Southend’s Sykes In Ripper Hunt

There is no doubt about it, the excitement over the Whitechapel murders drew numerous oddballs to the streets of the East End of London, all of them with one elusive goal in mind – that of catching Jack the Ripper.

One person who undertook a novel approach to hunting the perpetrator of the terrible crimes was Southend newsagent John Keith Sykes, who turned up at the London offices of The New York Herald in September, 1889, and entertained the staff with a breathless, and breathtaking, account of his novel attempt at detection.

The Grays And Tilbury Gazette And Southend Telegraph, treated its readers to an account of his activities in its edition of Saturday, 28th September, 1889:-


The New York Herald in a recent issue at length discussed the theorising of certain folks in regard to the Whitechapel murders and then went on to say:-

There is still another class of people who are potently affected by Jack the Ripper and this is the amusing class. It is composed of sober, staid, and respectable citizens whose even tenor of life has been grossly disturbed the “Jack the Ripper” events, and who suddenly awake to the conviction that the hour has come and they are the men to fill it.

From the ashes of long mental activity, they spring, phoenix-like, into great detectives. They become full-blown – or fly-blown – sleuth-hounds in a moment.

As a general rule they rush into print or into a police station with their great idea, and are as uneasy until they are delivered of it as is a hen with an egg long overdue.

When they content themselves with merely expressing it they are fortunate.


Sometimes, however, they attempt to carry out the idea themselves, and then they come to grief. They come to grief very seriously, and this was the case with a very good and exceedingly enterprising citizen who put his own scheme into execution last Saturday night.

His name is John Keith Sykes. He is a newsagent at Southend-on-Sea, and his place of business is 4, High-street. He has the appearance of a very earnest and entirely respectable tradesman, but is blessed with a wealth of imagination and a width of ambition calculated to make quite as much trouble in the diminished sphere a newsagent as a battleship engine within the weak walls of a torpedo boat.


Mr John Keith Sykes came to The Herald office about half-past ten o’clock on Saturday night and quite overturned the office. He was so full of “Jack the Ripper” and other stimulating influences that the office felt a strong ambition to condense itself safely behind the door.

Mr Sykes, in explaining the object of his mission, laid down on the floor, rolled about and made faces, yelled in an ingenious manner, highly creditable to his thoughtful purpose – for he had a thoughtful purpose -and otherwise so conducted himself that the office was in doubt as to whether Mr Sykes was “Jack the Ripper,” or whether “Jack the Ripper” had tried to murder Mr Sykes and afterwards deprive him of his digestive system.


The trouble was that Mr Sykes explained too much all at once. His audience were unprepared, so to speak; no notice of Mr Sykes’ entertainment having previously been made.

When he was finally understood and properly interviewed, it turned out that Sykes had had at Southend-on-Sea an altogether shrewd and unusual conceit and had carried it out in London in an altogether shrewd and unusual way.

Mr Sykes desired earnestly to be written up, and his request was gratified.


Upon being interviewed, he said:-

“I was comin’ to London with wife, and I says to myself, “I’ll jest test them pleecemen in Whitechapel. I’m the agent the New York ’Erald”, I says, “so I’ll do it for the New York ‘Erald.” which was a most wise and praiseworthy ambition, of which other newsagents may well take note.

“So I made all the plans and left Newington Bucks at ’aft-parst seven by ‘bus into Whitechapel, having sent my wife, who had come to London with me to Talcott-square, where we stop. I left Newington Bucks at ‘aft-parst seven, I was tillin’ you, and ‘ere’s the number of the ‘bus. No. 2260, and ’ere’s the number o’ the conductor, 7867. Heverythink I did I substantiated, as you’ll see.”

Mr Sykes produced two numbers, together with a volume of handy written notes and other documentary evidence.

Mr Sykes is a tall man, of dark complexion and middle age. He has large black eyes and a heavy black moustache, and was well dressed, though very dusty, for reasons which will appear later.

Mr Sykes had, even to the unripe observer, the air of a man who had been looking upon the wine when it was red long enough become a little colour blind. This and his rampant ardour in his great and original scheme had put Mr Sykes in a frame of mind, which, to speak mildly, was unusual.

The wonder was that upon Mr Sykes’ entry the entire office had not excused themselves through the four-storey window, and left Mr Sykes in undisputed possession.


“I left my character at Newington Bucks,” continued Mr Sykes, “safe in the ‘ands of ’Arry ’Owe, late o’ the Crown an’ Grape, Lambeth-road. Everybody knows ’Arry ‘Owe, an’ two o’ my friends – one o’ them is the coach master, I forget ‘is name, an’ the other is a friend o’ mine D-A-N-T-E, Dante, the inferno, you know. I told ’em ezackley what I was goin’ to do, an’ they’ll say so. Then I come to London an’ went into the City, an’ this is wot I did.”


“I’ll tell you wot my plan was. I’ll tell you just the same as I told them. My plan was this. I says to myself. I’ll just go into the murder district an’ lie down in some o’ them courts just like I had been murdered, and see how long it’ll be before some pleeceman comes along and finds me. You see” – and Mr Sykes wore a look preternatural shrewdness – “I wanted to see ‘ow easy it would be to murder somebody an’ the murderer get away before any pleeceman turned up. That was my plan. So I goes into the City, an’ the fust good place I seen was Talbot-court, in Gracechurch-street.”

“But that is not Whitechapel.”

“No, but it was a good court to lie down in. It was a good place to do a murder in,” said Mr Sykes.

“Go en.”


“Well, I goes in there, an’ there was nobody in sight. I lays down and then I says to myself. “’Ow would a man do as was bein’ murdered. So I rolls all around and knocks on the pavement with me cane, says, “Aooah. aooah, aooah!”, and Mr Sykes yelled in a most hippopotamantine and unearthly way. Not only this, but he laid down on the floor of the office and rolled over and kicked and grasped and hammered the floor with his split cane, and altogether acted like a Frankenstein that had lost its power balance Then he got up.

“Am I dusty”, asked he quietly.

This was too much. There were several people listening with interest, and they smiled as sonorously a royal salute.


“Well,” continued Mr Sykes, unmoved. “I lays there for a while and nobody comes in.

Then I gets up and goes up the court and talks out loud at the top o’ my voice, “Do you know that a man is bein’ murdered ’ere?”, and I knocks on the doors an’ a woman comes to one door an’ says, “What are you doin’?”, but, before I could tell her, she slams the door.

Well, I goes back an’ lays there 10 minutes between 8.30 an’ 9 o’clock, but nobody comes, an’ no pleeceman shows ’imsel’.

So you see that if I ‘ad a been murdered, the murderer could o’ got away without no trouble.”

There was such a practical vein running through Mr Sykes’ altogether unheard-of experiment that it was interesting as well as funny.


“Well,” said he, “then I goes to the court, marked 55 to 59, Eastcheap, an’ lays down there.

It was a narrow court, an’ I lays across it. I laid there from sixteen minutes past eight to a quarter to nine, only gettin’ up now and then to walk the court.

I says,”Aooah, aooah!” – and Mr Sykes again promulgated his death groans – “but nobody came.”


“Finally, a postman come in, an’ I draws up my legs to let him pass. Another postman was lookin’ at me, but I says, “Shh! Don’t mind me. I’m tryin’ an experiment on the pleece.”

And then a man came along an’ looked at me, an’ I said, “Pardon me. I want a witness ’ere,’ an’ he gives me his name. This is his name: ‘John Somers, 150, Cartwright-street, Royal Mint-street.’


Well, he goes away, and a constable comes by at last – his number was 852, and would you believe it, he sees me lyin’ there, dead for all he knows, and he passes right on. I jumps up, an’ runs after him, and says, “‘Ere, 852,  you know I’ve been lyin’ in that doorway a long time, an’ there ain’t been no pleeceman ’ere at all?” An’all he says was that I’d better not be lyin’ there when comes back.

Now wot kind of way is that treat a man, I’d like to know?”

Mr Sykes was assured that 852 had acted in a manner highly inconsiderate of his (Mr Sykes’s) feelings.


“Well, I naturally feels disgusted over this, but I says, “I’ll give ’em one more try,” so I walks to Tower Hill.

In Tower Hill, I finds a dark and dismal court. There was iron gates to it, an’ it was very dark. So I goes up the court an’ lays me down on dark and dismal doorway.

There was no lights to be seen, an’ nobody about, so I pretends again that I’m bein’ murdered, and yells, “Aooah! Aooah! Aooah!” and falls about in struggles an’ all that, an’ then lays still.

Nobody comes.

I lays there a while, an’ then I heard people comin’ down the court. There was an entrance at the other end, but I did not know that. I lay still, and a man comes down with a woman, and his arm was around the woman’s waist. They passed close to me, but never took the slightest notice. I jumps up an’ goes after them, intendin’ tell ’em wot I thought of such conduct, but I did not.


As they went away, I saw a man standin’ outside the court. So I goes up to him an’ says, “I’m tryin’ an experiment. I’m a doin’ of it in the public interest. Would you mind comin’ up this ‘ere court with me, an’ let me pretend that I am murderin’ you.”

At this point, there was another roar from the audience, but it had no more effect on Mr Sykes than heat on a broken thermometer.

He went excitedly on.

“The man steps back a few steps an’ looks at me. I says, “Hold on. I’m doin’ this for the public interest. Would you mind comin’ up an’ lookin’ on as a witness while I pretend I’m being murdered?”

But he wouldn’t do it. I goes back, an’ then I come down the court. I picked up a letter, an’ I put this man’s name down on the letter, but the police took the letter, I can’t tell you his name.


Well, I goes back, an’ pretty soon I seen a pleeceman commin’ ’E come up slow, very slow, like this,” and Mr Sykes illustrated the constable’s gait.

“I lays still; when he gets up to me I says, “I’m glad you’ve come, sir, you want more pleecemen in this district.”

“There’s enough here for the likes of you,” says he, “You can’t go to the workhouse on any such game as this. Wot’s your name and address?” says he; and I was that startled that me address went from me in a second. But I remembered one name, though. I remembered my name. “I’ve found a letter,” says I.

“Well, you can throw it in the sewer an’ jump after it”, says he, and he follows me down toward Thames Street.

I was going to have a glass in a public-house to get me nerve back, but he calls in at the door and says, “Don’t serve that man,” and they wouldn’t serve me.


I goes down a little further and we meets a line of pleecemen, and then this constable says, “This man has found a letter.” “Let him take it to the station,” says the sergeant, and the constable goes along to the station, and I leaves the letter, and they takes my name.


Then I says, I’ll go to the office of the New York ‘Erald, and ‘ere I am.”

Mr Sykes certainly was there and he had made himself very much in evidence.

His story is printed nearly a verbatim as was possible. He had himself taken care to verify it in every possible way, and all the names used are his own and authentic should the authenticity interest any reader. It is printed merely to illustrate the strange directions which ingenuity takes private individuals and the extraordinary way in which they are sometimes carried out.”