The Police And The Murders

Following the murder of Annie Chapman, which took place in the backyard of number 29 Hanbury Street, Spitalfields, on the 8th of September, 1888, police activity was stepped up in the neighbourhood with a view to bringing the perpetrator of the Whitechapel murders to justice.

However, as the days passed, it quickly became apparent that the investigation was, in fact, yielding little information, and the newspapers were soon commenting on the lack of progress being made by the detectives who were trying to solve the crimes.

Quite who was to blame for this lack of progress was the subject of intense debate in the daily papers.

Some blamed the Home Secretary, Henry Matthews, and argued that the refusal of his Home Office to sanction a reward for information was what was hampering the investigation.

Other dailies laid the blame at the door of the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Charles Warren, and pointed out that his militaristic style of running the force meant that individual officers were unable to demonstrate the necessary creative mindset that ought to be utilised in hunting the type of criminal who was carrying out the murders.

Various magazines, such as Punch, were producing humorous cartoons that reflected a widely held belief that the police were simply not up to the task of trying to track down the person responsible for the Whitechapel atrocities.

An illustration showing two burglars behind a policeman.
From Punch Magazine, October 13th 1888.


On Sunday, September 16th, 1888, Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper published the following editorial that, although sympathetic to the ordinary police constables, whose job it was to maintain law and order on the streets of Victorian London, also pointed out that something was very wrong with the way in which crime was detected.

The article read:-

“The unparalleled series of ghastly crimes which have filled all London with horror during the last few days has naturally concentrated public attention on the inefficiency of the Metropolitan Police, though the popular anger at the failure of the police to fathom the mystery of crime has in some cases taken an unreasonable form.

In our impatience let us not be unjust.


At the outset, the statement that “Leather Apron” had a Hebrew cast of countenance seemed likely to provoke an anti-Jewish crusade at the East-end, and the trembling Jews received back a discharged prisoner with devout expressions of thankfulness, as though a great danger had been averted.


Then, in certain quarters, attacks are made upon Mr. Matthews, who may possibly be an inefficient Home Secretary, but who cannot fairly be held responsible for the inability of the police to capture a miscreant.

It is utterly absurd to argue, as some have done, that the reason why the Whitechapel murderer is at large is because the police suppressed public meetings in Trafalgar-square last winter.

A portrait of Henry Matthews.
The Home Secretary, Henry Matthews. From The Illustrated London News, 14th August, 1886. Copyright, The British Library Board.


Still more unworthy are the reproaches cast upon the ordinary police-constables who do the patrolling work in the streets.

These men are not highly-trained thief-takers.

Some of them occasionally make mistakes: but we have had repeated examples lately of the vigilance displayed by men on night duty, and of the splendid courage they display in grappling with burglars armed with revolvers.


But we cannot hold Sir Charles Warren to be blameless. He seems to be a strange mixture of the martinet and the philanthropist.

On the one hand, he has excited discontent among his own men by making the discipline of the police more military in its character when it was too military already; on the other, he finds time himself for giving geographical lectures, and sets public bands to play open spaces on Saturday afternoons.

Yet, at the time of the Jubilee, he did not know of an important letter which had been some days in his own office; and during the summer his quarrels with Mr. Monro, the Assistant Commissioner, have occasioned something like a public scandal.

A portrait of Sir Charles Warren.
Sir Charles Warren, The Metropolitan Police Commissioner. From The Illustrated London News, 1st May 1886. Copyright, The British Library Board.


The truth is that the military organisation of the police is at fault. The soldier is habitually trained simply to obey orders. To think for himself is a fault: to express his thought is a crime. The result is a woodenness which is so often characteristic of old soldiers.

With the military spirit pervading the entire police force, woodenness is inevitable.


We need not go beyond the evidence at the coroner’s inquest for illustrations of stupidity and inefficiency.

Everybody knows how often the detection of criminals depends upon the careful examination of the smallest clues, and the promptitude with which inquiries are followed up.

Yet what do we find?

Davies, who lived at the house in Hanbury-street [This is referring to 29 Hanbury Street, where the murder of Annie Chapman took place on 8th September, 1888], calls in a bystander, and shows him the body.

This man at once goes for a policeman, and finds one in Spitalfields Market, which is only three minutes’ distance. He tells the policeman that another Whitechapel murder had been committed; but the policeman replies that he cannot come, and that another policeman would be found outside the market: but the second police-constable, when searched for, was not at that time to be found.

The inspector had previously explained that there are certain places where policemen are not allowed to leave their posts on any account; so the man was not to blame, but the system which ties men down so that they cannot act even in a supreme emergency.


Turning now to the evidence of the doctor, we find that he declares that after a preliminary examination of the body in the yard he carefully closed up the clothes, but was not present during the transit to the mortuary.

When he goes to examine the body in the afternoon, he is astonished to find it stripped and lying on a table ready for the post-mortem.

One of the nurses declares that she was instructed by the police-inspector to strip the body; they stripped it accordingly and washed off the bloodstains.

The inspector contradicts this, but had he done his duty he would have allowed no one to touch the body till after the doctor had made his post-mortem investigation.

No wonder that Dr. Phillips declared that the examination was made under great disadvantages.


Seeing that these East-end tragedies have been the work of a miscreant who possesses extraordinary cunning, it is the height of folly to overlook a single point which might, in the end, lead the police to the right track.

We have shown, even from the manner in which the most ordinary duties are discharged by the police immediately after the discovery of a great crime, that opportunities are neglected, and precautions are left untaken.

It is imperatively necessary that every man in the force should be encouraged to use his wits as well as his physical strength.

A great deal more than sentry duty is required in order to cope with the crime of a vast city like London.

The Bow-street runners and the Haydons and Forresters of the Mansion House had the eyes of hawks and the scent of bloodhounds, and they seldom failed to capture their prey.

But the modern detective can be often recognised in plain clothes, and only puts the handcuffs on his Jackson when, “from information received” from “a civilian,” he has nothing to do but make a formal arrest.

A cartoon showing a detective in disguise.
From Fun Magazine, March 4th 1885.


Whoever is at the head of the Detective department, as long as he is in office, should have the fullest possible liberty of action; should choose his own men by a process of natural selection; should have as much assistance as he requires; and should give a wide latitude to the agents whom he trusts.

Until these reforms in our police administration are effected, we can hardly expect to cope with the cunning of the most dangerous class of criminals.

These reforms are imperatively required, for within the last three or four years an appalling list of undiscovered murders in the metropolis has accumulated, some of which have been committed in open daylight.”