A Victorian CSI

A claim that is often made against the Victorian police who were tasked with hunting Jack the Ripper in 1888, as that they wee incompetent and that they bugled the investigation into the Whitechapel Murders. It is often stated that, were the atrocities to occur today, modern detectives would have no problem catching the perpetrator.

Is this a fair assessment and comparison?


The fact that the investigating officers never charged anyone with the crimes that are now known as the Jack the Ripper murders has often been used to depict the Victorian detectives as being incompetent. Indeed, there is a great tendency to dismiss the likes of Inspectors Abberline and Reid as bumbling cops who stood no chance against the cunning ruthlessness of the killer they had been tasked with hunting down and bringing to justice.

This is a largely underserved portrayal of their efforts and abilities.

Yes, the investigation most certainly had its flaws, but the police did as much as they could with the resources available to them at the time, lacking, as they did, many of the modern aids to detection that we take for granted in a 21st century crime scene investigation.


Today, the moment the police are notified of a murder, a well-honed routine is triggered. The crime scene is sealed off and a whole range of forensic specialists go to work, all of whom will be wearing those white crime scene suits that we are so used to, thanks to programmes such as CSI and Law and Order.

The priority at the scene of a murder is to protect the evidence, hence the immediate establishment of a line that nobody, other than those authorised to do so, can cross. This way there will be no contamination of the crime scene by things being brought in on the shoes or clothes of the investigators. But, just as importantly, nothing that is at the scene will be damaged or destroyed.


Central to the crime scene, of course, is the body of the victim – and this is not moved whilst the forensic examiners establish time of death, cause of death and look for trace evidence, that is material such as hairs, fibres, and bodily fluids that may have been transferred by contact friction.

The first preservation is to photograph the crime scene and the body.

A photograph preserves the crime scene permanently in that it records the position and state of the body as well as the exact location of any objects that are present. It also enables investigators to later look at the scene with fresh eyes, either alone or as a team, when they might notice something that they didn’t see during their initial assessment at the scene.


Fingerprints, handprints and footprints might also be in evidence, and these would also be recorded, along with any DNA that might be present.

In other words a range of scientific expertise would be utilised at the scene of a murder.


In 1888, the police would have had no such scientists to assess and analyse the crime scene.

The only person with any scientific training would have been a doctor.

That is not to say that crime scene investigations weren’t carried out. They were, and, in many respects, they followed much the same protocol that modern investigations follow, such as preserving the crime scene and ensuring that no potential clues were disturbed or destroyed.

A black and white image showing the site of the murder of Mary Nichols.
The Site of Mary Nichols Murder


When a police constable was called to, or encountered, an apparently dead body there was a well established routine that had to be followed.

His first action, once he had established that the person was dead and was, therefore, beyond help, would have been to summon immediate assistance –  this could be from a Constable on an adjoining beat or from a member of the public. He would send them to fetch a doctor – either the police divisional surgeon or the nearest local doctor. In addition he would send for an inspector from the nearest police station.

Whilst he awaited the arrival of the doctor and the inspector, the constable would secure the crime scene and, once that had been done, he would take down a description of the deceased and of their clothing; noting any wounds or cuts and bruises on the body, and, if it was present, he would take possession of the murder weapon.

He would then search the scene for obvious clues, such as drops of blood or footprints that might have been left by the murderer in the earth or even in the victim’s blood on the pavement. Casts of footprints could later be made and matched to the shoes of suspects, and bloody footprints might also be used to establish the direction in which the murderer had fled from the scene of the crime.

The constable would also take down the details of any witnesses, as well as inspect their hands and clothing for any bloodstains that might link them to the crime.


Once the doctor arrived, his first duty would be to establish that the person was actually dead, and, having done so, he would pronounce life extinct. He would then establish the cause of death and estimate the time of death.

Doctors at the time were the closest the police had to the modern crime scene forensic investigators, but even they were only just beginning to understand things like determining the exact time of death and the effects of external temperature on the body of the deceased. However, thanks to their medical training and experience, which, in the days before x-rays, were very much based around observation and deduction, their ability to notice things at the crime scene was probably on a par with that of even the most experienced police detectives.

Once the doctor had pronounced life extinct, he might then carry out a cursory examination of the body – but this could be extremely cursory, as can be gleaned from the fact that Dr Llewellyn, the doctor who was called to the body of Mary Ann Nichols, didn’t even notice that she had been disembowelled until he was later notified of this fact by the police who discovered her horrific abdominal injuries at the mortuary.

An image of Dr Rees Llewellyn
Dr Rees Ralph Llewellyn


On his arrival, the inspector would take charge of the crime scene.

He would ask the doctor for his findings, such as the estimated time of death, and he would question the constable about important clues, as well as about potential witnesses and possible suspects.

In conjunction with the doctor, the inspector would then carry out a minute and careful examination of the scene looking for footprints which would be covered over before any fresh imprints were made by the surgeon and the police.

He would search the pockets of the victim for anything – such as a letter – that might identify them, and which might also identify the murderer. He would also note the position of the body and the condition of the clothing, as well as try to ascertain from which direction the fatal wound had been inflicted.


Once all this had been done, the priority would have been to remove the body to the mortuary as quickly as possible, as the longer it stayed at the scene the greater the danger of public unrest and disturbance, and, if the body was in a public thoroughfare, they would have wanted to open the street up to traffic again as soon as possible.

So, in the cases of all but one of the victims of Jack the Ripper, their bodies were removed from the scene within an hour of their having been found.

The exception was Mary Kelly’s body, which was left in position for around five hours whilst the police searched her room for clues, but even she was removed to the mortuary before nightfall on the day of her murder.

Mary Kelly Body is taken to the mortuary.
Mary Kelly’s Body Is Taken To The Mortuary. From The Illustrated Police News, 17th November 1888. Copyright, The British Library Board.


Once the body had been removed, the inspector would return to the police station and compile a ‘special report, which would detail what was known about the case to that point.

This special report would then have been read and counter-signed by his Superintendent before being forwarded to the Criminal Investigation Department, detectives from which would then launch the official investigation into the crime.


At the time of the Jack the Ripper murders, the police were beginning to experiment with photography, albeit its full potential had not been realised.

Mary Kelly, for example, was the only one of the victims to be photographed at the scene of the crime, so the police did make use of crime scene photography in her case – indeed, the horrible image of her lying on her bed inside 13 Miller’s Court is probably one of the earliest crime scene photos that we have. The police also had the outside of her room photographed, and there were probably other photographs that have not survived.

In the case of Catherine Eddowes, the City of London Police, in whose jurisdiction she had been murdered, did draw up a detailed plan showing the crime scene and the position of the body, as well as a detailed sketch showing the injuries to her body. It is also worth noting that Inspector Collard made a comprehensive inventory of her clothing and of items found on and around her body, even going so far as to count six blood marks on her right boot. So an exhaustive examination and record of the crime scene was done in her case.

The other victims, however, were not photographed until after their post mortems had been carried out at the mortuary, and these photos were taken with a view to showing them around the neighbourhood in the hope that somebody would be able to identify the victim.

A sketch showing the photographer taking the photograph of Mary Kelly's body on the bed.,
The Photographer At Work In Mary Kelly’s Room. From The Illustrated Police News, 17th November 1888. Copyright, The British Library Board.


As far as the police would have been concerned – certainly with the early murders – identifying the victim would have been their top priority, because in the majority of such crimes the perpetrator would have been known to the victim. So, once they knew who the victim was they police could then begin interviewing relatives and friends with a view identifying the murderer.

Of course, the Jack the Ripper crimes were random opportunist killings and the probability is that the victims did not know the murderer, making them extremely difficult crimes for the police to investigate, as there would have been no obvious suspect.


The detectives investigating the crimes, would have sought out witnesses who might have seen something or someone, and they would also have examined the hands and clothing of those present at or near the crime scene for traces of blood – we know for certain that this happened at 29 Hanbury Street, scene of the murder of Annie Chapman, and at Dutfield’s Yard, the scene of the murder of Elizabeth Stride, so it is safe to assume that it also happened in the cases of the other victims.


An important part of a detective’s work, was gaining local knowledge – that is getting to know the modus operandi of all the local criminals so that when a crime was committed they could bring in all the villains known to commit crimes in that particular fashion and then, hopefully, bring the perpetrator of a crime to justice.

This was the reason why Inspector Frederick George Abberline was brought in to head up the on the ground investigation into the Whitechapel murders, as, prior to his promotion to Scotland Yard the previous year, he had spent many years as a detective in the district where the murders were occurring and was possessed of an almost unrivalled knowledge of the local criminal underworld.

However, local knowledge might have been useful in burglaries, swindles, street thefts and frauds – but in the case of a random murderer such as Jack the Ripper, this investigative technique was all but useless.

A photogrpah showing Inspector Abberline.
Inspector Abberline


As for fingerprinting – well, it is highly likely that the murderer would have left his fingerprints at the scenes of his crimes, and in the case of Mary Kelly, there is a good chance that her bed, furniture room and the door and its handle would have been covered in fingerprints.

But fingerprinting – although its usefulness had been mooted throughout the 1880s – was not an established part of a police investigation in 1888, and no fingerprints were looked for at the scenes of the Jack the Ripper crimes.

Indeed, it would be another fourteen years before house breaker Harry Jackson would achieve the distinction of becoming Britain’s first criminal to be convicted on the strength of fingerprint evidence.


So, we begin to see the problems that confronted the police who were working on the Jack the Ripper case as they investigated a type of crime that was very much out of the ordinary, almost to the point of uniqueness, and was unlike other murder cases that they had experience of investigating.

They were hampered by the fact that these were random killings that were carried out by a perpetrator who didn’t know his victims, so they couldn’t search amongst the victims associates for a suspect.

The murderer, as far as can be ascertained, worked alone, so there were no accomplices who might be persuaded, either by the prospect of a reward or some other inducement, to hand him over to the police.

It is unlikely that the perpetrator belonged to the local criminal classes, so local knowledge of the offenders in the district was of no use whatsoever.

And there was also the fact that the killer left no clues at the scenes of his atrocities, so the police effectively had nothing to go on that might lead them to the murderer.

In short, established and well honed methods of solving crimes simply didn’t work in a case like the Jack the Ripper murders.


But the police most certainly poured resources into the hunt for the killer.

In early October, door to door enquiries were made at the common lodging houses in the district and over 2,000 lodgers were interviewed by detectives, whilst 80,000 handbills asking for anyone with information to come forward.

In what, for many detectives, proved to be one of their most stomach-churning lines of enquiry, seventy-six butchers and slaughterhouses were visited and their employees questioned and their characters ascertained. Sailors at the London docs were also questioned.

Then, on the 13th of October, 1888, the police undertook a massive sweeping search of the district’s worst slums.

For almost a week, officers searched every room of every house, looking in the cupboards, searching under the beds, examining the blades of every knife they could find, and interviewing thousands of lodgers and their landlords.

Yet, despite their thoroughness, their efforts came to naught and the killer remained at large.


This left the police with only one other option.

They flooded the district with police constables and plain clothes officers in the hope that the next time the killer struck there would be a policeman on hand to apprehend him.

Unfortunately, since the killer showed an uncanny ability to avoid and evade the police, this never happened and thus Jack the Ripper was never brought to justice. As Major Henry Smith, the Acting City of London Police Commissioner put it, “the ripper certainly had all the luck.”


So, is the charge that the Metropolitan and City of London Police bungled the investigation into the Jack the Ripper murders justified?

Well, they most certainly could have handled some things differently and probably better, but that could also be said of many modern day police investigations.

The Victorian police were up against a random killer who had no obvious connection to his victims and no clear motive for his crimes, other than the satisfaction of murdering and mutilating his victims.

And, it must be remembered that the police at the time didn’t have access to things such innovations as CCTV, forensics, criminal profiling or even fingerprinting.


But, then again, would any of these have helped their 19th century counterparts with their investigation. Murders still go unsolved today, even though modern police forces have access to all these aids to detection.

In 2010, responding to a request from the BBC, the Metropolitan Police disclosed that there had been 341 unsolved murders in their jurisdiction since 1996. In 2020, the Daily Mirror reported the fact that there were more than 2,600 unsolved cold case killings in the UK, stretching back to the early 20th century.

Of course, since the agenda of these articles was to shock their readers, neither of them revealed what percentage of the total number of murders these unsolved cases actually represented.


Today hordes of armchair – or keyboard – detectives pore over every aspect of the Jack the Ripper case, and pull apart the police investigation.

Year after year, new theories and suspects are put forward, are picked up by the media, reawaken public interest in the case for a time, and then fade into obscurity, just as the actual Whitechapel murderer appears to have done, whoever he, or she, may have been.


But, then again, uninformed theories have always posed a problem with the Jack the Ripper case.

In 1888, the police had to carry out their investigations under the spotlight of intense public scrutiny, and, thanks to the publicity that was generated by the newspapers, they found themselves inundated with suggestions as to what they should and shouldn’t be doing, what type of person they should be looking for, and even where they should be looking for the perpetrator. Few of them proved of any value or assistance.

As Inspector Frederick George Abberline would recall in his retirement:- “Theories! We were lost in theories; there were so many of them.”