New Kids on the Block
After the Tithebarn Outrage, crime topped the political agenda. On the streets it was said some citizens took to taking Shillelagh (walking sticks that doubled as clubs) with them. But the next major fatality of the gangs wouldn’t be a native citizen. It would be a visitor.
THE HIGH RIP
“The crimes of the High Rip fell into three categories known as the wrongdoers’ three Rs – random violence, robbery and revenge attacks.”
- Dr Michael Macilwee
The ‘heirs’ of the Cornermen terrorised everyone from shopkeepers to seamen between 1884 and 1888. The ‘High Rip’ or ‘High Rippers’ weapons of choice were knives. These, for obvious reasons, they called ‘bleeders’. Extremely violent, their main targets were lone Dockers and sailors.
They sported a uniform of sorts, a tight fitting jacket and bell bottomed trousers held up by a thick leather belt. Like their predecessors, they could use their belts to lethal effect. A quiff of hair would protrude from underneath their muffler caps which were set at a ‘jaunty’ angle. Their sworn gang rivals were the Logwood Gang but there were also juvenile gangs such as the Lemon Street Gang. The gang’s new nemesis was a tough policeman known as ‘Pins’. The myth goes that he picked up a gang leader by the ankles and swung him around the surrounding gang, knocking them down like skittles.
His methodology was blunt:
“I grabs ‘em, I pins ‘em against the wall and I slaps ‘em a bit.”
BLAACKSTONE ST MURDER
The condemned youths walked jauntily from the bar of the dock, and disappeared with a callous smile upon their faces.’
Court report of the Blackstone Street Murder, 25 February 1884
The murder that gave the High Rip infamy took place in January 1884. Five young men, aged between 18 and 20, were alleged to have assaulted two Spanish seamen shortly before 10pm on a Saturday night. One sailor was able to escape but the other, Exequiel Rodriguez Nunuiez, was said to have been repeatedly beaten with belt buckles, kicked and then knifed. One of the men identified as using a knife was 18 year old Michael M’Lean.
Unlike the Tithebarn Outrage, no one encouraged the assault and many witnesses came forward. One woman identified one assailant, a Patrick Duggan, as having asked to use her apron to clean his bloody hands. Another, William Dempsey asked for a brush to wipe the blood off his trousers.
The defence would later draw attention to the age of the witnesses, many of who were just children.
A police constable, Evans 343, took the sailor in an ambulance to hospital. He was dead on arrival. The attending doctor said that because of his death came so quickly after the beating, there were no bruises on his body. He had died before they could form.
Of course, there is another explanation. There were no bruises as he was not beaten.
There seemed to be no motive for the crime apart from, as court papers suggested, ‘wanton brutality’.
Five men were arrested and each individual protested their innocence while naming others in the gang as guilty of the murder. During the arrests and investigation, various blood stained knives and items of clothing were found. At first, the men suggested the blood came from a nose bleed, then from sparring with each other. Finally, at the trial, it was suggested the five were acting in self defence against the Spanish sailors.
The judge was very sceptical of this in his summation to the jury. He pointed out that they each had admitted to taking part in the beating, if not the killing. It took exactly an hour for the jury to return to find M’Lean and Duggan guilty of ‘wilful murder ‘. Due to the age of the accused, they requested mercy.
But the Judge assumed the black cap and said they had been found guilty of “a murder of a very savage character”. He passed a sentence of death.
Duggan was reprieved and sentenced to ‘penal servitude for life’. M’Lean, aged just 18, protested his innocence one last Monday morning at Kirkdale Jail. He was then hanged. His death was mercifully quick considering the hangman later admitted to being drunk.
The Police Inspector involved in the case was later demoted to Police sergeant. He had withheld vital evidence until late in the trial that the Spanish sailor had had a knife on him. His death may have been an accident in a genuine case of self-defence.
The public hysteria over gangs may have helped give a death sentence to an 18 year old who if not an innocent, may have been innocent of the charge of ‘wilful murder’.
Increasingly, religious and philanthropic groups sought to use charity, education, and better housing, rather than the law, to address the problem of gangs. There was a growing sense that the troublemakers were in a sense victims of their environment
Such solutions are, however, long term. In 1888, it was reported in a Liverpool weekly papers that on a Monday night, a ‘murderous attack’ was made on a police constable by a gang of “high-rippers”. When they emerged drunk from a pub and fought among themselves over a watch, the policeman had tried to intervene. So they turned on him. The policeman survived.
Fast forward to the 1950s and the gang problem caused The Daily Herald to ask of Liverpool, ‘What makes it our wickedest city?’
And then in the 1980s drugs, and the millions they could earn criminals, entered the world of gangs.
No longer would young men risk their lives for sixpence. Now they could make untold wealth.
Men like Curtis Warren...