The Amateur Detectives 1888

As the newspaper coverage of the Jack the Ripper murders increased, and as it became more than apparent that the police were no nearer to catching the perpetrator than they had been when the crimes began; some ordinary citizens decided to become amateur detectives and began heading to the districts of Whitechapel and Spitalfields, in the belief that their endeavours might succeed where those of the professional detectives had, so evidently, failed.


However, the behaviour of many of these part-time detectives was, to say the least, decidedly odd, and, ultimately, their intervention hindered rather than helped the police investigation into the ripper crimes by confronting the professional police officers with an assortment of oddballs and eccentrics that augmented the indigenous oddballs and eccentrics who were already roaming the streets of the East End at night.

Some of the more organised amateurs, however, endeavoured to aid the police by acting as a deterrent supplementary force, that could also bring in information that might help the police investigation.


Most famous amongst the groups of amateur detectives who were roaming the area at the height of the crimes, was the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee, whose then President Mr. George Lusk would become the recipient of the notorious “From Hell” letter.

An image of George Lusk wearing a bowler hat.
Mr George Lusk


On 13th October 1888, an article appeared in several newspapers countrywide that took a close look at the set up of the Vigilance Committee and how its night time patrols were organised.

The following version is taken from The Totnes Times and Devon News:-

“Night after night, at 9 o’clock. meetings have been held in the upper room of a public-house in the Mile End-road, placed at the disposal of the committee by the landlord, who occupies the post of treasurer.

The leaders of the movement are drawn principally from the trading class, and include a builder, a cigar manufacturer, a tailor, and a picture-frame maker, a licensed victualler, and “an actor.”

Inexperienced in practical police duty, the committee decided to call in professional assistance rather than rely solely upon their own resources.

For this purpose they engaged the services of two private detectives – men who, though unattached to either metropolitan or city police forces, hold themselves out as experts in the unravelling of mysteries.

At the disposal of these executive officers are placed about a dozen stalwart men possessing an intimate acquaintance with the highways and by-ways of Whitechapel.

Only those have been selected who are “physically and morally” equal to the task they may any night be called upon to perform.

As they were previously numbered amongst the unemployed, it became unnecessary to fix a high scale of remuneration.


Shortly before 12 o’clock these assassin-hunters are despatched upon their mission.

Their foot-fall is silenced by the use of galoshes, and their own safety is assured by the carrying of police-whistles and stout sticks.

The area over which this additional protection is afforded is divided into beats, each man assigned his respective round.

Nor is this all.

At half an hour after midnight the committee-rooms close by Act of Parliament, and thence emerge those members of the committee who happen to be on duty for the night.

Like sergeants of police they make their tours of inspection, and while seeing that their men are faithfully performing their onerous duties, themselves visit the most sequestered and ill-lighted spots.

The volunteer policemen leave their beats between 4 and 5 o’clock in the morning. It should be added that supervision in this way by the members of the committee is not forthcoming every night. The fact that most of them are engaged from early in the morning until late at night in the transaction of their own businesses obviously renders such constant effort physically impossible.

A group of three man watch a Jack the Ripper suspect.
A Suspect Is Watched. From The Illustrated London News, 13th October 1888.


Although the work of the committee has not yet been crowned with success, it is claimed on their behalf that they have gained much information that may be of service hereafter.

By the regular police, it is satisfactory to add, they have not been thwarted in their endeavour to bring the criminal to justice.

Suspicions, surmises, and possible clues are notified to the nearest police-stations from time to time, and one member of the committee at least honestly believes that he is on the right track.”


Whether the “suspicions, surmises and possible clues” that were being passed to the police were of any practical use was a question that was raised by several people who wrote to the newspapers throughout the autumn of 1888.

On November 16th 1888 a letter appeared in the St James’s Gazette from a correspondent, who signed himself H. T., concerning the negative aspects of the well-meaning amateur’s, and pointing out that the murderer himself had probably spotted the opportunities afforded him by the growing number of such detectives on the streets of the Victorian East End:-

“It has doubtless occurred to many people, and it is well known to the police, that the extraordinary proceedings of the amateur detectives who nightly patrol Whitechapel are of great help – to the murderer in evading discovery.

Every wrongful arrest and every wild-goose chase after the murderers cousin on which the police are sent tends distinctly in the murderer’s favour.

You cannot play the fool in these ways with men, however efficient, without lessening their efficiency.

And, unfortunately, just at present the police dare not, as they should, tell the amateur detectives to go home, and the murderer’s cousin to make his confessions, if he has any to make, at the nearest police station.

If the murderer be possessed, as I imagine he is, with the usual cunning of lunacy, I should think it probable that he was one of the first to enrol himself amongst the amateur detectives.”


The amateur detectives, however most certainly took great risks in heading out onto the streets of the East End, since they could easily draw attention to themselves and, with the atmosphere as tense as it was, the agitated crowds could mete out summary justice on anyone they suspected of being the murderer.

One such part-time detective who almost came to grief at the hands of an East End mob, was Dr. Holt of St George’s Hospital.

The Greenock Telegraph and Clyde Shipping Gazette reported his case in its edition of Monday 12th November 1888:-

“The only incident of last night was the arrest of a gentleman in the intermediate neighbourhood of Dorset Street, who suddenly found himself at the centre of an excited crowd, who uttered cries of “Jack the Ripper” and “Lynch him.”

This was followed by his being strongly pinioned from behind.

With great difficulty he was conveyed to Leman Street Police Station, where he at first refused his name, but afterwards gave that of Holt, stating that he was a physician attached to St George’s Hospital, and he gave an address at Willesden.

His face was blackened with soot. He had on a black morning coat and under vest, but no shirt or waistcoat, and he wore no hat, though a cap was afterwards found in his pocket.

He was detained for three hours and a half.

While inquiries were being made, the result of which in the main confirmed his statements, and left the authorities no alternative but to liberate him, he stated that he had been for several nights engaged in amateur detective work in various disguises.”


Meanwhile, reports were coming in from all over London about suspicious individuals who members of the public had encountered in the streets at large, and whose behaviour had led people to believe they may well have been Jack the Ripper.

On 14th November the St James’s Gazette featured an article about one such individual:-

“The police have received from Mr. Samuel Osborne, wire worker, 20, Garden-row, London-road, a statement to the effect that he was walking along St. Paul’s Churchyard yesterday behind a respectably-dressed man, when a parcel, wrapped in a newspaper, fell from the man’s coat.

Osborne told him that he had dropped something; but the man denied that the parcel belonged to him.

Osborne picked up the parcel, and found that it contained a knife, having a peculiarly shaped handle and a thick blade, six or seven inches long, with stains upon it resembling blood.

The parcel also contained a brown kid glove, smeared with similar stains on both sides.

Osborne found a constable, and together they searched for the mysterious individual, but without success.

The parcel was handed to the City police authorities, who, however, attach no importance to the matter.”


But, it wasn’t just the amateur police who found themselves in danger of the East End mobs at the height of the Whitechapel Murders panic.

Indeed, the professional police officers, many of whom had been sent into the area in an attempt to catch the killer red handed, so to speak, were also liable to find themselves being pursued by the mob, as the following case, reported in the St James’s Gazette, on the 15th November 1888, demonstrates:-

“A City constable had an uncomfortable walk along the Commercial-road yesterday afternoon.

The officer, who was in mufti and who was wearing a low broad brim hat of rather singular appearance, was quietly walking along the road when suddenly some persons called out that he was “Jack the Ripper.”

Within a few seconds some hundreds of people surrounded the constable, who tried to evade them by increasing his pace; but the quicker he went the faster the mob followed him, until he was hemmed in on all sides.

The results might have been serious for him had not some constables of the H Division come up, and the man making known his identity to them, was got away from the mob.”

There can be no doubt about it, the autumn of 1888 was a dangerous time to look out of place on the mean streets of Whitechapel and Spitalfields.