It is often said of the Victorian Police who investigated the Jack the Ripper murders that they were incompetent and that their incompetence contributed to the ripper’s ability to get away with his crimes.
In all honesty, the charge of incompetence levelled at the Victorian detectives isn’t, strictly speaking, a fair one. After all, the police at the time were hampered by basic lacks that would be utilised in a similar investigation today but which they, quite simply, did not have access in 1888.
Fingerprinting, forensics, DNA analysis are just some of the things that would be utilised today that they didn’t use in 1888.
But, the fact that these were not available to them doesn’t necessarily mean that they were incompetent, it just means that they had to work with what they were used to working with and, in that respect, they did conduct themselves well.
But they most certainly made mistakes in the handling of the investigation into the Jack the Ripper murders.
The Dear Boss Letter
This letter had been received by a central London news agency during the last week in September. It purported to come from the killer and boasted in mocking terms about the atrocities that he was committing whilst, at the same time, mocking the police for their inability to catch him. The letter bore the signature “Jack the Ripper,” the name by which the Whitechapel Murderer quickly became known and by which he has come down to posterity.
Not From The Killer
It is universally agreed amongst modern day ripperologists that this letter most certainly didn’t not come from the killer. So releasing it brought the police no closer to their goal of catching the ripper.
What it did do was add an element of pantomime to the sorry saga of the Whitechapel Murders, as hoaxers began sending in their own letters, many of which were signed Jack the Ripper and were couched in similarly mocking terms.
The letters had to be read, assessed and, if possible, their authors had to be traced to eliminate them as suspects in the police investigation. This, of course, took manpower from a police force that was already struggling to cope.
They Didn’t Use The Press
Another mistake that the Victorian detectives made was failing to utilise the media in their hunt for the perpetrator of the Whitechapel Murders. Indeed, there was a general mistrust of journalists amongst many police officers, and they feared that, if the press were to report on the progress of the police investigation, then they might tip off potential suspects about the methods being employed to catch them. In all honesty these were, in may ways, justified fears as the behaviour of some elements of the press were somewhat on the shady side. But a controlled use of the the more responsible newspapers may have yielded results.
Crime Scenes Not Preserved
However, where the police made the largest majority of their mistakes has to have been at the crime scenes themselves. In fairness to them Crime Scene investigation was almost none existent, certainly with the early murders of Martha Tabram and Mary Nichols. With the murder of Annie Chapman on 8th September 188 they began carrying out a more detailed inspection of the surroundings than they had in the case of the earlier victims but this was still, by today’s standards at least, very rudimentary.
The scene was, most certainly, not secured and people were allowed to trample all over the scene of each murder, including the police themselves. So vital, and minuscule clues that might have led them to the perpetrator could easily have been trampled into the ground, or simply not noticed in the unsightly scrum that followed in the immediate aftermath of the discovery of a victim of Jack the Ripper.
But, in fairness, the police had no, or at least, very little experience of a detailed scene of the crime investigation as it just wasn’t an established piece of police procedure, and wouldn’t be for several more years.
They simply looked for obvious clues, of which there were virtually none – the one exception to this being the discovery of the apron in the doorway in Goulston Street in the aftermath of the murder of Catherine Eddowes on 30th September 1888 – and so they didn’t really have a great deal to go on.
They Did The Best They Could
So, the police certainly did make mistakes as they tried to hunt the killer whom history now remembers as Jack the Ripper, but to describe them as incompetent is simply not fair. They did the best that they could do with what was available to them, but the only real action that was open to them was to flood the area with police officers and hoped that one of them would be close by when the ripper committed a crime and would, therefore, be able to apprehend him. But, since that never happened Jack the Ripper evaded capture.