The Gorenhoff Riot
On April 5th, 1902, riot broke out in the English minster town of Reading. Trouble began outside Reading Crown Court; the angry, drunken mob then rampaged through the town-centre, surging through the narrow streets and parkland in and around the Town Hall, the ruins of Reading Abbey, and the banks of the River Thames.
A woman was raped, two men beaten to death, and two more drowned; damage to public and private property was later estimated at £10,000 (£800,000 in modern currency). The riot lasted until the following morning, by which time hundreds of police officers from as far away as Oxford and Portsmouth had been drafted in to quell the angry mob.
A subsequent police report blamed newspapers: ‘Had the reporters, editors and owners of the national press displayed the slightest restraint in reporting the Gorenhoff trial, this terrible tumult could doubtless have been avoided, despite the unfavourable verdict.
‘Instead, they chose to dwell on all that was most gruesome, salacious and horrific in the evidence presented by the prosecution; and in so doing, whipped the public’s mood into a rowdy, vituperative lather.’
The police report is accurate, in as much as newspapers had been competing with each other for scoops since the second of the victims disappeared. Headlines such as ‘TONGUE AND TEETH FOUND AT SITE OF BOY’S ABDUCTION’ (which appeared on the frontpage of The Illustrated London News on April 2nd, 1898) had served to draw the fervid interest of the entire nation, a fact born out by the inquest that followed the riot: of the 86 people arrested by police, only 41 were residents of Reading.
One also notes the hand of sensationalist journalism in other ways. The figure of Jack the Ripper stilled loomed large in editors’ minds (as did the unprecedented surge in newspaper sales his murders had prompted) and reporters scrambled to provide a catchy, alliterative name for the murderer: The Reading Renderer; The Cannibal of Crowthorne; The Farnham Fiend.
While these lurid names are accurate in reference to the nature of the crimes, they are geographically imprecise. True, the defendant, Victor Gorenhoff, was tried in Reading; was held at the (then named) Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum in Crowthorne; and was accused of abducting and murdering a child from Farnham.
But the nexus of the crimes was elsewhere, in a small redbrick town that, in the late-Victorian period, was slowly growing across the sandy heaths and marshland that lay south of the London-to-Southampton railway: the town of Fleet, in the north-east corner of the county of Hampshire.
The First Victim
The spree of abduction, mutilation, and murder that prompted the Gorenhoff trial began on March 17th, 1898, when an eight-year-old girl named Sally Jessop disappeared on the Tweseldown road that links Fleet with the neighbouring town of Aldershot.
Even today, the three-mile stretch of road is a gloomy, desolate place, lined on both sides by nettles, ferns, and pine and silver birch trees, the barks of which bulge with galls. Withered bouquets of flowers mark occasional points where human lives have been lost to car accidents caused by the road’s tight and treacherous bends.
Halfway along, the road passes a lonely promontory known as Caesar’s Camp, which overlooks a patch of heathland pocked with steep, rounded hillocks.
It was here that Sally Jessop disappeared.
The girl had been visiting a sick relative in Aldershot with her elder brother and they were walking home together around five in the afternoon. They stopped often to rest and to drink from a clay jug of milk, stoppered with waxed paper.
It was during one of these pauses that Sally disappeared.
The 11-year-old brother, Edward, later said to police: ‘She walked off among the trees looking for squirrels, and that was the last I saw of her. One minute she was there, the next she was gone.’
The brother made a cursory search of the area then hurried off to seek adult help. At this point, the population of Fleet was around 2,000, and vital hours were lost in rousing neighbours and organising a search party. This finally set off during the night and arrived at the foot of Caesar’s Camp as a pale spring sun rose above the treeline.
A mizzling rain fell, turning the edges of the road into mud, but it was not enough to wash away two pieces of evidence: a trail of large footprints (made by hobnailed boots) led away from the area in which Sally was last seen; and a scrap of Sally’s dress had caught and torn on a broken branch.
Suspicion for the abduction (it was initially hoped that Sally was still alive) fell on the inhabitants of the nearby town of Aldershot.
Aldershot is the home of the British Army, and in 1898 was at the apogee of its importance as a military centre, housing thousands of soldiers from more than half-a-dozen different regiments.
The town had a bad reputation. Behind the barrack-houses, parade grounds, and drill squares, the backstreets were rotten with grimy terraces and taprooms. Drunkenness and violence were a persistent problem among soldiers and citizens alike.
Police theorised that someone could have spotted the children in Aldershot and then followed them, stalking through the woodland until an opportunity for abduction presented itself. They were also interested in the inmates of the lock hospital on Farnham Road, an establishment used by the army to confine soldiers with venereal diseases. Syphilis causes madness in its final stages, and – despite the prison-like conditions of the lock hospital – police thought it possible that an escaped patient might be responsible for the abduction.
These enquiries encountered immediate resistance from Army authorities, who were touchy about any accusation that might affect the honour of the armed forces. A stand-off ensued. The Commandant of the Aldershot Garrison refused to allow police to question his soldiers; meanwhile, plainclothes officers of the Hampshire Constabulary infiltrated the music-halls and pubs where the soldiers gathered, standing drinks in an effort to obtain information. This continued for 12 days and nights.
Then another child went missing.
And this time there was no doubt that murder was involved, for the perpetrator left behind a grisly trophy and, in so doing, drew the attention of the entire British nation down upon this tiny corner of Hampshire.
Click here to read Part 2: The Murders and Leperhouse Lane
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