One of the most common Victorian images used to depict the various suspects in the Jack the Ripper case is the illustration from The Illustrated London News, that shows a suspicious looking character being kept under surveillance by three members of a Vigilance Committee.
It is a striking image, and it is often used to accompany articles about suspects whose physical appearance we don’t actually have any record of.
Indeed, it has been used so many times to illustrate articles about Aaron Kosminski that there are some who believe that the image was, in fact, intended to depict Kosminski.
WHAT IT ACTUALLY DOES SHOW
In fact, the illustration was one of a series of three that appeared in The Illustrated London News at the height of the press interest concerning the Whitechapel Murders that were occurring in the East End of London at the time.
INTENDED AS ACCOMPANYING ILLUSTRATIONS
The images were intended to accompany an article that sought to outline the night time conditions in the area where the atrocities were occurring.
However, so clear and evocative were the images, that they soon began appearing in books on the murders – not to mention in books about the history of the East End of London – in which they provided excellent illustrations, but in which they completely lost the context in which they had appeared in 1888.
In some ways this is a great pity, since the article that they accompanied the illustrations, although not a long one, was an interesting one in that it furnishes us with another glimpse of the area, and of the conditions in the area, as they were at the time of the ripper crimes.
It is worth noting that The Illustrated London News resisted the temptation to go overboard on its reporting of the Whitechapel Murders, and its pages were, most certainly, not as awash with articles about them as was the case with other newspapers.
OUTCASTS AT THE EAST END
The article, which appeared with the illustrations under the above headline read as follows:-
“The repeated horrible murders and mutilations of the dead, perpetrated in the dark nooks and corners of a wretched quarter in the vicinity of Whitechapel and Spitalfields, with the failure of the police either to detect the criminal or to guard against the commission of these atrocities, have excited much alarm.
Various suggestions have been offered in the correspondence of the daily newspapers, or submitted to Sir Charles Warren, the Chief Commissioner of Police; and it has even been proposed that the keen scent of bloodhounds should be employed to track the retreating path of the murderer.
A local “Vigilance Committee” has been formed to watch the neighbourhood of low lodging-houses, and the lonely courts and alleys where the miserable female victims of the indescribable cruelties that have shocked the public mind are stated to have been accustomed nightly to resort.
One of our Artists, having accompanied such an exploration of the dismal haunts of a degraded class of the city population, amongst whom, it may be charitably hoped, not a few are comparatively innocent of crime or vice, presents sketches of the figures and groups that he has seen, which, in any case, must appeal to humane feelings of regret and earnest desire to check the downward course of so many of our fellow-creatures in the foul places of great and mighty London.”
A PICTURE IS WORTH A THOUSAND WORDS
So, this short – and, it must be said not particularly revealing, article would, with the passage of time, be forgotten; whereas the evocative images that accompanied it would become fodder for numerous books and articles on the Jack the Ripper murders.
Which just goes to show that, when it comes to the Whitechapel atrocities, it can safely be said that the old adage, “a picture is worth a thousand words”, is, most certainly, and unequivocally true; albeit, in this case, the picture is often used to represent something – i.e. a particular suspect – that it wasn’t actually intended to depict when it was first published in 1888!
SHELTER FOR HOMELESS WAIFS
The same edition of the newspaper also carried the following snippet that discussed steps being taken to minister to the plight of the destitute homeless that the murders had alerted society at large to:-
“A shelter capable of accommodating three hundred homeless waifs was opened on Oct. 8 at 39, Mile End-road, Whitechapel.
This is an important addition to the vast system of charitable relief for which the East-End of London is becoming quite as remarkable as for its poverty.”