One of the many suggestions that were bandied around about ways in which the Victorian police might catch Jack the Ripper was to have men – some favoured police officers for the task, others favoured young pugilists – dress up as women and send them out onto the streets in the hope that they might be accosted by the Whitechapel murderer.
In a previous blog, I covered the case of Detective Sergeant Robinson who, in October, 1888, managed to get into an altercation with several cab-washers, when he dressed in female attire and headed to King’s Cross to investigate a potential suspect. If you missed the story of Sergeant Robinson’s escapades you can read about them in this article.
However, police officers weren’t the only ones who took to the streets dressed as women at the height of the Jack the Ripper panic throughout 1888 and 1889.
Journalists, amateur detectives and drunks, were all willing to risk putting themselves in danger of falling into the clutches of the miscreant who was terrorising London.
MAN MASQUERADING IN FEMALE ATTIRE
One of those whose name has come down to us, thanks to the newspapers picking up on his story, was John Brinkley, who appeared at Clerkenwell Police Court on Tuesday, 13th November, 1888.
The Edinburgh Evening News carried the following report on his court appearance on the day he stood before the magistrate to explain his behaviour:-
“John Brinkley was charged with being drunk and causing a crowd to assemble in Goswell Road last evening by wearing a woman’s skirt, shawl and hat over his ordinary clothes.
He was drunk and said that he was going to find “Jack the Ripper.”
The magistrate sentenced him to fourteen days’ hard labour.”
ONLY DONE FOR A FREAK
A sentence of fourteen days hard labour for dressing up as a woman and heading out to catch the perpetrator of the Whitechapel atrocities – especially when, as was reported by several other newspapers that covered the story, John Brinkly told the court, “he only did it for a freak!” – but it just shows how seriously magistrates were, at the time, taking the cases of anyone who seemed to be adding to the fear and panic that the ripper crimes were generating.
EDWARD HAMBLAR DONS A DRESS
It would appear that magistrates may have relaxed their tough stance by the following summer, as sixty-one-yard old Edward Hamblar (some newspapers gave his surname as Hambler) found out when he appeared at the Thames Police Court in October, 1889.
The Illustrated Police News carried the following report of his appearance in its edition of Saturday, 26th October, 1889:-
A FOOLISH FREAK
“Edward Hamblar, sixty-one, respectably dressed, and described as a ship’s joiner, was charged with disorderly conduct and being dressed in female attire.
Inspector Ferret, H Division, stated that on Sunday night he saw a crowd of about six hundred persons in Bromley Street, Ratcliff.
He went up and found the prisoner detained by two men.
DRESSED IN FEMALE ATTIRE
He was dressed in woman’s attire. He was wearing the hat and veil produced, also a black jacket, print dress, two flannel petticoats, and a large dress improver. [Just to explain a dress improver was a Bustle worn beneath the dress to create the late Victorian ideal of a small waist/large chest and bottom, ‘hourglass’ silhouette.]
THEY THOUGHT HE WAS JACK THE RIPPER
The witness told Hamblar that he should arrest him, and took him to the station.
All the people round the prisoner imagined that he was “Jack the Ripper” and the excitement was very great in consequence.
The prisoner gave no explanation of his conduct. The Prisoner said it was only a freak.
Mr Saunders [the magistrate] said the prisoner had been guilty of very foolish conduct. He did not make a handsome woman. (Laughter.)
Inspector Ferrett said that it got abroad that the prisoner was “Jack the Ripper”, and, had not the witness arrived when he did, the prisoner would probably have been torn to pieces.
Mr Saunders bound the prisoner over in the sum of £10 to keep the peace for six months.”
MAN IN FEMALE ATTIRE
The next month, Spencer Murch donned the garb of a woman for a different reason, albeit, it did not help him avoid a court appearance.
The Northern Daily Mail reported his case on Thursday, 28th November, 1889:-
“At Dalston Police Court, London, yesterday, Spencer Harris Hope Murch, aged 38, of Oakhurst House, Goldings Hill, Loughton, was charged with being found dressed in female attire.
The prisoner appeared in the dock as a fashionably attired woman.
For the defence, it was stated that he had been suspended from employment at the Peninsular and Oriental Company’s offices, some money having been missed, and that he adopted the disguise to escape arrest.
The company would not prosecute and the prisoner was, in consequence, discharged.”