A Possible Clue

By Wednesday 5th September, 1888, the newspapers were still publishing information concerning the recent spate of murders that had taken place in Whitechapel between April and August; albeit, given the fact that little new information had come to light, there was an awful lot of repetition of articles from the previous days.

There was still a great deal of uncertainty as to whether the crimes had been gang related, or if they were the work of a single man, who – given the fact that it was more than apparent that the atrocities had been carried out for no other reason than for the sheer pleasure of mutilating the bodies of the victims  – must be a maniac.

Although several newspapers over the previous few days had stated emphatically that the police had ruled out the gang theory, it would keep resurfacing in various newspapers throughout the course of the week – and, if the stories that were appearing in the national press on 5th September, 1888, are to believed, it would appear that, despite the reported statements of Inspectors Abberline and Helson, some police officers still favoured the idea of a gang having carried out the crimes and were individual officer were, apparently, briefing journalists to that effect.


Indeed, on this day in 1888, many national newspapers were reporting the fact that the police had received an important clue in relation to their hunt for the killer of Mary Nichols, and that arrests were imminent.

Several newspapers also mentioned the fact that the body of Mary Nichols had been taken from the mortuary, in preparation for her funeral, by her relatives.

Some of the newspapers headlines that appeared on 5th September 1888.
A Selection Of Newspaper Headlines From 5th September, 1888. Copyright, The British Library Board.


One of the papers that reported this exciting breakthrough was the Eastern Evening News, which published the following article under the above headline:-

“The authorities who are now investigating this mysterious case assert that they have a clue, but in what direction they are not permitted to state.

But the chain of evidence is, it is alleged, being fast drawn round the persons implicated – for it is believed there are more than one concerned – but the persons’ watched will not at present be arrested, unless, that is, they make an effort to leave the district

The reason of this is explained by the fact that further sworn evidence, which might be lost by precipitate action, is likely to reveal the criminal at the forthcoming coroner’s inquiry.


To complete the investigation no steps are being left unturned by Inspector Abberline, Inspector Helson, Inspector Spratling, Detective-sergeant Enright, and the numerous other officers engaged in making the necessary inquiries

It is not improbable that one man, not immediately concerned in the crime, but who has a knowledge of the circumstances, may make a confession.


The body of the murdered woman has been removed from the Whitechapel mortuary by her father for the purpose of a private burial.

It has been placed in an elm coffin, and the funeral expenses will be defrayed by the relatives of the deceased.

The place of interment has not been made known.


Up to noon to-day no arrests have been made in connection with the Whitechapel murder.

The numerous officers engaged in the case are still prosecuting inquiries, and they by no means despair of eventually arresting the murderer of Mrs. Nicholls.

Inquiries are being made in a fresh direction, the result of certain information which has been received, but up to the present they have resulted in nothing that is definite.”


Inevitably, given the mysterious circumstances of the recent crimes, a great deal of gossip and misinformation was circulating in the district as people tried to come to terms with crimes that were, seemingly, without motive, other than for the sheer enjoyment of mutilating the bodies of the victims.

The Derby Mercury, in its edition of 5th September, 1888, reported a “London correspondent”, as stating  that:-

“The horrible murder in Whitechapel has created a sensation here of quite exceptional intensity.

There is a great deal in the associations of the crime itself to appeal with peculiar force to a morbid imagination, and I learn from persons whose job it is to investigate the circumstances that the murder has struck terror into a neighbourhood which is almost hardened to deeds of violence.

This is the third mysterious murder of a woman that has taken place in the locality within a short period, and all the circumstances point to the conclusion that the crimes have been committed by the same person, or persons.


The police have a theory that they have been perpetrated in fits of drunkenness by members of a gang which is known to have been perambulating the neighbourhood at night for some time past, blackmailing these wretched women.

Thugs outside a lodging house being watched by a police officer.
A Gang of Roughs. From The Illustrated Police News, 15th September 1888. Copyright the British Library Board.


However, this is not the popular theory, which points to the existence of a sort of “Mr Hyde,” with whom it is a fiendish pastime to entice these unfortunate creatures into some secluded house, and there murder them with every species of revolting barbarity, and afterwards throw their bodies into the streets.


Other women are said to have been missing, besides those whose bodies have been found.

So strong a hold has the theory I have mentioned taken of the public imagination that, at every street corner in the locality, it is possible to find an imaginative person who has seen or “heard tell of” some monster in human shape who has been lurking about the streets at night.

Apart from this fantastic notion, the police fully admit the possibility – and even the probability – that the crimes are the work of some homicidal maniac – a notion which is borne out by the wanton and heinous nature of some of the wounds inflicted.


It is satisfactory to know that the police regard their reputation as at stake in the matter, and are making the most determined efforts to discover the murderer.

If they fail, it will certainly look as if the arrangement for maintaining the security of the streets in the East End are disgracefully deficient.”


Although the majority of newspapers seem to have respected the police wishes not to reveal too many details about their suspect, one paper, The Star, had no such reservations about providing its readers with the known details about the mysterious figure that it believed the police were after.

In its edition of 5th September, 1888, it published the following:-

“The mystery attending the horrible murders in Whitechapel shows no sign of abating.

The detectives at work on the case, who were quick to confess themselves baffled, only continue to make the same confession, and there is every prospect that the last ghastly tragedy will go unpunished like its predecessors.

Whitechapel is loud in its indignation over the inefficiency of the detectives, and is asking several questions to which there does not seem to be any satisfactory answer.

Among other things the people wish to know why the police do not arrest “Leather Apron.”

You can read a full account of the Leather Apron Scare on this page.

In pushing the theory of this noiseless character, The Star made an important discovery – its coverage of the character the police were after actually increased sales dramatically.

And, over the next few weeks, more newspapers would make the same discovery, with the result that, by the end of September, the Whitechapel Murders would, to use a modern term, go viral.