One of the problems that the Victorian journalists faced, when trying to report on the Whitechapel murders, was that the police were reluctant to share any information with the press about their investigation into the crimes.
There were several reasons for this, not least of which was the fear that if the newspapers published updates on police lines of enquiry, they might tip the perpetrator off that the police were onto him, and, in so doing, cause him to change his appearance, or even the locale of his atrocities.
However, some police officers were happy to talk to the newspapers, on the condition, of course, that their identity was shielded to protect them from official censure.
In consequence, we get occasional tantalising glimpses of the police enquiry at the time, from officers who were privy to the progress of the investigation, but whose names were changed so that the journalists reporting their views could protect their sources.
DETECTIVE INSPECTOR SOYLE
On Sunday, 25th November, 1888, The Philadelphia Times published an interview with a “Detective Soyle”, who had paid a visit to the city, ostensibly en route to visiting his son who was working “out West.”
The article is an interesting one, in so far as, if the quotes are true, and Detective Inspector Soyle was, indeed, a member of the investigating team, it provides us with an insight into the theories amongst the police, and other members of society, at the height of the Ripper scare in London.
It also reveals the problems faced by the police as they tried to hunt the killer through the streets of Whitechapel and Spitalfields.
THE LONDON MURDERS
Interesting Chat With A Famous Scotland Yard Detective
HUNTING THE WHITECHAPEL FIEND
Many Misconceptions As To The Methods Of The Metropolitan Police Corrected
“Detective Inspector Soyle, of the criminal investigation department of the London Metropolitan Police, who was in the city yesterday, breaking his journey West to call on friends here, found time to talk for a quarter of an hour with a Times reporter in the hall of the Continental Hotel on the Whitechapel murders.
Beyond the English cut of his dark-blue overcoat and the heavy curl of his high silk hat, there is nothing in the appearance of the English detective to indicate his nationality.
A big, brawny man, with broad shoulders supporting a thick, ruddy neck and massive head, his heavy blonde moustache and carefully-tended goatee give a thorough American look to his mobile features. A pair of steel-blue eyes peep out from beneath bushy eyebrows.
Decidedly good-natured looking, the Inspector’s face wears the ruddy hue of robust health spreading from the point of his determined looking chin to his rosy ear tips.
THIRTY YEARS IN THE POLICE
It is nearly thirty years since Mr. Soyle joined the London police force as a plain constable at a salary of less than $6 a week.
For fifteen years and more, he has been attached to the detective department at Scotland Yard, during which time his name has been identified with many important arrests.
Today, he is entitled to a retiring pension of over $1,500 per annum, but he thinks he is good for ten years or so of work yet, and if appearances go for anything he probably is.
HIS VIEWS ON THE WHITECHAPEL MURDERS
“Speaking after an experience of nearly thirty tears in the detective service,” said the Inspector yesterday, “I can say that this series of appalling crimes known as the Whitechapel murders are absolutely unique, at least in English criminal records.
For the first time, we find ourselves confronted with a number of horrible murders, all apparently perpetrated by the same hand and without any obvious motive. We are, and have been for months past, hunting for a criminal of whose personality we know absolutely nothing.
There are no circumstances connected with any one of the murders giving the slightest indication as to the class of society to which the murderer belongs.
The idea seems to have become firmly fixed in the public mind that the wretch is a lunatic, using the word in his broadest sense, but it occurs to me that this theory arises rather from the fact that the average man finds it impossible to conceive of a sane human being whose nature could become so wholly depraved as to perpetrate a series of revolting crimes such as these, than from a calm and dispassionate consideration of the foul deeds and the conditions under which they were committed.
AMERICAN CRITICISMS ANSWERED
“There appears to be an idea prevalent over here that we have overlooked or neglected many methods by one or other of which we ought long ago to have come up with the
Whitechapel fiend. In answer to this criticism, I can only tell you that every plan that has been suggested at “the Yard,” as also every sensible and feasible idea that has reached us from outside, has been tried, and, as you are aware, found fruitless.
The strictures on the police in England are founded rather on the alleged incapacity of the detectives and lack of alertness on the part of the constables than upon the inaction of the force.
Nine-tenths of the work we have done is unknown even to the people at home.
You see, rightly or wrongly, it is the policy of the London police to keep the newspapers as much in the dark as possible as to what they are doing.
A newspaper reporter will hardly get courtesy, much less news, at Scotland Yard, or, indeed, at any of the metropolitan or city police stations.”
SUPERINTENDENT WILLIAMSON’S VIEW
“I remember a remark of Superintendent Williamson, made some years ago in my presence to a reporter who one day insisted upon seeing him.
The young man wanted some particulars about a mysterious murder that had occurred a day or two previous in St. John’s Wood.
“I am here, sir,” said the Superintendent, sternly, “to catch criminals, not to furnish papers with news.”
The reporter was most anxious to obtain a detailed description of the man who was suspected of the crime, and he suggested that the publicity given to the man’s appearance through the columns of his widely-circulated paper (the Daily Telegraph) might lead to his apprehension.
“It would be far more likely to lead to his dyeing his hair, shaving off his beard, blacking his face and taking to the streets with a banjo in his hands,” said the old chief grimly.
“Let me tell you, young man, that my experience with criminals, which is, possibly a little more extensive than yours, has taught me that intelligent scoundrels who are wanted by the police usually read the morning papers before the detectives who are after them are out of bed.”
THE SAME CONDITIONS PREVAIL
“This happened over ten years ago, but exactly the same conditions prevail today in the matter of giving out news at Scotland Yard.
The papers get today particulars of the useless clues run out yesterday.”
A DETECTIVE IN EVERY LODGING
“Well, now, I don’t mind telling you a few of the big jobs the police have undertaken in trying to unravel the Whitechapel mystery.
After the second murder, for Some reason never clear to me, the mind of the executive became permeated with the idea that the criminal was a dweller in one of the miserable holes scattered all over the poorer districts of London, where a night’s lodging may be had for fourpence or sixpence.
Two hundred and fifty detectives from the manufacturing and rural districts were brought up to town and one was placed as a spy in every common lodging in London.
Being countrymen; professedly come up to town in search of work, these men excited no suspicion among the lodgers.
Many arrests were made through information furnished by the officers relating to suspicious lodgers, but nothing came of any one of them.”
VISITS TO HOUSES
“Meanwhile, every inspector in charge of a police district was ordered to detail men to personally visit every householder who let apartments, furnished or unfurnished, in his division, and inquire as to the character and habits of their tenants, requesting them also to promptly inform the police if they noticed any marked peculiarity in the behaviour of any new lodger who might come along.
In the event of another murder of the same nature taking place, they were further instructed to notify the police if any lodgers had been out of doors at the time.
In short, the Police Department did its best to induce every householder in London who let lodgings to constitute him or herself for the time being a detective, at least as regarded these mysterious crimes.
Of course, it was impossible to do such a work as this thoroughly in a city like London, with its legions of inhabitants spread over such a large area.”
POLICEMEN ON BOATS AND SHIPS
Then somebody at the Yard struck the theory that the murderer was a sailor, who made short voyages to the continent, to the North of England or elsewhere.
Some colour was given to this idea by the fact that the butchering took place at the end of the week, when these coasting, freight and passenger steamers crowd the Thames from
London bridge to away down below the Tower.
Forthwith, by arrangement with the owners, over a hundred officers were directed to permanent duty on board these boats.
The police shipped as handymen and, when they were not seasick, they talked the murder over among their mates and stayed on board keeping night watches when the steamers lay
in the river and closely scrutinized the sailors, firemen and coal-passers when they came unheard for sleep atter their customary runs ashore.
Numbers of arrests were made from these ships, but all to no purpose.”
AN ARMY OF POLICE OFFICERS
“Throughout all this time more than 14,000 policemen have been patrolling the streets with their eyes wide open and their minds dominated by one idea – that of catching the Whitechapel fiend.
Hundreds of innocent people have been arrested on suspicion, only to be discharged in a few hours on satisfying the authorities of their respectability.
Hardly a night passes but some drunken fool rolls into one or other of the district station houses and wants to give himself up as the Whitechapel murderer.
Of course, all these people’s antecedents have to he looked up, and the extra work entailed on the force from this and the other causes I have mentioned has been simply prodigious.
If we have sent one officer abroad on clues which were apparently promising during the past four months we have sent fifty and the service, always courteously and ably rendered by your police in response to cablegrams, has run out and proved worthless, at least as far as clues go”
THE PROBLEMS WITH POLICING WHITECHAPEL
“Now, I should like to say a word to you as to the perpetual cry of the public, “Why don’t the police cover the Whitechapel district so as to render the commission of a crime of this nature a literal impossibility?”
Just imagine in your mind’s eye a district two miles square, literally honeycombed with narrow, tortuous streets, miserably lighted and intersected by hundreds of dark alleyways and covered passages, many of which are after nightfall as dark as pitch.
I have heard people say that, by right, every yard of this territory should be visited by the police at least once in every five minutes.
Do you know how many men it would take to ensure this being done?
I don’t know exactly, but believe that less than 5,000 men could not accomplish the task.
Well, if there had been fifty of these murders in Whitechapel, how are we, with the limited number of men at our command, to draw five thousand policemen away from their own districts?
Why, robbery and murder would run riot all over London.
As it is, we have not half enough police.
We have certainly had a great deal of outside assistance, but I am bound to say that it has been very little use to us.
Citizens’ committees were formed and hundreds of men, night after night, patrolled the district, following one another about and running every now and then to a policeman with the information that they were positive that the Whitechapel fiend was in a public house drinking with a woman or just round the corner holding one in conversation.
Nine times out of ten the policeman found that it was an amateur detective in search of information from an unfortunate.”
THEORIES WITHOUT END
“The theories gravely propounded by eminent men of every rank and degree are endless and various. Some are so wildly improbable as to appear at first sight wholly untenable.
Yet, in seeking for the perpetrator of unparalleled crimes such as these, one must go right out of the beaten track and hunt for clues in the most unlikely places.
George Lewis, the ablest criminal lawyer in England, thinks that the murders are committed by a religious enthusiast.
Forbes Winslow, the eminent mad doctor, believes them to be the work of an incipient lunatic suffering from sexual aberration.
Miss Braddon, the novelist, thinks that a perusal of Louis Stevenson’s book, “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” has shown to an already murderously inclined semi-lunatic how he can commit those awful deeds with comparative security from detection.
“Sir Charles Warren leans to the belief that they are the work of a foreigner who leaves the country immediately after each crime and returns only on the eve of committing a new outrage.
Lord Randolph Churchill, Mr. Bradlaugh, Sir Andrew Clark, the eminent physician, and Sir Charles Russell favour the religious monomaniac theory.
Keith Frith, who enjoys a large practice at the criminal bar, suggests that the murders have been committed by members of a band of political refugees.
His is a strange theory and embraces the belief that the women had, through association with these foreign conspirators, become cognizant of some of their secrets.
That they had divulged them to remote companions and that, the horrible barbarities practised on the bodies of the victims are intended to strike additional terror to other women who are living and familiar with the revolutionists and their methods.”
NOT THE WORK OF A LUNATIC.
“Nine-tenths of the English people are satisfied that the crimes are the work of a lunatic. I don’t think so. The shedding of blood, as I am informed by medical experts in lunacy, by persons suffering from mental disease and afflicted with a murderous mania, is almost always followed by an accession of fury, during the continuance of which all thought of escaping consequences vanishes.
While in this condition, the murderer continues to batter the remains of his victim until interrupted or, his fury exhausted, sinks on the spot into a condition of stolid indifference – forgetful of his crime and oblivious to its consequences.
Now whoever has committed these murders has had his wits about him and has done his horrid work calmly and coolly.
I have seen the bodies of three of the victims and if the remains had been those of sheep the idea left upon the mind of the observer would have been that a somewhat unskilful butcher had been called away while dressing a carcass for the market, having at hand none of the implements or conveniences in the way of hanging hooks, cross-pieces and skewers incident to his trade.
Further, I cannot believe that any lunatic would select his victims from a certain class and a particular locality.”
“But there,” said the genial inspector, with a grim smile, “I am theorizing, and in this case, at least, theorizing seems to lead to nothing.”
PROBABLY AN INSOLUBLE MYSTERY
“Will you give me your own opinion as to the best direction in which to search for the fiend?'” he was asked.
“I assure you I have not the faintest idea,” was the reply, ” but I greatly fear the why and the wherefore of the crimes will never be fully unveiled.”
THE JACK THE RIPPER LETTERS
The “Jack the Ripper” letters are simply the work of some stupid and brutal joker. Their phrasing should make that evident to the meanest capacity.
Discarding them as valueless, good-bye to the idea the fiend will ever give himself up.”
WILL HE EVER BE CAUGHT?
“If he is ever caught it will be red-handed, and then he will assuredly be lynched before he can be conveyed to a place of safety.
Then his secret will die with him.
I think, however, that it is more likely he will anticipate the mob, or the hangman, and die by his own hand, or possibly he may leave the country altogether and never be heard of again.
That the murderer has a motive in the commission of these crimes, directed as they are against a particular class living in a certain locality and confined to the very dregs of that class, is as certain as it is that the sun shines at noonday.
But we are – and have been throughout – ignorant as to that motive, and that is the main reason, I think, why we have evidently been looking in the wrong places for the criminal.”
HE HAS NOW LEFT THE CITY
Inspector Soyle left the city yesterday afternoon for the West, where his eldest son is engaged in farming.
His visit to this country is purely one of pleasure.
He arrived in New York on Wednesday by the Elbe, of the North German Lloyds Line, and expects to return to his duties about the last week in December.”