Unsolved Murders

Francis Coles

Age: unknown

Sex: male

Date: 13 Feb 1891

Place: unknown

London police constable Ernest Thompson was com-pleting his first night on foot patrol when he enteredSwallow Gardens at 2:20 A . M .on February 13, 1891. Despite its lyrical name, Swallow Gardens wasa squalid alley underneath a railroad arch, connect-ing Chambers Street to Rosemary Lane (modernRoyal Mint Street). As Thompson entered the alley,his lantern beam picked out a woman’s prostrateform. A closer look showed him the bloody gashacross her throat.Though mortally wounded, the woman was stillalive when Thompson found her, staring at him withterrified eyes. Thompson heard footsteps retreatingtoward Rosemary Lane, but standing orders for dis-covery of bodies required him to stay with thewoman while his shrill whistle summoned help.Acquaintances later reported that Thompson regret-ted his choice—and the probable killer’s escape—tothe end of his life. (Nine years later, Thompson wasstabbed to death on duty while trying to arrest arowdy street brawler.) At that, his efforts to save thewoman were wasted. She died on a stretcher, enroute to London Hospital.Detectives identified the dead woman as 26-year-old Frances Coles, a prostitute otherwise known asFrances Coleman, Frances Hawkins, and “CarrotyNell.” A bootmaker’s daughter, Coles had worked asa wholesale chemist’s packer until 1884, when sheleft that job to try her luck on London’s streets.Investigators at the murder scene found her nightlyearnings, about two shillings, concealed behind agutter pipe at one end of the alley. A black crepe bon-net lay where she had fallen, and morgue attendantsfound a second hat pinned underneath her dress.The victim’s occupation and the cause of deathprompted suspicion that Coles might have beenkilled by “ JACK THE RIPPER ,” London’s elusive serialkiller who had claimed no verified victims sinceNovember 1888. Dr. Bagster Phillips, in his autopsyreport, found that Coles had been killed by a right-handed man who passed a knife three times acrossher throat from left to right, while she lay on theground. None of the Ripper’s characteristic abdomi-nal mutilations were present, but detectives andreporters thought the killer was disturbed by Con-stable Thompson before he could complete hisghastly work.Inquiries produced a witness, one William (Jumbo)Friday, who had seen a man and woman talkingtogether near Swallow Gardens in the early-morninghours of February 13. Friday believed the woman hadbeen Frances Coles; her male companion was stocky,with a “foreign” appearance that somehow suggested employment as a ship’s fireman. Further investigationled police to James Thomas Sadler, recently a firemanon the SS Fez, moored at the London docks. Dis-charged from the ship on February 11, Sadler hadfound his way to the Princess Alice pub on Commer-cial Street and there renewed a former acquaintancewith Frances Coles. They spent that night together,and Sadler had given Coles the money to purchase thesecond-hand bonnet found beside her body. Stilltogether on February 12, they spent the day drinkingSadler’s paycheck, until he was mugged on ThrawlStreet and Coles abandoned him to find a man withmoney. Sadler had visited her White’s Row lodginghouse around 11:30 P . M ., and they had argued for thebest part of an hour. Sadler left at 12:30 A . M .on Feb-ruary 13, followed by Coles five minutes later. Fiftyminutes before Constable Thompson found herdying, Coles met prostitute Ellen Callagher on Com-mercial Street, then went on a “date” (againstCallagher’s advice) with a man who had assaultedCallagher several days earlier. Nothing more isknown of her movements until she was found withher throat slashed in Swallow Gardens.Police arrested Sadler for murder on February 14,and while he made no great protest at first, thatchanged when Sadler found he was suspected of theRipper crimes. The Seamen’s Union provided attor-neys for the inquest, and the lawyers in turn pro-duced seven witnesses to Sadler’s movements on thenight Coles was slain. Blood on his clothing wasexplained by a series of drunken brawls with dockworkers and inhabitants of a Spitalfields roominghouse that finally sent Sadler to London Hospital at5:00 A . M .on February 13. Before that trip, Sadlerhad sold his knife for a shilling to another sailor,Duncan Campbell, who found it too dull to cut meatwhen he sat down to dinner. Dr. F. J. Oxley, the firstphysician to examine Coles at Swallow Gardens, tes-tified that “If a man were incapably drunk and theknife blunt I don’t think he could have produced thewound [that killed Coles].” The prosecution’s casecollapsed entirely when witnesses Kate McCarthyand Thomas Fowled identified themselves as the cou-ple seen by Jumbo Friday near Swallow Gardens thenight Coles died. Sadler was discharged on February27, 1891, with a coroner’s verdict of “murder by aperson or persons unknown.”That ruling did not exonerate him in the minds of London detectives, however. Any link to the Rippercrimes was disproved when officers learned that Sadler had shipped out for the Mediterranean onAugust 17, 1888, and returned to London on Octo-ber 1, thereby missing four of Jack’s five homicides,but some still believed he had killed Frances Coles.Sir Melville Macnaghten, chief constable of ScotlandYard’s Criminal Investigation Division from 1890 to1903, said as much in 1894, but no serious evidencesupports that contention, and the case remains offi-cially unsolved today.