PC Ernest Thompson had been on the police force less than two months and was patrolling his first solo beat on the evening of February 13th 1891. His beat took him along Chamber Street, past Swallow Gardens. Swallow Gardens, despite it’s attractive sounding name was actually a dimly lit alleyway under a railway bridge that ran from Chamber Street to Rosemary Lane (today’s Royal Mint Street). He heard the footsteps of a man retreating into the distance in the direction of Mansell Street. In a dark corner of Swallow Gardens something caught his eye. Shining his lamp, he saw the body of a woman, bleeding from the throat. Believing the footsteps may have been the killer, Thompson was about to give chase when the woman opened her eyes – she was still alive. Now unable to give chase due to police procedure demanding he stay with the injured body, a decision that would haunt Thompson to his own tragic death nine years later (Thompson would be murdered on duty in 1900), believing that he may have been able to apprehend the killer or even Jack the Ripper. Thompson would also heavily criticised by the press for his decision, especially in light of the fact that the woman would later die on the way to the hospital. At the end of the day though, Thompson made the right call. He followed procedure and tried to save the woman’s life.
The murdered woman’s name was Frances Coles. She was born in Bermondsey in 1859, her father a bootmaker originally from Somerset and her mother an Irish immigrant. Most of her early life was spent in poverty and by 1880 she had left home and was working stoppering bottles for a wholesale chemist in the Minories, work that was very painful to her knuckles and she eventually quit. By 1893 she had began working as a prostitute in Whitechapel, Shoreditch and Bow, but when she first started working the streets we do not know. She did her best to hide her life from her family – on Boxing Day 1890 she had tea at her sisters house and claimed to be living with an elderly woman in Richard Street, Commercial Road and worked at the chemists. Her sister was sceptical though as her sister was poor and looked dirty and could smell alcohol on her breath. She also frequently visited her father, who was an inmate of Bermondsey Workhouse, and even attended church with him on Sundays. She last saw him on February 6th 1891, when she revealed she no longer worked at the chemist. Frances’s family would not know the full truth about her life until after her death.
A former client of Frances’s named James Sadler had worked on the SS Fez as a merchant seaman and fireman. He was discharged on February 11th and spent the night drinking at the Princess Alice Pub. Here he met up with Frances and the two spent the night together at Spitalfields Chambers on White’s Row. The next day they would spend on a pub crawl around the area. They both got very drunk and at 7.30pm Frances would buy a black crepe hat with money given to her by Sadler. At some point during the evening, Sadler would be attacked by a woman in a red shawl and two male accomplices in Thrawl Street, who took his watch and money. He claims that Frances did not help him, causing them to row and seperate. She returned to Spitalfields Chambers and falls asleep sitting on a bench in the kitchen. Sadler also returns at 11.30pm, with blood and bruises on his face. The night watchman helped him clean up, but had to ask him to leave at around midnight as he did not have money to a room. Sometime between 12.30 and 1.45am (the time given varies between witnesses), Frances also leaves as she did not have doss money. At about 1.30am she has a meal in Wentworth Street and leaves fifteen minutes later, heading in the direction of Brick Lane through Commercial Street. On Commercial Street she meets a fellow prostitute named Ellen Callana and witnesses her being solicited by a man, who assaults her when she refuses. Despite this – and Ellen’s warnings – Frances goes with the man, heading in the direction of the Minories.
Meanwhile, Sadler has been in more trouble. He tries to force his way onto the SS Fez at St Katharine Dock and brawls with dockworkers who refuse him entry. He is also twice refused entry to a lodging house in East Smithfield and at 2am is seen drunk and bloodied on the pavement outside the Mint by a police officer. Shortly after, a group of carmen walk through Swallow Gardens and see nothing out of the ordinary, but see a man and woman on the corner of Swallow Gardens. One of the carmen stated the man looked like a ship’s fireman and the woman was wearing a round bonnet. Minutes later, Frances Coles body is found by PC Thompson.
Her throat has been cut with three strokes of a blunt knife, with no abdominal mutilations. Kitten behind a gutter pipe nearby was 2s, believed to be her earnings.
At 3am Sadler returns to Spitalfields Chambers, heavily bloodstained. The deputy describes him as being so drunk he can barely stand and speak, and she turns him out – despite his protestations at being robbed. At 5am he admits himself into the London Hospital for treatment. Later than morning, he allegedly sells a blunt knife for a shilling and a piece of tobacco.
The police quickly suspected Sadler and charged him with the murder on February 16th. The Seaman’s Union paid for his defence and Wynne Baxter held a thorough inquest which saw the debunking of the evidence of the carmen (they knew the couple they had seen) and the evidence of the police officer and Sarah Fleming whose description of Sadler’s state of intoxication indicated he was unlikely to have been able to commit the murder, backed by the statement of the first Doctor on the scene, Dr Oxley testified “If a man were incapably drunk and the knife blunt I don’t think he could have produced the wound… If a man were swaying about I don’t think he could control the muscles of his hand and arm sufficiently to cause the wound.”
The inquest returned the familiar verdict of “Willful Murder against some person or persons unknown” and the charges against Sadler were dropped.
So was Frances Coles a Ripper victim? Or was she killed by James Sadler? Or could Sadler even have been the Ripper himself?
It is unlikely as there was no evidence of strangulation, no mutilations, the knife was blunt and the cut throat was done sloppily. However, certain of the police thought it may have been possible. The Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police at the time, Sir Edward Bradford, felt that she was as did some officers involved in the Ripper murders such as Swanson and Reid. Macnaughten also seems to have held the view for a time, but later changed his mind. Anderson and Dr Phillips however, did not.
It appears the idea that Sadler may have been the Ripper was taken seriously at the time, as the police tracked down Joseph Lawende (who saw Catherine Eddowes with a man shortly before her murder) to confront Sadler. Lawende failed to identify him, but in 1888 had insisted he did not think he would recognise the man should he see him again.
While it is generally agreed that Frances Coles was not a Ripper victim, opinion is divided as to whether she was killed by Sadler or another client. This will remain yet another mystery in the case, lost to the mists of time.