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]

‘I believe this to be an act of extortion’: a cab driver and his passenger clash at the Guildhall.

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So, Cabbies, how long would you wait for a fare to come back and pay you?

John White drove a hansom cab in 1856 (cab no. 3,264) and he had a fairly regular customer in Mr Kelly, a Holborn surgeon. It was often the case that the medical man asked White to wait for him, usually for a few minutes but on one occasion for up to an hour.

So when he’d ferried the doctor to his destination from his Fetter Lane residence and been left waiting again, White did so. He’d dropped his passenger off at 2.45 in Blackfriars but after the man had ran off he saw nothing of him. The cabbie waited; an hour passed, then another and it was only when the clock sounded nine in the evening that White gave up and moved off.

He’d waited over six hours to get his payment and decided to summon the surgeon to court to extract the fare plus the waiting time, which he put at 12and sixpence.

The case came up before Alderman Carter at the Guildhall Police court in the City. White made his case and the magistrate questioned him. Why had he waited so long, he wanted to know, did he know the gentleman well?

Yes, I know him well. I have taken him twenty times before. I waited, thinking he would come back, but, finding he did not come, I sent  a man to his house to see if it were right to wait any longer’.

Next he turned to Kelly to see whether he could offer any explanation for the accusation that he’d run off without paying what he owed. He could:

I certainly did run away when I got out of the cab’, he admitted, presumably because he was racing to a medical emergency. ‘but before doing so, I put my hand through the door at the top of the cab, and placed a shilling on the roof for the complainant’s fare’.

So he had paid, he insisted, but had White seen him do so, or collected the money? Seemingly not. The alderman wondered if the coin had rolled off. The doctor was adamant that the cab driver would have noticed however: ‘he could see my hand’, he declared and suggested White was try to get more money out of him than was reasonable.

I believe this to be an act of extortion’, he said, ‘and therefore it is I defend it at great inconvenience to myself’.

However, he admitted that he’d not seen the cabbie take the shilling so could not be sure that he had, in reality, paid him.

Alderman Carter decided on a compromise. He told White that while waiting for so long was ‘ridiculous’, he might have been justified in waiting two hours and so he was entitled to claim the fare for that, which was 4s. In addition he could have his fare (sixpence) and costs of 2for the summons.

The surgeon seemed satisfied with this and paid immediately, donating a further 10sto the Poor Box. What White thought of it is not recorded but I doubt he’d be driving the good doctor around again anytime soon.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, September 17, 1856]

The painted lady and a ‘most impudent fellow’.

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Miss Elizabeth Cox was disturbed by sounds outside her front door in late August 1831. She opened the door which was next to Mr Ryder’s Yard, Queen Street on Cheapside and was confronted by a young man dressed as a painter and decorator.

Miss Cox looked him up and down and said (rather unnecessarily) ‘You are painting my door’. The painter agreed and added that he would happily paint her as well if she wanted him to. ‘Ay, do’, she supposedly replied.

Incredibly the painter did just that. He dipped his brush into his pot and painted her face.

Was that enough Madame, he asked, or did she want more?

‘Go on, sir’ the lady told him.

So he did, applying paint to her bonnet and dress and, when he’d finished, demanded 3payment for the ‘work’ he’d completed!

But Miss Cox refused to pay and said she’d take him before the aldermen magistrates at the Guildhall instead. In response the man told her to do her worst, and he’d paint them as well.

The next day he was up before Sir Claudius Hunter at the Guildhall Police court and Miss Cox appeared (holding her bonnet and dress, both of which were covered in paint, as evidence). Naturally, she had washed the paint from her face.

The defendant gave his name as John George Barrett Gill (a ‘high-sounding name’ as the reporter remarked) and came across as an ‘extraordinary’ individual. He brazened out the encounter with the bench, seemingly unaware that he’d acted badly in any way whatsoever.

‘You are a very impudent fellow’, Sir Claudius told him, ‘and I’ll paint you in another way before I have done with you’.

The court now heard from several people that knew of Gill and doubted his sanity. One testified that just the other evening he’d invited a fellow workman to supper but that when he’d arrived he’d discovered the table and chairs, set for a meal, but outside the opposite house in the street!

Clearly Gill was eccentric but was he properly ‘mad’? Sir Claudius decided to bail him on the charge of damage (or possibly assault) but insisted that the surgeon at Wood Street compter (a small City gaol) examine him for signs of mental illness.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, August 20, 1831]

An unexpected intruder tests a housekeeper’s nerves

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When the housekeeper turned up to work at 5 Queen Street on Wednesday 13 August 1873 she didn’t expect to be surprised. The house was unoccupied at the time, as the family were out of London and so the unnamed ‘keeper simply worked there in the day and locked it up  again at night. So as far as she was concerned the place was empty.

Imagine her astonishment then when, as she approached the property she saw a ‘wild-looking’ man staring out of a third-floor window. The housekeeper gathered her courage and headed upstairs to confront him.

He was clearly a disturbed individual and after he had given her a very incoherent explanation of being in the house, she urged him downstairs and out of the building, found a policeman, and had him arrested. On Thursday it went before the alderman magistrate at Mansion House, who remanded him to Newgate so his situation could be looked into.

On Friday the man was back, giving his name as John Smith, and repeating a claim he’d made earlier that 5 Queen Street had been his home for the past two years. This was palpably untrue and suggested that Smith was not in his right mind.

He was examined at Newgate prison by the surgeon, Dr Gibson, who declared him insane, violent and dangerous. He said he was ‘quite unfit to be at large’. Sir Robert Carden, the presiding magistrate, had no hesitation in committing the man to Bow Street workhouse from where he would be moved to a lunatic asylum at the earliest convenience.

No one seemed to know however, just how John Smith (if that was his name) had managed to gain access to the property when it had apparently been secured by the housekeeper.

[from The Morning Post , Saturday, August 16, 1873]

A personal tragedy for the girl that couldn’t cope

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By the time Ann Poulter was brought before the magistrate at Marlborough Street she had recovered sufficiently from her pregnancy to face a rigourous legal inquisition. It was almost six weeks since she had given birth on the 2 May 1845 and she’d spent most of the time in between in hospital as she was very weak. Now Ann, a servant working at a house in Hanway Street, Fitzrovia, was charged with killing her new born baby.

Standing in the dock before the justice, Mr Maltby she now had to listen to a succession of witnesses testify against her. The first of these was Diana Hugo a charwoman who deposed that on that day she’d gone to work at Hanway Street as usual. She’d suspected that Ann was pregnant and was hiding it, as many young women would have done in a society that condemned women for falling pregnant before marriage.

Servant girls like Ann were vulnerable to the pressures applied by masters or their sons, or indeed those of their fellow male servants. Even if the child was  a product of  a loving relationship it was likely to be unwelcome because having a child out of wedlock was a sure fire way to get yourself dismissed in Victorian England.

Diana Hugo’s suspicions were confirmed by what she found in the kitchen – traces of blood on the floor and other signs. She told her mistress he called Ann to her and grilled her about it. Ann denied everything and said she’d merely been unwell ‘but would soon be better’.

The char wasn’t convinced and when she heard the stifled cry of an infant she searched and found (in the coal cellar) a baby girl, ‘newly born, wrapped in a gown’ that belonged to Ann. The baby and mother were reunited and Ann was sent to bed and a surgeon was sent for.

Dr Odling was next to give evidence. He said he examined Ann and the baby later that day and all was well. When he came back in the evening however the child was dead and there ‘were marks of violence on its person, particularly about its head’. The police were summoned and Ann was arrested and taken away.

The doctor that carried out the post mortem examination (a Dr Hind) said that the injuries the child had sustained were not obvious externally. The baby girl had died of injuries to her head, her little skull being fractured. Ann told him that one or two days before the birth she’d tripped and fallen downstairs, which is how she accounted for the injuries to her baby.

Now it was Ann’s turn to give her account of what happened and she was vague and contradicted the earlier reports. She admitted dropping the child so that it bruised its face, but it wasn’t intentional. She also said that she hadn’t released she was so close to her time or she would left her employment and gone into confinement.

The consequences of being found guilty of killing her baby were serious but it seems that there was no one in court who was there to help or speak up for her.

Mr Maltby committed her to take her trial at the Old Bailey but I can find no record of this taking place. Nor does she appear in the records collated under the digital panopticon project, so what happened to her? She may have been tried and acquitted – not all not guilty verdicts were written up for the Old Bailey Proceedings. She may avoided trial altogether if, say, some new evidence surfaced.

But I suspect the real reason she disappears from the records is that she died; possibly while awaiting trial in prison. She was clearly a disturbed young woman to have hidden her baby in the coal cellar, and it seems likely she did kill it. It isn’t too wild a leap then to suggest that the pain of this coupled with her personal trauma led her to end her own life before a jury convicted her of taking that of her new born daughter’s.

Hanway Street is rumoured to have been named after Jonas Hanway, an eighteenth-century philanthropist and founder of the Marine Society (which helped destitute young boys find an escape from poverty and crime in the Navy). Hanway was also a governor at Thomas Coram’s Foundling Hospital, which took in the unwanted offspring of the poor. One of Coram and the other founders (such as William Hogarth) aims was to offer a safe refuge for illegitimate babies born to mothers who felt they had no alternative but to get rid of them. So there is a sad irony that this tragedy took place in where it did.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, June 18, 1845]

‘They fought very severely for little boys’; tragedy in Rotherhithe.

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Today’s story picks up on where we left it yesterday, with a young lad of 12 being committed for trial for killing another youth in a fist fight at Rotherhithe. A police inspector from the Thames office was also charged with being an accessory, as he was seen to encourage the boy to strike down his opponent. The trial took place on 10 May 1858 in the Central Criminal Court at the Old Bailey.

Martha Warren was the first witness to take the stand. She swore that she saw the fight taking place in Cross Street, Rotherhithe at 1 in the afternoon. There was a ring of boys surrounding the pair, but only three adults were present, one of whom was Henry Hambrook a police inspector although at the time he was on sick leave and was quite close to retiring from the force.

Martha testified that she had heard the policeman utter the words ‘Give it him right and left, and hit him once under the ear, and he won’t want to fight again’, and soon afterwards saw the victim, Thomas Boulton, fall down after William Selless landed just such a blow under his ear. It was clearly a shock to William to see what effect his assault had had on the other boy, and as we saw yesterday he ran all the way home to his mother scared of what would happen next.

Martha was able to identify one of the three men gathered at the scene, his name was John Ventham, and she must have known him as a local man. Under cross examination she was clear that none of the men had tried to separate the lads, instead they watched and encouraged the fight. She heard Hambrook tell Sellers:

‘Keep up to him, young one, and give him right and left’ before whispering something else in his ear. 

When Boulton fell to the floor with a scream Hambrook did nothing to help she added, but simply ‘put up his hand and went away’. Others did come to help, including a woman who rushed over to fetch some water in a tub. The stricken lad was carried off by one of the bystanders, a Mr. Kitchen, but died of his injury.

James Francis also witnessed the fight and heard the policeman offer his advice to Selless. He gave some background to the fight as well, telling the court that the two lads were actually friends and that the quarrel between them had arisen over ‘three buttons’ and an accusation that Selless had failed to look after the other boy’s goat. Boulton had started it and he was, as others had noted, the taller and slightly older of the pair (Boulton was 13, Selless just 12).

The fight was conducted like a boxing match – the pair traded blows and they fought in rounds. Selless had been knocked down early in the conflict, but regained his feet. Perhaps the crucialy part of Francis’ testimony was when he said that ‘they fought very severely for little boys, [but] not so violently as they did when Hambrook came’.

This suggested that the police inspector, who should surely have put a stop to the fight actually chose to escalate it and his actions had a direct impact on the tragedy that happened that day.

The fight seems to have been quite well balanced for the most part, Selless went down twice, his opponent three times, as they squared up to each other. It must have gone on for 15 minutes or more before Selless landed his fatal blow. Thomas Simpson, a local surgeon, who testified that the cause of death was a ruptured blood vessel close to the lad’s ear, examined Boulton. He suspected that the injury was caused by the fall however, not the blow itself. It was an accident born out of the fight, nothing deliberate or malicious.

‘The sudden fall would be quite sufficient to rupture the blood vessel’ he said, ‘considering the excited state the vessels were in—it was what would be called an apoplectic fit—there was not the slightest mark under the ear’.

Simpson then offered Hambrook a character witness saying he was ‘a kindly disposed, humane person’. Several others stepped up to give similar testimonials for the policeman including the officer that arrested him, who added that he was about to be pensioned out of the force on account of his failing health.

The jury were directed to convict both defendants on the strength of the facts given in court and they duly did. Both were recommend to mercy however, and the judge took this into account in sentencing.

He sent Sellers to prison for just three days, accepting that he had no intention to cause the death of his friend. As for Hambrook he also accepted that the man had no desire to encourage the boy to kill and that if he had ‘he should pass a very different sentence’ upon him. However, he was a police officer and his had a duty to uphold the law and keep the peace.

Instead ‘he had incited the boy Sellers [sic] to continue the contest; and there was no doubt that owing to his suggestion the fatal result had taken place’.  He would therefore go to prison with hard labour for three months.

At this Hambrook pleaded for mercy. He was ill, suffering he said from heart disease and wouldn’t cope with hard labour. The judge, Baron Martin, was implacable, there was no way he could reduce the sentence he said and the policeman was taken down.  Hambrook was 52 in 1858 so while not old, he was not young either and he might have expected a hard time in prison (as all coppers can). Moreover his disgrace would have meant the loss of his pension along with his liberty and livelihood. As for William Selless he seems to have stayed out of trouble after this but didn’t live a long life. Records suggest he died in March 1892 at the age of just 46.

This fight between two friends who fell out over something ill defined and certainly trivial ended in tragedy. Thomas Boulton lost his life and a police inspector with many years of good service lost his reputation and his future economic security. As for William Selless we should remember he too was just a child and he would have to live his life forever haunted by the sound of his friend screaming as his blow sent him crashing to the floor.

What a senseless waste of three lives.

[from The Standard, Thursday, May 13, 1858]

The ‘Peculiar People’ and the tragic death of little Alice

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After yesterday’s bank holiday violence and drunken disorder the reports from the London police courts returned to more criminal topics. At Bow Street a fugitive from Cape Town in British South Africa was refused bail on a charge of stealing diamonds and £1300 in cash. while at Mansion House John Thompson was committed to face trial at Old Bailey for several thefts in and around the Inner Temple law chambers. In the end he was convicted of stealing a hat brush and a coat, while seven similar charges were taken into consideration. He was gaoled for nine months.

Over at Lambeth an unusual case unfolded. It had come before the magistrates before but was now to be resolved the paper reported. It concerned the death of a child and the suggestion of negligence on behalf of the parents.

Robert Cousins, a 27 year-old man living in Orient Street, West Square, Lambeth was presented before Mr Chance and charged with the manslaughter of Alice Maria Cousins, his 11 month old daughter. Dr Price from Guy’s Hospital said that his post mortem examination revealed that baby Alice had died from tuberculosis and pneumonia. The magistrate quizzed him as to whether the child might have lived had the father summoned a doctor, which he clearly hadn’t. She may have, the doctor confirmed, but it was far from certain.

Why hadn’t Cousins sought medical help? Was he too poor or was there another reason?

This became apparent when the next witness took the stand. She was Matilda Taylor and she said she belonged to a Christian sect called the ‘Peculiar People’. A branch of Wesleyanism, the Peculiar People (sometimes conflated with Quakers) did not believe in medicine. Instead Matilda insisted, they chose instead to pray for Alice’s recovery and leave her fate to God.

‘Supposing your leg is broken’ Mr Chance demanded, what would she do then? ‘The Lord has not told us what to do in that case, but he does tell us in sickness what to do’.

So we must presume that the Cousins were also members of this branch of Christianity.

Mr Chance was not impressed:

‘It is really wonderful how persons can have such narrow-minded fanaticism’ he quipped, before adding that ‘it is a most guilty and unfeeling conduct to adopt. You take just one passage or so from the Bible, instead of taking it as a whole’.

Nevertheless he dismissed the charge of manslaughter on legal grounds, suggesting instead that the Public Prosecutor might wish to bring a case of endangering life by neglect, which brought a sentence of six months upon conviction. The ‘peculiar people’ then upped and left his court, presumably followed by dark looks and murmurings of righteous indignation from the public gallery.

[from The Standard, Thursday, March 29, 1883]

This isn’t the only reference to the Peculiar People and clashes with the legal system in Victorian London as this blog suggests