Looking back on the Whitechapel Murders today, it is difficult for us to imagine what it must have been like in the streets of the area in the immediate aftermaths of the crimes.
Separated from the horrors by the passage of more than 120 years, we can read descriptions of the victims; of the police officers who attended the scenes of the crimes and we can glean information about those who knew the victims.
But, as to how the people in the district reacted to the news of new atrocities, we remain ignorant.
OUR EYES ON 1888
However, once the newspapers discovered that the country – and even the World – at large was eager for as much information as possible on the crimes, they began sending ever increasing numbers of reporters into the area and several of them began to take note of, and report on, the reactions of the people on the streets to the Jack the Ripper murders.
THE PALL MALL GAZETTE
One paper that found the public reaction curious was The Pall Mall Gazette.
In the aftermath of the night of the double murder – 30th September 1888 – The Gazette attempted to convey to its readers an impression of how the people of the area were reacting to the news that the Whitechapel Murderer had struck once more and that, this time, he had claimed the lives of two victims.
The article appeared under the headline:-
STREET SCENES ON SUNDAY
“On approaching the scene of the murders yesterday morning it was easy to see, no nearer than a mile away, that something unusual was in the air.
Along all the main thoroughfares a constant stream of passengers, all impelled by the same motive of horrified curiosity, was rolling towards the district.
The scanty details which had then transpired were eagerly passed from mouth to mouth.
There was but one topic of conversation.
The few acres of streets and houses between Mitre-square and Berner-street seemed to be a goal for which all London was making.
At the actual places the scene was naturally even more remarkable.
The two adits to Mitre-square were blocked by hundreds, and during part of the day thousands, of persons struggling for a place where they could look on the fatal spot.
A bar of police kept the crowd outside the square.
As one of these was heard inquiring, “What did they want to see?”
The body had been taken away long ago, and even the blood was all washed away.
MEN, WOMEN AND CHILDREN
However, the barren satisfaction of trying to peer round the fatal corner continued to be enjoyed by long lines of men, women, and children, going and returning.
After a glance at one place, the spectators hurried away to the other.
From Commercial-road, Berner-street seemed a sea of heads from end to end.
COSTERS DOING BUSINESS
At both places on the fringe of the crowd the opportunity for business was seized by costers with barrows of nuts and fruit, a shop even being opened for the purpose in Mitre-street.
One remark, overhead in Commercial-road, was in this strain: “Well, it brings some trade down this end anyway.”
At nightfall the stream ran the other way.
There seemed to be an exodus of disreputability from the East.
Along the two great avenues leading westward the miserable creatures, who apparently have most to fear from the mysterious criminal, seemed to be migrating to a safer and better-lit quarter of the metropolis.
The noisy groups fleeing before the approaching terrors of night were conspicuous among the better-dressed wayfarers in Holborn and the Strand.”
IDENTIFYING A VICTIM
The Pall Mall Gazette also provided details on the difficulty that the police were encountering in identifying the victims.
Of course, today, blessed as we are with the gift of hindsight, we can look at a particular murder site and associate it with a particular victim.
But, in the immediate aftermath of the crimes, the police had no such luxury.
In each case they were confronted by the mystery of an unknown woman, who lived a transient lifestyle in one of the most densely populated quarters of the Victorian metropolis, and – before they could even begin to try to track down her killer – they had to first give the victim an identity.
DESCRIPTION OF THE DECEASED
To that end, they would release descriptions of each victim to the newspapers in the hope that this might speed up a positive identification.
The following description of the Mitre Square victim, who we now know to have been Catherine Eddowes, appeared in The Pall Mall Gazette on the 1st of October 1888.
“The following is the description of the deceased issued by the police authorities with a view to identification:- “Age about forty, no rings on fingers, black cloth jacket, three large metal buttons down the front, brown bodice, dark green chintz dress, with Michaelmas daisies, golden lily pattern ; three flounces, dark linsey skirt, thin white skirt, white chemise, brown ribbed stockings – feet mended with white material, a large white neckerchief round neck, pair of men’s old lace-up boots. Tattoo marks on right forearm, ‘T. C.,’ the whole of the clothing being very old. She wore also a black straw bonnet, trimmed with black beads.” It may be remarked that the police rely principally on the tattoo marks as a means of identification.”
RECOGNITION ALMOST IMPOSSIBLE
Another point about the victims, that is demonstrated in the reportage on the murder of Catherine Eddowes in The Pall Mall Gazette, is that they lived extremely transient lives on the periphery of society and they were often known under several aliases.
As the Gazette informed its readers on the 1st October 1888:-
“For several hours yesterday Detective Sergeant Outram, accompanied by another officer, was engaged in making inquiries in the lodging-houses in and around Spitalfields, his object being principally to trace the antecedents of the victim.
The pawnbroker’s duplicates found near the body bear the dates 31st August and the 28th September.
The names given on the tickets were Emily Burrell and Jane Kelly, and the addresses Dorset-street and White’s-row, Whitechapel, both being fictitious.
Yesterday afternoon Sergeant Outram accompanied two women and a man from a lodging-house in Spitalfields to the mortuary, one of the former stating her belief that the victim was a Mrs. Kelly.
After carefully scrutinising the features for some time, however, they were unable to give a decided opinion on the matter.
It may be mentioned that the tattoo marks on the arm are slightly obscured from view unless the arm is almost fully exposed; and, further, that the nose and face are hacked about to such an extent as to render recognition almost impossible.”
OUR WINDOW ON HISTORY
The important – and fascinating – thing about these contemporary newspaper articles is that they bring us as close to the aftermath of the ripper crimes as it possible to get given the passage of time.
And, by reading these article, we are presented with an amazing window through which we can look back at the streets of the East End of London and see, almost first hand, how the district as a whole reacted to news that the unknown miscreant, who was lurking in the nighttime shadows of the area, had struck again.