by Gerard Spicer
While Jack the Ripper's knife tore the social fabric of Victorian London to shreds another murder series played out, seemingly unnoticed, in the background. Dubbed the "Thames Mysteries" or "Embankment Murders," this series was overshadowed by the hysteria surrounding the Ripper's Whitechapel crimes. Although the Thames murders covered a longer time period and were more gruesome compared to the Ripper's work, they have inevitable become only a footnote in the chronicles of criminal history.
Evidence that a killer's was at work first showed up in May of 1887, in the Thames River Valley village of Rainham, when workers pulled from the river a bundle containing the torso of a female. Throughout May and June, numerous parts from the same body showed up in various parts of London -until a complete body, minus head and upper chest, was reconstructed.
Medical men, including Police Surgeon Dr. Thomas Bond, gave their opinion that a degree of medical knowledge was evident, however, in their view, the body was no dissected for medical purposes. The doctors could not give a cause of death or show that a violent act had taken place, so the jury had no choice but to returned a verdict of "Found Dead."
The second victim of the Thames series was discovered in September of 1888, in the middle of the hunt for the Whitechapel Murder. On September 11, an arm belonging to a female was discovered in the Thames off Pimlico. On September 28, another arm was found along the Lambeth-road and on October 2, the torso of a female, minus the head, was discovered. The torso was discovered on the grounds of the construction site for the New Scotland Yard building and was dubbed by the press the "Whitehall Mystery." Scotland Yard had a murder mystery to solve even before their new building was complete.
The medical men involved, along with Dr. Bond, agreed that a degree of medical knowledge had been used, but they could give no evidence pointing to the method of death. Dr. Charles Hibbert, who examined one of the arms, stated that, "I thought the arm was cut off by a person who, while he was not necessarily an anatomist, certainly knew what he was doing-who knew where the joints were and cut them pretty regularly." At the inquest, the jury, despite the fact that an obvious murder had taken place, returned a verdict of "Found Dead."
Eighteen eighty-eight is considered the "Year of the Ripper" in the chronological accounts of the history of London. Within his ten-week reign, the Ripper had managed to shake Victorian London to its core. Yet, by the end of the year, interest in Jack the Ripper began to dwindle rapidly. By June of 1889, almost seven months had passed without a Ripper type murder, and hopes were being entertained that his bloody wrath was over. The same could not be said for the Thames series, which was about to begin again.
On June 4, part of a female torso was fished out of the Thames at Horselydown, while at about the same time; a left leg to the body was plucked from under the Albert-bridge, Chelsea. Within the next week, numerous other parts of the same body were recovered in or near the Thames.
The London Times on June 11, reported that the remains found so far "are as follows: Tuesday, left leg and thigh off Battersea, lower part of the abdomen at Horselydown; Thursday, the liver near Nine Elms, upper part of the body in Battersea-Park, neck and shoulders off Battersea; Friday, right foot and part of leg at Wandsworth, left leg and foot at Limehouse; Saturday, left arm and hand at Bankside, buttocks and pelvis off Battersea, right thigh at Chelsea Embankment, yesterday, right arm and hand at Bankside."
It is an interesting fact that one of the body parts had been purposely thrown over the private railing to the Shelley Estate. It is ironic that Mary Shelley had earlier written a novel entitled Frankenstein, about a monster pieced together by various body parts.
The medical men who examined the pieces agree that some degree of medical skill was involved. At the inquest on June 17, it was stated that, "the division of the parts showed skill and design: not, however, the anatomical skill of a surgeon, but the practical knowledge of a butcher or a knacker. There was a great similarity between the condition, as regarded cutting up, of the remains and that of those found at Rainham, and at the new police building on the Thames Embankment." The London Times of June 5, reported that "in the opinion of the doctors the women had been dead only 48 hours, and the body had been dissected somewhat roughly by a person who must have had some knowledge of the joints of the human body."
Once again, the doctors were unable to provide a means of death. However, this time, the jury was confident in reaching a decision of "Wilful murder against some person or persons unknown." As in the other similar cases, the head of the victim was never found, however, the identity of the victim was clearly established. The body was identified as that of Elizabeth Jackson, a suspected prostitute, from Chelsea. This lead was of little use, as the murder was to remain, as the others, unsolved.
In July, Whitechapel was awakened to the possibility of another Jack the Ripper crime. A known prostitute, Alice McKenzie, was found murdered in the heart of the district. While police and citizens were entertaining the theory that Jack was back in business, the torso killer would strike again, and this time in the Ripper's backyard.
On September 10, Police Constable William Pennett was walking his beat along Pinchin Street, Whitechapel, when he discovered the torso of a female under a railway arch. As in the McKenzie case, this murder created a flurry of police activity in the district. Within minutes of finding the body, the Commissioner and Assistant Commissioner of Police, as well as numerous detectives who had been engaged on the Ripper investigation, were on their way to the crime scene. Officially, the police were to place this murder in the same category as the rest, unsolved and of the Thames type.
An account of the Thames Embankment Murders could not be complete without a reference to other similar crimes:
Thames Mysteries of 1873 and 1874
On September 5, 1873, a Thames Police patrol near Battersea, picked out of the water the left quarter of a women's trunk. Soon after, other discovers were made including: a right breast at Nine Elms, the head at Limehouse, left forearm at Battersea, pelvis at Woolwich, and so on, until an almost complete body was found. As in the Rainham case of 1887, there was an almost daily report in the press, during the month, of body parts being found.
On the advice of the Acting Chief Surgeon, Metropolitan Police, Dr. Bond, the corpse was "built up" by sewing together the parts. The face was more of a challenge, as the nose and chin had been cut off, and the head had been scalped. The skin on the face of the victim was fitted "as naturally as possible" over a butcher's block. Even though this early attempt at forensic reconstruction was carried out with "ingenuity and skill," the body would only be recognizable by those "intimately acquainted with the physical characteristics of the deceased."
Naturally, the police had to turn away many people who had a "morbid curiosity" to view the body. This included "dealers in horrors" who were trying to obtain a sketch of the remains. Anyone the police believed had reason to see the remains were first shown a photograph.
Commenting on the injuries, the Lancet reported that, "Contrary to the popular opinion, the body had not been hacked, but dexterously cut up; the joints have been opened, and the bones neatly disarticulated, even the complicated joints at the ankle and the elbow, and it is only at the articulations of the hip-joint and shoulder that the bones have been sawn through."
A verdict of "Wilful murder against some person or persons unknown" was reached by the jury. The government offered a reward of 200 pounds, and a free pardon to any accomplice who could lead them to the actually murderer. No one came forward, no arrests were made, and the case remained unsolved.
In June, of 1874, the dismembered body of a female was pulled from the Thames at Putney. The News of the World for June 14 reported that the headless and limbless (except one leg) torso was conveyed to Fulham Union Workhouse. Dr. E.C. Barnes, surgeon, stated that the body had been divided at the spinal column, and had been decomposed in lime before being dumped into the Thames. Despite what appeared to be an obvious murder, the jury returned an open verdict. Like the similar crime the previous year, no further evidence was presented, and both crimes become lost to history.
Tottenham Court Road Mystery of 1884
On October 24, 1884, the Times reported that, "Yesterday considerable excitement was caused in the neighbourhood of Tottenham-court-road by the discovery of human remains, supposed to be those of a woman, under circumstances suggesting foul play." A skull with flesh still adhering to it, as well as a large piece of flesh from the thighbone, were discovered. Around the same time, a parcel containing a human arm was found in Bedford-square. The arm, which had been thrown over the railing, contained a possible clue to the victim's identity-a tattoo, which more then likely, meant the woman had been a prostitute.
Five days later, a police constable was passing Number 33 Fitzroy square, when he noticed a large brown paper parcel. Upon investigating, he found it contained a portion of a human torso. The murderer, it would seem, was one who was exceedingly daring or lucking in depositing the remains. According to the Pall Mall Gazette, "the side walk in front of the house is constantly patrolled by police…it is believed that the parcel was deposited between ten o'clock and ten fifteen, when the police relief takes place." The building that the remains were placed in front was also a military drill-hall and armoury.
The inquest began on November 11 and was held at St. Giles Coroner's Court. Evidence was presented from those who were unfortunate enough to find the body parts. The Times reported that medical evidence supported the conclusion that the parts came from the same female and had been "divided by someone skilled, but certainly not for the purpose of anatomy."
The inquest was adjourned for several weeks in the hope that new information would come forward. On the resumed date of December 9, evidence was given concerning a parcel found in the "Mornington-crescent inclosure" consisting of bones of the right arm, right and left foot, and right forearm of an individual. Dr. Jenkins, Divisional Surgeon, S Division, concluded that the bones were "those of a women, and had been skillfully dissected." The parts, which were from a total different female then those found at Tottenham Court, were stored at St. Pancras Mortuary for a short period and then buried. These two mysteries, as with the others, were to remain unsolved.
The River Thames
The criminal history of London has recorded numerous dismemberment murders; however, at no time have the crimes been as frequent as in the years surrounding the Thames Embankment Murders. The torso mysteries of 1873 and 1874 were very similar to the Embankment Murders.
Is it possible that one man was responsible for both series? Could a man, perhaps a young medical student, have been imprisoned on unrelated charges or locked in a mental institution in the mid 1870s only to have been later released-to continue on with his killing spree? A good example is John Crawford Martin, who was sentenced in 1981 to ten years in prison on a murder charge. Upon his later release, he proceeded to kill and dismember the bodies of three females in Saskatoon, Canada.
The river Thames has long been the end of the road for suicidal lunatics, victims of crime, and those involved in unfortunate accidents. Parliamentary returns for 1882 record that 544 corpses were found in the Thames, of which 277 cases resulted in open verdicts.
The London Times, ran an article on June 15 of that year entitled "Undetected Murders," pointing out that "the facilities afforded by the river for the perpetration of secret murders" was one that need to be addressed. "It is not a pleasant thing to reflect that there may be many ruffians prowling about London who have already committed riverside outrages with impunity, and may be tempted to commit others owing to the general laxity that prevails in our arrangement for ascertaining the causes of suspicious deaths."
A body recovered from the Thames was treated differently then one found on land. The actions of the river on a body made the medical experts job difficult. Factors involving decomposition, amount of time in the water, injuries to the body by boats, made the job of discerning murder from suicide or accident, a formidable task.
Unfortunately, in the case of the Thames Mysteries, the river may never give up its secrets.