Today, Gunthorpe Street is a narrow alleyway which stretches from Whitechapel High Street to Wentworth High Street. Even amongst the hustle and bustle of modern London life, this dingey back alley still conjures up images of the darkest days of the East End slums.
In Victorian London, Gunthorpe Street was known as George Yard. At the time, this street was particularly notorious as a den of vice, and in 1888, its reputation was sealed once and for all with the discovery of a gruesome murder.
The mutilated body of 39-year-old Martha Tabram was discovered laying on the landing of George Yard Buildings on 7th August 1888.
However, this was not just another attack on a vulnerable prostitute, although prostitution was Martha Tabram’s profession. Instead, this was a vicious, unprovoked attack on a defenceless victim. Tabram’s body was peppered with 39 separate stab wounds which had been inflicted by two different weapons. Many of her vital organs had been punctured and a decisive wound to her breastbone had been delivered by a large dagger or bayonet. A murder as brutal as this completely shocked the police and the East End community alike – but little did they know; the worst was yet to come…
Born in 1849, Martha Tabram was an East End prostitute living in a dosshouse in nearby George Street. Her marriage, which produced two children, fell apart in 1875 due to problems associated with her excessive drinking. Since then, she had been earning a living through prostitution and street-hawking, the latter with her new partner, Henry Turner.
On the last night of Martha Tabram’s life, drink played an important part. According to her companion that evening, a notorious prostitute named Mary Ann Connolly (or ‘Pearly Poll’), the pair had been drinking in a number of pubs in the area and had picked up two soldiers, a Private and a Corporal.
After several drinks in several establishments, Martha Tabram and Pearly Poll parted ways at 11.45pm. Connolly went up to Angel Alley with the Corporal, whereas Tabram ventured up to George Yard with the Private, undoubtedly for sex.
At 2am, a young police officer named Thomas Barrett approached a loitering soldier at the top of George Yard. After hearing that the soldier was, “waiting for a chum who went off with a girl,” Barrett moved him on. Several hours later, at 4.45am, John Reeves, a resident of George Yard Buildings, found Tabram’s mutilated body lying in a pool of blood on the first-floor landing of the tenement.
It was clear that this fateful night had not been a peaceful one. A number of residents of the building spoke of an unsettled evening. Reeves and his wife had been awoken in the night by several disturbances in nearby Wentworth Street. Similarly, Francis Hewitt had heard a shout of ‘murder’ coming from the street outside.
Returning from work at about 3.30am, Alfred Crow passed a figure lying on the first-floor landing. However, he was used to seeing people sleeping rough in the tenement’s stairwell and he paid no heed. The figure was probably Martha Tabram’s body.
For Scotland Yard, the murder investigation immediately focused on finding the identity of the soldiers that the two women had been seen with on the night of the murder, as well as identifying the man who was seen by PC Barrett.
After a lot of trouble, Mary Ann Connolly was traced and put before a line-up of soldiers who had been off duty on the night of the 7th August. Two ID parades took place. In one, Connolly claimed that the soldiers were not present. In the second, she picked out two men who had impeccable alibis. PC Barrett also attended an ID parade. Again, he picked out men who could account for their movements on that fateful night. No conclusive findings arose from the ID parades, and effectively, the murder investigation ground to a halt.
On the streets of the East End, the death of Emma Smith the previous April was still a very recent memory. Similarly, the fact that her attack took place only a few hundred yards from where Martha Tabram’s body was found flagged up a frightening possibility that the two were connected.
The press noted the increased savagery of the murder, adding that, “the circumstances of this awful tragedy are not only surrounded with the deepest mystery, but there is also a feeling of insecurity to think that in a great city like London, the streets of which are continually patrolled by police, a woman could be so vilely and horribly killed - almost next to the citizens peacefully sleeping in their beds...”
At the time, though, the possibility of the two crimes being related was merely speculation. In later years, most commentators would rule out Emma Smith as a victim of Jack the Ripper. On the other hand, Martha Tabram would go on to be considered the first potential victim of the Whitechapel murderer for many years.
This was a school of thought that would carry on almost unopposed until the mid-20th century with the discovery of a document penned by Melville Macnaghten in 1894. In the document, he would confidently suggest that Jack the Ripper only claimed five true victims – the first being Mary Ann Nichols on the night of 31st August 1888.
Was Martha Tabram Jack the Ripper’s first victim? To this day, this remains a hotly contested question amongst Ripperologists and armchair detectives alike.