The Bradford Murder Mystery: Jack the Ripper Up North?


​In August 2015, I wrote a blog post for the Leeds Centre for Victorian Studies (LCVS) ​​responding to the opening of the controversial Jack the Ripper Museum. This encouraged me to relook at reports of a murder that took place in Bradford in 1888, which was so brutal that it has been connected to Jack the Ripper ever since. 

The Murder Scene

Between August and November 1888, five women murdered in Whitechapel, London, were connected by one illusive murderer. The Press called the killer 'the Whitechapel Murdere​r' and 'Leather Apron'. A letter supposedly written by the killer introduced him to the world as 'Jack the Ripper'. 

Nearly two hundred miles north of London lies Bradford. On Thursday 27 December, seven-year-old John Gill left his Manningham home to collect some milk. He never returned. His parents, neighbours and the police searched for him that evening into the early hours. By Friday, an advert had appeared in the local newspaper:

'Lost, on Thursday morning, boy, John Gill, aged eight. Was last seen sliding [on ice] in Walmer-villas at 8.30 a.m. Had on navy blue top coat, with brass buttons on, midshipman's cap, plaid knickerbocker suit, laced boots, red and black stockings, complexion fair. . .' [1]

John was referred to as eight-years-old due to his imminent birthday. 

On Saturday 29 December, his body was discovered in a stable just a stone's throw away from his home. The boy had been 'mutilated with a savagery almost indescribable.' The brutality of the murder made the police and Press almost immediately connect it to the 'Whitechapel tragedies.' [2] One theory was that the murderer/s were 'desirous of emulating the Whitechapel murderer.' [3] The following graphic details have been included not for sensationalism, but to allow readers to understand the comparison to the London Ripper murders and to draw their own conclusions.

Initially, the extent of the boy's injuries was obscured as the body was wrapped in his 'jacket ... [and] fastened by a pair of little braces.' Upon examination, though, police discovered his legs, arms and ears had been cut off and his removed organs had been placed on top of him. His shoes were placed in his empty chest and abdomen cavity. A noose (made from some shirting) was around his neck and the body had multiple stabs wounds. A lack of blood at the scene suggested that the murder happened elsewhere. His clothing was all accounted for, intact and free of blood-stains. [4] The police were out of their depth and needed help. 

Local Investigator

The police asked local chemist and borough analyst Felix Marsh Rimmington to assist with the investigation. [5] Rimmington, a community chemist who opened his first chemist store around 1842 in Bradford, excelled in isolating and identifying chemical components. This resulted in his appointment as borough analyst for Bradford in 1874. Prior to holding this esteemed position, Rimmington had helped the police, coroner's office and courts with numerous investigations. Cases included murders or suicides involving poison and, after the introduction of the 1875 Sale of Food and Drugs Act (which banned the unadvertised adulteration of food and drugs), analysing samples of suspicious food – one sample of 'butter' he analysed was 'entirely without butter!' [6]

One (in)famous case Rimmington was involved with occurred in 1858 when hundreds of people in Bradford fell ill and twenty died. The common denominator between the deaths and illnesses were lozenge sweets. Rimmington analysed the sweets and found that they contained high and deadly traces of arsenic. It came to light that a confectioner's errand boy, sent to the druggist to collect daff (a bulking agent), had inadvertently helped himself to arsenic instead of daff. This 'unfortunate series of events,' as a judge declared it, resulted in tighter regulations for the storing and selling of poisons and drugs. 

(The illustration below appeared in Punch, November 1858, in light of the Bradford poisoning case to warn paterfamilias (parents) of the dangers of adulterated sweets. Here, death, posing as a confectioner, is mixing together a concoction with plaster of Paris and arsenic at either side of him.)

Victorian C.S.I. 

When invited onto the murder case, Rimmington took on a role similar to that of a modern day crime scene investigator. I have on many occasions gone as far as to call Rimmington the Sherlock Holmes of Bradford due to his detective work. Rimmington examined microscopic debris found at the crime scene and in nearby drains and sewers. He concluded that a discovered cloth might have been stained with the boy's blood – it was suggested that the cloth was used to gag John or muffle his cries. Rimmington assisted with the autopsy and found currants in the boy's stomach. [7] Was a currant bun, eaten just before death, used to bribe the boy to go with a stranger? The cause of death was attributed to the chest wounds. Later evidence by a police surgeon in court stated that '[t]he body was bloodless, and had the appearance of having been washed both outside and inside and then allowed to drain.' [8] Part of the body had been wrapped in a Liverpudlian newspaper with the name and address 'W. Mason, Derby Road' written on it. Efforts were made to trace W. Mason but to no avail.

A local man called William Barrett, a twenty three-year-old milkman, was twice arrested in connection with the murder and subsequently discharged. Barrett was seen giving John a ride on his cart on Thursday morning. Witnesses spoke of Barrett's strange behaviour around the time of the murder. This included him 'carrying a bundle early on the morning on which the remains were found,' heading in the direction of the stable. [9] One newspaper connected the currants found during the autopsy to a currant cake allegedly found at Barrett's home. [10] Rimmington testified in court that a knife and clothing found in Barrett's home did not have traces of blood on them. Although circumstantial evidence connected Barrett, there was a lack of solid evidence. Bradfordians were split in their beliefs about Barrett. Some thought he was guilty and demonstrated outside the court when he appeared there, while others attended an event to raise funds for his defence in March 1889. [11] No one was ever prosecuted for the murder and it remains unsolved. John Gill was buried in a local cemetery on Friday 4th of January, 1889. [12] 

(The Illustrated Police News pages below detail the case. The first page shows illustrations relating to the Bradford murder juxtaposed with another at the bottom about a murder in Poplar, London (near Whitechapel). The question 'Are they the work of the Whitechapel fiend?' is posed.) 

Did Jack the Ripper come up t'North?

Patricia Cornwell (the American crime writer-turned-Ripperologist) believes that there is a link between the Ripper murders and this Bradford murder. A letter sent to the police in November, prior to John's murder, threatened to kill a youth in a city. [13] After John's murder, a man living in the area where the body was found came forward with a 'remarkable story.' He claimed that on the Wednesday evening (before John went missing on the Thursday), he returned home to find it in disarray. Two carving knives were on the table with a note saying on one side 'Half-past 9 – look out – Jack the Ripper has been' and the other saying 'I have removed down to the canal side. Please drop in. Yours truly, SUICIDE.' [14] The police concluded that this was 'a practical joke.' [15] One newspaper reported that a man who had been questioned over the Whitechapel murders was seen in Bradford near to where the body was found. [16] An Ripper 'hoax' letter sent after John's murder said 'I riped [sic] up little boy in Bradford' while another sent in January 1889 referred to 'my trip to Bradford.' [17] 

Cornwell believes that the painter Walter Sickert was responsible for both the Whitechapel and Bradford murders – this theory is revealed in her controversial book Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper  – Case Closed (2002), and followed up in Chasing the Ripper (2014). [18] Sickert's painting 'Jack the Ripper's Bedroom' (see below) depicts his London lodgings. Sickert claimed that his landlady had said that Jack the Ripper once stayed there. Similarities have been noted between females (mostly nudes) in his paintings and the Ripper victims, with similar poses between his painted nudes and the Ripper victims in the crime scene and mortuary photographs. Coincidentally, there is a connection between Sickert and Bradford, as an unsigned painting recognised as Sickert's appeared in a Bradford exhibition in the 1930s. Cornwell received harsh criticism from other Ripperlogists when she published her Sickert theory, but some of her evidence (such as positive results regarding handwriting and paper analysis between 'genuine' Ripper letters and Sickert's private letters) is compelling. Is it possible that Rimmington was on the trail of one of the world's most notorious murderers? Sadly, this was one case Rimmington could never solve. 

Lauren Padgett was a PhD student at Leeds Trinity University and one of LCVS's blog co-ordinators. Her research investigates representations of Victorian women in contemporary museums. 

Image credits

Header image: 'Dreadful Murder and Mutilation of a Boy at Bradford', Illustrated Police News, Saturday 5 January 1889, online at: http://www.britishn​ (accessed 23 September 2015) (© 2015 Findmypast Newspaper Archive Limited, used in accordance with copyright permissions)

'The Great Lozenge-Maker', Punch, 20 November 1858, online at: (British Library, accessed 23 September 2015) (© Punch Ltd, used in accordance with copyright permissions)

'The Bradford Atrocity. A Boy Murdered and Fearfully Mutilated', Illustrated Police News, Saturday 5 January 1889, online at: (accessed 23 September 2015) (© 2015 Findmypast Newspaper Archive Limited, used in accordance with copyright permissions)

'The Bradford Murder and Mutilation Case: Sketches and Views', Illustrated Police News, Saturday 12 January 1889, online at; (accessed 23 September 2015) (© 2015 Findmypast Newspaper Archive Limited, used in accordance with copyright permissions)

[1] 'Murder and Mutilations of a Boy at Bradford', The Morning Post, Monday 31 December 1888, Issue 36361

[2] 'Yet Another Atrocious Crime...', The Star, Saturday 29 December 1888, issue 90

[3] 'Murder and Mutilations of a Boy at Bradford', op. cit.

[4] 'The Bradford Murder', Aberdeen Weekly Journal, Tuesday 1 January 1889, Issue 10578

[5] It was through a previous role a few years ago as heritage champion for Rimmingtons Pharmacy that I found out about this murder through my research into F. M. Rimmington. Rimmingtons Pharmacy is an independent pharmacy in the original Bridge Street (Bradford) premises of the chemist shop F. M. Rimmington moved to in 1875. 

[6] 'Bradford Town Council', The Leeds Mercury, Wednesday 13 August 1879, Issue 12899 

[7] 'The Bradford Murder', Manchester Times, Saturday 12 January 1889, p. 5, Issue 1644

[8] 'The Charge – The Bradford Murder Mystery', The York Herald, Monday 11 March 1889, page 2, Issue 11786 

[9] 'The Bradford Murder', The Bury and Norwich Post, and Suffolk Standard, Tuesday 15 January 1889, p. 7, Issue 5543

[10] 'The Bradford Murder', Manchester Times, op. cit. 

[11] 'The Bradford Murder', The North-Eastern Daily Gazette, Monday 25 March 1889

[12] 'The Bradford Murder – Funeral of John Gill', Freeman's Journal and Daily Commercial Advertiser, Saturday 5 January 1889. 

[13] Patricia Cornwell, Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper  – Case Closed (London: TimeWarner Paperback, 2003), pp. 361 – 2 

[14] 'The Bradford Murder', Daily News, Tuesday 1 January 1889, Issue 13334

[15] 'The Bradford Murder', The Dundee Courier & Argus, Tuesday 1 January 1889, Issue 11071

[16] 'The Bradford Murder', The Hampshire Advertiser, Wednesday 2 January 1889, p. 2, Issue 4441

[17] Patricia Cornwell, Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper  – Case Closed (London: TimeWarner Paperback, 2003), p. 363 

[18] Cornwell, Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper  – Case Closed (New York, USA: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 2002); Cornwell, Chasing the Ripper (Seattle, USA: Thomas & Mercer, 2014) [kindle edition] ​