Police Constable Ernest Thompson was the officer who found the body of Frances Coles on Friday 13th February 1892.
She may, or may not, have been a victim of Jack the Ripper, but hers is the last of the names to appear on the Whitechapel Murders file.
PC Thompson hadn’t been in the police force all that long when he made his gruesome discovery; indeed the night on which he found the body of Frances Coles was his first solo beat; and the memory of this baptism of fire would stay with him for the remainder of his days.
What he would not have known at the time of his discovery was that, just a few years later, he too was destined to become a murder victim, and his name would join the ever growing list of police officers who have sacrificed their lives in the line of duty.
The man responsible for murdering Ernest Thompson was 41 year old Barnet Abrahams, a Jewish cigar maker, residing at 50 Newark Street, Whitechapel.
The policeman’s death caused genuine shock, sadness and revulsion in the district and the newspapers reported on the crime extensively.
SHOCKING MURDER IN WHITECHAPEL
POLICEMAN STABBED TO DEATH
On the 2nd of December 1900, under the above headline, Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper published the following report:-
“A police-constable, who distinguished himself at the time of the Jack the Ripper murders in Whitechapel, was yesterday morning stabbed to death.
It seems that about 1.30 a.m. Constable William [sic] Thompson was attracted to a few loiterers in the neighbourhood of a coffee-stall in Union-street, off Commercial-road East.
There was a scuffle, and one of the men, Barnet Abrahams, attacked the officer, stabbing him twice in the neck.
Thompson struggled with his assailant, and whilst so engaged Police-constable William Hurding, 51 H arrived on the scene.
Hurding rendered assistance, and the man was overpowered.
Hurding then turned his attention to Thompson, who had fallen to the ground, but he died in a cab on the way to the London hospital.
The doctors afterwards discovered that the main artery in the neck had been severed.”
WHAT WILLIAM WARD SAW
At the subsequent inquest into the death of Ernest Thompson – held at Limehouse Coroner’s Court, with Wynne E. Baxter, Coroner for East London presiding – several witnesses came forward to state what they had seen of the crime.
William Ward, aged 45, a labourer said that he had been heading home along Commercial Road in the early hours of Saturday morning, 1st December 1900, when he met PC Thompson, who was standing on the corner of Union Street.
Ward said that, since he had previously been a warden at Pentonville Prison he had got to know PC Thompson and so, on seeing him that morning, he had stopped for a chat.
As they chatted, a group of six or seven men and two women on the other side of the road began causing a disturbance by “shouting and using obscene language.” The policeman, therefore, approached them and asked them to move on, telling them that if they did not he would take them into custody.
At this point Barnet Abrahams, who was one of the group, swore at Thompson and said, “What do you want to shove me for? I haven’t done anything.”
At this point the group dispersed, six of the men heading off leaving Abrahams and the two women standing by a coffee stall.
WILLIAM BUTCHER’S TESTIMONY
William Butcher, who at the time of this disturbance was in charge of a coffee-stall on the corner of Church Lane, testified at the inquest that, at around one o’clock, Abrahams had come to the stall with two women and had ordered coffee, eggs and bread and butter for his female companions.
After they had finished their refreshments they started walking in the direction of Aldgate. As they walked he heard Abrahams start laughing and singing.
At this point he saw Police Constable Thompson approach the group and heard him order Abrahams “Away.”
Abrahams became belligerent and demanded to know what he had done. The constable replied, “Move on.”
The women, Butcher said, headed off in the direction of Aldgate, and Abrahams headed towards Union Street, with PC Thompson walking behind him.
According to a newspaper report on his inquest testimony, Butcher had this to say about what happened next:-
“…the deceased did not stop until he got to Morrison’s-buildings. There he stood, and Abrahams walked some little distance further before he stopped. When both were standing still they were some few feet from one another. Just after, the accused walked towards deceased, and the deceased walked towards the accused. Then they closed together and both fell. Witness did not see whether there was any struggle before the fall; neither could he say whether they fell on to the pavement or in the roadway. The deceased blew his whistle, and a number of other constables came up…”
PC TITTLE’S TESTIMONY
At 1.20am on the morning of December 1st 1900, Police Constable David Tittle was one of a group of officers who were in the process of escorting five prisoners from Leman Street Police-station to Arbour Square Police-station.
They were walking in single file along the south side of Commercial Road.
He saw PC Thompson standing on the north pavement near to Union Street.
According to his later testimony:-
“…the deceased stepped off the footway into the carriage way, towards the prisoner, who at the same time stepped towards him – on reaching striking distance I saw the prisoner raise his right hand above his head and strike the deceased apparently on the left side of his head – the deceased immediately seized the prisoner with both hands by the collar of his coat; a struggle ensued, and the deceased threw the prisoner on his back in the carriage way, falling on top of him – I spoke to Police-constable Beckett, who had no prisoner – he ran across the road, and I followed – when I got up to the deceased I saw the prisoner lying on his back in the carriage way, and the deceased lying on top of him bleeding from a wound on the left side of his neck – he was lifted off the prisoner and taken away in a cab – the prisoner was also lifted up and taken to the station – soon after the prisoner was lifted up I saw Police-constable Hurding stoop down and pick up an open knife which was lying on the left side of the way, where the prisoner had been lying – I did not see what happened to the prisoner after he was put on his feet…”
POLICE CONSTABLE HURDING’S TESTIMONY
Police Constable Hurding was one of the group of officers who were escorting their prisoners along Commercial Road, According to his court testimony:-
“..I saw on the opposite side of the road, near Morrison’s Buildings, a man and a constable struggling in the roadway – Beckett and Atkinson [two of the other constables] ran across the road, I went after them – I kept my prisoner with me – the struggle continued as I crossed the road, and when I got within 10 or 15 yards the two men fell – when the deceased was on the ground I saw a quantity of blood coming from the left side of his neck – I did not notice it before he was on the ground – some other constables came up, and the deceased was put into a cab – the prisoner was taken into custody by Beckett and Atkinson – they caught hold of him – he struggled while he was on the ground, and when he got up – I handed my prisoner to another constable, and caught hold of this prisoner by the back of his neck, and told him to keep quiet – it was a violent struggle – I saw Beckett strike him on his shoulder with his truncheon, and afterwards I saw Atkinson strike him on his face with his fists – he became quiet, and was taken towards the station – after he had been taken away I looked about at the spot where he had been lying, and found this clasp knife, with the blade open, and covered with blood… It is an ordinary knife, and could be purchased for about 8d. or 1s….”
HOLD HIM I AM DONE
According to Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper reporting the incident the day after:-
“…yesterday morning some half a dozen policemen were in charge of the removal of prisoners. They were passing on the other side of Commercial-road when they saw Thompson struggling with Abrahams, and one of them says be saw the prisoner’s hand descending on Thompson’s neck, although he was too far off to see an instrument.
Two of these policemen at once went to their comrade’s assistance, and one of them is said to have seen the prisoner throw away a knife.
It is at least beyond doubt that an ordinary three-inch blade pocket-knife, covered from tip to shaft with warm blood, was picked up close to where the policeman and the prisoner were struggling.
Thompson was at once seen to be in a serious condition.
His neck and clothes were covered with gore.
He had a tight bold on his man, but almost immediately his mates came up he seemed to collapse, and loosening his grip he said with great difficulty, “Hold him. I’m done.”
WAS IT SELF DEFENCE?
Barnet Abraham’s defence was that he had acted in self defence. He claimed that Thompson had, in fact, attacked him and, using his truncheon and his fists had inflicted severe injuries on his person which were clearly visible when he had appeared at Thames Police-court on the 1st of December.
Concerning his injuries Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper had this to say:-
“The prisoner is a man of small stature with prominent cheek bones. He was observed to be suffering from two black eyes, a broken nose, and a burst ear, and he told the solicitor there were bruises all over his body.”
He claimed that these wounds had been inflicted by PC Thompson, whom he had stabbed in self defence.
ALBERT TIMMS TESTIMONY
However, Police Constable Albert Timms, who had helped put his injured colleague into a cab and had gone with him to the London Hospital, was emphatic that Thompson had not drawn his truncheon.
In his testimony he stated that:-
“.. the deceased was bleeding very seriously – I helped to put him in a cab and took him to the hospital – when he was placed in the cab I found a difficulty in getting him into a better position, because of his truncheon, which I found in his tail coat pocket – that is the proper place to carry it when we are wearing great-coats – I undid his great-coat on the way – I found his whistle inside, where mine is now – if it had been pulled out it had been put in again – before we got to the hospital he died.”
THE WOUNDS WERE CAUSED BY THE STRUGGLE
According to Police-constable Hurding the wounds that Abraham’s had suffered were, in fact, inflicted as he struggled with himself and the other officers after he had stabbed Ernest Thompson.
According to his court testimony:-
“…the deceased said, “I am done; he has stabbed me, hold him” – I saw blood spurting from the left side of his neck – I did not help to take him off the prisoner – I helped to pick the prisoner up – I saw no mark on him then – he became violent when we got him on his feet – Beckett struck him with his truncheon on his left shoulder; at the same time the prisoner struck Beckett a blow on the chest, and I immediately struck him a blow between the eyes with my fist…when he was on his feet he was not struck because of what the deceased had said; he was struck because of his violence – it would be correct to say that I hit him as hard as I could on his face twice…”
MAY HE REST IN PEACE
When he was taken to Leman Street Police Station Barnet Abraham’s was told that he was to be charged with “feloniously killing Police Constable Thompson.” His reply was:- “It is quite possible; I do not remember anything about it; I had no reason or cause to do any injury to anybody”
When he was taken to a passage behind the charge-room, and undressed for the purposes of his description, he told a police officer “I did do it; it was an unlucky moment for me.”
FOUND GUILTY OF MANSLAUGHTER
At his subsequent Old Bailey trial (you can read the full transcript here) Abraham’s swore on oath that he had acted in self defence:-
“The prisoner, in his defence, on oath, said that the constable struck and pushed and kicked him along the street; that he went towards home, but returned to where the deceased was standing, and said he would report him at the station; that the deceased took his truncheon out and struck him across the head; that he (the prisoner) pulled his knife out and opened it to protect himself; that the deceased caught hold of him; that they closed together, and then fell down, the prisoner underneath; that he had no idea how the deceased received the injury, except that the knife was open, and that the deceased fell right on top of him; and that he did not remember stabbing him before he fell, but that he was in a daze after the deceased struck him with his truncheon.”
He was found guilty of manslaughter and was sentenced to 20 years penal servitude.
PC THOMPSON’S FUNERAL
There was a huge outpouring of sympathy towards the deceased PC Thompson and towards the widow and three children – the eldest only four years old – that he had left behind.
On the 15th December 1900, The Illustrated Police News carried a report on his funeral:-
“In the presence of a very large gathering, the funeral of the late officer took place at Bow Cemetery.
The cortege left the house of the deceased officer in Princess Street, Stepney, shortly before one o’clock, and – headed by the band of the division to which deceased had been attached, and which played the “Dead March” in “Saul” – proceeded on its melancholy journey.
Behind the carriages containing the relatives and friends of the deceased, considerably over 3,000 officers and men of the Metropolitan Police followed.
All along the line of the route the streets were densely packed with sympathising spectators.
The blinds of the houses were drawn, and in some cases the shopkeepers closed their establishments entirely whilst the procession proceeded solemnly along.
At the cemetery an impressive service was held.
Hundreds of beautiful wreaths were sent to the residence and the coffin was covered with costly emblems.”
THE MAN WHO SAW THE RIPPER
One of the aspects of PC Thompson’s career that several newspapers commented on was the fact that he had, possibly, come close to catching the killer of Frances Coles in the act of murder.
And, if Coles was a victim of Jack the Ripper, as several newspapers were claiming she was, then he may well have seen the Ripper.
On December 2nd 1900, Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper had this to say about PC Thompson’s brush with the infamous Whitechapel Murderer:-
“Thompson, the deceased policeman was about 36 years of age. He had been about 10 years in the service, and had been attached to the H division of the force.
He was probably the only man – certainly the only constable – who ever saw “Jack the Ripper.”
The last crime the “Ripper” is credited with took place in Swallow-square, which was on Thompson’s beat.
Ten minutes before he found the woman’s body, which was quite warm when be discovered it, he saw the woman with a man whom, however, he did not see sufficiently to recognise…”
A TALK BY HIS GREAT GRANDSON
Recently, at the Ripperologist 21st Birthday Conference, Blue Badge Guide David Thompson gave a moving talk on the life and death of PC Ernest Thompson, who was his great-grandfather.
That talk is now available on the Ripper Podcast. To hear it, please click here.