10 Killings in Victorian London were Overshadowed by Jack the Ripper's Crimes
10 Killings in Victorian London were Overshadowed by Jack the Ripper’s Crimes

10 Killings in Victorian London were Overshadowed by Jack the Ripper’s Crimes

D.G. Hewitt - June 24, 2018

Victorian-era London was an exciting time if you were a fan of murder mysteries and true crime. Almost every week, there would be a new story for you to feast upon, and the newspapers and periodicals of the day certainly never spared any details. Above all, there was a huge public appetite for stories of murders: the who, what, why and, perhaps above all, the how of killings were reported in minute detail. The photos of the victims were widely circulated and, if they were caught, the culprits became infamous celebrities, often right up to the moment of their execution.

But, of course, when it comes to crime in Victorian London, Jack the Ripper looms large in the popular imagination, often eclipsing all other crimes. Stories or gore, lust, greed and revenge have been lost to popular history thanks to our obsession with ‘Saucy Jack’. So, here we have ten crimes that shook London at the time but have been largely forgotten about today. In some cases, the culprits were caught and justice was served. But in other cases, the crimes went unsolved and remain a mystery…

10 Killings in Victorian London were Overshadowed by Jack the Ripper’s Crimes
Marie Manning swung for her crime – which was motivated by pure greed. Wikipedia.

“The Bermondsey Horror”

These days, Bermondsey, just south of the Thames and close to the iconic Tower Bridge, is a buzzing, metropolitan and increasingly popular part of London. So it’s hard to imagine that this area of fine restaurants and hipster coffee shops was once the scene of one of the most horrific crimes of the Victorian era. In fact, it was a crime so shocking that it became known as the “Bermondsey horror”. After all, it had everything: a husband and wife team of killers, a spurned lover, a grisly murder and, to the delight of the public, a satisfying conclusion, ending with a colorful trial and then a double execution.

Marie Manning had come to London from her native Switzerland in the 1840s. Like many women of her low social background, she found work in domestic service.. It was here in London where she met the two men whose fate would become intertwined with her own. First, she met Patrick O’Connor, a moneylender who had amassed a tidy fortune and earned himself a reputation as a hard man in the London Docks area. The pair became lovers. Marie then met a pub landlord by the name of Frederick George Manning. She married him and took his name.

After a while, Marie realised that she would never get rich with Manning. Though he promised her that he was set to inherit a great fortune in order to convince her to marry him, this looked increasingly like a lie. Having developed a taste for the finer things in life through her work with the upper classes, Marie looked for another get-rich-quick scheme. She came up with the plan to kill O’Connor, whom she had still been seeing despite getting married, and runaway with his riches. One evening, then, she invited O’Connor to her Bermondsey house for dinner. The trap was set.

Before they dined, Marie suggested to her guest that he might want to wash his hands. He agreed and, as he stood over the sink, she took out a pistol and shot him, point-blank, in the head. Remarkably, this didn’t do the job. So, Manning, who was in on the plan, fetched an iron bar and caved his head in. The murderous couple then tossed the body into a pre-dug grave under their kitchen floor and covered back up with heavy flagstones. Over the next couple of days, Marie went to O’Connor’s home and started taking his share certificates, cash and even his furniture.

Soon, O’Connor’s friends grew suspicious. Two of them visited the Manning household. While they found nothing, they nevertheless notified the police of their suspicions. The day after, constables came round and noticed liquid coming out of the kitchen floor. They lifted the stones and found the body. It didn’t take long for the culprits to be apprehended: Marie in Edinburgh and Manning in Jersey. The pair had fled having divided up the loot. They were brought before a judge at the Old Bailey and, after a trial that lasted two days, found guilty and condemned to death.

According to newspaper reports of the time, Marie tried to strangle one of her female guards while awaiting execution. On the day, however, she faced the hangman with calm. Which is more than can be said for the watching crowd. Charles Dickens estimated that as many as 50,000 people came to watch. Manning dropped first, and then Marie. The story of the Bermondsey Horror had a suitable ending.

10 Killings in Victorian London were Overshadowed by Jack the Ripper’s Crimes
Kate Webster’s face became infamous throughout London after she killed her demanding employer. Wikipedia.

The Barnes Murder

Barnes has always been a quiet suburb of London. The city’s richest residents have been – and indeed still are – attracted by its village-like look and feel, the chance to enjoy some calm just a few miles from the hustle and bustle of the big city. But in the spring of 1879, one of the most notorious murders of the Victorian era took place right here. Over the decades, the tale has been told many times, and myth and fact have often become intertwined. But even without the added extras, the bare bones of the case are definitely shocking enough.

In January of 1879, the 55-year-old Julia Martha Thomas wanted to employ a new housekeeper. Though she was by no means rich, she had been widowed twice and so had enough money for her own live-in servant. Kate Webster applied for the position and Thomas gave her the job. What she didn’t know, however, was that the Irish-born Webster was a career criminal. She had spent the past 20 years moving through London, committing robberies and petty thefts. She was in and out of jail and frequently changed her name. Nevertheless, Thomas gave her the job and, on January 29, she moved into the Barnes cottage to start work.

Almost from day one, the relationship between the two women became sour. Thomas felt her new servant was lacking the necessary domestic skills and she frequently criticized Webster’s cleaning and cooking. Within days, Thomas gave Webster her notice: she would leave her employ within three weeks. For some reason, Thomas agreed to keep the younger lady on for a further three days. The final day of the working arrangement was a Sunday. As usual, Thomas went to church, though she arrived late because she had been arguing with a drunken Webster. When she returned home, the arguing started again. Only this time, it turned violent.

According to Webster’s own account, in a fit of rage, she pushed her employer down the stairs. Thomas started screaming and, determined to shut her up, Webster strangled her to death. Webster then tried to cover up her crime. She cut up the body, boiling much of it in copper pots. She carried on her grisly work for two days, during which time she pretended to the neighbours that everything was normal. Then, with the help of unsuspecting former friends, she tossed a box full of the remains into the River Thames. She also threw a foot into a vegetable garden and buried the head in the grounds of a pub.

Webster posed as Thomas for several days. She even sold her furniture to a nearby pub. But soon, the neighbours became very suspicious. Webster fled to Ireland. When police came to the cottage, they found blood stains and even the remains of bones in the hearth. They also found a letter addressed to Webster – this gave them their prime suspect. Before long, she was apprehended and sent back to stand trial in London.

For six days, the court heard of Webster’s wickedness. A jury of her peers found her guilty and, days before she was due to hang, Webster confessed to the crime. She was hanged and buried in an unmarked grave. In a nice twist, the victim’s head was finally found in the summer of 2011. Workers digging in the garden of the house of famous British naturalist and TV presenter Sir David Attenborough made the grisly discovery, with scientists confirming the head did indeed belong to the poor Mrs. Thomas.

10 Killings in Victorian London were Overshadowed by Jack the Ripper’s Crimes
Richard Dadd was famous as an artist, and then infamous as a crazed killer. Wikipedia.

The Richard Dadd Case

In Victorian England, single-victim murders rarely became sensational events – unless they involved sexual intrigue or featured a famous victim or perpetrator. The Richard Dadd case made headlines for the second reason. Though he might be largely forgotten now, in his day, Dadd was one of Britain’s most famous artists. He earned both wealth and prestige from his works and was praised by high society. All of which made his descent into madness and the brutal murder of his own father all the more shocking.

Dadd was born in 1817 and, by the age of 20, he had been admitted to the prestigious Royal Academy of Arts. In 1840, he was employed as a draftsman for an expedition of British explorers through Greece and Egypt. It was while cruising the Nile that Dadd, by all accounts, underwent a severe personality shift. Under the Egyptian sun, he became short-tempered and delusional. He even believed himself to be guided by the Ancient Egyptian god Osiris. His worried family insisted he spend some time in the Kent countryside to recover upon his return to England. Dadd agreed, though he got worse rather than better.

On the evening of August 28, 1843, Dadd was strolling through a park with his father. All of a sudden, Dadd attacked: he slashed his own father’s throat with a razor and then stabbed him in the chest repeatedly as the older man tried to fight back. Still in a daze, Dadd fled to Dover and caught a ferry to France. Though he made it to Paris, he carried on moving and then attacked a coach passenger with a razor. The man survived and Dadd was overpowered and apprehended. He was soon sent back to England, where he had already been labelled a mad man and judged to be criminally insane.

The authorities agreed with the popular verdict, especially after Dadd told them that the god, Orisis, had told him that his father was in fact the devil in disguise and needed to be killed. He was sent first to the Bedlam asylum and then to the secure Broadmoor Hospital. He continued painting and receiving visitors right up until his death in 1886. It’s now believed that Dadd suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and, despite his crime, examples of his work can still be found in galleries around the world.

10 Killings in Victorian London were Overshadowed by Jack the Ripper’s Crimes
The Thames Torso Murders shocked London, though newspaper readers loved all the grizzly details.Wikipedia.

The Thames Torso Murders

On the morning of September 5, 1873, a policeman rowing down the River Thames made a grisly discovery: in some mud next to the Battersea waterworks, he saw some human remains. Or, to be more precise, he found the left quarter of a woman’s torso. What’s more, just a few hundred meters away, a fellow officer found the right side of a woman’s torso floating in the Thames. Then, the next day, a face and a scalp – not attached to a full head – were found, followed by a thigh, then part of an arm and also a shoulder. The Thames Torso Murders sensation had started.

Dr Kempster, the police surgeon at the time, had an ingenious, albeit horrific, way of trying to solve the mystery. He made a mechanical frame on which he placed the body parts, including the head. Then, members of the public were invited to see if they could identify the victim, believed to be a woman aged around 40. Though many people came to have a look – testament to both the morbid curiosity of the time and also to the sheer number of women who would go missing in Victorian London – nobody could provide a name. But Dr Kempster did conclude that the body had been cut up by someone who knew how to wield a scalpel.

Five years later, the dismembered remains of a second woman were found in various locations across central London. Again, the police were baffled, though they once again noted that the perpetrator was somebody with medical knowledge. In 1889, a third body turned up in pieces. For more than two weeks, body parts began turning up across Battersea. This time, the examiners concluded that the victim was young and heavily pregnant. This was enough information to find an identify. The victim was named as Elizabeth Jackson, an alleged prostitute from Chelsea, directly across the river from Battersea. And the murderer? Nobody knows.

After a fourth cut-up body was found in September 1899, the media speculation went into overdrive. Some suspected Jack the Ripper and the “Torso Killer” were one and the same person. However, given the different methods used, the police and the press largely concluded that two killers were busy in London. In more recent years, historians have claimed that the killer might have been active in Paris, too, as cut-up female bodies started turning up in the French capital around the same time. To this day, however, no one has been conclusively identified as the Torso Killer and his hideous crimes have long been overshadowed by those of the Ripper.

10 Killings in Victorian London were Overshadowed by Jack the Ripper’s Crimes
Harriet Buswell’s gruesome murder was never solved, though a German churchman was strongly suspected. Pinterest.

The Harriet Buswell Slaying

In poverty-ridden Victorian London, many women felt they had no choice but to sell their bodies simply to survive. But working as a prostitute was not only unpleasant, it was also very, very dangerous. Famously, Jack the Ripper targeted ladies of the night, but he was far from the only one. Indeed, there are countless instances of prostitutes being killed on London’s streets during the Victorian era. And, while some slayings were solved and the murderers brought to justice, other killers were never caught. Harriet Buswell was one victim who never got to enjoy justice from beyond the grave.

Harriet was an aspiring actress and dreamed of performing on the stage. According to her own daughter, she did have a few, small roles at the famous Alhambra Theatre, but it these were never enough to pay the rent. Instead, she worked as a prostitute, meeting men in the West End and then entertaining them at her rented room in Bloomsbury. On Christmas Eve of 1972, she did just this. Witnesses saw her with a ‘German-looking gentleman’ at the theatre. The pair headed back to her flat, where her landlady noticed them, then they locked the door for the night.

The neighbours heard heavy footsteps – assumed to be the strange man’s – at around 6:30am the following morning. But there was no sign of Harriet. By midday, her landlady had grown concerned. She went up the stairs and forced the door open. What she saw made her blood freeze. Harriet was lying face-up in bed, covered in blood. Her throat had been cut and she had been left to bleed to death. A few small items were found to be missing from the room, but nothing of great value. After all, Harriet was an impoverished prostitute, so the police ruled out robbery as a motive.

The following days, the police pursued the only lead they had – that the culprit was a German-looking man. Their investigation led them to the port of Ramsgate and the German-owned ship the Wangerland. The ship’s crew were brought in to be examined by the witnesses. Two of them independently identified the ship’s chaplain, Dr Henry Hessel, as the man they had seen with Harriet that night. It also emerged that Dr Hessel had asked a chambermaid at the Ramsgate hotel he was staying in with his wife for some spirits to clean some bloodied handkerchiefs.

Despite the mounting evidence, no charges were brought against Dr Hessel. Some historians believe that he was most definitely guilty – he had a history of violence against women – but that the police refused to believe that an educated, well-spoken chaplain could be capable of such a violent crime. Was Harriet his first victim? Or even his last? Or, as some have more recently speculated, was Harriet’s killing one of Jack the Ripper’s earlier crimes? Did the infamous serial killer practice the art of killing behind closed doors before taking it out onto the streets years later?

10 Killings in Victorian London were Overshadowed by Jack the Ripper’s Crimes
Londoners loved reading all the details of Madame Caroline Besant Riel’s violent killing. Daily Mail.

The Park Lane Murder

The Victorian public loved few things more than stories of murder and high society. And the Park Lane Murder combined both of these. What’s more, it involved a young, foreign woman and was fueled by pure greed. It had all the ingredients of a hit newspaper crime serial – except, of course, that it was all completely true.

It was January 1872 when Madame Caroline Besant Riel finally took on a new cook to work in her Park Lane house, right in the fashionable heart of London. The 46-year-old Belgian widow opted to employ a fellow French speaker, 29-year-old Marguerite Dixblanc. From the very start, however, the two had a fractious relationship. By all accounts, Mme Riel was a tough employer with high standards and an extremely quick temper. She would routinely scold her staff and heated arguments between her and her new cook – always conducted in loud, passionate French – were everyday occurrences in the Park Lane household.

Then, on Sunday 7 April, the arguments came to an abrupt halt. At 4pm that afternoon, Dixblanc announced her intention to go to church. But instead of going to pray, she took a taxi to Victoria Station and then headed to the coast. She was soon on her way across the Channel to her native France. In London, meanwhile, the other staff soon started to grow worried. After Mme Riel hadn’t been seen for more than a day, they searched the house. To their horror, they found the widow folded up and hidden in a locked pantry. Her dead body was covered in bruises. What’s more, money was missing, and so too was the cook.

It didn’t take long for the London police to alert their counterparts in Paris. Dixblanc was arrested and sent back to London to face justice. The fact that she was found in Paris with a large sum of money on her person meant that hopes were high of a conviction. Indeed, Dixblanc never denied her guilt. Rather, she insisted she killed Mme Riel in self-defence: she claimed her employer had attacked her verbally after one of their many arguments about the quality of her cooking turned violent.

The judge overseeing the case declared that verbal abuse by an employer was not a good enough defence for murder. Furthermore, he noted that Dixblanc had enjoyed her victim’s finest wines before escaping the scene. He sentenced her to hang, though this was later commuted to a full life sentence. She died behind bars. As an interesting side note, historians have since revealed that Mme Riel was a long-term mistress of the 5th Earl of Lucan – the 7th man to hold the title would himself vanish after the brutal murder of his children’s nanny in 1974.

10 Killings in Victorian London were Overshadowed by Jack the Ripper’s Crimes
Young girls went missing in the West Ham area of London, and the killer got away with it. Murder Research.

The West Ham Vanishings

Between 1882 and 1899, a number of young females disappeared in and around the West Ham area of East London. Some of them were found, their bodies dumped in public ground. Clearly, a serial killer was at large here at the end of the Victorian era. However, while the police had their suspicions, nobody was ever charged with the slayings. What’s more, the crimes have largely vanished into obscurity, unlike those of Jack the Ripper, whose handiwork in Whitechapel, just a few short miles away, has become the stuff of dark legend.

The first girls started going missing in the early 1880s. Both Mary Seward and Eliza Carter disappeared without a trace, leaving relatives and detectives baffled. A dress was found in West Ham Park, and witnesses even came forward claiming to have seen the girls being dragged through the streets of not just London but a number of other places, including Portsmouth, many miles away. But it wasn’t until 1890 when police thought they had made a breakthrough. This time, 15-year-old Amelia Jeffs vanished – and then her body was found in an empty house in the Portway area.

The police turned their attentions to Joseph Roberts, the builder who had constructed the new terrace houses at Portway. Additionally, his father, the nightwatchman for the site, was also a prime suspect. However, there was nowhere near enough evidence to link either men to this murder or to any of the other six ‘vanishings’. In 1899, children suddenly stopped disappearing off the streets of West Ham. Could it be that the serial killer moved away? Or had he died himself?

These days, the house where Amelia Jeffs’s body was found is still standing and remains something of a macabre local landmark. Apart from that, the West Ham Vanishings have largely been forgotten about, with the Jack the Ripper killings hogging the limelight. One reason for this could be the fact that children vanishing was hardly uncommon in Victorian London. There were often stories of gangs luring children and young adults away for lives of slavery (or worse) in other cities, or even across the Channel in France or Belgium. It seems highly unlikely, then, that this spate of crimes will ever be solved or explained.

 

10 Killings in Victorian London were Overshadowed by Jack the Ripper’s Crimes
The cannon Street murder intrigued London. Who would want to kill an old lady? The History Press.

The Cannon Street Murder

It was a case which, for a few short weeks, shocked the whole of London. A seemingly innocent old housekeeper had been brutally murdered. The motive was unclear. After all, Mrs Sarah Millson was far from rich. Plus, she had no enemies anyone could think of. By all accounts, the elderly widow lived a quiet life on Canon Street, in the heart of London. Slowly, however, new details started emerging, shedding new light on the 1866 killing.

Though she was elderly, Mrs Millson was still employed as a housekeeper. She lived above her employer’s premises on Canon Street and was there almost every night. On the evening of April 11, 1862, she heard a knock on the door. She went down and, upon opening it, was mercilessly bludgeoned to death. Investigators arriving on the scene found huge amounts of blood. They also found a crowbar lying nearby. Despite the fact it was clean of bloodstains, the police believed this to be the murder weapon.

Before long, the London police had identified a prime suspect. William Smith was well known to them. He was a petty criminal with a long history of crimes and misdemeanours. His fate looked sealed when a witness came forward claiming she had seen him on the scene at Cannon Street on the evening in question. Smith was brought before the Old Bailey court. But then, his defence team revealed that the witness may have been bribed by the police to give her evidence. What’s more, Smith had a solid alibi. The case against him collapsed and he was set free. Mrs Millson’s murder was simply added to the huge list of unsolved crimes in Victorian London.

More recently, however, historians have found proof that Mrs Millson may have been the victim of blackmail. The records show that she was a bigamist: she had left one husband and then married another. All the evidence suggests that an unknown man – or woman – was blackmailing her, threatening to reveal her secret unless she paid up. Could it be that she finally refused to give in to blackmail and ended up paying the ultimate price?

10 Killings in Victorian London were Overshadowed by Jack the Ripper’s Crimes
The Lambeth Poisoner made headlines for weeks, and finally hung for his crimes. Wikipedia.

The Lambeth Poisoner

When Dr Thomas Neill Cream was found guilty of murder by poison in Illinois in 1881, that should have put an end to his murdering ways. Instead, just ten years into his sentence, the Scottish-born physician was free. According to the official records, the state Governor had given in to Cream’s brother’s petition for clemency, though it’s far more likely that some degree of bribery was involved. Whatever the reason for Cream quite literally getting away with murder, by the autumn of 1891, he was in the impoverished Lambeth area of London – and busy killing again.

The sick physician liked to target the most vulnerable members of society in Victorian London – the city’s prostitutes. On 13 October 1891, he met a 19-year-old prostitute named Nellie Donworth. She naively accepted a drink from Cream. It was laced with strychnine and she died in agony. A week later, he struck again, this time killing a 27-year-old woman. He then took a break from murdering to holiday in Canada, but in April of the following year, he was back. This time, he poisoned two young prostitutes at the same time, though one other lady got away after becoming suspicious of the pills Cream offered her.

The so-called Lambeth Poisoner might have got away with his crimes had it not been for the letters. As well as killing, Cream also took delight in trying to frame others for the crimes. He would write letters to the police, giving them anonymous tip-offs. But on one occasion, he blamed another man for a murder that was still being investigated as an accidental death. Clearly the anonymous letter writer knew far more about the crimes than an innocent, concerned citizen would. Finally, when a visiting New York policeman claimed to have been given a creepy guided tour of the Lambeth murder locations by Cream himself, the police identified him as their man.

Cream was charged with four murders in total, though he may have killed many more. The trial gripped London – after all, it involved poison, a doctor and, thanks to the victims being prostitutes, a hint of sex and scandal. The jury needed just 12 minutes to find him guilty of all charges. Less than a month later, Cream met the hangman and was on his way to an unmarked grave. But not before he gave us one last mystery. According to the hangman James Billington, Cream started to speak when the noose was around his neck. He managed to say “I am Jack…” before the trapdoor opened. Could it be that he was confessing to the crimes of Jack the Ripper? The theory has been widely dismissed, but still, to this day, the suspicion won’t go away entirely.

10 Killings in Victorian London were Overshadowed by Jack the Ripper’s Crimes
Did a guilty man get away with murder in south-east London? The public definitely thought so. Wikipedia.

The Eltham Murder

In the early hours of April 26, 1871, 17-year-old Jane Maria Coulson was found bleeding and barely conscious on a street in Eltham, south-east London. She had been bludgeoned with a hammer. The weapon was found nearby, but, more puzzling than that, so too had her purse. It still contained a nice sum of money. Clearly, robbery was not the motive. Nor was there any suggestion of a sexual motive for the attack. Coulson was taken to hospital and died four days later. But before she succumbed to her wounds, she made a revelation: her killer was Edmund Pook.

Pook was a 20-year-old printer, living and working in nearby Greenwich. It turned out that Coulson had been working as a maid for the Pook family and had become romantically involved with their son. What’s more, Coulson claimed that she had fallen pregnant but, determined not to anger his father by marrying below his social status, he refused to do the honorable thing and wed. Instead, Coulson was dismissed from her maid’s job and Pook had ended their relationship completely. This combination of class, sex and murder inevitably caught the public’s imagination and the story became front page news right across London.

The evidence against Pook began to mount: As well as his victim’s dying testimony, a local shopkeeper claimed to have sold Pook the hammer used to kill Coulson. What’s more, witnesses said they had seen a man matching Pook’s description running from the scene on the night in question. A conviction looked highly likely, and a large crowd gathered outside the courthouse to see justice was done. But then the judge ruled that Coluson’s deathbed revelations could not be admitted as evidence. In the end, Pook was acquitted – and the public were indignant with rage.

According to some press reports, Pook’s high social class allowed him to get away with murder. Others claimed that the judge and the accused’s father were close and this could have swayed his judgement. Despite his acquittal, the accusations wouldn’t go away, and the whole Pook family were forced to change their name and move away. While London’s newspaper readers got a lot of enjoyment out of the case, young Jane Maria Coulson never did get justice. In fact, it’s still said that her ghost haunts the quiet street where she was killed and some Londoners refuse to walk down there after dark.

 

Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Head found in David Attenborough’s garden was murder victim.” The Telegraph, July 2011.

“Richard Dadd: The art of a ‘criminal lunatic’ murderer.” BBC News Magazine, November 2015.

“Dismemberment in Victorian London: The Thames Torso Murders.” The University of Leicester, May 2016.

“The West Ham Vanishings.” Richard Jones, Jack the Ripper Walking Tours, February 2016.

“The grisly Victorian murders you’ve never heard of.” Rory Tingle, The Daily Mail, January 2018.

“The Murder of Mrs Sarah Millson at Cannon St.” The National Archives.

“The true story of Jane Coulson, by her cousin.” Friends of Brockley & Ladywell Cemeteries.

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