On the morning of Saturday 12 May, 1900, a teenaged boy found his mother lying on the floor of her bedroom, her pillow over her face. Thinking she may have had some sort of fit and fallen out of bed, the boy removed the pillow, dropping it in shock as he caught sight of the pool of blood the body was lying in. Fleeing the basement flat, he began screaming for help, rousing the landlady from her sleep. So started the enquiry into a horrific murder – one that shocked even the seediest denizens of Victorian London – one that remains unsolved to this day.
Mary Kate Wakenell was 42 years old and lived in the two-roomed basement of 44 Water Lane – a street off Brixton Hill, the main road south from Brixton – with her 16 year old son, Robert. The “flat” consisted of a bedroom and a kitchen – the latter being where Robert had to sleep; they paid rent of seven shillings per week, mainly covered by Robert’s wages as an apprentice, although Mary did work as a mantlemaker (dressmaker). Mary had been separated from her husband – Robert’s step-father – Norman Wakenell, for some five years, although he was often seen around Brixton. It hadn’t been a happy marriage; Norman had run through Mary’s meagre inheritance, passing on his addiction to alcohol to her in the process. In time the money ran out, Norman grew more abusive, and Mary had decided to break free.
On the night of Friday 11th, Robert returned home from work at around 10pm, to find his mother dressed up and ready to go out. They had their usual squabble – she wanted money and he wasn’t inclined to give it to her – but eventually he gave her what she wanted. Mary left the house around 11pm, and Robert went to bed. With his mother’s addiction showing no sign of abating, it had become a typical routine.
Robert never heard his mother return. A witness statement from the local police-constable places her alive and well on nearby Effra Road at just past midnight. From the direction she was walking, she seemed to be heading home to Water Lane. She was alone and appeared sober, although the constable tactfully mentioned that he usually saw her in the presence of diverse men…
Robert went to rouse his mother at about quarter to eight on the Saturday morning, concerned that she had not yet gotten up. Lying on the floor in her nightwear, on her back, with her legs drawn up, Mary was partially blocking the door that connected her room with the kitchen. Upon seeing the pool of blood, Robert fled for help. The coroner discovered twenty seven wounds on Mary’s body; cause of death was most likely that her throat had been slit, but also, a large pair of seamstress scissors was found imbedded in her breast, from where she had been stabbed in the heart. Robert confirmed that the scissors had belonged to his mother and were usually to be found in her room.
There was a passage from Mary’s room out into the communal area, where there was the front door leading out to the street. This door was wide open – presumably the killer’s escape route. Still, the police were baffled. How could Mary have been so viciously killed whilst her son slept on, unaware, in an adjoining room? Not one resident of the over-inhabited tenement house reported hearing a thing. Theoretically, the pillow could have been used to smother her cries, or she may have been beaten unconscious quickly – she had a black eye – but considering the viciousness of the murder, surely someone would have heard something? The autopsy reported that death had occurred around 3 or 4am – hours after Mary had been sighted – alone – almost home. Could she have “picked up” a gentleman caller during the very short distance between Effra Road and Water Lane? Perhaps she’d had a pre-arranged early-hours rendezvous?
With the twenty seven separate wounds, it definitely seemed to have been a crime of passion. Suspicion immediately fell on Norman Wakewell; he obviously thought he looked good for it too, because as soon as he found out about his wife’s death he reported to a police station with an absolutely airtight alibi.
Mary Kate Wakenell is just one of the hundreds of faceless murdered Victorian women; the case went cold almost immediately, all suspects discounted. Young Robert trembled in the inquiry court as he recounted how he’d found his mother lying dead, blushed and stammered as the lawyers tried to make it sound like his mother had supported him through prostituting herself, of which there was no hard evidence. As with the Jack the Ripper murders, Victorian society seemed at times to think that hard-living women – like the Whitechapel prostitutes, like the alcoholic Mary Wakenell – almost deserved what they got. So, over a hundred years later and we still don’t know who stuck Mary Wakenell’s scissors into her breast, crushed a pillow into her face and slashed her throat wide open – likely, we never will.