The First Whitechapel Murder

Although most people think of the crimes that took place in the East End of London in 1888 as the “Jack the Ripper Murders” they are, in fact, officially known as the Whitechapel Murders and, the first of these, took place in early April 1888.

Emma Smith, The First Victim

Emma Elizabthe Smith, was the 45 years old widow of a soldier. She was 5 foot 2 inches tall, had light brown hair, and bore a scar on her right temple.

Emma Smith, the first Whitechapel Murders victim, is followed by her attackers.
Emma Smith being followed by her attackers.

As with many of the other Whitehapel Murders victims, she was something of an enigma and, even her closest friends appear to have known very little about her past life.

There were hints that she had previously enjoyed a relatively comfortable existence, and some of those who had known her even commented that she had a cultured twang to her voice.

However, she herself was tight-lipped about her antecedents and, the only thing that witnesses could remember her actually saying about her past, was that she had distanced herself from her early life some ten years before.

Why that should have been, nobody knew.

They Would Not Understand

The only thing Emma had said, when asked why she had chosen to leave her old life far behind, was: “They would not understand now any more than they understood then. I must live somehow.”

This reference to living “somehow” was, no doubt, a reference to the fact she was sustaining herself by working as a prostitute on the streets of Spitalfields and Whitechapel.

Since around October 1886 she had resided at the same Common Lodging House at 18 George Street, close to Brick Lane.

According to those who knew her, she was also prone to drinking a little too much and, when drunk, she could become quite aggressive and, as a result, often found herself waking with a black eye and sundry cuts and bruises resulting from an alcohol fuelled brawl.

As with the other victims of the Whitechapel Murderer she seems to have been a tragic figure who you can’t help but feel sorry for.

Although her lifestyle was, to say the least, somewhat transient, she appears to have adhered to a daily regime that saw her leave the lodging house each night at between six and seven o’clock and head out to solicit for customers around the district, before returning to the lodging house in the early hours of the next morning.

Some Rough Work

At around six o’clock on the evening on the Bank Holiday Monday, April 2nd 1888, she had, as per her established routine, headed out from George Street and begun plying her trade around the locality.

Later that night, Margaret Hayes saw her talking with a man in Bethnal Green.

Just a short time before, Hayes  herself had been struck in the mouth by two men who had stopped her in the street . Indeed, she later stated that there had been “some rough work” going on that night. This might suggest that one or more of the local gangs was out and about, possibly extorting money from the local prostitutes.

Followed and Attacked

According to Emma Smith’s own account, she had been heading along Whitechapel Road at around 1.30am on the morning of the 3rd April 1888, when she encountered a group of three men heading towards her. Evidently there was something about them that triggered alarm bells and she hurriedly crossed over the road to avoid them.

The junction of Osborne Street and Whitechapel Road.
The corner of Osborne Street.

To her horror, they began to follow her.

Quickening her pace, she turned into Osborne Street and had just made it to the junction with Wentworth Street and Brick Lane when the three men caught up with her and, having robbed her of her meagre night’s takings, they  subjected her to a savage attack that left her bleeding profusely and in a great deal of pain and discomfort. She had been badly beaten, one of her ears had been almost torn off, and a blunt object had been forced into her.

You can’t help but admire her plucky determination when you read that, having staggered to her feet, she removed the woollen shawl that she was wearing, pressed it between her legs to staunch the heavy bleeding from the wound that the men had inflicted on her, and then proceeded to stager back to her lodging house in George Street.

Why So Long?

However, even this journey is something of a mystery.

According to the deputy keeper of the lodging house, Mary Russell, Emma arrived at the lodging house at between 4am and 5am in the morning.

Yet, the distance from the scene of the attack to 18 George Street was no more than 300 yards.Which means that if, as Emma stated, the attack had taken place at a little after 1.30am, it took her between two and three hours to stagger that short distance.

Furthermore, according to police testimony at the subsequent inquest into her death, she would have passed several police constables on her journey home, and yet no officers could remember having seen.

Taken To Hospital

What is certain, however, is that a violent attack had been perpetrated on her and Mary Russell and fellow lodger, Annie Lee, were so alarmed by her obvious distress and pain that they insisted on taking her to the nearby London Hospital.

An exterior view of the London Hospital.
The London Hospital.

Here, she was lucid enough to tell the medic who treated her, Dr George Haslip, that she had been attacked by three men, the youngest being a youth aged around nineteen years old. However, aside from this very brief description, she was either unable, or unwilling, to go into any further details.

Shortly after having received treatment, she sunk into a coma and died on 4th April 1888 without regaining consciousness.

Mystery Surrounds her Murder

There is a great deal of mystery surrounding the murder of Emma Smith.

Firstly, there is the aforementioned mystery of the lost hours between her stated time of attack and her arrival back at her lodgings. It is, of course, possible that she was confused over the timings. Another possibility is that she passed out after the attack and only staggered home having regained consciousness.

Then, there is her reluctance to give a detailed description of her attackers to Dr. Haslip. Indeed, Haslip stated at the inquest that Emma had been extremely reticent about discussing what at happened. other than that she was emphatic that she had not solicited the men.

This reluctance has suggested to some commentators that she knew her attackers and was worried that she might face retaliation if she were to name them. Since she had survived the initial attack, she probably had not realised that she was dying, and so she fully expected to be out on the streets again once she had recovered. So her fears, and her wish not to cause future trouble for herself, may well have been justified.

One of the biggest mysteries, however, is why nobody else saw fit to inform the police of the attack.

The Police Unaware

The police remained oblivious to it until the 6th April when they were informed by the Coroner’s Office that the inquest into her death would open the next day.

You can, perhaps, understand why Mary Russell and Annie Lee, didn’t want to say anything, as you get the distinct impression that Emma told them a little more than they were willing to divulge. It must remembered that, en route to the London Hospital, they would have walked through the very streets where the attack had occurred and, for all they knew, the attackers were still out there. Indeed, according to Russell, they even passed the exact spot, and Emma had gone so far as to point out the location where the assault had taken place. Had she also divulged the identities of her attackers and sworn them to secrecy for fear of retribution?

So, Russell and Lee my have had reasonable motive for keeping quiet.

Haslip Said Nothing

But, what of Dr. George Haslip?

A press illustration showing Emma Smith lying in a hospital bed attended by Dr Haslip.
Emma Smith in Hospital

He was on duty at the London Hospital when a severely injured woman was brought in who, in the course of being treated, told him that she had been attacked by a group of men and that she had been subjected her to a savage and brutal assault. Her resultant injuries were so severe that she had soon passed into a coma and would die within the next 24 hours. Yet, as far as can be ascertained, he chose not to report the matter to the police.

Police Constables Saw Nothing

And what of the police themselves?

Inspector Edmund Reid, who led the subsequent investigation in the murder,  stated in his report that :- “…she would have passed a number of PC’s en route [to her lodging house]  but none was informed of the incident or asked to render assistance.”

Of course, as has already been mentioned, Emma Smith might well have been reluctant to report her ordeal to a police officer. But if, as Reid stated, she would have passed them, then they would have seen her.

Yet not one of the duty constables, when questioned by Reid prior to his attending the inquest, admitted to having noticed a badly injured woman, with an ear almost cut off and a bloodstained shawl pressed between her legs staggering past them in the early hours of the 3rd April 1888.

Reading between the lines, you can’t help wondering if the constables had seen more than they were willing to admit to and had not realised the seriousness of the situation until Reid informed them that there had been a murder.

Unanswered Questions

The truth is that, as with the majority of the Whitechapel Murders, the facts concerning the murder of Emma Elizabeth Smith throw up as many questions as they answer.

Whether Emma Smith was a victim of Jack the Ripper is debatable. On the face of it, she probably wasn’t. Indeed, the general consensus amongst ripper historians is that she was the victim of one of the local gangs who, at the time, were operating extortion rackets amongst the local prostitutes.

The First of the Whitechapel Murders

Her death, however, is significant in several ripper-related respects.

Firstly, when the police learnt of her murder they opened a file which they named the “Whitechapel Murder” file. By the end of 1888 that file had become the “Whitechapel Murders” file and contained the names of the so-called canonical five victims that were the victims of Jack the Ripper.  So Emma Smith’s is the first name on the Whitechapel Murders file.

Secondly, the belief that she had been attacked by a local gang would influence the early stages of the police investigation into the murders of Martha Tabram, a possible Jack the Ripper victim, and Mary Nichols, whom many historians believe was the first definite victim of Jack the Ripper.

The record of Emm Smith's burial on 12th April 1888.
Lindsay Siviter’s Photo of Emma Smith’s Burial Record.

So, although Emma Elizabeth Smith, attacked in the early hours of the 3rd April 1888. may not have been a victim of Jack the Ripper, she was the first Whitechapel Murders victim.