Getting Up A Murder Panic

In early 1889, the newspapers were full of accounts of all manner of violent and other crimes that were, seemingly, taking place countrywide.

Indeed, several newspapers were reporting the fact that the country was in the grip of what many were terming “an epidemic of crime”, and numerous commentators were discussing the causes of this general menace to society, with several of them opining that it had come about as a result of the police’s inability to bring Jack the Ripper to justice.

Other commentators were wondering what could be done to bring this epidemic under control, and the idea of stiffer penalties for wrongdoers was being widely touted in the pages of  various newspapers.

On Friday January the 11th, 1889, The Pall Mall Gazette took a close look at the crime epidemic and also considered what it suggested was, in fact, nothing less than a murder panic which, in the opinion of the article’s writer at least, had been generated by the excesses of reporting on violent crimes in the daily newspapers.

The article read:-


It is the duty of good citizens, said Mr. Justice Denman yesterday at the Old Bailey, to be calm and quiet at such a time as this. No doubt. But does Mr. Justice Denman think that he contributes to the calm and quiet which he so much desiderates by piling up the agony as he did yesterday in his address to the prisoner in the dock?

Here, for instance, is the way in which his lordship described the present position of affairs:-

‘There was at large at that time a person whom one could only describe as either a frantic madman, with very great art and power of escaping from persons who were searching for him, or a fiend in human shape, who was causing the most fearful injuries and murdering poor unoffending creatures, at least as far as he was concerned, right and left.”

Language more admirably calculated to excite the alarm and disquietude, which he professes to wish to allay, it would be difficult to frame; and yet this is taken from a judicial discourse to a prisoner on the use of “exciting language.”

A portrait of the judge Mr. Justice Denman.
Mr. Justice Denman. From The Illustrated London News, 26th September,1896. Copyright, The British Library Board.


The Dally News, however, far and away outdoes the judge.

In an article entitled “A Carnival of Crime,” we have the following extraordinary series of preposterous exaggerations:-

“We hang two men a day quite commonly now. As things go, it is never safe to reckon on a day’s paper without the account of an execution. There is always a trap falling, or a trap ready to fall.

No wonder Mr. Berry [this is a reference to Mr. James Berry (1852 – 1913) the Public Executioner] walks the streets with a swagger.

He is the busiest of our public functionaries.

A strike of hangmen would paralyse the administrative machine.”

An illustration of the execution of Israel Lipski.
James Berry Carrying Out The Execution Of Israel Lipski, August, 1887. From The Illustrated Police News, 27th August, 1887. Copyright, The British Library Board.


No wonder it asks, “What is to be done?”

If we may venture to answer its question, we should mildly suggest that the first thing is to get to know the facts, and then to stick to them.

They are bad enough, in all conscience, without exaggerating them in such ridiculous fashion as this.

How many executions, we wonder, have taken place in England within the last six months? “Two a day quite commonly” would imply that the hangings must have mounted up to hundreds at least. So far from that being the case, they do not reach scores, nor even to dozens.

Why, then, this absurd declamation about the activity of the hangman?

The mischief is not that he is too active but that his halter is so seldom stretched.

The number of murderers prowling round is out of all proportion to those who go to the gallows.

It will be time enough for us to declare that hanging does not deter when we succeed in catching the men who ought to be hanged.


The outburst of murderous crime which is reported from all parts of the country is the natural consequence of the impunity enjoyed by the Whitechapel murderer and the publicity given to his crimes.

It is a disagreeable reflection that there are many persons in the country who are only restrained from committing murder by the fear of the hangman’s noose, but the fact is indisputable. There is a salutary superstition widespread among our people that murder will out, and that sooner or later the gallows claims its due.

The utter failure of the police to apprehend the Whitechapel murderer has made such a serious inroad upon this superstition that it has to a large extent ceased to be an operative force.

People see that it is possible to kill and escape, and they are accordingly making practical experiment of the new doctrine which they have substituted for the old dread.

The sense of impunity has set our latent murderers loose on the community.


There is a murder here, a murder there, until we are in danger of getting blasé with bloodshed. When we do, the epidemic will die out. For it is to a great extent propagated by the newspapers.

We do not see that any good is to be gained by refusing to face that fact.

Publicity has its disadvantages as well as its advantages, and the inoculation of the whole community with the criminal mania whose outbreak has to be reported is one of the disadvantages resulting from our present system.

The law prohibits the publication of details of all descriptions of crime which come under the definition of obscenity.

Some day, the law that is used to prevent the propagation of scabrous matter connected with the breach of the Seventh Commandment may also be extended to the fabrication of matter which may lead to a breach of the Eighth.


It is not generally recognised that familiarity, especially the fresh familiarity, with murderous deeds begets in certain minds an absolute craving to commit murder.

But our only surprise is that the publication far and wide, with all their ghastly and gory details, of the eight murders in Whitechapel has so far produced what is after all comparatively so small a crop of murders.

As if a murder panic were not enough, we have our contemporaries diligently fomenting a panic about burglars.

One curious feature of all these panics is that they invariably produce the same old miserable “specific.”


Nothing gives us a more pitiable conception of the sterility of the English mind, than the monotony with which, whenever the public is alarmed, the public clamours for the lash.

Here, for instance, are two letters in The Times this morning.

The first begins:-

“The press and the public generally should force our timid, halting officials to take energetic action against certain forms of crime.

May I suggest that:-

1) Any person committing a burglary or robbery from the person, accompanied by violence or brutality, be flogged.

2) Any burglar or other thief having upon him a revolver, or other distinctly murderous weapon, be flogged.”

Correspondent number two says the same.


All this is very stupid.

The difficulty is not what to do with our burglars when we catch them. The difficulty is to catch them at all.

You cannot do more than hang a man. The gallows waits for every murderer.

But it waits in vain.

Not severer punishment but more speedy and certain detection is the one thing needful.”