Epidemics Of Crime

In January 1889, the country as a whole was still reeling in shock at the sheer brutality of the murders that had taken place in Whitechapel the previous year.

Many newspapers were pondering the possible motivation behind such a series of brutal, yet senseless, atrocities, whilst others were wondering what had become of the perpetrator who had been responsible for the ghastly crimes.

One argument that had been brought up several times over the preceding months, was that depictions of violence in the media and on the London stage may well have “inspired” some deranged individual to carry out the so-called “Jack the Ripper” murders.

Another argument held that it might be widespread press coverage of similar murders that lay behind the Whitechapel atrocities.


Punch magazine, in its issue of October 13th, 1888, published a cartoon that showed the devil leering back over his shoulder as he stuck a poster – which showed a murderous figure standing over a prostrate women into whose chest he has just plunged a long-bladed knife – to a wall that was plastered with similar posters.

An accompanying poem, that pondered the effects such depictions of violence must have on the minds of some who saw them, ended with the observation:-

“These mural monstrosities, reeking of crime,
Flaring horridly forth amidst squalor and grime,
Must have an effect which will tell in good time
Upon legions of dull-witted toilers.

Taken in through the eyes such suggestions of sin
A sympathy morbid and monstrous must win
From the grovelling victims of gloom and bad gin
Who gapingly gaze on them daily”

The Punch Cartoon The Pandemonium of Posters.
The Pandemonium Of Posters. From Punch Magazine, 13th October, 1888.


No matter what the stance of individual newspapers, there was a general consensus amongst the press, the public and the politicians of the time that England as a whole, and London in particular, was in the throes of what was being widely referred to as “an epidemic of crime.”

On Monday the 7th of January, 1889, The Dundee Courier published the following article which trawled back over previous 19th-century crimes, and pondered how many of these crimes had resulted in copycat crime sprees.

“Few people can remember a period when serious crimes were of more frequent occurrence than at present.

There is scarcely a day that passes which does not add to the list of murders or of attempted murders, each of which is more atrocious in its character than the worst of its predecessors.

The work of killing and mutilating proceeds so continuously that newspaper readers are more than surfeited with horrifying sensations and revolting details, even though it has been found necessary to suppress much regarding these unspeakable crimes.

Truly it is an epidemic of violence which makes one shudder.


It has been noticed in connection with the outbreak of some particular species of crime that there is a remarkable analogy between diseases of the body and diseases of the mind.

This is shown in nothing more strikingly than in the tendency of some morbid mental conditions to spread, like common bodily ailments, and take possession of great numbers, sometimes of whole bodies of people.

Many of the most inexplicable things in the history of superstition are to be explained upon this principle.

The same law which made thousands of poor creatures confess to impossible offences, namely, those of sorcery and witchcraft, holds good with regard to real crime.


There are certain years in which, in a civilised country, observes Lord Lytton in his novel of “Night and Morning,” when some special variety of crime comes into vogue.

“It flares its season and then burns out.

Thus at one time we have burking – at another, swingism – now, suicide is in vogue – now, poisoning tradespeople in apple dumplings – now, little boys stab each other with penknives – now, common soldiers shoot at their sergeants. Almost every year there is one crime peculiar to it.”


These words have been exemplified in a remarkable manner.

“Jack the Ripper,” to use a phrase perhaps rather too flippant for the circumstances, is just now the prevailing style.

So was it when the Ratcliffe Highway murders gave street ruffians a new word, and the threat “to marr” a person awoke associations of dire import.

So was it also in the case of the better known West Port murders. [This is a reference to the Edinburgh murders by Burke and Hare, which took place in 1828.] The excitement awakened everywhere by rumours of burking it is unnecessary to recall.


It is a curious commentary on the clause relating to stabbing by boys that two such cases, one of them attended with fatal results, should have occurred at Sunderland just now, with only a day or two between them.

Such things may sometimes happen to be coincidences and nothing more, but there is a good reason to believe that they result from the operation of the imitative faculty.


“Let a newspaper once give an account of some out-of-the-way atrocity that has the charm of being novel, and certain depraved minds fasten to it like leeches.

They brood over and revolve it – the idea grows up, a horrid phantasmalian monomania; and all of a sudden, in a hundred different places, the one seed sown by the leaden types springs up into foul flowering.”

It is from a morbid desire to imitate that runs are made upon particular crimes, that one description of murder becomes more fashionable than another.


Of poisoning maniacs there have been a great number, and before the days, too, when the newspapers could be blamed for causing the notoriety.

Poisoning became a fashion at the French Court in the reign of Louis the Fourteenth, and it, was only what we should expect to find the crime grow popular with the lower orders.

It has been observed that when any great personage in any country adopts a peculiar mode of committing suicide that his example is invariably followed by many humble imitators.

The effect which the performance of Schiller’s play of “The Robbers” had upon the University youth of Germany in making them go out upon the highway may be referred to the same principle.


In a case almost similar in its character to the Whitechapel butcheries  – the murder of Hannah Brown by James Greenacre [this took place in January, 1837] – for weeks subsequently boys and girls were seen enacting, under gateways situated in low neighbourhoods, the scene of the murder and mutilation in mimicry.


One of the most remarkable epidemics of crime which is to be recorded, however, was the outbreak of incendiarism, popularly known as “swingism,” in the southern counties of England more than fifty years ago, and there can be no question that it was due more to merely imitative acts than to wickeder criminal inclinations.

Some corn stacks, barns, and other farm buildings in the county of Kent, were burned by night, and several farmers received letters threatening their property with the same treatment unless the wages of farm labourers were raised, and the use of machinery discontinued.

The burnings were spoken. of with great alarm, and they spread from one county to another until they happened so far north as Berwickshire.

The popular fancy was caught by the odd term “Swing,” which, from being the signature of threatening letters, came in a little time to distinguish the whole transaction.

One of the criminals afterwards confessed that he had set fire to his master’s ricks from no motive whatever; only he had been incessantly thinking of the burnings, and even had dreamt of them, and at length he had risen from his sleep and done the deed.


We may fairly presume that to such an influence the prevailing epidemic of crime must be attributed, but how that influence is to be counteracted is, we are afraid, a problem that it will not be easy to solve.

Can we do more than try to make the good more attractive than the bad, and to educate those into paths of honesty and sobriety who would otherwise be misled into the walks of error?”