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Behind Closed Doors

Behind Closed Doors

Book excerpt


The year 1888 remains memorable for many different reasons. In the USA, blizzards swept across the country, claiming the lives of hundreds of innocent souls. In Germany, Wilhelm II was crowned Emperor, and in London, in June of that year, Annie Besant organized the famed matchgirls’ strike, which was to have future implications for the working classes within the great hub of the British Empire.

It was, however, within the annals of crime that the year passed most memorably into history, for 1888 was the year in which the city of London was rocked to its core by the most vicious and diabolical series of murders ever recorded in the history of such events in the United Kingdom. In the space of a few short weeks, the great metropolis was to be witness to a series of murders most foul, which, to this very day, have ensured lasting immortality and infamy for their perpetrator. The streets of the Whitechapel and Spitalfields areas, in particular, became streets of fear, as the unknown and, to this day, unidentified assailant, known only as Jack the Ripper, seemed to appear and disappear like a wraith in the night, leaving a trail of blood, death, and terror in his wake.

Little, however, is known of another series of murders which took place in London at that time. As Jack the Ripper struck with apparent impunity on the mean, filthy, rat-infested streets of London's East End, another, less spectacular, but no less dangerous killer was on the prowl, hardly a stone's-throw from the scenes of the Ripper's handiwork, the killer striking with unerring regularity, less than twenty-four hours after the murders of the Ripper himself.

With the Metropolitan police force's resources stretched almost to their limit in their search for Jack the Ripper, and with the banner headlines of the popular press screaming of his atrocities with almost daily regularity, it is little surprise that the story of the second, rather less newsworthy series of murders has been relegated to little more than a footnote in history. Yet, with political machinations taking place to suppress news of the second string of killings in an attempt to avoid a massive public backlash against not only the police, but the government too, and an investigation hampered by interference at many levels of authority, the story of the so-called Underground Murders is one that should, and will, be told in the following pages.

Today, the London Underground, known almost universally as The Tube, carries millions of passengers every year in relative comfort and safety, both above and below the streets of the capital. Back in the days of Queen Victoria, however, the Underground Railway was a new and innovative feat of engineering brilliance, which was yet to make its permanent mark on the infrastructure of the city. With steam locomotives and cold and often uncomfortable carriages plagued by noxious fumes from the locomotives and the tunnels, it was nonetheless popular, especially with the working classes, for whom it provided a cheap and for the most part ultra-reliable means of travelling far greater distances to and from work – or at least, the search for work – than had hitherto been possible. This new transport system was also to become the unfortunate setting for the murders which feature within the pages of this book.

Only the release of certain documents from Scotland Yard's archives, under the United Kingdom's recent Freedom of Information Act, has made the telling of this little-known murder mystery possible, so, without further ado, I ask you accompany me on a journey back in time, back to the autumn of the year 1888, and a cold, rather misty London morning…

Part One - An Early Morning Caller

“Albert, the dog.”

“Eh, what?” came the muffled response from a sleepy Albert Norris, his head tucked away under his pillow, as the first wash of morning light encroached through the curtained window into the bedroom.

“I said, the dog needs to go out. He's scratching at the door.”

Norris emerged from under the pillow. His hair was tousled from a night's tossing and turning and he looked at his wife as she nudged him forcibly in the ribs with her elbow.

“Okay, Betty, I'm going,” he replied, as he slowly extricated himself from the warmth of his bed, his feet slipping, almost as if by magic, into the carpet slippers which sat in their usual place beside the bed. Norris trudged sleepily across the room, stopping only to pick up and pull on his plaid dressing gown, a Christmas gift from his wife the previous year, then opened the door, allowing the entry of a scruffy black terrier of indeterminate parentage. The mutt immediately bypassed Norris and jumped on the bed, smothering his mistress's face with affectionate licks as his tail wagged non-stop with excitement.

“Bert!” she shouted at her husband, who, as was usual upon Billy the dog's daily entrance to their room, stood watching the performance with a huge grin on his face.

“Alright, I know. Billy, come on, you mad hound,” he called, and the terrier leaped from the bed and quickly followed Norris as he went down the stairs and opened the back door of their neat terraced home, to allow the dog to roam freely in the small back garden.

Albert Norris spent the next five minutes making a pot of steaming hot tea, then, leaving Billy to enjoy himself in the garden, he returned to the bedroom with cups of tea for his wife and himself.

“One day, Bert, that dog will learn not to jump on the bed in the mornings. I'm sure you encourage him.”

“Oh, come on, d'you really expect him to change? We've had him five years, and he's hardly likely to stop showing you his affection after all that time, is he?”

“I suppose you're right.” Betty Norris smiled at her husband. “The tea's good, Bert, as always.”

“My speciality, eh, my love,” he replied, his voice soft and soothing as he reached out and touched his wife's hair, stroking her long auburn locks and caressing her gently behind her ear.

“Now, Bert Norris, that's enough of that. You've work to go to, my lad. You can forget all that amorous stuff and put it aside for later.”

“Well, then, you'd best be getting out of that bed and seeing to my breakfast, don't you think? Or do you want me to go to work on an empty stomach?”

“Bert Norris, you're a slave driver,” she said, laughing.

Betty thumped her husband playfully and finished her tea, returning the cup and saucer to the tea-tray. Five minutes later, she was in the kitchen, boiling two eggs and buttering two thick slices of bread for her husband's breakfast. Before the eggs were ready, their morning routine was interrupted by a loud knocking at the front door.

“I'll go,” said Norris. He walked briskly from the kitchen and along the narrow hallway. He paused at the door to turn the key in the lock and then opened it to reveal a young and seemingly agitated uniformed police constable, who stood almost to attention as the bulky figure of Albert Norris filled the open doorway.

“Constable Fry,” said Norris, recognising the young man as one of the constables from the station, though not one he'd worked closely with in the past. “What one earth brings you to my door at this early hour?”

“Inspector Norris,” said Fry, “I'm so sorry to disturb you, but Chief Inspector Madden sent me. Well, that is, the chief inspector gave the orders and Sergeant Wilson actually sent me, but…”

“You're babbling, Fry. Pull yourself together, man and tell me what's happened. By the look on your face, something serious is afoot.”

“Yes, sir, sorry, sir. Anyway, Sergeant Wilson said I was to fetch you right away. All hell's broke loose, sir. You know as how the Whitechapel Murderer struck again last night? Well, the night before last night, really, and…”

“Whoa, hold your horses, man! I'm not involved in that case. I thought Inspector Abberline was leading the local investigation into that one?”

“Yes, I know, sir, but it's not about that.”

“Well, why mention him then? What's this about, Fry?”

“The beast killed again in the early hours of yesterday morning, as you know, and the mutilations were even worse than the others, sir, I mean Tabram and Nichols, and there's hardly a constable to be spared. Everyone is being drafted in to intensify the search, as Sergeant Wilson put it. That's why they need you for the other case.”

“What other case?” asked Norris, his face suddenly setting into a hard and professional stare as he waited for Fry to get to the real point of this early morning summons.

“There's been a killing on the new Underground Railway, sir. A woman, stabbed and left in a carriage, I've been told to tell you. The chief inspector wants you to take charge of the case. Someone has already been sent to fetch Sergeant Hillman to the station, too.”

Dylan Hillman was Norris's sergeant, the only man in the entire world he would admit to having absolute faith and trust in. Hillman and Norris had worked closely together for five years, and the bond between the two men had grown ever stronger with each passing year. At least, Norris thought, he wasn't the only man being summoned into the station at the crack of dawn. He could only imagine the scowl on Hillman's face when a constable knocked him up at such an ungodly hour.

“I take it I've no time for breakfast then, Fry?” asked Norris, knowing the answer already. If Madden had sent for him, it meant he was needed right away, not after enjoying a leisurely breakfast with his wife.

“The sergeant said I was to tell you that the chief inspector said, `Now means now,' if you'll forgive me, sir.”

“Don't worry, constable. I'm not in the habit of shooting the messenger. Just give me a minute to let my wife know I may be out for a long while.”

Norris closed the door. Constable Fry stood waiting, fidgeting and fretting as one minute turned into two, then three, and then four. Surely, he'd be in trouble with the sergeant if the inspector didn't get himself down to the station in double-quick time? After all, the chief inspector himself had summoned him.

A full ten minutes had passed by the time Norris eventually opened the front door once again. Betty had wrapped two slices of buttered bread in a slice of grease-proof paper, which he carried under his left arm. She had also made sure that Norris had eaten the two eggs she'd boiled before he rejoined Fry. They'd gone cold while was standing at the door talking to the constable, but at least they were a source of nourishment for her husband, who, she knew from past experiences, could be away for many long hours when in the early stages of a murder investigation. Norris had kissed his wife on the cheek, patted the dog, who'd returned from his patrol of the back garden to scrounge any leftovers from the breakfast table, and was now ready to face whatever the day held in store for him.

“Right, Constable Fry, lead on,” said a cheery Albert Norris, as he rejoined the young constable. He'd had no time to shave, and his coat appeared more than little crumpled, but, as he walked at a brisk pace beside the inspector, Fry felt that Detective Inspector Norris, who he knew solely by reputation, was definitely not a man he'd like to cross. Norris had a `past', so he'd learned – though quite what had happened that had left the inspector in a sort of promotion limbo, no one at the station either knew or was prepared to say. All Fry knew, as he cast his eyes in the inspector's direction as they walked, was that the man had a certain air of authority about him; one that would brook no argument from a humble P.C. such as himself. Norris could be difficult to get along with, that much he'd learned, and he made a conscious decision not to get on the inspector's wrong side, if he could help it.

The two men soon left behind the neat suburban terraces where the inspector had made his home and found themselves walking along an already busy thoroughfare, as early morning omnibuses rattled along the cobbled streets, horses snorting and hooves clattering as they carried the early morning workers to their destinations. They were passed by three such omnibuses, each filled to the brim on both the upper and lower decks with passengers. Clearly, the advent of the new underground railway hadn't entirely stolen too much business from the omnibus company, as had been expected. There were still many residents of London who feared the new railway, preferring to travel above ground rather than risk the tunnels and darkness of the new transport system. Even though much of the rail network ran above ground, they still considered it too risky and avoided it as though certain death would visit itself upon anyone foolish enough to hazard a journey along its gleaming metal rails.

Street sellers were already at work setting up their stalls, a hot chestnut seller firing up his brazier, a match seller preparing his pitch and all manner of others making an early start as they went about the business of earning a living. For many, that living would be a hard one, as thousands of the capital's residents fell into the lowest category of society, that of the poor.

Fifteen minutes after leaving the inspector's house on Allardyce Street, on the morning of 9th September, 1888, just over twenty-four hours after the man who would later be dubbed Jack the Ripper had killed and mutilated the unfortunate Annie Chapman, Norris arrived at New Street police station, where his involvement with the underground murders, as the killings would eventually be dubbed, soon began in earnest.

The Body at Aldgate

Approximately four hours before Constable Fry knocked on Albert Norris's front door, at just after 2 a.m., twenty two-year-old Arthur Ward, employee of the Metropolitan Railway, began his systematic check of the carriages of the last train of the night to have arrived and terminated at Aldgate station. Ward's job entailed opening each carriage door and making sure that all passengers had safely alighted and vacated the train, and to check for any property left behind on the train, which he would then deliver to the lost property office. At such a late hour, it wasn't unusual for the odd late-night reveller to fall asleep in their seat and either miss their stop, or carry on to the end of the line where Arthur Ward, or someone like him, would gently awaken them and coax them from the train.

Each carriage could hold a maximum of ten people, on somewhat uncomfortable bench seats covered in a bare modicum of cloth material that added little in the way of comfort for those travelling on board this latest innovative mode of travel within the capital. As he reached the third carriage of the late night train, Ward opened the door and quickly spotted the reclining figure of a young woman in the corner of one of the bench seats, her head resting against the window of the carriage. She wore a green dress, with a pale brown shawl covering her shoulders. Her boots were well-soled, almost new in appearance and she had the appearance of a respectable young working woman, perhaps a nurse or a midwife, he thought, on her way home from a late shift at one of the local hospitals. He knew that not all nurses lived on the premises in some of the city's larger hospitals. His own cousin, Maude, was a nurse at Charing Cross, and `lived out' at her parents' home.

“End of the line, my dear.” Ward spoke loudly, wanting to wake the woman and see her on her way. “This is Aldgate, lady,” he tried again. “We don't go no further tonight. This is the end of the line.”

When his repeated entreaties received no reply from the apparently sleeping woman, Arthur Ward stepped briskly into the compartment and placed a hand on her shoulder, shaking her gently.

“Please, Miss, it's late and you ought to be getting off home, now,” he appealed. Receiving no response, he shook the woman a little harder. This time, he was shocked as, instead of waking and perhaps reproaching him for his familiarity in touching her while she slept, the woman instead slipped slowly away from the window, off the seat itself, then rolled in ungainly fashion onto the floor of the carriage.

Up to that date in his young life, Arthur Ward had never seen or been in close proximity to a dead body. Yet, as he stared down at the figure lying at his feet on the carriage floor, he was in no doubt whatsoever that the young woman was indeed deceased. The blank, staring eyes and pallid appearance of her face were unmistakable clues, and if they needed reinforcing in his mind, that reinforcement came from the small but significant red stain, almost centrally placed on her chest, which was revealed as her shawl slipped back with the movement of her body onto the floor. Arthur knew blood when he saw it; he'd seen enough accidents amongst some of the labourers on the railway to recognise it for what it was. Strangely, his first thought was that there should be more blood, if what he was looking at was a fatal wound, but then, he was no medical expert.

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