On 23rd February, 1893, a murder took place in Poplar, in the East End of London, that genuinely shock the people of the district.
The victim was an elderly woman by the name of Ann Darby.
The St James’s Gazette, broke the story of the crime in its edition of Friday, 24th February, 1893:-
MYSTERIOUS MURDER AT POPLAR
“A murder of a most brutal, and, so far as can be conjectured, the most purposeless description, was discovered yesterday to have been committed at 14, Sophia Street, Poplar.
The victim, Mrs. Ann Charlotte Darby, who lodged at that address, was a very poor and weak woman of seventy-nine.
The other apartments were let, the front parlour to another old woman and her daughter, Nora, and the first-floor front room (the houses in the thoroughfare being only two stories high) to a Mr. and Mrs. Goss, while the first-floor back room is said to have been rented by another old woman.
Mrs. Darby was seen on the previous night by her daughter in her usual condition.
After this nothing appears to be known as to what happened.
HER GRANDAUGHTER FOUND THE BODY
Her granddaughter, Martha Johnson, aged sixteen, discovered her dead body.
Yesterday, a young woman, living at 14, Sophia Street, called on Martha’s mother, and the girl was requested to take her grandmother sixpence, which, it is alleged, had been borrowed from the murdered woman by a lodger.
She found the door of her grandmother’s room wide open, and, going in, discovered her lying apparently asleep.
She called “Grandmother” from the foot of the bed, but received no response.
She ran home to her mother and expressed her fears that Mrs. Darby was dead.
DR. O’BRIEN ARRIVES
The girl then returned with her mother, and Dr. H. J. O’Brien, East India-road, was sent for.
Dr. O’Brien says the murdered woman’s head was crushed in with one blow, and she had apparently not been disturbed in her slumbers, death being instantaneous.
The face wore a placid expression.
Near the bed was found, covered with blood, old-fashioned butcher’s chopper, with a heavy back.
Dr. O’Brien discovered on the pillow of the bed in which the woman was murdered a purse containing one shilling in silver and four and a half pence in coppers.
DID SHE POSSESS HIDDEN WEALTH?
There is said to have been a local impression that she possessed hidden wealth; but there was no ground for this supposition, and it is suggested that a murderer, on finding nothing more than the purse and its contents, threw them away in disgust.
THE POLICE IN CONFERENCE
The police have made no arrest yet in connection with the murder.
The conference of the chief police officials lasted until an early hour this morning, and the house where the crime was perpetrated is still in the charge of the police.
Dr O’Brien will hold a post-mortem examination of the body today and the inquest will probably take place this afternoon.”
The London Evening Standard, carried a report on the inquest into her death on Saturday, 25th February, 1893
“At the Poplar Town Hall yesterday, Mr. Wynne E. Baxter opened an inquest as to the death of Ann Charlotte Darby, 79, the widow of a rigger, lately residing at 14, Sophia-street, Poplar, and who was found dead in bed, with a frightful wound in the head, on Thursday morning at the above address.
Elizabeth Cummings said that she resided at 7, Herbert-street, Poplar, and was the wife of a painter. The Deceased was her mother. She had a back down-stair room. She was in receipt of parish relief, and had no money about.
Witness last saw her alive on Wednesday last, at a quarter to twelve in the morning. She was then going to the relief office to get her money.
NORA DRISCOLL THE LANDLADY
By the Coroner: Nora Driscoll was the person from whom the Deceased hired the room, and she lived with her mother in the front room. Nora Driscoll called on the Witness at five minutes to twelve on Wednesday night.
Driscoll did not appear in any way upset, but she had been alarmed about the report that some schools of which she was caretaker were on fire.
Driscoll asked Witness to lend her money, as she wanted to get a glass of something to drink. At the same time Driscoll remarked to Witness that she looked alarmed as well. Witness did not lend her any money, as she had none.
Driscoll left Witness at half-past one a.m.
Between ten and eleven on Thursday morning Driscoll came and told Witness that her mother was dead.
Witness followed her up into Sophia-street, and on going to her mother’s room she saw her lying dead in bed.
Witness saw some blood near her head on the sheet.
Dr. O’Brien arrived soon after.
Witness did not hear for about an hour after that the Deceased had received any injuries.
Witness was told by a gentleman that she had been injured.
There were four rooms in the house and a kitchen. The latter was used by all the inmates.
The Deceased had had no quarrel with anyone as far as Witness knew. The Deceased was a very quiet and sober woman. She had no property, and no one would benefit by her death.
The Deceased always kept her door shut at night, but not locked.
THE GRANDDAUGHTER’S TESTIMONY
Martha Johnson, 7, Sherwood-street, Poplar, said the Deceased was her grandmother.
She was in the habit of seeing the Deceased every evening. Witness called as usual at half-past seven on Wednesday evening. The Deceased was sitting by the fire toasting some bread. She was then in good spirits.
On Thursday morning, at 10.30, Nora Driscoll came to Witness’s house and asked for Witness’s mother. Driscoll said she was cold, and sat by the fire. Her mother then came down, and Driscoll asked her if she had sixpence to lend her to pay the Deceased with.
A lodger, Mrs. Reeves, came into the room, and lent her the money.
Driscoll asked Witness if she would take the sixpence to the Deceased.
By the Coroner: Driscoll was trembling all over when she sat by the fire.
FINDING THE BODY
Witness, continuing, said she went with the sixpence to the Deceased, and found the door of her room wide open.
She called the Deceased twice, but got no answer. She also noticed that the Deceased was deathly white, and she appeared to be asleep. The Deceased was lying on her side, and Witness thought she was dead. She noticed nothing unusual in the room, but she thought it strange to find the door open, as she had never seen it open before.
The Witness went back home, but did not tell her mother, as she had been ill.
She called Nora Driscoll, and asked her to come and see her grandmother, as she (Witness) thought she was dead. Driscoll did not say anything, neither did she express any surprise. Driscoll got to the house first, walked towards the bed, looked at the old woman’s face, and remarked, “She is dead enough.”
Witness and Driscoll both left the house together, and went back to Sherwood-street.
Witness knew of no one who was likely to injure the Deceased.
NORA DRISCOLL’S EVIDENCE
Nora Driscoll stated that she was a single woman, and lived at 14, Sophia-street. She was the caretaker of the Roman Catholic schools, Wade-street, her duty being to clean the place after the children had left.
She went in the mornings between six and half-past when she did not finish her work at night.
On Wednesday evening last she was at Mrs. Cummings’s, about half-past seven as near as she could tell.
A Mrs. White, who keeps a general shop, called out while Witness was there, “Nora, the school is on fire.”
Witness ran into her shop, and asked, “What’s the matter with you; there is no sign of fire?”
Mrs. White replied that she had seen flashes of fire coming out.
Witness went back to the schools, and on opening the door found one of the teachers there, and everything all right. Witness was upset by this.
Mrs. Cummings afterwards said that she felt faint, and would like something to drink, but Witness said that she had no money, and asked Mrs. Cummings if her mother (the Deceased) had any. Mrs. Cummings replied, “You may go round and ask her.”
Witness went round, and found the Deceased sitting up in bed. Witness said, “Have you any coppers?” and the Deceased replied, “Yes, how much do you want?”
The witness replied, “Only sixpence,” which the Deceased gave her, taking it from her purse, which was under the pillow.
Witness then left, and went back to Sherwood-street.
SHE WENT HOME
In reply to further questions, Driscoll said she shut the door after her.
She then got some ale and went to Mrs. Cummings’s.
When she left Mrs. Cummings she went home, and straight to her room.
She went out about 7.30 the next morning. She heard no noise in the night.
Witness knocked at the old woman’s door on going out, and the Deceased answered, as if half awake, “All right.”
Witness returned home from the school about 10.30. She did not then speak to the Deceased, but noticed that her room door was open.
Mrs. Cummings’s daughter (the Witness Johnson) was doing some work there.
Mrs. Reeves, a lodger, came into the room, and Witness borrowed sixpence from her and gave it to Martha Johnson to take to her grandmother.
She came back in a few minutes and called out “Nora” somebody wants to speak to you.”
When Witness got outside she (Johnson) said, “Don’t tell mother, but I think grandmother is dead.”
Johnson entered the room and Witness followed. Witness then noticed blood on the bedclothes, and remarked, “Yes, it is too true, she has burst a blood vessel.”
The Coroner: “Did you see any chopper?”
“Yes; when Dr. O’Brien found it I was in the room.”
The Coroner: “Produce the chopper.” (This was done, and identified by the Witness. The chopper in appearance was like those used by butchers, and was greatly bloodstained.)
DR O’BRIEN’S TESTIMONY
Dr. H. J. O’Brien, who was called to see the deceased woman at twenty minutes to eleven on Thursday morning, said the room did not appear to be disturbed.
Her countenance was placid; the body was warm.
She was a very fat woman, and, in his opinion, she had been dead between one and four hours.
Witness examined the head, and found that the right ear was split, and all the tissues behind the ear were completely lacerated, the bones being fractured, and the hair was sticking and deeply embedded into the wound.
The wound was very jagged, and it was clear that it had not been inflicted by a sharp instrument.
There was an imprint on the ear which corresponded with the back of the chopper.
On looking at the head of the bed, Witness noticed the chopper lying on the pillow. The back of the chopper was stained with what appeared to be blood.
Directly Witness saw the wound on the ear, he sent for the police.
A police-constable arrived.
Mrs. Cummings was in the room, crying. Nora Driscoll was also in the room.
Witness had made a post-mortem examination. The wound on the ear was from 2 to 3 inches in length. The temporal bone was fractured. The brain itself was not injured. There were no other injuries to the body. Death was due to syncope, from loss of blood and concussion.
After some further evidence, the inquest was adjourned.”
AN ARREST EXPECTED
That same day, several newspapers published the following report:-
“The Press Association states that the police already have strong suspicions as to the author of the Poplar murder, and that an arrest may be expected at any moment.”
However, according to the following report in Reynolds’s Weekly Newspaper the next day, Sunday 26th February, 1893, the police were still no closer to arresting the perpetrator of the crime:-
“Every effort is being used by the police officers who have the case in hand to trace the perpetrator of the crime.
So far, however, they have been unsuccessful in even finding what is regarded as a clue, and up to a late hour last night, when a representative of Reynolds’s Newspaper visited the scene of the tragedy, no arrest had been made.
The police, in fact, confess themselves as much mystified as the public over the reasons which could have prompted the commission of such an apparently purposeless murder.
SIGHTSEERS VISIT THE HOUSE
During yesterday the house at 14, Sophia-street was visited by a large number of spectators, who found little beyond an open doorway with two constables on duty beside it to satisfy their curiosity.
This doorway leads into a passage, at the end of which is the room in which Mrs. Anne Darby was so brutally and mysteriously done to death sometime on Wednesday night.
In the immediate neighbourhood, which is principally composed of narrow streets of small tenements, of the usual low, square, and ugly type of architecture, the murder forms the chief topic of conversation amongst the people standing at their doors, or buying household commodities at the small general shops which are fairly numerous in this part of Poplar.”
AN IMPORTANT WITNESS
The Portsmouth Evening News, provided an update on Monday, 27th February, 1893:-
“So far, it cannot ascertained who committed the murder, but a most important piece of evidence came into the possession of the police on Saturday afternoon.
It was telegraphed to them from Rochester.
A young Medway bargeman was in London with his boat in the early part of last week.
His fiancée lives in the house a few doors from that in which the murder was committed.
On Wednesday night last the young waterman slept at that house.
SAW SOMEONE WITH A CHOPPER
He rose at about half-past six o’clock on Thursday morning, and while dressing he looked out of the window, which commands a view of many of the backyards to the houses either side.
While he was dressing he saw a person (of which sex it is not advisable at the present to state) come into the garden of one of the houses a few doors away, take from the garden a large chopper, and carry it into the house.
This was about twenty minutes to seven o’clock.
The time is fixed by the waterman pretty accurately, as he had a walk of about 20 minutes from the house to where his barge was lying, and he was on board by seven o’clock.
HE READ ABOUT THE MURDER
The Medway bargeman thought little of the above incident until Saturday, on which day he arrived at Rochester.
Seeing on a newspaper contents-bill that a murder had been committed in Poplar, he bought a paper and read the details, and at once communicated with the Rochester police.
HE WAS BROUGHT TO LONDON
Mr. Berry, the Chief Constable of that town, at once communicated with London, with the result that the bargeman was on Sunday brought to town.
He was first taken to the house in which he had slept, and asked to point out the garden from which he said the person took the chopper.
Without hesitation, he pointed to the garden at the back of the murdered woman’s house.
HE IDENTIFIED THE PERSON
He was then shown several people by the police, and stated that one of them at least resembled the person whom he had seen.
The information is considered by the police to be of great importance, and will narrow the sphere of inquiry.
The question of time in working out the details of this murder is of the greatest importance.
The doctors at the inquest agreed that the deceased had been dead not more than four hours before she was discovered.
It was 10.25 a.m. when Dr. O’Brien arrived on the scene, and this would be correct if we give the period of death about half-past six, or only 15 minutes before the young bargeman saw the person with the chopper in the back garden.”
THE POPLAR MURDER – INQUEST AND VERDICT
Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper, on Sunday, 12th March, 1893, reported on the final day of the inquest:-
“The inquest on the old woman, Mrs. Darby, who was found murdered in her bed on the 23rd ult. at 14, Sophia-street, was resumed on Monday at the Poplar Town hall before Mr. Wynne Baxter.
Mr. Angus Lewis again appeared on behalf of the Public prosecutor; Supt. Wells and Detective-inspector Mellish representing the police authorities.
The coroner made a close inspection of the premises where the murder took place during the morning.
It was decided to exclude all persons from the court, save those who had business there.
THE DAUGHTER’S EVIDENCE
Eliza Mitchell said that she lived at 8, Gregory-street, Custom-house, and was an engine-driver’s widow.
The deceased was the witness’s mother, and on Wednesday the 22nd February, the witness called to see her at Sophia-street about eight p.m. She stayed two hours. She did not give her any money that night.
She knew of no one who had any ill-feeling towards the deceased. It was generally known that the deceased was in receipt of parish relief.
The witness had heard since the death of Mrs. Darby that Mrs. Driscoll was also in receipt of parish relief.
The Witness: “The deceased told her that she had asked Norah Driscoll to knock at the deceased’s door every morning.”
The Coroner: “At any particular time?”
The Witness: “When she went off to the schools.”
MARTHA JOHNSON RECALLED
Martha Johnson, the granddaughter of the deceased, recalled, deposed that she was with the deceased about 10 minutes on the evening of Wednesday, the 22nd February.
The witness went home again, and remained there all the evening.
Norah Driscoll was at the witness’s house before the witness went to Sophia-street, and remained there until witness retired to bed.
ANNA SALTER’S EVIDENCE
Anna Salter, of 30, Sophia-street, the daughter of a stevedore, deposed that she assisted Norah Driscoll at the Wade Street Roman Catholic schools in getting the breakfast for the children.
The witness arrived at the schools on Thursday, the 23rd February, at about, half-past eight.
She went to 14, Sophia-street, with a coffee-urn about 20 minutes to 10, and took it into the back kitchen.
A girl named M’Carthy was with the witness.
The witness knew an old lady who lived in the back room, and noticed that the door was open.
She could not help seeing that as the door was wide open.
Norah Driscoll came in about five minutes later, and asked the witness and M’Carthy what they were doing. They replied that they were drinking a drop of coffee.
Norah then went out again.
She was at the school still when the witness arrived.
Ellen M’Carthy, daughter of a dock labourer, of 7, Sophia-street, deposed that when she saw Norah Driscoll at the schools on the morning of the 23rd February, she did not notice anything unusual about her.
Ellen Crooks, of 1, Shirbutt-street, a stevedore ‘s daughter, stated that she saw Norah Driscoll at about 7.40 a.m. on Thursday, the 23rd February. She told the witness that Mrs. White had said the schools were on fire, but that on going to the schools she found them all right.
The witness noticed nothing unusual in Norah’s manner.
On the Friday morning, Norah said there had been a great upset in her house.
Police-constable Charles Dowd, 164, deposed that he was called to the house by the doctor.
He remained on duty at the front door until the body was removed at a quarter to four.
NORAH DRISCOLL IN COLNEY HATCH ASYLUM
The coroner then read some certified extracts from documents at Colney Hatch asylum, which showed that on the 19th of October, 1885, Norah Driscoll was certified by Dr. Thomas Gray to be insane, and was accordingly sent to the asylum on a magistrate’s order.
The Cause of her insanity was excitement, following an assault on her. She was suffering from melancholia, but she was not suicidal or homicidal. She had delusions as to seeing persons and hearing voices.
She was discharged on the 5th of February, 1886, as cured.
DETECTIVE SERGEANT FORTH
Detective Sergeant Frederick Forth, K division, stated that he had made inquiries about Goss’s movements on the morning of the murder, and found that his statement was correct. The witness could not find anyone who had seen a stranger about.
The witness had also carefully examined Goss’s clothing, but found no traces of blood.
By the Jury: The witness examined Norah Driscoll’s clothing as closely as possible, but a female searcher would be required before the clothing was thoroughly examined.
Norah Driscoll was rather a violent-tempered woman, and very excitable.
POLICE CONSTABLES DAVIS AND MOORE
Police-constable James Davis, 223 K, stated that he went on duty at 10 pm on the 22nd of February, and came off duty at six the next morning.
He patrolled East India-road to Wade’s-place, which included Sophia-street.
He was in the latter street frequently after four o’clock on the morning of the 23rd, as he had to call several persons up to go to work.
Between four and six o’clock he was in and out of the street, but saw no strangers about.
He could not say whether the door of 14, Sophia-street was open or not, but it was nothing unusual for doors in that street to be open all night.
Police-constable Richard Moore, 404 K, stated that he patrolled Sophia-street for the first time about 7.15 on the Thursday morning, but nothing occurred to attract his attention.
MARY DING AND ELIZA CUMMINGS
Mary Ding, aged 12, daughter of a stevedore, of 25, Sophia-street, stated that she went to the Wade-street school at about eight o’clock.
She was told that Norah Driscoll had been there, but had left after lighting the fires.
About 8.30 Norah came in from the street.
Elizabeth Sarah Ann Cummings was recalled, and stated that Norah Driscoll first came to the witness’s house on the Wednesday, about 7.30 p.m., and remained there until 12 o’clock, paying two visits to the schools.
The witness heard a cry of “Fire!” about eight o’clock, which seemed to be uttered in the voice of a woman at the witness’s street door.
The witness heard the person, whoever it was, call out, “Norah, Norah; your school is on fire.”
THE CORONER’S SUMMING UP
This concluded the evidence.
In summing up, the coroner commented on the absence of motive in the murder of an old woman in receipt of parish relief.
He said that if Mrs. Sweeney’s evidence were to be relied upon, no one but Norah Driscoll could have committed the deed.
The case against her was accentuated by the fact that she had been a lunatic, confined in an asylum. She was, therefore, liable to have an outburst of insanity at any time.
The coroner then dwelt on the fact of Driscoll getting someone else to return the sixpence, and observed that when taken to see Mrs. Darby she at once said that the deceased was dead, and, instead of putting her hand on the part of the corpse exposed, put it under the bedclothes.
However, he must urge that the jury ought not to send any person for trial if they had any reasonable doubt in the matter.
THE JURY’S VERDICT
After a consultation, lasting half-an-hour the jury returned a verdict of Wilful murder against some person or persons unknown.”
AN ANGRY CROWD
Evidently, the Coroner believed that it was Nora Driscoll who had probably carried out the murder, and the people of the area were, evidently in agreement, as can be seen from the following report – which appeared in The Western Mail on Tuesday, 7th March, 1893 – of her exit from the Coroner’s court in the wake of the verdict:-
“About 2,000 persons had assembled outside the court and became very excited at the finish of the case.
Foot and mounted police experienced a difficulty in keeping them orderly, and so strong was the feeling against Driscoll that the police assisted her to escape from the back windows of the Town-hall by a ladder.
Thence she left disguised, accompanied by the Reverend the Hon. James Adderley, vicar of Poplar, and son of Lord Norton, who took her through the neighbouring schools, and thence through the grounds of the church into East India Dock-road, reaching her house unobserved by the great crowd.”