One of the most memorable images of the Jack the Ripper murders, aside from the haunting photographs of the victims themselves, has to be the image of the phantom figure that appeared in the Punch article entitled “The Nemesis of Neglect.”
SPAWNED BY THE SLUMS
The image showed a shrouded, knife-wielding, hollow-eyed phantom, drifting its way through the slums of the East End of London. Scrawled across its forehead was the word “CRIME.”
It reflected a consensus that had, at the time, become prevalent amongst social reformers, and other concerned commentators, that Jack the Ripper – or at least the unknown miscreant who was responsible for the Whitechapel Murders – had been spawned by the horrendous conditions that had been allowed to develop, virtually unchecked, in the East End of London.
The Rhyme that accompanied the illustration re-iterated its stark and gloomy message:-
There floats a phantom on the slum’s foul air,
Shaping, to eyes which have the gift of seeing,
Into the Spectre of that loathly lair.
Face it – for vain is fleeing!
Red-handed, ruthless, furtive, unerect,
‘Tis murderous Crime – the Nemesis of Neglect!
INSPIRED BY A LETTER TO THE TIMES
The Punch cartoon had been inspired by a letter that had been sent to The Times, and which had appeared on 18th September 1888.
Signed SGO (an abbreviation of Sidney Godolphin Osborne), the letter began by observing that, “However abhorrent in all cruel, filthy detail are the murders…however hard it my be to believe they they could occur in any civilized community, the fact remains that they have been so committed.”
Osborne then went on to comment that the Victorian authorities – with the effective blessing and collusion of the more comfortable off citizens of the West End -had blithely allowed a degraded underclass to develop within, as he put it, “..a walk of palaces and mansions, where all that money can obtain secures whatever can contribute to make human life one of luxury.”
This community, he lectured his readers, had been “…begotten and reared in an atmosphere of godless brutality…” and had, effectively, become “…a species of human sewage, the very drainage of the vilest production of ordinary vice and…in its increase forever developing fresh depths of degradation…”
Osborne ended his missive by warning that, “Just so long as the dwellings of this race continue in their present condition, their whole surroundings a sort of warren of foul alleys garnished with the flaring lamps of the gin shops and…every possible accommodation to further brutalize…, we shall have still to go on – affecting astonishment that in such a state of things we have outbreaks from time to time of the horrors of the present day.”
The language itself might feel quite antiquated, but the message behind the letter is still stomach-churning, despite the passage of over 125 years, and it is one of those snapshots from the era that captures in a frozen moment the everyday conditions that formed the backcloth against which the saga of the Jack the Ripper murders was played out.