CSI Photography

In our latest video in the series on the Jack the Ripper CSI, we take a look at the use of photography at the sites of the Whitechapel Murders.

Photography was most certainly around at the time, it it was started to be used by the police, but, and as far as we know, not really to record the scenes of the crimes and their surroundings.

Indeed, only one of the victims of Jack the Ripper was actually photographed at the scene of her murder, and that was Mary Kelly, the final victim – who was murdered in her room in Miller’s Court  on the 9th November 1888.

A photographer taking a photograph of Mary Kelly's body lying on her bed.
A Photographer At The Crime Scene of Mary Kelly’s Murder. From The Illustrated Police News


The other victims were photographed on being taken to the mortuary, and these photographs were done, not so much to record anything for investigative purposes, but rather to be used in attempting to ascertain the identity of the victims.

Today, of course, we have the benefit of hindsight. So, when we look at the victim photographs, we know who they were. But, in the aftermath of each crime in 1888, the police were confronted with a murder victim whose identity was unknown to them, and so the photos were taken to be shown around in the hope that somebody would be able to put a name to the victim.

In the case of Mary Kelly, the police did bring in a photographer and Mary’s body was photographed as it lay on the bed in her room, and the haunting images that were recorded that day, are probably some of the earliest scene of a murder photographic records that we have. Even as black and white images they are truly disturbing, and they bring home to us the full horror of the horrific sight that confronted the people who entered that room and gazed upon the mutilated remains.


You can watch the full episode on the use of photography at the scenes of the Jack the Ripper crimes on the video below.


The first expert to comment is Forensic Pathologist Dr Derrick Pounder.

He begins by making the point that, at the time of the Whitechapel Murders, the police were utilising some new techniques, one of which was photography.

But, as Professor Pounder observes, it was “merely a form of documentation, a way of doing what they had done up until then by sketching, or by making written notes.”

Later in the film, Professor Pounder extols the importance of photography when it comes to investigating a crime:-

“Photography is tremendously useful because, when you look at a crime scene, you’re influenced by the emotion of the moment and you’re focussed on certain elements. But, when you look at a photograph, you remove the emotion, you’re looking at it at a distance in time and you can focus on distinct parts of it systematically, and so you see things that you didn’t see when you stood in the crime scene.”


Our next expert to comment is Professor Robert Flanagan, who explains how “the introduction of photography was revolutionary because there was no other simple way of recording the precise  position of objects at a crime scene.”

He also makes the point that photography (and, of course, video today) is the only truly reliable way of recording the precise characteristics of a person.


Paul Begg then explains the various ways in which the police utilised photography in the latter years of the 19th Century.

One use was to take a photograph of a prisoner when they had been convicted and were going into prison, “in which case you have the standard, right, left, full face images,” such as the ones reproduced below.

A male and female prisoner photographed prior to going in to prison.
Photography Was Often Used To Record Prisoners Likenesses.


Paul, then goes on to reveal how it wasn’t until later on in the investigation, with the murder of Mary Kelly, that photographs of a crime scene were being taken, since some of these – such as the image of the windows of Mary Kelly’s Room that you can see below – have survived.

The photograph showing the windows of Mary Kelly's Room from the outside.
The Photograph of Mary Kelly’s Room at Miller’s Court.

But then, as Paul observes:- “It’s very difficult to know precisely what was going on, because vast amounts of evidence and material, that we would be very interested in seeing today, has been destroyed.”


Paul also talks of the fact that the police investigation appears to have evolved towards detailing the appearance of the crime scenes as the murders progressed.

“So,” he says, “in the case of [the murder of] Catherine Eddowes, we see drawings being used, very clear, good drawings.

A sketch of Mitre Square and the buildings at the scene of Catherine Eddowes murder.
One of the Drawings Done of Mitre Square, scene of the Murder of Catherine Eddowes.

In the case of Mary Kelly, we see the Met actually bringing in a photographer.” Indeed, Paul makes the same point that Professor Pounder makes, that “that’s got to be a fairly early example of scene of crime photography.”

He also opines that they must have had other photographs that were taken, “other than just the two that have survived.”


Richard explains that they “most certainly had cameras, as we know because several of the victims photographs have survived, but they didn’t use them to photograph the scenes of the crimes as such.”

Aside from Mary Kelly, who was photographed in situ, he observes, the victims weren’t photographed until they had been taken to the mortuary.


Paul Begg then returns to explain the point at which the photograph showing the body of Mary Kelly in her room was actually taken. His words are quite revealing:-

“Obviously it was taken on the day of the murder, and it would appear that the bed had been moved away from the wall for the second photograph to be taken, which is of just the leg, and it would have been taken that day, before the body was removed elsewhere, because the body was taken out of that room before darkness, so it’s fairly soon after entering the room.”

In summary, it is apparent from the limited amount of material that has survived, that, as the Jack the Ripper murders progressed, the police were coming round to the idea that recording images of a crime scene on photographs might be a useful asset in trying to identify the circumstances of the crime and in possibly helping them identify the perpetrator.

However, the limits of the technology available to them coupled with the fact that they appear to have been just developing a sense of how to conduct a crime scene investigation, meant that their methods were not as advanced as they would be today.