One thing that has always intrigued me about the Victorian police officers, whose job it was to patrol the streets of London during the night hours, is how many strange sights they must have seen.
Given that today is Halloween, I thought that I would have a delve into some of the London newspapers to see if any of the 19th-century members of the Metropolitan Police Force had ever gone on record to confess to having seen a ghost or two.
As expected, I didn’t encounter that many spooky tales told by police officers; but I did uncover the following article, which appeared in The Daily Gazette For Middlesbrough on Thursday, 9th September 1886, and which compared the homeless of London to midnight spectres wandering the nighttime streets of the Victorian metropolis:-
A NIGHT POLICEMAN ON LONDON GHOSTS
“An ex-night policeman has given his experiences on London ghosts on which he has brought to bear the midnight bull’s-eye, and which probably would have remained undiscovered but for the agency of that searching nocturnal illuminant.
The writer says:-
“It will no doubt occur to the reader, as it did to me, that as regards after-dark spectres of London streets he is quite mistaken if he imagines that he has broken new ground; they are as old as the hills, as the saying is.
The reason why they do not excite more of public curiosity probably is that, of the few persons abroad between midnight and grey of the morning, many are in scarcely a fit condition for spiritualistic study, while those who are returning from their protracted labour are too weary to trouble themselves with anything besides the immediate object they have in view, which is to hurry home and get to bed.
THE GHOSTS ARE OUT THERE
There they are, however.
They emerge from their hiding, if any man can guess where that may happen to be, as unfailingly as the rat leaves its burrows and the beetle its chink, but, unlike such creatures, their purpose is not a predatory one.
They have no purpose that is apparent, and therein lies the mystery.
They are not to be confounded with those who are seen abroad at such unseasonable hours, simply because they have no home to go to, and are without the necessary fourpence to pay for the poorest of poor lodgings.
AN AIR OF THREADBARE GENTILITY
Generally speaking, these midnight spectres have an air of gentility – of a faded and threadbare sort, very likely, but still unmistakable.
The females wear veils, and the males, most of whom are middle-aged or old, have their outer garments buttoned close to the chin, and their hats brought far down over the forehead, as though to avoid possible recognition.
They are one and all pinched, and pale, and haggard-looking, and whenever suspicious that they have attracted observation they walk with a quick step, pretending to be on urgent business, but when they think the watchful eye is removed from them, resuming the listless walk as though it mattered nothing to them which way they took, their only object being to wear out the weary night hours, which for them are clothed with horrors; and, hail, rain, or wind, they prefer to spend them in the streets to being shut up alone with them in the solitude of their bed-chambers.
Whether these mysterious night-walkers are poor demented folk not responsible for their actions, or victims of insomnia, or, like Macbeth, they have “murdered sleep,” must remain a matter for conjecture.
Ex-constable Brownson inclines to the last-mentioned surmise.
THE YOUNG WOMAN
I will give one of several instances he quotes in support of his view:- “There was the Blank street tragedy.
A young woman had been living with a foreigner, and had one child by him, a beautiful little girl, three years old, but after a furious quarrel between the man and the young woman, which was heard by the people living in the house, and during which he was understood to threaten to do “worse than murder her”, he disappeared.
A short time afterwards their child was found strangled and dead in the cellar, which was seldom entered, but to which anyone might gain admission, the street door being generally left open.
Suspicion of course pointed strongly to the foreigner, the child’s father, who, although he had never been seen since the quarrel, might easily have slipped into the house unperceived, but the police could not trace him, and the Coroner’s verdict of ‘”Wilful murder by a person or persons unknown” remained unsatisfied.
THE MOTHER WANDERED THE STREETS
The young woman took the murder of her child terribly to heart.
It was in the district where I was on duty, and it did not much surprise me when I found that she had taken to wander the streets at nighttime.
Not that I for a moment suspected her of the crime.
Want of sleep on account of the loss of her child had unhinged her mind, I thought, and though I met her often between midnight and morning, walking and looking pretty much like any other “spectre,” I never spoke to her.
SHE DROWNED HERSELF IN THE THAMES
But, after a while, she too was missing, and her body was found in the Thames, and there was a letter in the pocket of her dress.
I helped to carry the body, and I heard the letter read.
It was pronounced to be the ravings of a mad woman, and was treated as such; and it may have been.
SHE CONFESSED TO THE MURDER
But it contained a confession of the murder by the woman herself, her declared object to committing the dreadful deed being that “Jules loved the little one so very dearly.”
Mad enough that, from one point of view, but not as I take it, from another.”