Winter is coming and for one mother that means a spell inside

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Winter is coming.

Hallowe’en has come and gone and Bonfire Night is looming. The clocks have gone back and the air has turned distinctly chilly. Yesterday in town I noticed more rough sleepers than usual around King’s Cross and St Pancras and reflected once again that our modern society still hasn’t solved the problem of poverty.

The reports from the Victorian Police Courts provide ample evidence that desperation and poverty were endemic in the 1800s. This was a society without a welfare state, with no old age pension scheme, or National Health Service, or social services. Where we have a benefits system (however flawed) they had the workhouse or charity and recourse to either meant shame and failure.

In our ‘modern’ world we have people whose lives have been destroyed by drink or drugs and both provide the really desperate with the anaesthetic they need to simply survive on day-to-day basis. I saw a notice yesterday that said, ‘would you smash up a phone box to get 24 hours in a dry cell with food?’

This is a reality for some people in ‘modern’ Britain.

In October 1865 Mary M’Grath was charged at Thames Police Court with being drunk and disorderly and punching a policeman. Mary was about 30 years old and had a baby with her in court. PC John Mansfield (393K) testified that on the previous afternoon he had seen Mary rolling about, quite drunk, on the East India Dock Road.

She was carrying her infant and staggering about so badly that she kept banging into the nearby ‘walls and houses’. The child was ‘injured and screamed fearfully’, he added. Mary kept up a stream of the most unpleasant language, so disgusting that several onlookers complained to him about it.

Eventually  she fell heavily and a man rushed up to save the child and a police sergeant arrived to help  PC Mansfield take her to the police station. Once there she rewarded him with more abuse and landed a blow on his face, blackening his eye and impairing his sight.

The next day they appeared in court before Mr Paget, the magistrate, who asked the constable what had become of the child.

‘It was taken to the workhouse’, the policeman replied.

‘How old is it?’ the magistrate asked him.

‘Four months old’.

‘It is eight months old’, piped up Mary from the dock.

Mr Paget declared that nothing was more disgraceful than seeing a mother so drunk in public. Didn’t she have a husband at home he enquired.

‘No sir, my husband died seven years ago’, came the reply. So her baby was illegitimate and presumably the product of new relationship or a casual encounter, and no father was present in court. Drunk, riotous and promiscuous the magistrate was probably thinking, a suitable object not for pity but for condemnation.

In reality of course Mary’s life became that much more difficult when her husband had passed away. She would have lost the main bread winner and her partner. It is likely she already had children so they would have added to her problems. Perhaps this explains her descent into alcoholism.

She told him that she couldn’t remember what had happened the previous day, so drunk had she been. She had been inside the workhouse, and therefore destitute as no one went inside iff they could possibly help it.

‘I was there long enough’ she explained, and ‘I was half starved’ and ‘discharged myself. I took a drop [of alcohol] and lost myself’.

So in her version of events  she had been so malnourished in the ‘house’ that a small amount of drink (probably gin) had affected her much more than it would normally. It was probably an exaggeration of the truth but it did her no good. Instead of opting to find her some help in the form of money, food and shelter Mr Paget sent her to prison for a month at hard labour.

She had merely swapped one uncaring institution for another. As for the child, well as a ‘suckling’ Mr Paget decided it needed to stay with its mother, so off to goal it went as well.

This was an oft repeated story in Victorian London. Children were growing up affected by alcoholism, grinding poverty, homelessness, and sometimes, prison. No wonder reformers demanded change and some turned to ‘extreme’ politics (like socialism or anarchism). Men like Paget had comfortable lives and sat in judgement for the most part on those that scraped by.

Can we, hand on heart, say that 150 years later everything is so much better? Yes, of course to an extent we have provided a much better safety net for Mary M’Grath and her baby. But have we really tackled the root causes of her poverty? No, I don’t think we have  and while we pursue a form of economics and politics that allows some people to live in epic luxury while others sleep rough on the streets I don’t think we can sit in judgement of our ancestors either.

Winter is coming.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, November 01, 1865]

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The showman, the tram conductor, and the irritated magistrate.

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Fare dodging was frequently punished at the summary courts. Conductors of trams or buses, hackney coachmen, and train guards brought in travellers  who had refused or neglected to pay for their journeys. In some circumstance this was because they disputed the amount charged (most often when it came to cabs) or claimed that they hadn’t realised the vehicle was going as far as it was, or had missed their stop. It seems that in most of the instances that were reported by the press the customer paid up, often with an added penalty of paying the transport company’s court costs.

Harry Perkins was one such example of a fare dodger that annoyed the sitting magistrate  at Thames and ended up paying much more than he need have had he simply bought a ticket in the usual way.

Perkins was described as a ‘showman, living in a caravan at Dalston’. So perhaps he was a part of a travelling circus. His actions in late October 1890 certainly entertained the editor of The Standard who decided to submit his story to print for his readership. The circus man boarded a tram in Dalston and travelled to Shoreditch where he attempted to get off. At this point the conductor (‘Conway, badge 1227’) asked him for 1s for his fare. When this was refused Conway restrained his customer until a policeman was found who could take him into custody.

In court the next day Perkins was charged with refusing to pay his fare and with being drunk. The magistrate started by questioning the tram’s conductor as to Perkins’ conduct.

Was the prisoner drunk, Mr Williams asked Conway.

‘Well that depends’, came the reply.

‘What?’ said the justice.

‘It is a very difficult thing to say whether a man is drunk or not’, was Conway’s response.  ‘Some people say that a man is not drunk when he can stand; others say that…’

At this point the magistrate cut him off.

‘I don’t want a lecture on drunkenness’ he grumbled, ‘if you can’t prove that the man was drunk on your care there is an end of that part of the charge. How about refusing the fare?’

Once a sheepish Conway had muttered that yes, he had refused the shilling demanded Mr Williams turned his attention (and clear irrigation) to the showman in the dock. Why had he attempted to get off without paying he wanted to know.

‘I did not want to ride’, answered Perkins. ‘I got on the car, and found the seats on top wet, and the inside was full, so that I wanted to get off, and the conductor would not let me’.

‘But you had a good long ride’ declared Mr Williams, adding ‘so it took you about half-an-hour to find out that the seat was wet?’

The prisoner could only restate his previous explanation that he ‘did not want to ride’. The magistrate dismissed this with a curt statement that he was fining him 10for the trouble he had caused when all this could have been avoided had he simply paid, when asked, the 1s fare.

I rather suspect that the message Mr Williams was sending was intended for a wider audience than the circus man. His time had been wasted unnecessarily and he wanted to avoid similar cases coming before him in the future. It probably also served as a rebuke for the conductor (and therefore all bus and tram conductors) and allowed readers to chuckle over the discomfort of ‘jobsworths’ everywhere.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, October 29, 1890]

Two ‘dangerous female thieves’ opt for the best ‘worst case’ scenario

Poplar High Street in the late 1800s

Thomas Thomas had only recently docked in London from a long voyage out of Adelaide, Australia. The steamship fireman had picked up his wages on the Monday and headed from his digs to a beer shop in Poplar to relax.

As he sat drink ‘some ale’ two women approached him and asked him to join them. This was a fairly standard approach for the area’s prostitutes and I expect Thomas knew what he was letting himself in for when he accepted their invitation.

Ellen White and Elizabeth Johnson, (described in the report as ‘dangerous thieves’) were clearly well-know to the police and courts and were soon deploying diversionary tactics to rob the sailor.

As Johnson held his attention in conversation White,’thrust her hand in his trousers pocket and took from it a bag containing three half sovereigns’.

Thomas felt the attempt on his purse and grabbed her, but wasn’t quick enough to prevent her passing ‘something’ (his money most likely) to her confederate. Both women rose and quickly tried to get away with their prize. But Thomas maintained a firm grip on White and ‘called out lustily for the police’. Within moments both women were in custody and were taken to the police station.

A ‘female-searcher’ was employed to search both prisoners but nothing was found on them. She reported, however, that while she conducted the search she thought she saw both women swallow something. One of the police constables present at the search also said that he believed each defendant had swallowed at least one coin to prevent any evidence being found on them.

In court at Thames both women protested their innocence before Mr Selfe, the sitting magistrate. He told them them that in the circumstances he was going to commit them for trial before a jury. At this the women asked him instead to deal with them summarily, as they would receive a much reduced sentence if he did.

‘Oh, settle it here. Settle it here, sir; pray do, Mr Selfe’ they pleaded.

‘You say you are innocent, and I can’t settle it here’ replied the justice. ‘If you plead guilty I will settle it now. Are you guilty or not guilty? You may plead now or be committed for trial.’

White and Johnson were clearly upset at being put in this situation and continued to protest their innocence, presumably knowing that the lack of any hard evidence against them meant there at least was some doubt whether a jury would convict. ‘It was very hard to be charged with a crime they did not commit’, they argued. Mr Selfe was adamant however: they had to plead guilty if they wanted him to determine their fate, otherwise a jury would decide.

The women now conferred and must have been weighing up the chances that a jury might convict them anyway, and that they risked a much more severe prison term from the Middlesex sessions if convicted. Eventually they reluctantly agreed to confess to the theft and take their punishment.

Now a policeman piped up and said that Ellen White had a previous conviction for stealing and had served a month in prison for it. Mr Selfe said he was not interested and declared that he knew both of them well as defendants in his court.  Since Thomas Thomas was soon going to return to the sea he said he would deal with them today and sentenced both women to three months imprisonment with hard labour.

I think this demonstrates the problem facing petty thieves in court in the period: arguably they had committed the crime anyway but there was no hard evidence to convict them. Any lawyer worth his salt would have got them off but they hadn’t the funds to employ one and must have thought they’d been clever enough to avoid being convicted.

Mr Selfe could have dismissed the case but he knew them, as did the police. There was a good chance that a jury might have acquitted them for lack of evidence and because it was hardly likely that Thomas would have stuck around to press charges and appear in court; his occupation meant he would at sea for months at a time.

So this was a case of risk assessment and brinkmanship. In this case the women blinked first and chose a short spell in prison as a better alternative to the longer one they might have suffered had a jury found them guilty. As to the missing sovereigns, well, everything passes eventually…

[from The Morning Chronicle , Wednesday, October 26, 1859]

A poor woman pleads not to be sent to ‘a country which was foreign to her’

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1848 was a tumultuous year in Europe. There were revolutions in Italy, Germany,  Denmark and the Habsburg Empire (in Hungary). Louis-Phillips was forced from his throne in France and fled to England, while there was rioting in Sweden and a short civil war in Switzerland. Britain didn’t escape trouble as Chartists assembled across the country in large numbers including a ‘monster’ rally in Kennington Park in April when tens of thousands demanded the vote.

Over in Ireland the ‘great famine’ was forcing thousands to flee the island and leaving almost  million dead; reducing the population overall by 20-25%. Many of these travelled to England finding their way to London or one of the other other large urban areas of Victorian Britain.

So 1848 saw political unrest, nationalism, poverty, and the mass migration of peoples fleeing all these events. We get an inclining of how this might have impacted society in a brief report of business from the Thames Police Court in October of that year.

‘THAMES – Complaints are almost daily made by aged natives of Ireland, whose necessities compel them to apply for parochial relief, of the hardship of being sent back to Ireland after a long stay in England’.

One case in particular was brought to the attention of the Thames Police Court magistrate, Mr Yardley. A ‘poor Irish widow’ who had been resident in England for 40 years applied to the Stepney Poor Law Union for relief only to be refused help and told to go home to Ireland. She explained to Mr Yardley that she had been away so long she ‘did not know a soul there. She hoped the magistrate would interpose , and prevent her being sent to a country which was foreign to her’.

The woman had been before him to ask for help a week earlier and he had directed a letter to the union on her behalf, so he asked what had happened in the interim. A police officer attached to the court confirmed that the letter had been delivered but one of the reliving officers said they were only following the instructions handed down to them by the board of guardians of the poor.

The policy in a time of huge pressure on the parish purse was, it seems, to try and get rid of as many unwanted paupers as possible. The court was told that while this woman  claimed she had lived in England for 40 years her ‘residence was a broken one, and not continued for five years in any one parish’. In short she had moved around and so did not ‘belong’ anywhere.

Mr Yardley was sympathetic to the woman’s plight but could only assure her that he would intercede on her behalf and hope the guardians relented. She thanked him for his time and left the court.

I think this reveals some of the problems facing the authorities in mid Victorian Britain but also the callous lack of care for the people of the wider empire. Stepney was poor, as was most of the East End in the 1800s. Poor relief fell on the parish rather than the national purse. So it was individual ratepayers who were supporting the huge numbers of impoverished East Londoners whose ranks were undoubtedly swollen by migrants from Ireland (and perhaps from further afield in such a troubled decade).

Poverty, war and famine always lead to migration and this inevitably puts pressure onto communities that are themselves often struggling to survive. Whether migration is fuelled by economic necessity, or by persecution, or simply a desire to get away to a ‘better place’, it is part of the human condition. Human beings have always migrated in search of better land, greater resources, improved living conditions, or a more tolerant society. Whether it was the Irish in the 1840s or Polish Jews in the 1880s, or South Asian Kenyans in the 1970s, or indeed Syrians in the last decade; all of these people have left their homes, sometimes their families, everything they know and love, to find a refuge overseas.

That this puts pressure on the country and community that receives them is self-evident. Tensions flare, xenophobia rears its ugly head, and people make political capital out of the situation. But the answer is not to close the borders, to turn one’s back on people in need, to refuse to help. The attempt of the Stepney guardians to send a poor Irish woman back to her country of birth and therefore into a situation where thousands were dying every week was simply wrong. It was wrong in 1848 and it remains wrong today.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, October 24, 1848]

Sunday drinking lands a German landlord in court

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John Henry Fielding, (somewhat surprisingly) described as a German and who spoke with a German accent, had only been running his local pub for three weeks but soon found himself hauled before the Thames magistrate for breaking the licensing laws.

On Sunday 27 September at around  lunchtime detective Dunaway of H division, Metropolitan Police, was passing by the White Hart pub in Chamber Street, Whitechapel. He may have been watching the establishment because it had a long established reputation for out of hours drinking, and detective Dunaway (129H) soon noticed that something wasn’t quite right.

Fielding kept opening the door of the pub to admit customers or let them out, always urging them to be quick about it. Seeing Dunaway watching him Fielding assumed he was another customer. He called over to him that he couldn’t let him in because it was already too crowded inside.

The detective called to a uniformed officer nearby, Patrick Geraghty (20H), who crossed over and banged on the pub door.

‘Who ish dat knocking at mine door?’ [sic], demanded the German.

‘The police’ replied PC Geraghty, throwing the landlord and his drinking den into a panic.

According to Geraghty (and one wonders how he was able to know this since he was outside at the time):

‘There was a rush of people into the cellars, and upstairs rooms immediately. Pots of beer, gin, and rum were hastily poured into he sink under the beer machine, and after a delay of two minutes, Geraghty was admitted, and found the defendant “hussing” the people down the cellar stairs’.

Several people tried to escape being caught in an illegal drinking session by rushing past the policeman and some even leapt from the first floor windows. Two or three of these fell awkwardly and ended up in hospital.

The magistrate, Mr Partridge admonished the landlord: ‘This really is too bad – an open defence of the law’, he told him. Fielding was suitably chastened. He apologised and promised it would never happen again. This is when it emerged that he was new to running this pub. His saviour was Inspector Holloway, who had sought the summons to bring him to court in the first place. The pub was notorious he told the justice, but the German was new and this was his first offence. Mr Partridge took this into consideration and instead of the £5 he had intended to impose he fined Fielding 40s. The penalty was paid immediately and the German publican hurriedly left the court.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, October 08, 1863]

“Good-bye, Tom, I have done for my missis, and I am going to do for myself”; murder in the East End 1888

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The Isle of Dogs, 1899 (Manchester Road runs south-east parallel to Blackwall Reach)

In early October 1888 London was gripped by the ‘Ripper’ murders. As far as the press and public were concerned an unknown assassin had brutally murdered six women in a small area of East London and the police had no clue as to his identity. Police patrols had been stepped up and the newspapers were becoming inundated with fake letters from people purporting to be the murderer, and correspondence offering advice on how to catch him. Between the end of September (when both Elizabeth Stride and Katherine Eddowes were murdered on one night) and the 9th November (when Mary Kelly’s body was found in Miller’s Court) the killer seems to have lain low, avoiding the redoubled attentions of the police.

Meanwhile over at the Thames Police Court Mr Lushington was hearing the case of a man accused of murdering his wife. Levi Bartlett was a 57 year-old general dealer who lived and worked in Poplar. He and his wife, Elizabeth, ran a small shop on Manchester Road on the Isle of Dogs, selling mostly milk. He had been held on remand since the incident had happened back in August, because after killing his wife he had attempted to cut his own throat with a razor.

Even by October he was a weak man and was allowed to sit in court rather than stand through the evidence. Elizabeth’s sister, Emma Mears, testified that Levi and her sister had live together for many years before they married, and had now been married for about five years. During all of that time, she said, the dealer was ‘nearly always drunk’.

By all accounts when he was sober, Levi was a good man but that was rare. When in his cups he was abusive and violent and dipped into the shop’s till to feed his drinking habit.  Not surprisingly then quarrels between him and Elizabeth were frequent and loud.

On the 18th August 1888 Emma visited Elizabeth and found her sitting crying. When she asked what the matter was her long suffering sibling said:

‘Can’t you see the old villain is drunk again, and hasn’t been to bed since two this morning’. This was punctuated by the dealer’s loud denials, ‘don’t you believe her’ he shouted. He then asked for 2d for gin.

‘No, you villain, you have had enough now’ was his wife’s response. This provoked Bartlett to threaten her: ‘I will mark you for this tonight’, he declared.

More abuse was exchanged and before she left Emma told her her sister to fetch a policeman if her husband hit her again. Perhaps because Levi was so frequently drunk and abusive no one really expected what was to happen next, although the sights were there. At some point on Sunday morning (19 August) the former stevedore attacked his wife with a hammer, fatally wounding her,  before admitting his crime to George Jones who he had employed as a milk delivery man.

Jones later related the dramatic scene to the Old Bailey court as he was woken up by his master:

‘between 4 and 5 in the morning I was awoke by the prisoner coming into my room—he asked French if he had got any drink—French said no, he had forgot to bring any; the prisoner shook hands with French and said “Good-bye, you won’t see me no more alive”—he then went back to his own room, he seemed sober then—in about twenty minutes he came into our room again, and again bid French good-bye; he then came to me and said “Good-bye, Tom, I have done for my missis, and I am going to do for myself”—he shook hands with me and went out of the room’.

Bartlett then visited his old friend Benjamin French who had lodged with the Bartlett’s for 14 years. He also bids him ‘goodbye’ which left the dock labourer perplexed and not a little concerned. It was French that finally fetched a policeman, police sergeant Doe (30KR), who found Bartlett sitting on his bed ‘in his shirt, bleeding from the throat; the front of his shirt was covered with blood—he had a razor in his right hand’. Having taken the razor from him he summoned a doctor and then took him to hospital.

Bartlett, who had earned the nickname ‘Mad Dick the jockey’ (his middle name was Richard) was fully committed for trial at the Old Bailey. There, on the 22nd October 1888 he was convicted of murdering Elizabeth. Elizabeth’s sister testified to the years of abuse that she had suffered at Levi’s hands while the former dock worker’s best friend Benjamin said he had never heard a cross word between them. Drink was Bartlett’s downfall and it seems he simply could not function with it or without it. Ultimately this cost both him and his wife their lives; having recovered from his own suicide attempt Levi Richard Bartlett was hanged at Newgate Gaol on 13 November 1888.

Such a tragic event may well have created many more ‘headlines’ than it did in 1888 had there not been a supposedly crazed serial killer on the loose. This was, of course, a much more typical homicide for nineteenth century London than the series that has occupied the attention of researchers for over 120 years. Most murderers are men, and most of their victims (many of whom are women) are close to them – as wives, partners, lovers and acquaintances. The ‘Ripper’ killed strangers, and that made him all the more difficult (indeed almost impossible) to catch.

[from The Standard, Saturday, October 06, 1888]

An attack in Berner Street in 1888, but not the one you’ve all heard about

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On Saturday 29 September 1888 a man appeared at Thames Police Court on a charge of attempted murder. It wasn’t William Seaman’s first appearance, he had previously been remanded in custody because his victim was too weak to attend court.

Seaman was a builder who gave his address as 11 Princess Street, St George-In-theEast. He was accused of attacking Thomas Simpkin, a chemist, by  ‘striking him on the head with a hammer’. In court Inspector Thresher of H Division, Metropolitan Police informed the magistrate that the chemist was still unable to come to court and requested a further period of remand. The justice agreed to the request and the builder was taken back to police custody.

On the following Tuesday the case resumed, as Simpkin had recovered sufficiently to give evidence. He explained that at about 10 minutes to midnight on Saturday 8 September (some three weeks earlier) the builder had entered his shop and asked to buy some zinc ointment and then some alum powder. Then suddenly, and seemingly without provocation, Seaman leaned across the shop counter and struck the chemist violently with a hammer.

A warehouseman,  Henry John Smith (who lived at 6 Chamber Street) said he was across the road from the chemist’s shop at the time and heard a scream. The chemist’s daughter then came running out into the street shouting:

‘They are murdering my father!’

When Smith ran over and entered the shop he found Seaman covered in blood with one hand around Simpkin’s throat, while he punched him in the chest. The man was clearly drunk he said, and extremely violent. Despite this he managed (with the help of another passer-by, Charles McCarthy) to get him off the chemist and hold him until a police constable (PC 85H) arrived.

Dr Francis Allen (1 Dock Street) told the court that the injuries were serious and consistent with being caused by a hammer. He added that at one point the chemist’s life had been in danger.

The dispute seems to have been over the price of alum powder, or presumably the amount you got for  penny (as that is what Seaman asked for). It was a pretty poor excuse for such a brutal onslaught but Seaman was drunk and perhaps agitated by something else that night. As we will see, however, Seaman was a violent man and perhaps had some underlying psychological condition.

The justice, Mr Saunders, committed him for jury trial.

That trial took place at the Old Bailey on 22 October 1888 and Seaman was duly convicted and sentenced to 7 years penal servitude. The long sentence was probably because he had previously been convicted before at the Bailey, something he admitted in court. Seaman was 38 at the time but the experience of imprisonment didn’t have the deterrent effect society might have hoped for. In 1896 he was back at the Central Criminal Court, and this time he had taken his violence a step further.

On Good Friday (April 3, 1896) he broke into the home of John Goodman Levy, in Turner Street (Whitechapel) presumably with the intention of burgling it. In the early hours of Saturday morning the dead body of Mr Levy was found with his throat cut. When the police arrived they soon discovered that the burglar was still on the premises and a chase began. Eventually Seaman fell through a ceiling, was badly injured and apprehended. The police reportedly found the following on his person:

‘a lady’s gold watch, a gold diamond and turquoise pin, a watch-chain, a gilt half-crown brooch, a pair of gilt threepenny piece earrings, another imitation gold ring set with rubies and pearls, two cigars, a plated caddy spoon, a wedding ring, a single-stone diamond ring, a piece of wash-leather thereon, 10s. 6d. in silver and a penny, the works of a watch, an old purse, a pocket knife, an old comb, and a brass stud ‘.

Quite a haul.

This time penal servitude wasn’t an option and William Seaman was sentenced to death.  Before the judge passed sentenced however, Seaman was asked if he had anything he wanted to say.

[He] stated that he had nothing to say about the case, but that he desired to complain about a statement in a newspaper to the effect that he had previously been charged with an attempt to murder, and assault and theft, and that that statement was false.

William Seaman was hanged at Newgate prison on the 9 June 1896, he was 48.

There is a footnote to this story. The chemist’s shop was at 82 Berner Street, off the Commercial Road, Whitechapel. That little detail may seem insignificant for the case but for the fact that on the 30 September 1888 (the day I took this story from the newspapers)  another violent act took place in Berner Street. Between houses at 42 and 44 Berner Street (now renamed Henriques Street) was what was ‘colloquially known as Dutfield’s  Yard’* and home to the International Working Man’s Educational Club.

At just after 1 am Louis Diemshitz (club steward and ‘jewellery hawker’) turn this horse and cart into the yard when the animal shied at something lying beyond the gates. When Diemshitz investigated he found the body of a woman. She had been attacked and her throat had been cut.

Her name was Elizabeth Stride (or ‘Long Liz”) and she was to be the first of two women murdered that night by a killer whose identify remains a mystery. He will forever be known to history however, as ‘Jack the Ripper’.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, September 30, 1888; Birmingham Daily Post, Wednesday, October 3, 1888]

*Neil R.A. Bell, Capturing Jack the Ripper, (Amberley, Stroud, 2016), p.158