Confessions and Copycats

The St James’s Gazette, in an article that was published on Tuesday, 9th October, 1888, highlighted the problems posed to the overworked London police by the number of compulsive confessers who were, at the time, feeling the need to “own up” to being the Whitechapel murderer.

Whatever the motives of these confessers – be it a desire for notoriety, the fact they were drunk when they had made their confessions, or that they were genuinely mentally ill – there can be little doubt, as the article pointed out, that their antics were hindering the police investigation.

The Punch Cartoon Blind Mans Buff showing a blind-folded police officer being taunted by criminals.
Blind Mans Buff – A Punch Cartoon From 1888.


The article also worried that, thanks to the huge amount of coverage that the newspapers were giving to the killer who was, by this time, becoming widely known as “Jack the Ripper”, it would only be a matter of time before imitators, or copycats, would begin to carry out similar crimes in the hope of achieving some of the notoriety that had been given to the perpetrator of the East End atrocities.

The article finished by looking at some of the solutions that were being proposed in order to alleviate the dreadful social conditions that had led to the majority of the victims being out on the streets in the early hours, where they had proved such easy targets for the whiechapel murderer.


The article read:-

“Already the Whitechapel alarm has followed in two respects its anticipated and almost inevitable course.

When a great crime has appealed to the vulgar imagination there has always been a series of confessions, generally made by half-witted or morbid persons, sometimes by mere seekers of notoriety.

This is not a matter of much consequence, except to the overworked authorities at the police stations, who are obliged to go through the formality of asking formal questions only to receive idle answers.


It is also to be expected that we shall hear many tales of similar outrages repeated on helpless women in lonely places. These are not pure products of mendacity. With many women, the fear of a possible outrage grows into a firm belief that it has actually been attempted or even committed.

But, beyond the illusions of hysterical imagination, it is not unlikely that sturdy beggars and footpads will be inclined to practise on the terrors of any woman who looks a likely subject.

Nor is the terror quite unreasonable.

There is some reason to fear that the crime will find its imitators.


In the horrifying incidents of the crime and in the criminal’s defiant impunity there is something which stirs the sluggish or gin-sodden brains of a class who find their only romance in feats of bloodshed and in dying upon the scaffold – game to the end.


The charitable doctors, as usual, disagree upon what should be done for the poor women in the East End upon whom so much attention is just now directed.

Some experts think that there should be night refuges for them to go to when they have no money to get a doss at the lodging houses and one new refuge was opened in the Mile End Road yesterday.

Other experts assure us that this will only intensify the evil.


Dr. Barnardo writes to advocate a home for the young girls of the common lodging houses, and the Bishop of Bedford would like to see a home found for “the older women, many of whom have only taken to this miserable mode of earning a livelihood in sheer despair.”

Fortunately, these suggestions are not all contradictory, and in any case, the Bishop’s opinion is worthy of respect.

A portrait of the Bishop of Bedford.
Robert Claudius Billing, Bishop of Bedford. From The Illustrated London News, 14th July, 1888.


It is worth noticing that both the late rector of Spitalfields and the present vicar of St Olave’s, Hanbury-street, are still urgently appealing for volunteer “workers” among the poor, and this after the sensational outburst of “slumming” of some three years ago.


No wonder Mr. and Mrs. Barnett, in their book on “Practical Socialism”, which was published yesterday, utter a warning against the attempt to amend the wrongs of society by the fashionable method of “striving and crying” –  and not working.”


The fact that the desire to imitate the Whitechapel murderer was a countrywide, as opposed to simply an East London, phenomenon, can be gleaned from the following report that appeared in The Wellington Journal, on Saturday, 13th October, 1888:-

“Events in Shrewsbury have recently glided away in such quiet monotony that the slightest contretemps would have been sufficient to plunge the people into a state of intense excitement.

Therefore, it may be readily imagined that the visit of a man who declared himself to be “Jack the Ripper” resulted in a veritable panic.

The rumour of the capture of the diabolical “Jack” was freely circulated in Shrewsbury on Wednesday afternoon, and the consternation caused is too dreadful to depict.

For many days, a suspicious-looking stranger has troubled Shrewsbury with his presence, and on Wednesday evening he went into Morgan’s Vaults and declared to the affrighted landlady that he was “Jack the Ripper.”

The police were put on his track, and he was apprehended, but subsequently discharged.


It seems that the individual was one of the multitude of persons who, anxious to obtain a little notoriety, or actuated by a malicious desire to witness the influence of their grim confessions on timorous women, lay claim to be the perpetrators of the Whitechapel tragedies, then, as soon a policeman appears, they are at no slight pains to prove the contrary of their admissions.


But Shrewsbury has no cause to be alarmed.

Still, many people think otherwise, and it is really amusing to notice the precautions taken to afford protection from the “Ripper’s” onslaught.


By those in a position to judge, it is said that the secluded lovers’ walks, along which amorous couples peacefully promenaded and passionately proclaimed the visions of their glowing fancies, are now deserted.

There hangs over them a prosaic gloom, they are haunted by the shadow of “Jack the Ripper.”


Might not the assassin, it is earnestly asked, pounce upon unsuspecting individuals, and exercise his diabolical propensities on them?

It is thought he might, and the terror of Whitechapel has even extended to Shrewsbury.


However, the inhabitants may take comfort in the reflection that, if the “Ripper” should make an appearance in Shrewsbury, he would soon be caught.

This conviction is strengthened by the fact that his clumsy impersonator was so speedily run to earth.


The only thing to be feared is that the thirst for popularity may be so great that many a man may be tempted to assure the Shrewsbury people that he is “Jack the Ripper,” and the police will be continually exercised in making sudden apprehensions and immediate releases, and thus be compelled to imitate the marvellous exploits of their London brethren.”