On Boxing Day, December 26th, 1896, a woman was found lying on the pavement in Brick Lane in what the police constable who attended the scene believed was a drunk and incapable state.
She was duly taken to the nearest police station, Commercial Street, and here she was placed in a cell to sober up.
However, it soon transpired that her condition was worse than at first thought and a doctor was called, whereupon the discovery was made that this was far more serious than a simple case of drunkenness.
A SPITALFIELDS TRAGEDY
STRANGE DEATH OF A WOMAN
The Southern Echo, reported the story in its edition of Tuesday, 29th December 1896:-
“The Spitalfields police on Saturday night found a woman, Ellen Collins, in Commercial-street, in an apparently drunken condition.
She was taken at once to the Commercial-street Police-station, and there it was found necessary to call in a doctor.
A STAB WOUND DISCOVERED
The medical man found that the woman’s condition was graver than an excess of alcoholic stimulants would account for, and made a minute examination as the result of which he discovered that in the region of the left breast there was a punctured wound, though of a very slight character.
It did not appear to be sufficiently serious to warrant removal to the hospital.
THE DIVISIONAL POLICE SURGEON SUMMONED
Half an hour later graver symptoms still were noticed, and the divisional surgeon was summoned.
Dr Bagster Phillips found that the slight wound was. in reality, a downward stab, and that it penetrated right to the heart. There was internal bleeding, and the woman was evidently in a dying condition, and, in less than fifteen minutes from Dr Bagster Phillips’s appearance, she died.
HER HUSBAND SOUGHT
The police set to work on the case at once, and it was discovered that the deceased had been drinking nearly all day with a man who was said to be her husband.
All day Sunday and yesterday the police were on the look out for the supposed husband, and late last evening a man went to the Commercial-street Police-station, saying that he had heard that he was wanted.
He was subsequently detained by the police.”
HUSBAND CHARGED WITH MURDER
John Collins, the woman’s husband, duly found himself in court on Wednesday, 6th of January, 1897, and, the next day, The Morning Post, published an account of his court appearance:-
“At the Worship-street Police Court yesterday John Collins, scaffolder, of Chambord-street, Bethnal-green, was brought up on remand charged with killing Ellen Collins, his wife, by stabbing her in the breast with some sharp implement on the night of December 26th last.
Mr. Angus Lewis, from the office of the Solicitors’ Department of the Treasury, now appeared to conduct the prosecution; Mr. Kebbell, solicitor, defended.
A SELF-INFLICTED WOUND
The woman, it will be remembered, was found about nine o’clock at night in Brick-lane, lying on the pavement, and was taken to the station as drunk and incapable. She had evidently been drinking freely, but was found to have a stab wound in the left side, between the breast and the middle line. She said she had done it herself.
Within half an hour she was found to be in a state of collapse, and when the divisional surgeon was called she was found to be dying, and she did die in a few minutes.
THEY WERE SEPARATED
Mr. Lewis, in stating these facts, said that the prisoner and his wife had not been living together for some time, the woman residing with her mother.
On the night in question the woman, it was known, had been in two or three public-houses, and was spoken to in one.
When found there was a small crowd round her, and among them a constable noticed the prisoner.
It was seen at the time she was removed that there were some spots of blood on her dress.
HE BOASTED TO WITNESSES
Up to that time, there was no evidence against the prisoner; but it would be found that about eleven o’clock at night, in the lodging-house where he was staying, he boasted that he had “settled” his wife, at the same time showing a knife.
In a public-house later he did the same thing and again showed the knife.
It was true that the case mainly rested on the prisoner’s own statements, and it would be for the Magistrate to say what weight was to be attached to them in this grave charge.
A SURPRISINGLY SLOW DEATH
Dr. George Bagster Phillips, of 2, Spital-square, surgeon to the H Division of Police, who made a post-mortem examination, said that death was due to bleeding of the heart into the pericardium.
The wound must have been caused by a sharp instrument with a narrow blade, not more than half an inch in width.
It was one that was necessarily fatal, but the result was remarkable as being the slowest death under the circumstances he had ever known.
The wound might have been self-inflicted, or equally well might have been inflicted by some other person, and the wound on the arm – very slight in itself – might have been caused in a struggle.
There was no doubt the woman was of drunken habits.
The prisoner was again remanded.”
ANOTHER COURT APPEARANCE
John Collins next court appearance was on Wednesday 13th January, 1897 and The Tower Hamlets Independent and East End Local Advertiser, published details of the proceedings on Saturday, 16th January 1897:-
“John Collins the scaffolder of Chambord-street, Bethnal Green, was up again at Worship-street on Wednesday, charged with killing Ellen Collins, his wife, on Boxing Day, in Brick-lane, Spitalfields.
It will be remembered that the woman was found lying on the pavement with a stab wound in the breast.
A VERDICT OF WILFUL MURDER
A coroner’s jury had returned a verdict of wilful murder, discarding the idea of suicide, though the evidence of Dr. Phillips, divisional surgeon, who had attended the woman, showed that the injury might have been self-inflicted.
After further evidence had been given, the prisoner was committed for trial on the charge of wilful murder.”
JOHN COLLINS ON TRIAL
On Wednesday, 10th February, 1897, John Collins appeared before Mr. Justice Wills, at the Central Criminal Court (The Old Bailey) charged with the wilful murder of Ellen Collins.
The Morning Post published the details of the hearing, and the subsequent verdict, on Thursday, 11th February 1897:-
“Wednesday. (Before Mr. Justice Wills.) John Collins, labourer, was indicted for the wilful murder of his wife, Ellen, on Boxing Day.
Mr. Charles Mathews prosecuted, Mr. E. P. Rawlinson defended.
MARRIAGE AND SEPARATION
The prisoner married in February, 1891, and lived with his wife down to 18 months ago. Then, by mutual consent, they separated, and the wife went to live with her mother.
She was drinking with her husband and several relatives on Boxing night, and ultimately she was discovered lying on the pavement outside the Phoenix public-house, Spitalfields, in an intoxicated state.
She died at the police station.
NO DIRECT EVIDENCE
The post-mortem revealed the fact that the woman had been stabbed to the heart by some sharp instrument.
There was no direct evidence to connect the prisoner with the stabbing.
The case against him rested in the main on admissions he made to several witnesses, but five out of seven of these confessed to being so intoxicated on the night in question that their recollection was not at all clear.
The woman before she died told the doctor and others that the wound was self-inflicted.
This was the defence set up.
The Jury acquitted the prisoner.”