The Walthamstow Mystery

Today’s blog features another case that took place in London in 1888, the same year as the Jack the Ripper murders, but which was not related.

On the 21st of July, 1888, 22 year old Mrs. Annie French, was found in a comatose state on a sofa in the back room of a chemist shop in Walthamstow, which was run by a Mr. William Barber.

She died thirty-two hours later.

There was no sign of Mr. Barber, the chemist, and it became apparent to the police that he had fled the scene, and so might well be implicated in her death in some way – the initial reports suggesting that the police believed he may have been about to perform an abortion, which had gone tragically wrong.

As the police tried to find the missing chemist, the newspapers dubbed the case “The Walthamstow Mystery”, and provided their readers with daily updates on the progress of the  investigation.

Illustrations depicting the so-called Walthamstow Mystery.
The Walthamstow Mystery. From The illustrated Police news, 31st July 1888. Copyright, The British Library Board.


The Pall Mall Gazette broke the story to its readers in its edition of 24th July 1888:-

“A mysterious affair at Walthamstow has just been brought to light.

On Saturday a man named Barber who has been managing a chemist’s business in Markhouse-road, Walthamstow, sent his errand boy, a lad aged fifteen, named Frank Playle, to Mrs. French, residing at 208, Boundary-road, Walthamstow, with a note, and instructed him not to deliver the letter to any one but Mrs. French.

The lad went to the address indicated, and Mrs. French opened the door, but was accompanied by her husband; therefore the lad made some excuse, and returned to his master.

Mrs. French was twenty-two years of age, and only recently married, her husband being employed as manager to Mr. Hudson, a grocer in the neighbourhood.

After a little time Mr. Barber sent the lad back with the note. Mrs. French was alone; she read the note, and replied, “Yes.”

The lad returned to Mr. Barber with this answer, and was sent for a shilling’s worth of brandy.


Mrs. French arrived at the shop shortly after his return with the spirits, and was shown into a parlour at the back of the shop. This was about four o’clock. Mr. Barber told Playle that he might go hone to his tea, which he did.

What happened between this time and six o’clock is a complete mystery.


Playle returned to the shop at six o’clock, and was surprised to find the place closed and fully secured as at night.

Having failed to gain an entrance by the front door he scaled a wall and entered the house by the back.

The room was unusually dark, and on a sofa near the window sat Mrs. French in a reclining position, and she was deadly white.

The lad searched the place, and, failing to find Mr. Barber he hastened for assistance.

He went to a butcher, named Patchet, next door, and got him to go and see Mrs. French. He felt her pulse, and as she was unconscious he fetched a grocer named Drummond, who decided to call in medical assistance.


Dr. Thorpe was soon in attendance, and on a cursory examination concluded that the woman was in a fainting fit.

But he soon detected the smell of chlorolorm, and subsequently found that she was suffering from chloroform poisoning.

He administered ether and other remedies, and resorted to artificial respiration until about ten o’clock.


As no signs of animation were apparent, Dr. Blight was summoned, and he decided to perform the operation of tracheotomy, which he performed successfully.

The woman was somewhat relieved, as far as her breathing was affected, but she did not regain consciousness.

Throughout the whole of Saturday night and Sunday the medical men continued without intermission to administer every conceivable remedy known to medical science, but without any perceptible improvement in the woman’s condition.


After midnight the police discovered that a robbery had also been perpetrated. The till had been rifled, and from £12 to £15 in gold, silver, and copper abstracted.

The assistance of several officers was obtained from the Lea Bridge-road police-station, and diligent search was made for the missing chemist, but without avail.


In the meantime, the endeavours to restore Mrs. French were continued, and police constables were engaged to restore animation by artificial respiration; but after being unconscious for thirty-two hours, the unfortunate woman breathed her last shortly before midnight on Sunday.

The room smelled strongly of chloroform, and on the table in the apartment were found bottles containing brandy and soda, ammonia, chloroform, and other liquids such as would be likely to counteract the effects of an overdose of chloroform.


An examination of the deceased failed to show any signs of an assault.

The hypothesis which is favoured by the doctors and the local police is that the chemist had arranged to perform an operation; and although no instruments were found on the premises, he could easily carry them away with him when he escaped, in his alarm at the condition of his victim.

Mrs. French, it is stated, paid frequent visits to the chemist at the shop, and was always received in the parlour, while he in turn visited her residence on Sundays, and occasionally took his meals with her and her husband.

Since the death of Mrs. French the police have been trying to discover the whereabouts of the missing man, but hitherto without success.”


By the time that the next edition of The Pall Mall Gazette appeared more theories were circulating as to what had caused the death of Mrs. French, and these theories were discussed in its edition of the 25th July 1888:-

“The Walthamstow poisoning case continues to be a mystery, but it is generally believed that there is a great deal to come out at the inquest to-day regarding the relations between Mr. Barber and Mrs. French.

The police have information which will show that the intimacy was not confined to casual visits.


The post mortem examination of the body of Mrs. French was held yesterday, under the supervision of Dr. Wellington Lake, the divisional police surgeon for Walthamstow. Dr. Thorp and Dr. Blith conducted the autopsy.

The medical men attended at the mortuary shortly after ten o’clock, and the examination was not concluded until about five o’clock in the evening.

Carefully sealed bottles were subsequently sent to London, the contents of which were to be analyzed by one of the public analysts.

As to what was discovered the medical men refused to give any particulars. The actual cause of death must, therefore, for the time being remain an open question.


The theory of outrage has already been refuted.

The hypothesis that an operation was about to be performed by Mr. Barber, however, raises a very difficult point. Of course the doctors refuse to say anything until the inquest, and any instruments which would be necessary for such an operation are nowhere to be found about the chemist’s shop.


The only other motive which suggests itself for Mrs. French visiting Mr. Barber was that she went to have a tooth extracted.

Circumstances, however, entirely controvert this theory.

It is not denied that Mrs. French suffered from neuralgia, but it is pointed out that Mr. Barber was not a dentist, neither did he have any dealing with dentistry, and the police have failed to find any instruments for dentistry.

The only evidence which could throw any light on the affair is the letter sent by Mr. Barber to Mrs. French, but this is missing.


There is at present nothing to show in what way the chloroform was administered.

In the bowl of water in the room where Mrs. French was found was discovered a pocket handkerchief; but so far there is nothing to show that the drug had been inhaled from that.

There is evidence that Barber endeavoured to restore her to consciousness.

The detectives from Scotland-yard appointed to investigate the case have elicited the fact that Barber was a very nervous man, and indulged somewhat freely in alcoholic liquor, having on the fatal day, previous to the visit of Mrs. French, procured as much as two shillings’ worth of brandy.

His friends represent him as being likely to commit suicide.

The police, however, are of opinion that he has either left England or remains in hiding pending the result of the coroner’s inquiry.”


By Monday 27th July 1888, no significant progress had been made in the hunt for William Barber, and The Pall Mall Gazette carried the following brief update:-

“The chemist William Barber, who is charged with having caused the death of Mrs. Annie French, at Walthamstow, on Sunday last, remains undiscovered.

Since Barber absconded, the police authorities in many parts of the metropolis and suburbs have received information of a man answering the description of Barber having been seen.

Searching investigations have resulted, but they have proved fruitless, and the police look upon them as scares similar to those experienced during the period that the notorious convict Jackson was at large.

The prevailing opinion seems to be that he is concealed somewhere in or near the locality where the mystery had its origin.

The body of the deceased was removed from the mortuary late on Wednesday evening, and interred at Bow Cemetery yesterday afternoon.”


However, by the 28th July 1888, The Pall Mall Gazette was able to report that the police had, at last, got their man:-

“The Central News says:- Barber, the chemist, who is wanted in connection with the Walthamstow mystery, was arrested at 9.30 this morning in High-street, Brentford.

Police-constable Buchanan was on duty when he met the man coming out of a coffee shop.

Noticing that his appearance answered the description circulated, he took him to the station, where he was detained.

There is no doubt about his identity.

He awaits the arrival of an officer from Walthamstow, and will be brought before the Brentford magistrates to-day.”


Barber appeared at Stratford Police Court on 30th July, 1888, and The Pall Mall Gazette reported the proceedings in its edition of later that day:-

“Police-court proceedings in connection with what is known as the “Walthamstow Mystery” were commenced at Stratford this morning before Captain Kindersley and a bench of three magistrates.

The accommodation for the general public was very limited. All the available space was soon filled, and a considerable crowd of persons collected in the roadway outside.

Illustrations showing William Barber's court appearance.
William Barber In The Police Court. From The Illustrated Police News, 4th August 1888. Copyright, The British Library Board.


The prisoner, who was placed in the dock, is a passably good-looking man. He was rather sprucely attired in a grey morning coat and vest and striped trousers.

He looked just a little worn, but otherwise there was nothing that was not ordinary in his appearance.

He cried on being placed in the dock.

He was supplied with a pencil and paper, and he took notes.


Barber was charged on suspicion of causing the death of Annie Mary French by administering to her a noxious drug on the 21st July, 1888, in the parish of Walthamstow.

The charge was preferred against the prisoner by Detective-Inspector Glasse, of the Criminal Investigation Department, and was taken by Sub-Inspector Dowdeswell.

In the column relating to property found “on the prisoner or elsewhere” were recorded the following articles:- 2 1/2d. bronze, two pawn tickets, a pocket comb and case, seven keys on ring, a pocket knife, an eye glass, and three phials containing liquids.


The first witness examined was the errand boy, Frederick Playle. His evidence was a repetition of that given at the inquest last week, and published by us at the time.

The clerk at the table, consulting the depositions taken on that occasion, asked the witness leading questions thereon, interpolating an elucidatory question where such seemed to him necessary.

The presiding magistrate also put occasional questions, but nothing was elicited, beyond what came out at the inquest.


The next witness was a little fellow of nine – John Chambers Patchett, a son of Barber’s next door neighbour.

He said he saw Barber at his shop door about five o’clock on the Saturday in question, “just as the bells were ringing for church.”

Barber went up to Mr. Farrar’s, and then returned, and he saw him lock the front door. He then walked away towards James-street.


Detective-inspector Glasse then said this was his case for the present, and asked for a remand till Saturday.

At his request the magistrate certified for legal aid.

Prisoner’s solicitor asked that the usual facilities might be given him to consult with his client in prison. These, the magistrate said, the governor would no doubt grant.

The magistrate then asked the prisoner if he had anything to say why he should not be remanded until Saturday.

Barber:- “I don’t know that I have, sir.”

He was accordingly remanded.”


In its next day’s edition, published on 31st July 1888, The Pall Mall Gazette featured a statement issued by William Barber in which he gave his account of the circumstances leading up to the demise of Annie French:-

“Since Barber was remanded yesterday, the statement found in his possession has been given forth to the public, as follows :-


Mrs. French had complained of having suffered from toothache for some weeks, and I had on several occasions rubbed on chloroform or camphorated chloroform, and had told her to come down to me immediately at any time when she had the toothache and I would give her a draught to take, would rub her gums with chloroform, and would afterwards apply something caustic, such as carbolic or nitric acid to destroy or wither the nerve.

On this occasion I had intended carry this out, and I fetched into the parlour for this purpose one bottle containing a solution of morphia, with which I intended to allay the irritation.


Just as I was about to prepare a draught, some customers came into the shop, and Mrs. French said to me, in rather a pettish way, “Go and attend to your customers.”

I left her in the room with the preparation, and on my return I found she had taken the whole of the dose of strong solution of morphia.

On any discovering this I thought it was possible she had pitched the contents of the small bottle into the fireplace, but on looking round I could not find anything in the fireplace.

I looked at her closely, and found she was reeling about.


Upon this I rushed into the kitchen and got a little brandy, which I knew was a stimulant, and some sal volatile, which was in the shop.

I gave her a strong dose of sal volatile and brandy, and undid her dress round the neck.

I then put some cold water in a bowl and bathed her forehead, and tried to keep her moving about.

Immediately after I had done this she fell from my arms on to the couch, and said,”I am dying.”

I then took hold of her and looked at her, and found she was changing fast, and could not recover.

My first thought was to rush for a doctor, but knowing that at that part of the day he would probably be out, I thought it better to stay with her.

I gave her some sal volatile, which seemed to take no effect, and in my fright I rushed away, not knowing what to do with myself.

I rushed upstairs to change my clothes.

So far as outrage or operation is concerned, no such thing ever entered my mind, as there was nothing of the kind necessary.

I took the money away – about £6 or £7.


Regarding the letter, it had nothing to do with it whatever, as she was coming, so the boy says, as soon as she was dressed.

I only referred to some cigarettes which I had asked her to make for me, she having done so on several occasions.

Signed, WM. BARBER.”


William Barber’s next court appearance was on Saturday 11th August 1888.

The Pall Mall Gazette reported on the proceedings on Monday 13th August 1888:-

“William Barber, the chemist’s assistant who was arrested in connection with what is known as “The Walthamstow mystery,” was again brought before the Stratford magistrates on Saturday, charged, on suspicion, with causing the death of Annie Mary French, the wife of a provision dealer’s manager, by administering to her a certain noxious drug.

The lad Playle was recalled, and said he had never, until the day of the deceased’s death, taken a note from Barber to Mrs. French, but he had taken notes to Mr. French.


Arthur French, the husband of the deceased, was the first witness, and gave evidence similar to that given by him at the inquest.

It bore chiefly on his relations with Barber, who had been in the habit of visiting at witness’s house, and who had latterly had his dinners sent to the shop from there.

Deceased had suffered from toothache.

One night Barber had rubbed chloroform on her cheek.

She had gone to Barber’s shop about her teeth with witness’s knowledge.

Witness had never had any occasion to complain of prisoner’s conduct.


Other evidence having been given as to the finding of the body, Dr. Thorpe was called, and spoke to the efforts he had made to restore consciousness.

He  gave also the results of his post mortem examination.

Ultimately prisoner,  who had taken copious notes, was again remanded.”


William Barber appeared at the Old Bailey, charged with causing the death of Annie French, on Tuesday 18th September 1888.

However, by this time the Whitechapel murders had captured the press attention and his appearance received scant coverage.

The Leeds Mercury carried the following very brief report in its edition of  Wednesday 19th September 1888:-

“Yesterday afternoon the grand jury at the Old Bailey ignored the bill against William Barber who was charged with causing the death of Annie French at Walthamstow.

He was therefore discharged.”