A Serious Question

By Thursday September 13th, 1888, a reasonable amount of order had returned to the streets of Spitalfields and Whitechapel, and the newspapers, although reporting extensively on the inquests into the deaths of Mary Nichols and Annie Chapman, were also looking at other issues in relation to the crimes.

Many of the papers were pondering what could have inspired somebody to commit such brutal and gruesome crimes, and there was a great deal of discussion over whether depictions of violence that were to be seen all over the streets of London may have played a part in motivating somebody to commit these motiveless and horrendous crimes.

A selection of newspaper headlines from 13th September 1888.
Newspaper Headlines, 13th September, 1888. Copyright, The British Library Board.


The Leeds Mercury posed this question in its edition of the 13th September, 1888:

“Is it not within the bounds of probability that to the highly coloured pictorial advertisements to be seen on almost all the hoardings in London, vividly representing sensational scenes of murder, exhibited as “the great attractions” of certain dramas, the public may be to a certain extent indebted for the horrible crimes in Whitechapel?

We say it most seriously; imagine the effect of these gigantic pictures of violence and assassination by knife and pistol on the morbid imagination of unbalanced minds.

The hideous picture-posters are a blot on our civilisation and a disgrace to the drama.”


The Sheffield Daily Telegraph, meanwhile, carried the news that the police had actually confessed that they were at fault:-

“The police authorities, by declaring the Whitechapel case to be the most difficult that ever came into their hands, practically confess themselves to be at fault.

One has heard of the discovery of one clue and another. As a matter of fact, there has been no clue whatever, and there has been nothing to suck upon but theory.”


Having commented scathingly on the state of the police investigation, the Telegraph then went on to make a comment about the well meaning actions of the local Member of Parliament, Mr. Samuel Montagu.

“Mr Samuel Montague, the Gladstonian Member for the Tower Hamlets, has acquired notoriety, if not popularity, by offering a reward of £100 for the discovery of the murderer.

In taking that line he has added to the difficulties of the police.

It goes without saying that the authorities have considered the advisability of advertising for the discovery of the murderer in this way. Indeed, they did so, and agreed that it would be ridiculous under the circumstances, seeing that the perpetrator of the crimes could have had no accomplice.

A portrait of Samuel Montagu.
Samuel Montagu. From The Illustrated London News, 13th February, 1886. Copyright, The British Library Board.


The article then went on to give details of one of the more outlandish theories that had been sent to the police with regards the likely identity of the murderer:-

“One of the many suggestions presented to the police is to the effect that the crimes might have been committed, as in the case recorded by Poe, by an escaped gorilla.”

However, having dismissed a psychotic primate as the likely perpetrator of the crimes, the article then went on to look at another theory that, in the newspapers considered opinion, was more plausible:-

“Today the police have been bombarded with suggestions of the murderer being a person of opulence and ease, with a weakness for homicide.

A number of precedents to the case of a man who had committed many murders being allowed to go at large, without a shadow of suspicion being attached to him, have been recorded.

So the police authorities, from Sir Charles Warren downwards, are engaged in looking for a murderer who may be anything from a well-dressed man, driving in a handsome equipage or a pony and cart, to one of Jamrach’s gorillas armed with a knife.”

The Jamrach being referred to in the article, incidentally, was a reference to Mr. Charles Jamrach who ran a shop that dealt in exotic animals on Ratcliffe Highway.


The Scotsman, in its edition of the 13th of September, 1888 stated that:-

“This is by no means the first time that there had been great uneasiness in London because of numerous murders and other crimes of violence following close on one another, and all, or most of them, baffling the ingenuity of the detectives.

But it is long since there has been a series of murders believed to be the work of one hand, like the Whitechapel atrocities.

The police are said to admit their belief that at least four women have fallen victims to a single assassin within less than a year.

This may, or may not, be true, but if the belief has taken hold of the popular mind in London, it is easy to understand the fear and the excitement that must prevail, and to excuse some unreasonableness in the censures that are falling on the police and the detectives.


Unfortunately, the excitement and the unreason appear to have affected a portion of the press, which at such a time ought rather to check than to encourage wild clamour and misdirected wrath.

One popular morning paper has even found it necessary to humour the public outcry by proposing to “hang somebody.” Sir Charles Warren is naturally suggested as the victim. But, on consideration, it seems that the balance of his virtues over his defects is enough to save him; and so the wild justice of revenge is to descend on Mr. Matthews [the Home Secretary].


It is so far satisfactory to find that an effort is made to defend the policemen from blame. An honest belief is declared that the patrolling police do all they can to prevent crime, and it is pointed out that, in the labyrinth of London, even twice the number of police  could not make murder impossible.


The blame is shifted from them, not perhaps without reasons, to “a municipal policy of stupidity, carelessness, and laissez  faire”, which has tolerated the existence in London of so many labyrinths of slums and dens as coverts for the dangerous classes.

The Government is censured for not promptly offering a commensurate reward for the arrest of the murderer; and the public are roundly informed that the inability of the police to prevent crime is due to “the predominance of our two national vices, carelessness and hypocrisy.”

There is more reason than might be suspected underlying this stupendous charge.

The carelessness is proved by the fact that we have not a good Common Lodging-house Act, under which there should be strict oversight of lodging houses, and registration, with full description, of even the most casual inmate.

The charge of public hypocrisy is based on the fact that we legally ignore the existence of prostitution and refuse to “license, register, and to submit to wholesome regulations” the legion of miserable women who frequent the streets, “without homes, and it may almost be said without names, wholly unnoticed and uncared for by authority, till their corpses turn up, horribly hacked and mutilated, in canals or in backyards.”

In spite of the sensational style, there is unquestionable sense in this, and the charge of “public hypocrisy” is one that should cause reflection.


But while all these excuses are offered in defence of the defence of the patrolling police, no mercy is shown to the Detective Department.

Its characteristics are stated to be “disgraceful incompetence, want of perspicacity, self sufficient contempt of public opinion, and actual blockheadism.”

This is an appalling indictment, and the reader is apt to believe that it has “little meaning, though the words are strong.”

It is a relief to find that, though this is the character of the Department as such, it by no means follows that there is not “an adequate contingent of active and astute detectives.”

Its weakness is in that most fatal place – the head.

The qualities of Sir Charles Warren come under review. He is tried, but acquitted. He is an excellent head of the ordinary constabulary, and it is not his fault that he cannot at the same time be an efficient head of the Detective Department.

The conclusion is, that this Department should have a head of its own, co-operating with, but not under the orders of, the Chief Commissioner.

That the Detective Department should be under the control of a man selected for special qualities, and that he should have a perfectly free hand in organising the Department, and in taking measures and issuing orders, is a suggestion which seems worthy of approval.

The police and the detectives may have made mistakes and overlooked possible clues. On this point the published information furnishes no means of judging.

But, it is easy to understand that no crime is so difficult to trace as murder of this character, when the murderer has once got clear off, leaving nothing by which he can be traced…”


So, as the days rolled by after the murder of Annie Chapman, the newspapers were evidently divided as to the effectiveness of the Metropolitan Police as they attempted to bring the murderer – who would soon become known as “Jack the Ripper” – to justice.

However, it also seems that the increased police activity in the districts of Whitechapel and Spitalfieds was having an effect, for it would be several weeks before the murderer would strike again.