Another Murder in Whitechapel!
Frances Coles was murdered in the early morning hours of Friday, February 13, 1891, under a railway arch at Swallow Gardens in the Whitechapel District of London.
The officer on duty that night, a Metropolitan Police constable named Ernest Thompson, was faced with the difficult choice of pursuing the attacker or to tending to the victim. By law, he was duty-bound to remain with the dying woman; however, by doing so, Thompson may have lost the only opportunity to apprehend Jack the Ripper, a fact he regretted until his death.
A witness – unknown to the police at the time – stood nearby as the events had unfolded. He had seen a man and a woman meet on the street, exchange words and walk off together toward the railway arches. He had also seen the same woman earlier that night when she had been drunkenly arguing with a sailor companion at the Marlborough Head public house on Brick Lane.
From the eaves of the Seven Stars, the witness heard a struggle off toward the railway arches that led to nearby Chamber Street. Curious, he crept nearer to better view the altercation. He stopped short when he reached a vantage point that allowed him to see the struggle that was ensuing between the man and the woman under the nearest arch. He suddenly felt very exposed knowing he was now close enough to the pair to be seen by either of them. Only moments before, he had been in the presence of others – a couple talking intimately at the Blue Anchor Yard, railroad workers passing by on their way to the stables, a police constable making his rounds – but now he felt quite alone and terrified.
The woman cried out for help. The witness believed he could make out the steely glint of a knife as the attacker savagely hacked at her throat. He felt he must help the woman in some way, yet he did not rush to her aid. Instead, he lowered himself into a crouched position and looked for a place to hide, but his legs felt heavy and he was having difficulty catching his breath.
Unable to move, he looked on helplessly as the man bent down close to the woman. In that very moment, a shrill whistle pierced the night air. Without hesitation, the attacker stood up straight and began walking away from the scene as if nothing of interest had just occurred.
The witness looked on in horror as the woman slouched against the wall of the arches. His paralysis suddenly lifted as quickly as it had come upon him. He wanted to rush to the woman’s side and find a way to save her, but he did not move a step forward. Instead, he crept slowly backward into the shadows of the Seven Stars.
As he approached the scene, Constable Thompson believed that he could hear the assailant’s footsteps echoing into the distance, yet he never saw him. PC Thompson found Frances Coles alive and still breathing, though her throat was cut from ear to ear and blood had begun to pool around her body.
The man in the shadows, who was still cowering nearby, had known the woman, though he very much wished that he hadn’t. It was for this reason that he would not report what he had witnessed to the police. Still shaken and drenched in his own sweat, the crime’s only witness slipped away into the darkened streets of Whitechapel as additional Metropolitan police officers and curious residents from the surrounding streets arrived at the crime scene.
James Thomas Sadler, a known companion of Frances Coles, was later brought in for questioning and was briefly charged with the murder of Frances Coles; however, there was not enough hard evidence to conclusively tie Sadler to the crime. Without a witness to place Sadler at the scene nor any conclusive physical evidence to tie him to the murder, the charges against him were eventually dropped. At the time, many people believed that Sadler, a merchant sailor whose ship the S.S. Fez often ported in London, was none other than Jack the Ripper and that the Metropolitan Police had missed an opportunity to end the ripper’s murderous spree.
Frances Coles’ throat was cut from ear to ear by her attacker, but her torso was neither mutilated nor her organs removed. It is difficult to interpret the intent of her murderer. Frances had no money and she was prepared to trade her body for a night’s lodging, food or drink. For these reasons, it seems doubtful that a simple lust for sex or money drove the perpetrator to commit the crime. Revenge or passion might explain such a crime if it could be established that the assailant had known the victim beforehand. Unfortunately, all that is known is that the murder had been interrupted and that may be the only reason that further brutalizing of Frances’ body did not take place.
This type of extreme violence to the corpse of the victim was the thread that tied together many of the previous murders in Whitechapel and Spitalfields, and it was this type of sacrilegious act that gave Jack the Ripper his name. This deviation from the Ripper’s modus operandi, together with the many months that had elapsed since the Ripper’s earlier crimes, left open the question of whether Frances Coles’ murder was the work of the notorious killer.
On the other hand, as with the murders that are traditionally attributed to Jack the Ripper, Frances Coles’ murder was never solved. This left her murderer free to kill again, either in London or elsewhere. Yet the fact remains that no further murders of this sort occurred again in London for many years. If Frances’ murder was the work of Jack the Ripper, it begs the question about where Jack went next, assuming that homicidal sociopaths don’t just stop killing when they aren’t captured or killed themselves.
Though many people were questioned during the inquiry into Frances Coles’ death, one ever discovered that there was an eyewitness to the tragic events that unfolded that fateful night in Swallow Gardens… except, perhaps, Frances Coles herself, who lay dying as she looked into the eyes of a man who seemed as much a ghost from the past as anything real.
In the Shadow of the Seven Stars is dedicated to the life and spirit of Frances Coles… and to the mysterious world beyond.