The Murder Of Mary Swinburn

The Jack the Ripper crimes could be said to have set a benchmark by which future murderers were judged.

Indeed, for many years after the Whitechapel murders, homicides all over the world were being compared to them, and many similar crimes were either attributed to or compared to those carried out by the unknown miscreant who had brought terror and panic to the streets of the East End of London in 1888.

One such murder occurred near Kidderminster in early October 1903.

The press were quick off the mark to draw comparisons between this murder and the Whitechapel atrocities twenty or so years previously.

As with those crimes, different newspapers spelt names differently, and in each article quoted I have left all the names as they were spelt in the original source article.

The Bolton Evening News, broke the news of the crime in its edition of Monday, 5th October, 1903:-


“A terrible crime was committed during Saturday night in a lane leading to Uggborough Farm, near Kidderminster.  A cowman on his way to the farmhouse found the mutilated body of a woman lying on her back in the lane.

The police were promptly called, and also Dr. Miles, who found the body lifeless, but still warm.


The left breast had a circular wound twelve inches long, and a pocket knife lay on it. The lower part the body was slashed open after the manner of the wounds inflicted in the Whitechapel crimes, the legs were cut, there were ten punctured wounds on the forehead, and the jugular vein was severed on the right side of the neck.

This does not exhaust the list of wounds.

There were signs of a struggle two or three yards away, and the body had been dragged to where it lay, the head then resting on the bank.

The clothing was saturated with wet, rain having fallen after the crime had been committed.


In a bundle near the body was Roman Catholic Bible, and tickets such as are used by hop pickers, and it was inferred that deceased was woman returning from the hop district, and that she had been barbarously murdered by someone who accompanied her, or who had casually met her.

There seemed no motive for the crime as regards robbery, and the mutilation of the body can only be described as fiendish.


Every possible inquiry was pursued by the police in all directions, but it was not till Sunday evening that the identity of the woman was established. Her name Mary Swinbourne, and she belongs to Walsall, and has been a workhouse inmate there.

No arrest has been effected.”

A sketch showing the finding of the body.
Finding The Body. From The Illustrated Police News. Saturday, 10th October, 1903. Copyright, The British Library Board.


The Worcestershire Chronicle, on Saturday 10th October, 1903, provided readers with a more detailed account of the main facts concerning what was a truly horrible case:-

“Kidderminster was on Sunday shocked by an awful and ghastly tragedy which took place in its immediate vicinity.

Ahout half-a-mile from the centre of the town, 150 yards or so from the Corporation pumping station, is a lane which leads from the Worcester road to Aggborough Farm. It is only an occupation road, on one side being the Kidderminster Golf Links and on the other a precipitous bank of considerable height.

On Sunday morning one of the cowmen, Frederick Perry, employed by Mr. Walter Whitehouse, the tenant of the farm, left his home at Hoobrook, half-a-mile from the lane, at about six o’clock, and, having fetched his master’s cows from the meadow, was driving them up the lane when he was horrified to find, about 125 yards up the lane, the dead body of a woman, who he could see at a glance had been horribly mutilated.

He ran to the farm, about 300 yards away, and aroused the household.

Mr. Whitehouse sent his son on a bicycle to tho County Police-station – the lane being just outside the borough boundary – and he sent Perry to the Borough Police-office.

Mr. Whitehouse himself went to the scene of what undoubtedly was a most cruel murder. He found that in a spot where there are hawthorn hedges 14 feet high on both sides of the 16 feet wide lane there had evidently been a struggle, and just three or four yards away was the body of the woman.

It was evident that the body had been placed in the position in which he found it after the murder, and the brutality of the murderer, the way in which he had arranged the victim of his horrible crime, is of too gross a character for description.


The police were very active in their inquiries all day Sunday.

By the woman’s right hand as she lay was a new white clay pipe with the name of a Tenbury firm upon it, and inquiries were at once set on foot at Tenbury.

Information has been secured between Worcester and Kidderminster that a woman answering the description of the deceased was seen in company with a man, and that they applied for lodgings.


Thousands of people visited the scene of the tragedy on Sunday, but a gate had been placed at the entrance to the lane, and police officers prevented anyone entering. The spot where the body was found has been railed off.

There were marks of a struggle, and pools of blood were found a few yards away from the body. It could clearly be seen how the body had been dragged in a half circle to the place where it was found.

The wildest rumours were afloat in Kidderminster on Sunday, and many people believe that the affair is associated with the Great Wyrley outrages, but this is altogether discounted by the police. It is said that anonymous letters have been received stating that the authors of the Great Wyrley outrages intended to turn their attention to women, and should give Kidderminster and Stourbridge a “turn.”

It is also reported that a letter was received at Stourport on Sunday to a similar effect, and stating that there would be a murder at Kidderminster on Sunday.

People gathered at the scene of the crime.
From The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, 17th October, 1903. Copyright, The British Library Board.


Many theories have been advanced with regard to the crime.

Police and medical men agree that it is no ordinary murder, committed in the heat of passion during a quarrel. The mutilation of the body is diabolical, and it is believed it was not done by any sane person.

The “posing” of the body is a most extraordinary incident. The opinion is that what was done could not have been done in the dark.

The knife which was found upon the breast of the woman is not an ordinary pen-knife, but such as would be used by a working man to cut up his meals when at work. It is rather a singular knife, in that it has a somewhat curved blade – a little like a pruning-knife – but it was very blunt. It is a strong blade, and the hands of a vigorous person might have produced the wounds upon the deceased.

One theory which, if not put forth by an officer of long experience and high position, would probably be dismissed as being absurd, is that the murder has been committed by a woman.

The officer in question has given certain reasons which led him to the conclusion that the culprit might, be a woman. The way in which the clothing had been unfastened, and other small but significant circumstances were adduced in support of the theory.

It would be easier, of course, for a woman to escape detection than a man, from the fact that little suspicion would be attached to a woman.

There is certainly no definite information that the murdered woman was seen in company with a man.

Lots of people have made statements as to seeing a man and woman near the place, but the roads have been thronged during the past week with hop pickers returning to the Black Country. A good many of these stay at Kidderminster Workhouse, and two of them on Monday morning made the statement that they saw Mrs. Swinburn in the hop fields at Suckley and on the way towards home, but they saw no man with her.


It a pathetic circumstance that the deceased was the mother of no less than five gallant fellows who fought for their Queen and country in South Africa.


It has been definitely ascertained that Mrs. Swinburn, who was murdered at Kidderminster, did not come via Worcester. She was at Clifton-on-Teme on Saturday, having done one day’s hop-picking there.

She rode to Stourport in Mr. Defford’s wagon, and was seen at two inns, and was treated to drink by a man who had come with the hoppers in the wagon.


The Wolverhampton police on Tuesday arrested a man on suspicion of being concerned in the Death of Mary Swinburne, who was found brutally murdered and mutilated in a lane near Kidderminster on Sunday morning.

The man, who had been engaged in coal-carrying, was arrested in a public-house.

The Kidderminster police have ample evidence that the murdered woman was in the company of a man on the day previous to the discovery of her dead body.

Both applied to a farmer for permission to sleep in a barn, and this being refused they continued their journey towards Stourbridge. The farmer gave a detailed description of the man and the woman, and, moreover, identified the body found.

A young man has also identified the body as that of a woman, who, in company with a man, asked him if there was a barn in the Aggborough lane, and proceeded in the direction of the place.

The police in Staffordshire and Worcestershire are actively engaged in circulating particulars relating to the murder.

The lodging houses are being closely watched, and persons of a suspicious character closely questioned.


The man arrested at Wolverhampton was Thomas Webb. He had been engaged during the day getting in coals in Merridale street, and his appearance tallied in some respects with the description circulated by the Stourbridge and Kidderminster police of the supposed murderer.

During the man’s detention at the police station, inquiries were set on foot, and it was ascertained that Webb, who is a native of Wolverhampton, stayed at Downs’s lodging-house, in Stafford Street, on Saturday night, and he was able to give a satisfactory account of his movements.

The Deputy Chief-Constable of Worcestershire was at once communicated with, and on Tuesday night Police Superintendent Hinde, of Stourbridge, visited Wolverhampton, and, having seen the man, came at once to the conclusion that he is not the person that the police are looking for.

In these circumstances, Webb was released.


The post-mortem examination of the body was made on Tuesday evening, and occupied Dr. Miles and Dr. Moore a very long time.

They could not give any details, of course, before the inquest, but it was gathered that a fork was evidently used as well as a knife, and that the blows or kicks she received were of great violence, and sufficient to make her insensible.

Asking the opinion of a medical man to whom the injuries had been described, the answer was given that it was quite a Jack the Ripper outrage.

Police officers viewing the body.
From The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, 17th October, 1903. Copyright, The British Library Board.


On Wednesday morning, the Malvern police arrested a man on suspicion of being concerned in the Kidderminster tragedy. His appearance is stated to tally with the description of the man wanted, and his face is said to bear signs of having been engaged in a struggle.

The man’s account of his whereabouts on Saturday night are said not to have been satisfactory, and he was detained.

Later, he was proved to have been Worcester at the time the murder was committed, and was thereupon liberated.


No definite clue to the perpetrator, or, as now seems probable, the perpetrators’ of the ghastly murder and mutilation of Mrs. Swinburne, at Kidderminster, on Saturday night, has yet been found.

Some information was gleaned at Lye on Wednesday afternoon from, hop-pickers with whom Mrs. Swinburne worked for a short time at Mr. Depper’s hopyard, at Clifton-on-Teme, on Friday last, and whom she accompanied on Saturday to Stourport.

Mrs. Burton and Mrs. Smith, who were in the party, said that they knew nothing of the woman after she alighted from the wagon at Stourport, but the former’s husband stated that he and Matthews, from Lye, went for refreshment to the Rising Sun at Stourport, and there Matthews, as before reported, paid for some beer for Swinburne, who also entered the house.

It would not be above ten minutes that he and Matthews were at the house, and they left her behind when they started away, and saw no more her.

She told the women before that she was going to find lodgings in Stourport, as it was too late to travel on to her destination at Walsall the same night.


It was on Friday morning that she appeared among the hop-pickers at Mr. Depper’s, and she obtained a “crib” near to Mrs. Smith’s.

Asked if they noticed what she used in taking her food, the hop-pickers said she had a table knife and fork.

A table fork, it should be noted, was found by the murdered woman, and had evidently caused some of her injuries, for there was blood and hair upon it.

One remark that Mrs. Swinburne made was that she left her mate at Worcester. Neither Mrs. Smith nor Mrs. Burton say who was meant by this, and whether it was a woman or a man.”


The rest of 1903 passed with no real breakthroughs being made in the case.

But then, in January, 1904, a promising arrest was made when a fifty-year-old tramp by the name of George Fisher was found in possession of what seemed to be an incriminating piece of evidence.

The Sheffield Daily Telegraph covered the story on Thursday, 28th January, 1904:-


Yesterday at a special sitting of the Kidderminster County Petty Sessions, George Fisher, alias White, was charged on remand, with the wilful murder of Mary Swinburn, an elderly married woman from Walsall, on, or about, Sunday, October 4, at Aggborough, near Kidderminster.

The prosecution was undertaken by the Treasury. The prisoner was undefended.

Isaiah Swinburn identified the body found as that of his mother, whom he last saw alive on August 15. He knew she went hop picking.

Charles Matthews, collicr, said he saw the deceased at Stourport on the afternoon preceding the alleged murder.

Police evidence was given as to the discovery of the tragedy, and Dr. Miles described the wounds upon the body. Death was due to a large circular wound in the throat, under the right ear.


The prisoner’s arrest on the charge was brought about as the result of an extraordinary discovery made by a Lincoln prison warder, who had Fisher in his care for vagrancy in that neighbourhood.

Prior to entering the bath, the prisoner tore a leaf out of his pocketbook, and tried to swallow it, but later secreted the leaf under the bath, where the warder, named Coote, discovered it, with the following incriminating record:- “Murdered Mary Swinford on Saturday evening, the 1st of October, Kidderminster, Worcestershire. God help me; murder will out some day.”

The warder said to the prisoner:- “This is a queer memorandum for you to be carrying about.”

Fisher replied, “Yes, there is some truth in it, too.”


A warder from Lincoln Prison stated that the prisoner told him a woman named Mary Swinford, being murdered near Kidderminster. Her nickname was “Walsall Mary.” Prisoner seemed much distressed at the crime.

Further police evidence was adduced, showing that the prisoner owned the knife found open upon the woman’s body, but he said that he “would not have done so had he known it would have been found.”

He afterwards stated:- “I was a fool to own the knife, but I lost it some time before the murder. I was too easy that day: he took me by surprise. If I did murder her, I must have been mad.”

To Superintendent Hinde the prisoner said that the pocket-book belonged to him, but he should say nothing about the murder. He had said too much already. The police would have to prove it.


While in custody, Fisher was supplied with an almanac for last year to ascertain the dates of the Barnstaple and South Moulton fairs, his defence being that he was in Devonshire on the date of the murder.

The Magistrates committed the prisoner to the Worcestershire Assizes on the charge of wilfully murdering Mary Swinburn.”


George Fisher’s trial took place at the Worcestershire Assizes on Tuesday, 8th February, 1904 The Gloucestershire Echo reported on the outcome of the case in its next day’s edition, Wednesday, 10th February, 1904:-

“Before Mr. Justice Ridley at the Worcestershire Assizes on Tuesday, the trial took place of George Fisher, 50, described as a tramp, who stood charged with the murder at Kidderminster, between October 3r and October 4th last year, of Mary Swinbourne, an old woman hailing from Walsall.

The prosecution relied to a great extent on an entry made by the prisoner in a pocket-book, admitting to the murder, which was discovered when he was in custody at Lincoln.

On behalf of the prisoner, several witnesses were called to prove that at the time that the murder was committed he was in South Molton, Devonshire.

The plea of an alibi was successful, the jury being directed by the Judge to return a verdict of not guilty.”


By September, 1904, no further breakthroughs had been made in the case. But then, a strange series of letters that linked the crime to the Whitechapel murders were received.

The Birmingham Daily Gazette reported on the letters and their sick contents in its edition of  Friday, 2nd September, 1904:-

“It is eleven months this week since the elderly Walsall woman, Mary Swinburne, was murdered in the country lane near Kidderminster, and the memory of the tragedy has been revived in a somewhat startling manner by the receipt in Kidderminster of a number of letters threatening to commit horrible deeds of murder.

Even the Chief Constable of Kidderminster is among those who have received one of these fearfully expressed missives.

The letters are dated from Birmingham, and the writer declares that he has bought  “nives” to do the job. as he is the “Kiddy murderer”

Then he declares that he is going “opping” again, and people are to look out as he is “going to do twelve this year – five children, seven women, and one bobby.”

The missive is signed “Jack the Ripper’s brother, who did Mary Swinbourne.”

Then follow some horrible alleged details of the crime, and at the foot a skull and crossbones are outlined, with the words “our mark.”


Just like the Whitechapel murders, the murder of Mary Swinburn was never solved, and it joins the list of similarly unsolved atrocities with which the pages of true crime history are peppered.