A Pensioner In Female Attire

One of the more intriguing things about the Jack the Ripper case is, just how many ordinary people seem to have felt the need to involve themselves in the hunt for the perpetrator of the Whitechapel Murders, sometimes in extremely bizarre ways.

Now, let’s be honest, we’ve all done it.

That wizard wheeze that, after a few to many drinks in our local pub – and egged on by our equally intoxicated companions – seems like a fantastic idea – a great laugh. Only with the cold light of sobriety do we look back on our actions and ask ourselves the age old question – “what was I thinking?”

Well, this sort of situation arose several times during the autumn of terror in relation to the Whitechapel Murders.

MR WILLIAM WEBB FEMALE IMPERSONATOR

Take, for example, William Webb, an army pensioner aged 43, who was arrested in Hampstead on Wednesday 3rd October 1888, having chosen to appear on Heath Street, Hampstead dressed in female attire and brandishing a rather large knife.

At his subsequent appearance, before Hampstead Petty Sessions – ┬ásadly, the newspapers don’t reveal what outfit he chose to wear for court (!) – on Thursday October 4th 1888, the arresting officer, Police Constable Mackenzie 591S, deposed that, at around 7. 45pm on the previous evening, he had been on fixed point duty close to the Metropolitan Fire Station on Heath Street, when he noticed a crowd outside the Horse and Groom public house, a few doors along on Heath Street.

A view of the former Fire Station with a clock tower and clock visible above it.
The Former Fire Station (With the Clock) on Heath Street, Hampstead.

The crowd, he said, appeared to be quite rowdy, so he went to ascertain the cause of the disturbance and found Webb at the centre of the melee dressed up in women’s clothing – the hat, skirt, petticoat and jacket that he had been wearing were produced in court – and with a white handkerchief around his neck.

Police Constable Mackenzie testified that he then told Webb that “he was a man and him to go away.”

I’M OFF TO CATCH JACK THE RIPPER

Webb, however, refused and, instead, produced a 12 inch knife with a sharpened blade from the sleeve of his jacket. He then informed the officer that he was “going down to Whitechapel to catch the murderer.”

Constable Mackenzie told the court that, although he didn’t personally know the prisoner, he understood that he was, in fact, well known in Hampstead. He also testified that, as far as he could tell. Webb did not seem the worse for drink at the time.

IT WAS JUST A JOKE

Since Webb was refusing to retire gracefully, PC Mackenzie arrested him and took him to the Police Station where, by way of explanation for his conduct, he explained that he had been drunk that morning, and that he had had some more to drink in the evening. Some of his companions, he said, had then chided him that he “had not got the pluck to go to Whitechapel to look after the murderer.”

Desperate to prove to them that he was all man, Mackenzie responded to the taunts by going home, putting on his wife’s clothing, and then returning to the pub, although he insisted that he actually had “no intention of going to Whitechapel.” The whole thing, he stated, had been nothing more than a drink-fuelled joke.

Giving evidence to the court, Inspector Sly of S Division, pointed out that the prisoner had gone so far as to shave of his moustache, although he [Sly] “now believed that the prisoners conduct was nothing more than a joke.

Questioned by the Bench, Webb admitted that he had, indeed, shaved off his moustache, but insisted again that he had done so as part of the joke.

FINED 10 SHILLINGS

The Magistrate decided that Constable Mackenzie had acted “properly in taking the prisoner into custody” and William Webb was fined 10 shillings or, if he was unable to pay the fine, 7 days imprisonment.

Since he couldn’t afford the fine, Webb was locked up in default.

And there he fades from the pages of history. Just one more name that crops up as a result of the Whitechapel Murders and then disappears into obscurity.

No doubt, he served his time and then enjoyed free drinks in the Horse and Groom Pub on Heath Street, Hampstead, as he regaled his delighted audiences with the tale of how he had once dressed up as a woman to catch Jack the Ripper.

WHAT DID MRS WEBB THINK?

One person, however, whose reaction is not recorded in the newspapers was Mrs Webb. I like to picture her as a mild mannered careworn lady, sitting by a meagre fire at around 7pm on Wednesday 3rd October 1888, when her, slightly tipsy husband, marches in and goes up stairs.

A few minutes later he come marching back downstairs – sans moustache – dressed in her clothing. Heading for the door, he turns to her and explains, “I might be home late tonight dear, I’m off to catch Jack the Ripper.”