We recently brought together a panel of experts with a view to soliciting their opinions as to how the Jack the Ripper murder investigation, carried out by the Metropolitan Police in 1888, differed to the same type of Crime Scene Investigation that would be carried out by their modern counterparts in the 21st Century.
We combined their answers into a fascinating video that you can watch below.
PAUL BEGG AUTHOR AND RIPPERLOGIST
First up was Paul Begg, author of the excellent book on the subject Jack the Ripper:- The Facts.
Paul begins by stating that what we would term forensics today was completely unknown to the police of 1888. As Paul observes, for the most part the inspection and investigation of the body itself would have fallen under the purview of the doctors, who were able to advise of an approximate time of death, albeit with nothing like the accuracy that their modern counterparts would be able to achieve today.
He also makes the point that the police themselves were somewhat suspicious of all the newfangled methods of investigation that were starting to be advocated with regards to a murder investigation.
One such method was the Bertillon system of Criminal Investigation, which proposed that each individual had a unique combination of measurements of different body parts, and that by comparing these measurements it was possible to distinguish between individuals.
As Paul observes, there wasn’t much in respect of forensics that the police in 1888 could have used. They couldn’t, for example, even really distinguish between human blood and animal blood.
PROFESSOR DERRICK POUNDER – FORENSIC PATHOLOGIST
The next expert that we spoke to was Professor Derrick J. Pounder who contrasted the scene of crime techniques that were in use in the 19th century with the techniques that would be used today.
Professor Pounder makes the valid observation that in the 19h century the police would attend a crime scene without any accompanying scientist. They might have a doctor come to the scene, but that would be the sole scientific involvement.
Today, he says, an entire team of forensic experts would turn up, each with their own field of forensic science expertise. As Professor Pounder puts it:- “They would discuss together what might be gained from the crime scene, what might be taken from it, how it might be tested and how that evidence might be useful.”
In 1888 they would have turned up, wearing their everyday clothing. They might be smoking cigars and cigarettes that would have further contaminated the scene.
Contrast that, Professor Pounder says, with what you see on television today, with investigators dressed in white suits that cover them from head to foot, to ensure that they don’t, as far as is possible, contaminate the scene of a crime.
PROFESSOR ROBERT FLANAGAN – TOXICOLOGIST
Toxicologist Professor Robert Flanagan begins by explaining how the Victorian Police were, very much, reliant on witness evidence, as well as on a knowledge of the local villains.
They were dependent on their knowledge of which villains were known to carry out which types of crime. They were, however, hampered by the fact that they didn’t have many of the techniques that their modern counterparts have come to rely on, such as video surveillance and forensic pathology. A post mortem, for example, would be carried out by a local GP or a local hospital doctor.
PEOPLE TRAMPLED ALL OVER THE CRIME SCENES
Several of our experts make the point that, since the police didn’t really understand the concept of trace evidence at a crime scene – hairs, blood, dust and fibres etc. – little effort was made to preserve or to isolate the location where a murder, or any other crime for that matter, had been committed.
The forensics side of things was very limited indeed and consisted of looking for clues that were obviously present at the site. But no attempt was made to either isolate or secure the murder scenes.
As Paul Begg observe “people trampled all over the murder scenes, amongst them the police themselves.”
In fact, the important thing for the police at the scenes of almost all of the Whitechapel Murders appears to have been a desire to get the bodies moves from the sites as quickly as possible – so much so that the majority of the victims were taken to the mortuary within a few hours of their bodies having been discovered.
In the case of Mary Nichols, for example, her body was discovered at 3.40 in the morning on August 31st 1888. By 5am her body had been removed to the nearby mortuary and the police had washed the blood away from the location where her body had been found in Buck’s Row.
Indeed, you can glean an idea of how cursory the examination of the body when it was in situ actually was from the fact that Dr Rees Ralph Llwellyn, the local doctor who the police called to the scene to pronounce life extinct, didn’t even notice that she had been disembowelled.
WOULD THEY CATCH HIM TODAY?
The final question we pose to our panel of experts is, would modern methods of investigation result in the capture of Jack the Ripper.
Richard Jones makes the point that people might argue that we could look for him using CCTV. But, then again, if the area was still made up of the warren of narrow alleyways and dark passages, as it was in 1888, this might well assist him to avoid being seen, since he might well know the location of the CCTV cameras and use this knowledge to evade being seen.
Several of our experts make the point that, in order for modern techniques – fingerprinting and DNA – to stand any chance of leading to an arrest and a conviction, you’d have to have his fingerprints and DNA on record in the first place. If he’s not “in the system” then even finding his DNA at the scene of the crime is not going to lead the police to him and result in his subsequent apprehension.
As Professor Flanagan observes, the popular idea that forensics “always leads to detection and conviction of a perpetrator is, in reality, very far from the truth. Indeed, forensics itself is only one part of a murder investigation and often “you don’t prosecute a crime as a result.”
THE POLICE DID A REASONABLE JOB
So, the conclusion of our then and now crime scene investigation is that the police in 1888 did a fairly good job of hunting for Jack the Ripper, given the limited resources available to them. They most certainly made mistakes – as, indeed, modern police forces make mistakes. But, given the limitation of the resources, scientific knowledge and investigative techniques at their disposal, there was, as Paul Begg observes, “little more that they could have done.