|A Journal of the Whitechapel Society Article|
|This article originally appeared in The Journal of the Whitechapel Society. For more information, view our Journal of the Whitechapel Society page. Our thanks to the Whitechapel Society for permission to reprint this article.|
The murder of Martha Tabram remains a dark shadow over our investigation of the Ripper murders. No matter how steadfast we are in our respective opinions as to whether Tabram was or was not a Ripper victim, a measure of doubt must always remain. A re-examination of the evidence in this often overlooked case is therefore in order and should be undertaken piece by piece. Here we will briefly reconsider the evidence of two of the crime's most curious witnesses, Mr. Francis Hewitt, superintendent of George Yard Buildings, and his wife.
By his own measurements, the room occupied by Mr. Hewitt and his wife rested exactly 12 feet (1) from the spot where Tabram was murdered. Yet, he and his wife claimed to have heard nothing, "no voices nor sounds of struggle", a claim taken for granted by many researchers who feel her killer's stealthy dispatch of his victims only strengthens the argument for Tabram's inclusion in the 'Ripper canon'.(2) While it's all too easy for a writer at this distance to dismiss evidence by casually proclaiming a witness a liar, there is good reason to question just how honest the Hewitts were in their statement to police. After all, it would certainly not behove the superintendent of a building where a brutal murder occurred to admit he heard a woman being attacked and made no move on her behalf. Not only would he lose his post, he'd be branded a coward. The press reported that "the police authorities regard as little short of marvellous the fact that no dweller in this model block heard any disturbance".(3) As such, the police must have viewed Mr. Hewitt's claim of ignorance as suspicious and it may be worth noting that he was not called as a witness at the inquest.
Before we consider the contradictory statements made by the Hewitts to the press, we should first put the facts into perspective. To accept what the Hewitts told the police as truth "that they heard not a sound at the time of the murder" we must accept that at a distance of only twelve feet (comparable to the length of Mary Kelly's tiny room) and separated only by a door, they were unable to hear Tabram and her killer approach, likely speaking to one another. We must also accept that there was absolutely no struggle, no flurry of feet against pavement, and that the killer was able to quietly lower Tabram's not insubstantial body to the ground and then repeatedly stab her 39 times without making any sounds of exertion himself. I should note that I'm not attempting to condemn the Hewitts as 'bad people', per se, but as people who chose to 'hear no evil', likely thinking that a domestic dispute and not a murder was occurring outside their door. When faced with the gruesome truth, they chose to protect themselves and say nothing at all. As unbelievable as their story was, it would be impossible to prove otherwise, and their word has been taken for granted all these years. When good people do bad things, they feel guilty and seek ways to excuse their actions, often exposing themselves in the process. I believe such behaviour to be clearly represented by the Hewitts in their statements to the press.
In the weeks following the murder, various newspapers carried the following statement:
"Mrs. Hewitt remarked that early in the evening she had heard a single cry of 'Murder!' It echoed through the building, but did not emanate from there. 'But,' explained Mr. Hewitt and Mrs. Hewitt in a breath, 'the district round here is rather rough, and cries of 'Murder!' are of frequent, if not nightly, occurrence in the district."(4)
There are two features about this statement that should be viewed as curious: the most apparent being the observation that Mrs. Hewitt could hear voices from the street clearly enough to make out the words but failed to hear a murder take place right outside her door. Lastly, if they did indeed bear audible witness to Tabram's final moments, their joint statement as to the poor character of the neighbourhood and regularity of such cries as 'Murder!' could be seen as an excuse as to why they didn't investigate.
Most revealing of all is Mr. Hewitt's 'theory' of what occurred on the landing outside his door. On August 8th, the day following the murder, Francis Hewitt offered the following to the press:
"It is my belief that the poor creature crept up the staircase, that she was accompanied by a man, that a quarrel took place, and that he then stabbed her"(5)
While this is certainly a reasonable deduction in itself, it's nothing short of remarkable to see it emanating from the man who was only two body lengths away and yet heard nothing. A person in Mr. Hewitt's circumstances who legitimately remained ignorant while a brutal murder occurred nearby would search his mind for an explanation for the silence, likely concluding that the murder had taken place elsewhere, or at least that Tabram was carried unconscious to the site and there soundlessly stabbed. But that is not what we find with Hewitt. To in one breath state that not a sound was made and then to suggest that a 'quarrel took place' is a blatant contradiction. The logical explanation for the contradictions found in the public statements of both Hewitts is that they were lying about not having heard the murder. And if we accept that they were lying, we must of necessity accept that Mr. Hewitt's 'theory' of how the murder took place was in fact more than a theory.
It was a true witness account of the murder of Martha Tabram.
1, The Echo, August 13th, 1888.
2, The most recent and notable of examples being the extensive essay published in Ripper Notes #25 by Wolf Vanderlinden, entitled The Murder of Martha Tabram: No Ordinary East End Crime. It was while reading this essay that I first became truly suspicious of Hewitt's statement.
3, The Echo, August 13th, 1888.
5, Morning Advertiser, August 8th, 1888.
NOTE: All press reports source here were courtesy of the Casebook Press Project at www.casebook.org