Murder Panic

It can be difficult for us today to comprehend the impact that the Whitechapel murders had on Victorian society.

Separated as we are by the passage of more almost 130 years, we tend to view the crimes as historically interesting, without, perhaps, stopping to consider what it must have been like to live in London – and in particular in the east End of London – as the unknown miscreant, who we remember as “Jack the Ripper” brought terror and panic to the streets of the Victorian Metropolis.

On Saturday the 13th of October, 1888, The Graphic published an intriguing article that pondered some of the things that were happening in London as a direct response to the atrocities that were occurring  in the streets of Whitechapel and Spitalfields.

Interestingly, the article also questioned the veracity of the “Dear Boss” letter which, at the time, was receiving a great deal of coverage in newspapers the World over.


“Unless, as is only too possible, another horror should be perpetrated with impunity, the existing panic will gradually subside, and people’s thoughts will run in other directions.

There has probably been nothing like the present condition of nervous apprehension in London since Bishop and Williams murdered the Italian boy for the sake of obtaining an anatomical “subject,” or since the Ratcliff Highway butcheries of 1811.

These last were calculated to inspire more general terror than the recent White-chapel slaughters, because they were the deeds of a person or persons who murdered for the sake of plunder, and from whom, therefore, no householder felt secure.

It is said that the familiar street-door chain first came into vogue after the murders of the Marr and Williamson families.


To the general public it is some comfort to reflect that the late atrocities were aimed at a particular class, and that their object was certainly not robbery.

Educated persons, who have many varied interests and subjects of conversation, can, perhaps, scarcely realise the impression made by these occurrences on poor and ignorant people, whose lives are usually monotonous and uneventful.

Hence the terror which has been aroused, and which shows itself in various ways.


A man frightens the sturdy market-porters of Covent Garden into the belief that he is “Jack the Ripper,” because he looks queer and walks aimlessly.

A detective disguises himself as a woman, and conceals himself to watch for the Whitechapel murderer, when he is seriously assaulted by some cab-washers.

It is as during the Reign of Terror in France – ” I am suspect, thou art suspect, he is suspect!”


It is to be hoped, should another murder be committed, and Mr. Brough’s bloodhounds are let loose, that they will not be misled by a cross-scent, and “smell-out” an innocent man; for he may run some risk of lynching.

The bloodhounds used in the trials.
The Bloodhounds. From The Illustrated London News, 20th October 1888. Copyright, The British Library Board.


As for “Jack the Ripper,” we venture to believe him to be a rank fraud. He is probably laughing in his sleeve at the thought that his letter – conceived in the true ‘Arry vein – has gained him a wider notoriety than if he had written the best novel of the season. ”


In the same edition The Graphic also opined on a proposal that had been put forward by the Bishop of Bedford with regards to setting up a home in which to reform the prostitutes of the East End, from the ranks of which the victims of Jack the Ripper had been drawn:-

“Amid the host of crude philanthropic projects to which the East End horrors have given rise, it is most refreshing to come upon even one “common-sensible” proposal.

No less satisfactory is it to see how quickly the public judgement singled out Dr. Billing’s admirable scheme from all the others.

It may be that the Bishop of Bedford is too hopeful; it may be that the unfortunate creatures whom he wishes to drag from the depths would break out again after a period of rest and honest work.

A portrait of The Bishop of Bedford.
The Reverend R. C. Billing, Bishop of Bedford. From The Illustrated London News, 14th July, 1888. Copyright, The British Library Board.


Such a life would now appear to many of them almost Paradisaical, but used as they have been to constant change and vicious excitements, there would be danger of the new existence becoming, after a time, intolerably monotonous.

All the same, the experiment is worth trying; should it succeed, society will at last have discovered a practical way of dealing with those whose utter degradation has so far set all the efforts of philanthropy at fault.


Having been for ten years Rector of Spitalfields, Dr. Billing has thorough knowledge of the miserables whom he desires to reach and to raise.

Their ways, their customs, manners, tastes, and requirements all need to be studied in a sympathetic spirit.


And yet – that is the hardest thing of all – the would-be reformer must be ever on his guard against sham penitence, make-believe reformation, and imposture in every shape and form.

No doubt, the Bishop will be duly cautious in selecting his coadjutors, and it goes without the saying that the new Home will be thoroughly practical in both its aims and means.

The one doubt that presents itself is whether the comparative happiness of the lives of the inmates may not tempt poor souls, who have kept honest through the direst privations, to “go and do likewise,” in order to qualify themselves for admission.


It does not take much to make happiness among the very poor; certainty of work, sufficient food, and a tolerably comfortable bed form the be-all and end-all or their aspirations.

These would necessarily have to be provided at the Home, and it would, therefore, appear enormously attractive to the unfortunate creatures who live from hand to mouth, and from pillar to post, all the year round.”