Strange as it might seem, had you waylaid a resident of the East End of London as he, or she, made their way through the streets of Spitalfields and Whitechapel, 125 years ago today and asked them what they though about Jack the Ripper, you’d have received a blank stare.
Although it was more than apparent that the series of murders that had recently occurred in the surrounding streets was unusual, the name Jack the Ripper would not enter the case for another three or so weeks.
However, if you asked that same Victorian Londoner what they thought about Leather Apron, the resultant reaction would have been quite different. You may have noticed their expression change to fear, or even trepidation.
In early September 1888, as the police began seeking clues as to the identity of the maniac who had brought terror to the streets of London, their enquiries amongst the local prostitutes had thrown up a promising suspect in the form of a man who the prostitutes knew simply as “Leather Apron.”
They didn’t know his name, and they couldn’t give the police a detailed description of him. What they did say was that he was running an extortion racket amongst them, threatening them with a knife and ordering them to hand over their money.
They told the detectives that he sometimes wore a deer-stalker hat and that he always wore a leather apron, hence their nickname for him.
So, by 6th September the police were investigating these claims by the local street-walkers, and were trying to trace him.
Unfortunately for them, the newspapers had found out about this suspect and were now terrifying the local community with lurid tales of this noiseless menace who was reeking havoc on the streets of the East End of London.
One thing that a lot of the newspapers chose to report on was that this suspect, according to the descriptions being given by the prostitutes, had a Hebrew appearance.
The more the newspapers focussed on the fact that this suspect might belong to the immigrant community, the more the local gentile population came to believe that these crimes, which had never been equalled for their severity in London before, must be the work of one of the Jewish immigrants who had been arriving in the area in ever increasing numbers since the early 1880’s.
Thus, signs of anti-Semitism began surfacing in the neighbourhood with regard the Whitechapel Murders and the police began to realise that there might well be a full scale riot against the Jews if the press continued their lurid speculation.
The police, therefore, began keeping back any evidence that directly implicated the Jews and even went so far as to alter witness statements who described various suspects as “Jewish looking” to the more generic “foreign looking.”