Do you know what Elizabeth Gibbs’s claim to fame is?
I only ask because people don’t tend to give her much thought.
In fact, I would go so far as to say that the majority of people give her no thought whatsoever.
So, in order to redress the balance, Mrs Elizabeth Gibbs holds the dubious distinction of being London’s first homicide victim of 1888 – the year that would become synonymous with the Jack the Ripper murders that would begin almost nine months after Mrs Gibbs died.
Strictly speaking, she sustained the injuries that led to her demise in the closing days of 1887; and she was, to all intents and purposes, the victim of a Victorian hit and run.
HIT BY A VAN
She was the wife of Mr John Gibbs, a land agent; and she and her husband lived at 44 Ebury Street, Pimlico in London’s West End.
At around one o’clock on the afternoon of December 27th 1887, the couple had been walking along Grosvenor Place, when they had stepped off the pavement intending to cross the road.
No sooner had they done so than, to quote her husband’s inquest testimony, “they suddenly became aware of a pair-horse mineral water van being close upon them.”
SHE SUSTAINED TERRIBLE INJURIES
John Gibbs tried to get out of the way, but he had been instantly knocked down, either by the pole or by one of the horses. Had he not had the presence of mind to roll quickly over, he told the inquest into his wife’s death, the wheels of the van would, most certainly, have passed over his legs.
As it was, he sustained a few cuts and bruises, but his pride, more than his person, was what had been injured.
Staggering to his feet, he found his wife lying terribly injured on the ground behind him, the van having run her over.
IN PURSUIT OF THE DRIVER
The van, which had been travelling on the wrong side of the road, then headed off at speed along Halkin Street and was soon out of sight.
Charles Sampson, a postman, witnessed the accident and recalled at the inquest how he had seen Mrs Gibbs underneath the wheels of the van and had watched one wheel go over her.
As the van was being driven away, he stopped it and urged the driver to go back and see “what mischief he had done.”
The driver, who appeared to have been drinking, became extremely abusive towards him, asked him what business it was of his, and promptly drove off.
Sampson subsequently saw the driver delivering water to a shop in Belgrave Mews, and advised him to go to the hospital and “see what injury he had done.” Once again the driver became abusive, used bad language, and struck him on the chest before climbing back onto his van and hurrying away.
However, the intrepid Charles Sampson had the wherewithal to make a note of the company name on the vehicle and to also note the number of the van – number 80.
MR ALFRED WINWOOD
This led the police to the premises of Messrs Matey and Co, mineral water manufacturers, on Kingsland Road, Dalston, in the East End of London, where they learnt that the driver of van 80 was a Mr. Alfred Winwood.
He would subsequently find himself charged with manslaughter.
MRS GIBBS TAKEN TO HOSPITAL
Meanwhile, onlookers at the scene of the accident had raced to assist the stricken Mrs Gibbs and she was duly taken to St George’s Hospital at Hyde Park Corner.
She had suffered a fracture to her left arm, and there were cuts and bruises on her face.
Over the next few days her condition grew steadily worse.
On the 29th of December 1887 her left arm was amputated, but it did nothing to help her condition, and, at 2pm on the 1st of January 1888, she died; the cause of her death, according to Mr. Hugh Lawson, House Surgeon of St George’s Hospital, being “…from the shock and exhaustion following the injuries and the operation.”
ALFRED WINWOOD ON TRIAL
There were too many witnesses to the accident to leave any doubt that it was the carelessness of Alfred Winwood that had caused the death of Mrs Gibbs; and the jury at the inquest into her death returned a verdict of of Manslaughter against him, and he was duly arrested on the Coroner’s warrant.
His trial took place at the Central Criminal Court (Old Bailey) on the 30th of January 1888.
The defence, according to The Morning Post in its edition of the 6th of February 1888, tried to argue that:-
“…there was contributory negligence on the part of the deceased and her husband in not exercising proper care..”
A GUILTY VERDICT
However, the jury didn’t agree and they found him guilty of Manslaughter – albeit they recommended him to mercy – and the judge sentenced him to six months hard labour.
122 HOMICIDES IN 1888
The death of Mrs Elizabeth Gibbs wasn’t a particularly dramatic one – albeit it was certainly tragic.
She was simply one more London crime statistic – the first of 122 homicides that would take place in London over the next twelve months.
Of course, within those 122 victims would be the five victims of the killer we now know as Jack the Ripper – Mary Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Kelly, plus three other murder victims – Emma Smith, Martha Tabram and Rose Mylett whose names simply appeared as “Whitechapel murders” in the official files.