On the Bank Holiday Monday of 6th August 1888, Martha Tabram (also known as Martha Turner), a local prostitute in her late thirties, went soliciting on Whitechapel Road with Mary Ann Connolly, a very masculine looking prostitute who was better known in the area as "Pearly Poll."
They met with two guardsmen, a corporal and a private, and went drinking with them in several pubs along the Whitechapel Road.
At some stage between 11.30pm and 11.45pm the group split into couples, a quick round of bargaining took place, prices were agreed and Martha disappeared with her client through the sinister arch that led into George Yard (today known as Gunthorpe Street), whilst Pearly Poll led her client into the next dark thoroughfare along, Angel Alley.
According to the East London Advertiser George Yard was "…one of the most dangerous streets in the locality…" But, for a seasoned street walker like Martha Tabram, it offered a reasonable amount of privacy for quick sex acts which were known as four-penny knee tremblers.
Towards the top of George Yard, on the left, there stood a block of cheap apartments, known as George Yard Buildings. It was occupied by tenants whom the East London Observer described somewhat unflatteringly as "people of the poorest description."
When its staircase lights had been extinguished at 11pm, the landings were cast into an impenetrable darkness that made them ideal for use by prostitutes and their clients.
Martha would no doubt have been well aware of this tucked away spot, and it was for one of the building’s dark and secluded landings that she headed with either the soldier - or possibly a later client.
In the early hours of the morning, Mrs Hewitt, wife of Francis Hewitt the building Superintendent, returned to George Yard buildings having been out with some friends to celebrate the Bank Holiday. She afterwards went out again to buy some supper at a chandler's shop in nearby Thrawl Street. She was back within ten minutes and noticed nothing untoward or suspicious as she ascended the staircase, although she later admitted that the stairs were unlit, so she probably wouldn’t have noticed a body if one had been lying there. Once in bed she and her husband slept soundly and heard no noise in the night.
At half past three in the morning Alfred George Crow, a cab-driver, of 35, George Yard Buildings, returned home from work and, on his way upstairs, saw somebody lying on the first floor landing. It was, however, quite common for people to sleep on the building’s landings, and so he thought nothing of it and continued home to bed.
A little after 5am, John Saunders Reeves, a waterside-labourer, left his home in George Yard Buildings and came down the stairs. Finding the body of Martha Tabram. He too noticed the prone form, but as it was now getting light, he was able to see that it was a woman who was lying on her back in a pool of blood.
He hurried off to find a policeman and returned with Constable T. Barrett, whom he had encountered patrolling in the vicinity of George-Yard.
Barrett sent Reeves for local medic Dr Killeen, who having carried out an examination of the woman, pronounced life extinct and gave it as his opinion that she had been brutally murdered.
The attack on Martha Tabram had been a frenzied one. Thirty-nine stab wounds pepper-potted her body from her throat to her lower abdomen. Dr Killeen later told the inquest that the killer had used two different blades, the majority of the wounds having been inflicted with an ordinary pocket knife, whilst a deep wound to her breast had been dealt by "...some long, strong instrument…[which could have been]… a sword bayonet or dagger..."
Significantly he was also of the belief that sexual intercourse had not recently occurred, thus ruling out rape as a motive for the murder.
The viciousness of the killing, coupled with that fact that it had been carried out without anyone hearing a sound, was the subject of considerable puzzlement and disquiet around the area in the days and weeks that followed. The East London Advertiser commented:-
"The circumstances of this awful tragedy are not only surrounded with the deepest mystery, but there is also a feeling of insecurity to think that in a great city like London, the streets of which are continually patrolled by police, a woman could be foully and horribly killed almost next to the citizens peacefully sleeping in their beds, without a trace or clue being left of the villain who did the deed. There appears to be not the slightest trace of the murderer, and no clue has at present been found."
George Collier, the deputy coroner for the district, would later express the feelings of many who lived in the area when he called the crime "…one of the most dreadful murders any one could imagine," and said of the perpetrator, "The man must have been a perfect savage to inflict such a number of wounds on a defenseless woman in such a way."
Today there is considerable debate as to whether or not Martha Tabram was a victim of Jack the Ripper.
The investigating officers at the time certainly seem to have believed that she was. Inspector Walter Dew, who had been transferred to the Metropolitan Police’s H Division in 1887, and was one of the detectives who worked on the case, later stated in his autobiography:-
"...Whatever may be said about the death of Emma Smith, there can be no doubt that the August Bank Holiday murder, which took place in George Yard Buildings… was the handiwork of the dread Ripper..."
The truth is that, with the passage of more than a hundred years, and the disappearance of so much of the evidence, the only thing we can say for certain about the Jack the Ripper Murders is that nothing is certain.
On the face of it Martha Tabram’s injuries were not consistent with the mutilations sustained by the later victims, who are now generally considered to be the five canonical victims of Jack the Ripper.
Yet, significantly, her killer had targeted Martha’s throat and lower abdomen, just as the Ripper would do with his victims.
It is therefore possible that Martha Tabram, murdered in the early hours of August 7th 1888 on the dark, first floor landing of George Yard Buildings, was the first victim to die at the hands of Jack the Ripper.
The significance of her murder, however, cannot be underestimated, for it began to focus the minds of the police, press and public at large that something decidedly untoward was occurring in Whitechapel, and a wave of general unease began to ripple through the district.
Thus, when three weeks later, the mutilated body of Mary Nichols was discovered, again lying on her back with her skirts pulled up around her waist and in an almost identical pose to that of Martha Tabram’s body, the realisation began to dawn – prematurely as it now transpires – that a repeat killer was loose in the streets of Whitechapel. For the people of London their autumn of terror was about to begin.
Pall Mall Gazette 10th August 1888
East London Observer 11th August 1889
Lloyd's Weekly Newspaper 12th August, 1888
Famous Crimes Past and Present 1903