I think the place to start is at 4:45 on the chilly morning of Tuesday, 7 August 1888. Mr. John Saunders Reeves has just left his rear 3rd floor apartment in the “The Blackwell Buildings”, on the narrow alley called George Yard (above), running between Wentworth Street and Whitechapel Road. The 23 year old was anxious to reach a dockside pub before the foreman there choose the work crew for the day. But John Reeves will not make it to the pub on time, he will not earn a salary this day, because on the landing, midway between the first and ground floors, he will step into a living hell too vile to remain hidden one moment longer.
In the shadow of the Tower of London, the “Tower Hamlets” of Spitafields, Whitechapel (above) and along the Thames, Waping, had once seen nouveau riche Huguenot immigrants build great mansions on silk weaving.
But over two centuries the power elite of West London had swallowed this enterprise whole, also absorbing the hamlet's stinking tanneries, nauseating slaughterhouses, sour smelling breweries, and smoke belching factories.
The mansions were now subdivided and crowded in by apartment hovels, “rotten from chimney to cellar, leaning together, apparently by the mere coherence of their ingrained corruption.” Crowded 7 or 8 to an 8 foot square room, the 80,000 lowest of the working classes shared, according to the Reverend Andrew Means, "....flimsy, filthy walls, ceilings and...a broken chair, the tottering relics of an old bedstead...the mere fragment of a table.” Three years earlier newspaperman George Sims described the existence of these 80,000 humans - “The walls are damp and crumbling, the ceiling is black and peeling off, the wind and rain sweep in through gaps that seem everywhere” And Victorian activist Florence Nightingale had seen the same buildings 20 years earlier. “Old papered walls, carpets, furniture and sinks were all sources of dangerous impurity, as bad as the dung heap in the basement, or the sewer under the house.". This was the Terra Incognita that were the backstreets of Whitechapel and the East End of London.
John Reeves was not surprised to see a body lying on the dark landing. There were 8,500 homeless men, women and children on the streets of Whitechapel every night - 1 in 10 of the citizens - who lacked even the 4 pence for what was in effect a topless coffin (above) in one of the parishes' 200 official "doss" houses. And if you had only "tuppance" - two pennies - you could lean against a rope strung between the walls. But at least you were inside.
This elevated the value of the 48 apartments (above) of John Reeves's own “Model Apartment House" on George Yard. This "Philanthropic Housing ” had been built 13 years earlier to replace slums knocked down by construction of the London and Blackwell Railroad, and were supposed to be an island of Victorian sensibilities. The building manager, Mr Hewitt, turned the gas jets off at 11:00 each night, supposedly to discourage unchristian behavior by the tenants, although John's wife Louisa suspected it was more to save on the gas bill.
But that just made the dark common areas (above) - stairwells and hallways - more inviting to the weary and the enterprising. Such discarded souls were common enough in Whitechapel. And then, as he turned the banister corner toward the final flight of steps, John's foot slipped on what he thought was the sleeper's urine.
John was a common member of the East End's working poor. The founders of the Salvation Army, William and Catherine Booth, studied these unfortunates first hand and found 18% labored making clothing, 7% made cigars, 8% were street hawkers - selling pins and needles and buttons, even methanol cones to mitigate fevers. Another 5% worked in small “sweat shops", such as making matchbooks, which earned 2 1/2 pence for a gross of 144. And these were the lucky who earned starvation wages. How the remaining 60% survived was beyond the Victorian imagination, but it was abundantly clear most, men women and even children, self medicated their misery with alcohol.
The Metropolitan Police Service studied the Tower Hamlets in their own way, and estimated that in 1888 over twelve hundred young women worked in Whitechapel's 62 legal brothels, while the parish's older prostitutes, perhaps another 1,000 women, were reduced to waiting outside pubs or walking the streets, selling their bodies for the price of a glass of gin, a crust of bread or a doss house coffin. The arrogant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Charles Warren, warned the morally outraged that the more his police were used in “...routing out the brothels from the back slums and driving them into respectable places...the worse it becomes for law and order and decency...” And in June of 1887, when a 23 year old shop girl named Elizabeth Cass was falsely arrested for the "crime" of walking down Regent Street at 9:00 p.m., the Home Secretary, Henry Matthews, was forced to issue a public apology to the girl. After that, the police in Whitechapel even stopped arresting the street walkers.
The abrupt loss of balance evaporated John's worry about missing his work call. And as he instinctively touched the wall to steady himself, he realized there was something not right about the sleeper on the cramped landing (above). In the pre-dawn twilight, John could just distinguish the outline of a woman, lying on her back.
Her plump moon face (above) shown above her dark clothing. Like most working class people of his age, John Reeves had seen enough death to recognize it instantly. And his anxious features contorted even more when he realized he had slipped not in urine, but in blood. A great deal of blood. Without coming closer to the body John Reeves hurried down the steps, crossing himself as he ran across the courtyard, in desperate search of help
Thomas Barrett, badge number 226 (H) Whitechapel division, was a 31 year old , 5 year veteran of the Metropolitan Police Force, and one of the 235 “Bobbies” walking a five block beat that Tuesday morning in Whitechapel. Met officers put in so many miles on patrol that the department replaced their wooden soled boots every three months.
His only weapon was the 12 ½ inch long wooden night stick, used to subdue suspects - ether pushed against pressure points, or with blows to the arms or legs. On his head Constable Barrett wore the cork and leather helmet, covered in fine wool, which had been adopted in 1863. And for the last three years he also carried a brass whistle, to summon assistance. His uniform and training were designed to inspire confidence and respect. But all Bobbies also wore a thick band of leather around their necks should a garrote be slipped around their throat. Many beats in Whitechapel were covered by two officers, since the division suffered more assaults against policemen than any other in all of London.
PC Barrett was just beginning the last hour of his 8 hour shift when the short, dark bearded man came walking quickly up Whitechapel Road toward him. Seeing the man's disjointed stride, Barrett focused his hand-held whale oil “Bullseye Lantern” on the man, more to distract him than to illuminate. From 40 feet away Barrett could tell he was a laborer. And although he was sweating, he did not appear to be out of breath. Combined with the rings piercing both his ear lobes, this suggested the man might be an addict. The docks were half a mile to the south, surrounded by pubs and opium dens.
But after blocking the lantern light with his hand, the man came closer and in a quick high nervous voice, pleaded, “Itsa dreffle, jes dreffle. Yew must coom to ours hoom. I thought she was flessy, oroite flessy, know, but the second I clapt eyes on I could see thassa was a coald gal. Yew must coom”
Barrett recognized the accent as Suffolk, and he understood enough to know the man wanted him to follow. But to where or why, he could not understand. He asked as imperiously as he could, “Where is the trouble, here?” For a second he saw the little man's face flush with embarrassed. Then the little man said slowly, prnouncing carefully, “George Yard.” Then, “Please. Quick”. Then he added, "Murder."
Constable Barrett followed the man he soon knew was named John Reeves passed the "White Hart" public house, and then right, through the arched entrance of George Yard (above).
A London newspaper would later describe the cobblestone alley (above) as "...a narrow turning out... (which) leads into a number of courts and alleys in which some of the poorest of the poor, together with thieves and roughs and prostitutes, find protection and shelter in the miserable hovels bearing the name of houses.”
They traveled half way up George Yard (above) before turning left, through a nondescript doorway (above, center), into the courtyard at the rear of the “Blackwell Buildings”(above, right BG). But the closer they got to the stairwell itself, the slower John Reeves walked He waited on the ground floor while PC Barrett cautiously climbed the stairs. When his lantern illuminated the dead woman, Barrett understood Reeve's reluctance to see her again.
The middle aged plump woman lay on her back (above). There was a lot of blood puddled around her body, but none on her mouth or nose. Cradling her head was a black bonnet. Her jacket was thrown open, and pulled away from her shoulders. The collar and bodice of her shirtwaist had been so slashed and mangled by the frenzied attack, and so soaked in blood, that it was impossible for Barrett to tell what color it had been. Her arms were straight at her sides, the hand's clenched. Her ankle length green skirt and brown petty coat were pushed up to her knees. Her stocking clad legs, though straight, had been pulled apart so that Barrett assumed she had been engaged in sex at the time of her death. And he noticed , for some reason, that the boots she wore were scuffed and dirty, the heels worn down on the right foot more than the left. And somehow he knew that small sad detail would haunt him. It did not matter, he forced himself to think. As the first officer on the scene, he had to confirm that she was dead, and probably murdered. That was enough to begin to do as he had been trained to do..
Constable Barrett ordered Reeves to stay where he was, and then strode back across the courtyard, stopping in the center of George Yard (above). Putting his brass whistle to his lips, Barrett found his mouth dry as dust. He had to work up a spit before putting the instrument back to his lips. He blew three times, the sharp shrill desperate comforting call echoing off the dark brick walls and cobblestone roadway. And then Thomas blew it three times again.
When the first constable arrived in response, Barrett sent him to fetch the nearest surgeon, whom he knew was Dr. Timothy Keleene, of 68 Brick Lane, just three blocks away. When the second officer arrived, Barrett ordered him to let no civilians into or out of the courtyard, and to use his whistle to call for more constables. The detectives of Whitechapel's Criminal Intelligence Division would need to be notified.
As he walked back to begin what he knew would be a difficult interview with John Reeves, Constable Barrett realized he would miss morning breakfast with his wife Ellen and 3 year old son Albert. Suddenly seeing them safe and healthy was very important to him.