Joseph Isaacs

Joseph Isaacs is one of those who, for a time in 1888, found himself suspected of being Jack the Ripper, largely as a result of his unusual behaviour.

He was a Polish Jewish cigar-maker, who, just prior to the murder of Mary Kelly, had been a resident at a common lodging-house in Little Paternoster Row, off Dorset Street, Spitalfields.

Mary Cusins, the deputy keeper of the lodging-house, became suspicious of him on the grounds that he was heard to pace his room in the dead of night, and because he left his lodgings around the time of the murder of Mary Kelly, leaving behind a violin bow.


Mrs Cusins appears to have made her suspicions known to the police when they were conducting a search of the lodging houses in the wake of Mary Kelly’s murder; and, when Isaacs returned to collect the bow, on 5th December, 1888, acting on police advice, she followed him.

He took the bow to Mr. Levenson’s pawn shop, and asked Levenson if he could repair it for him.

However, whilst Levenson was examining the bow, Isaacs stole a watch and ran off with it.

He was subsequently arrested on Drury Lane, and press speculation was rife that the police had finally caught Jack the Ripper.


The London Evening Standard, on Saturday 8th December, 1888, presented readers with the known facts about this latest suspect, and enlightened them as to why he was suspected of being responsible for the Whitechapel murders in the first place:-

“Joseph Isaacs, 30, cigar maker, was charged with having stolen a watch.

The Prisoner is the man who was arrested in Drury-lane on Thursday on suspicion of being connected with the Whitechapel murders.

It transpired that it was committed at the very time the Prisoner was being watched as a person “wanted.”

The Prosecutor, Mr. Levenson, said that the Prisoner entered his shop on the 5th inst. with a violin bow, and asked him to repair it. Whilst discussing the matter, he bolted out. Witness missed a gold watch belonging to a customer.

Mary Cusins, deputy of a lodging-house, in Little Paternoster-row, Spitalfields, said that the Prisoner lodged there for three or four nights before the murder of Mary Kelly in Miller’s-court.

He disappeared after that murder, leaving the violin bow behind.

The Witness, on the house-to-house inspection, gave information to the police.

On the night of the murder, she heard him walking about his room.

He answered to the published description of a man with an astrachan trimming to his coat.

Detective Record said there were some matters alleged against the Prisoner which it was desired to inquire into, and he was remanded accordingly.”

Newspaper sketches showing various suspects.
From The Illustrated Police News, 24th November, 1888. Copyright, The British Library Board.


The Eastern Daily Press, provided an update on Monday, 10th December, 1888:-

“The police are continuing their enquiries into the antecedents of Joseph Isaacs, said to be a Polish Jew, who is now in custody on the charge of watch-stealing.

Mary Cusins, the deputy of a lodging-house in Paternoster Row, near Dorset Street, and Cornelius Oakes, a lodger, state that the conduct of the prisoner was frequently strange.

Although he had a violin and four or five other musical instruments, he was never known to play any of them.

Oakes says prisoner used often to change his dress.

He heard him threaten violence to all women above seventeen years of age.”


Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, on  Sunday 16th December, 1888. gave more details on a man who, at the time, seemed like a very promising suspect:-

“An arrest of a more suspicious nature was made in Drury-lane on Thursday, of Joseph Isaacs, 30, who said he had no fixed abode and who described himself as a cigar maker.

He was charged at Worship-street police-court on Friday with having stolen a watch, value 30s., the goods of Julius Levenson. The theft was committed at the time the prisoner was being watched as the person “wanted” for the murders.

The prosecutor, Levenson,  said that the prisoner entered his shop on the 5th inst. with a violin-bow and asked him to repair it.

While discussing the matter, the prisoner bolted out of the shop, and the witness missed a gold watch belonging to a customer.

The watch had been found at a pawnshop.


To prove that the prisoner was the man who entered the shop, a woman named Mary Cusins was called.

She is a deputy at a lodging-house in Paternoster-row, Spitalfields, and said that the prisoner had lodged in the house as a single lodger for three or four nights before the Dorset-street murder – the murder of Mary Jeannette Kelly, in Miller’s-court.

He disappeared after that murder, leaving the violin bow behind.

The witness, on the house-to-house inspection, gave information to the police, and said she remembered that on the night of the murder she heard the prisoner walking about his room.

After her statement, a look-out was kept for the prisoner, whose appearance certainly answered to the published description of a man with an astrachan trimming to his coat.

He visited the lodging-house on the 5th, and asked for the violin bow.

It was given to him, and the witness Cusins followed him to give him into custody as requested by the police.

She saw him enter Levenson’s shop, and run out.

Detective Record stated that there were some matters alleged against the prisoner which it was desired to inquire into.

Mr. Bessby remanded the prisoner.


From inquiries made by a representative of Lloyd’s, it appears that Isaacs, the latest suspect, has resided on various occasions, at a lodging-house in Paternoster-row, about two minutes’ walk from the house in Miller’s-court, Dorset~street, where Mary Jeannette Kelly was murdered on Lord Mayor’s day.

The man is said to be a Polish Jew, and his conduct at the lodging-house is described as having been so strange that the deputy, Mary Cusins, and other lodgers, thought it their duty, when the police made the house-to-house visitation in search of the murderer, to specially mention him.

One of the lodgers, known by the name of Catherine, made serious allegations against the prisoner.

Mary Cusins – the deputy, stated to our representative that she never heard him use the words herself, but the people in the kitchen used to remark upon his extraordinary expressions, and also his singular conduct in having so many musical instruments, none of which he could play.

She thought it a very singular thing that he left the house shortly before the last murder was committed, and that he had not been seen since till this month.

Cornelius Oakes, who lodges at the same house, stated that he always considered the conduct of the man as strange.

He had a banjo, a violin, a guitar, a mandolin, and a musical-box, though he could not play any of them.

He heard him threaten violence to every woman above 17.

The man often used to change his dress.

He would wear a hard felt hat, and at other times a double-peaked cap.

He had been asked by the police to try and keep a lookout for him. He had been out with the police in search of him, but they had not met with him till he turned up again on Thursday.

He followed him for some time about the Seven Dials, and finally laid hold of him in Drury-lane.

He tried to get away, but they called a policeman, who arrested him and took him to Bow-street station.

Detective-sergeant Record was immediately telegraphed to, and he came, and took him to the local police station in a cab.”


However, as was reported by The Sheffield Evening Telegraph, on Saturday, 15th December, 1888, Lloyd’s was behind with their information, as the case for Isaacs having been the perpetrator of the Whitechapel murders had, by that time, fallen apart:-

“Joseph Isaacs, 30, cigar maker, with no fixed abode, was charged on remand, at Worship Street Police Court, with having stolen from the shop of a watchmaker named Levenson a watch value thirty shillings

The prisoner, it may be remembered, had been sought for by the police in consequence of report of his movements on the night of the murder of Mary Janet Kelly, in Dorset Street, Spitalfields; and it was said by the police that they wished the fullest inquiry as to the prisoner’s movements on the night of November 8th.

For that purpose, he was remanded, but Detective-sergeant Record, H Division, said that so far there was no further charge against the prisoner.

The prisoner was then asked if he wished to go for trial, but he pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to three months hard labour.”


Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper carried a clarification of Isaac’s exoneration on Sunday 23rd December, 1888, and pointed out that Isaacs had provided a cast-iron alibi for the night of Mary Kelly’s murder:-

“The police are still without any clue as to the perpetrators of the recent crimes.

It is stated that there is no ground for suspicion against the Polish Jew Joseph Isaacs, who was recently arrested in Drury-lane, and whose conduct at a lodging-house near to the scene of the murder in Dorset-street was so suspicious that special inquiries were instituted by the police.

The result is that it is ascertained that at the time of the murder he was undergoing a term of imprisonment for stealing a coat, which proves that he could not have been connected with the murder.”