Assault on a Detective

One of the facts concerning the Whitechapel Murders that often gets quite a reaction on our nightly Jack the Ripper tour around the streets of the East End of London, is the revelation that some of the officers working on the case resorted to dressing up as women in the hope that they would be accosted by the murderer.

On the 17th October 1888, people reading their morning newspapers were, no doubt, choking on their breakfast attempting to stifle a guffaw at news of the case of Detective Sergeant Robinson, which had been heard at Clerkenwell Police Court the previous day.

SERGEANT ROBINSON OF G-DIVISION

The defendants in the case were James Phillips, aged 37, and William Jarvis, 40, both of whom worked as cab washers in Phoenix Place, St Pancras.

Sergeant Robinson was a detective with G-Division of the Metropolitan Police, in whose jurisdiction the murder of Mary Nichols had taken place on August 31st 1888.

A ST PANCRAS STAKE OUT

On the 9th October 1888, acting on information received, he, together with Detective Sergeant Charles Mather, had gone to the St Pancras district of London to keep surveillance on a man whose actions had, for some reason, “laid him open to suspicion in connection with the East-end murders.” They were joined by Mr. Henry Doncaster and Michael Rainole, an Italian ice cream vendor.

A view along Phoenix Place in the 1960's
Phoenix Place in the 1960’s

DRESSED AS A WOMAN

For some reason – the newspapers, sadly, didn’t specify his thought process when choosing his clothing for the operation – Robinson had decided to dress as a woman. The group took up their positions in order to, as Michael Rainole put it, ” watch the man who was supposed to be the man who killed all the women.”

It would appear that Robinson was acting as a decoy, in the hope that the suspect might make an approach, as he was standing alone from the others.

THE CAB WASHERS CHALLENGE HIM

It wasn’t long before Robinson had attracted the attention of Phillips and Jarvis who became suspicious and approached him to ask what he/she was doing? Robinson told them to mind their own business, took off his woman’s hat, and, by way of explanation, informed them, “I am a police officer.”

THE FIGHTING BEGINS

According to some witnesses, Robinson then put his fist to Jarvis’s chin and pushed him backwards. Others stated that it was in fact Jarvis who struck the first blow and, having knocked the officer to the ground, proceeded to stab him twice in the face, whereupon his co-defendant, Phillips, waded in and proceeded to kick the felled detective. They then turned on Mr Doncaster, who they stabbed in the face and whose jaw they dislocated.

Phillips then called for the assistance of a group of fellow cab washers who came over and, so one witness stated, cried to Robinson, “Shame! Leave off hitting him.”

POLICE REINFORCEMENTS ARRIVE

At this point, Michael Rainole hurried off to fetch police reinforcements, and returned a few minutes later with Police Constable Frank Mew, who  proceeded to arrest Phillips. When he told that he was going to take him  to the police station, Phillips  tried to throw him and, once he had been restrained, had told him, “All right, governor, it is not the first time I have been there.”

NO WARRANT CARDS SHOWN

Mr Keith Frith, acting for the defendants, cross examined Detective Sergeant Mather, who was forced to admit that neither he nor Robinson had shown their warrant cards to prove themselves detectives when they were initially challenged. However, he explained the omission by pointing out that things got out of hand so quickly that they, simply, had not had the opportunity of doing so.

COMMITTED TO STAND TRIAL

Mr Bros, presiding, committed the defendants to stand trial for assault, but allowed them bail on a surety of  the hefty sum of £20 each.

BUT WHY THE FEMALE ATTIRE?

What is interesting is the fact that neither the newspapers, nor any of the court room witnesses, felt the need to explain to readers exactly why Sergeant Robinson had chosen to keep surveillance on his suspect wearing women’s clothing. Perhaps people had grown used to cross-dressing police officers?

Nor, for that matter, do they mention what outfit he chose to wear for his court appearance!