The Christmas Murders
The Gruesome Murder of Hannah Brown
The Paddington Murder Sheet, published in 1837, shared the lurid details of Greenacre’s murder of Hannah Brown. Image property of Westminster City Archives.
Any piece of detective work is a jigsaw puzzle – finding which bits fit and which don’t, carefully sifting and experimenting until the big picture emerges. In the case of the unfortunate Hannah Brown, however, it was literally true. A series of horrifying discoveries around London, in the early weeks of 1837, had the whole of London horrified and fascinated by one of the capital’s grisliest murder mysteries.
The men working on the Regent’s Canal in Stepney were used to oddities being washed into the lock gates. Often it was some bounty that had fallen overboard from a goods-laden tug headed up to Birmingham and the Midlands – a barrel of brandy, a sack of coal or a bolt of linen. Occasionally it was something far worse. So it was that in early January that year, the crew clearing the Ben Jonson Locks (behind the Ragged School Museum and close to what is now the junction of Ben Jonson Road, Rhodeswell Road and Copperfield Road) fished a human head from the water. A modern-day detective would have quickly established that it hadn’t been in the water for long, being still recognisable as that of a woman in middle age.
The only problem was that in 1837 the science of policing was in its infancy, and the newly formed Metropolitan Police didn’t yet have a detective branch (formed in 1829, the Met wouldn’t get a ‘CID’ until 1841). It was left to a sharp-eyed doctor to put two and two together.
A few weeks before, on 28 December, a bricklayer named Bond had been working a few miles west, on a new row of houses, Canterbury Villas, on the Edgware Road. Returning to his lodgings in Kilburn on that icy winter’s day, Mr Bond had to traverse the Regent’s Canal – where his eye alighted on a coarse wrapping of sack. The horrified builder noted that from the hessian there oozed a pool of now-frozen blood.
The police were called, to unveil a torso from which both head and legs had been crudely hacked. An inquest was organised and held – in the curious manner of the day – at the White Lion Inn on the Edgware Road. The facts were clear, if incomplete, and the coroner duly noted that the torso was that of “a woman of around 50”. The jury returned a verdict of “wilful murder against some person or persons unknown.”
A few weeks later, in the East End, Dr Girdwood, the district surgeon of Stepney, was puzzling over his severed head. He recalled the gruesome finding in Westminster and wondered whether there could be a connection. Calling his Paddington colleague, he asked for the torso to be exhumed. The untidiness of the murderer’s knife-work made it easy for the doctor to announce that the two body parts were a match. Still the story was incomplete though. Girdwood placed the head in preserving spirits and waited.
The gruesome set would be completed on 2 February. Down in Camberwell, labourer James Page had taken work cutting back willow branches around a culvert. Stepping over the ditch, he noticed a wrapping of sackcloth in the water, from which protuded a human foot. The police arrived, opened the wrapping and revealed two human legs. Rushed to Girdwood for examination, the limbs proved to be the final pieces in the puzzle. Police now had a body but no killer.
The case had filled the London papers however. And on 20 March, a Mr Gay of Goodge Street came to the Paddington churchwarden, asking for permission to inspect the body. Gay had been searching fruitlessly for his sister, Hannah Brown, who had disappeared just before Christmas.
Now the puzzle raced quickly to a conclusion. If the identity of victims sometimes took time to be revealed, the identity of their killers was usually more obvious. The constables of the Met always looked first to family members, friends and lovers; it soon emerged that Hannah had left her lodgings on Christmas Eve, telling friends she was to marry a James Greenacre of Camberwell.
Greenacre proved elusive but was finally tracked down on 24 March, to the lodgings in the Kennington Road he shared with Sarah Gale, his common law wife. In the hallway were packed trunks; in Greenacre’s pocket were tickets for a passage to America. The police searched the trunks, to find items belonging to Hannah.
Ms Gale had lived with Mr Greenacre before he met Ms Brown. It seeems that Mr Greenacre proposed to Ms Brown, believing that she was wealthy. But it was not long before their marriage, scheduled for Christmas, that he realised this was not the case. So he is believed to have killed her as a means of escape.
Justice was swift. Just three weeks later, the pair were standing in the dock at the Old Bailey. Greenacre’s defence was non existent. He first claimed not to have known Hannah, then said she had disappeared. Gale, standing alongside her lover, became similarly confused in her defence, as she was accused of being an accessory after the fact. Today, trials last for months. That of Greenacre and Gale was over in two days, the judge summed up in a few minutes, and the jury took a quarter of an hour to reach their verdict of guilty.
This murder was a notorious case at the time as it sparked such grisly treasure hunt to find all of the body pieces. The story is also mentioned in 'The Suspicions of Mr Whicher,' by Kate Summerscale, Published by Bloomsbury Press which follows the nineteenth century investigations of Camberwell-born detective inspector Jonathan Whicher.
Greenacre was hanged on the 2nd of May, 1837. By then, Gale had been transported to Australia – from where she would never return.