One of the most intriguing aspects of reading the press accounts of the Jack the Ripper murders, is the insight they provide into the area in which the crimes occurred and the reactions to the atrocities of the people who lived in the district.
There is a common misconception that the whole of Whitechapel and Spitalfields was paralysed with fear as the Whitechapel murders increased in their ferocity and the miscreant responsible remained at liberty.
This could not be further from the truth.
There was certainly fear in the immediate aftermath of the killings; but it wasn’t long before this fear gave way to morbid curiosity, and throngs of sightseers headed for the murder sites to gawp, comment, and to generally bask in the notoriety that the crimes had foisted on the neighbourhood.
A TOUR WHITECHAPEL AND SPITALFIELDS – 1888
On the 11th September, 1888, The London Daily News published an article that pondered the ghoulish delight that the local crowds appeared to be taking in the fact that two gruesome murders – those of Mary Nichols and Annie Chapman – had occurred in their neighbourhood.
To prepare for his article, the reporter took a stroll into Whitechapel and visited the site in Buck’s Row where the murder of Mary Nichols had occurred on August 31st, 1888. Interestingly, he made specific mention of the red brick school building that still stands in Durward Street – the name under which Buck’s Row is now known.
The reporter then stopped off at Commercial Street Police Station to enquire about the latest developments in the hunt for the murderer, only to be told that there were none!
He then made his way to Hanbury Street, where, just a few days before, on the 8th of September, 1888, Annie Chapman had been murdered in the backyard of number 29.
The article enables us to gain a vivid insight into the crime scenes as they were just a few days after the murders had occurred:-
EXCITING SCENES IN WHITECHAPEL
“From morning till night crowds of people have been lounging about the police office in Commercial Street, in Hanbury Street – the scene of the last murder – and in Buck’s Row, the scene of the previous murder.
A letter carrier, and subsequently a policeman, to who I expressed a little surprise that crowds of sightseers should have come to Buck’s Row so long after the even, both remarked that the sightseers were there “because Monday is a holiday.”
The agreement between the pair was curious.
Monday a holiday, and from all quarters of the “East-end” they have come to celebrate it in these slums of filth and crime.
About a hundred people – most of them, it is fair to state, of the loafer classes – were clustered round the big gate where Mary Anne Nicholls’s body was found.
THE BUCK’S ROW BOARD SCHOOL
At a short distance from the spot stands the Board-school – a tall, red-brick building.
From its half-open windows came the shrill, pure, thoughtless voices of the children.
There, at any rate, I thought, the better generation is growing up.
But, I was thinking aloud, for my friend, the postman, struck in sharply. “I hope they are; but meanwhile their mothers take the young ‘uns to the gin shop. You may see them if you like.”
I did not want to see them, Buck’s-row has an evil reputation, apart from its present notoriety for murder; a light there last Sunday afternoon flooded the place with the rascality of the neighbourhood – unseen of the police.
COMMERCIAL STREET POLICE STATION
Walking on to the police-station in Commercial-street, I heard a hue-and-cry.
This was at half-past one o’clock.
“The murderer, the murderer! Leather Apron’s ketched!” shriek the street urchins, and they scurry round the corner of the police-station; slatternly women; hulking, ruffianly fellows, in greasy raiment, join in the run.
Then there is a noise of laughter, screaming of the small folk, coarse guffawing of the older ones, who ought to know better, but did not.
It was a “sell.”
Hideous, loathsome, inhuman sport.
The small boys in the Campaign district of Ireland play at battering-rams upon “forts” improvised out of sticks and street mud. Their fun is humour and wit, in comparison with this bogus hue-and-cry of the dismal, rancid region where the pressure of the unknown murderer is felt mysteriously.
I enter the police-office, where there is some considerable bustle about people who, as I am told, are giving evidence as to the man who has been arrested in Gravesend [The article is referring to William Henry Pigott, who had been taken into custody on account of his suspicious behaviour and the fact that he was wearing bloodstained clothing].
The officer in charge tells me that nothing is known definitely about him as yet.
A WALK ALONG HANBURY STREET
Intending to call again, I walk up Hanbury-street to the scene of the Saturday morning’s murder, No. 29.
A great crowd stood in front of it, extending a considerable way, up and down the street.
Nearly one-half of the persons in it were women, most of them bareheaded and unwashed, and a great many with children in their arms.
From the windows of upper storeys on both sides of Hanbury-street other women leant out, their elbows or outstretched palms resting on the window-sills.
Not a man could I see in any of those windows, only women, grown up girls, and children.
They had the air of people who thought their quarter of the world invested with a new importance.
NOTHING TO SEE
What were the crowds gaping and staring at? Nothing. At any rate, at nothing which they could not “take in” in a couple of minutes.
There stood the dingy house in the backyard of which the crime took place, the ditto of its dingy neighbours.
A mangling house, with the yellow paint peeling off its walls like skin-disease, flanks it on one side; an ordinary dwelling-house on the other.
THE BACKYARD OF 29 HANBURY STREET
To reach the backyard of No. 29, you must traverse the “hall” and passage of the house; there is no back entry, for, as I already said, the houses flank each other closely, leaving no intervening space.
On traversing the passage, you reach a backdoor, from which three steps lead downwards – that is, to the level of the ugly, little, slimy backyard.
This backyard is separated from the next neighbour’s by a paling, so low that one may vault over it with the utmost ease.
In the narrow level space between the steps and the paling was found the murdered body.
A POLICEMAN ON GUARD
A policeman guarded the street entrance to the passage, admitting none “except on business.”
Few there were who had any legitimate business; nevertheless the crowd stood patiently in the street – stood and stared, hour after hour – a living monument to the innate impulse of wonder and curiosity, showing infinite capacity for good, if only civilisation should open other paths for their exercise.
THE PROPERTY AND ITS RESIDENTS
The sign-board on the house says “Mrs. A. Richardson, Rough Packing-Case Maker.”
On the ground-floor is a cat’s meat shop, the lower half of the window of which is thrown up, affording a view of the counter, and of the two or three people who are moving about inside it, stooping down now and again to take another look at the multitudes outside.
Above the ground floor are two storeys – the windows of the lower one being filled with flowers, and adorned with red curtains.
As the place is let out in lodgings – there is one room in which five people of a family live together – the street door is usually open, even at night.
An open door might tempt the murderer, even suppose he had no previous knowledge of the premises.
Nobody, neither constable nor householder, nor patient sightseer (“holiday”- maker) knew anything about the murder beyond what had been published in the morning papers,.”