Fear And Consternation

By the 4th of September 1888, the newspapers were reporting extensively on the proceedings at the inquest into the death of Mary Nichols, whose body had been discovered in Buck’s Row, Whitechapel, in the early hours of August 31st 1888.

Many of the papers were commenting on the fact that the police were still, effectively, thrashing about in the dark, with no real clue as to who had been responsible for the atrocity.

Commentators were still divided as to whether the murder had been the work of a local gang, or whether it was the work of a lone assassin – probably a madman.

A slection of the newspaper headlines on 4th September 1888.
Some of the newspaper headlines from 4th September 1888. Copyright, The British Library Board.


What does become apparent, from reading the newspapers of the 4th of September, 1888. is that the murder had impacted on the consciousness of the people who lived in the area, and many of the residents were now absolutely terrified that they might be next.

The Bristol Mercury, in its edition of that day commented on this mood of general apprehension that, over the last few days, had become apparent amongst the local populace. The article also observed that there was a general consensus in Whitechapel that they had not seen the last of the work of the unknown miscreant who had, so it was believed at the time, carried out three brutal murders within such a small area, and over such a short period of time:-

“The event has naturally created an immense sensation in the neighbourhood, not so much, perhaps, on its own account, as that it has impressed upon the public with startling vividness the fact that the agency which committed these three atrocities is still at large, and may within many weeks commit more.

It is impossible to resist the conviction that all the Whitechapel murders are traceable to one source, to the discovery of which the police are now devoting their entire energies.

The inhuman and revolting manner in which the murders have been committed has given rise to a belief that they are the work of a maniac, and the people of the district are in a state of extreme terror lest they should be singled out as the next victims of the mysterious murderer.

Constable Neil finds the body of Mary Nichols.
Finding The Body in Buck’s Row. From The Illustrated Police News, 8th September 1888.


But everything goes against the madman theory.

A lunatic might have committed one murder, but he could never have been concerned in three such crimes without leaving some trace of his identity.

Besides, not the most astute madman out of Bedlam could contrive to roam at large through a populous district for three months without falling into the clutches of the police.

It is more likely that the deed may be attributed to one of the gangs which infest Whitechapel by night, and levy blackmail upon any unfortunate whom they may chance to meet.

The nicety with which the deed was timed, and the total absence of any clue, certainly point to a number, rather than to one individual, as the perpetrator; but, beyond that vague suspicion, nothing can at the present stage of investigation be even guessed.

That it will not be long before the criminals are hunted down, and the inhabitants of Whitechapel are once more able to breathe freely, is necessary in the interests of public justice, as well as to maintain the reputation of the Metropolitan police.”


However, a report, that had evidently originated from a London news agency, that appeared in several daily newspapers on the 4th September, 1888, reveals that the detectives leading the hunt for the Buck’s Row murderer had actually all but abandoned the theory that a gang may have carried out the atrocity.

According to the Huddersfield Chronicle:-

“The murder of Mary Ann Nicholls has so many points of similarity with the murder of two other women in the same neighbourhood recently, that the police admit their belief that the three crimes are the work of one individual.

All three women were of the class called ‘unfortunates,’ each so very poor that robbery could have been no motive for the crime.

Each was murdered in a similar fashion, and all three murders were committed within a distance of 300 yards of each other.

These facts have led the police to almost abandon the idea of a gang being abroad to wreak vengeance on women of this class for not supplying them with money.


Detective Inspectors Abberline, of the Criminal Investigation Department, and Detective – Inspector Helson, J Division, are both of the opinion that only one person, and that a man, had a hand in the latest murder.

It is considered unlikely that the woman could have entered a house, been murdered, and then removed to Buck’s Row within a period of one hour and a quarter.

The woman who last saw her alive, and whose name is Nelly Holland, was a fellow-lodger with the deceased in Thrawl-street, and is positive as to the time being 2.30am.

Portraits of Abberline (left) and Helson (right).
Abberline (left) and Helson (right).


Police-constable Neil, who found the body, reports the time as 3-45am.

Buck’s-row is a secluded place, from having tenements on one side only.

The constable has been severely questioned as to his ‘working’ of his ‘beat’ on that night, and he states that he was last on the spot where he found the body not more than half an hour previously – that is to say, at 3.15am.

His beat is a very short one and is quickly walked over, so it would not occupy more than 12 minutes.

He neither heard a cry nor saw any person.

Moreover, there are three watchmen on duty at night close to the spot, and none of them heard a cry to cause alarm.

It is not true, says Constable Neil, who is a man of nearly 20 years’ service, that he was called to the body by two men.

He came upon it as he walked, and flashing his lantern to examine it, he was answered by the lights from two other constables at either end of the street.

These constables had seen no man leaving the spot.”