddenly, and seemingly without warning, the coach was hit from behind by a hansom cab. One of the shafts of the cab broke through the brougham, narrowly missing its occupants. Rothschild was shaken, but unhurt. The baron stepped down from the damaged coach and approached the policeman. He handed him his card and said, possibly angrily:

‘These cabmen always drive furiously. Take my card and give it to the Inspector. It will be all right’.

The incident ended up with the cabbie, James Povey, being summoned before the alderman magistrate at Guildhall Police court where he was charged with ‘driving a hansom cab wantonly’. Povey pleaded ‘not guilty’ and one of his passenger that day, a gentleman named Palmer, was in court to support him.

Mr Palmer testified that the baron and his driver could not possibly have seen what happened as they were facing the wrong way. He said that Povey had tried to stop and it was entirely an accident, not ‘wanton’ or dangerous driving. The alderman agreed and dismissed the summons, adding that a claim for the damage to the brougham could be made in the civil courts. There was no need, Povey’s representative (a Mr Edmonds, solicitor for the Cab Union) explained, as that had already been settled.

Rothschild was an important figure in late nineteenth-century Britain, a banker and the financial backer of Cecil Rhodes, he was a noted philanthropist as well, helping fund housing (in the form of model dwellings) for poor Jews in Spitalfields and Whitechapel.

Rothschild sat in parliament for the Liberals, although he had been a close friend of the Conservative Prime Minster Benjamin Disraeli. By 1896 he was a peer, sitting in the Lords (as he had since 1885) an honour bestowed by that other great Victorian premier, William Gladstone. He then left the Liberals in 1886, joining forces with Joseph Chamberlain’s Liberal Unionists as the Liberal Party split over Home Rule for Ireland. He died in 1915 and the current baron, Jacob, is the 4th to hold the title.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, March 11, 1896]

Hard choices for an unmarried mother in Spitalfields

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Spitalfields (in the early 20th century) by the photographer C. A. Matthew 

Sophia Higgins, the wife of a chemist in Spicer Street, Spitalfields was making her way home at 11 at night when something caught her attention.  She was crossing the market when she heard what she thought was a baby crying.

Moving towards the sound she soon discovered an infant ‘lying on the pavement, wrapped in a piece of blanket’. Horrified she stopped it up, went to find a person nearby to care for it, and then rushed off to the nearest police station.

The police arrived and collected the child, taking it to the Whitechapel workhouse to make enquiries there. Having established from the porter who they thought the mother was, another officer was despatched to find her and arrest her.

Eventually Ellen Lehain was identified as the child’s mother and questioned by the police before being summoned before the magistrate at Worship Street Police Court in October 1853. A witness, Ann Buskin (described as an ‘unmarred female’) said she had lodged with Ellen at a property in Holborn and testified that she had recently given birth to an illegitimate child.

Ann explained that her fellow lodger had ‘nursed it for a few weeks, when she left there to go into the union house’ (meaning the local workhouse for the poor).

The child was produced in court and  Ellen admitted it was hers. When the policeman had asked her what she had done with it she had told him she’d left the baby at the door of the workhouse. So how did it come to be in the middle of Spitalfields market the court wanted to know?

Ellen’s response to this question is not recorded.

In her defence the girl simply pleaded poverty and distress as the reason for abandoning her new born baby. Mr D’Eyncourt sent her to the house of correction for three months, the fate of her child was not something the newspaper reporters seems to have thought important enough to write down. Perhaps it was obvious: the child would become another mouth for the parish union to feed, until at least he or she could be apprenticed out into service.

No one seemed to be in the least bit interested in the fate of its mother, who must have been in considerable distress to give up a child she had been caring for for several weeks.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, October 14, 1853]

‘The wonder-stricken animal then tried to turn around’: An actual ‘bull in a china shop’

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According to some sources the expression ‘a bull in a china shop’ (used to refer to a clumsy person) has its origin sometime before it was first written down in Frederick Marryat’s 1834 novel, Jacob Faithful. As you can see from the illustration above however, the expression was in use well before then.

Londoners would have been familiar with the sight of bulls and others livestock being herded through the city streets in the 1800s. Smithfield market had been the destination for hundreds of thousands of beasts throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth century, as drovers brought in animals to sold and then herded east to the slaughterhouses in Spitalfields and Whitechapel.

Occasionally an animal would escape and run amok but more frequently, as the records of the eighteenth-century Mansion House and Guildhall justice rooms reveal, they were deliberately separated from the herd and chased through the streets by boys and young men. These incidents of ‘bullock-hunting’ (akin to the annual bull run in Pamplona, Spain) caused chaos on the City streets and ended in prosecutions before the magistrates.

Bullock hunting seemed to tail of off in the 1830s and had pretty much disappeared by the Victorian period. Urban areas were ‘improving’ and the authorities and public were increasingly intolerant of rowdy folk customs that interrupted the ‘polite and commercial’ pattern of day-to-day life.

By the 1840s campaigners were active in trying to close Smithfield as a cattle and sheep market. They cited the noise, the smell and the impracticality of moving animals through the streets. The market had also become too small to serve the city’s needs and was required to expanded, but not in the centre. In 1852 work began on a new market in Islington, which opened in 1855 as the Metropolitan Cattle market. Smithfield underwent a rebuilding and emerged, in 1868, as the new Smithfield meat market, selling dead meat rather than live animals.

Two years before trading ceased at Smithfield John Waistcoat appeared in the Guildhall Police court charged with ‘driving cattle without a license, or a drover’s badge’. This tells us cattle were still being brought into the centre in December 1850 and, as we will see, were still causing chaos. It also reveals that ‘bullock hunting’ was still very much alive, long after it was supposedly stamped out.

Waistcoat was only 15 years of age when he arrested by City police constable 117. The officer had seen two animals running towards Skinner Street, ‘apparently very excited’ and being chased by a group of small boys. Waistcoat was older and seemed to be trying to catch them so the copper stopped him and demanded to see his badge and license. When he was unable to produce either he collared him.

Meanwhile the beasts continued to run wild in the City streets.

A Mr Pierce said he saw one bull run into Rose and Crown Court and enter his house, which operated as a workshop. A witness who was inside the property described what happened next:

‘I was in the room on the ground floor at work, when I heard a great noise outside, and the next minute, to my great surprise, I saw a bull’s head thrust into the passage over the little wicket gate at the street door. I immediately closed the room door and he [the bull] went into the passage’.

By this time his testimony had reduced the Guildhall court’s occupants to unrestrained laughter as they imagined the scene.

‘I felt the wainscotting giving way’ he continued, ‘and accordingly pressed against it on the inside, while the bull pressed against it from without. ‘I felt the partition cracking under the weight, and at the same time the females in the room began to scream and make such a noise that I believe the bull was frightened, and he passed along the passage and I thought he was going upstairs’.

The people in court continued to laugh as the poor man tried to explain what had occurred to the alderman justice on the bench. For the reporter from Reynold’s it must have seemed as if he had the scoop of the week; many of the daily reports from the police courts were mundane, this was anything but.

‘The wonder-striken animal then tried to turn around’, the witness told Sir Peter Laurie (the magistrate), ‘and in doing so he knocked down the whole of the partition between the passage and the room with his hind quarters, and backed out, sending the little wicket gate flying over to the public house opposite. The bull then got clear of the court, and left me master of the ruins’.

The damage was estimated by Pierce to be between £2 and £3 which might not sound a lot but probably equated to about two weeks wages for a skilled tradesman, so not insignificant. The question was, who was to pay? Sir Peter decided that Waistcoat was not responsible and discharged him. Instead he decided that the man that bought the cattle should pay, and directed Mr Pierce to send his bill to a Mr Lowe.

[from Reynolds’s Weekly News, Sunday, December 1, 1850]

“The girls sent me to see the guvnor”: a burglar’s weak excuse.

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Henry Morris was woken in the middle of the night by a cry from his brother. Getting up he noted that it was four in the morning and he shuffled his way downstairs and headed towards the kitchen of his house in Chicksand Street, Spitalfields, because that was where his sibling tended to sleep.

The house was home to Morris, who was a tailor, his family and another couple who used the shop at the front for their millinery business. He usually locked up before he retired for the night but on this occasion he’d neglected to secure the back door, which opened into a yard at the rear.

The tailor pushed open the kitchen door and peering in he saw a stranger moving about the room. Morris challenged the intruder, who said that ‘he had come to see the guv’nor’, adding that ‘the girls’ had sent him. Morris  shouted out for help, raising his wife and the people at the top of the house, and a policeman (PC George Tooth – 151H) was soon on the scene. The unwanted guest was searched but found to have nothing on him. Nor was anything missing from the house, but the police constable still escorted his charge back to the nearest station.

In the morning William Wren was presented at Worship Street Police court on a charge of ‘burglarously entering’ the premises with an intention to steal. Wren, who said he was a labourer, denied any attempt at burglary; he said ‘he’d only lifted the latch and walked in’. He added that he had been taken to the house by two women he’d picked up (the mysterious ‘girls’ mentioned earlier) and had been drinking.

Mr Bushby didn’t care much for his explanation, there was little legal distinction in his mind. In his opinion Wren was an opportunist thief who, but for Morris’ intervention, may well have pocketed what he could find from amongst the possessions of the house’s occupants.

PC Tooth also thought that Wren was up to no good. He’d found a rope outside which would have allowed Wren to drop down into the yard behind the Morris’ property. This opinion was shared by a detective attached to H Division who also stated that he was sure he knew Wren as a previous offender. The magistrate wanted to check this information as it would certainly influence his decision making. As a precaution he remanded the labourer in custody for a few days so enquiries could be made.

It seems the hunch that Wren was a criminal was correct. In his trial at the Old Bailey in mid December the suggestion that he was a little drunk was brought up in his defence but did him no good. The jury found him guilty of breaking in with intent to steal and he confessed to his previous conviction from May 1884. Having been in court just seven months earlier under a different name (John Gregg) he could expect no mercy from the judge. He was soon led away to start a five year sentence of penal servitude, despite having stolen absolutely nothing – on this occasion at least.

[from The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, 28 November 1885]

‘Well sor, this ‘ere perliceman comes rushing in, and, with “Out you go, missus,” capsizes me into the street’: one drunk’s story a year on from the Dorset Street horror.

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Today is the 130 anniversary of the discovery of the body of Mary Jane Kelly in Miller’s Court, Dorset Street, Spitalfields in November 1888. Mary Kelly was the fifth ‘canonical’ victim of the killer known only as ‘Jack the Ripper’ and hers was the most brutal of all the murders in the series.

Mary (or Marie) was found lying on her bed when her landlord’s man came calling for her back rent. He peered through the window at the horror inside and rushed to find his boss and then the police. No one that saw Mary’s mutilated corpse ever forgot how awful it was.

However, within a year the room in Miller’s Court had been re-let and the landlord, McCarthy, merely sent someone round to scrub the blood off the walls and floors. Rooms in Dorset Street were cheap and new tenants could hardly afford to be too picky if all they could afford was a room in the ‘worst street in London’.

A year after the murders seemed to have ceased although many researchers are far from convinced the killer had stopped with Kelly. My own research suggests he continued into the early 1890s only stopping when his own body succumbed to the disease that killed him.

Meanwhile the day-to-day business of the Police courts rumbled on. Over at Marlborough Street Mary Jones appeared in early November 1889, charged with being drunk and disorderly, a commonplace offence at this level of justice.

Mary had been arrested after she had resisted arrest. Mr Newton (the presiding magistrate) was told that she had entered the King’s Arms in Titchfield Street late the previous night and had caused a scene. She’d asked for ‘two of unsweetened and a bit of sugar’ but the landlord refused to serve her as she was already quite inebriated and he had a care to his license.

He called in the passing street bobby, PC 282D to eject her and she squabbled with them both. She shouted abuse at both men and had to be restrained. In court she was apologetic (presumably having sobered up) and begged the magistrate’s “parding”.

She had been in hospital that day she said and explained that after she’d been released she’d felt dizzy. She’d gone into the pub to rest she insisted, and was as surprised as anyone when ‘this ‘ere perliceman comes rushing in, and, with “Out you go, missus,” capsizes me into the street’.

Mr Newton asked her where she lived.

‘Lisson Grove, your Wurchip’ she replied.

‘Then go back to Lisson Grove sharp, and don’t come back here again’ he told her.

And with that she stumbled gratefully out of court as the public gallery collapsed in laughter.

[from The Standard, Saturday, November 09, 1889]