It has come in many different forms. In the eighteenth century it was often remarked that the noses of the victims were bitten off during the act of strangling. Strangulation and stabbing were popular at the end of that century, succeeded in the early nineteenth century by slashed throats and clubbing; at the end of the nineteenth century poison and various forms of mutilation or hacking to death became more favoured.
Yet the element of mystery remains perhaps the most interesting and suggestive aspect of the London murder, as if the city itself might have taken part in the crime. One of the unsolved murders of the seventeenth century, in an age when all were inured to death, concerned a man known variously as Edmund Berry Godfrey or Edmunsbury Godfrey. He was found in 1678 upon what is now known as Primrose Hill, with his own sword thrust through his body but “no blood was on his clothes or about him” and “his shoes were clean.” He had also been strangled, and his neck broken; when his clothes were taken off, his breast was found to be “all over marked with bruises.” Another curious element lay in the fact that “there were many drops of white wax lights on his breeches.” A Catholic plot was suspected and, on concocted evidence, three members of the royal court at Somerset House were arrested and executed; their names were Green, Berry and Hill. The earliest name of Primrose Hill, where the body was found, was Greenberry Hill. The real murderers were never discovered, but it would seem that the topography of London itself played a fortuitous if malign part.
One evening at nine o’clock, in Cannon Street in the spring of 1866, Sarah Millson went downstairs to answer the street-bell. An hour later a neighbour who lived above her discovered her body at the bottom of the stairs. She had been killed by a number of deep wounds to the head but “her shoes had been taken off and were lying on a table in the hall”; there was no blood upon them. The gaslight had been quietly extinguished after the murder, presumably in order to save expense. The neighbour opened the street door to find help, and saw a woman on the doorstep apparently shielding herself against the heavy rain which was then falling. She was asked for assistance but moved away, saying, “Oh! dear no; I can’t come in.” The murderer was never apprehended, but the characteristics of London mystery are here found in almost emblematic detail—the lodging house in Cannon Street, the heavy rain, the gaslight, the perfectly cleaned shoes. The strange woman shielding herself from the rain only contributes to the air of intimacy and darkness that characterises this crime. Once more it is as if the spirit or atmosphere of the city itself played its part.
That is why the murders committed by “Jack the Ripper” between August and November 1888 are an enduring aspect of London myth, with the areas of Spitalfields and Whitechapel as the dark accomplices of the crimes. The newspaper accounts of “Jack’s” murders were directly responsible for parliamentary inquiries into the poverty of these neighbourhoods, and of the “East End” in general; in that sense, charity and social provision followed hard upon the heels of monstrous death. But in a more elusive way the streets and houses of that vicinity became identified with the murders themselves, almost to the extent that they seemed to share the guilt. One scholarly account by Colin Wilson refers to the “secrets” of a room in the Ten Bells public house of the neighbourhood, in Commercial Street, which suggests that the walls and interiors of the then impoverished streets were the killer’s confessional. There are contemporary reports of the panic engendered by the Whitechapel killings. M.V. Hughes, author of A London Girl of the Eighties, has written that “No one can believe now how terrified and unbalanced we all were by his murders.” This is recorded by one who lived in the west of London, many miles from the vicinity, and she adds: “One can only dimly imagine what the terror must have been in those acres of narrow streets where the inhabitants knew the murderer to be lurking.” It is testimony to the power of urban suggestion, and to the peculiar quality of late Victorian London, that popular belief lent “a quality of the supernatural to the work.” The essential paganism of London here reasserts itself. Even as the murders were continuing, the books and pamphlets began to appear, among them The Mysteries of the East End, The Curse Upon Mitre Square, Jack the Ripper: Or the Crimes of London, London’s Ghastly Mystery. The place becomes the central interest, therefore, and soon after the crimes sightseers were flocking through Berners Street and George Yard and Flower and Dean Street; a Whitechapel “peep-show” even provided wax figures of the victims for the delectation of the spectators. Such is the force of the area, and of its crimes, that several daily tours are still organised— mainly for foreign visitors—around the Ten Bells public house and the adjacent streets.
The connection between London and murder is, then, a permanent one. Martin Fido, author of The Murder Guide to London, states that more “than half the memorable murders of Britain have happened in London,” with the prevalence of certain killings within certain areas. Murder may appear “respectable” in Camberwell, while brutal in Brixton; a litany of cut throats in nineteenth-century London is followed by a list of female poisoners. Yet, as the same narrator has pointed out, “there has been too much murder in London for a comprehensive listing.”
There are episodes and incidents, however, which remain emblematic, and it is noticeable that certain streets or areas come to identify the crimes. There were “the Turner Street murders” and the “Ratcliffe Highway murders,” for example, the last of which in 1827 prompted de Quincey’s memorable essay on “The Fine Art of Murder.” He begins his account of a series of killings, “the most superb of the century by many degrees,” with an invocation of Ratcliffe Highway itself as “a most chaotic quarter of eastern or nautical London” and an area of “manifold ruffianism.” An entire family had been found murdered in a shop beside the highway, in the most gruesome circumstances; less than three weeks later in New Gravel Lane, very close to that highway, a man called out “They are murdering people in the house!” Seven citizens altogether, including two children and one infant, had been dispatched within eight days. One of the killers, John Williams, committed suicide in his cell within Coldbath Fields Prison at Clerkenwell; his dead body, together with the bloody hammer and chisel which had been the means of his crimes, were paraded past the houses where he had assisted in the murders. He was then buried beneath the crossroads of Back Lane and Cannon Street Road or, as de Quincey puts it, “in the centre of a quadrivium or conflux of four roads, with a stake driven through his heart. And over him drives for ever the uproar of unresting London.” So Williams became part of London; having marked a track through a specific locality, his own name was buried in the urban mythology surrounding “the Ratcliffe Highway murders.” He became instead the city’s sacred victim, to be interred in a formalised and ritualistic manner. Some hundred years later workmen, digging up the territory, found his “mouldering remains”; it is appropriate that his bones were then shared out in the area as relics. His skull, for example, was granted to the owner of a public house still to be seen on the corner of the fatal crossroads.
Other roads and streets can prove to be injurious. Dorset Street was the site of Mary Kelly’s murder in the winter of 1888, at the hands of “Jack”; it reclaimed its original name of Duval Street after this peculiarly savage crime, as a way of preserving anonymity, only to be the site of a fatal shooting in 1960. In both cases no murderer was ever convicted.
There are many accounts of such anonymous killers, wandering through crowds and crowded thoroughfares, concealing a knife or some other fatal instrument. It is a true image of the city. The remarks of the killers have on occasion been recorded. “Damn her! Dip her again and finish her … Yours to a cinder … Get the knives out!” The streets themselves then become the object of fascinated enquiry. We read, for example, in The Murder Guide to London that the “murder victim in Baroness Orczy’s Lady Molly of Scotland Yard, had his office in Lombard Street. In Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone the gem was pledged to a banker in Lombard Street.” An actual police station in Wood Street has been used as an imaginative location by several writers of mysteries, and Edgar Wallace turned All Hallows by the Tower into “St. Agnes on Powder Hill.” In a city where spectacle and theatre become an intimate part of ordinary reality, fact and imagination can be strangely mingled.
A complex of streets can also become haunted by crime, so that Martin Fido, himself an eminent criminologist, writes of “the dense murder area of Islington” located “in the back streets behind Upper Street and the City Road”; in this neighbourhood the sister of Charles Lamb killed her mother in the autumn of 1796, only a few yards from the room where Joe Orton was murdered by his lover in 1967. In the early decades of the twentieth century there were killings known generically as the “North London murders,” although they were in fact separately conducted by Hawley Harvey Crippen and Frederick Seddon.
The list of London murderers is long indeed. Catherine Hayes, proprietress of a tavern called the Gentleman In Trouble, severed her husband’s head in the spring of 1726 and tossed it into the Thames before strewing other parts of the corpse all over London. The head was recovered and placed upon a pole in a city churchyard, where eventually it was recognised. Mrs. Hayes was committed for trial and sentenced to death, earning the further distinction of being one of the last women ever to be burned at Tyburn.
Thomas Henry Hocker, described by an investigating policeman as “a fellow in a long black cloak,” was seen springing from behind some trees in Belsize Lane on a February evening in 1845. Singing to himself, he walked past the scene of the murder he had just committed and, still undiscovered, conversed with the policeman who had found the body. “It is a nasty job,” he said and then took hold of the dead man’s hand. “This site was his own handiwork,” as The Chronicles of Newgate puts it, “yet he could not overcome the strange fascination it had for him, and remained by the side of the corpse until the stretcher came.”
One of the most celebrated of London’s mass murderers was John Reginald Christie, whose house at 10 Rillington Place itself became so notorious that the name of the street was changed. Eventually the house was itself torn down, after harbouring a variety of transient lodgers. Extant photographs reveal a characteristic London location. It was a typical example of a Notting Hill tenement in the early 1950s with tattered curtains, cracked and badly stained plaster, bricks dark with soot. Murder, in such a context, can be concealed.
There is another aspect of London killings to be fathomed in the career of Dennis Nilsen who, while living in Muswell Hill and Cricklewood during the late 1970s and early 1980s, murdered and dismembered many young victims. The details of the lives of these murdered men may no longer seem of much significance except that, in the words of one report, “few of them were missed when they disappeared.” This is the context for many London murders, where the isolation and anonymity of strangers passing through the city leave them peculiarly defenceless to the depredations of an urban killer. One of Nilsen’s victims, for example, was a “down-and-out” whom he had met at the crossroads by the church of St. Giles-in-the-Fields; Nilsen, apparently “horrified by his emaciated condition,” killed him and burned him in the garden of his house in Melrose Avenue. Another victim was a young “skinhead” who had inscribed graffiti upon his own body, among them a dotted line around his neck together with the words, “cut here.” Here in these brutal and brutalising circumstances the darker face of London seems to emerge.
All that was known of Elizabeth Price, condemned to death for theft in 1712, was that she “had follow’d the Business of picking up Rags and Cinders and at other times that of selling Fruit and Oysters, crying Hot Pudding and Grey Pears in the Streets.” We read of “Mary Cut-and-Come-Again” who, when arrested by the watchmen, took out her breasts “and spurted the milk in the fellows’ faces, and said, damn your eyes, What do you want to take my life away?” That spirit of contempt against the forces of law and order is characteristic of London life. It is connected, too, with a buoyant paganism, as in the case of a domestic servant charged with murder who was reported to take “a mighty disgust at Things of Religion.” In similar spirit Ann Mudd, who was convicted of murdering her husband, was equally defiant. “Why, said she, I stabb’d him in the Back with a Knife for Funn.” She spent her last hours singing obscene songs in the condemned cell.
The Whitechapel murders encouraged the earliest use of police photographs recording “the scene of the crime,” while a murder in Cecil Court off St. Martin’s Lane, in 1961, resulted in the first success of the Identikit picture. The device of placing the head of Catherine Hayes’s husband upon a stake, as a means of identification, has had some interesting successors. The essential point remains that crime, and in particular murder, enlivens the urban populace. That is why, in London mythology, the greatest heroes are often the greatest criminals.