When, in 1896, Alfred Harmsworth – later knighted as Lord Northcliffe – launched his lively new journal The Daily Mail his motto was “Get me a murder a day”!
Harmsworth was well aware that murder and scandal sold papers – a fact that had been more than established just 8 years previously when editors and journalists alike discovered that they could not publish articles about the Jack the Ripper crimes fast enough to satisfy public demand for every salacious morsel about the Whitechapel murders.
THE STAR NEWSPAPER
One newspaper in particular, The Star, excelled at not only regaling its readers with news of the murders, but also at using the murders to attack the authorities on many different fronts whilst, at the same time, bringing the plight of the poor – and the horrendous social conditions in the area where the murders were occurring – to a wider audience.
T. P. O’CONNOR AND THE NEW JOURNALISM
If you take a walk along Fleet street today you will find a solid looking bust of a man staring out from the wall of number 72.
The plaque beneath identifies him as T. P O’Connor, whilst the accompanying legend boasts that “‘His pen could lay bare the bones of a book or the soul of a statesman in a few vivid lines.”
Thomas Power O’Connor (1848-1929) – better known as TP or Tay Pay – was a pioneering figure in the New Journalism of the late 19th century that led to the establishment of the likes of The Sun and The Daily Mail.
Indeed, his radical style of reportage would pave the way for the aforementioned journals to achieve huge sales with a heady mix of human interest stories, juicy scandals and true crime reports, coupled with a determination to champion the everyday man and woman against the incursions and abuses of the establishment.
It could also be argued that it was thanks to him that the Jack the Ripper saga gripped the public imagination in the way that it did, since his newspaper The Star quickly spotted the sales potential in the Whitechapel Murders and milked the public’s desire to be kept abreast of every salacious fact and development for all it was worth.
FROM IRELAND TO FLEET STREET
Born in Athlone, County Westmeath, Ireland, O’Connor began his journalistic career in Dublin before moving to London’s Fleet Street, in 1870 where, thanks to his linguistic skills (he had studied history and modern languages at Queen’s College, Galway), he landed a plum job as a sub-editor on the Daily Telegraph reporting on the war that had, that year, broken out between France and Germany.
However in 1873, following an argument over money, he left the Telegraph and, for the next seven years, he eked out a living as a freelance reporter until, in 1880 making his name with a biography of the then Prime Minister and Tory Leader Benjamin Disraeli, a book which led him into politics.
Thanks in part to O’Connor’s critical appraisal of Disraeli, the Tories were swept from office in the general election of that year and were replaced in government by William Ewart Gladstone’s Liberal Party.
TP stood as the Home Rule candidate for Galway and won a seat in Parliament by a mere six votes.
However, when five years later, Charles Parnell won “every seat in Ireland outside eastern Ultster and Trinity College, Dublin”, O’Connor was returned as the Irish Parliamentary Party member for the Scotland division of Liverpool and he duly became the only Irish Home Rule candidate elected in England, holding his seat continuously until his death in 1929.
FILM FOOTAGE OF O’CONNOR
LOOKS AT LAUNCHING HIS OWN NEWSPAPER
Not content with his political achievements, in 1887, O’Connor began looking at the possibility of establishing his own evening newspaper, observing that:-
“The cause of Home Rule was without any advocate in the evening press of London; I conceived the idea, half in hope, half in terror, that I might start a journal myself in favour of the views of myself and my friends”
LAUNCHES THE STAR
Having persuaded several friends and benefactors to invest £40,000 in his proposed publication, TP assembled a truly stellar crew of writers and editors (among them George Bernard Shaw) and, on 17th January 1888, his publication The Star newspaper hit the streets.
Inspired by the “New Journalism” that was becoming popular in America, The Star, which was priced at one halfpenny, would, so O’Connor promised on the front page of the first issue, champion the cause of the underprivileged and highlight the needs and plight of the working classes. As he pointed out in his declaration of editorial policy:-
“The rich, the privileged, the prosperous need no guardian or advocate; the poor, the weak, the beaten require the work and word of every humane man and woman to stand between them and the world.”
A RADICAL JOURNAL FROM THE OUT
From its editorial office in Stonecutter Street, close to Ludgate Circus – a stone’s throw from St Paul’s Cathedral – The Star saw itself as the voice of the downcast and its writers missed no opportunity to attack the government policies of the day. A four-page broadsheet that was published six-days-a-week, it was an unashamedly radical newspaper from the out, and it remained so for its entire existence (it closed in 1960), fighting valiantly against social justice; constantly campaigning for a better life for the poor and it could always be counted on to represent the plight of workers in any trade union disputes.
One of the paper’s pioneering innovations was the creation in the 1890s political cartoons, which proved so popular that they were soon emulated by other newspapers.
The paper quickly caught on with its target readership and, by February 1888, it was enjoying an average circulation of some 125,000 copies a day.
THE WHITECHAPEL MURDERS
With the onset of the Whitechapel Murders The Star had established its recipe for shock journalism whereby a lurid headline would lure the reader in to an article that was couched in dramatic prose that pulled no punches when it came to sensationalising the crimes.
For example, following the murder of Martha Tabram, the 7th August edition of the paper treated its readers to the following article:-
A WHITECHAPEL HORROR
“A woman, now lying unidentified at the mortuary, Whitechapel, was ferociously stabbed to death this morning, between two and four o’clock, on the landing of a stone staircase in George’s-buildings, Whitechapel.
George’s-buildings are tenements occupied by the poor labouring class. A lodger going early to his work found the body. Another lodger says the murder was not committed when he returned home about two o’clock. The woman was stabbed in 20 places. No weapon was found near her, and her murderer has left no trace. She is of middle age and height, has black hair and a large, round face, and apparently belonged to the lowest class.”
The following evening’s edition went into graphic detail about the injuries that the victim of the “Whitechapel Horror” had sustained:-
“…The wounds on the body are frightful. There are about eight on the chest, inflicted in almost circular form, while the probably fatal one – certainly much the largest and deepest of any – is under the heart. The wounds appear to be the result of sword or dagger thrusts, rather than that of a knife. No arrest has yet been made.”
Over the weeks that followed The Star gave considerable column space to what it variously described as “The Whitechapel Horror”, “The Whitechapel Tragedy”, “The Revolting Murder in Whitechapel”, and gave extensive coverage to the inquest into the death, paying particular attention to the various witnesses who were appearing at the inquest.
AN ATTACK ON SIR CHARLESWARREN
On Friday the 31st August 1888, in the wake of the murder that morning of Mary Nichols, the paper was positioning itself to take up an anti-police stance with an attack on the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Charles Warren:-
“…None of the outrages that Sir CHARLES WARREN has committed on the citizens of London would have been possible had he not taken the force in hand with a resolute desire to change it from a civil to a military body.
Happily for London, he has in the process demoralised the force and brought it to the verge of an open revolt.
Our own columns have borne repeated testimony to the monstrous harshness and folly of his rule…During the last few weeks hardly a day has passed when some constable has not been convicted of gross insult and harshness to some peaceful inhabitant, supported by still grosser perjury.
The London magistrates have for the most part given up the police and rejected their evidence as worthless….Now there is only one moral about the WARREN business, and we enforced it long ago. Sir CHARLES must go.
From the beginning he misconceived his mission. Major-General Sir CHARLES WARREN, K.C.B., G.C.M.G., was far too lofty a personage to look after petty larcenies and street inebriates….”
THE MURDER OF MARY NICHOLS
That same edition alerted its readers to the fact that, that very day, another horror had taken place in Whitechapel and one can almost sense the staff rubbing their hands together as they start to realise that these atrocities may well afford them the means to both entertain and terrify their readers in equal measure whilst, at the same time, providing them with the means to attack the shortcomings of the Metropolitan Police in general and of Sir Charles Warren in particular.
In short the prologue for the “autumn of terror” had been written on the streets of Whitechapel in the late summer of 1888.
THE LEATHER APRON SCARE
However, it was with its sensationalising of the “Leather Apron” scare – in early September 1888 – that The Star left other newspapers far behind.
Quite when the name of this early suspect entered the police investigation is difficult to ascertain.
As far as newspapers are concerned, the name “Leather Apron” was first reported in several American newspapers, such as The New York Times, on September 4th 1888, when he was described as being “a character halfway between Dickens’ Quilp and Poe’s baboon. He is short, stunted and thickset. He has small, wicked black eyes and is half crazy.”
The Star, almost alone amongst English newspapers, went to town with “Leather Apron” and treated its readers to a series of articles that left little doubt about the danger posed by this evil and sinister character:-
“He has ranged Whitechapel for a long time. He exercises over the unfortunates who ply their trade after twelve o’clock at night, a sway that is based on universal terror. He has kicked, injured, bruised, and terrified a hundred of them who are ready to testify to the outrages. He has made a certain threat, his favorite threat, to any number of them, and each of the three dead bodies represents that threat carried out. He carries a razor-like knife, and two weeks ago drew it on a woman called “Widow Annie” as she was crossing the square near London Hospital, threatening at the same time, with his ugly grin and his malignant eyes, to “rip her up.” He is a character so much like the invention of a story writer that the accounts of him given by all the street-walkers of the Whitechapel district seem like romances. The remarkable thing is, however, that they all agree in every particular…”
The Star continued with its sensationalising of “Leather Apron”until the murder of Annie Chapman, on the 8th September 1888, gave its reporters an even more lurid story with which to regale readers, albeit it did report that a washed leather apron had been found in the backyard, close to where Annie had been murdered.
THE ARREST OF LEATHER APRON
Then, on 10th September 1888, the paper reported that Sergeant Thicke had arrested John Piser. The author of the article seemed confident that the police had got their man:-
“The man arrested by Detective-Sergeant Thicke is now at Leman-street Station. He fits the description of “Leather Apron” exactly, and this similarity is the cause of his arrest. He denies, however, that he is the man wanted, and says he never wore a leather apron in the streets. He is waiting, however, to be recognised, or the contrary, by some people from Wilmot’s Lodging House who know “Leather Apron” well. He went along submissively with Detective-Sergeant Thicke. His stepmother and his stepsister deny in the strongest terms that he is “Leather Apron.”
John Pizer, however, was able to provide cast iron alibis for the nights of the murders and the police quickly ruled him out as a suspect and he was released without charge.
This proved unfortunate for T. P O’Connor and his fledgling newspaper as they were now faced with the danger of Pizer bringing a successful, and substantial, libel action against them. The day was saved by the newspaper’s Chief Sub- Editor, Ernest Parke, who – in what T.P O’Connor later described as a “dexterous expedient” – invited Pizer to The Star’s Stonecutter Street offices and persuaded him to accept £50 in full settlement of any claims he might have against the newspaper.
What The Star and its staff had most certainly learnt during this period was that the more lurid the headlines and the accompanying stories, then the more copies of each edition of the newspaper they sold.
Indeed, the subsequent circulation figures between September and November 1888 act as a barometer to the public’s interest in the Jack the Ripper case.
Luckily, O’Connor and his staff were not content to simply sit back and enjoy the knowledge of their increased circulation and, on 15th September, they shared their good news with their readership:-
“PHENOMENAL SUCCESS. The Average Daily Circulation of THE STAR For the Week ending 14 Sept. was 190,033. The Number of Copies Circulated during the Six Days was 1,140,200. This Number is Greater by 412,000 than the Number Ever Circulated in any week by any other EVENING PAPER IN LONDON.”
Since this was the week when the majority of their coverage had been about the murder of Annie Chapman, it really does illustrate the allure that the Whitechapel Murders held for the people of London.
The circulation slipped during the latter half of September, but rose again in early October in the wake of the “double event” of the 30th September, when Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes were murdered. It dipped again as October wore on without any further atrocities taking place; but then, on 10th November 1888, following the murder of Mary Kelly on the 9th November, the paper was able to boast record sales:-
“THE CIRCULATION OF THE STAR Yesterday reached the Enormous Total of 298,800 Copies. This number exceeds the total ever circulated in one day by this Journal or by any other evening paper.”
There can be no doubt about it, the Jack the Ripper murders may have brought an autumn of terror to the streets of London’s East End, but, for T.P O’Connor and his fledging newspaper, their timing was, to say the least, fortuitous.
One might even say suspiciously so!