One point we often make on our nightly Jack the Ripper walking tour is that, to really come to terms with the Whitechapel atrocities, and the impact they had on Victorian society, you must first place them in the era in which they occurred.
Thankfully, this isn’t as impossible a task as it might initially seem.
Throughout the latter half of the 19th century more and more newspapers were beginning to realise that reporting on murders resulted in increased sales. Consequently, we can today plough through the column inches and glean something of an idea of what the Victorian attitudes were when it came to crimes of this nature.
As will be seen from the following article, the 1860’s had apparently seen a dramatic increase in the number of murders in England and several newspapers were blaming it on the fact that society had become far too lenient towards those who committed murder.
The following article appeared in The Pal Mall Gazette on the 6th September 1865:-
“The multiplicity of murders among us is growing into a very grave matter.
That they are increasing, and increasing at a rapid rate, there can be no question.
TYPES OF MURDER
Nearly every day brings to light some fresh homicide.
They are often horribly brutal, often strangely melodramatic – sometimes awfully deliberate, sometimes mere ebullitions of momentary bad temper; while in not a few cases the victims are so numerous as almost to elevate murder into massacre.
WEAKNESS OF MOTIVES
But the most common and noticeable, and in our view the most alarming feature about them is the weakness of the motives, and the slightness of the provocations which are sufficient to produce them.
It would almost seem as if the very smallest inducement and the scantiest irritation were enough, in the morbid condition of mind prevalent among certain classes, to lead to the greatest of crimes.
Now it is a sister who murders a brother merely because she has a grudge against him. Now it is a man who kills his companion simply because the idea of the homicide has got into his head, and he cannot get it out again. Now it is a hag who smothers any number of babies at two-and-threepence a head. Now it is a suitor who shoots his mistress, with every circumstance of cool deliberation, because she will not have him. Now it is a wife who murders all her children to spite her husband; now a husband who repeats the tragedy because he is ill off in the world, and he fears or fancies his children will be worse off still; now a brute who beats out the brains of the woman who cohabits with him because his supper was not ready and his room not clean.
Finally, in the course of one week – and by no means for the first time – one soldier slays his superior officer because he is a strict disciplinarian, and another shoots his sergeant because the sergeant had ordered him two days’ extra drill.
In a word, it would seem as if with some people, and with a great variety of people – at least with people in very various positions in life – anything was enough to produce murder, and nothing was enough to prevent it.
THE PUBLIC IS AS GUILTY AS THE CRIMINAL
Now, in sober truth, we believe that in reference to this great national evil and danger, the public is nearly as guilty as the criminal.
We have ourselves to thank for this rank recrudescence of cruelty and barbarism.
There are always, we know, a number of ill-regulated and brutal men and women, little inclined to control their passions, and certain to give way to them unless restrained by countervailing considerations.
There are always, too, plenty of small provocations and petty motives to violence and homicide going – plenty often of motives and provocations which are by no means small.
Whether, in such cases, and by such people, murder shall or shall not be committed depends simply upon the proportion between the weight of the provoking motive and the weight of the restraining consideration.
If the restraining considerations are very few and very weak, murder will be committed on very slight inducement. If the restraining considerations are very strong, murder will not be committed except under the influence of overpowering temptation or irresistible fury.
Now, a great part of the public, and perhaps the busiest and noisiest part, has been labouring for some time to reduce all these restraining considerations to a minimum.
What are the considerations that usually withhold an angry, a covetous, a vindictive, or a malignant man from murder?
First, that he will certainly be hanged; secondly, that he will assuredly be loathed and hated by his fellow-creatures.
Of late we have given him every reason to hope that he will not be hanged, and acted so as to make him nearly certain that he will be pitied and petted, and not abhorred at all.
AN OBJECT OF MORBID INTEREST
The more brutal the murder he commits, the more is he sure to become an object of that morbid interest which is quite compassion, and soon becomes almost sympathy, and which to most criminals is a source of complacency, and even of recompensing joy; and the scantier and feebler the inducement to the murder – that is, the more monstrous in reality the crime – the better are his prospects that he will escape both hanging and public detestation by being held to be insane.
We are convinced that, if it were not for the utterly irrational set of opinions and the utterly immoral set of feelings which, in reference to these subjects, have lately got hold of the public mind, three-fourths of the murders which are now half horrifying and half edifying us day after day would never have been perpetrated; they would have died away as inchoate temptations, and never have ripened into concrete facts.
When will the general public – to say nothing of the more thinking men who compose it – grasp the real, obvious, commonsense truth on the subject of crime and punishment?
When will they learn and practically lay to heart the principle, which seems to us to lie upon the very surface, and to be written in letters of light before our eyes – that, in dealing with criminals (we say nothing about feeling for them) we have only to consider what is necessary and what is suitable for the protection of society?
With the moral guilt of the criminal we have no concern; we have no standard by which to measure it; we are not in possession of the multitude of direct and collateral circumstances which alone could enable us to form an opinion in regard to it; it is, and must remain, for the decision of that GOD who sees the heart and knows the past.
What we have to do is to see that all the motives to abstain from crime, all the deterring considerations which the State and society can gather round it, shall be so notorious, and, as far as we can make them, so present to the mind of every man liable to temptation, as to
act with cogent and controlling weight.
WE ARE PARTICIPATORS IN CRIME
Whether sane or insane, whether ignorant or educated, whether brutal by nature, or brutal by misery, or brutal by long indulgence of bad passions and lawless selfishness, so long as the ruffian would not have murdered his victim if he knew that to a dead certainty he would be hated and hanged, and has murdered him because our vicious practice and our silly language has led him to believe that he would be pitied, written about, photographed, and spared – so long hatred and hanging are the duty which society owes to itself and to the ruffian on the brink of yielding to his passions; and we are participators in his crime if we remove or weaken by one hair’s breadth the wholesome terrors of our instincts and our laws.
What is wanted in order to reduce murder to its normal and average prevalence among us – what alone was wanted to have prevented one half the murders of the last two years – is that the social and legal deterrents to homicide should be once more raised to their former position and their natural strength.
THE SLAVES OF EACH EXTREME
But we English are always extravagant on one side or another.
“Chained to excess, the slaves of each extreme” – because we once hanged men for larceny, we object now to hanging them for murder; because we once flogged for disobedience and drunkenness, we now refuse to flog for ruffianly assaults; because we used to be hard hearted to ignorance and suffering, we are now grown tender and affectionate to the most savage barbarism and the most incorrigible villainy.”