38 MATTHEW PACKER
‘Peel me a grape,’ is now remembered by most of us as a line from a woman who knew how to keep a man in his place. The phrase occurs in the 1933 Mae West movie, I’m No Angel. Rather than make her sidekick Cary Grant blink, West gives the order to her Afro-American servant. What she actually says is ‘Oh, Beulah, peel me a grape.’ Matthew Packer is remembered but not with the same generosity afforded to Mae West. The majority view is that Packer was an opportunistic liar ready to say anything that might earn him money and boost his business. Packer sold fruit from the window of his home at Berner Street. From his home Packer could see the entrance to Dutfield’s Yard. Liz Stride was discovered dead in Dutfield’s Yard at 1 a.m., 30th September 1888. Catherine Eddowes was murdered in Mitre Square. Her murder happened after 1.30 a.m. but before 1.45 a.m. The distance between the two murder sites can be walked in less than fifteen minutes but the killings occurred in different areas of London. Stride was killed in Whitechapel, and Eddowes was murdered in the City.
Because there is disagreement about both the character of Matthew Packer and the role of the police, a chronological schedule of events is necessary. According to Sergeant White, on the day of the two murders he visited Berner Street to establish if there were any witnesses to the murder of Liz Stride. He spoke to the Packer family. All of them said that they had seen nothing. Two days later on the 2nd October 1888 two private detectives called Charles Le Grande and J H Batchelor arrived at the murder scene, saw the fruit shop and asked if Packer had seen anything. Packer stated that at some point after midnight he had sold half a pound of black grapes to a man and a woman. The next day, 3rd October 1888, Packer, Le Grande and Batchelor talked to the Evening News.
On the 4th October 1888 the Evening News reported what Packer was supposed to have seen. The newspaper revealed that the story was sourced by a ‘special commissioner’. The Evening News reported that Packer had seen Stride and the man standing in the rain and talking. Packer told someone, either the ‘special commissioner’ from the Evening News or the two detectives, that he had mentioned it to his wife. ‘Why them people must be a couple a’ fools, to stand out there in the rain, when they might just as well have had shelter.’ Packer had also added that the police had neither approached nor interviewed him.
Inspector Moore was attached to the Ripper investigation. The day the article was published in the Evening News, the 4th of October, Inspector Moore ordered Sergeant Stephen White to visit Matthew Packer. Sergeant White called at the home of Packer but was directed to the mortuary where he met Packer and the two detectives. Le Grande and Batchelor had taken Packer to the mortuary to identify the woman he had seen with the man who had bought the grapes. Because the murder sites occurred in different areas, the two women were not in the same mortuary. Packer was first taken to the City Morgue. The fruit seller told the detectives that Catherine Eddowes was not the woman he had seen at his shop window. At the mortuary in Whitechapel he identified Liz Stride as the woman for whom the man had bought the grapes. Sergeant White wrote this in his report of 4th October. ‘I asked for their Authority, one of the men produced a card from a pocket book, but would not allow me to touch it. They then induced Packer to go away with them.’ Later that day Sergeant White returned to the home of Matthew Packer. Again the two detectives arrived. This time they took Packer to Scotland Yard where he made a statement to Assistant Commissioner Alexander Carmichael Bruce.
In his report dated 4th October 1888 Sergeant White described his visits to the mortuary and the home of Matthew Packer. The same report from White contradicted what had been reported by the Evening News that morning. In his report Sergeant White recalled that he had spoken to Packer on the day of the murder, 30th September 1888. According to the report, Sergeant White had not been remiss on the day of the murder. Packer had said, ‘No I saw no one standing about neither did I see anyone go up the yard. I never saw anything suspicious or heard the slightest noise and know nothing about the murder until I heard of it in the morning.’
Someone somewhere in Whitechapel was not telling the truth. Much of what happened on the 4th of October was odd. Sergeant White agreed that two private detectives could take ownership of a witness to a murder. That day Sergeant White visited twice the home of a man who had told him four days earlier that he had seen nothing. Sergeant White appears to have taken no action to challenge Packer about the contradiction in what may be the two statements of Packer. Nor does the report of Sergeant White explain why it took him four days to remember the initial interview with Packer.
The motives of private detective Le Grande are also unclear. He may have been one of the detectives employed by the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee to manage the vigilantes that patrolled the streets of Whitechapel. This, though, has never been confirmed. In 1887 Le Grande had been sentenced to eight years in prison for a series of thefts. In 1889 he was sentenced to two years in prison for sending a threatening letter to a Harley Street surgeon and demanding money. In 1891 he was charged with sending to wealthy women letters that demanded money and threatened to kill them. Le Grande and J H Batchelor may have contacted Packer with the idea of selling a scoop to a newspaper but it was Louis Diemshitz and Isaac Kozebrodski who raised the possibility that Stride was holding grapes when she died.
Bruce Robinson alleges in They All Love Jack that the police did not want the Ripper identified because he was a Freemason. He believes that the report of Sergeant White dated the 4th of October was a concoction prepared after the event. Robinson adds the dubious assumption that Le Grande and Batchelor were hired by the police with the intention of discrediting the witness Packer. Most Ripperologists believe that Packer was a liar and that Le Grande and Batchelor had one ambition, which was to tell a false story and make money. They argue that the subsequent behaviour of Packer weakened his credibility as a witness. His subsequent statements to the police were not consistent, and he produced fresh incidents and sightings that connected Packer to the Ripper. Packer was willing to exploit his celebrity and improved business profile. This, though, does not mean that he told lies when he spoke to the Evening News on the 3rd of October.
The truth is we will never know if the intentions of Packer were genuine. Nor can we be certain about the behaviour of the police. The statement Packer gave to Assistant Commissioner Alexander Carmichael Bruce is different from what he told the Evening News. The differences are slight but telling. This time the man that bought the grapes has a rough voice and the incident occurs not before midnight but at 11.30 pm. We are entitled to be suspicious of what happened in Scotland Yard. It is peculiar that Packer was interviewed by an Assistant Commissioner. The Victorians did not pioneer delegation, and interviewing witnesses was not a task that would have been assigned to Assistant Commissioners. The changes in the witness statement can be interpreted as honest mistakes but they are too slight and too telling to feel authentic. Everything in the second statement that lacks consequence agrees with the first statement. And in the statement taken by the Assistant Commissioner there is no reference to what Packer was supposed to have told Sergeant White the day Liz Stride was murdered. This is either conspiratorial or an example of why Assistant Commissioners should not be allowed to interview witnesses.
The problem with the role of Packer in the Ripper investigation is that none of it is conspiracy theory free. We either have a corrupt police force, criminal private detectives out to make money, or both. To claim a conspiracy to hide the identity of the Ripper is too bold. Packer was an embarrassment to the police force because he exposed the failure of Sergeant White to interview the neighbours at Berner Street. This is why Packer was not called to the inquest into the death of Liz Stride. Neither is it likely that the story by Packer was invention. Too much happened on the night of the murder. It is possible to imagine a story being created by Packer to earn money from a newspaper but anyone with that intention is unlikely to tell a police sergeant an account that contradicts what will appear in the newspaper. The morning she was murdered, Liz Stride was seen with different men. She was soliciting for customers. In Ripper Confidential the author Tom Wescott demonstrates how the chronology of events at the time of the murder has become confused. It is possible that Packer did see the man that killed Liz Stride. But, if he did, Packer saw a carefree assassin prone to linger. This was not the way the Ripper operated. If Packer did see the assassin of Stride, we not only have to have doubts about whether the Ripper was her murderer but wonder why such a fuss has been made about the honesty of Matthew Packer.
Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.