There can be no doubt about it. Something quite unusual was perceived as occurring across the United Kingdom in 1888.
By October, the perpetrator of the Whitechapel murders was becoming universally known as “Jack the Ripper” and newspapers were reporting daily on the horrific facts about his atrocities from the detailed inquests that were being carried on by the Coroner, Wynne Edwin Baxter.
AN EPIDEMIC OF MURDER
However, the Whitechapel murders were not the only atrocities that had taken place in the United Kingdom during the year, and several newspapers were starting to wonder if the press reporting on the crimes, coupled with the mass production of so-called “Penny Dreadfuls” – which were especially popular with working-class youths – wasn’t exacerbating the crime rate by encouraging people to emulate Jack the Ripper.
Indeed, several elements of the media were beginning to voice the opinion that the country as a whole was in the grip of an epidemic of murder.
A ROUND-UP OF ATROCITIES
On Wednesday the 24th of October, 1888, The West Cumberland Times, published the following article which provided readers with an horrific summary of the recent murders that had taken place in various locations across England and Wales.
The article then went on to wonder what were the outside influences that had played on the minds of the perpetrators of the crimes.
The article read:-
A GLANCE AT A WEEK’S RECORD OF MURDERS
“The appalling murders that are now being put on record, day after day, must surely be attributable to some special influence not understood by human philosophy.
After the horrible butcheries in the Whitechapel district of London, ordinary cases of murder have almost ceased to attract the attention of newspaper readers.
We still continue to patiently follow the movements of the police in their efforts to unearth the Whitechapel monster, but find them only a daily chronicle of failure.
THE WHITEHALL MYSTERY
“The Whitehall mystery” also remains as much a mystery as ever.
The latest incident, in connection with it, was the discovery, on Wednesday last, by a Spitzbergen dog, of “the left leg of a finely-developed woman,” under a mound of loose earth, within a few feet of the spot where, a fortnight previously, was found the mutilated trunk to which the limb belonged.
The last few days have witnessed the occurrence of other murders, and attempted murders, some of them as foul and unnatural as were those which recently sent thrill after thrill of horror from the East End of London.
THE MURDER OF JOHN HARPER
At a village near Swansea, on Saturday last, a boy named John Harper, four or five years old, was missed from his home, and, on a search being made, his body was discovered at midnight in a wood.
The child’s throat had been cut from ear to ear, and, as in the Whitechapel cases, the remains were disembowelled.
A butcher’s assistant, named Thomas Lott, aged eighteen, has been arrested and has made confession of the murder, which he says was committed with a knife taken from the slaughter-house.
THOMAS MORRIS SHOT
At Tottenham, on Wednesday, an old man of sixty-six, named Thomas Morris, while quietly engaged in cutting turf, in a field, was shot in the forehead – without fatal effect, happily – by his brother-in-law, Henry Elliott, who then pointed the revolver at his own head and shot himself dead on the spot.
This tragedy was the outcome of deliberate malice in a mind poisoned by alcohol.
Elliott, who was sixty years old, had fallen from a good position through indulgence in drink – in the last eight months he had wasted about £200 – and because his relative would not uphold him in his career of debauchery, by continuing to accede to his repeated demands for money, the misguided inebriate resolved, most wantonly and guiltily, upon the double crime.
A MORE INHUMAN MURDER
Details have also been published of a still more inhuman murder by another drink-maddened wretch.
At the quiet Yorkshire village of Sherburn-in-Elmet, the landlady of the Travellers’ Inn, Mrs Catherine Mountain, seventy-one years of age, was kicked to death by her son – “the only son of his mother, and she was a widow.”
Soon after ten o’clock at night, the hour of closing the house, he commenced to kick and otherwise barbarously maltreat the infirm old woman, and the horrible treatment was continued until four o’clock in the morning, in the presence of the servant girl, who was compelled, under terrible threats, to remain a passive witness of the son’s unnatural and inhuman savagery.
He kicked his mother for hours until she was dead, and, for hours after her death, he kicked the naked body with unabated ferocity.
The description of the battered remains, as given at the coroner’s inquest, and again at the hearing of the case by the magistrates, on Thursday last – the facial bones broken in pieces and scattered about the room, the fractured limbs and ribs, and body beaten to a pulp – is too sickening to be repeated here in its ghastly details.
So deeply were the magistrates impressed by the frightful circumstances, that they were compelled to depart from the custom usually observed in committing an alleged criminal for trial, and commented indignantly on the facts of the case, which they said were “so terrible, so disgusting, so brutal, as to be probably without a parallel in the criminal records of this country.”
The long record of wife murders – wives kicked to death by husbands possessed with the drink demon -presents no instance comparable to the Yorkshire matricide for deliberate, diabolical cruelty.
A DRUNKEN WIFE
Another case, in which the inhumanity was on the side of the mother, was detailed at the Westminster Police Court the other day.
A drunken wife, who had habitually neglected her husband during his fatal illness, and was absent at the hour of his death in a neighbouring public-house, upon her return to the death chamber proceeded to amuse herself after a ghastly method of her own, by forcing her daughter, aged ten years, to occupy the bed beside the corpse of her father.
For this revolting conduct, she was described by the indignant magistrate, in terms none too severe, as “a cruel, good-for-nothing wife, and a most unnatural mother,” and was given a month for quiet reflection, with hard labour and enforced abstinence from drink.
THE LIST GOES ON
Then, on the same day, another drunken mother was committed for trial, at Altrincham, for causing the death of her fifteen-months’-old child.
Last Saturday night, in the Manchester suburb of Pendlebury, two colliers “got into a quarrel about card-playing and pigeon-flying.”
One of them called the other a thief, and struck him twice.
He was struck in return, and after a brief struggle the first assailant “staggered two or three yards, fell on his back, and never spoke again.”
On Wednesday, a woman died in Grimsby Hospital from the effects of burns on the face and breast caused by her husband having thrown a lighted paraffin lamp at her on the preceding Saturday night.
The habit of using blazing oil lamps as death missiles, with wives as targets, is getting to be rather common with playful husbands when in their demoniacally merry moods.
THE MURDER OF MR. LAWRENCE
Another tale of horror, only a little less startling than the Whitechapel atrocities, was unfolded in the daily newspapers of Thursday last.
It was the story of a confession made to a Salvation Army officer, at Tunbridge Wells, by a youth of eighteen, to the effect that he had induced a younger “mate,” only seventeen years old, to commit a deliberate and cold-blooded murder.
The victim was a Mr Lawrence, who occupied a place of trust at the Baltic Sawmills, in Tunbridge, where the elder youth, William Gower, was employed.
Gower had taken offence at Mr Lawrence for “stopping his time;” and his younger companion, Charles Joseph Dobell, had been instigated to send a bullet through the timekeeper’s brain.
The murder was committed so far back as July 10th.
Mr Lawrence had been called from his house on the pretext that he was wanted, “and when the road was clear,” said Gower, “my mate shot him.”
NO CLUE COULD BE FOUND
The police, as often happens, were unable to find the slightest clue to the discovery of the murderer; and, but for the voluntary admission of the elder criminal, the event might have passed forever into the too lengthy catalogue of murder mysteries.
It was through no feeling of remorse or sincere repentance that the confession was made.
The youths both gloried in their iniquities.
CONFESSED TO OTHER CRIMES
After their arrest, on the information of the Salvation Army “captain,” the young miscreants made voluntary confession of a long string of crimes which had remained undiscovered in the town, and in respect to which suspicion had fallen, in some cases, on innocent persons.
On four occasions they had fired empty houses; three times they had set fire to farmers’ stacks, and had several times ignited the furze on Tunbridge Common.
They went about armed with pistol and dagger; on one of their criminal enterprises, they had left behind them a swordstick in a house from which they had stolen some caged birds.
In addition to their numerous other plots, they avowed that arrangements had been made between them for the murder of Mr Lawrence’s successor as the timekeeper at the sawmills.
NOT MUCH CUNNING
They are not credited with having exercised much cunning in the concoction of their wicked schemes.
The crimes appear to have been the outcome of their own inherent depravity, stimulated by reading stories of criminal exploits, and it is probable that they would calculate upon ultimate discovery, not caring what the issue might be, so long as they succeeded in creating a sensation.
VANITY A LEADING INFLUENCE
Vanity is the leading influence in the character of the criminal, vanity of the despicable, detestable kind which impels the individual to seek notoriety at the risk of losing all that is worth retaining.
Persons who have had opportunities of studying the criminal character will know how deeply it is imbued with vanity.
In handcuffs on the street, in the dock of the Assize Court, even at the gallows foot – in any position to attract attention upon himself – the individual of thoroughly criminal bias feels as though he were elevated to the position of a hero.
THEY HAD WITNESSED CONFESSIONS
These Tunbridge youths had been in the habit of attending meetings of the Salvation Army; and they were doubtless induced to make their confession through hearing the experiences of “converted” scoundrels and “reformed” inebriates, and seeing the greatest honours paid to the persons who had the most horrible and degrading stories to tell of their past careers.
DEBASING LITERATURE TO BLAME
Weak and undeveloped minds are invariably imitative, if not always eminently vain and conceited; and when such minds become corrupted with debasing literature, vicious company and conversation, the imitative faculty impels them into degrading and ruinous courses.
Thus it happens that so many weak-headed and vile-hearted human excrescences have been ambitious to represent themselves as “Jack the Ripper,” and, in their imbecile letters to the newspapers and to the police authorities, have adopted the name by which the undiscovered monster is at present known.
A LETTER TO A NEWSPAPER
A fortnight before the confession of the elder of the Tunbridge ruffians, a letter was written to the local press by the younger murderer – the one who actually did the deed – boastfully describing his sanguinary exploit, in the exact style of the “Penny Dreadful,” and signing it, “Another Whitechapel Murderer.”
NO HOPE FOR THEM
Possibly the evil instincts of these wretched boys might never have been developed but for their addictiveness to the literature of the slums; and now there is no hope for them in this world.
But for their extreme youth, they would immediately be hung out of the way; and, as the case stands, they will be made incapable of again doing similar harm, and doomed to perpetual discipline in association only with criminals like themselves.”