A unsolved murder in the East End, forty years before the ‘Ripper’

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Spitalfields Market, c.1842

This is a very curious case and one which may require some deeper digger over the next few weeks. In May 1848 a murder was discovered in Spitalfields, East London. Many readers will be familiar with the history of area in the Victorian era and others might perhaps assume that murders were two-a-penny in such a ‘degraded’ part of the capital.

This is often how Whitechapel was (and continues) to be portrayed in the media of the day and it was one of the dominant tropes when the so-called ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders occurred in the late summer and autumn of 1888.

However, while the area did have high levels of poverty and crime it was probably no worse than St Giles in the 1840s or indeed the Borough; murder was still relatively rare and far from being commonplace.

Nevertheless this murder was of a child, and so something that was very likely to garner column inches in the newspapers. In this case the child was a local immigrant – ‘a little Jew boy’ – as the papers of the time described him. His name was Henry Lazarus and, by the 10 June at least, no one had been prosecuted for his murder.

On that Saturday however, one man was in custody and he appeared in the dock at Worship Street Police court accused of the crime. There was only one witness who gave evidence however, and he was far from reliable.

Charles Savage testified that he was standing near a place known as ‘The Ruins’ in Fashion Street at about 10 o’clock at night. Savage was a street musician and he was planning on playing that night.

He watched he said as a group of men set upon the little boy and strangle him with a necktie. He recognised one of the men as a local who was known as the ‘bottle conjurer’ (presumably another performer) but the others he didn’t, or couldn’t name except for one, the young man the dock: Thomas Hart, a porter at Spitalfields Market.

Having killed the boy the men stripped him of almost all his clothes and told Savage to get rid of it. He refused and wouldn’t be persuaded even when the threatened him he said, so they picked up the dead lad and through him into a dust hole in the tenter ground.

He’d followed them to see where they went and fully expected (or hoped) to meet a policeman but couldn’t find one. So he went home to his lodgings in Wentworth Street and fell into a troubled sleep. Standing in Mr Arnold’s court he now pointed out Hart and accused him of being the one that had strangled the little boy.

Savage was described as being ‘a poor half-witted cripple’ and he was not taken seriously by the bench. Mr Arnold heard that the street singer had previously accused the ‘bottle conjuror’ of the murder a few weeks earlier and so his credibility now was much in question. Savage was clearly aware of this and admitted that he’d changed his story. ‘I deny all that now’ he declared with what the paper called ‘an imbecilic simper’.

Faced with such a weak witness Arnold decided to release the porter, telling him he was free to go ‘without a stain on his character’. He turned to the dead boy’s father and said ‘he was astonished that anyone could be given into custody upon such a serious charge upon such evidence’. Henry’s killer then, remained at large but in the next week I’ll see whether we can find him in the records.

Watch this space.

[from The Standard, Monday, June 12, 1848]

Two urchins and a strumpet; three different fates.

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In March 1842 two teenagers were set in the dock at Lambeth Street Police Court before the sitting magistrate Mr Henry. The pair, John Pierse (16) and John Hawes (14), were charged with burgling a house north of the river, in Goodman’s Fields. The evidence against them was provided by another ‘young urchin’ who wasn’t named in court. Their hearing was quickly followed by that of a young girl who was accused of receiving the property the had stolen.

Frederick Edwards was a printer and bookseller who lived on Leman Street, near Whitechapel. In 1888 Leman Street was the headquarters of H Division from which the investigation into the ‘Ripper’ murders was conducted. In 1842 that station was yet to be built and the Metropolitan police still lacked a detective branch (that would come later in the year). H Division were probably using an old watch house at 26 Leman Street in 1842 as their first purpose-built station (at 37-39) was not completed until 1847.

Between 2 and 3 in the morning of Thursday 3 March the young thieves broke into Mr Edwards’ property though a window and stole as much as they could. They boasted of their exploits to one of their young friends and ultimately that was to prove their downfall. This star witness told Mr Henry that:

‘they ransacked both parlours, and carried away all the portable property they could’. This included silver cutlery, candlesticks and plate as well as clothes. The lads then took their bounty to a field near Limehouse Church and buried it.

On Friday they returned to the scene and dug up the silver before handing it over to Mary Davis who pawned it for them. Later that evening the two Johns, Mary, and the ‘urchin who gave evidence against them’ all enjoyed ‘ gorge of roast-pork, plum-pudding, and ale, at a beer-shop’ before heading off to the Victoria Theatre for an evening of light entertainment.

Mr Henry asked the boy (whose name we later discover to have been Joseph Mason) what the trio had done next. He was told that they had walked back over London Bridge together but then separated; Pierse and Mason found digs in Wentworth Street while Hawes (also known as ‘greeny’ – perhaps because of his youth?) and Mary went off to sleep together somewhere. The magistrate was as outraged by this piece of information as he was by the theft itself. Hates was just 14 years old and Mary 18 and the notion that they had been sleeping together was ‘scandalous’ he said.

It took the police, in the person of PC Argent (H126), the best part of  week to track them down. He found the pair in a lodging house in Elder Street, Spitalfields in a room shared by five other men and two women. He added that Pierse, on the day following the robbery, had escaped from the police who had tracked him to a house on Essex Street, Whitechapel, where a gun had been found. For such a young criminal John Pierse was developing quite the reputation.

Mr Henry remanded the boys for further enquiries and now it was Mary’s turn to be examined.

She was described as a ‘strumpet’ and a ‘little prostitute’ by the court reporter. It was alleged that she had pledged several items of plate, knowing them to have been stolen. Mary admitted taking the items to the pawnbrokers for her friends but denied all knowledge of them being stolen. The magistrate clearly didn’t believe her so remanded her for a week as well.

The case came up at the Old Bailey on the 4 April and Hawes (who gave his age there as 12) pleaded guilty and was recommend to mercy by the prosecutor. The judge sentenced him to be sent to prison for a year. Davis (now determined as 17 years of age) and Pierse (or Pearce) were convicted after a short trial and sentenced to be transported to Australia for seven years.

Mary (or Maria) arrived in Van Dieman’s land on the 24 September 1842. She’d had a troubled journey, falling sick on the transport ship the Royal Admiral. In March 1844 she applied for permission to marry and so we might hope she made a new life for herself ‘down under’. It is less clear what happened to Pearce.

As for John (or William) Hawes he stayed in England following his period of imprisonment and doesn’t seem to have trouble the law thereafter. Tracing lives isn’t an exact science but the Digital Panopticon project suggests that William made it to old age, dying in 1907 at the age of 77.

So here we have three young lives caught up in crime as part of a strategy of survival in mid-Victorian London; it is worthy of a Dickens sub-plot. Who knows what happened to Pearce or indeed to Mason. Dod the latter stay out of trouble or get sucked back into a life of crime having avoided incarceration by grassing up his fellow diners? Did Mary really make it in Australia as we now know that some did? The colony was largely created by individuals such as her who cared out a new existence on the other side of the world. Perhaps John Pearce kept his nose clean in Van Dieman’s Land and didn’t trouble the record keepers thereafter. If he served his time and earned his ticket of leave he too might have enjoyed a new life away from the squalid slums of his native Whitechapel.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, March 10, 1842]

Casual violence in Whitechapel as a char is ‘brutally’ kicked on the ground

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When Isaac Sinclair appeared at Worship Street police court on 12 January 1854 it was his second time in a fortnight. He had been remanded the week before, by Mr D’Eyncourt, for an assault on a local char woman who was too poorly to appear to testify against him.

Char women collected dirty laundry to wash for others and were at the bottom of the domestic service ladder in the nineteenth century. The women in question, Hannah Dighton, was evidently very poor and lived in Flower and Dean Street in one of the roughest parts of the capital. In fact later in the century Flower and Dean Street would become synonymous with the Whitechapel murders of 1888, with several of the victims lodging in houses along the street and those nearby (like Wentworth Street or Thrawl Street).

The assault that brought Sinclair (described as ‘a mulatto’ – or more properly, mixed race – and a ‘strolling player’) before first Mr D’Eyncourt and then Mr Hammill, was caused by an altercation between the himself and Hannah. He had accused the char woman of stealing a shirt she had taken to wash for him. He said she had pawned it but this was hotly denied.

Sinclair then ‘struck her a blow on the mouth with his fist’, and when she ran out of the house to find a policeman he chased after her and knocked her to the street. Not content he continued to kick at her while she was prone and caused her to become lame in one leg. Her eye was cut and she bled so much she was taken to the London Hospital and held there for several days before she was released.

When he was asked to speak for himself Sinclair alleged that the woman had struck first, hitting him with a pot. It was a plausible story; women did tended to use weapons close at hand and a chamber pot or a cooking pot (the report is not specific) would fit the bill. But Hannah denied instigating the violence and she was able to produce a another female lodger to corroborate her evidence.

Mr Hammill also heard from PC Michael Duffey (85A) who testified to helping Hannah and to her injuries. The assault had clearly taken place and regardless of its cause or the exact circumstances Sinclair was in the wrong. There must have been a spate of such attacks in recent weeks or days because the newspaper reporter entitled his article ‘More assaults upon females’. papers tended to return to themes that interested, alarmed or informed their readership and violence to women was  a standard one.

Having been detained in custody for over a week Sinclair might have hoped for leniency. He was unlucky however, Mr Hammill made a point of stressing his ‘brutality’ and imposed a sentence of six months imprisonment at hard labour.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, January 13, 1854]