True Crime Victorian Style

Looking deceptively innocent today, in Victorian times the Thames was a cesspool of crime and death

It’s only forty-one days to Halloween, so it’s time to introduce a little eeriness to my blog 😉

True crime is extremely popular these days, with plenty of reality shows to watch on television, as well as fictional series that have capitalized on the trend – e.g. Only Murders in the Building, one of my favourites (Martin Short is fantastic in it), and Based on a True Story, starring Kaley Cuoco (haven’t seen it yet). Our modern world has plenty of crime to choose from, especially in the 2000s with instantaneous news transmissions via numerous media outlets online.

But Victorian England beat us by over 100 years, with just gossip and a few highly-sensationalized news publications to inform you of what was going on. When extreme crimes hit the news, they terrified local citizens.

At the beginning of the 19th century in England, the government imposed hefty taxes on newspaper publishers to try to keep them from giving the government bad press. This meant that the cover price of papers rose, to the point where they often cost more than the daily wage of the average working-class person. To combat this, pubs and coffee houses opened “reading rooms”, where patrons could hear the news read aloud for them.

Unfortunately (in a dismaying parallel to modern social media), journalists then began to embellish news items to increase the chances of having them read aloud, and this type of news ‘reporting’ certainly got attention.

Later in the century the government taxes were decreased and many more publications sprang up. By 1885 there were six morning papers and five evening papers just in London, with many more through the rest of the country, and they all still kept whipping the reading public into a frenzy.

Londoners at the time were given the impression that their city was rife with violent crime, even though that was rare (most police work dealt with petty crimes, such as theft and pickpocketing). Cases of gruesome crimes – and especially when more than one hit the news in the same time period – created widespread hysteria in the city.

Such was the case with the so-called Thames Torso Murders, also called the Embankment Murders, which confounded the police in the 1870s and 80s.

Thames Division of the London Metropolitan Police Force on duty near Tower Bridge in the 1800s. Source:

In May of 1887, workers in the Thames River Valley village of Rainham pulled a bundle up from the river that contained a female torso. During the next few weeks, more parts from the same body were found in various parts of London, until the entire victim was able to be reconstructed, except for the head and upper chest. The poor woman’s identity was never discovered, and the killer wasn’t found.

In a situation that seems completely bizarre now, London doctors decided that the body wasn’t dissected for medical purposes, but they also weren’t able to provide a cause of death or even prove that a violent act had taken place, so the jury gave a verdict of “Found Dead.” The best that the medical community came up with was that whoever cut up the body had a certain amount of medical knowledge.

We take a lot for granted with modern forensics. Charles A. Hebbert, an assistant police surgeon at the time, cited in his case report the difficulties involved in investigating victims found in the water. Length of time immersed, and possible injuries from passing boats, made it hard to decide whether there’d been an accident or foul play. Dismemberment and scattering created additional problems, destroying many of the clues modern police would rely on today, like any information from wherever the crime had been committed, how the bodies had been transported, and anything else that might have been washed away. Doctors had trouble identifying the age of the victim, what condition they’d been in while alive, their height, and sometimes even their gender. 

Complicating things, the Thames had long been a depository for dead bodies. City records from 1882 showed that 544 corpses were found in the river, of which 277 cases were unresolved. The London Times ran an article on June 15, 1882 stating that “the facilities afforded by the river for the perpetration of secret murders was one that need to be addressed” and complaining about “the general laxity that prevails in our arrangement for ascertaining the causes of suspicious deaths”.

To the police, the 1887 crime seemed similar to that of another dismembered torso found in the Thames fourteen years before, when a policeman rowing on the Thames found the left quarter of a woman’s torso in some mud off Battersea waterworks. Later that day other policemen found the right side of a woman’s torso by Brunswick Wharf, and portions of lungs in other locations in Battersea. The following day, gruesomely, a woman’s face with scalp attached was found, then a right thigh and shoulder with part of an arm. The local police surgeon reassembled the sections in a workhouse and said that a blow to the head was likely the cause of death.

Reports of the discovery prompted numerous people to visit the corpse to see if they could identify her. There were a lot of missing women in London at the time, which had a population of over 6 million people in a crowded, labyrinthine, soot-fogged and crime-filled city. 

In 1873, rumours had spread that the crime was a joke by some medical students, since the body was so dexterously dismembered. A reward of £200 was offered for information, but nothing came of it, and there was never even a criminal profile of the perpetrator worked up. It was thought likely that the victim was one of thousands of London’s prostitutes, who weren’t high on the list of crimes to be solved. The body was buried at Battersea cemetery, although the victim’s face was preserved at the workhouse by its medical officer.

However, in September, 1888, another dismembered female body was found, with pieces distributed in the Thames and various other London locales, followed by yet another the following June.

It was enough for the police to conclude that a serial killer was at work. Then, in April 1888, Jack the Ripper’s killing spree began. Initially, it was suggested that the torsos were the work of the Ripper, but the methods were too different: while  “Jack” gruesomely mutilated his victims, the Thames killer surgically dismembered his. Interestingly, there was speculation that the Ripper also had some medical knowledge.

The vast numbers of poor people in London were easy pickings for these murderers. Author George W. M. Reynolds wrote an indictment of the miseries of London’s worst-off in 1844:

“The most unbounded wealth is the neighbor of the most hideous poverty…the crumbs which fall from the tables of the rich would appear delicious viands to starving millions, and yet these millions obtain them not! In that city there are in all five prominent buildings: the church, in which the pious pray; the gin-palace, to which the wretched poor resort to drown their sorrows; the pawn-broker’s, where miserable creatures pledge their raiment, and their children’s raiment, even unto the last rag, to obtain the means of purchasing food, and – alas! too often – intoxicating drink; the prison, where the victims of a vitiated condition of society expiate the crimes to which they have been drive by starvation and despair; and the workhouse, to which the destitute, the aged, and the friendless hasten to lay down their aching heads – and die!”

Charles Booth, a British ship owner and social reformer, published a map of London’s financial strata that gives a sad image of how the majority of people lived amidst slums and crime compared to the narrow window of those well-fed and clothed.

Part of Charles Booth’s poverty map showing the Old Nichol, a slum in the East End of London. Published 1889 in Life and Labour of the People in London. The red areas are “middle class, well-to-do”, light blue areas are “poor, 18s to 21s a week for a moderate family”, dark blue areas are “very poor, casual, chronic want”, and black areas are the “lowest class…occasional labourers, street sellers, loafers, criminals and semi-criminals”.
By Charles Booth – (cropped). Original: Charles Booth's Labour and Life of the People. Volume 1: East London (London: Macmillan, 1889)., Public Domain,

On June 4, 1889, a female torso was found in the Thames, followed by more body parts in the water the next week. By this point the Ripper killings appeared to have stopped. An investigation once again concluded that the perpetrator must have had medical knowledge, although at the inquest it was stated: “the division of the parts showed skill and design: not, however, the anatomical skill of a surgeon, but the practical knowledge of a butcher or a knacker”. The woman appeared to have been dead only 48 hours. She was around eight months pregnant. An official cause of death was never established, but at least the jury concluded that it was “Wilful murder against some person or persons unknown”. Like preceding victims, the head was never found, but somehow the woman was identified as Elizabeth Jackson, a homeless prostitute from Chelsea.

On September 10, 1889, a police constable found the heavily beaten headless and legless torso of an unidentified woman under a railway arch at Pinchin Street, in Whitechapel. The killing seemed to contain elements of both the Ripper and Thames killings, as the abdomen had been severely mutilated. Police decided that the murder was committed elsewhere and then the dismembered parts disposed of around the city, but no other sections were ever found. Again, the identity of neither victim or killer were ever discovered.

By 1890 the Torso murders seemed to have wound down, although In June of 1902 a woman’s torso was found in an alley in Lambeth. It was never identified.

There have been suggestions that there were actually three killers operating in London during these murders. It was possible that more women had fallen victim but were never discovered amid all the human and animal remains floating around in the Thames (a revolting thought). More modern analysis of the Torso murders points out the organization of the killings, systematically dismembering the victims and then dropping the parts around London like puzzle pieces for the authorities. There didn’t seem to be any taunting messages to the police, though, as you might expect in that situation.

All the victims over a roughly 29-year span were similar – vulnerable working-class women – and the bodies violently desecrated. The methods of all two or three killers indicated some amount of anatomical knowledge and perhaps a certain degree of skill. None of the killers were found, and if there was a third one, he remained completely in the shadows.

The Torso Murders became buried under the highly publicized Ripper Murders – as if, by removing his victims’ identities, the Torso killer (or killers) eliminated them from public consciousness, and perhaps that was an even more insidious crime than “Jack’s”.

Mystery is always intriguing, but I worry about the detachment with which we tend to view the victims, who suffered horribly, as well as anyone who may have cared for them. At least the Ripper’s victims, whose names were all known, will never be forgotten.

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