1888: London Murders in the Year of the Ripper

1888: London Murders in the Year of the Ripper

by Peter Stubley

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In 1888 Jack the Ripper made the headlines with a series of horrific murders that remain unsolved to this day. But most killers are not shadowy figures stalking the streets with a lust for blood. Many are ordinary citizens driven to the ultimate crime by circumstance, a fit of anger or a desire for revenge. Their crimes, overshadowed by the few, sensational cases, are ignored, forgotten or written off. This book examines all the known murders in London in 1888 to build a picture of society. Who were the victims? How did they live, and how did they die? Why did a husband batter his wife to death after she failed to get him a cup of tea? How many died under the wheels of a horse-driven cab? Just how dangerous was London in 1888?

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780752489742
Publisher: The History Press
Publication date: 09/01/2012
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 1,020,950
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Peter Stubley is crime journalist who has spent the last ten years covering murder cases at the Old Bailey, whether famous, infamous or quickly forgotten. He is also the founder of, and main contributor to, the London murder map (www.murdermap.co.uk), which aims to catalogue every Victorian murder in London. Specializing in court reporting, he is currently Assistant News Editor at Central News.

Read an Excerpt


London Murders in the Year of the Ripper

By Peter Stubley

The History Press

Copyright © 2012 Peter Stubley
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7524-8974-2



The RMS Ormuz was the fastest ship in the world. It was 482ft long, 52ft wide, and weighed more than 6,000 tons but its 8,500hp steam engines could propel it halfway round the globe in less than four weeks. Not so many years earlier the same trip would have taken three months. It was equipped with berths for nearly 400 passengers – 106 in first class, 170 in second and 120 in steerage – as well as two saloons, two promenade decks, a library, a drawing room, a coffee room, two smoking rooms and a hospital. No wonder that its proud owners, the Orient Line, had seen fit to boast: 'Were the world a ring of gold, Ormuz would be its diamond.' But for John King it was just a means of getting home.

The thirty-nine-year-old chemical engineer was making the voyage from Australia to London with mixed emotions. Just four months earlier, in April 1888, he had arrived in Sydney with high hopes of finding his fortune in the fabled 'workers' paradise'. The auspices had seemed favourable, for that year marked the centenary of the first landing of 1,350 colonists at Sydney Cove. Alas, it had not worked out as he expected and he had decided to return home to his wife, Mary, and their two young children, eight-year-old John Jr and seven-year-old Alice, in Rutherglen, Lanarkshire, not far from Glasgow and the Govan shipyards where the Ormuz was built in 1886.

His journey took nearly seven weeks. After leaving Sydney on 1 August 1888, the Ormuz called first at Melbourne and Adelaide before sailing across the Indian Ocean towards Egypt, passing from the Southern Hemisphere to the Northern and leaving the Southern Cross behind. At Suez they took on more coal for the engines before navigating the 86 mile-long canal between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. After stopping off at Naples the ship rounded Spain, battled through the gales and stormy seas of the Bay of Biscay and gave its passengers their first sight of England through the fog at Plymouth. Two days later it was powering against the flow of the Thames towards the city at the heart of the British Empire. London, a metropolis of more than 5 million inhabitants, was also the symbolic centre of the world, where east meets west at zero degrees longitude.

Finally, on the morning of 11 September 1888, the ship pulled into Tilbury Docks in Essex; it had been built two years earlier at a staggering cost of £2 million. John King stepped on to dry land and began the final leg of his journey by train, first from Tilbury to Fenchurch Street station, and then from St Pancras to Glasgow. It was a far less glamorous arrival than that of a foreign student from Bombay two weeks later. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi sauntered off the SS Clyde in a white flannel suit purchased specially for the purpose. Gandhi wrote in his autobiography: 'I found I was the only person wearing such clothes ... the shame of being the only person in white clothes was already too much for me.' Gandhi travelled by train to the luxury Victoria Hotel, and quickly bought a new outfit and a 19s chimney-pot hat at the Army & Navy Stores, determined to appear the quintessential 'English gentleman' during his three-year law course at the University of London.

By the time John King arrived at the impressive red-bricked edifice of St Pancras station he was part of a merry band of twelve fellow passengers from the Ormuz. Most of them were already drunk and singing loudly as they crammed on board the 9.15 p.m. night train to Glasgow. Joining King in one of the third-class compartments were three fellow Scotsmen: John Mattison and Charles Lee, who had both worked on board as firemen, and twenty-two-year-old stowaway James McKill, the son of a chemist from Hamilton.

Such was their state of intoxication that nobody could remember what exactly started the argument between King and McKill. 'They seemed as if they were going to take off their coats,' remembered John Mattison, 'I don't know whether they did.' Mattison got out at the next stop and joined his crewmate Charles Lee in the other carriage. From that point everything became a little hazy. He woke up the next morning in the Leicester Royal Infirmary, having accidentally headbutted the window, smashing the glass and cutting his head in the process. Another, more sober, witness believed the argument was between King and Mattison, although McKill had certainly offered to fight anyone who felt they were up to the challenge. King's pockets were bulging with bottles, which he claimed were lemonade. The whisky was in his baggage, he said, but there was no time to retrieve it before the train set off. Whatever the truth, from Kentish Town onwards King and McKill were alone together in the same compartment. When the train reached the next stop at Bedford only McKill remained, lying full length on the seat, dozing. When they reached Glasgow the next morning, nobody noticed that John King had gone missing.

At 6 a.m., about 100 yards from Finchley Road station in north London, a signalman found two shirts and a cap by the side of the tracks. John Cockayne checked there was nothing in them before going on duty. Just over an hour later, three-quarters of a mile down the track towards London, platelayer William Franklin was walking through the Belsize tunnel carrying out an inspection of the line. Near one of the air shafts, half a mile from the London end, he saw a body between the rails and the wall. Its head was missing. Or rather about two-thirds of it had been sheared off and bits of brain and jaw had been scattered over the tracks. Further up the tunnel Franklin also saw a mark on the slimy black brick wall, as if a finger had been drawn along it. The mark began at a height of 7ft 4in and gradually dropped over a distance of about 10ft, at which point it seemed as if the body had collided with the wall, tumbling over and over for another 28ft before coming to rest. Franklin alerted the stationmaster before returning to the scene to move the body to the platform at Haverstock Hill to await the arrival of the police.

Inspector Somers of the Y Division quickly established that the dead man was John King. In a pocket was a ticket to Glasgow, a number of letters, a silver watch and chain, and two purses containing £3 9s 3d, along with papers indicating he had just come from Australia. His clothes and hands were black with muck from the tunnel, but there was no blood on them, and only a small tear to the left sleeve of the coat. Other than the catastrophic damage to the head there were only a few other small scuff marks on the knee and thigh. The doctor who examined him saw no evidence of any struggle. He had certainly not been robbed. Everything pointed to a tragic accident. There was also a suggestion that King had wanted to get two bottles of whisky from the luggage compartment further down the carriage, but did not have time at St Pancras station. Had he made a foolhardy attempt to retrieve his whisky by clambering along the side of the train? The jury at the inquest at St Pancras Coroner's Court seemed to think so, and after commending the police returned a verdict of accidental death.

The twist in the tale came only a few days later when the story appeared in the Scottish Reader newspaper. Hugh Mickle, a greengrocer from Kilmarnock, read the report and realised that he had been on that very same train with his friend George Cowan. They had entered a third-class smoking carriage and started a conversation with a young man on his way to Glasgow. This fellow was keen to talk, mentioning how he had just come off the boat from the Colonies. Tall stories, mostly. But one of his yarns was particularly memorable – earlier in the journey he had got in a fight with a stranger and had thrown him out of the train. He then took off his shirts because they were torn and stained with blood and threw them out the window as well. 'I asked him what the gentleman was like,' said Mickle. 'He said he was a gruff sort of man, stouter than himself.' Mickle declined the offer of a swig from the man's bottle and noticed that the passenger had a bruise on his right cheek. There were also small bloodstains on the window next to the platform and on the floor. 'He said he had got a blow on his mouth from the strange man,' Cowan later recalled, 'and that the blood came from a spit out of his mouth.' The two friends from Kilmarnock advised the traveller to try to wash his face and get a shirt before he went home to see his mother. They hadn't taken his boasts at all seriously and parted with him on good terms at St Enoch's station in Glasgow half an hour later. 'He told us a good many yarns,' said Cowan. 'In fact I put it down as a yarn from first to last.' Yet now that they knew of events further down the line in London, it seemed that this was a case of murder.

Thirty-four years earlier the first-ever murder on a British railway had caused uproar in the press – Thomas Briggs had been beaten about the head, robbed and dumped out of a train in Hackney, east London. Due to the subsequent chase of the suspect across the Atlantic, the case had been an international sensation. When the killer Franz Muller was arrested he was carrying Mr Briggs' gold watch and his hat. Muller's own, cheaper, hat had been discarded. By contrast, the case of John King was an altogether more muted affair, particularly after the inquest. But now history seemed to be eerily repeating itself, for John King's soft felt hat was missing. The sailor's cap and shirts found on the railway line must have belonged to the killer.

Inspector Bannister, who had been happy to accept that the death of John King was a tragic accident, now reopened the investigation. He took statements from Mickle and Cowan, and on 21 September went in search of James McKill.

As it happened, McKill had ignored the advice to clean himself up and had proceeded to drink himself into a stupor. He was found lying shirtless in Eglinton Street, Glasgow, and was taken off to the police station to sleep it off. The next day he was brought before the magistrate and fined 5s, but as he only had 1s 10d on him, he was locked up for four days. On his release he had little option but to return home to his parents in Hamilton. It was an unexpected homecoming, but even more unexpected was the visit of Inspector Bannister on 21 September. The detective declared:

I have come to make inquiry about John King, who is said to have ridden with you from Kentish Town station in a third-class carriage on the night of the 11th, and whose dead body was afterwards found on the line in Haverstock Hill tunnel. You are not called upon to make any statement, and you need answer no questions, but if you do I will write it down, and in the event of any charge being made against you, it may be used against you.

McKill, described as a short man with close-cut hair and sharp, intelligent appearance, was happy to give his side of the story. He knew John King as a passenger on the Ormuz, but after they had got on the train at St Pancras McKill had fallen asleep and had no idea if anyone else had been in the same carriage. He denied making any confession to Mickle and Cowan or throwing his shirts out of the window. He claimed that he had actually sold his shirt in Glasgow for 1s so that he could buy a drink. Nonetheless there was enough evidence for him to be charged and returned to London. On the way there Bannister asked where he had got the felt hat found in his home. 'I know that is the dead man's hat,' he replied. 'I had a cap. I don't know what became of mine.' When McKill tried on the cap found on the railway line it appeared to fit him perfectly. 'Yes, that's mine,' he replied.

The justice system was much quicker in the late nineteenth century than it is today. Inquests into suspicious or unexplained deaths were usually held within a few days, and coroners had the power to commit suspects for trial. At the same time, the suspects could also be brought before the magistrates at the local Police Court. Either way, cases of murder or manslaughter were usually heard at the Old Bailey within one or two months. If the charge was approved by a Grand Jury, the suspect would stand trial.

McKill's trial began on 26 October. Under the law of the day, McKill was not allowed to give evidence and had to rely on the skill of his barrister Charles Gill. His defence was that John King's death was an accident and that the victim must have got out of the moving train himself in a state of extreme intoxication. 'The story about there being a fight and the prisoner having thrown the deceased out of the train was too absurd for a moment's belief,' Mr Gill was reported to have told the jury, 'particularly when it is remembered that the deceased was the bigger and stronger man of the two, and besides, the quarrelling and the fighting and the throwing out would all have been done, if the story were true, within three minutes and a half.' If it was true, then one would have expected to see signs of a desperate struggle. Mr Justice Cave advised the jury that if they thought McKill's confession was simply the ravings of a drunken man then they ought to acquit. Even the prosecutor seemed unenthusiastic about the case. The jury did not even bother to leave court and after two minutes of hushed conferring in their box they returned a verdict of not guilty. McKill was a free man.

If this seems an anticlimax, it serves only to demonstrate that not every story has a clean-cut ending. Suspicion and a host of unanswered questions are not enough to convict a man of murder. Neither was the explanation of a tragic accident satisfactory. The victim's family did not recognise John King as the type of man who would recklessly climb out of a moving train to fetch a bottle of whisky. Before his trip to Australia he had been teetotal and an unlikely brawler. Now he was dead, and his wife Mary had to look after his two children alone. She moved back home with her father and brother in Rutherglen and in 1892 got married to a blacksmith. Sadly tragedy had not yet finished with the family. Seven years later, John King's son died at the age of nineteen from appendicitis.

James McKill married a year after his acquittal and had at least three children. His father died in 1893, followed by his mother in 1915. In 1920, at the age of fifty-five, he appears to have emigrated to America and settled down in Cook, Illinois, and found work as a janitor at an oil company. His son Robert got a job on the local electric railway.



Londoners in 1888 were astounded by the changes that had taken place since the start of the nineteenth century. As one observer noted, 'Old London is going, going, indeed, has well-nigh gone.' It was now an urban giant extending well into Surrey, Middlesex and Kent, and its centre had been furnished with new landmarks like Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace, the Royal Courts of Justice, the National Gallery and the Houses of Parliament. Then there were the restaurants and theatres, department stores and tea shops, and hotels boasting elevators, telephones and electric light in all bedrooms. It was a sightseer's paradise. The guidebook, London of To-Day, summed up the mood in their 1888 edition:

Since the end of the eighteenth century London has undergone a marvellous change. The monster Metropolis, which is still swelling every year – to which, indeed, many thousand houses, forming several hundred new streets, covering a distance not far short of a hundred miles, were added but a year ago – which is increasing in a way which makes it bewildering to contemplate, not its final limits, but where those limits will reach even in the near future: this monster London is really a new city.

Of course, not everybody agreed. The writer Ouida argued in an article for Woman's World in 1888 that:

... for a city which is in some respects the greatest capital of the world, the approaches to London are of singular and painful unsightliness ... The streets are dreary, although so peopled; the sellers of fruit or flowers sit huddled in melancholy over their baskets, the costermonger bawls, the newsboy shrieks, the organ-grinders gloomily exhibit a sad-faced monkey or a still sadder little dog; a laugh is rarely heard; the crossing-sweeper at the roadside smells of whisky; a mangy cat steals timidly through the railings of those area-barriers that give to almost every London house the aspect of a menagerie combined with a madhouse ... To drive through London anywhere is to feel one's eyes literally ache with the cruel ugliness and dullness of all things around.

Nevertheless this new, expanding city required a transport system to match. One by one, the great railway stations were opened: London Bridge (1836), Euston (1837), Paddington (1838), Waterloo (1848), King's Cross (1852), Victoria (1860) and Charing Cross (1864). Sewers were constructed. Bridges were built over the Thames and tunnels were dug under it. People swarmed from one end of the city to another by foot, bicycle, trains and horse-drawn cabs, omnibuses and trams.


Excerpted from 1888 by Peter Stubley. Copyright © 2012 Peter Stubley. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Prologue 1 January, 1888,
1 Journey to the Centre of the Earth,
2 The Streets of London,
3 Life in the Suburbs,
4 Life in the City,
5 In Darkest London,
6 Policing the Metropolis,
7 The Curse of Scotland Yard,
8 Two Mysteries,
9 Home Sweet Home,
10 The Unfortunates,
11 Under the Knife,
12 Dead Babies,
13 Children,
14 Teenage Gangs in London,
15 Madness,
16 Death,
Epilogue 31 December, 1888,
About the Author,

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