When discussing unsolved murders of women in late Victorian London, most people think of the depredations of Jack the Ripper. But Jack the Ripper was just one of a string of phantom murderers whose unsolved slayings outraged late Victorian Britain. Here is the case of the unsolved murder of Jane Maria Clouson in Eltham in 1871.
Jane Maria Clouson was a 17 servant girl, employed by the Greenwich master printer and stationer Ebenezer Whitcher Pook, who had two sons Thomas Burch Pook, born in 1845, and Edmund Walter Pook, born in 1851.
Edmund was still unmarried in 1871 and considered ‘delicate’ by his parents because he was suffering from epilepsy.
On April 13, 1871, Jane Maria was sacked from her job, although she had been with the Pooks for nearly two years, and appeared to have given them loyal and competent service.
She moved into lodgings at 12 Ashburnham Road, with the landlady Fanny Hamilton. On the evening of Tuesday, April 25, Jane Maria told Mrs Hamilton that she was going out to meet her sweetheart Edmund Pook, with whom she was still on friendly terms although she was no longer working in the household.
In the morning of Wednesday, April 26 1871, Police Constable Donald Gunn was walking his beat in Kidbrooke Lane.
All of a sudden, he saw a young woman kneeling on the ground. When he asked her what she was doing, she groaned “Oh, my poor head! Oh, my poor head.”
Constable Gunn saw that she had been badly beaten about the head, with some formidable blunt instrument.
When she raised her left hand and asked him to take hold of it, he was appalled to see that her brain protruded through one of the terrible wounds.
The doctors at Guy’s Hospital soon realised that the girl’s case was hopeless.
She recovered consciousness for a short while, and it was hoped that she would tell them her name, but all she said was something that sounded like ‘Mary Shru …’ before losing consciousness, for good.
She was later identified by her relations as Jane Maria Clouson.
On May 1, Superintendent Griffin and Detective Inspector Mulvany went to call on the Pooks. After they had explained to Ebenezer Pook that his former housemaid had been murdered, they demanded to see Master Edmund, and to inspect his clothes.
Edmund Pook denied ever writing Jane Maria Clouson a letter, as the police had been told he had; when pressed on this point, he angrily exclaimed “Have you the letter?
“If it is in my handwriting that will prove it!”
He claimed to know nothing of Jane Maria, except that she had been a dirty young woman, who had to leave the Pook household in consequence.
The policemen must have found him a very boorish, disagreeable young man. When his old shirt was produced, it had a bloodstain on the right wristband, which young Pook could not explain.
It is intriguing to speculate if the two policemen had anticipated making an arrest when they went to see the Pooks, but Edmund gave a very bad impression, and the bloodstain seems to have clinched the matter.
Inspector Mulvany formally charged him with the murder, and he was removed into police custody.
On Sunday, May 7, Eltham was full of London curiosity seekers, who delighted in visiting the murder scene in Kidbrooke Lane.
According to rumour, the site was haunted by the restless spirit of the murdered girl, and strictly avoided after dark, even by the locals.
After lengthy proceedings in the police court and at the coroner’s inquest, the trial of Edmund Pook for the wilful murder of Jane Maria Clouson was opened at the Old Bailey on July 10, 1871, before the Chief Justice, Sir William Bovill.
The prosecution was led by the attorney-general, Sir John Coleridge, and Mr John Walter Huddleston defended Edmund Pook.
Several people claimed to have heard Jane Maria speak of her relationship with young Pook, being pregnant with his child, or planning to meet him on the evening of the murder, but their testimony was not allowed due to the inadmissibility of hearsay evidence, thus seriously weakening the case for the prosecution.
The police witnesses faced a hostile cross-examination from the peppery Mr Huddleston, who made them seem careless and evasive, suggesting that they had been exaggerating the evidence against Edmund Pook.
Miss Alice Durnford had been Edmund Pook’s girlfriend for 12 months. Since her parents knew nothing about their association, Pook used to go to her house and signal to her with a blast on a whistle, whenever he wanted to see her.
Interestingly, a whistle had been found by the police near the murder scene, perhaps indicating that young Pook habitually used to keep one handy to call the women of his life.
Alice Durnford was due to meet Edmund the Thursday after the murder, but she had been ‘grounded’ by her parents for some unspecified misdeed, and although Edmund had whistled for her, she had been unable to leave the house.
Professor Henry Letheby, the celebrated analytical chemist, had examined Edmund Pook’s clothes, and the murder weapon.
Both legs of the trousers, one cuff of the shirt, and the wide-awake hat, were found to be recently stained with mammalian blood.
On the inner side of the left trouser leg, just above the knee, was a human hair, of the same colour and appearance as hairs cut from the head of Jane Maria Clouson.
The rusty lathing hammer found near the crime scene was liberally stained with blood, and had adherent to it several hairs, again matching those of Jane Maria Clouson.
The mainstay of Edmund Pook’s defence was an alibi.
Thomas Pook, brother of Edmund, testified that on April 24, Edmund had left work at 7pm.
After washing his hands and tidying himself up, he had joined his brother and gone to the Lecture Hall, staying there for a while before having a drink at the Globe Inn, and then returning home at 9 pm.
On April 25, Edmund had again put down his tools at 7pm, and gone into town at around 7.20pm. He had returned home shortly after 9pm, looking neither flushed nor untidy, to have his supper and go to bed.
There had been several instances of bloodshed in the printing-shop. Edmund had suffered a fit and bitten his tongue on April 6, he had injured his finger on April 14, and a youth had hurt his knuckles and been bandaged up by Edmund, incidents all conducive to his clothes becoming stained with blood.
Chief Justice Bovill summed the case up at length, from a distinctly pro-Pook perspective.
Inspector Mulvany had made a false statement about Pook writing a letter to the dead girl, and since both Griffin and Mulvany were obviously prejudiced against Pook, the jury would have to watch their evidence very narrowly.
There was no clearcut evidence that Pook was responsible for Jane Maria being pregnant.
Since her injuries had been very extensive, one would have expected the clothes of murderer to be more severely stained with blood than those of Pook had been shown to be.
Three alibi witnesses alleged that Pook had been in Lewisham between 8 and 9pm the evening of the murder, and if they were right, the prisoner was clearly innocent.
Due to the verbosity of the legal counsel, the jury did not retire until 8.45pm, but helped by the pro-Pook summing up from Chief Justice Bovill, they only took 35 minutes to find Edmund Pook not guilty of murder, a verdict that was loudly cheered in court.
This is an edited extract from Jan Bondeson’s book Rivals of the Ripper (new paperback edition May 2021, History Press, Stroud).
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