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Unmasking Jack the Ripper
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The Smart Talk of Alfred Blanchard
By David O'Flaherty

"What a foolish man you have been."
-- T.M. Colmore to Alfred Blanchard

False confessions are curious by-products of many "celebrated" murder cases, and the killings in Whitechapel were no exception. In any casual reading of the contemporary press, readers are likely to encounter the exploits of men like John Fitzgerald, Benjamin Graham, William Bull, and the unnamed individual who, following John Kelly's identification of Catherine Eddowes and while he was making his statement, burst into Bishopsgate station and confessed his responsibility. These men were "mad drunk" at the time they made their confessions.1 Although all were ultimately cleared, these were no harmless cranks-the authorities had to check the validity of every statement, the background of each confessor. Faced with locating the actual Ripper and other legitimate criminals in Whitechapel, the growing public anxiousness over the Ripper crimes, and increasing criticism from the press that the investigation was being botched, police found their resources stretched thin. False confessions only drained them further.

The contemporary press seems to have blamed overindulgence in alcohol as the primary force moving these would-be Rippers, and most recanted their confessions as soon as they were sober. How accurate is this belief? Certainly, drink played a role in producing these confessions, but might there be a darker force at play? Perhaps in the murky corners of England's pubs, there were men who silently applauded the Ripper, maybe even envied him. Readers will be more familiar with the public's outrage over the murders-the idea that there were those who were simpatico with the Ripper is a disturbing one.

To explore this idea, it is worthwhile to examine one incident in detail, and the false confession of Alfred Napier Blanchard affords us an opportunity. The Blanchard incident took place on 5 October 1888, in a tavern called The Fox and Goose, which was located in tiny Aston, England, today a part of Birmingham. Birmingham (Blanchard was actually lodged in Handsworth, also now a part of Birmingham) was only a pit stop for Blanchard, who was making his way down from Manchester to London, where he was employed as a canvasser by a London firm.

What was Blanchard's business? Canvasser, defined by Maunders' Treasury of Knowledge (1831), as "he who solicits anything" is an exceptionally broad term. There is also a political connotation to the word, not only in modern times, but during the time of Victoria as well-Maunders also defines canvass as "to sift, to examine, to debate, to solicit votes, to sue for honors."2 In 1888, parliament had passed the Local Government Act, which established county councils to administer the "business of the county justices in quarter sessions as well as significant highway functions."3 The electorate created these councils, and elections were held throughout Britain in 1888, specifically in Birmingham in October or November.4 However, since Blanchard's business seems to have been in Manchester and Handsworth only a stopping point, it seems doubtful that he would have had any political concerns there, although this idea might hold true for Manchester.

Another equal, perhaps more likely, possibility is that Blanchard was a traveling salesman. Hardware traveler was his occupation in 1881, and Blanchard's younger brother Augustus was involved in sales, too.5

Returning to definitions for a moment, Wordsworth's Dictionary of the Underworld (1995 reprint of a 1950 edition) takes a more sinister view of canvassing: "the talk used by a racketeer in interesting, convincing, and 'selling' a prospective sucker" and "the smart talk, of a racketeer operating a short-change swindle."6 While there is no evidence to suggest Blanchard was a con man, such shadowy shadings seem apt considering Blanchard's subsequent arrest.

Undoubtedly, knowing which London firm Blanchard worked for would clear up the mystery. It is likely that police would have recorded the firm's name in the report of Blanchard's arrest, or perhaps there was mention of it in the Birmingham court archives, where Blanchard made his appearances. This writer attempted to find both. At this time, it is unknown where the police archives are. As for Birmingham's court archives, no record of Blanchard's appearance has survived. There are no records in the City's holdings for the Petty Sessions before 1899. Minute books for the Quarter Sessions have survived, but there are no references to Blanchard's case. Since it appears that authorities only detained Blanchard while checking his background, and brought no actual charges against him, archivists feel that it is unlikely any record of his court appearance would have been kept.7

Yet we do have contemporary press reports. The Star (6 October 1888), The Manchester Guardian (8 October 1888), and The Times {London} (8 October 1888) all carried abbreviated versions of Blanchard's arrest the evening of Friday, 5 October. Birmingham's local press provides more detail, particularly The Birmingham Daily Gazette, which covered Blanchard's appearances in court. Here then, is an account of what occurred, from the paper's 8 October 1888 edition:

At The Birmingham Public Office on Saturday, before Messrs. J.D. Goodman and W. Holliday (magistrates), Alfred Napier Blanchard (34), described as a canvasser, of 2, Rowland Grove, Rowland Road, Handsworth, was charged on his own confession with committing the Whitechapel murders.

Detective-sergeant Ashby said that on Friday night the prisoner was in a public-house in Newtown Row, and he told the landlord that he was the Whitechapel murderer. He repeated the statement to several people and witness arrested him. When at Duke Street Police Station he denied being the murderer, but witness thought proper to keep him in custody. The police had not yet had time to make inquiries, and knew nothing of the prisoner's antecedents.

Richard King, landlord of the Fox and Goose, Newtown Row, said the prisoner came to his house about eleven o'clock on Friday morning, and remained till about a quarter past eight at night. During his stay in the house he drank about five and a half pints of beer. About half-past twelve o'clock he asked witness what kind of detectives they had in Birmingham. Witness told him he believed them to be very clever men. Prisoner said that it would be a funny thing if the Whitechapel murderer were to give himself up in Birmingham. Witness acquiesced, and prisoner continued, "I am the Whitechapel murderer." Turning round to an elderly gentleman sitting in the bar, prisoner said, "Look here, old gentleman; perhaps you would not think there was a murderer in the house." "I don't know about that," replied the customer; "you might not look unlike one." Prisoner said, "I am one, then." Later on the old gentleman asked prisoner had he got the knife with him, and he answered that he had left a long knife behind him. Someone asked prisoner how he did the murders without making the victims scream. He explained that this was done "simply by placing the thumb and finger on the windpipe and cutting the throat with the right hand." He said he had "done six of them in London." He was sober when he made this statement. Turning round to witness prisoner said, "You are a fool if you don't get the thousand pounds reward offered for me; you may as well have it as anyone else."

Mr. Farndale (Chief Constable) informed the magistrates that he did not attach the least importance to this arrest. At the same time prisoner had placed himself in a most serious position, and could not complain if the magistrates thought fit to remand him for inquiries. At present nothing had been ascertained with respect to him beyond information contained in some papers found upon him.

Mr. Goodman thought that some further inquiries should be made.

The prisoner asked if he might say a few words, and, having obtained permission, stated that he was stationed in London, and was a canvasser for a London firm. He had recently been working up North. He was now on his way to London, and when he made the statement incriminating himself was labouring under great excitement, having been previously reading the reports of the inquests. The statement was, on the face of it, ridiculous, and he was sure they would admit that. He could give them references in Birmingham.

Mr. Barradale (Magistrates' Clerk) told the prisoner that he could give any references he had to Mr. Farndale for inquiry. As the prisoner said he was a murderer, it was a question whether time should not be given to make inquiries.

Mr. Goodman: It is your own fault that you are in this position.

The prisoner said he was aware of this, but at the same time he was labouring under great excitement.

Mr. Barradale: Were you suffering from the drink?

Prisoner: Partly from drink and partly from nervousness. I had been drinking for two or three days.

The prisoner was remanded until to-morrow.

Mr. Barradale told him that if he wished any messages to be sent the police would assist him in every way. He could telegraph to anybody living away from the town and write to anyone he thought proper.

As he was proceeding towards the cells, prisoner said he had a favour to ask. Would the press be kind enough not to mention this case? It was a serious matter for him, and should his employer get to hear about it he would lose his situation.

Mr. Barradale: The magistrates have no power over the press. The prisoner then went below.8

While this press report gives no physical description of Blanchard, it appears from the perception of the "old gentleman" that Blanchard looked like a murderer. In other words, Blanchard had an ill-favored appearance. Whether this was his natural state, or the result of his alleged binge is unclear.

A word about Blanchard's drinking-while it is true that Blanchard said he had been drinking for several days, it was Richard King's testimony that Blanchard was sober at least for part of his startling confession. King, the landlord of a tavern, certainly would have had an eye for a drunk, and he knew exactly the amount Blanchard had to drink while in The Fox and Goose-five and a half pints in nine hours. Blanchard may have been drinking prior to his visit to King's establishment, but is it likely that, given the amount Blanchard drank while in King's pub, it was enough to maintain a drunken state?

Also, consider the nature of Blanchard's confession, which he did not make in the haze of an alcoholic fit of passion. Rather, Blanchard's statements are sly and periodic over the course of an entire day as other patrons put questions to him, the kind of "smart talk" mentioned in Wordsworth. While Blanchard obviously was not the Ripper (witness his method of silencing the victims), the question of just how drunk he was or was not, as well as the span of time involved-all day-sets his story apart from other false confessions.

Blanchard's request for the press to be silent went, as we have seen, unheeded. On 8 October, The Birmingham Evening Mail gave him a public spanking.

The magistrates at Moor Street, {on} Saturday, exercised {a} wise discretion when they remanded Mr. Alfred Napier Blanchard in custody for a couple of days. Mr. Blanchard had been drinking for three days; as he put it frankly he was not compos mentis when he was locked up on Friday, on a confession of being the Whitechapel murderer. Those people who are so weak-headed as to take delight in such morbid silliness when under the influence of drink, should let drink alone, and if they will not then they must be prepared to take the consequence. They put the police to the trouble of arresting them and of making inquiries into their antecedents, and if the police should refuse to let them go immediately the cold {abodes} of the lock-up cell {have} driven the alcoholic fever from their brain, {the} unanimous verdict will be that it serves them right. Mr. Blanchard, we have no doubt, will have to be very much non compos mentis, {when} next he indulges in a confession of murder.9

Blanchard was held throughout the weekend (5-8 October 1888) while police checked his background. On Monday morning, 8 October, he once again appeared in court.

At the Birmingham Public Office yesterday morning, before Mr. T. M. Colmore (Stipendiary), Alfred Napier Blanchard (34), canvasser, who has been lodging at 2, Rowland Grove, Rowland Road, Handsworth, was again placed in the dock charged on his own confession with the Whitechapel murders.-Detective-sergeant Ashby said that the Chief Constable had instructed him to ask for the prisoner's discharge. Inquiries had been made, and the police were quite convinced that there was no truth in the statement of the accused.-Mr. Farndale said he had received a telegram that morning from the City police which stated that the prisoner had been in the neighbourhood of Manchester for two months prior to his visit to Birmingham, and that he was much addicted to drink and very excitable. There was not the slightest reason to believe his assertion of Friday.-


Mr. Colmore (to prisoner): What a foolish man you have been. You are discharged.10

The authorities released Blanchard, his alibi of being in Manchester since at least September solid, clearing him of any role in the Whitechapel murders. Presumably, he continued his interrupted journey to London. It is unknown whether his employer fired him, or whatever became of him. Perhaps he kicked the bottle, or in rich irony, instead spiraled down the way of the Canonical Five. A false confession may have ended Blanchard's professional career as a canvasser, but as dictionaries tell us, there are many ways to canvass. Whether or not Blanchard reformed or continued on, in the fullest tradition of Wordsworth, is something we don't know.

An interesting case, Alfred Blanchard. A heavy drinker (Blanchard's Manchester references back this up), but not drunk (according to Richard King). How much blame can alcohol assume and how much credit can an unhealthy interest in murder take? What is there that lurks inside some men, for whom murder ignites fantasy, so that they can muse over the best way to silence a victim, to cut a throat. What is there in murder that makes one boast to strangers in a pub, and what is it in the human condition that separates talk from action?11

Notes:

  1. See The Daily Telegraph, 29 September 1888 and 4 October 1888, The Eastern Post, 27 October 1888, and The Times {London}, 3 October 1888. Thanks to Alexander Chisholm and Stephen Ryder for providing these resources.

  2. Thanks to Alexander Chisholm for providing the referenced definitions.

  3. Dobson, Nicholas. "This Thing Called Local Government." http://www.pinsent.com/media/1815325390.pdf. The article originally appeared in The Journal of Local Government Law (2002) J.L.G.L.21.

  4. Thanks to Chris Sutton with Birmingham Central Library's Digital Handsworth Project (www.digitalhandsworth.org.uk).

  5. 1881 census, Public Records Office Reference RG11/3880/80, www.familysearch.org. Also thanks to the following Casebook posters for their thoughts on the profession of canvassing: Monty Burns, Christopher T. George, Robert Charles Linford, Brad McGinnis, John Savage, and Natalie Severn. Ryder, Stephen P. (Ed.). "Profession of Canvassing." Casebook: Jack the Ripper. Accessed: 22 February 2004. <casebook.org>. Thanks to Stephen Ryder for providing the forum.

  6. Thanks to Alex Chisholm for the source.

  7. Thanks to Lauren Dennison, Archive Assistant, City of Birmingham.

  8. Thanks to Chris Sutton, Digital Handsworth Project.

  9. Thanks to Charlotte Tucker with Birmingham Central Library's Local Studies Department. The microplate reproduction of this article is heavily scratched. Where there is a question about a word, I have placed it in brackets.

  10. Thanks to Chris Sutton, Digital Handsworth Project

  11. Many thanks to Alexander Chisholm for his kindness to a novice. Thanks also to Chris Scott, for his insight on all things census.


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