Although the Jack the Ripper murders were, most certainly, the most reported on series of homicides in the 1880s, there were many other murders, and attempts at murder, in the East End of London, many of them connected to the seafaring community that came in and out of the Est End docks day in and day out.
One such case was reported in The Willesden Chronicle on Friday, 28th September, 1883:-
ATTEMPTED MURDER IN A PUBLIC HOUSE
“On Wednesday the Thames police-court, Hugh Armstrong, a middle-aged seaman, was charged with having attempted to murder an unfortunate named Clara Steel.
It appears that Steel and Armstrong were drinking together in a public-house in Whitechapel, when suddenly and without any apparent provocation, the man caught hold of Steel’s head and tried to draw an open razor across her throat.
Steel, in trying to defend herself, was severely cut about the hands, and in the course of the struggle, she fainted.
A costermonger named King, who happened to be in the public-house at the time, seeing what had happened, rushed at Armstrong, and tried to get possession of the razor. A desperate struggle ensued, in the course of which the razor was broken, and King’s hand was somewhat severely cut.
Armstrong was, however, ultimately overpowered, and taken into custody.
Evidence to this effect having been given, Armstrong was remanded.”
THE EVIDENCE IN COURT
The Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, gave a few more details of the case in its edition of Friday, 28th September, 1883:-
“At the Thames Police Court on Wednesday Hugh Armstrong, a seaman, was charged with attempting to murder Clara Steel.
The prosecutrix said that on Tuesday night she was the White Bear public-house, Leman-street, when the prisoner asked her to have a drink. She consented, and directly afterwards he caught hold of her and drew an open razor across her throat. She put up her hand to save her neck, and was severely cut on the fingers.
Henry King, costermonger, who was in the public-house at the time, said that heard someone scream, and, on looking round, he saw the prisoner trying to draw a razor across her throat. He ran towards the prisoner and tried to get the razor away from him; they struggled together desperately, and the razor was broken. The prisoner got possession of the blade, and, with it, he made a rush at the witness, who knocked him down, and the razor was taken from him. The witness’s hand was cut in the struggle.
The prisoner was sober. He was remanded.”
ATTEMPTING TO CUT A WOMAN’S THROAT
The Huddersfield Chronicle, on Saturday, 6th October, 1883, reported on Armstong’s next court appearance at which he was committed to stand trial:-
“At the Thames Police Court, on Wednesday morning, Hugh Armstrong, seaman, was charged on remand, before Mr. Lushington, with unlawfully and maliciously cutting and wounding Clara Sweeney, of 96, Mansell Street, with intent to inflict grievous bodily harm.
The complainant had been keeping company with the prisoner.
At a quarter to six on Tuesday evening, the 25th of September, she was in the White Boar public-house, St. George’s-street, when the prisoner entered. Words passed between them, when the prisoner drew a razor, seized hold of the complainant by the hair of her head, dragged her head backwards, and attempted to cut her throat; but she quickly raised her arm, and the razor caught her hand, inflicting a cut which bled profusely.
She fainted away, and a young man named King seized hold of the handle of the razor, and, during a desperate struggle for its possession, the blade dropped on the floor.
Both the prisoner and complainant were perfectly sober.
Mr. Lushington committed the prisoner for trial.”
HIS OLD BAILEY TRIAL
Hugh Armstrong appeared at the Central Criminal Court (The Old Bailey), on Monday, 15th October, 1883.
Giving evidence against him, Clara Sweeny stated:-
“I live at 96, Pennington Street, St. George’s-in-the-East, and I am an unfortunate. I had slept with the prisoner the night before the occurrence. There was no quarrel or dispute between us – he left about 11 a.m.
I do not know the date.
At 6.15 that evening I was at the White Bear public-house, two turnings from my place – when the prisoner came in from a side box, touched me on my shoulder, and said “Will you have a drink?”I replied, “I will have a drop of ale.”
I did not have it; he pulled me back by my hair. I put my hand up to my throat.
I do not remember any more; I fainted and was taken to the hospital. my knuckle was cut – it was dressed at the hospital – there was nothing the matter with my throat. Here are the marks of the stitching on my knuckle.
Cross-examined by the Prisoner. During the time you stopped with me you did not use threatening language to me or cause me to go in fear. You complained of severe pains in your head, and fever, and you were confined to your bed one day. I went to the doctor for you.”
FRANCIS SCHANEN’S TESTIMONY
The next witness was the costermonger, Henry King, who repeated the evidence he had given at the Thames Police Court.
He was followed by Francis Schannen, the manager of the White Bear Public House, where the incident had occurred:-
“I am the manager of the White Bear.
On the 25th September, the prisoner came in and asked to go from one compartment to the other, and he went there.
The woman was there with King.
The prisoner chucked her under the chin, and said “What is the matter with you?” She replied, “What is the matter with you?”
He then took this case (produced) out of his left trousers pocket, and took a razor out of it.
I went from behind the bar, through my private parlour in front of the bar, and I found the prisoner and the woman lying together on the floor. She was insensible, and bleeding, I saw blood on her apron.
The prisoner appeared to be quite sober and well. I noticed nothing peculiar about him. He came in very quiet, and he asked for a glass of ale, which he had.
Cross-examined by the prisoner. I have seen you in my house several times. I have never seen you kicking up a bother, you seldom speak to anybody there, but keep to yourself.”
HE HAD SUFFERED FROM SUNSTROKE
The prisoner handed in a written statement, in which he said that he received a sunstroke in 1870 while in India, and had a relapse in 1875, and he believed he was suffering from its effects at the time he committed this act; that he had been drinking heavily, and had no animosity against the prosecutrix.
Frederick Rugg (Policeman H 125) handed in a certificate from the Seamen’s Hospital, Greenwich, stating that the prisoner was admitted as a patient on June 20th, 1876, suffering from sunstroke, and was afterwards removed to the Union.
Having heard the evidence against him the Jury found him “Guilty” of unlawfully wounding Clara Steel, recommended him to mercy on account of his suffering.
The Judge sentenced him to fifteen months’ Hard Labour.