This post revisits other murders that terrorized London’s East End in 1888-91. This chapter examines two that preceded the “Autumn of Terror”: Emma Elizabeth Smith and Martha Tabram. Part 1 of 3.
Warning: this post contains graphic descriptions and illustrations of murder and assault that more sensitive readers may find unsettling. Extreme caution is advised.
The murder that is depicted as a horrible crime is repeated in cold blood, remorselessly.
— Cesare Beccaria, On Crimes and Punishments
April 3rd, 1888
In the waning days of the summer of 1888, Mary Ann Nichols met a woeful end on a pathetic strip of dirt and asphalt known as Buck’s Row. A week later and a kilometre away, Annie Chapman met a similar fate on a scrawny patch of grass and stone in the backyard of a squalid tenement on Hanbury Street. Their cold-blooded murders were met with outrage across the length and breadth of London society, followed by a terrible wildfire of fear and panic the likes of which hadn’t consumed the city since the Monster attacks of a century before.
But two acts of horror preceded the atrocities inflicted upon Nichols and Chapman.
This is the story of the first.
It’s 1:30 a.m. (all times approximate) and Emma Elizabeth Smith sways drunkenly down Whitechapel Road on her way home. Every night for the year and a half since she started lodging on George Street (now in the vicinity of Flower and Dean Walk) she follows the same routine: at around 7 p.m., she heads out and wanders the streets and public houses, trading the pleasure of her company for a “tu’pence” to anyone who can pay. Later, she’ll drink – usually alone – and recall happier the times of her youth. Of her friends and family … her husband, John – dead, now, these past few years – and her two children. In the days before the East End. Before Whitechapel.
She tries not to stray too far from her lodgings on the nights she’s working, but she needs to be where the customers are, and tonight saw her conducting trade off in Burdett Road, Limehouse, almost three kilometres east of her usual haunts. She can’t complain, however; despite there having been some “rough work” earlier in the evening – she saw a woman get smacked in the mouth by two roughnecks – she made good business, and celebrated her good fortune by spending most of her earnings on drink.
She shivers and draws up her collar. The spring morning is raw and chill. And though the walk and fresh air has done her some good, her mind still gropes about in a fog of cheap gin. But she still has enough wits about her to see that she’s reached the grounds of St. Mary’s — just ten more minutes and she’ll be home.
Grrrgh … but first …
Bent over, hands on knees, she vomits onto the pavement between her feet. She heaves again. She walks to the curb and plunks heavily down. She wipes her mouth, then closes her eyes, taking slow, deep breaths.
Easy old girl, she thinks to herself. Just sit here a spell. It’ll pass. Then you can go home.
Just ten more minutes and she’ll be home.
Emma spends the next few moments of haggard peace sat slumped on the pavement, waiting for the last of the nausea to pass. Then, she hears it — a heavy cascade of footsteps, accompanied by low murmurs and sniggering; a mean motley of sound. She looks around for the source and spots three young men of uncouth appearance, sauntering towards her from the direction of Leman Street.
Her heart sinks.
“Rip gangs” are a blight on the East End. Blackmail, robbery, beatings, murder — there are no depths to which these roaming bands of villains won’t sink. And prostitutes like Emma are a favorite target for their threats and abuse. For a price – usually most or all your earnings – they’ll offer “protection” and permission to work in their territory; but if you don’t pay … then there are consequences.
Emma’s not sure if this group belongs to a “rip” gang or not, but it doesn’t matter — there’s not another soul about to be seen. She has the horrors of drink upon her and is barely able to stand. There’s nothing stopping the men from causing her grief if they wish to. And while she has a reputation for being a madwoman when she’s soused – her appearances at the Thames Magistrates’ Court will attest to this – she’s not fool enough to tangle with the likes of this lot.
“Rip gangs” are a blight on the East End.
The talk and laughter grows silent. The footsteps slow. They’ve spotted her. Panic takes hold. Emma makes a determined effort not to look in their direction, to not show them her fear, but she can still feel the heat of their gazes — sneering, feral animals sizing up their prey. Without a word, she rises unsteadily to her feet and staggers across Whitechapel Road, almost tripping over her feet in her desperate bid to escape. She hurries up Osborn Street as fast as her inebriated state will allow her. She daren’t look back.
The men follow.
It’s 4:15 a.m. The boarding house at No. 18 George Street stands dark and quiet. In the communal kitchen, Mary Russell, the lodging house deputy, takes advantage of this small pocket of calm with a mug of watery tea. The ragged “dossers” of No. 18 will soon be awake, and the halls will be crowded with a noisy plethora of men and women on their way back out into the streets. The residence is not often so peaceful, and Mary savours these moments — when she’s able.
But the tranquility of No. 18 abruptly ends with the sound of the front door slowly creaking open, then banging shut. An unsteady tread of footsteps approaches. Mary looks up. Squinting into the shadowy hallway, she makes out the silhouette of a woman shuffling towards her, and recognises the slight form as belonging to Emma Smith, one of the lodgers. Judging from her odd, unsteady gait, she guesses Emma is drunk again. She turns back to her mug.
“Back from the public houses are you, Emma?” she scolds. She notes the time. “A bit late, isn’t it?”
“Been in your cups again, have you?” she looks up and gasps.
An unsteady tread of footsteps approaches.
A badly battered Emma leans groggily against the doorframe. To Mary it looks as though she has been beaten to within an inch of her life. Her face is a frightful mask of pain, maroon with cuts and bruises. One of her eyes is blackened and swells shut. Blood trickles down the right side of her face from a badly slashed ear. Her torn petticoats hang on her small frame like rags, caked in dirt and refuse.
“Emma!” Mary rushes to her side. She takes an arm and gently guides her to a chair. Emma lurches in a queer fashion, keeping her thighs pressed tightly together. She sits down. Her head lolls to one side.
Mary kneels down in front of her and cradles Emma’s face in her hands. “What’s happened to you?” She can smell drink and sick on her.
“I’m alright,” Emma groans.
“You’re not alright!” Mary is furious. “It wasn’t seven o’clock last night when you walked out of here last night, and not a scratch on you. Now look at you! The Devil himself has set upon you!”
“It’s nothing,” Emma coughs. “I ran into some roughs a few hours ago. They was out for a bit o’ fun. I guess they had it.” The eye that isn’t blackened turns blearily to Mary. “They took my doss money.”
Mary tuts. “Never mind the money, we need to get you to the infirmary!”
Emma shakes her head. “I’m not going to the hospital. There’s nothing that’s been done that I can’t shake off. It was a bad night, that’s all. Just lie me down.”
“What’s all the racket?” a voice says from the hallway. Annie Lee, another lodger, walks into the kitchen. She sees Emma and her eyes widen in astonishment. “For Chrissakes! What’s happened to her? Her face is all bloodied! Look at her clothes!”
“The Devil himself has set upon you!”
“She was attacked by one of those awful gangs.” Mary replies. She peers down and sees Emma’s legs are still pressed together.
“What have you got up there, Emma?” Mary reaches up inside and feels some kind of woolen cloth between Emma’s legs. It’s damp. She tugs at it. “What is this, Emma?” she asks. “Let me see.”
“Leave it … it’s my shoulder pad,” comes the reply. “It’s soaking up the blood.”
“My god!” Annie exclaims, horrified. “Did they … get you … down there?”
“I don’t … don’t know.” Emma sways in her chair. She seems to descend into some other place that neither Mary nor Annie can see. She mumbles, almost incoherently, “They did sumthin’ to me … can’t think … I can’t …”
“That’s it,” says Mary decisively. “Grab an arm, Annie. We’re taking her to the infirmary.”
“No … I won’t go … I’ll be fine … just … just see me to me bed. I’ll be alright.”
“Emma,” says Mary sternly, “listen to me. You need a doctor. My god, who did this? Did you know ‘em?”
“No!” Emma snaps out of her delirium. Mary and Annie are taken aback by this flash of anger. “I don’t know who it was! They wanted my doss money. An’ I wouldn’t give it to ‘em! But they took it! They took it, anyway! Now get off me! I won’t go!” She slumps back into her chair, exhausted.
“They did sumthin’ to me.”
Mary and Annie each take an arm and pull her to her feet. With gentle hushes and coaxing, they manoeuvre the gravely injured woman down the hall and out the door into George Street. And like a clumsy, six-legged beast, they set off for London Hospital.
“There!” Emma cries, pointing at the pavement.
For the last few minutes, she’s been drifting in and out of delirium, muttering strange musings to herself, and Mary and Annie are finding it harder to keep her on her feet. Mary is afraid that if they don’t get to the hospital soon, she might very well crumple to the ground and die right there on the street. And then what would they do?
But now, Emma suddenly bursts to life.
“There!” she exclaims again. They’ve just reached the northwest corner where four roads meet: Brick Lane, Old Montagne, Osborn and Wentworth Streets. She points to a spot a few metres north. They stop.
Emma Smith is assaulted on the corner of Wentworth Street and Brick Lane. She dies the next day at London Hospital. Click here for a map of all the Whitechapel murder sites of 1888-91.
“They set on me there. They followed me from Whitechapel Road, by St. Mary’s. Beat me up and took my doss money.” She looks at Mary with her one good eye. A tear rolls down her cheek. “They didn’t just beat me, y’know.” She starts to sob. “It hurts. It hurts so much.”
Mary is on the verge of tears herself. “Come, Emma,” she soothes, “we still have a bit of a ways to go and me an’ Annie can’t carry you. Try to help as much as you can.”
“One of ‘em … he was so young,” mumbles Emma to herself. “He couldn’t-a been older n’ nineteen.”
“It hurts. It hurts so much.”
The look on Annie’s face is poisonous. “Bloody monsters. The lot of ‘em,” she hisses. “Who does this to a woman?” She looks around the empty streets. “An’ where are the fuckin’ rozzers? Always ‘round when you don’t need ‘em … and never ‘round when you bloody do!”
“Never mind them,” replies Mary. “What do you think they’ll do, anyway? They’ll tell her she had it coming, that’s what — then throw her in a cell for bein’ what she is. Forget ‘em — we’re on our own.”
They continue moving, crossing Wentworth and heading south down Osborn Street, then east along Whitechapel Road. As Mary and Annie struggle to keep their stricken companion moving, human-shaped shadows peel away from the street’s unlit doorways and alleys. Low whispers and hushed tones trail the women as they limp past. One of the shadows mutters something to its companion; soft laughter follows. Annie turns and yells at them.
“What are you starin’ at? This woman needs help! Ain’t any one of you lot decent enough to help?”
More tittering. Something spits at them. But no one comes forward to lend aid. Bored now with this bit of amusement, the shadows melt back into the darkness, and the street is silent and empty once again. Emma, Mary and Annie continue on their miserable trek eastwards, towards the looming, towering edifice of London Hospital.
Beneath the scraping of their footfalls against the pavement, Mary hears Emma murmuring softly to herself. She leans in.
“What are you saying, Emma?” she asks.
“Why me?” came the pitiful reply. “I was mindin’ my own business. Why’d they come after me?
Smith succumbs to her injuries and dies the next day. Her murder is acknowledged as the first of the Whitechapel horrors that will plague the district between 1888 and 1891. It’s likely she also served as inspiration for the “Fairy Fay” Ripper myth that materialized during this period.
What We Know
Name: Emma Elizabeth Smith
Assaulted: Tuesday, April 3rd, 1888 at around 1:30 a.m.
Died: Wednesday, April 4th, 1888
Cause of Death
Peritonitis, brought about by the rupture of the peritoneum caused by an unknown, blunt object.
August 7th, 1888
Life goes on.
Though several London newspapers devote a few column inches to the barbarous assault visited upon Emma Smith, her story barely elicits a flutter of indignation from their readers, and she quickly fades from memory. Pedestrians stroll by the site of her attack without a thought as to what occurred there. If the topic of her murder is brought up, it’s shrugged off as an anomaly, a freak, just one of those things that happen to the “Unfortunates” from time to time in Whitechapel. Nothing that can be helped.
But Emma’s story is just the first.
This is the story of the second.
At 3:30 a.m. (all times approximate) Alfred George Crow walks past the White Hart public house and under the stone archway that leads into the cramped roadway known as George Yard (now Gunthorpe Street). He’s exhausted; although he usually gets home from his job as a cab driver at around this time, it’s been a long day, and he’s looking forward to falling into bed.
He walks through the entrance of George Yard Buildings (where Sunley House now stands) and begins the short climb up the communal staircase to his lodgings at No. 35, which he shares with his parents. There’s little to no light to see by – the lamps are extinguished nightly at 11 p.m. – but Crow is familiar enough with the steps that he ascends them with ease. Besides, his eyes are very good, and he can peer well enough into the shadows.
As he turns into the first-floor landing, he can dimly make out the form of someone lying on the floor by the water closets, about a metre away. Vagrants are often to be found kipping in the stairwell, however, and Crow barely glances at the inert figure as he continues on. He reaches No. 35 and slips inside. Minutes later, he’s fast asleep, and doesn’t leave the flat again until 9:30 a.m. When he passes the spot where he saw the body, it’s no longer there.
Later, Crow will be unable to tell police if the body he saw belonged to a man or woman … or if the person had been alive or dead.
Inside No. 37 George Yard Buildings, John Reeves sits up in bed and yawns. The time is 4:45 a.m. and he’ll be lucky if he got more than two hours of sleep. Starting at about 11:30 p.m., there were a number of dreadful rows and cries coming from the direction of Wentworth and George Street to the north. The fighting had gotten so fierce that at one point he and his wife, Louisa, were brought out to the balcony by the terrible cries they heard. The couple were only able to drift off to sleep when the fracas finally died down shortly after 2 a.m.
Bloody Whitechapel, he thinks to himself.
As tired as he is, though, his work as a casual waterside labourer means he has to get down to the docks now if he wants to find work for the day. He rises languidly out of bed, being careful not to disturb the still-sleeping Louisa. In a few minutes he’s washed and dressed, and steps out of No. 37. He closes the door shut behind him and begins descending the steps that Alfred Crow had passed up not an hour and a half before.
As Reeves approaches the first-floor landing, however, his eyes catch something: a dark mass lying in a heap near the foot of the stairs. His pace slows. He stops. His eyes grow wide. In the grey light of the new morning, there’s no mistaking what he sees.
A dead woman.
Lying in a pool of blood.
Reeves dashes out into Wentworth Street, his heart pounding. He looks around — but the street is empty. There has to be a policeman about. He runs towards Commercial Street, keeping his eyes peeled for the tell-tale blue helmet and pickelhaube. There! He catches sight of Police Constable Thomas Barrett of H-Division (Whitechapel) on his beat and runs up to him.
“There’s been a murder!” he pants. He points up the street. “A woman!”
“A murder?” Barrett says. “Where?”
Reeves leads the way as the two men run up the street. Another P.C. comes strolling into view from George Street. Barrett calls out to him as they pass.
“You there — constable! I need assistance!”
“There’s been a murder! A woman!”
The three men rush into the mean-looking George Yard Buildings and scramble up the steps. At the first-floor landing, Barrett and the other constable gape at the grim horror before them.
Martha Tabram is last seen walking north into George Yard. She is found murdered five hours later. Click here for a map of all the Whitechapel murder sites of 1888-91.
The woman is obviously dead, laying on the cold concrete floor in a large pool of blood. Her lifeless eyes stare unblinkingly ahead. Her clothes are torn and disarranged to such an extent that she is almost nude. Her jacket has been pulled apart to expose her naked breasts, her skirt pushed up to the waist and her petticoat torn asunder. The positioning of her legs – bent at the knees and spread open to reveal her sex – suggests one thing to Barrett.
This woman has been raped, he thought. Outraged.
Angry stab wounds mar the woman’s flesh wherever it has been laid bare. Her arms lay by her sides with the hands clenched tightly upwards. Careful so as not to tread in the blood, Barrett leans in for a better look; the fingers don’t appear to be gripping anything. He steps back and turns to the other constable.
The woman is obviously dead.
“I’ll remain with the body,” he tells him. “Go find Dr. Killeen, on Brick Lane — go!” The policeman hastily runs off. Barrett takes out a notepad and turns to the ashen-faced Reeves.
“Do you know this woman?”
“No,” Reeves replies, “she’s a perfect stranger to me.”
“And you live here? In this tenement?”
“Aye, with my wife. The name’s John Reeves. We live at the top of the staircase. Number thirty-seven. I was off to the docks to look for work, an’ I found her like this.” He glances at the body, then shudders and looks away. “It’s an awful sight.”
“Go find Dr. Killeen, on Brick Lane — go!”
Barrett scribbles into his notepad.
“Was there anyone else?”
“No. I saw no foot-marks on the stairwell, and no knife or anything else laying about.”
“And you’re heading to work?”
“Aye, to the docks.”
Barrett makes a final note and puts his pad away. “Alright, then — on your way. We’ll have an officer come visit you tonight for a statement.”
A grateful Reeves departs, leaving the young constable alone with the corpse. Barrett makes a cursory examination of the area, looking for clues that might point in the direction of the killer. The woman’s body lies at the foot of a stone step leading into a cramped chamber of water closets. He steps inside and peers around. Nothing. He goes back out onto the landing and inspects the floor, the walls, the stairs leading up and down from the body — still nothing. No bloody footprints, no murder weapon … the woman might as well have been done in by a phantasm. He stands on the stairs and awaits the arrival of the doctor.
At 5:30 a.m. he hears footfalls on the stairwell. The other constable climbs into view, accompanied by a bespeckled man carrying a surgical bag.
“Here he is,” says the policeman.
“Dr. Timothy Killeen,” states the newcomer. He surveys the mess on the landing and shakes his head.
He crouches next to the body, gently takes a wrist and checks for a pulse. He looks up at Barrett.
“If you haven’t already, send for an ambulance. I’ll examine her till it arrives.”
“You heard the man,” says Barrett to the other constable, “we’ll need a push-cart.” The policeman sprints off again.
A few minutes later, the doctor rises to his feet.
“Well,” he says bluntly, “she’s dead. I would say three hours. Enough stabs wounds in her to do the job, too.” He gestures to different areas of the body as he continues. “I’ve counted thirty-nine in the body and legs … no less than nine in the throat … seventeen in the breast. The same weapon was used — a small knife, perhaps, except for that one there,” he points to a deep wound in the centre of the woman’s chest, “through the breast bone. A dagger did that … or perhaps a bayonet.”
A bayonet? Barrett’s mind reaches back. He recalls speaking to someone a few hours ago … a soldier … “Anything else?”
They hear commotion and several voices outside; the ambulance has arrived.
“No, that’s all for now,” the doctor tells Barrett. “Take her to the mortuary at Old Montague. I’ll find out more there.” He disappears down the steps.
Two policemen join Barrett on the landing and prepare to move the body to the waiting ambulance, but he barely acknowledges their presence. His mind is ablaze.
A photograph is taken of the unknown woman at the mortuary and shown to area residents by police hoping for an identification. Henry Tabram eventually comes forward and confirms the body is that of his estranged wife, Martha Tabram.
What We Know
Name: Martha Tabram
Discovered murdered: Tuesday, August 7th, 1888 at around 5 a.m.
Location of discovery: first floor landing, George Yard Buildings, Whitechapel
Cause of Death
“Violent willful murder against some person or persons unknown” — death certificate No. 280, registered August 25th, 1888 (DAZ 048849)
“Death was due to loss of blood consequent on the injuries” — inquest finding
- black bonnet
- long black jacket
- dark green skirt
- brown petticoat
- one pair of spring-sided boots (showing considerable age)
- walking into George Yard with a guardsman at around 11:45 p.m.
Begg, Paul, and John Bennett. The Complete and Essential Jack the Ripper. 2013.
Begg, Paul; Fido, Martin; Skinner, Keith. The Complete Jack the Ripper A-Z: the Ultimate Guide to the Ripper Mystery. 2015.
Moore, Alan, and Eddie Campbell. From Hell. 1994.
Rumbelow, Donald. Jack the Ripper: The Complete Casebook. 1988.
Wescott, Tom. The Bank Holiday Murders: The True Story of the First Whitechapel Murders. 2013.
Various newspapers of Victorian London, notably:
The Illustrated Police News
Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper
The Pall Mall Gazette
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