Jack and the Thames Torso Murders – a new Ripper?

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Today’s blog is something different. As I’m sure many regular readers will have noticed on Saturday my latest book is released by Amberley Books.  Instead of delving into the pages of the Victorian press I thought that today I would give you an overview of the book and some of my reasons for writing it.

Jack and the Thames Torso Murders: A New Ripper?, is, as it title suggests a study of two sets of murders that took place in London between 1887 and 1891. I’ve not written this alone; the idea for the book and much of the research to discover the identity of the killer, has been carried out by my co-author, friend and former student, Andrew Wise. Andy first brought the culprit to my attention and he worked very hard to persuade me to co-author this with him.

I was never keen to get involved in the unmasking of a long dead serial killer; I’ve studied the Whitechapel Murder case for over a decade, teaching it at Northampton University and giving talks on it to all manner of groups up and down the country. I’ve always thought there is much to learn from the dark history of ‘Jack the Ripper’ but, strangely, identifying ‘Jack’ wasn’t always at the top of my agenda.

I thought it impossible and somewhat beside the point but Andy persuaded me that if we applied solid historical research methods and rigor not only might we uncover the killer we might also be able to shed some light on his motives and the reason he was never captured. This would then provide some sort of closure for the victims and remind society that this was an extremely unpleasant and damaged individual and not some anti-hero who stepped – caped and top hatted – from the pages of some mythical Victoriana. Unmasking ‘Jack’ then had as much to do with dispelling some well-worn myths about the murders and the murderer as it did with bringing a serial killer to face some form of ‘justice’.

pinchinThe book links two sets of murders – the famous ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings of 1888 and the less well-known Thames Torso murders of 1887-89. While the unknown killer who has been given the sobriquet ‘Jack the Ripper’ is usually credited with killing five women between late August and early November 1888 we brought his tally to 13, with an additional three attempted murders.

So, alongside the well know ‘canonical five’ of: Mary Ann ‘Polly’ Nichols, ‘Dark’ Annie Chapman, Elizabeth ‘Long ‘Liz’ Stride, Catherine ‘Kate’ Eddowes, and Mary ‘Marie Jeanette’ Kelly we add the names of Rose Mylett, Alice McKenzie, Elizabeth Jackson, Frances Coles and three other unidentifiable torso victims. We believe he also tried to kill Annie Millwood, Ada Wilson and Anne Farmer, and possibly several others. This then was a ruthless serial killer whose impact on the area in which he lived and worked was much greater than history has previously recorded.

In researching this book we chose to look at the sort of man that might be capable of such a horrific series of killings and at his motivations. Means, motive and opportunity are at the heart of any murder investigation so we decided to place them front and centre of ours. Instead of relying on historical artifacts (like the blood stained shawl supposedly left on the body of Kate Eddowes, or the killer’s confessional diary) we looked at the nature of transport links, at the geography of London in relation to the murders, and at the kind of work that might allow someone the opportunity to kill and evade the law for several years.

We named our suspect as James Hardiman, a local man who lived in a variety of homes in the 1880s. He lived with his wife in Heneage Street at the centre of the Whitechapel ‘killing zone’ (see map below – just above the entry for Emma Smith) . He also had digs in Central London not far from the Thames and the site of more than one of the Torso discoveries.  Hardiman’s family even lived in Hanbury Street where Annie Chapman’s mutilated body was found in September 1888. They had also lodged in Dorset Street, where Mary Kelly was so fearfully murdered in November.

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It was out belief that the killer had to be local and had to be able to blend into the background – to hide in plain sight – so the idea that he could have been an aristocrat of prince of the realm, or even a doctor with a  Gladstone bag made no sense to us. Instead Hardiman was a slaughterman working for the largest firm of horse slaughterers in London with access to all their many yards across the capital. He had total freedom of movement after his wife was taken ill and then died and he used the transport networks of the city extensively to travel all over and commit his crimes with virtual impunity.

His motivation was revenge, but revenge augmented by a deep-seated misogyny made worse by his deteriorating mental health. He had contracted syphilis for which he blamed local prostitutes. He passed the disease to his wife and thence to their unborn daughter who barely survived a year from her birth. Instead of looking at his own responsibility for this tragedy Hardiman struck out at that vulnerable class of women that society increasingly demonized in the late Victorian age.  Driven half mad by grief, anger and self medicating with mercury it is our contention that James Hardiman was the killer known to history as ‘Jack the Ripper’.

We don’t expect everyone to be convinced by our thesis but we think it bears scrutiny at least. I found  it fascinating to write and in a final chapter I have tried to make sense of our seemingly endless fascination with ‘Jack’. Have we solved the 130 year old mystery?  That’s for others to decide, I just hope Andy and I have produced a book that people will want to read and to discuss.

Drew Gray

Jack and the Thames Torso Murders: A New Ripper? is published by Amberley Books on June 15 2019 and is available to order here.

Procrastination, distraction and unexpected discoveries: the Coppetts Wood murder of 1882 (part one)

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There are moments in historical research when you discover something that distracts you from your core purpose and sends you in a different direction. One of the most famous examples of this (in academic history terms anyway) was Vic Gatrell’s Hanging Tree which examines in detail the history of public execution in England in the period 1770 to 1868. Gatrell wasn’t intending on writing a history of hanging, instead he made ‘a chance discovery’ whilst ‘working on something quite different’.

This led him to start browsing through a set of judges’ reports in the National Archives at Kew and he came across the story of the rape of Elizabeth Cureton and the petitions for mercy made on behalf of the man found guilty of assaulting her. The Hanging Tree is one of the seminal works in the history of crime and the idea that it was the product of a momentary desire to of break the ‘tedium’ of archival research (something I’m sure very many historians can empathise with) is enlightening.

I am (slowly) finishing a book on eighteenth-century homicides. It is a project which started life about 9 or 10 years ago when I began researching a murder in Northamptonshire. It had odd elements to it, but mostly it was interesting because it seemed to offer an opportunity to explore the system by which convicted criminals might avoid the death penalty, even for a crime as heinous as murder. Working with my PhD supervisor, a very eminent historian of crime, we published an article on the case in a historical journal. I then went on and started work on other articles and books.

There was something about that case that always niggled with me and made me want to see if other examples could be found where convicted murderers had tried to avoid the noose in the 1700s. Cutting a long story short I found four cases (including the Northamptonshire one) that seemed worth exploring. One involved two brothers murdering a watchman, the next concerned the public stoning to death of an informer in Spitalfields, and the last was a prostitute who was accused of killing a minor celebrity musician. I pitched the project to a publisher and they were kind enough to give me a contract.

In the meantime one of my former undergraduates approached me and told me he had ‘solved’ the Ripper murders. He believed he had uncovered the identity of the Whitechapel murderer of 1888 and had linked him to a second series of contemporary murders. I was skeptical, but intrigued. Over the course of the next few years I worked with Andy on this project alongside my other one until, in the summer of last year, we had the bulk of a manuscript to pitch to publishers. It wasn’t easy to sell because the market for Ripper books is pretty well saturated, but in the end we found a home for it with Amberley. A note here: if you are an author who wants to get something published, keep trying – if it’s good enough someone will take a chance on it, eventually.

While all this was going on I decided to start this blog. Daily writings on the police courts of the Victorian metropolis, a way of keeping me focused on writing and research every day. It was also born of my desire to return to a study of the magistracy, the subject of my original PhD research back in the early 2000s. My intention (after the homicide and Ripper books) was and is to write academic and more popular histories of the magistracy in England.

So, where is this rambling blog going right now? Well, this morning I’ve found a report of a 24-year-old man named Frederick Cheekly who was set in the dock at Southwark Police court in late April 1884 charged with stealing a watch. Cheekly lived at 113 the Borough in south London with his common-law partner Maud Norton. She was older, 29 years of age, and appeared in the dock with him as an accessory to the theft. A second charge was preferred against the pair, also for stealing, and this time a third person – Minnie Lewis – was also charged. The solicitor for the Treasury brought the charges and the trio were committed for trial.

What happened to them after that is unclear but I doubt it would necessarily have resulted in convictions. I suspect the house in Borough was a brothel and the two women acted as prostitutes and/or madams. The men robbed were risking their property simply by entering a house of ill repute and I doubt the Surrey jurors would have had much sympathy for them.

But what struck me was a comment made by the Police News’ reporter who stated that Checkley was ‘said to be a companion of the Finchley-wood murderer’. Given that I grew up in Finchley and I hadn’t heard of this case I thought I’d do some quick digging this morning.   I soon found a report form March 1882 which describes the discovery a the body ‘of a young man’ in woods near Finchley. A little bit more research established that these were Coppetts Wood, near Colney Hatch. At first the police thought they’d found the body a dead gispy since the woods were a popular transit point for travelling people. But the hair on the corpse was fair, not dark like most gipsies. The papers now speculated that the victim might have been part of a criminal gang operating in the area, committing burglaries and street robberies.

Suffice to say, for now at least, that I think I have worked out what happened and how this case unfolds but it is going to take me some time to unpack it all. So, if you would like to know what happens in the Finchley Wood murder mystery stayed ‘tuned’ for further articles over the week as I get to the bottom of who was left buried in Coppetts Wood and who put him there.

In between, that is, finishing off the book I’m supposed to be writing!

[The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, April 26, 1884; Daily News , Tuesday, March 7, 1882]

A strange man at Worship Street – was he the ‘Ripper’?

Illustrated Police News Jack the Ripper

Today I am spending most of my time in Whitechapel planning out a history trip for my undergraduate students. This is something I do every year – take a party of students studying my third year module on ‘Crime and Popular Culture’ in the nineteenth century to visit the sites associated with the ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders. Plenty of commercial walking tours exist of course, some much better than others.

Personally I’m not a fan of the exploitative type that thinks that projecting an image of a dead woman onto the brick walls of modern Spitalfields is appropriate. I’d much rather listen to an expert who can impart some context and tell the audience about the history of the area and its peoples as well as treat the murder victims with the respect they deserve. Those tours do exist, so if you want to take one do some research before you make your choice.

I don’t have the luxury of being able to pay for a commercial tour so I do it myself. But Whitechapel is constantly changing so I need to revisit the place regularly to see what changes I need to make to my route. This time however there is added piquancy to my trip because I have almost finished making the edits to my first draft of a new ‘Ripper’ book. This has been written in collaboration with a former student of mine who thought he had a new solution to the world’s most infamous cold case. Andy has done the research on the murders and has added several to the original police file, while I have concentrated on the social history to provide context. We have a draft manuscript, all we need now is a publisher…

Anyway, back to Whitechapel and back to 1888 and a month after Mary Kelly became the fifth canonical (but not , we argue, the last) victim of ‘Jack’, what was happening at the Worship Street Police Court? Worship Street (along with Thames) served the East End and several of the murdered women in the ‘Ripper’ series appeared here on a variety of cares relating to prostitution, disorderly behaviour and drunkenness in the late 1880s.

Joseph Isaacs, a 30 year-old cigar maker, was charged with theft. His name suggests he belonged to the large immigrant Jewish population of the area which have been closely associated with the murders. Quite early on a man named John Pizer was arrested on suspicion of being the killer. Pizer (who was also known as ‘leather apron’ – a local man with a reputation for threatening prostitutes). Pizer was able to provide an alibi and was released but some experts still believe he may have been the killer.

The idea that the murderer was a Jew was helped by widespread anti-semitism and the belief that ‘no Englishman could do such a thing’. Xenophobia, racism and anti-immigrant tension suffused society in the 1880s and the killings brought all of this to the surface.

Joseph Isaacs was accused of stealing a watch. He had entered a shop in the West End of London holding a violin bow. He asked the shop’s proprietor, a Mr Levenson, if he could repair the bow. As they discussed the transaction however, Isaacs suddenly ‘bolted out’ of the shop. Mr Levenson quickly realised that he stolen a gold watch and raised the alarm.

Isaacs was arrested some time later in Drury lane but not in connection to this offence. He’d been picked up because his appearance seemingly matched the description offered of a man seen near Mary Kelly’s home on the night of her murder. At Worship Street Police court Mary Cusins, the deputy of a lodging house in Paternoster Row, Spitalfields, testified that Isaacs had stayed there for ‘three or four nights’ around the time of Kelly’s murder.

‘On the night of the murder she heard him walking about the room’. She added that ‘he disappeared after that murder, leaving the violin bow behind’.

All this had emerged as the police made house-to house enquiries in the wake of the murders. The police have ben widely criticised for their failure to catch ‘Jack’ but most experts now acknowledge that they did all the right things things at the time. Without forensics, and chasing a man that attacked strangers, they had very little to go on and were really dependent on the killer making a mistake. Jack didn’t really make any mistakes, however, and eluded the growing cordon that the combined force of the Met and the City Police threw out to trap him.

Isaacs was remanded by the sitting magistrate at Worship Street (Mr Bushby). He had allegedly stolen a watch but there was no sign of it. But more importantly Detective Record said that he still had some questions to answer with regards to his movements around the time of Mary Kelly’s murder. Isaacs appeared a week later, again in the company of Detective Record. He had been cleared of any involvement in the Ripper murders was convicted of stealing Julius Levenson’s watch and sent to prison for three months at hard labour.

Another possible suspect eliminated and another line of enquiry completed, the men of H Division’s search for the world’s first serial killer continued…

[from The Standard, Saturday, December 08, 1888]