September 1888: A killer in the East overshadows the everyday reality of domestic abuse in Victorian London    

Catching Jack

I have just completed the final draft of my ‘Ripper’ solution book and its now off with my co-author for his last amendments. We have to do a little work on the images and maps but it looks like we will comfortably meet our end of September deadline. Having put down my pen (so to speak) on the project I thought I’d return to Whitechapel in 1888 to see what was going on in the Police Courts of the capital in the midst of the most infamous murders London has ever known.

For context, by Wednesday September 18 1888 the murders of four women were being investigated by the police: Emma Smith (4/4/88), Martha Tabram (7/8/88), Mary Ann Nichols (31/8/88), and Annie Chapman (8/9/88). Within  less than two weeks both Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes would be added to that list, their murders occurring within an hour of each other.

Very few people (including me) believe Smith to have been a ‘Ripper’ victim and some dispute whether Tabram was. Either way, by this time 130 years ago the police were desperate to catch a murderer who was mutilating defenseless women in the heart of the East End.

Meanwhile over the river at Lambeth Henry Baker (alias Williams) was being charged with the attempted murder of Mary Cowen. The attack had taken place in mid July but Mary was dangerously ill in St Thomas’ Hospital, and was too weak to attend court until early September. However, on the day of the first committal hearing she failed to appear in court to prosecute the case against Henry.

The policeman in charge of the case, Chief Inspector Chisholm, had then told the magistrate at Lambeth Police court that he was convinced that friends of the prisoner had conspired to prevent Mary giving evidence that day. Mr Biron had granted the police a warrant to force her to attend at a subsequent date, and therefore she was in court on the 18 September to start the case against her attacker.

Mary Cowen was still suffering the effects of the assault: ‘she appeared very ill, and evidently was most reluctant to give evidence against the prisoner’, the paper reported. The case was opened by the Treasury solicitor Mr Pollard. He ascertain (‘with some difficulty’) that Mary had lived with Henry in Birmingham but they had been separated ‘for some time’. As was the case much more frequently than we might imagine today, many working class couples lived as man and wife without ever formally marrying.

In July the couple had met in London and had a violent argument. She admitted striking her ex-partner in the face with her bag and calling him ‘foul names’. That was the 10 July 1888 and on the following Monday, the 16th, he found her again and this time he attacked her, stabbing her two or three times with a knife. Mary collapsed and lost consciousness. Someone must have helped her because she woke up in hospital.

Henry Baker denied the attack and objected when the solicitor played his trump card and produced a written statement, from Baker, admitting his guilt. Baker said no one could prove it was his handwriting but Mr Pollard begged to differ. The crucial witness was Mary however, and having finally persuaded (or forced) her to testify against her former lover the police must have ben relatively confident of securing a conviction. Mr Biron now fully committed the man to trial at Old Bailey for the attempted murder of his common-law wife.

The trial did take place, on 22 October 1888 and ‘Harry’ Baker was convicted, not of attempted murder but of the lesser offence of wounding. The court report stated at the end that:

the prisoner, ‘in his defence stated that he had been subjected to great annoyance by the prosecutrix, whose habits were very intemperate, and that he pleaded guilty to assaulting her after great provocation’.

An all male jury clearly agreed with him and even when he’d admitted having a previous conviction (from 1887 in Chester) the judge merely sent him away for a year’s imprisonment.

This is the surgeon’s report of the injuries Mary had sustained (and that Baker admitted inflicting):

The prosecutrix was brought there [St Thomas’ Hospital] with a deep incised wound on the right side of the chest, penetrating into the cavity of the chest, between 3 and 4 inches long and 1 inch deep or more, and another wound in her back behind the right shoulder blade an inch and a half long and half or three-quarters of an inch deep; there was considerable bleeding from the wound in front, a large artery was divided—she was in very great danger for some time—she remained in the hospital till September 3rd and after having recovered to some extent was allowed to go—her life was in danger till July 22nd

When juries were prepared to accept as mitigation the accusation that a ‘wife’ was ‘intemperate’ and that being called ‘foul names’ and slapped in the face with a bag counted as ‘provocation’ it is quiet easy to understand why women were so reluctant to prosecute their husbands and partners in the late Victorian period.

We should also see the actions of a misogynistic serial killer in the context of the way women were treated everyday in the 1880s, and not view him as an aberration (a ‘monster’) or some sort of criminal mastermind. Women were beaten up, stabbed, abused, raped and murdered on a very regular basis in the nineteenth century and ‘Jack’ wasn’t the only one to get away with it.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, September 19, 1888]

A distraught wife declares: ‘I intended to do for him, for his brutality and for leaving me’.

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A Southwark street in the 1890s

Serious violence such as attempted and actual murder was rarer in the nineteenth century than we might think from all the concentration of sensation literature and ‘murder news’ that has survived. Excellent work by Judith Flanders and Rosalind Crone has illuminated our understanding of the Victorians’ fascination with murder and gore but we shouldn’t conclude from this that homicides were an everyday occurrence.

Sadly, domestic and spousal violence was commonplace and the Police Courts were regularly witness to tales of wife beating as tensions in the home were brought into the public sphere. Magistrates tried to take a firm line with abusers but were often frustrated by the fact that survivors frequently refused to condemn their abusers in court; they were prepared to take them to law but not prosecute them fully, for fear of future retribution or losing the main breadwinner.

Nearly all of these victims were women but women did initiate violence sometimes and fight back when attacked. Men rarely prosecuted their wives however, because this would have suggested they had lost control of the household and that would have been a social catastrophe for their reputation.

So it is rare to see a woman in front of the courts for assaulting her husband or partner, unless there is a very clear and obvious reason, as there is with the case of Elizabeth Penning.

Elizabeth Penning had been living with John Walthe for several years. The couple weren’t married but lived as if they were. This sort of arrangement – normal today – was much more common than me might expect in the nineteenth century. Marriage was expensive and working class society did not demand that couples tied the knot officially, especially in large urban centres such as London.

It wasn’t a happy marriage however. John was having an affair and abused his wife. By his own admission he had ‘ill-treated [her] while he lived with her. He had broken three of her ribs, [and] struck her with a chopper, for which he had been punished’.

In late January 1860 he had been out drinking late and was on his way home. As he approached the Sir John Falstaff pub on Kent Street he noticed Elizabeth sitting on the step outside.

She challenged him, calling out: ‘What have you done with your woman?’

The pair rowed and John walked on. He hadn’t gone far when he heard female screams and rushed back and down Falstaff Yard, near the pub. There he found Elizabeth armed with a knife. She rushed at him and aimed  stab at his neck. The kitchen knife went in deep and blood flowed. John was taken to St Thomas’ Hospital and his life was in danger. He didn’t recover form his wounds for a month. Meanwhile Elizabeth was arrested while the courts waited to find out whether she would be charged with attempted or actual murder.

Fortunately for all concerned John survived and the case came initially before the Southwark Police Court magistrate, Mr Burcham in February.

Now that Waltin could give evidence more detail of what happened that night emerged. He’d not been alone when he passed Elizabeth at the pub. He’d had a woman on his arm and that was how the row had started. Elizabeth had threatened him and he’d dismissed this, telling her she ‘had not pluck to do it’.

PC 171M had been first on the scene, responding to the shouts from Falstaff Yard. He saw Elizabeth brandishing a bloodied kitchen knife and arrested her. She admitted stabbing her husband and said ‘she intended to do for him, for his brutality and for leaving her’. John was reluctant to testify against his wife, and admitted his own fault in the matter. Elizabeth said nothing before the justice, preferring to keep her defence for the jury trial that would inevitably follow.

The case did come before the Old Bailey and Elizabeth was convicted of wounding her partner. The trial unfolded with little more detail than we have from the pre-trial hearing. We do get to hear from Elizabeth however, who issued a written statement at the end of the case. This repeats some of the facts John admitted to at Southwark but adds considerably to a picture of his brutality and callous disregard for her. I’m not for a moment suggesting she was justified in stabbing him but it helps explain why she did so:

The prisoner put in a written defence, stating that she had lived with the prosecutor for seven years and suffered much ill treatment; that she had charged him at Southwark Police-court with cutting her head open with a chopper, for which he was imprisoned for three months; since when he has fractured three of her ribs, cut her eye open, and given her two severe wounds on the head with a pickaxe, which caused her at times not to know what the did or said; that he had kept her for three months without boots or shawl, so that she could not seek work, and got involved in debt, and that when she spoke to him about it he struck her; that she saw him on Saturday night with the woman in question, whom he told to give her a good hiding.

Having been found guilty Elizabeth was sentenced to six months imprisonment by the Common Sergeant.

[from The Standard, Monday, February 27, 1860]

A punch-up at St Thomas’ hospital as medical students protest their exclusion

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The operating theatre at St Thomas’ Church in London [http://thegarret.org.uk]

In December 1836 the Union Hall police magistrate was presented with two competing charges of assault. Both related to an incident in St Thomas’ hospital where a number of operations were being carried out.

At this time it was common for operations to take place in public, in a theatre which was, in many respects, just that. Medical students from St Thomas’ and St Guy’s were joined by ‘foreigners’ and other invited guests to see the surgeons perform their craft. On this occasion they were to have witnessed Mr Travers perform a series of lithotomy operations*.

However, the operations were cancelled because a disturbance broke out involving a number of student dressers from St Guy’s. These were the junior doctors of the day; having served an apprenticeship for 5 to 7 years they now shadowed a surgeon for up to a year on the wards.

Attending operating theatres was therefore a vital part of their education.

It seems that in the recent past there had been some trouble at St Thomas’ and that trouble was blamed on the St Guy’s students. So, as Mr Travers told the court, a decision (an ‘extraordinary’ one he added) to exclude their sister hospital’s students from the theatre. The hospital porters were therefore deployed to stop any unauthorised people from getting in.

This did not go down well with the student doctors; two dressers from Guy’s (a Mr Linguard and Mr Carrington) determined to go anyway. They ignored the signage banning them and tried to push past one of the doormen.

As he tried to enter Linguard was seized by the collar by a porter named Williams and told he could not go in. Rather than take no for an answer the junior doctor struck out at Williams and his friends piled in. In the process the door of the theatre was ‘smashed in pieces’ and the unfortunate porter was nearly thrown over a balustrade to his death.

The cases were heard before two magistrates and they quickly dismissed Linguard’s charge that Williams had assaulted him by grabbing his collar. They said they could not adjudicate on whether the students had any right to be admitted and decided that the assault on Williams was of so serious a nature that it should be heard before a judge and jury at the next Sessions of the Peace.

Carrington and Linguard were bailed for the assault and another student, named Musgrove, similarly bailed for the damage to the door of the operating theatre. St Guy’s has excellent records but sadly these are not available for me to look at online to find out whether the three young doctors got over this obstacle to their medical careers or not. It’s probably fair to say though that, like today, surgeon’s dressers were overworked and underpaid.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, December 22, 1837]

*the surgical removal of a calculus (stone) from the bladder, kidney, or urinary tract

A humanitarian intervention or an affair uncovered?

In a report titled ‘Inconstancy’ a Mr. F. Dixon appeared at Southwark Police Court charged with absconding with another man’s wife and some of his possessions. James Wilkinson, a milkman living in Lincoln’s Inn Fields said that while he gone ‘to the country for a month on business’ Dixon had ran off with his wife. He had tracked them down to an address near St Thomas’ Hospital, south of the River Thames and confronted them.

Dixon had been employed by Wilkinson as a clerk, suggesting that Wilkinson was more than a simple milk deliveryman. Not only had the clerk taken his wife, he raged, he’d also stolen a ‘portrait painting, a Bible, and some other articles’.

Dixon was outraged at the suggestion and said that she had brought the items with her. It is quite likely these were the wife’s own belongings but as all of a woman’s property passed to her husband on marriage in this period Wilkinson claimed them as his own. He then went on to make ‘a long statement’ to the effect that Mrs Dixon had been driven to stay with him because of the cruel treatment meted out to her by Wilkinson. Dixon, he claimed, had only acted out of his ‘humane feelings’ for Mrs. Wilkinson.

The magistrate said he minded to believe the clerk and simply asked him to appear again at a future date after the affair had been looked into more carefully.

[From Daily News, Friday, September 18, 1846]