It is almost impossible for us today to imagine what it must have been like around the streets of Whitechapel and Spitalfields in the aftermath of the Jack the Ripper atrocities.
Separated, as we are, by the passage of more than a century, the thoroughfares of the Victorian East End are like a foreign country to us, and one which we – sadly (?) – will never have an opportunity to visit.
VICTORIAN NEWSPAPER ACCOUNTS
Fortunately, many 19th century journalists saw the opportunity afforded by the streets of East London for newsprint, and they ventured out onto the streets of the district at all hours of the day and night in search of copy.
Consequently, although we cannot now visit those streets, we can, at least, do the next best thing and read the accounts left to us by those long ago journalists, and gain an impression of the streets and of the people who lived in and frequented them at the time of the Whitechapel murders.
Allowing for the inevitable journalistic embellishment on the part of the authors of these accounts, these articles provide us with a window through which we can look into the autumn of terror and witness the terror and the panic as the aftermath of the murders unfolded and people came to terms with the horrors that were occurring in their midst.
GEORGE SIMS “DAGONET”
One journalist who wrote extensively, and insightfully, about the East End atrocities was George Sims (1847 – 1922).
His column, entitled “Mustard and Cress”, appeared each Sunday in the Referee, and, on Sunday 21st October, 1888, he published an article detailing his escapades in heading for Whitechapel with a solid determination to catch Jack the Ripper and, as a result, make himself the “hero of the hour.”
ON THE RIPPER’S TRAIL
“Last Saturday night, having a holiday, I spent it in Whitechapel, in the hope that I should be able to work up a nice picturesque article, entitled “A Night with Jack the Ripper,” and to wind up with the announcement that I had caught him and handed him over to justice.
I have all along had the idea that it would be a magnificent advertisement for me to run “the Terror” to earth. Imagine the sensation which would be created when Monday’s content-bills displayed in huge letters, “The Whitechapel Murderer Captured by DAGONET. Fearful Struggle. Heroic Conduct of the Captor. Message from the Queen.”
I cannot tell you exactly when this idea came into my mind, but I know that when it did get there it hung up its hat behind the door as though it meant to stay. It was ever-present by day, and by night it haunted my dreams. A secret voice seemed to whisper to me, “Go to Whitechapel. Who knows but that you really may succeed in catching Jack.”
THE GRATITUDE OF THE POLICE AND PUBLIC
The presentiment that I was to be the means of laying Jack by the heels and earning the gratitude of the police and the public, grew so strong upon me that last Saturday night, having ascertained that Jack had sent a postcard to the authorities, informing them that he meant to do two more murders, I determined to turn amateur detective and go upon the warpath.
And with this explanation of how I came to spend last Saturday night in Whitechapel, I must ask the reader to accept my assurance that every word which now follows is strictly true. It is no exaggeration – no effort of the imagination. It is a solid and sober statement of facts.
LEFT HOME IN DISGUISE
I left home at nine in the evening, dressed as a ship’s engineer, accompanied by Albert Edward, who was made up as a foreign sailor.
It was nearly ten when we arrived in Whitechapel, and we had no sooner turned into the murder district than we found things remarkably lively.
A VILLAINOUS LOOKING SAILOR
Once or twice, as we walked along, we spotted the private detectives and amateur policemen, who were out on the same job as ourselves.
Most of them eyed Albert Edward rather suspiciously, and, I must confess, they had good reason, for a more villainous-looking foreign sailor I never saw in my life. He looked capable of all the murders that have ever been committed and a good many that haven’t been thought of yet.
A CRY AND A RUSH
We had not been surveying the busy scene many minutes – what a scene Whitechapel-road is on a Saturday night! – before we heard a cry, and instantly there was a rush towards a gateway.
It was only two ladies quarrelling; but as we hurried up a small boy saluted us with a grin and exclaimed, “‘Ere ye har, guv’nor! This way to the murder! Triple murder up this court!”
There was a roar of laughter, and, the true state of the case being ascertained, the crowd dispersed.
RELIEF BY LAUGHTER
The borderline between the horrible and the grotesque has grown very fine in Whitechapel of late.
There has probably been a revulsion of feeling, and the inhabitants have relieved their overstrained nerves by laughing.
Certainly last Saturday night, although another murder was confidently expected, the general body of sightseers and pedestrians were making light of the matter.
JACK THE RIPPER ON EVERY TONGUE
Along the pavement, which for many a mile is hedged with shooting-galleries and various arrangements based upon the six-throws-a-penny principle, plenty of hoarse-voiced ruffians were selling a penny puzzle in which the puzzle was to find Jack the Ripper.
Jack was upon every tongue, male and female, last Saturday night. The costermonger hawking his goods dragged him in; the quack doctor assured the crowd that his marvellous medicine would cure even Jack of his evil propensities; and at the penny shows, outside which the most ghastly pictures of “the seven victims,” all gashes and crimson drops, were exhibited, the proprietors made many a facetious reference to the local Terror.
JOHNNY THE TIPPER
Just past the Pavilion Theatre we came on a gentleman who was standing in the roadway and banging on an empty bloater-box with a big stick.
As soon as he had obtained an audience, he delivered himself as follows:-
“Tennybrooze! Tennybrooze! If there’s any gent as was here when I give Tennybrooze for the Seesirwitch I’d be werry much obliged if he’d come forward. I give everyone as bought my enverlope Tennybrooze when he was 20 to 1 and now I’ve got another enverlope ‘ere what’s got the winner of the Cambridge.
If there’s anyone as ‘ears my voice ternite as was here when I give it, he’ll p’raps say so. I haint Duglis ‘All, and I haint Jack Dickinson, but my brother’s the ‘ead jockey in a big racin’ stable, and my infermation’s the best as money can buy, though I sell it in Whitechapel for a penny.
I belong to Whitechapel, and I like to do my neighbours a good turn.
I hain’t Johnny the Ripper. I’m Johnny the Tipper. (Roars of laughter in the crowd.) Yus; Johnny the Tipper, what give yer Tennybrooze; and here I’ve got the whiner of the Cambridge at 20 to 1, and it’s one penny.”
Johnny the Tipper then went round with his envelopes, but, evidently, he hadn’t a racing audience, for the sale was slack, and, cursing his “blooming luck,” Johnny put his hands in his pockets and took the certain winner of “the Cambridge” off with him to another pitch.
I’m afraid he hadn’t backed his tip for himself, as he was in the last state of raggedness, and as he turned away I heard him mutter that he’d been out six hours and hadn’t earned his “doss” yet.
A PLUNGE INTO THE BACKSTREETS
As soon as the humours of Whitechapel had begun to pall, we left the main thoroughfare and plunged into the back streets and the labyrinthine network of courts sad alleys.
We visited the spots where the murders were committed, and, about midnight, we had Buck’s-row entirely to ourselves.
AN UNLIKELY SPOT FOR A MURDER
How on earth a murder was committed here without attracting the slightest attention is a great mystery. The houses are so close to the spot – there are so many chances against a secret crime being committed – the place was such an unlikely one for a deliberate assassin to select!
Albert Edward and I tried to work the murder out and get a theory, but we failed utterly.
We, however, attracted attention.
PEOPLE AND POLICEMEN APPEAR
When we next visited Buck’s-row there was not a soul in sight.
We had not stopped by the gate where the murder was committed two seconds before a dozen people were about us as if by magic.
Two policemen came up, goodness knows where from, and flashed their lanterns on us, and the rest of the company, who were evidently amateur watchmen, eyed us suspiciously.
A few words to the constables satisfied them as to the nature of our business, and we were allowed to pass; but everywhere we went that night in the hope of dropping on Jack the Ripper we found that the police were on the alert, and that plenty of amateur detectives were hiding round the corners.
NO CORNERS LEFT UNWATCHED
From personal observation, I should say that there was not a corner of Whitechapel, no matter how obscure, that was left unwatched last Saturday night.
All night long the police were about, and we saw them come again and again, and enter dark passages, and turn their bull’s-eyes on to dark corners.
HE WOULD HAVE BEEN CAUGHT
If Jack had tried another experiment last Saturday, it would have been almost impossible for him to get away.
Probably he knew it; at any rate, he didn’t come near enough for any of us to put the salt upon his tail with which we were all provided.
THE STREETS CLEAR
Soon after midnight, the principal thoroughfares in Whitechapel began to clear rapidly. The stalls packed up, the shops closed, and the people went to their homes.
The ladies, I noticed, who were out late walked in twos and threes.
PEOPLE WERE FRIGHTENED
At midnight we were outside a public-house not far from Mitre-square, and we noticed the women as they came out, got together and walked towards home in company.
One lady’s pal lingered behind to talk to another lady.
Her lady friend, who was waiting, called out, “Come on, Sylviar – I’m frightened! Let’s git ‘ome!”
Sylvia replied, “All right, Liz, I’ll see as Jack don’t have yer.”
And then Sylvia came along, and, with a passing compliment to Albert Edward, joined her friend and went off.
She was not at all the sort of lady whose name you would guess to be Sylvia.
We stayed in Whitechapel till three in the morning.
CREEPING AROUND WHITECHAPEL
We crept into backyards, and we hid ourselves down side streets; we adventured ourselves into some of the most lonely and desolate-looking spots it has ever been my lot to witness; but we never remained long in undisputed possession. A policeman was on to us directly.
TIME TO GO HOME
I can bear personal testimony to the marvellous vigilance exercised by Sir Charles Warren’s merry men on that Saturday night at least.
At three o’clock in the morning we agreed that there was no chance of getting Jack that night, and, after a little friendly converse with a policeman or two, we turned our weary steps towards home.
WOULD NOT WAKE UP A HERO
I must confess that I was disappointed. I had quite made up my mind that Albert Edward and myself were to be heroes by Sunday morning.
I had arranged it all.
The moment we saw Jack, Albert Edward was to spring on him and hold him, while I went off for a policeman.
I had my notebook and a freshly-sharpened lead pencil all ready to do a special there and then for Sunday’s Referee.
And, instead of waking up the following morning a hero, I woke up with a dreadful headache and a fixed determination not to play at being an amateur detective again. There are too many of them about just now for the game to pay.”