Charles Dickens

JACK THE RIPPER ‘THE DEMENTED GENIUS’ HIS DEEDS AND TIMES

35 LEATHER APRON

 

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It began with gossip and rumour about someone who may or may not have existed. At some point conviction was added to the story.  Some women in Whitechapel claimed that they were being pestered by a violent blackmailer. The general pest that annoyed the women always wore a leather apron. Some of these women talked about Leather Apron as if they had really seen him, others as if the male bullying they all suffered could be contained in a single identity.  In 1888 the Whitechapel murders happened and more than one person encouraged by newspaper reporters assumed that the brutish monster known as Leather Apron was also the Ripper. The women who added conviction to the rumours were lodging in a doss house at 18 Thrawl Street. Their accusations were reported in the Press.  Men were arrested by the Police and exhibited to witnesses as potential Leather Aprons.

On the wall of a slaughterhouse at nearby Barbers Yard someone had written ‘the murderers are here’.  Three men from the slaughterhouse had appeared as early witnesses at the scene of the murder of Polly Nichols. Slaughterhouse workers also wore leather aprons. Amongst the three witnesses to the Nichols murder the favourite option for Leather Apron was Henry Tomkins, a rough man who made no secret of his hatred of women.  William Henry Piggott was another loud misogynist. He left in a fish shop a parcel that contained a blood stained shirt, and the oversight transformed Piggott into a potential Ripper suspect. His explanation of why he had a blood stained shirt in a parcel deserves an award. Piggott told the police that he had seen a woman fall down in a fit and, when he bent down to help her, she bit his hand and he struck her. Tomkins and Piggott may have been popular choices as villains but the women at Thrawl Street did not recognise either as the man who had bullied and robbed them. Tomkins and Pigggot went back to their working lives.

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But before then and on September 5th the Star newspaper included an article on the Leather Apron. The newspaper quoted interviews with 50 ‘unfortunates’.   The man these women described was thickset and had ‘an unusually thick neck’.  John Pizer was Jewish, slight and not tall.   He had left-wing politics and frail health. He died in 1897 of gastro-enteritis when he was 47 years old.   On September 2nd the 38 years old John Pizer was walking through Church Street when two women told a nearby policeman that Pizer was the menace Leather Apron. They also said that they had seen Pizer walking with the murdered Polly Nichols on the morning she was murdered.  Rather than arrest Pizer the policeman reported the incident to his colleagues.  According to the Star newspaper, the search for Pizer began on September 5th. Pizer returned to his family home at 22 Mulberrry Street, Mile End on September 6th, which was the day that marked Rosh Hashannah the Jewish New Year.   Those who doubt Pizer believe that he went into hiding after being alerted that the police were looking for him. They regard as suspicious his periodic absences from the home of his family. The 1881 census lists the following people at 22 Mulberry Street – Augusta, a widow aged 61 and the stepmother of John, her three children, Gabriel, Jeanette and Barnett, and two additional lodgers. When John returned home, he was found a place on the kitchen floor to sleep.   The reason why he would sometimes interrupt living with his family with stopping at lodging houses appears to be obvious and innocent.

On September 6th John Pizer was informed by his brother that the police were looking for him.   September 8th was the day Annie Chapman was murdered.   The police arrived at 22 Mulberry Street, Mile End on September 10th. John Pizer opened the door to Sergeant William Thick. Like Pizer, the surname has appeared with alternative spellings.   The Sergeant, though, signed his name Thick and without the letter e.  Pizer said this about the visit from Sergeant Thick.   ‘I opened the door. He said I was wanted and I asked what for. He replied, ‘You know what for; you will have to come with me.’

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Sergeant Thick walked John Pizer to Leman Street Police Station where, like the other suspects, he was shown to the accusatory women from Thrawl Street. The Prince Albert pub was located on the corner of Brushfield Street and Steward Street. The landlord and his wife had the splendid surname of Fiddymont but rather than retire to the pages of a novel by Dickens the wife was at Leman Street Police Station. The morning that Polly Nichols was murdered Mrs Fiddymont and Mary Chappell had served a pint of ale to a mysterious man who had blood spots on his hand.   Chappell was also at Leman Street Police Station. All the women present were convinced that Pizer was not the man they thought of as Leather Apron. Chappell had doubts about Piggott but, like Mrs Fiddymont, reckoned that he was not the man who had blood on his hand. But just when you think there is consensus, there is always one.  Emmanuel Violenia identified Pizer as the man he had seen arguing with a woman on the morning Nichols was murdered. Violenia also claimed that he knew Pizer as Leather Apron but under interrogation it became clear that Violenia was an unreliable witness and inside the Police Station under false pretences. The behaviour of Violenia was condemned by the Press.

At this point everyone should have gone home to forget about John Pizer and William Piggott but Sergeant Thick decided to share his thoughts with the Press. Thick lived in an adjacent street to Pizer.  He said that he had known Pizer as Leather Apron for some time or ‘years’. The other residents around Mulberry Street, though, stated that Pizer had a decent character, was quiet and harmless. No one had ever heard of him being referred to as Leather Apron. The Star referred to the arrest of John Pizer as ‘a police blunder’.

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Pizer had been taken to Leman Street at 9 a.m. but he did not return home to Mulberry Street until after 8 p.m. The next day he was interviewed by a Press Association reporter. Pizer made clear that he had never worn a leather apron.  He also said that he had no idea why anyone would call him Leather Apron and added ‘none of my neighbours have ever called me by it.’  Although he subsequently sought and received compensation from the Press for slandering his name, the day after he was released from Leman Street he made no accusations against the Police.  The strange and fortuitous identification by Violenia and what Sergeant Thick had said about the neighbours of Pizer were ignored.

What followed at the inquest was also peculiar. Coroner Wynne Baxter asked Pizer if he was known by the nickname of Leather Apron. ‘Yes, sir,’ replied Pizer.  Baxter did not ask Pizer if he was Leather Apron.  Instead the Coroner announced that the movements of Pizer at the time of the murder had been corroborated and that Pizer was clear of all suspicion.  Pizer said more than thank you. These are his words. ‘Mr Thick, that has my case in hand, has known me for upwards of eighteen years.’ Before Pizer could continue he was interrupted by Baxter. ‘I don’t think you need to say more,’ said Baxter.

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Because some writers in the past have expressed confusion about these events, the obvious should be explained. Apart from his name, Sergeant Thick had a problem. He had recruited a witness that his colleagues realised was telling lies. Thick had also told untruths about John Pizer. Compromise and perhaps threats were needed. This was the deal, Pizer would agree that he was known as Leather Apron and Coroner Baxter would make clear that everyone realised that Pizer was not the man murdering women in Whitechapel. What was perhaps not agreed was that, after Pizer was dismissed from the witness stand, Thick would add to his testimony the blatant deceit that the neighbours of Pizer referred to him as Leather Apron. And if Thick had known Pizer as Leather Apron for ‘many years’ it is odd that he had to wait to be told who was Leather Apron by two women and a constable. The East London Advertiser reported that Pizer ‘looked somewhat pale and worried after giving his evidence’ whereas before ‘he was perfectly cool and collected’. Betrayal without warning has that effect on a man.

Sergeant Thick did not pick Pizer at random to frame as Leather Apron. He was inspired by the identification from the two women in the street. At Leman Street the identification proved to be worthless. This must have been disappointing for Thick. He constructed a false case against Pizer, made inflammatory and false statements to the Press and adopted a not quite sane meddler called Violenia as an alternative witness. Thick was a dodgy policeman. The loud check suits he wore and the ironical nickname Johnny Upright may be without consequence but in The Bank Holiday Murders the author Tom Westcott not only gives a clear account of what happened to Pizer but also reveals that Thick gave positive character references to a lodging house keeper that assaulted a fellow police officer. Thick helped to keep criminals out of jail, rich scoundrels that had policemen on the payroll .  Corruption happens in a police force. More disturbing and disappointing was the assistance Wynne Baxter provided to Thick at the inquest of Polly Nichols.   Not only did Baxter prevent Pizer adding more information to his testimony he made no comment as to why Thick ensured he was always seated next to Pizer throughout the inquest.  No wonder we have conspiracy theories.  Fortunately for Pizer the other policemen at Leman Street recognised in Violenia a witness that could not be trusted.

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.

 

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JACK THE RIPPER ‘THE DEMENTED GENIUS’ HIS DEEDS AND TIMES

24 – VICTORIAN SPIRITUALISM

 

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Like rock and roll and hamburgers, the British imported spiritualism from the Americans. In 1848 the Fox sisters set the ball rolling except the ball was an apple. They tied one to a piece of string and faked knockings on walls. The Fox sisters called the knockings on the wall rapping. The three sisters were white Americans from New York but rapping had to start somewhere. In 1888, Jack the Ripper committed what is believed to be his final murder.  In the same year and after a decent career as mediums the Fox sisters admitted that the calls from the spirits were phoney. British mediums also endured accusations of fraud. It did not help that the more successful practitioners were those that were more likely to be exposed. Evidence against spiritualism accumulated, and communicating with the dead became less fashionable amongst the educated.   It may be just a coincidence but at the end of the 19th Century and, as interest waned in spiritualism, beards on Victorian men became shorter.

Robert James Lees remains known because of an exaggerated connection to Jack the Ripper. He has been recreated as a character in at least three Jack the Ripper movies. Actors play him as a bohemian non-conformist outsider but Lees worked for four years as a journalist. He spent two years on the Manchester Guardian before moving to London where he met W T Stead the hard headed campaigning editor of the Pall Mall Gazette. The two men had an interest in social reform and spiritualism.  They became friends.  The desire to communicate with the dead has attracted sincere enthusiasts, cynical charlatans, the misguided, the deluded and those who have a gift for clairvoyance that is beyond explanation.  In the Victorian age spiritualism became an industry. It could only be sustained through fakery.

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There were more women spiritualists than men but the blokes earned more money and were able to cultivate celebrity.  Audiences were likely to regard women as more sincere and spiritual but both genders felt the need to add show business tricks. Victorian spiritualism allowed the convincing female mediums to establish independent and well-remunerated careers.  The popular mediums would hold séances and charge a guinea a person.  Discount rates were available for block bookings of ten or more. In response to the Jack the Ripper murders some mediums held séances to seek advice from the spirits. Nothing of worth came from the séances but it filled a couple of theatres.

Not all the objections to spiritualism were scientific. Powerful men objected to women becoming economically independent and famous. Insecure and indulged Victorian males were not ready for women with psychological powers that gave them influence and confidence. There also existed rivalries, which meant that mediums were content for their rivals to be exposed or rubbished. The market provided affluent customers. Money being spent meant that there was always competition for business. Confessions and retractions like the one made by the Fox sisters in 1888 weakened the industry and confirmed the doubts of not just the critics but also disillusioned many of the devotees.

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If spiritualism today is obliged to convince and suggest the authentic, in the Victorian age customers wanted the spectacular. Listening to knocking on the table somehow lacked long lasting appeal. Mediums forgot about the apples of the Fox sisters and added other effects to their armoury. They became possessed by spirits and spoke in voices that sounded different from their own. Levitation, movement of furniture, chemical explosions and the appearance of supposed spirits were popular tricks. The performances were enhanced by the skills of conjurers and magicians.   How and why fairground deceits invaded respectable and affluent homes is not so mysterious.

Today young people take drugs. Some stay the course but most relent. Others are changed by the discovery of something hidden and let it change their lives. The drugs change but the belief amongst many that they should be tried persists through generations. Cocaine replaced LSD after the sixties, and the Ouija board progressed from a pen and paper to a designer object. The Ouija board has had as many versions as the Apple smart phone. Since their introduction in the 15th Century the design of Tarot cards has been consistent but it was in the Victorian age that they became popular. The Victorians enjoyed the benefits of technology, and imperial conquest gave them Captain Kirk confidence to seek other frontiers.  Aldous Huxley would have approved.

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The doubters wanted the spectacular tricks to be performed in controlled conditions. The mediums were affronted and claimed they needed a sympathetic environment. Purists assumed that this meant a dark sitting room but the real entertainers took their shows on the road. Sympathetic environments apparently included a theatre and paying audience, and that weakened both the argument and the product. The same thing happened later in rock and roll. Audiences like big spectacular shows but the critics and the sniffy want small-scale authenticity.

Even before she became controversial, Florence Cooke had a gift for entertainment. In her séances she would disappear into a cabinet and reappear as the ghost Katie King. Sometimes she would use an accomplice. Katie was a lively spirit. In one séance she levitated above her guests, and her clothes fell to the floor. In others she would flirt with the male guests and let them kiss and fondle her. Séances could be sexy. For the pious a dark room, teasing behaviour and a women in charge meant immorality. Florence Cook agreed to perform séances in the home of eminent physicist and chemist Sir William Crookes. The spiritualist convinced Crookes that Katie King was a genuine spirit but later other mediums revealed how she had tricked Crookes. It did not help that Crookes was short sighted and reluctant to wear glasses. The defenders of Cook insisted that they had seen two women in séances but her reputation suffered. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle felt the exposure of Florence Cook caused irreparable damage to the practice of spiritualism.   His arguments in favour of the mediums became less passionate. Charles Dickens also attended séances but he was not as persuaded as Conan Doyle, and his interest in spiritualism waned. He tried it because that was what people who had money and curiosity did in the Victorian age. Spiritualists were invited to both Buckingham Palace and the White House.   In Russia the mystic and holy man Rasputin thumbed a lift on a cart and took his spiritual powers to St Petersburg. What happened next is well known. Interestingly, he had a really long beard.

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Robert James Lees was born in 1849 and in the small Leicestershire town of Hinckley. The locals are unpretentious, friendly, support the Leicester football team and voted in large numbers for Brexit. Not a lot happens in small town Hinckley. This may be why a blue plaque has been attached to the home where Robert James Lees was born. Historical plaques are normally restricted to eminent Victorians or dead rock stars from the sixties. In 1888, Lees was living in London. His diaries record that he contacted policemen in both the City Police and Scotland Yard and suggested that his skills as a clairvoyant might be useful in locating and identifying Jack the Ripper.   The offer did not attract interest from within the two police forces.   And that is the extent of the involvement of Robert James Lees into the investigation of Jack the Ripper.

 

The rest is made up nonsense. Again, like rock and roll and hamburgers, it was imported from the USA. A reporter for the Sunday Times Herald in Chicago claimed that Lees had seen a man board an omnibus in Notting Hill and disembark at Marble Arch. Lees had a vision that the man was Jack the Ripper. At some point Lees managed to convince the police that his vision had merit. Lees led the police to the fashionable home of the man from the omnibus. The police discovered Sir William Gull the physician to the Royal Family and, presumably after a confession, put him inside a lunatic asylum.  This invention has supported other conspiracy theories. It has provided added detail for allegations against the freemasons and allowed some to claim that Jack the Ripper was the Duke of Clarence. Even by Ripper standards the inventions are thin. Gull was infirm and too weak to kill anyone. The Duke of Clarence liked to spend his wealth abroad and is disappointingly absent around important events like murders and a marriage he was supposedly anxious to conceal. The report from American journalists that Lees left London because he was unable to endure terrible visions of the Ripper victims being slaughtered is also an invention.

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Robert James Lees died in Leicester. He was 81 years old. It is tempting to imagine an old radical with clairvoyant gifts dying peacefully in his sleep.   His name rather than his spirit lives on in Ripper novels and movies. This may be fitting for a man who was able to see into the future or, because his character was reinvented, nothing more than an irony.

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.