Charles Reeves was a Jewish actor and founding member of the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee. He was almost certainly the "Mr. Reeves" mentioned in several newspaper reports as having been the first to examine the "From Hell" kidney at George Lusk's residence on October 17th, 1888. His eldest daughter Ada became a famous actress on stage and screen, and the primary source of income for the Reeves family even while she was still just a child performer.
A great deal of biographical material concerning Charles Reeves is available in his daughter Ada's 1954 autobiography, Take It For a Fact. Most of the excerpts included below are from that source.
Charles Reeves was actually born with the name "Samuel Isaacs" in Norwich. When he was sixteen he adopted the stage-name "Charles Reeves" and used it as his proper name the rest of his life. According to his daughter Ada "he chose the name of Reeves because of his mother's friendship with Sims Reeves, the great tenor of those days."
A few lines of physical description survive from Ada Reeve's 1954 autobiography:
"Young as he was, my father quickly became 'general utility' man in the company, playing any kind of part from juvenile leads to old men. He must have been very handsome in his youth-he still was when I first remember him, with black wavy hair and the most beautiful blue eyes I have ever seen on either man or woman… real violet-blue they were. He was not in any way Hebraic in appearance, in fact very few people thought of our family as Jewish. We were very unorthodox…"
Reeves was married to Harriett Saunders, described by her daughter Ada as "so tiny that she could almost stand under my arm." Together, Charles and Harriett had more than sixteen children, though only twelve survived to maturity. Ada described her parents and siblings as "a musical family."
In the mid 1870s they were living in Jubilee Street, Mile End. They moved briefly to Thomas Street, across from the Whitechapel Road, in the latter part of the decade. Ada described this period in her autobiography:
"[M]y mother opened a small dress-shop; then, when it was scheduled for demolition to make room for the new District Railway, we moved back to Jubilee Street... We lived for some years here, at the end nearest the High Street, where mother reopened her shop. I can still picture the dresses, blouses and coats swinging on a long rail through which a chain was run, to discourage any sudden 'snatch' by sneak-thieves."
The district railway intersected with Thomas Street on the south side of Buck's Row, indicating that their short-lived residency there was most likely just west of the Buck's Row Board School. The north end of Jubilee Street, where they moved immediately after, was about 3/4 of a kilometer east of this location, down the Whitechapel Road.
All of Charles' daughters appeared on stage at some time in their lives, though none of his sons decided to follow in their father's footsteps.
Ada, his eldest daughter, attended school starting at the age of three, at the "penny a week" board school in Bucks Row, Whitechapel. This would have been roughly from 1877 through 1883. The board school was just yards away from the spot where Polly Nichols' body would be discovered in August 1888.
Ada writes more of her father in her autobiography:
"He had... a good singing voice, and was an actor of considerable experience, having appeared in prominent parts in stock companies; in which capacity he had supported many visiting stars of the period.
Judged by money standards, however, my father could hardly be called successful; for in those days an actor of his caliber would get two pounds a week when he was lucky enough to be in work, and of course nothing at all when he wasn't. From the time that I begin to remember him, he was often ill for weeks on end, and then my own earnings were the sole support of the family.
My dear old dad, however, was a first-rate teacher. He would take me into the Whitechapel Pavilion or the Britannia, Hoxton, when the stage was not in use, go up to the back of the gallery and make recite to him."
Charles may have been a teetotaler, as he once reproached Ada for having drunk brandy on a cold day. "I want you to give me your word that you will never drink brandy unless you are ill," he said. "It is a most insidious drink, and I would rather see you in your grave than know you had become a brandy-tippler."
In 1880, when Ada was six years old, Charles brought her to the attention of Fred Wright, who agreed to take her on board his dramatic company in return for £1 per week. It was, Ada wrote, "a much-needed addition to the family exchequer."
Charles took Ada on a "busking expedition" to the Isle of Wight in the summer of 1885. Ada described it as a "slack" season when "things were very bad at home," but no specific details exist on what particular crisis or crises had befallen the family. Ada didn't enjoy the experience, and when her singing became too soft her father would remind her to "… [s]ing louder, dear-remember mother and the kiddies at home."
Apart from busking in the summers, Charles would also earn additional funds by showing off his daughter's talents at the Sussex Conservative Club:
"Dad dearly loved to show off my wonderful memory and quick study, and many an odd pound he would pick up at the club by betting members that I would read a poem or a piece of prose one evening and repeat it to them by heart the next."
Charles would occasionally write songs and monologues for Ada to perform, but as she would later recall, "he was not a literary genius and I think he knew it; it was just a job of work and he was doing it as well as he could." One example of his writing-Ada described it as one of his "brighter efforts"-was a song about a jockey named Fred Archer:
"The hero of the racing world
Has left a gap behind:
We look in vain his worth to meet,
His betters we can't find.
He needs no monumental stone,
On sporting hearts you'll trace,
In letters bold, 'Fred Archer,
Who never sold a race'."
On September 10th, 1888, just two days after the murder of Annie Chapman, Charles became one of the sixteen founding members of what would come to be known as the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee. Their first order of business was to release the following notice:
"Finding that in spite of murders being committed in our midst, our police force is still inadequate to discover the author or authors of the late atrocities, we, the undersigned have formed ourselves into a committee, and intend offering a substantial reward to any one, citizen or otherwise, who shall give such information as will bring the murderer or murderers to justice."
Doubtless it was around this time that Charles composed a song for Ada (now aged 14) entitled "The Golden Ladder," which made reference to the police failure to capture Jack the Ripper:
"Night's curtain scarce is drawn,
Yet in the early morn
The cry goes forth which causes hearts to shudder:
'This whispered first by few,
God help us, is it true?
And then the people only look and wonder.
In spite of fear or awe,
Here at our very door,
As if to mock the very cry of terror,
Before one victim's low,
Another's blood doth flow,
The nation stands aghast with pallid horror.
With shame our country rings,
And each one feels the stings:
Our Force their duty do with no hearts gladder.
But if work they would have done,
Place two where they place one,
And that's the way to mount the Golden Ladder."
In her memoirs Ada remembered her father's days on the Vigilance Committee, and "how nervous mother used to be when he was out night after night, with only a stick and a whistle as protection."
Newspaper reports mention Reeves as have been present at Committee meetings on Monday, 17 September. Two days later, on 19 September, Reeves took the floor at another meeting to discuss his thoughts on the offer of rewards:
"...looking at the way in which the murderer had committed the deed, the time he was about it, and consequently the awful state in which his clothes must have been, [Reeves] felt positively certain that some one besides the murderer knew of the fact; and a heavy reward would, he thought, be the only inducement for that person to speak out." (Evening News, 20 September 1888)
At a committee meeting on the evening of 2 October, a suggestion was made that some private detectives were interested in assisting their efforts. In response, Charles Reeves and Joseph Aarons announced that "they had already three detectives at work, and a band of twenty young gentlemen had gathered for the purpose of patrolling one section of the haunted district, with the view of assisting the police in bringing the offender to justice."
When the infamous "From Hell" letter and kidney was received by George Lusk, Reeves was one of the first to visit Lusk's residence to examine it. The next day, October 18th, Charles accompanied Lusk and several other members of the Committee to have the kidney examined by F. S. Reed, assistant to Dr. Wiles. Wiles' surgery practice was next-door to the Crown Tavern, where the Committee meetings were held, at 56 Mile End Road. (This was less than 100 meters north and a bit east of the Reeves residence at Jubilee Street.)
It has been suggested by at least one modern scholar of the case that the "From Hell" letter may actually have been hoaxed by members of the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee as a publicity stunt, and that Charles Reeves may have been the one behind it. The fact that it was written in an apparent "stage-Irish" is used to suggest a connection with Reeves, who as an actor would presumably have some familiarity with accents. It is also theorized that the Emily Marsh incident - in which she was asked by a man with an "Irish accent" for George Lusk's address - may have been staged by Charles Reeves, again, using his talents as an actor. The Marsh family business was at 218 Jubilee Street, Mile End Road, presumably very close to the Reeves residence. This is all just speculation, however, and no evidence exists to suggest that Charles played any nefarious roles whilst a member of the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee.
By the 1890s, Charles was supporting his family almost entirely from the proceeds of Ada's stage appearances. Father and daughter traveled together widely, even to New York at one point, and Charles eventually invested his money in the Crown Hotel public-house in Grove Road, near Victoria Park, "which [made] him independent of the vicissitudes of the stage."
Charles died on November 22nd, 1906.