When HORACE SKINNER wandered through the unfinished building to play that Monday at No. 1 Hansler Road, south-east London, he did not realise that he had entered a house of horror - until he moved upstairs. In the backroom, in the centre of the floor... he saw her. The year was 1886... June... 9am. But the time and date had ceased to have any meaning to the woman: she was dead.
"Fearful wound"... "Evidence of struggle"... the papers reported. "Horrible discovery near East Dulwich" the South London Observer headlined. Adding that her throat was cut in two places. And Scotland Yard also ticked 'foul play' on the to-investigate list. What unfolds comes from press cuttings of the time. Alongside birth, marriage and death records, and census returns covering the decades concerned, these make interesting reading...
MR HARDY, a surgeon, examined the deceased. She lay in the centre of the floor. Her forehead was resting on her arm. Her features were not recognisable: they had been 'eaten away'. The doctor also found a 'deep' incised wound across her throat. A white handled table-knife was at her left side... he concluded that she had slit it herself.
Thirty-three year old CATHERINE MELLOWS had been missing from her Peckham home since Tuesday 18th May. Husband THOMAS "JOYNES" MELLOWS claimed his wife had a 'presentment' that she would not outlive the day. Apparently she could not sleep at night. On several occasions she had stated that she would commit suicide. 'She had been in a very low state for some time, and seemed depressed by the cares of a large family,' Mellows told the coroner. However it was not until the Thursday morning - two days after her disappearance - that he finally contacted police: her body remained undiscovered for six weeks. A deposition given by domestic help Alice Johnson also alleged that Catherine was behaving 'very strange'that day. When Alice 'missed her' it was between two and three that afternoon; like Mellows the servant did not recognise the knife. But it seemed of little or no importance.
What might seem strange to some is back then coroners' courts sat above the local pub, in this case the St George and Dragon in Camberwell. But coroner GEORGE PERCEVAL WYATT must have had one eye firmly on the bar - suicide was the vedict. "On the 18th May last, witness left home between 8 and 9 in the morning and returned between 5 and 6 o'clock." [South London Press, Saturday July 3, 1886, p2c1.] The reporting into the case seems to cover the husband's alibi and does not speculate on why Catherine chose that particular house - which was still under construction. Or, for that matter, if husband Thomas, a master builder, was constructing it. Mellows had insured his young wife's life for the then not too insignificant sum of five hundred pounds. He did not inform police about his wife's disappearance on the Tuesday - or that she was suicidal - until two days later. Perhaps a standard forty-eight hours notice was needed to file a missing person's report in 1886.
But if Catherine (we don't know if she was left-handed) could slit her own throat right to left as claimed, couldn't the same be said of a right-handed assailant standing in front of her? [In fact a left-handed assailant standing behind or beside Catherine could have cut her in this manner. Two years later, another assailant's cuts were made from left to right. "WAS JACK THE RIPPER LEFT-HANDED?" Stawell Heard concludes Jack was right-handed.]
Forensic science has moved on since 1886, and it is entirely feasible that Catherine Mellows, like the Ripper victims who followed two years later, could have been been strangled, her throat cut afterwards. [Police must have speculated. If so, it does not find its way down to us. In fact, it's entirely plausible - when one ignores the depositions of Mr Mellows who arguably had an incentive in the form of £500 - that Catherine's throat was cut after strangulation. This could have been done wherever the body was positioned, in other words sitting or laying on the ground.] And if that happened Thomas Joynes Mellows would have been the prime suspect.
The above suggests that the handedness of the person is uncertain. (If it was anyone other than Catherine that is.) The doctor's discovery of 'a deep' incised wound across her throat adds even more uncertainty. Newspapers inform us that a white handled table-knife lay at Catherine's left side. QED: it must have been suicide. However was it the position of the knife that led to the assumption that the wound had been inflicted from right to left - therefore, by Catherine' own hand, or was was it the depositions of Mr Mellows and his servant? Perhaps it was both and more. News starved we are left in the dark... the mysterious death at Dulwich quickly moved to a close. And yet...
UNFINISHED BUILDING? BUILDER HUSBAND? FEARFUL WOUND? EVIDENCE OF STRUGGLE? FOUL PLAY? INSURANCE MONEY? MYSTERIOUS KNIFE? Why the rats never went to the open wound of her throat is a mystery (they went for her face instead), but did this obscure tell-tale evidence of anything other than suicide? Had the victim's face been mutilated? CSI Miami Victorian London was not...
Jack the Ripper started his murderous rampage two years after the suicide of Catherine Mellows. Since that time, the dexterity of the Whitechapel/City of London slayer has been commented upon; was he right, left, or both handed? [She, he, they - we don't really know the true sex of the Ripper, or whether it was more than one person actually.] If Catherine slit her own throat she should have been left-handed (or ambidextrous). If she wasn't then that is clearly problematic. And it begs the question: could it have been an insurance job?
Thomas Mellows had insured his wife's life to the value of £500. The South London Observer, July 2, 1890 carried some advice. "Many persons are entirely ignorant of the lamentable consequences which may follow the neglect to make a will. Suppose, for example, a husband die intestate and without children, the widow takes only one half of her husband's personality, and the remaining half become divisible between the husband's next-of-kin, generally his brothers and sisters or their descendants, sometimes very distant relatives - whilst with regard to the realty the widow is only entitled to a life estate in one third as her dower." This was met by a bill in Parliament four years after Catherine Mellows' death and that provided that when a man died leaving no issue and real and personal estate not exceeding £500, the widow should take all of that sum. Amounts above £500 the widow was only allowed up to that amount, the rest becoming divisible amongst the husband's next-of-kin. Thomas Mellows took his wife's 'personality'. He knew beforehand how much insurance money he was going to get.
Thomas Joynes Mellows was born in Nottingham in 1837. The 1861 Census records him unmarried, twenty-three years-old, a 'fruit salesman' residing at 3 Spread Eagle Yard. His mother was Elizabeth, aged 58, the only other occupant being unmarried sister, Anne, aged twenty nine, listed, liker her mother, as a 'green grocer'. [Father "John" is listed deceased on his son's 1862 marriage certificate. Could the middle name "Joynes" be a corruption following a misreading?] Even after his move south to London Mellows remained a greengrocer. His first wife SUSANNA HARKER, whom he married in 1862, died nine years earlier than Catherine in March 1877, aged 38; the cause of death given as pthisis; a vernacular for TB, or pulmonary tuberculosis. The symptoms leading up to death are quite gruelling, the patient is overwhelmed by a large quantity of unmixed blood as it gushes up, and the victim dies from loss of blood or suffocation. Picrotoxin, a powerful convulsive poison was used, principally to check night sweats in phthisis by accelerating respiration. It was also used to adulterate beers, increasing their reputation as intoxicants. Susanna left her (then)'commission agent' from Nottingham with four children. Barely ten months after Susanna's death, at the age of 41, he married CATHERINE PORTORS, aged 25. Six months later she gave birth to their first child. Eight years later she was dead... a mysterious suicide. The Mellows-Portors union produced three issue; in addition to the five from the previous marriage. [The family must have formed a large clan. Additionally, any issue born and dead between the census years would not be recorded.]
Could the care of the children be the reason why Catherine Mellows ended her own life?
According to the 1881 Census the family resided in London's Holborn. Only five children were listed; two from the previous marriage to Susanna, three from Catherine's January 1878 marriage. Two girls and a boy from the first marriage are not present. [Catherine's first child had died. It is not known what happened to the others from the first marriage, save for Thomas jnr... More on whom later. Still, breakfast must have been a bloody nightmare.] But then... Catherine's child Lemuel, a boy, born on the 22 February 1886, has a death recorded at the FRC four months later on the 7th June - thirty days after Catherine is said to have committed suicide by her own left-handedness. Lemuel's death could not possibly have been the cause of his mother's anguish. It was a passing that seems to have gone without remark at his mother's inquest; Lemuel died between the death of his mother and the coroner's court, the discovery of Catherine's body, and the inquest into it, followed just weeks later. Did Lemuel pass away due to abandonment on the 18th? Or is it possible that Catherine did not go missing until after the baby's death? [Hansler Road was still under construction... Why was the site closed from the 18th May until the discovery of Catherine's body 6 weeks later? Her body was described as being badly decomposed. Between the child's death and the discovery of her body three weeks had passed, but could her life have ended after the 7th June? These are the questions that Mr Mellows should have been asked. If the death of Catherine Mellows was due to foul play then a significant inducement could have been the £500 life insurance. However.. there is also another intriguing possibility. If Catherine Mellows was murdered was she known to her killer and had she become in his eyes a whore?
Coming soon in TheBigRetort... The Excellent House that Jack Built.