Had you stopped an East Ender on the streets of Spitalfields and Whitechapel 125 years ago today and asked them who was responsible for the recent murders that had occurred in the area over the previous months (Emma Smith in April, Martha Tabram and Mary Nichols in August), you’d probably have received the reply that it was the “gangs wot done it.”
At the time, of course, they were well aware that something untoward was going on in the district, but the idea of a lone murderer, stalking his defenceless prey in the dimly lit passages and alleyways of the district, had yet to catch on.
The local gangs, and their anti-social and threatening behaviour, were making frequent appearances in the pages of the local newspapers, with the result that most of the locals were of the opinion that these gangs were capable of anything, even murder.
The fact that Emma Smith had survived her attack long enough to tell people that she had been attacked a a gang of youths, had led the police to the belief that the later murders (those of Martha Tabram and Mary Nichols) were probably the work a gang, or gangs, and, in early September the police were pursuing this as a promising line of enquiry.
Indeed, there are newspaper reports of groups of people gathering at the site of the most recent atrocity (the murder of Mary Nicholson August 31st 1888) to chat nervously about recent events and discuss who they thought might be responsible.
A Daily News journalist reported in early September that the general consensus, particularly among the women of the area, was that it was a gang that had “done this.”
However, not everyone was so convinced.
A reporter, paying a visit to Buck’s Row, met with an elderly gentleman who told him that the idea that the crimes were gang-related “was a got up yarn.”
“If there was a gang like that, ” the old man continued, “one or t’other of em’d split before long, and it’d all come out. Bet your money this ain’t been done that way.”
As the old man was airing his views to the reporter the police were beginning to interview the local prostitutes as to who they thought might be responsible for the crimes.
The street walkers began to speak about a sinister figure who had been threatening them for some time now. It wasn’t long before the journalists had learnt about this mysterious menace and, by the 5th September 1888, the Leather Apron scare had begun.
You can read our dedicated page on this early suspect here.