The Murder Of James Groves

On July 28th, 1902, John Macdonald, aged twenty-four, murdered an elderly gentleman named James Groves, by cutting his throat in Old Castle Street, Whitechapel. This was the same thoroughfare in which Alice McKenzie had been murdered in July, 1889.

An illustration showing the entrance to Castle Alley.
Castle Alley From Whitechapel High Street. From The Penny Illustrated Paper. July 27th 1889. Copyright, The British Library Board.


The Henley Advertiser, in its edition of Saturday, 6th September 1902, gave a full account of the crime:-

“The other evening a murder was committed in Spitalfields, London.

It appears that two men known by the nicknames of “Soldier” and “Scottie” quarrelled at the bottom of Old Castle Street, which leads into Wentworth Street, and eventually they came to blows.

“Soldier,” an elderly man, walked subsequently up Old Castle Street, followed by “Scottie,” a much younger and smaller man. “Scottie” overtook “Soldier” and struck him, whereupon the elder man turned, and knocked the other down.

“Scottie” picked himself up and followed “Soldier.”

Going up behind him, he drew a knife from his pocket, and cut his throat from ear to ear.


A man named Samuel Dodds, who had witnessed the whole quarrel, sprang upon “Scottie” and brought him to the ground and knelt upon him until the arrival of the police.

“Scottie” was taken to the Commercial Street Police-station, and “Soldier” was conveyed to the London Hospital, and was found to be dead on arrival there.

The name of “Soldier” is said to be Robert Groves, a casual labourer. “Scottie’s” proper name is William Dennis, and he lived at Smith’s lodging-house, Brick Lane, Spitalfields, where Dodds, the man who captured the murderer, also lives.

An image of Commercial Street Police Station.
Commercial Street Police Station Today


According to a statement made by Dodds, the quarrel is said to have arisen about the small sum of sixpence.

John M’Donald was charged, at Worship-street Police-court, London, with the wilful murder of James Groves by stabbing him with a knife.

Inspector Divall said he proposed to lay the facts before the Treasury, and would ask for a remand.


The Magistrate said he must take some evidence as to the facts, and a man named Samuel Dodds was put into the witness-box.

He said that about a quarter to 8 on Thursday night he saw the prisoner and another man fighting, and he separated them three times. The prisoner would not go away and the other man would not leave off.

The prisoner drew a knife (produced) from his pocket and said he would stick it into the other man’s heart.

He (the witness) saw the other man close up again to the prisoner, and the latter struck at him in the neck with the knife. The other man did not fall, but called out and, bleeding, walked away towards Whitechapel Road. He did not get more than 50 yards before he fell down.

The prisoner walked off in the opposite direction, but the witness followed and “claimed” (seized) him. Inspector Divall asked if the prisoner had the knife in his possession, and the witness said that he found it open in the prisoner’s jacket pocket.

Further, in reply to a question suggested by the inspector, the witness said that he saw the prisoner at about 7 o’clock, and then the prisoner produced the knife and said he meant sticking it into Groves that night.

The witness told him he was very foolish.

The witness said that the man and the prisoner had quarrelled about money.


The prisoner was asked if he wished to put any question to the witness, but said: “I can’t. I don’t know anything about it; I was drunk.”

The Magistrate asked the witness if that was so, and the witness said:- “He had had a few drinks; I don’t know that he was drunk.”


A policeman who was on duty in Commercial Street Police Station said that he found the prisoner held by Dodds, and was told, in the prisoner’s hearing, that he (the prisoner) had stabbed a man in the throat. The knife, which was handed to the witness, had blood on it.

He took the prisoner to the station, and the prisoner said:- “That is the knife I did it with, and I did it intentionally.”

The witness said that the prisoner had been drinking, but he did not consider him drunk.


Mr. William Maxwell, a house surgeon of the London Hospital, said that he saw the man Groves when admitted to the hospital at eight o’clock, but the man was dead.

He had a large gash in front of the throat, and blood had flowed freely. The wound was the cause of death.

Inspector Divall applied for a remand on this, and it was granted, the magistrate certifying to the Treasury for legal aid.

The inquest on the deceased man, supposed to be James Groves, was opened at the London Hospital. After medical evidence had been taken the inquiry was adjourned.”


The trial of John Macdonald took place at the Central Criminal Court (The Old Bailey) on the 10th of September, 1902.

He pleaded not guilty to murder.

His counsel argued that he was a very excitable man, who had attempted to commit suicide the previous December. He had been drinking heavily prior to the night of the crime, and he had no recollection whatsoever of the events leading up to it. In view of this, so the defence argued, a verdict of manslaughter was more suitable.

However, the jury, having deliberated for just fifteen minutes, found him guilty of murder, and the judge subsequently sentenced him to death.


The sentence was carried out at Pentonville Prison on Tuesday, 30th September, 1902.

The Hull Daily Mail reported on his final moments in its edition of that day:-

“The condemned man had shown, it is stated, a morose and sullen disposition during his incarceration.

He walked unassisted to the scaffold, and, when the bolt was drawn by Billington, death appeared to be instantaneous.

This is the first execution that has taken place in Pentonville, consequent on the proposed demolition of Newgate Prison.”