Murder in George Yard
Gunthorpe Street is a narrow alleyway stretching from Whitechapel High Street to Wentworth Street which conjures up images of the dark days of the East End slums even today. Once known as George Yard, it was particularly notorious as a den of vice, a reputation sealed with the discovery of the murdered body of 39-year-old Martha Tabram on the landing of George Yard Buildings on 7th August 1888. This was not just another attack on a vulnerable prostitute, for Tabram’s body was peppered with 39 separate stab wounds, inflicted with two different weapons. Many of the vital organs had been punctured and a decisive wound to the breastbone had been done with a large dagger or bayonet.
Martha Tabram was an East End prostitute living in a doss-house in nearby George Street. Her marriage, which produced two children, fell apart in 1875 due to the 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 her life, drink had paid 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, they parted ways at 11.45pm, Connolly going up Angel Alley with the Corporal and Tabram venturing up George Yard with the Private, undoubtedly for sex. At 2.00am, a young police officer, 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 slain body lying in a pool of blood on the first-floor landing of the tenement.
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 Wentworth Street nearby and Francis Hewitt had heard a shout of ‘murder’ coming from outside. Alfred Crow, returning from work at about 3.30am, passed a figure lying on the first-floor landing, but was used to people sleeping rough there and paid no heed. It was probably Martha Tabram.
For Scotland Yard, the murder investigation immediately focused on finding the identity of the soldiers that the two women had been with the previous night, as well as the man seen by PC Barrett. Mary Ann Connolly, after a lot of trouble, was traced and put before a lineup of soldiers who had been off-duty that night. There were two ID parades - in one, Connolly claimed the men weren’t there and in the second, picked out two men with impeccable alibis. PC Barrett also attended a parade, again, picking out men who could account for their movements that fateful night. Effectively, the murder investigation ground to a halt.
The death of Emma Smith the previous April was only a recent memory, and the fact that her attack took place only a few hundred yards from where Martha Tabram’s body was found flagged up a 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 foully and horribly killed almost next to the citizens peacefully sleeping in their beds...”
At this time, the possibility of the two crimes being related was merely speculation and in later years, most commentators would rule out Emma Smith as a victim of Jack the Ripper. Martha Tabram, on the other hand, would go on to be considered the first potential victim of the Whitechapel monster. 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 which would confidently suggest that the Ripper only claimed five true victims, the first being Mary Ann Nichols on 31 August 1888.