The inquest into the shocking murder of Martha Tabram had ended on the 24th of August, 1888, and everyday life for the people of the East End had begun returning to normal, when, in the early hours of August 31st, 1888, the body of another woman was discovered in Buck’s Row, a dark thoroughfare located just off the busy Whitechapel Road.
The ferocity of the mutilations on Martha Tabram had been considered awful; but, if the early press reports coming out of Whitechapel were to be believed, this new victim had suffered an even more ferocious attack.
ANOTHER HORRIBLE DISCOVERY
The South Wales Echo reported the known facts to its readers in its edition of the 31st August 1888:-
“Scarcely have the horror and sensation caused by the discovery of the murdered woman in White-chapel some short time ago had time to abate when another victim has been discovered in the same district.
The affair up to the present is enveloped in complete mystery, and the police have as yet no evidence by which to trace the perpetrator of the deed.
The facts are that as Constable John Neil was walking down Bricks-row [sic], Thomas-street, Whitechapel, at a quarter to four o’clock this morning, he discovered a woman between thirty-five and forty years of age with her throat cut right open from ear to ear, the instrument with which the deed was done having traversed the throat from left to right.
The woman was quite dead.
The wound was about two inches wide, and blood was flowing profusely; in fact, she was discovered to be lying in a pool of blood.
CONVEYED TO THE MORTUARY
The body was immediately conveyed to the Whitechapel Mortuary, when it was found that besides the wound in the throat the lower part of the abdomen was completely ripped open, with the bowels protruding.
The wound extends nearly to her breast, and must have been effected with a large knife.
The hands are bruised, and bear evidence of having engaged in a severe struggle.
Some of the front teeth have been knocked out, and the face is bruised and discoloured.
In Whitechapel, naturally, the greatest excitement prevails, and several persons in the neighbourhood state that an affray took place early in the morning, and they think that during this the murder was committed.”
BEYOND CONCEPTION OR DESCRIPTION
As the day wore on, more and more reports began filtering out of Whitechapel concerning the horrific mutilations that the murdered woman had suffered.
The Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail, published the following report:-
“A later telegram says:-The brutality of the murder is beyond conception or description.
Not only was the unfortunate woman’s throat cut in two gashes with a sharp instrument, but the knife was stabbed into the lower part or the abdomen and savagely drawn upwards twice, one cut cutting the left groin and hip, and the other slitting the abdomen as high as the breast bone.
This is the third brutal murder of the kind in the locality, and the police believe that the perpetrator must be a ferocious maniac.”
THE WOMAN NOT YET IDENTIFIED
Throughout the day, subsequent editions of The Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail continued to update readers on the progress being made by the police investigation – albeit the progress was minimal – although, as the final edition of the day reported, her clothing had yielded a clue that might help identify the woman:-
“Later details show that the clothing of the woman was not torn and cut, as at first stated, nor were there indications of a struggle.
Part of the underclothing shows that the deceased was recently an inmate of Lambeth Workhouse.
The police. who are making a most careful investigation into the matter, express an opinion that the deceased was killed by a left-handed person, judging from the nature of the injuries.
No one has yet come forward to identify the body.”
GREAT FIRE AT THE DOCKS
Another East End story that was being reported, alongside the news of this most recent atrocity in Whitechapel, was the fact that, overnight, there had been a dreadful fire at the London Docks.
The Evening Standard reported on it in its edition of the 31st August, 1888:-
“A fire broke out shortly before nine last night in one of the huge warehouses of the London Docks.
The docks were closed as usual at four in the afternoon, and there are then few persons, except the night policemen and firemen, left on the premises.
At about half-past eight a smell of fire was noticed, and shortly afterwards there was an immense burst of flames from the top of one of the vast buildings right in the centre of the docks.
The volume of fire was terrific, but at nine o’clock the authorities of the Fire Brigade had heard nothing of the occurrence.
THE FIRE BRIGADE ALERTED
Shortly afterwards an alarm was given at the Whitechapel Station, and the officials of the Brigade instantly ordered every steamer to proceed to the scene, and the circulation of the news amongst the other stations caused steamers to be sent on from every district in London.
On the arrival of the engines it was found that a fire of enormous strength was raging in the upper floors of a great building about 150 yards long and half as broad.
The flames could not have broken out in a more dangerous part of the docks than the site of this fire – the South Quay Warehouses.
BLUISH AND YELLOW FLAMES
They were crammed with colonial produce in the upper floors and brandy and gin in the lower floors.
Through the great iron-barred windows the fire could be seen raging like a furnace, and the enormous tongues of bluish and yellowish flames, which constantly burst up with great roars, pointed to the fact that spirits were aiding the progress of the flames.
The firemen were for some time able to do little in the way of pouring water on the flames, owing to the awkward position of the seat of the fire.
The stair-cases were stated to be blocked with goods and packing-cases, and the only way of getting at the fire was from the outside.
FIGHTING THE FIRE
Thus, there was a long line of steamers with full steam up, ready to pump on the fire at a moment’s notice, but they had to remain comparatively idle until escapes were brought up, and the firemen were enabled to play upon the flames from the top of them.
Gradually, however, steamer after steamer was got to work, for it was seen that only a great body of water would subdue the fire, and at ten o’clock the very considerable force of twelve steamers, as well as some hydrants, was fully engaged in playing on the flames.
In the breaks in the great building, where the goods are hauled in by means of steam cranes, escapes were pitched, doors broken open, and the fire met face to face.
THE SCENE AT THE FIRE
The proceedings of the members of the Brigade were particularly exciting when they essayed to burst open huge doors through the cracks of which a fierce fire could be seen raging.
The scene at half-past ten was an imposing one.
In the enormous docks, crammed with goods of incalculable value, with vast buildings on every side, and with great vessels in the wet docks, firemen, police, and dock officials were either watching or aiding in endeavouring to extinguish the fire, while an enormous crowd gathered round the great gates and gazed at the progress of the fire from a distance.
In a great shed building close to the fire the steamers had been drawn up in little clusters of twos and threes, and were pumping continuously with a deafening noise, while the horses, which had been unharnessed, stood quietly in couples in every corner.
The water poured over the granite stones of the docks in torrents, and the whole scene was brilliantly illuminated by the fire above.
HOW FAR WOULD THE FIRE SPREAD?
The great question was, how far the fire would spread; but the opinion of one of the experts, that a “hole would be knocked in it directly all the steamers could get to work” was slowly but surely fulfilled as the night advanced.
By eleven o’clock the fierceness with which the fire was burning began to be diminished, and presently the firemen were able to circulate the official “stop” message, stating that the two top floors of the provision warehouse had been nearly burned out and part of the roof destroyed.
At midnight, however, the great force of firemen and extinguishing appliances were still at work.”
A POLICE DISTRACTION
What is important about this fire is that, at the time when the new victim was being murdered in Buck’s Row, police resources, and the attention of the populace at large, were being directed to and distracted by the fire in the London Docks.
No doubt, given the proximity of Whitechapel to the Docks, many of the people in the area, including the, as yet unknown, victim, were aware of the excitement taking place just a short distance away from Buck’s Row.
Perhaps the perpetrator had even been drawn to the area by the fire, and the killing was an opportunist one as he made his way home?