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]

Seven immigrant workers are caught gambling for their supper

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Seven men were sat around a table in house in Whitechapel at 10.30 at night, playing at cards when there was a loud knock at the door. The knock was followed by the cry of ‘Police, open up!’ and the arrival of Inspector Frederick Abberline and H Division’s finest.

Abberline was acting on a tip off that the house was being used as an illegal gambling den, which sounds quite exotic but was actually very far from that. The seven men were poor ‘jobbing tailors’. All were Polish Jews, recently arrived from the Russian Pale, escaping from economic misery and religious persecution. They had come to the East End (as so many of their fellow congregationalists had, before and since) because there was an established Ashkenazi community there where they could find work, kosher food and others that spoke their language. Many dreamed of making the longer journey to the ‘golden medina’, the promised land of America, land of the free.

They worked very long hours, often in cramped conditions for little pay. The ‘sweating system’ of small workshops was endemic in Whitechapel and Spitalfields and drew the attention of Parliament and campaigners like Annie Besant. On this occasion however, they had drawn a different sort of attention and it had brought the police to the house that Harris Straus owned in New Castle Street.

The men were arrested and brought before the Police Magistrate at Worship Street on the following Monday morning. Straus (a 36 year-old tailor) was charged with keeping a gaming house’ and the others, with being found there, ‘contrary to the Act’.

None of the men spoke English and so an interpreter (Mr Carameli) was called to translate proceedings. The lack of English amongst the Jewish community was something which frustrated the local police during the Ripper investigation, and a few officers were eventually trained to speak Yiddish. The seven men were named as Barnett Coplin (28), Morris Green (18), Louis Gasoniviter (19), Morris Friedman (25), Abraham Lewis (28), Simon Nathan (19) and Hyman Lawer (19).

Nearly all of them lived at the house and they insisted they were only playing cards to pay for their supper.

The police case was presented in court by superintendent T. Arnold. Arnold explained that men Abberline and his men had gained entry they had found the men sat around a table in a back room. ‘Money and cards were on the table’, and in a drawer they found yet more cards and ‘about the room more cards’. This was not then, simply a case of some friends meeting at home to pass the time with a harmless game, he argued, this was organised gambling.

Arnold said the police had received an anonymous letter informing them of the gambling den, which Abberline had acted upon. He understood the game they were playing was called ‘sixty-six’ (or schnapsen, a game of German origin). If you want to know how to play it (not for money of course!) then the rules are here.

Straus admitted allowing players to gamble in his house and further admitted to charging them to do so. He didn’t ask for much, ‘a penny or a halfpenny from each of them to use the room’, was all, but that was illegal just the same. A witness appeared for the police, named Albert Stern, and he said he had played  other games such as Faro and Bank there, for upwards of four hours for ‘stakes of 1d up to 4d‘.

Mr Busby, the magistrate, said it was clear all were guilty as charged and Straus would be fined £5 for running the house. He accepted that most of the others lived there and were only playing for small stakes, so would be lenient. He fined them 20s each. To put this in some sort of context this meant that the arrest had cost each man about £25 in today’s money, and their host 10 times that amount. For the police it was a victory in the ongoing war against illegal gambling but I hope that Abberline and his team were just as assiduous in busting employers that forced their staff to work in sweated industry for long hours at substance pay; sadly I doubt it.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, July 08, 1879]