1888 is a year which has gone down in criminal infamy for the unsolved murders committed by the person known to history as ‘Jack the Ripper’. Despite over 120 years of police and private investigation no one has ever been conclusively proven to be ‘Jack’ to the satisfaction of the legions of professional and amateur ‘Ripperologists’ who contribute to the message boards of the excellent casebook site.
I have my own pet theory and, with the help of a friend, have been researching the case for sectoral years. When I go public with my findings, be assured readers of this blog will be amongst the first to know!
But of course the Whitechapel murders were not the only homicides in 1888, nor the only ones to remain unsolved. There were also the more mundane (but still unpleasant and serious) assaults, often on women and usually committed by men.
On the 15 December William Atkins was charged at Southwark with a violent assault. He was accused of ‘feloniously cutting and wounding’ Lucretia Pembroke (a waitress aged 15) with the ‘intent to commit grievous bodily harm’. At the time of the hearing Lucretia was in hospital, and her condition described as ‘dangerous’.
Grievous bodily harm (GBH) had been made a specific offence under the Offences against the Person Act (1861) which had been passed in an attempt to simplify the law. ‘Assault’ had been a catch-all phrase throughout the early 1800s but the 1861 act (and the 1828 act that preceded it) sought to differentiate and make certain forms of violence liable to stiffer penalties.
Detective Sergeant Bradford (of M Division, Metropolitan Police) was the investigating officer. He had arrested Atkins at Limersole Street, Bermondsey having been informed of the attack. DS Bradford told Atkins that a girl had been attacked,, her throat cut, and that he was the chief suspect.
‘Is she dead?’ Atkins asked. ‘No, but she is very dangerously ill in Guy’s Hospital’ the policeman replied. He then asked Atkins if he owned a knife and the prisoner handed him a penknife from his pocket.
Having deposited his captive at the police station Bradford went to see Lucretia in hospital. He asked her if she recognized the man that attacked her.
‘Yes’, she said, ‘It was Bill Atkins. We call him Silly Bill’.
She added that Atkins had been employed to do some painting and decorating for her employer at the coffee house where she worked and that afterwards he had asked her for ‘a pennyworth of tea’ which she gave him. As she turned away she said he came up behind her and slashed at her throat. She screamed and he ran away.
In court Atkins confirmed the part of the girl’s story about being employed to do some whitewashing and wallpapering but nothing else. The knife the policeman found was a small pocket knife (a penknife we’d call it) and there was no blood on the blade. Atkins, who may (by the girl’s description) have been suffering with some form of mental health problem, was remanded for further inquiries and to see if the young lady recovered.
Lucretia did survive and in January 1889 she testified against Atkins at the Old Bailey. William was charged with GBH and attempted murder where the chief medical witness (Dr Gilbert, the surgeon at Holloway Prison) reported that in his opinion Atkins was ‘very weak-minded, almost imbecile’. The jury acquitted him of attempted murder but convicted him of GBH. He was sent to prison for 7 years.
[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, December 16, 1888]