An American In Whitechapel

If the Jack the Ripper murders did one thing, it was to attract the attention of the world’s media to the sheer sordidness of the area in which the crimes were carried out.

Newspapers from across the globe sent reporters into the area in order that they might report on the wretched social conditions that prevailed in the districts of Whitechapel and Spitalfields.

It is, however, difficult for us today to ascertain the veracity of some of these accounts.

Some of them, undoubtedly, were first-hand accounts, written by authors who had actually taken the trouble to visit the neighbourhood.

Others, however, were evidently cobbled together from newspaper articles on the district, or from speaking with people who actually knew the East End, so that the writers could convey the horror of everyday life in Ripperland, without putting themselves through the ordeal of having to actually go there themselves!


The following article appeared in The Aspen Daily Times on Saturday, June 15th, 1895.

It most certainly captures the flavour and the atmosphere of the district, albeit there are, most certainly, exaggerations in the article, and it would appear that the author did what quite a few journalists did at the time of the murders and simply made things up.

I can, for example, find no record of the murder that, according to the article, had taken place in Butler Street, the scene of which the author had, supposedly, visited within twenty-four hours of its having taken place.

Also, the court in which the constable witnessed one of the Whitechapel murders is, I presume, a reference to Miller’s Court, and, again, there is no contemporary account of a constable actually being present at the scene of the murder, let along of one failing to intervene for fear of the murderer.

That said, the article is useful in that it gives us an idea of how the rest of the world – and, in this case, America in particular – viewed the area in which the Whitechapel murders occurred.

So, from that perspective, it makes for an interesting read, albeit it should be read with a large pinch of salt to hand!

The article read:-


“Edward Marshall, an American, has been making a tour of the Whitechapel district in London, and writes as follows for the American Press of the condition of that place today:-

“I rode into hell on the top of an omnibus. I entered through Aldgate and met a guide  – an ex-Scotland Yard detective  – at the corner of Leman-street and Whitechapel district, which was once probably the most thoroughly vicious area in the world, as it is still probably the most wretched.

Leman Street and Commercial road meet Whitechapel Road together, and the three thoroughfares make a Junction that is not equalled, even in London.

Thirty thousand wretched women roam the district, and these corners form its most prominent spot.

An illustration showing people in Whitechapel.
People In Whitechapel.


Jack the Ripper probably loitered in their whereabouts, as he selected the miserable procession that is ever passing them.

That his example made its impress on the neighbourhood, in a way other than frightening the women, is shown by the fact that two women have been killed in somewhat similar ways not far from his old haunts since I have been in London.

This was told to me by reliable persons, and I visited the scene of one of the murders, on Butler street, before the crime was twenty-four hours old.

Yet not a word has appeared in the London papers about the murders. The police here are fond of keeping their own counsel.


We went first to a Whitechapel lodging house, within a block or two of the scene of the first Ripper murder.

It is one of the few of the old style left.

Since Jack’s flashing knife attracted the attention of the world to this district and its conditions, most of the lodging-houses which formerly accommodated men and women indiscriminately have been forced to confine their business to one sex.

A group of people sitting and being served tea in a common lodging house.
People In The Kitchen Of A Common Lodging House


It was in one of these lodging-houses that we met “Murder Mag.”

She gained her name from the fact that since the very first of the Ripper murders she has devoted her life to the crude story of the crimes.

The first woman killed was her mate, and the crime may have turned her mind.

At any rate, whenever she has had money enough to pay the miserable rental which would secure the place, she has made it a practice to live for at least a month each in the rooms in which the murders were committed, and to haunt the accursed spots on which the street butcheries took place.

She can talk of nothing else, and details with a horrible relish the minutest gossip of the bloody killings.


It is her theory that the murders were done by a sailor who went on a long voyage after he finished his first series, and will come back before long to begin a second.

She hailed the news of the recent Butler street murder with a kind of glee, assuming instantly that her prophecy had come true.

But, after she had gone post haste to the scene of the crime and examined its gruesome details, she sorrowfully announced that she was wrong and that the crime had been done by less skilful hands than Jack’s.

Mag is one of the characters of Whitechapel – horribly in keeping with the place.

She followed us when we visited one or two of the murder rooms; and her explanations could not be suppressed.


She is probably right in one theory which the police cry out against, viz., that one of the murders was actually witnessed by a constable, who was too badly frightened to interfere with its commission or to attempt to capture the murderer after he had finished.

The crime was done in a room opening off a small courtyard at the end of a short blind alley.

This court is not more than 12 X 16 feet in size, and a constable was surely standing in it while the murder and its following horrors were going on.

Add to this that the man could not have done the work without a light, and that the window of the room was curtainless, and the proof that the crime was actually witnessed by that cowardly constable seems complete.

But, after all, it is scarcely fair to expect a man who works for thirty shillings a week to risk his life in an encounter with such a desperate and keenly armed cutthroat as White.chapel’s historic murderer must have been,

I refer thus at length to the Jack the Ripper murders because they marked an era in this strange district.


For many years it has been allowed to act as a sinkhole, into which the worst of London’s moral sewage drained, there to foster in its own decay, unheeded by the other sections of the city, practically unknown to any but the police, and only disturbed by them when wine particularly flagrant offence forced them to momentarily probe its depths.

London officialdom has gone on the theory that a certain percentage of humanity must necessarily sink to this degraded level, and gradually sink to this degraded level, and was rather proud that the refuse was concentrated in one locality.

But the Ripper murders – the frightful climax of this neglect – were so ghastly in their nature and persistent in their occurrence, that the attention not only of all London, but of all the world was settled on the neighbourhood.

A sketch showing a Salvation Army firl talking with a customer at a pub in Whitechapel.
Reforming The Locals.


The number of police was quadrupled down there, and, with such speed as possible, the destruction of the old slum environment was begun.

Nearly every one of the old narrow streets on which the murders were committed has been torn out and widened, with both sides built up in substantial and sanitary “artisans’ dwellings,” to take the place of the old-time rookeries, and the lodging houses, hitherto permitted to conduct their business as they pleased  have been placed under strict regulations, rigidly enforced.

This has resulted in a one-sided reform.

The actual criminal classes – the thugs, highway robbers, room thieves and like persons – have been to a great extent driven out, or compelled to mend their ways.


Thus Whitechapel now is probably freer from that manner of offence than the Fourth Ward of New York.

There is no street in Whitechapel through which a stranger who knows how to mind his own business may not pass by day or night with reasonable safety, because of the overpowering constabulary, which is now everywhere in evidence.


But there is scarcely a street in Whitechapel from whose crowds an old detective cannot single out many persons whose criminal records are known to the police; and my guide, whose forte has been the recovery of stolen goods, pointed out to me more than a dozen places which he designated as the resorts of habitual thieves.

We went into one of these “receiver’s shops” – they would be called “fences” in America.

It was nearly midnight, and there were half a dozen men and boys, besides one woman, in the place, in addition to the aged Jew who kept it.

The detective was well known there, and his arrival created a great commotion, the proprietor running forward, rubbing his hands, to explain that he had done nothing wrong.

“Ho, no!” said the detective assuringly. “I know you ain’t. Whatever made you think I thought you had. I am just a-showing this gentleman from the States round a bit. What have you got in that box under there, Levi?”

Levi pulled out the box. It was filled with silk handkerchiefs, washed and ironed and neatly folded now, but probably the outcome of some pickpocket “mob’s” night’s work.

The detective questioned him closely, but the old man had a plausible answer for every query and the box went back into its place.

Then the detective made the aged rascal overhaul his entire stock for my benefit, and such a heterogeneous mass of everything under the sun was never gathered under one roof before.

From old shoes to silver cake baskets: from books to a cask of smoked herring; from ladies’ hats to a nickel-plated American revolver, the strange mixture ranged.

“Now, Levi, you know that every bloody thing in the whole place is stolen goods; now, don’t you?” finally queried the detective.

“Oh, no, Mr. Dick! No, indeed! Not a single harticle!”

“Well, all I’ve got to say is that you ought to have been raided long ago.

Now, don’t ever let me find such a bloody curiosity shop here again, or I’ll make you take the whole blooming craft up to be identified,” responded. Mr. Dick.


But after we had left he said to me:- “The old scoundrel knows as well as I do that we can’t do anything with him.

He’s careful to buy only of men he knows, and he is reasonably certain to take in only stuff that has been stolen outside of London. This part of the town is a great headquarters for thieves who operate in the suburbs and the provinces.

Burglars work out beyond the metropolitan police limits a good bit, and bring their booty to London to sell it.”