Nell Darby's historical cold cases: murder in the year of the Ripper
Dr Nell Darby delves into the story of a London killing that became overshadowed by disturbing discoveries in the city’s east end
The year 1888 is largely remembered in the annals of London history for the murders of five women in the Whitechapel area by a man who has become known as Jack the Ripper. Yet in the same year, in London, there were several other unsolved murders of women. One such woman was Frances Maria Wright.
In the early afternoon of 16 May 1888, Mrs Wright, 71, who lived at 19 Canonbury Terrace in Islington, was found dead on her inside door mat. A nervous woman who disliked being left alone in her house, she had inexplicably let two men dressed in outfits that suggested they were gas-fitters or plumbers, and armed with workbags, into her home. She was found minutes later, dead from a combination of shock and an injury, having been hit over the eye. A man was charged with her murder, but quickly acquitted when it was found he had a strong alibi.
Frances was an Irish immigrant to London. Born in Cork, her father died when she was young, and until her marriage in 1843, to merchant’s clerk Charles Cole Wright, she made a living as a fringe-maker. By 1861, the couple had moved to Canonbury Terrace, where they would live for the rest of Frances’ life.
At around 2.30pm on 16 May 1888, the two ‘workmen’ were seen calling at Frances’ door, and being let in, but shortly afterwards, they were seen coming out from the garden, being witnessed by a neighbour, Berthe Prevotal. Berthe’s housemate, Selina Chefderville, chased after one of the men as they ran off in different directions. She was joined by a group of boys, all shouting “Stop, thief!”. Eventually they lost sight of him, but Selina managed to find a policeman, who followed her back to Canonbury Terrace. There, the body of Mrs Wright was found.
Was it a robbery gone wrong?
Henry Glennie, the 24-year-old who would stand trial that October at the Old Bailey, had apparently told an acquaintance, Mary Dominy, that he had killed Frances in a botched robbery. He was also a hot water fitter, so his clothes would have matched those of the men seen at the Wright house, and he was from the local area. Yet the witnesses could not recognise him, and he was proved in court to have been in Neasden at the time of the incident. The police duly came under criticism for focusing on the wrong man and keeping him at the station for too long without charge.
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Other mysteries remained. Frances’ husband said that there had been nothing wrong with his property’s gas or water fittings, so there was no need for any workmen to have visited the house. Frances had a substantial amount of money on her, unknown to her husband, and this was not stolen – nor was anything else. There was suspicion that Mary Dominy – who had also been the Wrights’ former charwoman – could have been involved, as she was implicated in a few robberies, and her partner was in prison for the same. She was examined during Henry Glennie’s trial, but she was never charged in connection with the murder. Then, within a few months, Mrs Wright’s murder would be eclipsed by unfolding events in Whitechapel, and forgotten.
Within a few months of his wife’s murder, Charles Wright remarried, only to die himself in 1890. Henry Glennie continued to live in Islington, and work as a hot water fitter, while Mary Dominy was sent to a Salvation Army home as a ‘rescued woman’.
This article was first published in the December 2022 issue of BBC History Revealed
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