One of the major problem that beset the Victorian detectives who were charged with the unenviable task of hunting down Jack the Ripper was the geographic layout of the district in which the Whitechapel Murders were occurring.
As those who have taken our nightly Jack the Ripper CSI tour will know, even today the area is a muddled maze of streets and alleyways.
DARK AND NARROW PASSAGEWAYS
But, in 1888, it was even more confusing, made up as it was of narrow, twisting passageways, none of which was illuminated by night.
These unlit passages leant themselves perfectly to all manner of nefarious activity from prostitution to robbery, and it was an extremely brave, or exceedingly foolish, man or woman, who would venture into them once darkness had fallen.
IDEAL FOR PROSTITUTION AND MURDER
For the prostitutes of the neighbourhood, however, they proved ideal as the locations to which to take their clients for quick, sordid sex acts that were referred to in certain circles as “fourpenny knee tremblers.”
They also proved ideal for a killer such as Jack the Ripper, as they provided sufficient cover, away from the prying eyes of patrolling police officers, in which to carry out his monstrous acts of murder and then use them as his escape route through which he could slip unseen from the scenes of his crimes and melt away into the Whitechapel nights.
EASY TO CRITICISE
Of course, people who were unfamiliar with the area could have little comprehension of the way in which the warren like complexity of the streets and alleyways aided and abetted Jack the Ripper in his bloody quest to bring terror and mayhem to the streets of the Victorian East End.
Consequently, Inspector Abberline and his fellow detectives found themselves subjected to a barrage of insults and barbs cast in their general direction from people who had never even ventured into the area and who, therefore, had little comprehension of the almost insurmountable obstacles posed by its lay out.
A RUDE AWAKENING FOR A TEXAN POLICE CHIEF
One person who felt that he was sufficiently qualified to give advice to the Victorian Police was the Police Chief from Austin, Texas. He had proffered a great deal of advice on how the detective hunting Jack the Ripper should be conducting their investigation.
Inspector Henry Moore, therefore, decided to subject him to a rude awakening and offered to escort him on a tour of the district. The Texan police chief duly joined Moore on the streets of the East End, and was astonished by what he saw.
As Moore later recalled “…when I showed him this place (Castle-alley) and the courts around it he took off his hat and said: “I apologise. I never saw anything like it before. We’ve nothing like it in all America.”
He said that at home an officer could stand on a street corner and look down four different streets and see all that went on in them for a quarter of a mile off.”
WHAT THE AREA WAS LIKE
Speaking to a journalist in August 1889, Moore re-emphasised the point concerning just how difficult the district was to police:-
“Now, you know, I might put two regiments of police in this half-mile of district and half of them would be as completely out of sight and hearing of the others as though they were in separate cells of a prison.”
Warming to his theme, Moore even gave the journalist an example of the problem by recalling the aftermath of one of the Jack the Ripper murders of the previous year (1888):-
“To give you an idea of it, my men formed a circle around the spot where one of the murders took place, guarding, they thought, every entrance and approach, and within a few minutes they found fifty people inside the lines. They had come in through two passageways which my men could not find.”
So, it is, and was, easy to criticise the police investigation into the Jack the Ripper murders, but to do so – as the police chief from Austin Texas found – without any real knowledge of the how the geographic layout of the districts of Spitalfields and Whitechapel at the time of the murder, is to criticise them based on false assumptions.
As long as the prostitutes themselves continued to take their clients to these dark corners, there was very little that the police could do to protect them – and even less they could do to catch the ripper who could use the dark thoroughfares as the ideal rat run through which to make his escape.
Either by luck or by judgement, Jack the Ripper chose the perfect disrict in which to carry out his murderous reign of terror.