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Bradford Tragedy

The Murder of John Gill

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Bradford Tragedy

"his lust for human blood..."

On an early winter morning, just four days after Christmas Day, a local butchers apprentice discovered a horrific sight at the back of Mellor Street in Bradford, England. There, the body of a young boy was found in an almost indescribable condition. This crime came during the aftermath of the Autumn of Terror perpetrated by the serial killer known as Jack the Ripper, and some even suspected the Whitechapel murderer responsible, owing to the dreadful escalation in his own slayings. Although the crimes of the Ripper were gruesome in their savagery, they paled in comparison to the horrendous mutilations inflicted on seven-year-old John Gill in December 1888, which would be the culmination in a year of bloodshed and horror that shocked Victorian society.

From August 31, 1888 to November 9, 1888, the murderer known as Jack the Ripper would claim the lives of five women in what were vicious and gruesome killings. With a sense of heightened fear among the residents of the East End, and no prostitute safe from the blade of this unseen maniac, the police were powerless to stop the Ripper. With each murder, the mutilations grew steadily more depraved, and culminated in the dissection of the last victim, Mary Kelly. By early December 1888, the killer had all but stopped his murderous spree and vanished, never to be seen or heard from again. Although these crimes were bloodthirsty and shocking to the moralistic Victorian society, they paled in comparison to the murder of a young boy, who’s life was taken by a black-hearted and vile killer who committed unspeakable atrocities.

Early on the morning of Thursday 27, December 1888, seven-year-old John Gill of 41 Thorncliffe Road, Bradford, in the north of England, left his house to accompany local milkman William Barrett on his round. Described by newspaper reports as “a bright little fellow and a general favourite,” Gill would frequently accompany Barrett, and had done many times in the past. Barrett later claimed that the boy had left him before his last call, as the young boy was just a few hundred yards from his home. Despite being so close to his house, John Gill never arrived home. As far as anyone knew, the last definite sighting of him had been at around 8.30am when he was seen at the top of Thorncliffe road, sliding on an ice slide with a group of other boys.

His parents, their neighbours and the police searched over the course of the following two days, frantically looking for any sign the young child, but no trace of him was found. Then, at around 7:00am on the morning of December 29, 1888, Joseph Burke, a boy employed by the local butcher, went to the stable of his master, Mr Newbouldt, located behind Mellor Street, to yoke up the horse for the days trading. Having first tidied the stable, Burke went to deposit the horse droppings in the manure tank when at that moment he spotted a bundle in the corner near the cart shed doors. As described by the Press Association, “The boy was found at a spot than which it would be difficult to find a more convenient one for the purpose of placing anything with the view of escaping detection.”

The discovery of the body of John Gill.

“It is situated in an obscure thoroughfare at the back of Mellor-street. The backs of the houses in the street form one side, and a row of stables and coach-houses opposite. In the latter row there is a recess of a remarkable character, formed by three sides of the stables, that portion immediately facing a spectator in the street, being occupied by two large doors giving entrance to a cart shed. Just at the left there is a receptacle for manure, and there is a space between the head of this place and the wall, and here the body was found.” The December 29, 1888 edition of the South Wales Echo went into detail, describing the horrorific injuries that had been inflicted upon the body of the young boy.

“The unfortunate victim had been indescribably mutilated. Both legs were cut off close to the body. The abdomen was slightly open, and the intestines partly extracted. Both ears were cut off, and there were other shocking disfigurements. When found, the limbs were tied to the body… The braces which the deceased had worn were used to bind the limbs to the trunk. The clothes of the boy were then wrapped round the body, the jacket enveloping the parcel. There was a sack found with the body with the name ‘W. Mason, Derby-road, Liverpool,’ printed upon it, and this the police hope will serve as a clue to the perpetrators of the crime…” All efforts to trace W. Mason would ultimately fail.

The mutilations inflicted on the victim were contained within the same article of the South Wales Echo, and pondered whether the perpetrator, or perpetrators, may have been emulating the Whitechapel murderer. “The body of the little lad Gill was even more shockingly mutilated than at first reported. Both legs and arms had been roughly chipped off. There were two stabs in the left chest, the heart had been torn out entirely, and was stuck against the victim’s throat. Both boots had been taken off the lad’s feet, and were pressed into the cavity of the abdomen in the region of the kidneys, whilst the other parts of the body were practically cut away.”

The sequence of events of the Gill murder, from an article in the Illustrated Police News

“There was no blood at the place where the body was found, and the belief of the police is that the tragedy was committed some time during Thursday night, and the body was only removed to the place where it was found late last (Friday) night. The police theory is that the crime is the act of drunken lads whose imagination had been inflamed by the accounts of the Whitechapel tragedies, and that they attempted an emulation of their worst features. The legs and arms were tied to the body when it was found, and the whole of the remains were wrapped in a coarse cover, making it look like a large oblong parcel.” By noon on December 29, 1888, police had made an arrest. The milkman, William Barrett, was arrested on suspicion of having murdered John Gill. In the December 31, 1888 edition of The Sunderland Daily Echo, Barrett’s appearance is described as he stood before the local magistrates. 

“The Prisoner Barrett was brought before the magistrates in a private room on Saturday. He is a well-built young man of fresh complexion, aged 23. He has been married one year and has one child. His character is good, and the people of this district are inclined to believe in his innocence.” In a long statement read out by the Chief Constable, the grounds for detaining the prisoner were given to the court. First and foremost, the prisoner was the last person seen with the boy.

Next it was stated that the boy had been seen with the prisoner, according to a witness, after the time when the prisoner said he left him. The third was that there was a period of nearly half an hour on the Thursday night for which the prisoner could not account for, and it was possible that he might have been at the stable, of which he had charge, during that time. It was found that at stable the floor had recently been swilled with water, and there was also found a sheet, which was stained, and which had been handed to the forensic expert to find if those stains were of blood.

At Barrett’s house a large knife was found, and when examined was found to fit the two primary wounds. When the prisoner first saw this knife he denied any knowledge of it, but he afterwards admitted it was owned by him. Further evidence showed that the prisoner said at first that he knew nothing about the sheet, but afterwards he said his master had given him it for the horse. Barrett was remanded until the Wednesday. According to The Bristol Mercury, in its edition of Monday 31, December 1888, Barrett’s wife, nor many of their neighbours were convinced that William had carried out the murder.

“As to the police inquiries, there is the strong feeling in the neighbourhood of Thorncliffe-road that, despite the suspicious circumstances to which the Chief Constable directed the attention of the magistrates, the prisoner Barrett is guiltless of any attempt to injure the boy. Those who know him best give him an excellent character for steadiness and sobriety, and declare that he is the last man in the world to commit murder. A press representative visited Mrs Barrett today and found her perfectly tranquil and collected. She said, ‘I have no doubt whatever of my husband’s innocence.'”

“On being questioned as to the bread knife, she stated that the police came to the house yesterday and asked to be allowed to examine her cutlery. She showed the detectives where the table knives were kept, and they selected the most formidable one they could and and took it away. She affirms that the bread knife was regularly cleaned with the other cutlery at the end of the week.” It wasn’t long before people were drawing parallels between the murder of young John Gill, and the crimes of still unsolved Whitechapel murders that had been committed throughout the East End over the previous autumn months.

On Monday, December 31, 1888, The Hull Daily Mail reported that, “The details of the crime allow that in some respects it surpasses in its terrible character the murders in Whitechapel. There, the fiend, having killed his victims, proceeded to mutilate their bodies on the spot. Here in Bradford he takes away the life of an innocent lad, drains every drop of blood out of his body, and then commences the work of cutting it up, finishing his horrible performance by tying the parts together and depositing them in a dark corner a hundred yards from the house where the little boy had lived.”

An article from the Illustrated Police News, showing the discovery of John Gill's body.

The paper went on to claim, “One would imagine that the annals of crime, in this or any other country, would have to be searched in vain for the record of a deed worse than this. It is unnecessary to say that the murder of John Gill has created a very great sensation throughout Bradford, and it will be long before the recollection of it has died out. The vicinity of the murder was visited during Saturday and yesterday by some thousands of persons, who stood in groups about the streets discussing the shocking details, expressing sympathy for the bereaved parents, and hoping that the perpetrator of the foul deed may be brought to justice.”

It then summed up the feelings of local residents, that the murder was the work of the Whitechapel fiend. “There was a widespread feeling that ‘Jack the Ripper’ had transferred his operations from the East End to Bradford, and parents were terror-struck lest little John Gill might be only the first of a number of victims to his lust for human blood…” By Tuesday January 1, 1889, The Daily News reported on what appeared to be another unusual twist in what was proving to be an odd and horrific case. “A remarkable story came to the knowledge of the Bradford police some time on Thursday, on the morning of which the boy John Gill was first missed, and regarding which they have kept the strictest silence.”

It went on to describe how, “On Wednesday night last, a tailor named Cahill, of 324, Heaton-road – a thoroughfare in the suburb where the body was found, but about half a mile further from town and in a very isolated position – went to a ball with his wife. Upon his return about 10 o’clock Thursday morning, an hour and a half after the boy was last seen with the milkman Barrett, he found that their home had been entered. The furniture had been pulled about and turned upside down; a number of articles of various kinds had been thrown in a heap upon the table in the living room; and upon another table was a sight which struck him with horror.”

The story was then narrated by Mr. Cahill himself. “A couple of carving knives were placed crosswise upon the table, and upon them was a card, on one side of which was written; “Half-past-9 – look out – Jack the Ripper has been,” whilst on the other side were the words; “I have removed down to the canal side. Please drop in. Yours truly, SUICIDE.” There was a large tin can full of water found on the same table, and the whole surface of the table was saturated with water. The clock in the living room was stopped, and the fingers indicated the time stated on the card, half-past nine. Nothing had been removed from the house, except a bottle of rum. Another bottle of rum had been removed from the cupboard, and some of its contents bad been poured into two glasses, which were left upon the table almost empty. Mr. Cahill has been compelled to obtain another house, the shock of the discovery having so unnerved his wife that she will not stay in the house without constant company.”


Over the course of several days, from January 9, 1889, William Barrett appeared before magistrates and Bradford Police Court, as the evidence against him was presented and evaluated. On Friday, January 11, 1889, a decision by the court had been reached. Mr Armitage, the Chairman of the magistrates, announced that, having carefully considered every point of the evidence against William Barrett, they were unanimously of the opinion that no prima facie case could be made out, and the prisoner would, therefore, be discharged. The Daily News reported on January 12, 1889, that “There was a loud and prolonged applause in court; and when Barrett soon afterwards left the building, and drove off in a cab, he was followed for some distance by a cheering crowd. In the evening, on his arrival at Cononley, his native village, he was publicly feted.”

Barrett's acquittal shown in a drawing for the Illustrated Police News.

With the acquittal of William Barrett, the murderer, or murderers, of young John Gill were never brought to justice, and the crime has remained unsolved. The passage of time, some 130+ years, has done nothing to dampen the horror of the atrocity, which surpasses even the most gruesome of Jack the Ripper’s crimes. Despite numerous attempts, the John Gill murder has never been officially linked to the Whitechapel murders. Patricia Cornwall, for example, has claimed that the crime is the work of her prime suspect, Walter Sickert, but the most likely outcome is that it was not connected to the crimes of Saucy Jack. For the little boy who met such a horrible and sad end, there is little hope that justice will be served for either him or his ancestors.

Written by Nucleus

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