Murder in Whitechapel

The 7th August sees the 126th anniversary of what may well have been the first of the Jack the Ripper Murders.

A photograph of the White Hart as it appears today.
The Entrance into George Yard Today

The murder itself took place on a first floor landing of George Yard Buildings, located in George Yard, a dark turning off Whitechapel High Street.

A local newspaper described George Yard, rather unflatteringly, as  “…one of the most dangerous streets in the locality…” and even today, although parts have been redeveloped and the name has been changed to Gunthorpe Street, it still has a menacing air about it.

It had just gone 5am when John Saunders Reeves came out of his apartment in George Yard Buildings and began descending the stairs. As he arrived on the first floor landing he discovered the body of a woman lying on her back in a pool of blood.

He raced off to fetch a policeman and soon returned with Constable Barrett who, having ascertained that the woman was beyond help, sent Reeves to fetch the local medic Dr. Killeen. When the doctor arrived he carried out a cursory examination, noted that she had been “brutally murdered” and, having pronounced life extinct, ordered that she be removed to the mortuary.

What he noted was that the woman upper body had been subjected to a frenzied knife attack that had resulted in 39 stab wounds that ran from her throat to her lower abdomen.

There was considerable unease in the area at the fact that such a brutal murder could have taken place, again to quote a local newspaper, “next to the citizens peacefully sleeping in their beds” without anyone hearing a sound and without a “a trace or clue being left of the villain who did the deed.”

The woman was soon identified as local streetwalker Martha Tabram (also known as Turner) and, at the subsequent inquest into her death the assistant Coroner, George Collier, opined that her’s had been  “…one of the most dreadful murders any one could imagine.”

As for the person who had carried out the crime, he was of the opinion that, whoever he was, he must have been  “…a perfect savage to inflict such a number of wounds on a defenceless woman in such a way.”

Of course, at the time the sequence of murders that we now know as the Jack the Ripper crimes were yet to capture the imagination of the public. So, brutal as it was, this was still a crime that was an isolate incident. 

What the murder of Martha Tabram did do, however, was add to a general feeling of unease that was already taking hold in the area that something was happening in Whitechapel.

People genuinely became afraid of walking through those dark, unlit thoroughfares, for which the district as a whole was notorious.

The result was that, when within less than a month the body of another woman (Mary Nichols) was discovered in a dark gateway in nearby Buck’s Row, the unease gave way to outright panic.

So, for the people of Whietchapel, although they had no way of knowing it when they woke up on the 7th August 1888 to the news of the horrible murder in George Yard, their autumn of terror had begun.

As mentioned earlier, George Yard, the site of Martha Tabram’s murder,  is now called Gunthorpe Street, and it has lost nothing of  its menacing ambience, despite the passage of 126 years.

It is the first destination on our nightly Jack the Ripper walking tour and those who join us on the walk often comment how, the moment they pass through the dark archway, through which Martha Tabram would have passed with her murderer on 7th August 1888, they really do feel like they’ve stepped back in time.

As to whether or not Martha was a victim of the ripper, the jury is still out. Some say she wasn’t because her injuries were not consistent with the injuries suffered by the canonical five victims, others say that she was was and that, in killing her, Jack, by targeting her throat and lower abdomen, was evolving the modus operandi that, three weeks later, he would use to such devastating effect on his first definite victim, Mary (Polly) Nichols.

It has to be said that, at the time of the murders, most of the officers working on the case were in no doubt that Martha was slain by the slain hand that slew Mary Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Kelly.

So there is every chance that on this day in history, August 7th 1888, Martha Tabram became the first victim of Jack the Ripper.