The Murder Of Miss Farmer

Murder was not uncommon in Whitechapel throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The difference between the Jack the Ripper murders, and the other homicides in the district, however, was the sheer brutality of the crimes, coupled with the evident lack of a clear motive.

In the majority of the murders, a clear motive was discernable, and, in a strange way, people could “understand” these type of crimes, and, in consequence, the majority of these atrocities didn’t lead the type of widespread panic that the Whitechapel murders resulted in.

Many of the homicides in the area were resultant from robbery, as was the case with the murder of Harriet Farmer, which took place on the morning of  Wednesday, 12th October, 1904.

A portrait of Miss farmer.
From The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, 22nd October, 1904. Copyright, The British Library Board.


The Globe, broke the story of the crime, under the above headline, on Wednesday 12th October, 1904:-

“A great sensation was caused in Commercial-road, today, by the tragic death of a woman named Harriet Farmer, who for some years past has carried on business at 478, Commercial-road, E., as a newsagent. The circumstances of her death are such as to indicate that she was the victim of a murderous outrage.

The deceased, who was unmarried, and between 50 and 60 years of age, lived alone over her shop.


This morning she opened the shop usual between seven and eight o’clock, and gave her errand boy the morning papers for his usual round. After the boy had delivered the papers he returned to the shop just after eight o’clock, and could not find his employer.

He searched the shop and the back room, and then communicated with the neighbours next door, a confectioner and his wife, named Baker.

Mrs. Baker sent for constable in consequence of finding that only half the shutters of the shop had been taken down and that the shop itself was in a state of disorder.

Apparently, from the condition of the shop. Miss Farmer had started to prepare it for the day, and had been interrupted in her work.


The police-constable, accompanied by Mrs. Baker, went upstairs, and found Miss Farmer lying face downwards on a bed with her hands tied behind her.

They at once cut the string, and, turning Miss Farmer over, found that some rags had been stuffed into her mouth. These were removed. Miss Farmer was still breathing, but, within a couple of minutes, she expired.

An examination of her throat showed that there were some marks which might have been caused by a person’s hand, but upon the arrival of the doctor it was ascertained that death was due to suffocation caused by the rags being placed in the mouth.

It is thought from the disorderly state of the shop that Miss Farmer must have been attacked there, for lying on the floor were her false teeth and one-half of her spectacles. The other half of her spectacles was found on the stairs, which leads to the opinion that she must have been trying to get away from her assailant by making her way to her bedroom.

It was subsequently discovered, however, that a box in which Miss Farmer was in the habit of keeping her money was lying empty in the back room.

A poliman finds the body of Miss Farmer.
From The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, October 22nd, 1904. Copyright, The British Library Board.


From inquiries made later, it appears that the shop in which the outrage occurred was formerly kept by Mr. James Farmer, father of the deceased, and has been in the family for over 20 years.

After the deaths of Mr. Farmer and his wife, the shop was kept on by Miss Farmer and her brother. The brother, however, died three or four years ago, and since then Miss Farmer has lived entirely alone.


She was said to be eccentric.

Several times neighbours suggested to her that she should have somebody in the house with her, but she absolutely refused, and even when she was ill a short time ago there was considerable difficulty in persuading her to allow anyone to look after her.

It was gossip in the district that Miss Farmer was worth a considerable sum of money, and kept about one thousand pounds in the house.

Several times during the past few weeks suspicious persons have entered the shop, and, on more than one occasion, Mrs. Baker, in consequence of this, made it her business to see Miss Farmer while those persons were there.

The thoroughfare is a busy one, and inquiries made show that no one saw any suspicious persons enter the shop between seven and eight o’clock, nor did they hear the sound of struggling or of screams.

Another account states that the towel had been forced into Miss Farmer’s mouth and under the nostrils, and it was held in position by a band of calico, which had been tied at the back of the head. It was drawn very tightly across the mouth.

The police are making the closest investigations.”


The next day, according to an article in The Gloucester Citizen, on Thursday, 13th October, 1904, arrests had been made with regard to the crime:-

“The London police on Thursday arrested three men in connection with the murder of Miss Harriet Farmer, newsagent, who was found strangled on Wednesday morning at Commercial-road, Stepney.

It is understood the post-mortem examination of the body plainly indicates that the unfortunate woman died of suffocation.

Later enquiries show that the police have detained five men at Leman-street Police Station in connection with the murder of Miss Farmer.”


The Maryport Advertiser, on Saturday, 15th October, 1904, also mentioned the arrests, albeit it revealed that the men had not actually been charged:-

“The police have detained five men at Leman Street Police Station in connection with the murder of Miss Farmer, newsagent, Stepney. Three of these men were found in a common lodging house in Commercial Road.

No charge has yet been preferred against any of the men, and the police state that their detention is merely on grounds of suspicion.


At the opening of the inquest on Miss Farmer on Thursday, her two brothers, men in good positions, stated that their sister was of a somewhat eccentric character.

She preferred to live alone and she did not associate with any of her neighbours.


Last May, she was assaulted in her shop.

A man struck her with a handbag, which was full of stones, and he was about to rob her when he was interrupted by the entrance of a customer.

Further evidence showed that death resulted from asphyxia caused by a gag being placed in the woman’s mouth.

The inquiry was adjourned.”


The Manchester Courier And Lancashire Advertiser, on Saturday, 15th October, 1904, published an extremely detailed article, which provided an insight into the antecedents and the private life of the victim:-

“One the most terrible crimes which has been recorded in London for many years occurred in the East End on Wednesday morning, when an old lady was gagged bound, and choked to death in her own shop in broad daylight.

In a small newspaper and tobacconist’s shop on Commercial-road, Limehouse, there, has lived for many years a lady named Miss Farmer, aged about 56.

The business has been carried on by members of Miss Farmer’s family for upwards of fifty years, and when her brother, Mr. James Farmer, died some seven years ago, she retained the shop, and lived alone in a couple of rooms overhead.

In accordance with her usual custom, she closed the premises and retired to rest at half-past ten on Tuesday night, having a few minutes before bidden goodnight to her neighbour, Mrs. Priscilla Baker, who conducts a confectionery establishment next door.

No more was seen of her until six o’clock Wednesday morning, when she opened her front door and supplied a few waiting newsboys with the morning papers.

At this hour, Commercial-road is exceedingly quiet, and it not surprising that, although the shop door remained open, it was not noticed that there was no sign of life within.

The exterior of the shop.
From The Illustrated Police News, 22nd October, 1904. Copyright, The British Library Board.


On the errand boy’s arrival, not finding Miss Farmer in the shop, he gathered the papers strewn about, sold four papers to customers, and after calling his mistress and getting no answer, went in next door.

Mrs Baker then made a hasty examination of her neighbour’s shop, and noticing that the place was disarranged, and finding no trace of her friend, she went in search of a policeman. With a constable, the house was searched, and in the front bedroom, the officer came across the body of the unfortunate woman.

Miss farmer taking down the shutters outside her shop.
From The Illustrated Police News. Saturday, 22nd October, 1904. Copyright, The British Library Board.


Describing the terrible scene that met their gaze, Mrs. Baker said:- “She was lying face downward on the bed, her head hanging over the edge, and almost touching the floor.

I saw at a glance that she was gagged and bound.

Her thin hands were tied tightly behind her, her ankles were bound with strong twine, and round her mouth was a piece of cloth tightly tied. This we at once tore away, and found that her mouth was stuffed with a piece of cloth. This piece of cloth was soaked in blood, and when we removed it blood flowed on to the floor. We cut the cords that bound her, laid her on the bed, tore open her dress, and I felt that her heart was just beating. While I remained with the poor woman the constable sent for two doctors. They came almost immediately, but they were too late to do anything. The poor woman died almost as they reached the shop.”

The Victims arms were swollen four times their natural size.

A set of false teeth were found near the counter in the shop, and upstairs broken pince-nez [a pair of eyeglasses with a nose clip, instead of ear clips] was found.


In all parts of the room there were papers and documents, which had evidently been hurriedly thrown from a drawer. The furniture was upset, and everything pointed to the theory that the woman had been attacked by thieves.

The police were quickly on the scene, and, under the direction of Detective-inspector Divall, a search was made for a clue to the perpetrators of the crime.

Nothing, however, was found.

Later in the morning, the body was removed to the Mortuary to await the inquest.

Then, the excited crowd, which had lingered round the shop all the morning, dispersed, and the premises were placed in charge of police constables.

A sketch of the interior of the shop.
From The Illustrated Police News, 22nd October, 1904. Copyright, The British Library Board.


It is evidently a case in which the existence of reputed miser’s hoard attracted a desperate ruffian – perhaps more than one of those analogues of the “stranglers of Paris ” – ready to sacrifice life in the search for gold.

Miss Farmer had recently told Mrs. Baker that she intended to retire from business, and from her general manner Miss Baker believed she had managed to save a considerable sum.

“I don’t know where she kept it,” Mrs. Baker remarked, “but, I believe there was a good deal in her bedroom.”

This statement is important, as the police, in spite of a vigorous search, were only able find fourpencc.

The medical view is that the woman’s assailant did not intend to take her life, but sought to stifle her cries, and that she died from suffocation owing to the long time she was left lying before discovery.


Miss Farmer was well educated, and she went to the same school as the present Lord Mayor.

His lordship, when a boy, would often come into the shop and dangle his legs over the counter.

Miss Farmer was rather eccentric and reserved. She would remain untidy in appearance, it is said, till late in the afternoon, and then, whether she was going out or not, she would attire herself in the most elaborate silk dress, which seemed to be her only pride.

Her relatives say that she had not an enemy in the world.


The life of the dead woman was not without a tinge of romance.

One of her customers was a little fair gentleman of fifty, who would often come into her shop and talk to her. Miss Farmer was very fond of him, and occasionally went for walks with him. She was always talking about him.


It is a singular fact. that, twice before, Miss Farmer had been attacked.

About three years ago, she was attacked by some boys with sandbags, and she was seriously hurt.

Since that date, she was attacked while standing behind her shop counter by a man who tried rush the till. She prevented him from getting all the money, but he cleared out with some it, leaving her bruised and shaken.

In spite of this, she never would listen to those of her acquaintances who advised her to have somebody in the house.


The strangest part of the whole tragedy, says The Daily Chronicle,” is that, although the shop stands right in the centre of a large block, no one heard even a sound.

Mr. Magnus, grocer, a next-door neighbour, heard neither a struggle nor a scream.

Not a sound warned Miss Baker of the terrible tragedy that was being enacted but a few feet away.

Nor did the boy, Harry Wiggins, who first gave the alarm, see anyone upon whom suspicion could have fallen.

The whole story is strangely typical of the vast, loneliness of London, even though one lives in the very heart of its life and bustle.


As soon as the story of the crime spread abroad, crowds of men and women gathered.

The house was now full of police officials searching every nook and cranny for evidence. They collected together all the accessories to the crime, and these, with the poor dead dead body, were borne from the house in which the victim had, with fateful accuracy, declared that she would die.


And now comes one the most, tragic and dramatic episodes that was ever associated with such a crime.

As soon as the murder was discovered, popular imagination cast about for someone at whom to point a finger.

Where was the victim’s sweetheart? they asked.

This man, as has already been stated, was the familiar friend the woman appeared to have. It is about three years since he first met her. He was known by sight. But who he was or anything about him further, other than that he was supposed to be Miss Farmer’s “sweetheart”, nobody knew.

In a strange and wonderful way was the veil of mystery lifted.

About half-past nine last night, a little man pushed his way through the crowd and advanced to the shop door. He was old and grey – perhaps fifty. Respectably dressed, he might have been a solicitor’s clerk. He carried a black handbag in one hand and a brown paper parcel in the other.


Disregarding the curious gaze and comments of the bystanders, he looked about a moment, and then the door “Strange!”, he seemed to say “why locked?” The shutters were up. All was in darkness. And it was half-past nine.

What was the meaning of it all?

Slowly he turned, half asking for information. The policeman on duty looked at the visitor strangely. A woman gave a cry recognition:- “It’s old Ted” the local designation of Miss Farmer’s “sweetheart.”

So this was the man the police had been looking for all day long.

“Don’t you know?” began the messenger death.

The reply came half surprisingly. “Know? What’s the matter?”

“Dead I Murdered!”

That was all. With a choking cry, the poor man stood a moment quivering. Then his white lips echoed the word, “Murdered: Murdered! Murdered!”


Gently, he was taken into a shop close by, where the terrible news was told in detail to him.

Not a word did he say. The parcel slipped from his hands. A vacant look came into his eyes, and he was all but fainting.

Then two constables outside winked covertly at one another and walked into the shop where “Old Ted” was still standing. “If you want to know all about this,” said one, tapping him on the shoulder in a friendly way, “you’d better go the station. I’ll walk along there with you if you like.”

At first, the man the man refused. But, on a bystander volunteering to accompany him “Old Ted” walked slowly to a station near by, the constables following.

Arrived at the station, the man was detained. His name was understood to be Bevan, and he gave an address in Stepney.

After some questioning, he was put into a cab and driven to the police-station in Leman-street, whence it was reported he would be seen home in a cab.


Shortly afterwards there was another incident.

It was very late when a well-dressed man and woman I arrived upon the scene.

The man was the murdered woman’s brother.

Overwhelmed with the awful fate that had closed his sister’s life, he could scarcely find words with which to give utterance of his horror. But, when he did speak it was to recall a strange premonition of what the dead woman had spoken a month ago. Speaking of her life in the shop, and of the two attempts that had been made to rob her, she exclaimed:- “I know that they will murder me one of these days.” “And now,” exclaimed the brother, “they’ve done it at last.”


The police have reconstructed the murder with great detail.

The men who did it were, no doubt, fully aware of the old lady’s reputed wealth and were equally aware of the fact that she lived alone, and was thus an easy prey.

It is pretty clear, too, that murder was not their object.

The theory is that two men entered the shop, closed the door behind them, seized the old lady, and immediately gagged her.

Then, without fear of interruption, and the appearance of early customers, they carried their victim, upstairs, bound her and laid her across the bed.

Then, they ransacked the place, flinging the contents of the room about in their haste to discover the hidden treasure.

All this time, the poor victim was struggling on the bed – and so they left her.

What they found nobody knows, for the secret of the lady’s wealth – if there was any wealth – died with her. It. is understood that the police found nothing in their search of the place afterwards.


The house was in a wretchedly dirty state, with dust and grime everywhere.

The dust was some help to the police, for, in one or two places they found fingerprints, which may assist them in their hunt for the assassins.

Several clues were reported to have been Wednesday afternoon, but, at present, these are vague and unpromising.

The most substantial is that which comes from a boy who saw a man run out of Miss Farmer’s shop at half-past six on the morning and board an Aldgate tram.

He was dark, medium height, and carried a brown paper parcel under his arm.”