- Gavin Whitehead
Inquest Scenes (S1BE2)
Updated: Jan 31
In 1913, Marie Belloc Lowndes published her novel, The Lodger, inspired by a story that painter Walter Sickert heard from his landlady. At one point, the heroine attends a farcical inquest, during which a witness offers bogus testimony. This fictional debacle resonates with one of the more bizarre episodes in the Whitechapel murders. Show notes and full transcript below.
Above: Mary Malcolm receives a visit from the ghost of her sister, Elizabeth Watts, on the night of the double event. Taken from the October 20, 1888 edition of the Illustrated Police News. Copyright held by The British Library Board.
A 1911 sketch of the lodger by Henry Raleigh. Lowndes's novel started as a short story published in McClure's Magazine, and this illustration would have accompanied that version.
A crowd waiting to be admitted to an inquest. Marie Belloc Lowndes describes a similar scene in The Lodger. Taken from volume I of Living London (1902), edited by journalist George R. Sims. Photo by Ken Symphonies.
Inside a coroner's court. Note the jurymen to the right, plus the heads of spectators toward the bottom of the frame. Taken from volume I of Living London (1902), edited by George R. Sims. Photo by Ken Symphonies.
A turn-of-the-century ambulance. Included in volume I of Living London (1902), edited by George R. Sims. Photo by Ken Symphonies.
---Begg, Paul, Martin Fido, and Keith Skinner. The Jack the Ripper A-Z, Third Edition. London: Headline, 1996.
---Jones, Richard. “The Mystery of Mary Malcolm and the Victim’s Ghostly Kiss.” Jack the Ripper Tour. May 11, 2022. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lJfii8KC8Qs&t=716s.
---Lowndes, Marie Belloc. Novels of Mystery: The Lodger, The Story of Ivy, What Really Happened. New York: Longmans, Green & Col, 1913.
---Polden, Patrick. “Coroners and Their Courts.” In Oxford History of the Laws of England: Volume XI, 1802-1914 English Legal System, edited by William Cornish, J. Stuart Anderson, Ray Cooks, Michael Lobban, Patrick Polden Keith Smith, 934-56. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.
---Rubenhold, Hallie. The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019.
It pained Mrs. Bunting to lie to her husband, but she had no other choice. He would have thought her mad if she told him the truth. She assured him that she was taking the subway to Ealing to see her doctor. Instead, she was catching a train to London’s St. Pancras Station to attend a death inquest. Ten days prior, a serial killer known as the Avenger had claimed two victims in a single night, both in an ill-lit passage near King’s Cross. The murderer was evidently a religious zealot whose condemnation of drink led him to target alcoholic women, punishing them for their sinful thirst. The killings coincided with the arrival of a new lodger in the Bunting residence. The newcomer answered to Mr. Sleuth, and when Mrs. Bunting first opened the door to him, the lean, lanky gentleman wore an Inverness cloak as well as a top hat, a long leather bag in one of his hands. In the beginning, Mrs. Bunting considered him eccentric. Now, she was harboring more sinister suspicions, suspicions she dared not share with her husband. Mr. Sleuth made regular nocturnal outings, which lined up with the dates of the homicides. He recited bloody passages from the Bible while alone in his room. He conducted his enigmatic “experiments” in the kitchen while the rest of the house was asleep, befouling the air with the smell of burning wool. After getting off the train, Mrs. Bunting passed through a crowd outside the coroner’s court and went inside, taking a seat in a well-lighted room with gallery seating not unlike a theater. Many of the men and women there had a wolfish look about them and had come for no reason other than to lap up the gory details as witnesses testified. Meanwhile, Mrs. Bunting had come for the tiniest morsel of evidence that she wasn’t collecting rent from the Avenger himself.
Mrs. Bunting is the heroine of Marie Belloc Lowndes’s 1913 novel, The Lodger. As we discussed in episode 6, Walter Sickert rented rooms from a woman in Camden Town who suspected a former tenant of committing the Ripper murders. Sickert told others what his landlady told him, and before long the story spread far and wide. It’s unclear whether Sickert was the teller when Lowndes heard it, but it reached her ear at a dinner party one evening, and she used it as the basis first for a short story, then for a novel, and later for a play.
Mrs. Bunting’s trip to the inquest is my favorite part of The Lodger. For more reasons than one, the excursion distresses our heroine. She goes having deceived her husband and worries about being perceived as a morbid sightseer starving for blood. When the inquest begins, she aches with newfound sympathy for the victims, their fate eclipsed by the Avenger’s notoriety as well as the excitement surrounding the investigation. I’m partial to the inquest scene primarily because it’s a far cry from distressing. It’s funny. In a surprise foray into social satire, Lowndes makes a mockery of the entire process, and she’s particularly teasing toward a witness who shows up with bogus testimony and ulterior motives.
The Lodger’s farcical inquest scene resonates with one of the more bizarre episodes in the Whitechapel murders. Much of what we know about the canonical Ripper victims comes from statements made at at their inquests. In episode 1, we covered the lives and untimely demises of these five women, but we never talked much about the inquests themselves. There’s much to be said about them as they were objects of intense fascination, feverishly (and often erroneously) reported by the press. In some cases, witnesses as colorful as—even more colorful than—the one in The Lodger added to the spectacle of these events. After looking at Lowndes’ novel, we’ll hear about one of these witnesses along with the media sensation she ignited. This is The Art of Crime, and I’m your host, Gavin Whitehead. Welcome to bonus episode 2 of The Unusual Suspects . . .
Before diving into The Lodger, we might do well to review the function of an inquest, a dust-laden relic of legal history rarely used today. Inquests were held to determine whether criminal activity had brought about a death. In “Coroners and Their Courts,” an essay in The Oxford History of the Laws of England, Patrick Polden lists three broad scenarios in which an inquest was necessary in the late Victorian period: first, when there were grounds to suspect that the deceased had met with a violent or otherwise unnatural end; second, when the death was unexpected and the cause unknown; third, when it happened in a prison or, as Polden quotes, “in such place or in such circumstances as to require an inquest into pursuance of any Act.” Pretty vague, but okay. Usually elected for lifelong terms, coroners presided over these hearings and usually trained as doctors or lawyers before taking this position. The office of corner is ancient in origin, and—get this—the only two that are older are those of the sheriff and the king. At the time of the Whitechapel murders, the coroner would have questioned a series of witnesses, including policemen and medical experts, before a jury of 12-23 men. Jurors also had the power to ask questions of witnesses. The tone of their inquiries could range from polite to outright hostile. The coroner’s court differed from others in the legal sphere. For starters, they convened in pubs throughout the nineteenth century, a venue often seen to undercut the solemnity of the occasion. Defendants stand trial in criminal and civil courts—not so in a coroner’s court. Nor did a jury find anyone innocent or guilty. The coroner’s court was a fact-finding body. It presented evidence to the jurors, who in turn reached a verdict as to whether the death in question had resulted from a crime. If this were the case, jurymen furthermore named the supposed perpetrator, who then went to criminal court, unless the culprit’s identity was unknown. To give an example, the inquests held for Jack the Ripper’s victims ended in a verdict of willful murder against a person or persons unknown. As in the case of criminal and civil cases, however, members of the public could attend an inquest. In essence, inquests were meant to establish the true cause of a suspicious death within a communal setting.
A Comedy of Errors in the Coroner’s Court
In The Lodger, coroner, jurymen, and witnesses alike fall all over themselves in pursuit of the truth. Throughout the inquest and with her tongue in her cheek, Lowndes creates a host of problems that hinder the proceedings or muddle the facts. They include the fallibility of memory—ten days have passed since the double homicide occurred, and a constable misremembers which body was found where; the pointless parsing of minutiae—the coroner fusses over the exact layout of a house near the crime scene, costing time; breeches of protocol—a juryman interrogates a witness himself rather than having the foreman ask for him, sparking confusion; the manifest ridiculousness of oddball-participants—a grave, old fogey makes a fool of himself with long-winded, dotty, and seemingly irrelevant testimony, causing all but Mrs. Bunting to ignore a key detail; and last but not least, a potentially misplaced faith in medical expertise—the physician, Dr. Gaunt, our heroine learns, once proffered assertive yet incorrect testimony, thereby allowing a criminal to sidestep prosecution.
Of all the characters in this comedy of errors, Lowndes has the most fun with a woman named Lizzie Cole, who claims to have seen the Avenger on the night of the double murder. As Cole would have it, she heard a piercing scream, leapt out of bed, and rushed to her window, from which she spied the killer down below. “I saw him!” she exclaims before an open-jawed courtroom, “I shall never forget it—no, not till my dying day!” Asked for a physical description of the man she observed, Cole makes much of how he wasn’t wearing a coat—peculiar, that, since every sensible fellow wears a coat in the winter. Right about now is when that juror butts in, breaking the rules. He points out that a few days earlier, Cole told a journalist he was wearing a coat. “I never said so!” she cries in a passion. From here, her testimony devolves into a mess of contradictions. The Avenger was tall—no, short—and thin—or was he stout? He was carrying a newspaper parcel—that much was certain. But then, come to think of it, he was empty-handed, “swinging his arms up and down” like a cartoon character as he sauntered away from one of the bodies. The bit takes a cringeworthy turn at the end when Cole invokes a racial epithet to describe the man. The coroner tells her to get off the stand, sending titters throughout the courtroom. During the debacle, Mrs. Bunting remembers reading in a newspaper that a downstairs neighbor of Cole’s believed she had “made up the whole story.”
Cole’s outrageously untrue testimony raises questions about her motives for testifying in the first place. As Lowndes makes clear, the coroner’s court is little more than a playhouse to Cole, and she’s determined to put on a show. She’s not the only performer in attendance. Before the inquest starts, Mrs. Bunting surveys the chamber and takes note of several female witnesses. Far from solemn, they’re giddy at the prospect of testifying as part of the Avenger investigation. “It was plain each was enjoying her part of important—if humble—actress in the thrilling drama which now was absorbing the attention of all London—it might almost be said of the whole world.” There’re theatrics aplenty in Cole’s account of that fateful night—she’s playing to the rafters when she exclaims that she “will never forget” what she witnessed. Though light-hearted, Lowndes passes judgment on witnesses like Cole, who certainly populate the real world: their hunger for attention outstrips their desire to tell the truth.Cole will say anything to keep her audience watching, even if it means prevaricating and undermining her own testimony. By the time she leaves the stand, all involved know as little about the Avenger as when she took it.
The Mystery of Mary Malcolm
Lowndes may or may not have known about the curious case of Mary Malcolm. She certainly knew about the “double event,” however. It took place on September 30, 1888, costing the lives of both Elisabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes. These crimes almost certainly inspired the double homicide in The Lodger. As it happens, Malcolm testified at one of the “double event” inquests and, like Lizzie Cole in Lowndes’ novel, Malcolm compelled the public to question the veracity of her claims as well as her reasons for coming to court.
Elisabeth Stride died in Dutfielyd’s Yard, where a steward for the adjacent International Working Men’s Educational Club discovered her body at approximately 1:00 a.m. Shortly after, police removed the corpse to the mortuary in the St.-George’s-of-the-East churchyard. The first task at hand was to identify the victim. Within twenty-four hours, more than one of Stride’s intimates had come forward to name her, including Michael Kidney, a hard-hewn dock worker who had been cohabiting with Stride. These identifications led the authorities to believe they had resolved the matter.
Enter Mary Malcolm. Viewing the cadaver, Malcolm swore that it belonged not to Elisabeth Stride but to her sister, Elizabeth Watts. She recognized her sister by a mark the size of a pea on her right leg. An adder had given it to her while the two of them were playing in the grass one day. Malcolm had a bitemark of her own on her hand, left there by the same set of fangs. She threw police for a loop, and questions resurfaced as to the victim’s true identity.
Malcolm not only catapulted the inquiry into confusion but also excited the popular imagination with the Gothic tale of how she learned of her sister’s passing. At 1:20 a.m. the night of Stride’s killing, roughly twenty minutes after the discovery of her body, Malcolm lay in bed with her husband, Andrew. All of a sudden, each heard a loud thud on the mattress, followed by the sound of three distinct kisses. Then Mary felt a pressure on her chest. A flood of trepidation washed over her, along with a foreboding that her sister was dead. It dawned on her that Elizabeth Watt’s spirit had visited her bedside to bring news of her demise.
The press went wild with Malcolm’s ghostly premonition. On October 6, the East London Advertiser declared, “If anything were wanted to heighten the horrors of these tragedies it was the introduction of the supernatural element.” The reporter makes connections between the otherworldly sounds and sensations Malcolm described and what he imagines happened to Elisabeth Stride before and during her murder. First, the knifeman kissed her three times and then he placed his hand on her breast while cutting her throat. As something of an afterthought, the journalist adds that Malcolm may have dreamed up the spectral encounter after hearing of the Ripper’s latest crime.
On October 2, one day after identifying the victim as Elizabeth Watts, Malcolm testified at the inquest, held in St. George’s vestry hall. There, she recounted the events that led her sister to Whitechapel. Some years earlier, she started work as a servant for a Mr. Watts, a well-to-do wine and spirit merchant in Bath. A son of the household, Edward, fell in love with Elizabeth and impregnated her, after which the couple married in secret. He took his bride home and introduced her as his wife. Fortunately for them, his parents welcomed her into the family. Elizabeth lived the high life, sharing a splendid house with her husband and riding about town in her own carriage. The story doesn’t end with a happily ever after. Edward discovered a sexual entanglement between his porter and Elizabeth, at which point he banished her from their home. When she returned some while later, she learned that her mother- and father-in-law had sold the property and furthermore that Edward had sailed for North America. The Watts cut her loose, plunging Elizabeth into poverty.
It's unclear how Malcolm reunited with her estranged sister. By the time of Stride’s inquest, the two had supposedly been seeing each other on a regular basis for half a decade. Malcolm further testified that for the past two-and-a-half years, she had gone to meet Elizabeth Watts on the corner of Chancery Lane to give her two shillings at four p.m. every Saturday afternoon. These payments and others stretched Malcolm’s financial resources thin. As she told the coroner’s court, Elizabeth visited her at work, unannounced, the Thursday before her murder, asking her sister if she could spare a few coins. “Oh, Lizzie, my child, you are a curse to me,” Malcolm sighed, before handing over a shilling and a short jacket.
If it wasn’t clear already, Malcolm had no qualms about speaking ill of the dead. Apart from broadcasting Elizabeth’s marital infidelity and her parasitic requests for money, Malcolm attributed other flaws and immoral acts to her. Mrs. Watts was often the worse for drink, she averred, and ran afoul of the authorities for disorderly conduct. Asked how Elizabeth earned her living, Malcolm adopted a severe tone, “I had my doubts.” Malcolm probably thought Elizabeth was prostituting herself. Most shocking of all, Elisabeth had once left a naked baby girl outside her front door. “I had to keep it until she fetched it away,” the witness recalled. When Malcolm asked Elizabeth where the baby had come from, she claimed to have given birth to it after sleeping with a police officer. Malcolm never saw the infant again, and Elizabeth later maintained that she had taken the child to live with the Watts in Bath. When coroner Wynne Edwin Baxter inquired if Malcolm’s other siblings knew about Elizabeth, tears welled up in the poor woman’s eyes as she confessed that she had concealed her predicament from the rest of her loved ones: “Elizabeth has been a curse to several families. I have kept this shame from everyone.”
Malcolm’s testimony prolonged the process of identifying the victim, even though police were more inclined to believe Michael Kidney than her. Coroner Baxter advised Malcolm to stop by Chancery Lane at the customary hour next Saturday to see if her sister turned up, in which case the public could chalk this all up to a misunderstanding. Still, a shadow of a doubt lingered, and the court would have to reconvene at a later date before the jury could reach its verdict.
A revelation came at the end of that week. Elizabeth Watts was very much alive, though living under the name of Elizabeth Stokes. About four years earlier, she walked down the aisle with her third husband, Joseph, a brickmaker’s laborer. She had married for the first time in Bath, taking the hand of a Mr. Watts. She now resided in London and hadn’t seen her sister, Mary Malcolm, in ages. Elizabeth Stokes was reading the newspaper one Sunday afternoon when she came across a piece on the Whitechapel inquest. She must have stopped and reread it to make sure she wasn’t losing it. She wasn’t, alright. Based on details in the article, it was clear that Malcolm, for reasons Elizabeth couldn’t comprehend, had told a coroner’s jury that she—Elizabeth—was dead. Yep, Jack the Ripper had murdered her just the other week. Not dead in the slightest, Elizabeth had reason to believe he hadn’t. To add real insult to imaginary injury, Malcolm had spouted falsehood about Elizabeth’s past and present circumstances, defaming her for all the capital to read about.
Elizabeth Stokes contacted the Central News Agency, denying many of Malcolm’s unflattering claims. First of all, she propagated a wildly inaccurate account of Elizabeth’s first marriage. It had broken apart, but not through any fault of her own, and certainly not because she’d had an affair. In the past five years, Elizabeth had never once solicited handouts from Malcolm. She took a drink every now and then, sure, but she practiced moderation, and she most assuredly was not a prostitute.
The follow-up inquest took place on October 23, more than three weeks after Stride’s murder. An indignant Elizabeth Stokes appeared in St. George’s Vestry and set the record straight about her sister’s testimony, denouncing it as “infamy and lies.” Malcolm wasn’t present at the occasion, nor did she ever explain herself. As the inquest drew to a close, Coroner Baxter made clear that Malcolm’s misleading testimony had impeded the process. Now certain that Elisabeth Stride had crossed paths with the Ripper, the jury issued a verdict of willful murder against a person or persons unknown.
What was Mary Malcolm up to? It’s impossible to know for certain, but as in the case of the Lizzie Cole in The Lodger, questions regarding her intentions emerged. Was she some kind of ghoul who wanted a glimpse of a body in the mortuary? If that was all, then why the melodramatics at the inquest? Did she merely crave attention like that gaggle of witnesses in Lowndes’ novel? Or were her ends mercenary? I fail to see how Malcolm could have hoped to profit by falsely identifying the victim as her sister, but at least one Victorian commentator aired the possibility in print.
Or was Mary Malcolm telling the truth—or rather what she believed to be the truth? After all, she testified under oath and stood her ground despite forceful questioning from the coroner and police. The question also arises because parts of her story were accurate, even if she ultimately misidentified the body. Malcolm knew that others used to call the victim by the nickname, “Long Liz.” She was also aware that the decedent was dwelling in common lodging houses in the East End, though she remained vague about which ones she frequented. Finally, Malcolm testified that Elizabeth had married a man who kept a coffee house in Poplar. Elisabeth Stride did go by the sobriquet, “Long Liz.” She did spend most of her nights in Whitechapel common lodging houses, preferring the establishment at 32 Flower and Dean Street. And most compellingly, Stride had run a café with her husband, John, in Poplar. How could Mary Malcolm have known all this if she were entirely mistaken or making it up? She testified at the first inquest roughly forty-eight hours after the murder and before the victim had been officially identified, making it improbable if not impossible for her to have gleaned these details from press coverage or gossip.
In The Five, Hallie Rubenhold offers a solution to the riddle: Elisabeth Stride was scamming Mary Malcolm. Such deceit would not have been out of character, especially if it went toward doss money and drink. As you may remember from episode 1, Stride falsely claimed that her husband (as well as two of her nine children) had perished in the Princess Alice catastrophe, a maritime disaster that traumatized London. Drawing inspiration from other fraudsters, Stride invented this narrative to arouse sympathy and elicit donations. (Incidentally, Malcolm also swore before the coroner’s jury that her sister’s husband had died in a shipwreck, chiming with Stride’s lies about the Princess Alice calamity.) Rubenhold imagines that sometime around 1883, Malcolm caught sight of Elisabeth Stride, perhaps or in a pub or out on the street, and mistook her for her sister. When she addressed her as “Elizabeth,” Stride responded.
Somehow perceiving that she could con Malcolm, she passed herself off as her sibling. As the two spoke about their lives leading up to the unforeseen reunion, Stride selectively shared truths about her past even as she pretended to be Elizabeth Watts. If Rubenhold is correct, Mary Malcolm wasn’t acting a part at the inquest. Elisabeth Stride was the one who had been performing.