By early October, 1888, with newspapers more and more eager to publish any stories that they could on the latest atrocities by the killer who was now becoming universally known as “Jack the Ripper”, there were numerous reports of sightings of men who may well have been the perpetrator of the Whitechapel murders.
One such sighting took place in one of the Cabmen’s Shelters, those little green huts that had been appearing across the streets of London since the mid-1870s at which cabbys could enjoy a mug of tea and a hot meal.
Several of these Victorian shelters still survive on the streets of London, and they still serve their original function of providing sustenance for London’s famous black cab drivers.
A CABBY’S STORY
The Shields Daily Gazette, in its edition of Tuesday, 2nd October, 1888, was one of several newspapers that published the story of the possible encounter with the ripper:-
“A strange story is told, according to a London evening paper, by Thomas Ryan, who has charge of the Cabmen’s Reading Room, at 43 Pickering Place, Westbourne Grove, W.
Mr. Ryan is a teetotaller, and is the secretary of the Cabmen’s Branch of the Church of England Temperance Society.
Ryan, who tells the story without affectation, says that on Sunday afternoon, while he was in his little shelter, the street attendant brought a gentlemanly-looking man to him and said: “This ‘ere gentleman wants a chop, guv’ner; can you cook one for him, he says he’s most perished with cold.”
The gentleman in question, Ryan says, was about, five feet six inches in height and wore an Oxford cap on his head, and a light check ulster, with tippet buttoned to his throat, which he did not loosen all the time that he was in the shelter. He had a thick moustache, but no beard; was round-headed, his eyes were restless, and he had clean white hands.
DISCUSSING THE WHITECHAPEL MURDERS
Ryan said to the man, “Come in, I’ll cook one for you with pleasure.” This was about four o’clock in the afternoon. Several cabmen were in the shelter at the time, and they were talking of the new murders discovered that morning in Whitechapel.
Ryan exclaimed, “I’d gladly do seven days and nights if I could only find the fellow who did them.”
This was said directly at the stranger, who, looking into Ryan’s face, quietly said, “Do you know who committed the murders?” and then calmly went on to say, “I did them. I’ve had a lot of trouble lately. I came back from India and got into trouble at once. I lost my watch and chain and £10.”
RECOVERING FROM A DRINKING BOUT
Ryan was greatly taken aback at the man’s statement, and fancied he was just recovering from a drinking bout; so he replied, “If that’s correct you must consider yourself engaged.”
But then he went on to speak to him about Temperance work and of the evils wrought drink.
Warming to his subject, Ryan spoke of his own work amongst men to try to induce them to become teetotallers; then the stranger said: “Have a drink” to Ryan, and produced a bottle from an inner pocket, which was nearly full of brown liquid – either whisky or brandy. Ryan told him he had better put the bottle away, as they were all teetotallers there.
Ryan reasoned with him as to the folly of drinking, and, at last, he expressed his willingness to sign the pledge, book containing pledges being shown him.
HE WROTE HIS NAME
This the stranger examined, and at length filled up one page, writing on the counterfoil as well as on the body of the pledge. In the hand of a gentleman, he wrote the following words:- “J. Duncan, doctor, residence, Cabman’s Shelter, 30th Sept., 1888.” After doing this he said, “I could tell a tale if I wanted.” Then he relapsed into silence.
After a pause, he went on to speak of his experiences in India, and he said that he knew Mr Gregson who was engaged in temperance work amongst the English soldiers in India, and had also been for some time in Simla. He also stated that he was at Newcastle-on-Tyne before he went to India.
Ryan called his attention to the fact that he had not filled in his proper residence, and the man replied, “I have no fixed place of abode at present. I’m living anywhere.”
HE NEVER SHOWED UP
In answer to further conversation about teetotalism, Duncan accepted an invitation to go with Ryan to church that evening and afterwards to accompany him to a temperance meeting which he was going to hold. For that purpose, he said, he would return to the shelter in an hour, but he never came back.
Duncan carried a stick, and looked a sinewy fellow, just such a one as was capable of putting forth considerable energy when necessary.”