A CAST OF THOUSANDS
BY CHRISTOPHER SCOTT
We have already met various characters who seemed to enjoy lurking around on the periphery of the Whitechapel case (see Albert Backert and the comments on Donston in the section on Anne Deary.) Another man who certainly seems to have got caught up in the mood of the time was Matthew Packer. Packer ran a fruit and sweet shop at 44 Berner Street, just a few doors away from the yard of 40 Berner Street, where Elizabeth Stride was found murdered in the early hours of the morning of 30th September 1888. The story that Packer in instalments to the police, private detectives and the press changed with the wind and finally he lost all credibility and was not called to give evidence at the inquest on Stride.
In the immediate aftermath of the murder, Packer was interviewed and claimed to have seen nothing, claiming that he closed his shop at 12.30 a.m. (Stride's body was found at or just after 1 a.m.) However, four days later a press report appeared in which it was stated that Packer, interviewed by private detectives, had related a story in which a man and a woman wearing a flower had come to his shop at 11.45 p.m. and had sold black grapes to the man.
Packer identified the body of Stride as the woman he had seen with the man he served but told Inspector Moore that he had sold the grapes at midnight. On the afternoon of 4th October Packer was taken to Scotland Yard and was interviewed personally by Charles Warren. In this meeting Packer told Warren that he had served the man at 11 p.m. Warren's account of this interview still survives. Near the end of October, Packer was again in the press, this time claiming he had seen Stride's companion in the Commercial Road. Finally, in November he claimed to have served a man who said was the Ripper's cousin!
Packer's grapes have become an icon of the Ripper story and feature significantly in the 1988 Lorimar version of the story and the film "From Hell." In the latter version of events, these grapes become the means whereby Gull entices the victims into his coach on the basis that no one in the East End would have been able to afford them! If that were the case, it makes one wonder why Packer would have bother selling them.
Back to reality. Packer was born in Whitechapel in 1831 and in September 1867 he married Rose Ann Wallis in Bethnal Green. Four years later he is listed as a fishmonger in the 1871 census:
1 Princess Street, Whitechapel, London
Matthew Packer aged 40 born Whitechapel, London - Fishmonger
Roseann Packer aged 41 born Maidstone, Kent.
By 1881 the couple had moved to Fairclough Street, which intersected with Berner Street about half way down its length. Packer is now described as a costermonger and his stepmother had moved in with the couple:
25 Fairclough Street, London
Matthew Packer aged 50 born London - Costermonger
Rose Packer aged 49 born Maidstone, Kent
Sarah Packer aged 54 born London - Formerly a toy maker
Only Packer and his wife are listed in 1891. Their address is given as in the Whitechapel evidence and he and his wife remain at this address for the period of the remaining available evidence:
44 Berner Street, London
Matthew Packer aged 60 born London - General dealer
Rose Ann Packer aged 59 born Maidstone, Kent
The only new information in the 1901 census is that Packer was actually born in Goulston Street, Whitechapel. This was the site of the famous "Goulston Street Graffito" which was found shortly after the Eddowes murder in Mitre Square and remains one of the most controversial and discussed features of the Whitechapel case:
44 Berner Street, London
Mathew (sic) Packer aged 74 born Goulston St. Whitechapel - Fruit and Sweet Shop
Rose Anna Packer aged 73 born Maidstone, Kent.
It is impossible to say how much of Packer's various accounts are due to faulty recollection and how much to deliberate fabrication. However, it is surely easy to see why he was described by the police as a man who was "unreliable and contradicted himself." It is surely significant that in his first statement, taken within a short time of the murder, Packer claimed to have seen nothing. He was most likely a man who liked the attention, which his later statements gave him, and courted the press for nearly two months after the Stride murder.