One type of crime that received extensive press coverage in the second half of the 19th century was the crime of “garrotting.”
The crime itself had a simple, though effective, modus operandi whereby one of the perpetrators would seize the victim from behind and, using their arm, or a length of wire, cord or cloth, would hold them in a choke hold, whilst other members of the gang would proceed to rob them.
DEBATE AS TO ITS ORIGINS
There is a great deal of uncertainty as to how criminals came to adopt this brutally effective method of robbing unsuspecting pedestrians.
One theory holds that it originated with the guards on the convict ships, that had transported some lawbreakers to the colonies, who used to restrain their charges by roughly applying a choke-hold to quickly render troublesome and aggressive convicts instantly insensible.
When word of this effective means of subjugation reached the criminal fraternity back home, they quickly adopted it as a means to prevent their victims from fighting back.
Whatever the origins, “garrotting”, or “garroting” (various newspapers spelt it differently), was being used by gangs across the country from at least the 1850’s, and the newspapers were soon reporting on cases of its usage.
The following account of one such case appeared in the Cork Examiner on Friday 13th December 1867:-
COMMENCEMENT OF THE GARROTTING SEASON
“The garrotting season seems to have set in severely south of the Thames.
A correspondent of The Star writes:-
“On Friday night last, between five and six o’clock, in Crescent-lane, leading from Clapham Common to Clapham Park, my brother was garrotted by two ruffians, who robbed him of jewellery, money and everything in his possession.
He is a tall and powerful young man, perfectly able, with a fair chance, to defend himself, but was attacked suddenly from behind (a thick sword-stick knocked from his hand), and immediately rendered powerless, being bonnetted, thrown on his back, and sat upon by a big man, who grasped his throat, stuffing a handkerchief into his mouth, “to keep the chicken from squalling,” as it was elegantly expressed, and otherwise brutally ill-treated.
Thanks to speedy remedies applied, he is now recovering, but is much shaken, and his throat and features remain swollen and sore…”
A MAN GARROTED IN A BUSY LONDON THOROUGHFARE
Obviously, the criminal elements in the East End of London, quickly adopted this relatively easy method of robbing passersby and reports on cases of garrotting in the area appeared with what must have seemed like alarming regularity.
The following case, from 1897, for example, appeared in The Illustrated Police News on Saturday 4th September 1897, and was accompanied by an impressively dramatic artists depiction of what had occurred:-
“Mr J. Mitchell, of Leyton, was walking down the Mile End Road, when he was pushed into a side street opposite the London Hospital, and pinioned by two burly ruffians. Two others then proceeded to tear away his trousers with the pocket in which he had his money.
Great force was used, the trousers being literally torn away from top to bottom, leaving Mr. Mitchell’s legs naked.
The thieves then appropriated Mr Mitchell’s hat and made off.
The strange thing is that this was accomplished outside a shop, in which the victim took refuge, and inside which he was supplied with an old pair of trousers to wear home.
The police did not appear for some time afterwards, and the garroters got clear away.”
LIFE AT THE EAST-END
However, garroting could have tragic and fatal consequences, as was reported in a case which appeared in the St James’s Gazette on Saturday 10th August 1895:-
“At the Whitechapel Coroner’s Court yesterday, Mr. Wynne E. Baxter held an inquest respecting the death of Mary Ann Evans, aged 74, the widow of a carpenter, of Great Pearl-street, Spitalfields.
Henry Matthews, a brushmaker, stated that about four months ago he was returning home with his sister-in-law (the deceased) at two o’clock in the morning.
SEIZED BY FOUR MEN
On reaching Grey Eagle-street four men rushed out on him and one seized him round the neck while the others attempted to rifle his pockets.
The deceased commenced to scream “Police” and one of the men then knocked her down into the gutter.
They then made off.
As the deceased did not appear to be hurt the witness did not complain to the police.
She was subsequently taken ill with jaundice, and died on Sunday last.”
GARROTTING AN ” EVERY DAY OCCURRENCE”
There then followed exchanges between the coroner and several witnesses, the first of whom, the aforementioned Henry Matthews, revealed just how prevalent the crime was in the East End of London:-
The Coroner: Does this often happen?
The witness (surprised): What, about Spitalfields? It is an everyday occurrence, pretty well.
The Coroner: You treated it as a joke more than anything else?
The Witness: Well, I was not injured.
The Coroner: I must say that in a free country like this it is pretty rough that people should set upon you and try to see what you have got in your pockets. But this is so common an occurrence that you took no notice of it?
The Witness: Oh no; it is no use. People call out “police” and they take no notice of it.
The Coroner: I suppose this only occurs at night
The Witness: Yes.
JANE BANISTER’S TESTIMONY
Other witnesses were then called to give their testimonies on the death of Mary Ann Evans:-
“Jane Banister, the wife of a waterside labourer, of the same address, stated that she saw the deceased after the assault, and found her greatly agitated, and shaking. She never seemed well after that.
A DOCTOR’S EVIDENCE
Dr. G. Norton Leslie, of Norton Folgate, stated that he was called to the deceased on the 1st inst., and found her suffering from jaundice, from which she died on Sunday.
The Coroner: Did these injuries have anything to do with death?
The Witness: I think so, sir. The shock and blow she received were the exciting cause.”
There then followed an angry exchange between one of the jurors and Wynne Baxter, who expressed his belief, a commonly held belief to do with crime and murder in the East End – and one that was expressed several times during the hunt for Jack the Ripper in 1888 – that the case would have been treated more seriously if it had taken place in a more prosperous part of London:-
“The jury returned a verdict of Death by Misadventure, and the coroner was proceeding to enter it, when one of the jury exclaimed, “I think it is a disgrace.”
The Coroner: Disgrace! What do you mean?
The Juror: I think it is a waste of time to bring a lot of tradesmen here when the doctor has been attending the woman.
The Coroner: If this inquest had been held in the City, I think it very likely that a verdict of manslaughter would have been returned. The woman has been knocked down by a set of roughs in Spitalfields and dies from the effects of it.
A NATURAL DEATH
The court was then cleared, and, after about ten minutes’ consultation with the coroner, the jury returned a verdict of Death from jaundice, from enlarged liver, natural death.”