Mistaken Identity

A case of mistaken identity is one thing; but what if it came to pass that you found yourself mistaken for one of the most notorious serial killers in history?

Interestingly, that is something that happened to people time and time again as the Whitechapel murders increased in ferocity and the newspapers began to report in more and more detail about the horrendous crimes that were holding the East End of London in a grip of terror and panic.

As it became apparent that the police were no nearer to catching the perpetrator of the crimes, people – not just in the East End, but also all over the country – became suspicious of anybody who seemed to be a little out of the ordinary; and woe betide anybody who had the misfortune to attract the attention of the mobs that were constantly on the lookout for the notorious fiend who, by October 1888, had become universally known as “Jack the Ripper.”

A group of three man watch a Jack the Ripper suspect.
A Suspect Is Watched. From The Illustrated London News, 13th October 1888.


Some of these “innocent” suspects, it must be said, brought their misfortune on themselves by their decidedly odd behaviour.

One such case was reported in  The Shields Daily Gazette on Thursday, 25th October 1888:-

“Today, at the Borough Police Court, North Shields, before Mr. J. F. Spence (in the chair) and Mr Geo. Kenwick, Peter Gutaura, described as a tramp, belonging to the West Indies, was charged by Sergeant Charlton with having been drunk and disorderly in Front Street,  Tynemouth, last evening.

The officer stated that when taken into custody the defendant had in his possession a lady’s waterproof mantle and a boy’s overcoat. He had the mantle wrapped round his head and was shouting and making a great noise, being followed by a number of boys who were shouting “Jack the Ripper.”

The defendant denied that he was drunk, and complained of the boys shouting after him “Jack the Ripper.”

He was fined 2s 6d and costs, or in default seven days’ imprisonment, and Supt. Anderson stated that he would make inquiries with regard to the ownership of the mantle and overcoat.”


Others were unfortunate enough to simply have an appearance that, in the minds of the mobs at least, resembled the popular impression of what it was believed that the perpetrator looked like.

The St James’s Gazette, on Thursday, 15th November 1888, carried the following report on a City of London Police constable whose hat had led the locals to suspect him of the crimes:-

“A City constable had an uncomfortable walk along the Commercial-road yesterday afternoon.

The officer, who was in mufti and was wearing a low broad brim hat of a rather singular appearance, was quietly walking along the road when suddenly some persons called out that he was “Jack the Ripper.”

Within a few seconds, some hundreds of people surrounded the constable, who tried to evade them by increasing his pace; but the quicker he went the faster the mob followed him, until he was hemmed in on all sides.

The results might have been serious for him had not some constables of the H Division come up, and the man making known his identity to them, was got away from the mob.”


A year after the murders began, another case of mistaken identity – this time from Kirkcaldy, in Fife, on the east coast of Scotland – demonstrated how local feeling could still be turned into a frenzy.

The Globe reported on the circumstances behind this particular case in its edition of Saturday, 21st September 1889:-

“An exciting incident is reported from Kirkcaldy.

A gentleman, a stranger to the town, was seen walking in the vicinity of the west-end, when he was followed by a number of youths, who got a cry that his long-flowing beard was a false one, and that he was possibly the much-wanted “Jack the Ripper.”

Very shortly he became the object of intense curiosity, being followed by several hundreds of people. He hurried along the street pursued by a yelling mob, now made up of old and young, who even went the length of pelting him with stones.

Ultimately, he took refuge in the police office, around the door of which his pursuers congregated and clamoured.

After remaining some time in the office, where he had his tall hat exchanged, and was otherwise disguised, the police deemed it advisable to let the victim of the cruel hoax out by another door, when he made good his escape unobserved.

He proved to a commercial traveller on a visit to Kirkcaldy from the north.”


The Dundee Courier, on Monday, 21st October 1889, carried the following story about an escapee from a lunatic asylum who attracted the attention of a similar mob:-

“A patient at Beckham House Private Lunatic Asylum, London, escaped from his keepers, and, scaling a high wall, ran away half dressed.

A crowd soon collected, and someone called out  – “Stop, Jack the Ripper.”

The lunatic stopped, and, waving his arms at his pursuers, cried  – “I am not Jack the Ripper. I am sent by God to kill Jack the Ripper.””


Finally, The Western Times published the following story on Wednesday, 8th October, 1890, about a man from Exeter who, whilst on a visit with a friend to the East End of London, made the mistake of walking around carrying a black bag:-

“The waning of Autumn marks a repetition of the letters which the London police have been in the habit of receiving from the purported “Jack the Ripper.”

As usual, the police attach little importance to these missives, but, at the same time, the newspapers speak of extra patrol work and of redoubled vigilance in the Whitechapel district.

The deep sensation which the horrible murders aroused in the neighbourhood of the crimes (if the story that reaches me is true) was unpleasantly demonstrated to a certain Exonian who was staying in London while the murderer was at his work.

Our fellow citizen – an eminently peaceable man and a friend, who had some business to transact there, went in a hansom to Fashion-street.

While his friend was in the house, our Exonian waited in the hansom, but eventually, finding the time going fast, sent the cabby off.

He had not walked up and down long before he noticed a small crowd collecting, apparently intent on watching himself, and more particularly a black bag which he carried.

Greatly puzzled, he listened to their ejaculations and menacing whispers until, with an unpleasant thrill, he became suddenly aware of the meaning of the earnest attention that was paid to him.

He was being mistaken for Jack the Ripper!

It did not take our poor brother long to decide on a bolt into the public-house open at the corner.

Here, in a friendly shelter, he calmed the suspicions of the excited mob.”