How many people will you identify today?
If you think about it, we spend almost every waking hour identifying people.
You might identify The Queen, Prince Charles, The Pope, George Clooney, or some other rock star, actor or other celebrity, when you see them on the television.
You will wake up in the morning, look over and, hopefully, identify your partner, snoring away on the opposite side of the bed to you!
You will go down stairs and identify the children, or the pet dog or cat. You might head out for work and identify your neighbours as you pass them in the street outside.
You might stop off at the newsagent for a a paper and identify the man or woman behind the counter because they serve you day after day.
Arriving at work, you will identify your workmates, regular clients, or that nice chap from accounts who always has a smile and a joke to lighten the day.
AMAZING DAILY FEATS OF IDENTIFICATION
Each and every day, each and every one of us performs an astonishing number of identifications, and, on the whole, we don’t even realise we’re doing it!
We are able to identify all these people because of our familiarity with either them or with the context in which we identify them.
An example of this from a Jack the Ripper perspective is the number of suspects faces we can identify because we’ve seen them time and time again. A few weeks ago we did one of our quizzes entitled “The Eyes of the Ripper” in which we asked people to identify various people connected with the case from only their eyes. Many who tried the quiz did exceptionally well, probably because they’d seen the images time and time again and so, being familiar with them, they were able to identify them.
Try it yourself by looking at the following image of various people connected with the case. How many of them can you identify?
HOW OFTEN DON’T WE IDENTIFY PEOPLE
Now, count the times when you don’t identify anybody. Actually it might take an awful long time, so don’t bother!
Instead, just look at the following image and see if you can identify any of the people in the picture and see if you can identify any of them?
Since you don’t know any of them then you probably can’t identify them and won’t be able to should you look at the picture again in a few days time.
Walking along Oxford Street on a Saturday afternoon, for example, you will encounter thousands of people and you won’t identify a single one of them. Unless, that is, you recognise them because they are known to you, or they draw attention to themselves in some way.
Even walking along a single street at night and encountering the occasional passer by means that you won’t actually identify them as you walk past because you are not familiar with them.
So, we identify people by, either being familiar with them or because we encounter them in a context with which we are familiar.
JACK THE RIPPER WITNESSES
Which brings me to the witnesses who may have seen the victims in the company of Jack the Ripper on the nights they were murdered.
In the case of almost every witness they encountered total strangers – many of them didn’t even know the victim by sight, let alone the man they saw that victim with – and many of them were remembering what they had seen a few days later and with the hindsight that the woman they saw “might” have been the murder victim because they’d encountered them in a context with which they were familiar by the time they came to make their identification.
A LITTLE TEST ON THE WALK
When I started my Jack the Ripper CSI walk way back in 1982, I devised a little exercise to demonstrate the fact that we can’t, and shouldn’t, rely 100% on what the witnesses remembered seeing. As we approached Mitre Square I would take specific notice of any people, preferably a couple, who we passed and who were chatting by the side of the road, or on a street corner.
JOSEPH LAWENDE’S SIGHTING
I would then enter Mitre Square and tell the group about the man and woman that Joseph Lawende saw chatting outside Mitre Square 15 or so minutes before the body of Catherine Eddowes was found in the square’s south-west corner on 30th September 1888.
Now, Lawende – by his own admission – didn’t actually see the woman’s face and, it should be remembered, only actually identified her as Catherine Eddowes from her clothing when he was shown it a few days after the murder.
The man was facing him so he did see his face although, at the time, he didn’t identify him.
COULD THEY IDENTIFY HIM?
So, the exercise that I would then present to my group to demonstrate the reliability, or otherwise, of Lawende’s description, was to tell them that, as we passed such and such location, we had passed a man and woman chatting on the corner. Could, I would ask the group, any one could describe the man. On the whole, most people in the group hadn’t even noticed the couple and those that had could rarely recall anything about the couple.
I would then point out that they’d only encountered this couple fifteen or so minutes ago and yet were unable to give a description of them or remember anything about them.
Of course had the man been attacking the woman, or had they been having a stand up argument, then they would have remembered them as the couple were then doing something to attract attention and thus the group would have been presented with a context in which to remember them.
Joseph Lawende simply encountered a couple chatting outside an entrance to Mitre Square. They weren’t doing anything particularly noteworthy and he always maintained that he would not be able to identify the man again were he to be confronted with him.
And, indeed, many people on the walk then nodded in agreement as they had found themselves in exactly the same situation that Lawende found himself in and, like Lawende, few of them could remember very much about these people they had seen on the streets but whom they had not identified.