The Family History of The Kray Twins Part 4: Murder and Body Snatching in Whitechapel

Murder in Goodman’s Yard

It was a sunny autumn afternoon in the Charity School where Mary Ann Kray was practising her writing, scratching the small nub of chalk across the grey slate. The sun shone in across her hand and made her fingers feel warm; two clean fingernails shone pink and bright. The quiet of the classroom under the strict watchful eye of her teacher was broken by the door opening unexpectedly, and the clean, hard, uniformed figure of Officer Lea from the local police station stepped smartly in. All the children were surprised, but Mary Ann was caught by the shine of the sunlight on his brass buttons; she didn’t look at his face or hear his exchange with her teacher. The spell was broken as the shine of the buttons moved from Mary Ann to the face of young Ned Cook, Mary Ann’s classmate, friend, and neighbour, Officer Lea took Ned by the collar, and walked with him, held gently but firmly, towards the door. Momentarily Ned turned his head to look at Mary Ann, and the sunlight shone from the tear that cut a trail through the grime on his cheek.

The year was 1832, and the place was Regency Whitechapel. The children from Goodman’s Yard in the shadow of the Tower of London were lucky to have a charity school to attend. Mary Ann was eleven years old and the eldest daughter of John and Maria Kray. She had witnessed Ned Cook’s arrest, and this would lead to the unfolding a macabre story of murder, body snatching, and a public hanging.

To understand how a family evolves over time it is necessary to understand the environment in which they evolved; the attitudes, risks, and dreams of the people and their neighbours. With the Kray family there is no better place to start than Regency London and the desperation, temptation, and punishments that the played out with the working classes; this was the fire that would forge the Kray family.

Earlier that year, Ann Buton, the Granddaughter of an old Irish street seller, Caroline Walsh, had turned up at the garret room of 7 Goodmans Yard to look for her missing Grandmother. This was the home of Edward (Ned) Cook, his common law wife Elizabeth Ross (sometimes going by the name of her partner as Mrs Cook), and their son, Mary Ann’s school friend, young Ned Cook. Elizabeth Ross had a reputation for being a highly inquisitive person, and liked a drink, and it was not long before she had persuaded Ann Buton to buy her a drink, or as it turned out, a quartern of Gin, and two pints of beer. As they drank, Ann Buton questioned Elizabeth Ross closely, Ross said that the old lady had stayed the night but had gone out for some errands and would no doubt be back soon, but as the drink took hold, and the questions continued, Ross said:

“You seem to think from what you say, that we have murdered the woman.”

“I hope not Mrs Cook.”

Replied Buton.

Elizabeth Ross continued;

“From what you seem to say, you think we have destroyed her at our place.”

Buton, obviously alarmed retorted;

“Mrs Cook, you put the words into my mouth, but what I think I don’t speak now, but you will know of it hereafter.”

After this strange exchange, Elizabeth Ross tried her hardest to persuade Ann Buton to come back to her garret with her to have something to eat, but Buton refused, instead giving her some money to buy some food that they would eat in Brown’s Pub. Taking the money Elizabeth Ross went off and did not return.

Not to be put off the trail Ann continued to search the workhouses and hospitals for her Grandmother for some days, returning to the Garret where she saw bruises on Elizabeth Ross which she said she received at the hands of her partner Ned Cook, administered she said in punishment for her having gone drinking with Ann Buton and discussing the old lady’s disappearance. Ross’s story became stranger, with talk of rumours of an old Irish women dieing in the local workhouse, and that no doubt Ann would hear if her grandmother was alive or dead in a month or two. Having lost hope of any progress and sure that Ross knew more than she was saying, Ann Buton went to the local Police to make a complaint. The case was not followed up by the Police until the Granddaughters went to a magistrate in October, and it was then that Officer Lea was dispatched to arrest Ross and Ned Cook on suspicion of involvement in the old lady’s disappearance, and because he was required to keep them in custody, he was compelled to take young Ned Cook as well.

This was the turning point in the case, as young Ned, after a visit from his school master, no doubt raked with guilt and fear confessed to Lea that he had returned from school one evening to see old Mrs Walsh in their Garret, where she had drunk some coffee with his mother and father. The old lady had felt tired after this, and had lain down on the bed. He had then said that he had watched his mother approach the bed, put one hand over Mrs Walsh’s face, and the other on her chest, whilst leaning forward with her weight on the old woman. Frightened and looking to his father for help, Ned went over and stood at his side, but his father ignored him, standing with his back to the grim scene leaning out of the garret window. The terrified boy looked back to see Mrs Walsh’s eyes roll back, as his mother smothered the life out of her.
His mother carried the old woman’s body down stairs. He considered running away, but had nowhere to go, and so he curled up in bed hoping to wipe the horror from his mind.

The next morning he went to the basement privy, which was seldom frequented as it was infested with rats, but he had heard that one of the other families in the house had some ducks down there, and he wanted to see them. Feeling his way around in the dark he felt a large sack in the corner, and protruding out of it the top of the black hair of Caroline Walsh! He fled the basement. That night near to midnight he saw his mother carrying the body in the sack along Goodmans Yard, the next day she told him she had taken it to the hospital.

This was the grim tale that unfolded for the Jury at the Old Bailey trial, and the case was sensationalised in the press, with tales of the body not being found because Ross had sold it to surgeons for dissection, hot on the heels of the Burke and Hare grave robbing in Scotland, the press and public were craving more sensational stories of Irish murderers and body snatchers, and the Ross case had all the ingredients; Elizabeth Ross was Irish, a murder had most likely taken place, the old ladies possessions had been sold off for a few shillings after her disappearance by Ross, the body was missing, perhaps she had disposed of the evidence to some anatomists, and she was condemned out of the mouth of her own son!

Elizabeth Ross was found guilty of murder ad condemned to be hanged. Her partner Ned Cook was found not guilty. She was publicly hanged at Newgate, in front of a howling crowd, and her body was given over for dissection to the college of surgeons. Her life had been taken and her body dissected in a grim parody of the crimes she was accused of. To add insult to injury, her partially clothed corpse was sketched for a book of famous murders.

We can only speculate on what this outcome did to the mind of young Ned who had sent her to the gallows, without his evidence, she may have been convicted of handling stolen goods, but of little else. But Regency London was a harsh place, working class people were considered as criminals as a matter of course by many in society, and a child’s testimony would be all that was needed to send you to the gallows to swing for public entertainment, and then to the surgeons, this amounted to being hanged, drawn, and quartered. There was no balance of justice for the working class in Whitechapel and Bethnal Green, there was no reasonable doubt. Conversely a neighbour may have been willing to kill you for the clothes you stood up in, dispose of your body to the anatomists and very likely get away with it if nobody “talked”. Either way, the lessons learned by the Krays would have been that life could end suddenly through the law or against it, violent crime was an everyday occurrence, violent justice would be meted out if you were caught, and you could be caught and hanged by the voice of your own children. The other lesson was that the poor could not expect to be helped by the Police unless, like Ann Buton, you fought hard for it.

Given the cramped conditions the children would have spent as much of their time as possible outside, playing with the six Pattison children from the first floor. No doubt under the watchful eyes of the elderly house owner, a shop keeper, Mrs Hamilton who had the room on the ground floor. Time had moved on from when old Mrs Walsh had gone missing in Goodmans Yard, but parents still frightened their children saying that Mrs Cook the body snatcher would come and put them in a sack to sell to a surgeon if they didn’t behave.

Early Victorian Whitechapel

Whitechapel at this time had a hugely growing populace, mainly from other parts of the home counties, with people desperate to get into “The Smoke” as London became known to country dwellers, businesses were booming, and young people were attracted to the excitement of living in a place packed with people, but where nobody knew you, the village could be claustrophobic because of the familiarity of everything and everyone around you in the square mile of your village Parish, each of London’s square miles teemed with hundreds of thousands of people everyone invisible to the great mass around them. If you had money you were served with every vice imaginable, sex, drink, drugs (in the form of opium dens), in the minds of the fresh faced newcomer foreseen as romance and adventure.

The grim reality was somewhat different. The Alleyways were too cramped to get a carriage through, feral children roamed in packs picking pockets and stealing from market stalls, they grew into surly teenagers who frequented the Penny Dives in the Gin Palaces, the forerunners of the more respectable Music Halls. Here on small raised stages, accompanied by a rickety piano, popular stage acts would belt out bawdy double-entendres to the cheers and cat calls of their audience, nudges and winks going from boy to girl and back again. These were the Whitechapel Loafers, and this is where they would spend their light fingered spoils on Gin, by the pint. They would grow into the local hard man or “bully”, each of whom held sway over a court of ancient houses, rats in the cellars, and sparrows in the eves, sandwiching rooms filled with families, the houses themselves were being gradually shaken to pieces by the new railway engines thundering by them night and day. Whitechapel was a world apart, the Bullies and their Dolls blocking the roads in broad daylight and robbing any who looked prosperous enough and weak enough to provide both little resistance and high reward.

A strong hard working family would rise above all of this, but during the Kray childrens’ teenage years, their father John Kray’s drinking got steadily heavier. Much of his wages would have gone to the Gin Shop and the Beer House, and although he seemed to have a prodigious capacity for drink it was slowly poisoning his central nervous system. Eventually, especially when the money was low and drink hard to get John Kray would become restless during the day and sleepless at night, falling into depression. He started talking incessantly but incoherently, would say that he was going out to deal with some imaginary business, this would develop into visual hallucinations and he would believe that any object or person that was mentioned was physically in front of him. The symptoms got worse with or without a drink, and a fever set in. John was suffering Delirium Tremens, which gave him about a 30% chance of dieing in the 19th century, however if pneumonia set in then it invariably became fatal. He ranted and raved, and was given to violent delusions, capable of hurting himself or those around him, the family tried to help him, but his situation was becoming unmanageable. Eventually the fever laid him low, and his teenaged sons and Maria his wife were forced to carry him to the doors of the London Hospital to seek treatment for him.

For the family this would have been the last resort, as Hospital were viewed with suspicion, and up until the 1840s quite rightly so. The problem was that before the 1840s the qualifications for becoming a nurse were lax to say the least, from the 1820s the severe lack of nurses meant that women who could not read or write were allowed in, Hospital Governors and Doctors at the time said:

“The only points to be settled when engaging a nurse were that she was not Irish and not a confirmed drunkard. We always engage them without a character, as no respectable person would undertake so disagreeable an office. Every vice was rampant among these women, and their aid to the dieing was to remove pillows and bedclothes, and so hasten the end.”

With this in mind the Family handed to feverish and hallucinating John Kray over to the hospital porters. The worst of the offenders among the nurses had gone by now, and were replaced by semi-trained well meaning women, most of whom could read and write, and John was fortunate to be cared for by one such woman, Emma Davies, who may have been an older nurse as the young nurses were not allowed to enter the Mens’ wards, she would also have received an extra £2 per year for looking after the Men’s wards. The nurses were dreadfully overworked having to work both night and day shifts with only a very limited period of rest in between, and it is unlikely that a Doctor would have wasted much time on a middle aged man suffering from the effects of a lifetime of excessive drinking, so when on a hot day in August 1844 John Kray’s fever finally got the better of him, it was Nurse Emma Davies who witnessed the cause of death simply as a “Diseased Brain”.

Faced with this, Maria had stark choices to contend with. She had a house full of kids to look after, with no breadwinner, and not just through the obvious grief of separation of a mother and children from a husband and father, despite his terrible rages towards the end of his life, but now with the prospect of not being able to pay the rent and being cast out on the streets. Whatever happened life would now be grim, and Maria would need to make the most heartbreaking decisions in order to keep her children from harm.


The Family Falls Apart

The decision Maria made was to sacrifice herself to save the children. Her eldest daughter Mary Ann had married William Golbourn in 1843, the Golbourns had lived amongst the Huguenot Silk Weavers in Bethnal Green for generations. They were probably descendants of Huguenots themselves, but had moved with the times, the men now working as Gas Lamp Lighters, while the women worked on lighter trades such as shoe and Straw Bonnet making. They survived and multiplied, and had the charity of heart to take in the Kray boys after John Kray’s death. As always in times of trouble the Kray Family came to the rescue of their kin, saving them from the streets or workhouse. No matter how poor and cramped the conditions, it would always be better than that.

However there was only so much charity that was available, and conditions were cramped for the Golbourns although they did what they could. Maria took up work as a Charlady getting up at four in the morning to clean the offices, pubs, and public buildings of the area before the populace turned up to use them, hard, cold, poorly paid work, but it fed her gave enough to afford the tuppence a night in the lowest lodging houses, people separated from each other by simple wood boards stopping just above head height, in spaces just big enough for a bed, and that was when the work was coming in. In the times when it wasn’t Maria was forced first into the Charity Refuges, these were an alternative to the dreaded Workhouses. They were run by charities, and did their best for the local poor, but the demand was overwhelming.

Maria wandered into the courtyard of the refuge, fear of refusal, and a night on the streets in her heart, hands clasped, begging, pleading, trying to hide her Bronchial coughs from the overseers for fear of being turned away through fear of infection. Hemmed in on all sides by waifs and strays, men too old to work, young boys too frail to survive by crime, girls with babes in their arms thrown out of home for giving in to natures instincts, a dejected mass of humanity too fearful of rejection to do more of beg for a place within the refuge, too weak through lack of food to worry about pride. A firm, but not unkind superintendent lets her in, she gives her name, age, occupation, and place of birth, she could cry with relief, but lacks the strength. A hunk of bread is placed in her hand, and after sitting with the other women and girls to eat it, she joins three of them in a room for a bath, and then to bed, and the sweet oblivion of sleep, to the lullaby of the preacher walking up and down the long room reading from the bible.

There came a point where the risk of not being able to get in to the night shelters were no good, she couldn’t take the risk, as her Bronchitis was getting worse and another night on the cold streets would kill her. So with a heavy heart she knocked on the door of the Whitechapel Poor House, and committed herself to a safe, harsh, and unsympathetic regime that would keep her fed, and alive, but completely controlled by the authorities, her only happiness being her monthly opportunity to leave the walls and visit her family, but failure to return as directed would mean a life on the streets, but that one visit would allow her to get through the next month of grey austerity. The minimum food, and hard regime, kept her weak, and although it gave her several years of life, it did nothing to get rid of her Bronchial state or her weak heart, and on 23rd February 1878, she passed away in the Whitechapel Workhouse Infirmary in Bakers Row.

Her sons fared better. Mary Ann and William Goulborn had taken in her brother James to live with them at 30 Birdcage Walk Bethnal Green, which with would have been cramped with their own three children, but at least it would have brought an extra income into the house when he was old enough to work as a Cigar Maker.

See Part 5 of the Kray Twins’ Family Story here.

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