The Discovery Of Crime

One of the major debates with regards solving the mystery of the Whitechapel murders, throughout September, 1888, was whether or not a reward should be offered for information that might lead to the apprehension of the perpetrator of the crimes.

The official line, from the Home Office, was that a reward should not be offered.

This had been the official policy for several years, and was based upon the belief that offering rewards for information did more harm than good.

People, so the theory went, would hold back information until a reward was offered, or, worse still, they might come forward and give false information in the hope that they might benefit financially from so doing.

On Sunday, 23rd September, 1888, The Referee published the following article that looked at the pros and cons of a system of rewards, and which analysed the reasons given by the Home Office for not offering a reward to help bring the Whitechapel murderer to justice.


“There are people who declare that the Home Secretary has inflamed the wrath of Whitechapel against the Government by refusing to offer a reward for the discovery of the murderer or murderers of the women Nicholls and Chapman.

The outcry against Mr. Matthews would not be altogether reasonable in view of the explanation which has been issued by the Home Office, were it not that such explanation is conveyed in the arrogant and cocksure way peculiar to the Home Secretary.

A portrait of Sir Henry Matthews.
Sir Henry Matthews. The Home Secretary.


The Home Office has, it seems, for some time discontinued the practice of offering any rewards at all for criminal information.

It has done so on high-and-dry doctrinaire views of human nature.

If people have information to give, they will hold it back under a system of rewards till they get their price.


Rewards tempt malicious persons to bear false witness against their neighbours. They start distracting false scents.

They also demoralise the community by weakening the sense of social responsibility in the individual, for they teach him, not that he owes a duty to the State in the matter of assisting to unmask a criminal, but that he only owes it if he has an assurance that he will be paid for doing it.

These are the arguments of the Home Office.


We may say that the stoppage of the rewards, together with these reasons for stopping are altogether worthy of bureaucrats in a balloon.

The Home Office has evidently no physical contact with our coarse earth or with what is its earthiest and coarsest product, human nature in the criminal classes and their associates.

If it had, it would know that the first thing to prove is not whether rewards demoralise the people, but whether they lead to the discovery of crime.

If not, then the argument as to their demoralising influence on humanity may be worth listening to.


But, on the other hand, if rewards do lead to the discovery of crime, then surely to stop them and leave crime undiscovered and unpunished must be ten times as demoralising to society as the offer of them.

Men of the world know that among the poorer classes in England only the feeblest and most rudimentary idea of civic duty exists.


In a country where the voter to this day has an idea that he ought to be paid for “his time” in going to give his vote by the candidate who gets it, is it not absurd to expect the “pal” of the thief or the assassin to tell his information to the police for nothing, or to suppose that when he finds no reward offered he will betray his accomplice or friend from a high sense of duty to society?

What is society to him that he should help it? Is it not his natural enemy? Does he not owe it so many grudges that nothing but the promptings of revenge or greed will ever induce him to serve it?

Again, the Home Office seems to have no abiding faith in the soundness of its own policy.

Why does it permit an accomplice to escape the hangman or the gaol if he turns Queen’s evidence?

What is that if it be not a demoralising reward for the discovery of crime?


Why does the Home Office permit private individuals, like Mr. Samuel Montagu, to offer rewards if these rewards disastrously demoralise the criminal and quasi-criminal classes to whom they appeal?


The best comment on the stoppage of rewards is the ghastly list of undiscovered crime in London that is usually cited as a proof of the incompetence and imbecility of the detective police.

For our part, the role we should apply would be this:- Never offer a reward till the detective police confess themselves baffled.


But the hard-and-fast rule never to offer a reward at all is obviously a supreme mistake.

Rigid insistence on it has converted the Detective Department, in a painfully ironical sense, into the Department of Criminal Investigation.

Investigation – clumsy and puerile investigation – as distinguished from discovery, is the pursuit in which the Metropolitan Police now win their unfading laurels.”


Of course, the big question is, would offering a reward for information that might lead to his capture have helped in the hunt for Jack the Ripper?

As the article mentioned, several private individuals had offered rewards: and, in the wake of the murder of Catherine Eddowes, which took place in the City of London, the Lord Mayor of the City did offer a substantial reward for information that might lead to the capture of Catherine’s killer, but none of these led to the apprehension of the perpetrator of the Whitechapel murders..


So, it seems probable that the offering of a reward by the Home Office would, likewise, have made no difference whatsoever.

Indeed, the only difference it would probably have made was to satisfy those who were demanding that a reward should be offered, and thus lead to a little less criticism of the Home Office and the police.