A cross-dressing copper and the Whitechapel murderer?

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The ‘From Hell or ‘Lusk’ letter 

In mid October 1888 the London, national and even the world’s press were full of the news of the Whitechapel murders. It was the sensation story of its day and has remained one of the most discussed crime news stories of all time.

On the evening of the 16 October George Lusk, a builder and head of the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee, received a disturbing parcel in the post. The parcel contained a badly written letter and a piece of human kidney. The so-called ‘From Hell’ or ‘Lusk’ letter has been the subject of fierce speculation amongst those interested in the case. It was not signed ‘Jack the Ripper’ and the portion of kidney gave it extra credence, since it was commonly known that the killer had removed one of Kate Eddowes in Mitre Square.

Ultimately we can’t be sure if the ‘From Hell’ letter, or any of the communications received by the press and police, were from the murderer or the work of attention seekers and cranks. They all, however, demonstrate just how much public interest there was in the Ripper case.

The police hunt for the killer was at its apogee in October and may have contributed to the fact that there was a lull in murders that lasted just over a month. The police were out in force and watching anyone they suspected might be involved. Evidence of this can found in all sorts of places including this report of proceedings in the Clerkenwell Police court.

James Phillips and William Jarvis, two cab washers, were brought before Mr Bros charged with a serious assault on a police detective. The court heard that on the 9 October detective sergeant Robinson was on duty in Phoenix Place. DS Robinson was in disguise, dressed in women’s clothing so he could watch ‘a man supposed to be the Whitechapel murderer’.

According to the report Jarvis attacked him, throwing him to the ground and stabbing him before Phillips rushed in and started kicking him. A man named Doncaster came to assist the policeman and he was also wounded. Eventually the pair were arrested and charged.  Mr Bros committed the men for trial, accepting £20 each in bail. Jarvis was tried at the Middlesex quarter sessions where he was convicted and sent to Pentonville prison for six weeks.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, October 17, 1888]

‘Skylarking’ leaves one youth in hospital when he picks on the wrong victim

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Historians of crime have estimated that in the 18thand 19thcenturies only a small percentage of assaults (even fairly serious ones) reached the courts. Even when prosecutors did bring assaults before the magistracy in 18thcentury London the most common outcome was a settlement between the two parties, often brokered by the justice.

Arguably, this was mostly because inter-personal non-fatal violence was treated as a civil rather than a criminal offence, and so did not always need a jury’s deliberations. In the previous century and for much of the 1800s it was property crime that occupied the minds of legislators and the justice system. However, it seems to be the case that over the course of the nineteenth century violence increasingly became the focus of concerns about crime.

Perhaps this is reflected in this case from the Thames Police court in 1864 which occurred just 3 years after parliament had consolidated the various laws concerning interpersonal violence in one piece of legislation: the Offences Against the Person Act (24 & 25 Vict. c.100).

Herman Menus, a German immigrant, was charged with cutting and wounding Timothy Bryan, an Irish labourer. The victim was not in court to press the charge and Mr Partridge was told this was because ‘he either did not care about the wound as a serious one’ or had been compensated by some of Menus’ friends.

Nevertheless the case against the 38 year-old skin-dresser proceeded because, as Mr Partridge said, it was serious. He stated that ‘cutting and wounding cases had become so alarmingly common that the investigation must be continued’ and he remanded the German in custody.

The facts presented were that a police constable from H Division was called to a disturbance in Lambeth Street where he found Bryan lying in the gutter with a long cut to his face. He took the injured man back to Leman Street police station where he was treated. Whilst there he had some sort of fit but was now stable.

John Conley, a surgeon living on Whitechapel High Street, deposed that the wound was serious but not life threatening. In his defence Menus told the court that he had been attacked by a group of lads as he was going home from work. He was struck twice about the head and reacted, using the two cans he was carrying with him. One of these connected with Bryan’s cheek causing the injury. He used no knife at all.

The police confirmed that Bryan was one of the groups of lads that were involved in baiting the skin-dresser, which perhaps explains his reluctance to appear in court against him. Bryan was most likely part of the gang or group of ‘roughs’ who were known to pick on foreigners or anybody else they might like to terrorize on the capital’s streets. Unfortunately for him he had selected a victim who was quite capable of defending himself.

The prisoner was brought up the following day to be questioned again and so Mr Partridge could finally decide his fate. Now the court heard that Bryan was a fireman on a steam ship bound for Bordeaux in France. Menus had hired a solicitor to represent him.

Bryan appeared and said he was having some difficulty in speaking due the injuries he’d sustained in the attack on him. He told the court that he and his mates had just been ‘skylarking’ when Menus had said something to him. One thing led to another and blows were exchanged. He was drunk at the time he admitted, so his memory of the events was hazy at best. Several witnesses for both parties testified that there was equal fault on each side.

In the end the magistrate decided the best thing was this to be sorted out by a jury and so he committed Menus to take his trial.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, September 24, 1864; The Standard, Monday, September 26, 1864]

‘I want you!’ ‘But I don’t want you’: unrequited love ends that ends in violence and a life ruined

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Hannah Williams loved James Newbold and she thought that the young engineer would marry her. She believed this and that had led her to support him while he was out of work, give him money to get his clothes out of pawn, and, most importantly, to give herself to him physically. She was a respectable and ‘extremely good looking’ domestic servant and to make these decisions she must have been fairly sure of James’ intentions.

Unfortunately for Hannah however, James was not on the same page when it came to the future. When she got word that he had proposed marriage to another young woman she set off to confront near his place of work. Hannah found James drinking with his workmates in the parlour of a beer shop in Rotherhithe Street. She sent in a message asking to see him and he stepped outside.

At first Hannah asked him to step inside with her so they could talk but he refused. She then asked him if it was true that he was to be married to someone else. He admitted it.

Through tears Hannah now vowed that she would have ‘her revenge either on me or the lady’, James later recounted. He went back inside without her. Some minutes later she sent another message in, demanding he come back out to speak to her. He ignored it so Hannah waited till he left with his friends and confronted him again.

‘I want you’, she cried. ‘I don’t want you’, he replied and started to walk away back towards the hammer shop where he worked. When Hannah followed he warned her away, threating to ‘knock her head off’ if she did as she was embarrassing him in front of his fellow workers. Undeterred Hannah pursued him slowly and then, suddenly, pulled a long kitchen knife from her clothes and attacked him with it.

She cut at this throat, drawing blood and only narrowly avoiding the main artery. James was rushed to hospital and made a full recovery. Hannah was seized and handed over to the police. She appeared before the magistrate at Greenwich on 18 September 1847.  Having heard the evidence, including the medical testimony of a surgeon, Hannah was committed for trial and led away by the gaoler, ‘apparently unaffected by her deplorable position’.

Her trial took place at the Old Bailey on 25 October, once James had fully recovered. The jury convicted her of wounding but had a lot of sympathy for her situation. Effectively ‘ruined’ and exploited by  her lover and then publically threatened her actions were, if not excusable, at least understandable. Recommended to mercy, the judge sentenced her to just one month in prison for the knife attack.

Hannah was just 20 years of age in 1847 and she wasn’t to enjoy a long life after that. According to the digital panopticon she must have moved up to Wolverhampton at some point following he release, and she died there in 1873 at the age of 46. Perhaps she never recovered fully from the shame of her crime and the loss of her reputation.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper, Sunday, September 19, 1847]

A child has a lucky escape in Poplar

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John Ridley was standing at the corner of Stainsby Road in Poplar, East London at a quarter past five in the afternoon. Thomas Jackson was walking along East India Dock Road at the same time. Both saw two men stirring pitch in a boiler. A group of small children were playing near a puddle of pitch they’d found and perhaps they were annoying the men.

Suddenly one of the men – a 32 year-old man named Alfred Hunt – emptied the contents of a pail of pitch he was using into the boiler and threw the dregs towards the children. He also aimed a ladle-full of hot pitch at them, but both fell short. He tried again this time he hit a three-year old girl named Ann Harris. When Jackson remonstrated with him he chucked a ladleful in his direction, which soiled his clothes but did no other harm.

The little girl was burned by the hot pitch and was quickly rushed to the Poplar Hospital where her injuries were treated by the house surgeon, Mr Bristoe. She was treated for burns to the hands and face but later released. She’d had a lucky escape and her injuries were ‘slight’ but it must have been a traumatic experience for the poor child.

Hunt was tried before Mr Lushington at Thames Police court but despite what I think we would consider a serious act of mindless violence he was discharged. The girl was fine of course and Mr Jackson may have accepted compensation for the damage to his clothes. Alfred Hunt had had a lucky escape as well it seems.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, September 03, 1888]

‘I did it, and I wish the knife had gone in deeper’: Life goes on as a killer stalks the streets of Whitechapel

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As the main crime news of 1888 continued to unfold on the ‘front pages’ of the London newspapers the inside pages carried on reporting the ‘daily doings’ of the Metropolitan Police courts. Readers of the Sunday papers might have been shocked by the horrific murder of Polly Nichols in Whitechapel but when they had digested that they could reassure themselves that the usual fare of petty crime, disorderly behaviour and mindless domestic violence was still being dealt with by the capital’s magistracy.

The editor of  Lloyd’s Weekly  chose to carry two cases from the Worship Street Police court in Bethnal Green, not far from Whitechapel and the site of Polly’s murder. The first was fairly light-hearted and involved a pub landlord. The second was sadly typical of the darker side of working-class life in the 1880s.

George Saunders was leaning on a lamppost outside his pub – The Admiral Keppel on Hoxton Street (pictured above in about 1930) – when a policeman approached him. The PC asked him if he was ‘waiting for a friend’ and then suggested he move along. Saunders growled at him and stayed put, indicating the sign over the doorway, which had his name as the licensee.

Whether the officer failed to notice this or was simply being difficult Saunders couldn’t tell but when PC 211G moved closer and trod on his boots (accidently or otherwise) the publican reacted. He shoved the policeman backwards and aimed a punch at his retreating back. A nearby colleague of the copper saw this (or said he did) and came to his rescue. Saunders was arrested and brought before Mr Bushby.

It was a trivial case and the magistrate may well have harbored doubts as to the veracity of the two policemen’s version of events. He declared that a man ‘had a right to stand in the street, unless seen to do any overt act, without being catechised by a constable’. The arrest was unlawful and the prisoner was discharged.

If this was trivial the other case was far from it. John Agas, a 34 year-old hawker, was charged with ‘maliciously wounding’ Henry Watson in a row over a woman. Watson explained that on Saturday night (this would have been the week before, the 25 August 1888) Agas had called at his home in Kingsland Road, Dalston. The hawker demanded to see his wife who was now cohabiting with Watson. Watson refused to let him in or see her and this sent Agas into a fury. He threatened him and then made good his threat by drawing a knife and stabbing him in the shoulder.

A cry of ‘murder!’ went up and several people set off after the assailant. He was caught by the police and taken into custody. At the station he supposedly admitted his crime stating:

‘I did it, and I wish it (the knife) had gone in deeper’.

Mr Bushby cautioned him and then asked why he’d done it. Agas replied that he was upset and angry because the other man had ‘led away’ his wife. In other words this was an act of revenge. He was fully committed for trial. Perhaps his resort to violence might explain why his wife had left him in the first place.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, September 2, 1888]

‘Rough justice’ is meted out by Mr Sainsbury

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Samuel Sainsbury was a 45 year-old carman – the late nineteenth-century equivalent of the modern ‘white van man’. I think it is fair to say that he was a man who took no nonsense from anyone and was quite prepared to defend himself and use controlled violence to do so.

So it was unfortunate that William Parris had decided to date Sainsbury’s daughter. Parris was a young plasterer but he also belonged to a gang of  ‘roughs’ (soon to termed ‘hooligans’ by the press of the day) and so was hardly deemed a suitable candidate by the girl’s father. Neverthless William persisted and attempted to get Miss Sainsbury to see him by sending a message with a marriage proposal. When she realised that his attentions did not run quite that far she upped and left and returned home to her father.

A more sensible young man would have licked his emotional wounds and reminded himself that there were plenty of other fishes in the sea. Not William Parris however. He spoke to his mates, and set off at night to make the Sainsburys pay for the rejection.

Parris and a number of others gathered outside the Sainsbury home at Down’s Buildings in Southwark. They had been drinking and only left the pub when the landlord closed up for the night. They knocked loudly on the front door, warning the residents that they had come to ‘lay out’ the Sainsbury family. No one answered so they went around to the back of the house and climbed over a six-foot wall.

Parris and lad named Magner reached the back door and forced it open. As they began to climb the stairs Samuel Sainsbury heard them and got up, alerting his son. Both readied themselves to repel the intruder but neither were dressed, Samuel was barefoot in his trousers and shirt, his son was just wearing a long nightshirt.

Samuel saw Magner and knocked him backwards down the stairs then, seizing a hammer, he went for Parris and the rest of the gang who crowded at the foot of the stairs by the door. He raised the weapon and struck Parris and then the recovering Magner. The rest of the gang fled as fast as their legs could carry them, scrambling to get over the wall and away from Mr Sainsbury’s wrath.

The police arrived but arrested Sainsbury, taking Parris and Magner to hospital to have their wounds dressed. It took a few weeks before the trio was reunited at Southwark Police court where the father was charged with assault.

Mr Kennedy, the sitting justice, was told that Parris had a previous conviction for wounding Mr Sainsbury and one for an assault on tram conductor. The police knew Magner and several other members of the gang. The magistrate declared that the youths had brought their injuries on themselves and he granted warrants to arrest Parris, Magner and several other lads on a charge of causing a riot outside the Sainsburys’ home. As for Samuel, he discharged him and he left court with his reputation significantly enhanced.

[from The Standard, Friday, August 19, 1898]

Violence: its time we listened to the experts and not the politicians

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The Phoenix in East Smithfield

Yet again this week we have witnessed some terrible examples of violence in the domestic news. Yesterday a policeman was killed while investigating a burglary, last week an officer was hacked with a machete when stopping a suspected stolen vehicle. Knife crime is reportedly on the rise in several smaller provincial towns and there have been some horrific stories about two different mothers killing their children (one because her husband had left her, the other simply because they interfered with her social life). In one incident an immigrant was nearly killed in his car by a racist right wing thug who wanted to emulate the murderous actions of a terrorist in New Zealand. It is hard to listen to the news then, without wondering what on earth has happened to our society.

Sadly history tells us that the answer to that question is that this is actually pretty normal for British society; violence is part of life and vicious, uncaring and cruel individuals exist today as they have always existed. Moreover, while we have made important advances in treating mental illness we have not been able to prevent some of those so affected from causing harm to others in the community.

This case from Lambeth Police court in 1839 (fully 220 years ago) was labeled by the press as ‘Disgraceful conduct’ and by witnesses who saw what occurred as ‘the most unmanly and disgraceful they had ever beheld’. On Friday 16 August that year two young women were having a drink of porter at the Phoenix pub in East Smithfield, in Aldgate. As Mary Ann Ryan and Catherine Kitton left they noticed stall selling artificial flowers, and stopped to have a look.

A sailor was also perusing the stock and was holding a stem in his hand. Catherine stood next to him and leaned in to look at his flower, touching it as she did so. The man exploded with rage, completely overreacting to this contact and punched her in the face, knocking her over, and then kicking her while she lay on the ground. Catherine managed to crawl away, rise and stumble towards the pub but fainted clean away.  It took some time before she could be revived.

Mary now remonstrated with the seaman, telling him he was ‘most unmanly’, shaming him in public. The man didn’t like this and turned on her, threatening to ‘serve her ten times worse’. When she continued to berate him he struck her in the mouth, almost knocking her unconscious. Recovering her wits she ran away and up a nearby alley but he chased her. He hit on the temple, drawing blood and forcing her to fall to the ground. Now he kicked her in the side as she curled up to protect herself.

It was horrific and several people saw it happen and so the police were called and the sailor arrested. The man was brought before Mr Coombe at Lambeth and said he was a sailor attached to a ship docked at St Katherine’s Dock near the tower. He gave his name as James Boardman and his vessel as the President American.

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Both young women were in court to give evidence but Mary was in such a state that the magistrate ordered her to be sent to the London Hospital to have her injuries treated. She’d been waiting in the ‘outer office’ and had fainted several times from the loss of blood she’d sustained as a result of the head wound. Amazingly she’d been able to tell some of her story which was corroborated by Catherine and a number of witnesses. Mr Coombe ordered the prisoner to be taken down to the cells while the court waited for news of Mary Ann’s condition from hospital.

A little while later a policeman returned with a  note from the house surgeon at the London. It read:

‘I hereby certify that Mary Ryan, just brought to the hospital laboring under a fractured rib, a cut to her forehead, and several contusions on different parts of her body, is in great danger’.

Boardman was once more set at the bar of the court and the magistrate glowered at him. Mr Coombe told him that he would be remanded in custody for the assault but that if Mary died ‘he would be placed on his trial for her murder, and in all probability hanged’.

I can’t see a trial for Boardman and so I am hopeful that Mary survived. If that was case then I suspect Boardman would have been sent to gaol for a while and then released back to go to sea again. It is remainder though that senseless brutality is not a new thing or a product of ‘modern’ society and so all the bleating about tougher sentences and threats to make criminals ‘feel afraid’ ring pretty hollow. Education, proper levels of street policing, and zero tolerance for violence , weapons, intimidation (online and in person) and hate speech are the only ways to stamp out violence in society.

Locking violent offenders up for even longer in prisons which entirely fail to rehabilitate them is a very expensive waste of time and does absolutely no good for the poor individual who has been critically injured or killed. talking tough on crime is the easiest thing in the world, actually doing something useful about it is much harder and will cost real money. Its time we demanded that our politicians stopped paying lip service to the issues and listened to the experts in policing, law, probation, psychoanalysis, and yes, even history.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Saturday, August 17, 1839]

  1. It is possible that the President was the same ship lost at sea two years later in 1841 with all hands. The packets were equipped with paddles and entirely unsuited to the Atlantic crossing.