On Saturday 3rd of March, 1888, James White murdered his wife, Margaret, at their hovel in Chelsea.
At his subsequent trial his age was given as “about 65”, and hers as “about 67.”
They had been married for over 40 years, and, according to neighbours, were a happy and loving couple, although James was prone to violent mood swings.
According to one neighbour:-
“I have known them on and off for 14 years. They were a very happy couple when not in drink; they never quarrelled; I never saw any blow struck or anything at all, all the time I have known them. They both drank, but Mr. White more than Mrs. White…”
Indeed, several neighbours would testify that it would be almost impossible to find a happier couple than James and Margaret White.
So, it came as a real shock when James White beat his wife to death with a poker.
The case is a disturbing one in that it reveals the matter-of-fact way in which both the police and the public treated domestic violence around the time of the Jack the Ripper murders, which would begin later in 1888.
Despite the fact that several family members and neighbours had witnessed the violence that James White meted out to his wife Margaret on the afternoon of her death, it is noticeable that none of them thought to intervene to prevent the violence from escalating.
Only one person had, it transpired, thought to fetch a police officer, and that officer, on arrival at the scene, had, so it seems, not done a great deal, other than to warn the husband that if he disturbed the peace any further he would be taken into custody.
FIRST REPORTS OF THE MURDER
Several newspapers, countrywide, gave the crime a brief mention in their Monday editions, such as this report from The Manchester Courier:-
“James White, 65, Shoemaker, Chelsea, murdered his wife on Saturday afternoon. She came home intoxicated, and refused to go to bed. Her husband became enraged, and inflicted injuries with the poker, which must have caused almost immediate death. He then summoned the neighbours, and admitted his guilt to the police. The deceased was 64, and they had been married for forty years.”
WIFE MURDER AT CHELSEA
However, The Globe, on the same day (Monday 3rd March 1888) furnished its readers with a lot more detail, both on the circumstances leading up to the crime, and of James White’s first court appearance before the Magistrates at Westminster Court.
You will notice that facts, such as ages and the number of years they had been married differ slightly in this account:-
“A shocking murder was committed in Chelsea on Saturday afternoon by an old man named James White, 63 years of age, the victim being his wife, Margaret White, a year older.
They had been married no less than 41 years, and had had several children who are all married.
They lived at No. 1a, Eden-place, Pond-place, a narrow court in one of the poorest slums in the parish, where White and his wife occupied a dark room amid the most squalid surroundings.
A MAN OF VIOLENT TEMPER
The husband was a man of violent temper, and, his wife being addicted to drink, quarrels between the aged pair were of frequent occurrence.
White is a shoemaker, and on Saturday he sent his wife to Balham to take home some work he had done.
She returned shortly before four o’clock in a state of intoxication.
A quarrel followed, in consequence of which a constable was called in by the neighbours.
About half past four o’clock, White went to a Mrs. Mayhew, living at No. 4, Edon-place, and asked her to come to his room and help him to get his wife on the bed, as he had “nigh killed her.”
When Mrs. Mayhew went, she found Mrs. White lying on the floor almost entirely divested of clothes, and her body and head were covered with blood and bruises.
A doctor being called in, he found that life was extinct.
The poker, which was found in the room, was stained with blood.
While the doctor was making his examination, White conducted himself with great violence, and said that if his wife were not dead he would soon settle her.
The police were afterwards called in, and White was taken into custody.
HIS FIRST COURT APPEARANCE
The prisoner James White was brought up at the Westminster Police-court this afternoon.
Inspector Bertolle deposed to arresting the prisoner and saying to him, “I suppose you know what you will be charged with? ”
The prisoner replied, “Wilful murder, I expect. It was not wilful, though. It was done in the height of passion. She got drunk.”
After the charge was read to him the prisoner said, “Well, that’s right. She came home drunk from Balham and laid on the floor. I tried all I could to persuade hes to lie on the bed. She would not, and I pulled all the clothes off her, and I beat her with a poker because she was obstinate. When she would not get up I beat her about the head with the poker. That is how she was killed. Of course I am sorry for it, but it is no use saying that now.”
Mr. D’Eyncourt: Was there any blood about his hands?
The witness: There was a little blood on his right shirt-sleeve, and he had a slight wound on the left hand, which did not appear to be recently done.
The prisoner, interrupting, said he did this at his work.
Mr. D’Eynecourt asked if the prisoner was sober when charged.
The inspector said the man seemed sober then, but he was very callous, and appeared hardly to realise the gravity of the charge against him.
By Mr. Smythe: His manner suggested to me that he had been drinking in the earlier part of the day.
Mr. D’Eyncourt said he must remand the prisoner.
Inspector Bertolle remarked that the prisoner’s daughter – who was crying at the back of the court – wished to make an application to his worship in connection with an assurance policy on her mother’s life.
Mr. D’Eyncourt: Better leave that.
The prisoner was then removed to the cells, remanded for a week.”
HIS OLD BAILEY TRIAL
At a subsequent appearance, James White was committed for trial at the Central Criminal Court (Old Bailey) and his trial opened on 23rd April 1888.
CATHERINE WHITE’S TESTIMONY
One of the first witnesses to testify was his daughter-in-law, Catherine White, who told the court that James was, “about 65 years old,” and his wife, Margaret, had been “about 67 years old.” The couple lived together at 1, Eden Place, Chelsea, at which address James White carried on his trade as a shoemaker.
She stated that, on the day of the murder, she and Margaret White had gone to Balham to deliver some boots to a customer, who had paid 12 shillings for them.
She then recalled that they had got back to Eden Place about half-past 12 in the middle of the day. Just before they got back, they stopped off at the Star and Garter public-house where Margaret had had half-a-quartern of gin and some bread and cheese. As far as she knew, that was the first drink that Margaret had had that morning.
When they got back to Eden Place, James White was sitting on his bench, working.
After they had been in the room a few minutes, he turned to his wife and told her that he should like a pint of beer, to which Margaret had replied, “James, I think you have had enough already, where did you get it?”
He told her, “I have taken a little job home, and I spent the money.”
At this point Margaret burst into tears and handed him two pennies to get a pint of beer.
“He went to fetch it,” Catherine told the court, “I saw him come back with the beer – his wife was then sorting the boots out of a sack, about 18 pairs. She showed him the boots, there were some to mend and some to cut up. He said, “Never mind those, I will see to those afterwards.”
He gave his wife a glass of beer first, and he drank the remainder.”
Shortly afterwards, he had told her that “he felt very bad, he did not know what was the matter, he said he felt so bad he must go and lie down…I said “Do, Dad, and I will cover you up.” I took his arm and led him to the bed, he lay down and I covered him up with a great coat – at that time the wife was still occupied with the boots: she was crying very much – she gave, as a reason, that the work in the house would not go home tonight; that was the first week they had had any work for several weeks. I said “Don’t fret, Mother, let him sleep a little while, and when he wakes up he will go to work, don’t disturb him.”
HE SEEMED ILL OR STRANGE
Catherine recalled that, when the prisoner had gone to lie down on the bed, “he seemed ill or strange – his eyes were very large, and his face very pale, his eyes were bloodshot. I thought he had been having something to drink, a good drop.”
Continuing with her testimony, she told the court that:-
“Shortly after he lay down, I left the house to pay Mrs. Mayhew a shilling – I only had to cross the road – I went back to Mother and said good-bye. She was sitting in the same chair – I was only two or three minutes out – she was quite sober then; that was about a quarter past 1.
After saying good-bye I left, saying I would come back directly my husband had had his tea.”
MARGARET WOULDN’T RESPOND
At about 5 o’clock that afternoon, she went back to the house where she found Margaret White lying on the bed on her left side. She had a dreadful blow round the eye on the right side of her head. She tried to rouse her, but she wouldn’t respond. Touching her face she found it very cold.
James White was sitting on his work seat holding a boot in his hand.
She asked him, “Father, what has happened between you and mother?”
“She aggravated me, and I paid her,” came the reply.
She told the court that:-
“…he seemed very wild, dreadfully wild – he was raving and stamping about, and roaring very much – stamping his foot and roaring out very loud; he did not roar anything particular, only making a noise, no words…”
She told him that she thought Margaret had had a fit and that they should send for a doctor.
“No, she is only shamming, she can speak if she likes”, was his reply – after which he added, “Aren’t you going to give me a pint of beer now you are come?”
Telling him she would fetch the beer, she hurried to fetch Dr. Lehaine, who returned with her.
HE THREATENED TO BRAIN THE DOCTOR
On seeing the doctor, James White became very violent; and threatened to brain the doctor with the poker, and then to brain Catherine for fetching him.
He told them that his wife was only “shamming”, and that she could speak if she liked.
However, Catherine was so disturbed by his behaviour, she said, that she had hidden all the fireirons in the cupboard.
HE COMPLAINED OF PAINS IN HIS HEAD
Under cross-examination she told the court that she had known James White for about 16 years.
She went on to say that:-
“He has frequently complained of pains in his head, and suffered with very profuse bleeding at the nose. I have often noticed a strange wildness in his eyes before, when he was sober, particularly when he was in a temper. He has very frequently threatened to cut his throat. My husband also suffers from the flow of blood to the head, both the father and mother of the prisoner died from that, and the prisoner’s brothers are the same, both suffer from it; one is dead, the other is in America; I don’t know if he is dead..”
Two or three weeks before 3rd March the prisoner threatened to cut his throat – that was at a time when he was quite sober – he sometimes broke out into violent fits of passion, with very little reason, if his tea was not ready; he then said he would cut his throat and have done with it – his general demeanour was that of a kind, affectionate husband and father…he was a dreadfully passionate man; I have never known him actually attempt to do anything to himself – his stamping and raging would mostly last about half an hour; that was a long time, an unusual time for him; he was unusually angry that afternoon – he was apt to get passionate after drink – if he slept after drink he was very passionate when he woke.
The old lady would have a drop with her husband now and again, but she was a sober woman ordinarily; she would have what she had with the prisoner – she was a very quiet woman as a rule.”
THE GRANDSON’S TESTIMONY
The next witness was nine year old Thomas Spinks, who was the grandson of James and Margaret White.
He recalled how on the day of the murder he had gone to 1, Eden Place at around 2. 30pm and had found his grandfather asleep on the bed.
His grandmother was sitting on a chair.
He handed her a little sum of money, which his mother had sent. and then went off to play.
His grandfather had then come out and had called him back, asking him to make the tea. He had followed him into the house, where his grandmother was still sitting in the same chair.
He testified that:-
“I got the tea ready; I made it – after that my grandfather said to my grandmother, “I want some bread.” She said she had not got none, no money. He then got up and threw grandmother off the chair; she fell on the floor against the table. I got frightened then, and ran out upstairs into Mrs. Healey’s room. While up there I heard sounds of quarrelling coming, from my grandfather’s room.”
MRS HEALEY’S TESTIMONY
The next witness was upstairs neighbour Mrs Healey who told the court that she had overheard the couple quarrelling between one and two o’clock on the afternoon of the murder:-
“Mr. White said, “Give me the money; what have you done with it?”
Mrs. White said, “James, I have paid my way with it.”
I then heard Mr. White say, “You had a right to come to me first” – after that I heard a noise like a falling about and a shuffling; a noise of persons moving about or falling, and moving of furniture, a noise like that. I heard Mrs. White say, “Oh, James, don’t.”
After that I did not hear the prisoner say anything for some time, it was very quiet then.
After I heard, “Oh, James, don’t,” the boy came up to my room; I called him up, and after that I heard them shoving and quarrelling, and arguing one with another. I noticed the prisoner’s voice, all I could hear him say was about the money; she had a right to come to him and give him the money.
I sent the boy for a constable; the constable came and went to the door. I did not look into the room. I heard the constable say, “What is the matter? If I hear any more of this I must take you into custody.” The constable went away after saying that…”
A HAPPY COUPLE
Strangely, Mrs Healey echoed the sentiments of Catherine White with regards the state of the couple’s marriage.
There could not, she told the court:-
“…be a more kind or affectionate husband on earth than James White. I lived in this house four or five years with them, and I knew them before as neighbours. I have known him 26 or 27 years. I believe he has been married 41 years. I have had daily opportunity of seeing the terms on which they lived; there could not be a happier couple. She had a serious illness, bronchitis, some years ago, she had suffered from it on and off for some years; he nursed her always as well as he could, always got up in the morning and got her a cup of tea.”
REBECCA ROBSON’S TESTIMONY
The next witness to testify was Rebecca Robson, who stated that she had gone to the couple’s room at around 3.15pm on the afternoon of the 3rd of March 1888 to collect a pair of boots that James White had been repairing for her.
On arrival in the passage of the house she had noticed that the coupe’s door was slightly ajar and, looking into the room, she had seen Margaret White lying on the floor, on her right side, with her head towards the bed.
“Mrs. White had nothing on but a black dress bodice,” she recalled, continuing, “the body-part without the skirt; no skirt, no petticoat – the body was perfectly naked with the exception of the black dress bodice. Her arms were through the arms of the bodice…”
As she was taking in the scene that greeted her, she heard James White mutter from the bed, “I suppose there will be no more work done to-day; they must come and fetch their things.”
He then called to his wife to get up, and she had heard him say, “I will see if I don’t make you get up.”
Mrs White, however, remained motionless on the floor.
Suddenly James White sprang from the bed, and grabbed a poker from the fireplace.
HE HIT HER A TREMENDOUS BLOW
Rebecca recalled what happened next:-
“I knocked at the door quickly and the prisoner told me to come in. I then pushed the door a little further open and saw the prisoner standing at the feet of Mrs. White with the poker in his hand.
He hit her a tremendous blow, a heavy blow, as near to the left hip as I could say.
I said, “Oh, have mercy, and don’t hit the poor creature with the poker.”
He said, “I don’t care if I kill her.”
I said, “I will fetch a policeman”; he said I could go and do so; he said he supposed someone had sent me. I said oh, no; I had come for the boots. He then replied I would not get them; they were not done.
I then went away – if I had seen a policeman I should have sent one there; I did not see one.”
HE HAD BEEN VERY EXCITED
She recalled how James White had been “very excited”; and she told the court that:-
“..he was holding the black part of the poker in his hand; I specially noticed that. He hit her with the round knob of the poker when he hit her on the hip. I saw him strike three blows; the first was a very heavy blow, the other two were not quite so heavy. The first was on the hip, the second and third were about the same place. After the second blow the wife groaned a little – she did not get up nor move.
When I went away I left the door open. I was there nearly 10 minutes as near as I can guess; it was a quarter past 3 when I went there.”
A QUIET AND PEACEABLE MAN
She also stated that she had always found James White to be, “a very quiet and peaceable man.”
She also added:-
“He did not give me the idea of a person who was drunk on this occasion, rather that of a person who had been suddenly seized with a paroxysm of passion.
I expostulated with him, and then he said he did not care if he killed her.”
WHY DID SHE IGNORE THE VIOLENCE?
Reading Rebecca Robson’s testimony, you can’t help but be struck by the somewhat nonchalant way with which she disregarded the blatant domestic violence that was taking place right in front of her eyes.
It might be argued, in her defence, that she was frightened by the behaviour that she was witnessing, but her assertion that if she had seen a policeman she would have sent one there is beyond belief. Had she done so, she might well have saved the life of Margaret White.
CONSTABLE SWINDEN’S TESTIMONY
However, according to Police Constable William Swinden’s testimony, few people were that bothered by the fate of poor Mrs White, himself included.
He told the court that, at around 4pm on the afternoon of the murder, Thomas Spinks had summoned him to 1A Eden Place:-
“…I went into the prisoner’s room – the door was closed. When I got in I saw the deceased lying on the floor in front of the fireplace on her right side. She was dressed. I only saw her face; there were no marks on her face – I considered her to be asleep.
The prisoner was lying on the bed awake. I asked him what the disturbance was about. He said there was no row, “I want to get her up on the bed,” pointing to the deceased; “she is drunk, and she will lie on the floor to sleep.”
I looked at her, and considered her to be asleep. I did not wake her or disturb her. I told the prisoner not to make any disturbance, to keep himself quiet, and I left the room. I noticed the furniture in the room; it did not appear to be disturbed at all – the prisoner appeared to be quite sober…”
DR LEHAINE’S TESTIMONY
Dr Daniel Lehaine later testified to the scene that he encountered when he arrived in the room:-
“I went in, he said there was no doctor required; that she could speak if she liked; she was only shamming.
I examined her body; she was dead – the body had partially cooled; it was not quite cold – I should say she had been dead about a couple of hours.
There was a small incised wound on the left side of the head, above or behind the ear. There was a small quantity of dried blood stuck between the hairs.
There was a discolouration of the skin of the right eye and nose, an abrasion of the skin over the left eye and left cheek, and a discolouration of the skin around the left ear, and in front of the left ear.
There was a puncture wound on the back of the left hand; the hand itself was very much swollen.
The right hip had several recent contusions; most of them ran into each other.
All the bruises I have spoken of were recent.
WHAT THE PRISONER SAID
After I had made the examination the prisoner asked me if she was dead.
I said, “Yes.”
He said, “A bloodyy good job, too.”
He said, “Fetch me my coat and I will go to the, police-station.”
He then asked for some beer, and some person supplied the money, and he went to fetch it himself.
When I first went in he was in a very highly excited condition – I should think he was sober – he swore at me and said he did not want me there, and threatened to brain me with the poker.
He did not seem to realise that he had killed his wife at that time.
Some money was given him and he went away with the can.
He returned with the beer, and I left almost immediately after, without saying anything to him or he to me.
I sent for a constable..”
CONSTABLE DAVEY’S TESTIMONY
Two police constables arrived at the scene of the murder.
One of them, Police Constable William Davey, testified as to what they encountered:-
“I found the body of Mrs. White lying on the bed. The prisoner was sitting in a chair smoking his pipe. I asked him who had Killed the woman.
He said, “I did.”
I then cautioned him.
He said, “My God, I settled her; she would not do as I wanted her, so I hit her three times on the head with the soft end of the poker.”
I took him to the station – on the way there he said, “We have lived happily together for 41 years, but if she had done as I told her I should not have killed her; I suppose the Old Bailey will be my lot”
When I arrested the prisoner I found these two pokers together in the cupboard by the side of the fireplace – on the knob of this long one there were marks of blood…”
IT WAS NOT WILFUL
Inspector Bertolle was on duty at King’s Road Police Station when the prisoner was brought in at around 8pm on the evening of the 3rd of March 1888.
He later recalled how, having gone to view the body of Mrs White at Eden Place, he had returned to the station where, as the prisoner was being put in the dock, he had observed to him, “I suppose you know what you are going to be charged with?”
“Wilful murder, I expect,” was James Whites reply, before adding, “it was not wilful, though; it was done in the heat of passion, she got drunk.”
The inspector also testified that:-
“I noticed some blood on his left hand, which appeared to come from an old wound which I noticed there. It seemed to be an old one, not freshly done. He was sober, but my impression at the time was that he had been drinking in the earlier part of the day. He did not seem then, at 8 o’clock, to realise what he had done; he exhibited the most utter indifference.”
HE SHOWED NO REMORSE
The one thing that shines through from the testimony of those who witnessed the awful scene in the aftermath of the murder is just how callously indifferent James White remained throughout the whole time.
According to Louisa Mayhew, for example, White had come to her house at around 4.30pm and had shouted for her from outside.
She had, she said, asked him to come in, to which he had replied that he wouldn’t.
Going to the door, she had asked what he wanted.
“I want you to come over the way to help my old woman on the bed,” he replied, “I have very nigh settled her.”
The two of them went to 1a, where Mrs Mayhew saw Margaret White lying on the floor on her left side, with her head towards the bed and her feet towards the fireplace.
“She had on her bodice and chemise”, Mrs Mayhew recalled, “her petticoat lying underneath her, a red petticoat – it was stripped open all the way up, torn right open, and all the chemise and bodice were wrenched open, she was naked to her throat, the bodice was undone, her breasts and everything were bare. The chemise was stripped open all the way up, torn right away, and the petticoat in the same way – part of the petticoat was lying under her.”
She had asked her if she could speak, but had received no reply.
She asked James White, “What have you been doing of?”
“I don’t care,” was his gruff reply, “she should have done what I wanted, and got me a cup of tea ready.”
FOUND GUILTY AND SENTENCED TO DEATH
There was little doubt that James White Had brutally murdered his wife, Margaret.
The only question to be considered was whether or not he had been sane when he had carried out the crime.
The jury, having retired to consider their verdict, returned and declared him “Guilty” of the Wilful murder of Margaret White, albeit they, “strongly recommended him to mercy on account of his age and want of premeditation.”
The judge, however, was in no mood for mercy, and he sentenced him to death.
The death sentence, however, was later commuted to one of life in prison.
He died in prison, two years later, on October 21st 1890.