The Police In The Dark

On the morning of Monday 10th September, 1888, the daily newspapers began hitting the streets and, all over the country, they were reporting on the latest murder that had taken place in Whitechapel on the previous Saturday morning.

It is noticeable that more and more coverage was being given to the murders, and the details of the latest atrocity, that had been covered by those newspapers that had appeared over the weekend, were being rehashed and republished.

It is also apparent that the police were starting to keep journalists at arms length and were refusing to share all their information with them with regards to the progress, or lack thereof, that their inquiries were making.

However, realising that the public interest which their coverage of the murders was generating, and the resultant increase in sales this coverage was resulting in, the journalists were doing all that they could to bring their readers more and more information on a crime spree that had now gripped the imagination of the whole country.

Some of the newspaper headlines that appeared on September 10th 1888.
Newspaper Headlines From 10th September, 1888. Copyright, The British Library Board.


What also becomes apparent, when reading the newspapers that appeared on that Monday, is the fact that the press were beginning to lose patience with the police over their inability to catch the murderer.

In the opinion of The Daily Chronicle:-

“London is disgusted with the inadequacy of the police protection which Sir Charles Warren gives  it. The present regime must be mended or ended.

The Metropolitan Police are simply letting the first city of the world lapse into primeval savagery. In the space of a year and a half, despite the protests of the press and of local authorities, they have permitted district after district to fall under the terrorism of the youthful rowdy.

Marylebone was recently scourged by tribal warfare.

Whitechapel, according to their own admission, has for a year or two been swarming with gangs of blackguards, who live by extorting, under threats of brutal torture, blackmail from the unfortunate women who flit through its alleys like midnight birds of prey.

There is now reason to think that they have finally handed over this afflicted neighbourhood to the tender mercies of an assassin, who butchers his victims almost within earshot of the street patrols.

One good result, we believe, will spring from this outbreak of crime in Whitechapel.

The people of London will tolerate no longer the crotchets of Scotland-yard, which sacrifices the efficiency of the preventive and detective for the sake of developing the fine military side of the police force.”


The Daily News was equally scathing in its criticism of the fact that criminals had, for so long, been allowed to carry out their crimes without any apparent fear of police interference, and even went so far as to list the police failures in the form of murders the perpetrators of which were still to be brought to justice:-

“The police have a good deal of lost ground to recover. In the past year or two they have failed to bring many terrible offenders to justice.

The Kentish Town murder is still one of the mysteries of crime, and so is the murder at Canonbury.

A lady was murdered near Bloomsbury-square last year – the murderer has not been found.

At about the same time a solicitor’s clerk was murdered in Arthur-street with precisely the same result. It is certain that no effort will be spared; but the public will hardly be satisfied with an assurance of that sort. The police must somehow contrive to win this time.”

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


The Morning Advertiser highlighted the fact that the public might soon have justified grounds to mistrust the police completely: –

“Should these deeds go ‘unwhipt of justice,’ and remain in the long catalogue of undiscovered crimes, there will be substantial ground for public distrust, and ample reason for that reorganization of the London police system which, in the opinion of many people, has long been an importunate necessity.”


“The affair is one which should put the police authorities on their mettle, for if they bungle it their credit will be disastrously impaired and a serious blow given to the public confidence in their abilities.

This, of course, is well understood at headquarters.

Every nerve will be strained in the chase of this bloodthirsty scoundrel, and we trust that the pursuit will be short, sharp, and speedily successful.”


The Sheffield Daily Telegraph, however, was a little more sympathetic with the plight of the police and reported on the measures that they were adopting in order to catch the miscreant, whilst, at the same time, acknowledging the almost impossible task they were facing:-

“The police authorities at Scotland Yard and Whitechapel are fully conscious of the difficult nature of the task they have before them in identifying any particular individual with a series of appalling crimes. “God knows”, said an official to our reporter, “but we may have another tonight, though we have men patrolling the whole region of Whitechapel and Spitalfields.”

That the police are putting forth every possible effort there can be no doubt. Tonight there is a large force on duty. One third of the men are in plain clothes, and even those entitled to leave of absence are retained.

That the public are anxious to second their effort is testified to by the presence on record at Commercial Street Police Station of no less than fifty personal statements made with the object of assisting an identification.

One officer has been occupied many consecutive hours in writing these statements, and up to nine o’clock tonight he was being supplemented by others.”


The article then went on to give details of one of the witness statements that the police had received, which had come from a young woman who had had an encounter with a suspicious character on the afternoon of Saturday the 8th September, 1888:-

“The police are not permitted to make public the written evidence – if evidence it can be called.

It is doubtful if it will ultimately prove of much value, but one special representative, in pursuing his investigations tonight, heard in the presence of the police a statement which perhaps ought not altogether be dismissed as unworthy of notice.

The informant was a young woman named Lyons, who is of the class commonly known as unfortunates.

She stated that, at three o’clock this afternoon, she met a strange man in Flower and Dean Street, one of the worst streets in the East End of London.

He asked her to go to the Queen’s Head public-house at half-past-six and drink with him.

Having obtained from the young woman a promise that she would do so, he disappeared, but was at the house at the appointed time.


While they were conversing, Lyon’s noticed a large knife in the man’s right hand trousers pocket, and called another woman’s attention to the fact.

A moment later, Lyons was startled by a remark which the stranger addressed to her. “You’re about the same style of woman as the woman that’s murdered,” he said.

“What do you know about her?” asked the woman; to which the man replied, “You are beginning to smell a rat. Foxes hunt geese, but they don’t always find them.”

Having uttered these words, the man hurriedly left.

Lyons followed until near Spitalfields Church, and turning round at this spot, and noticing that the woman was behind him, the stranger ran at a swift pace into Church Street [this is now Fournier Street, by the Ten Bells pub], and was at once lost to view.”


The Morning Post, although observing that the police “gave information unwillingly”, did highlight the endeavours being made by the police in the district, and mentioned the problems being presented to them by the sudden notoriety of number 29 Hanbury Street:-

“On Saturday night a large force of police-constables and detectives closely watched the neighbourhood.

Men were posted at all the entrances and exits of the numerous alleys and passages in the neighbourhood, and every few minutes made a thorough examination of the places under their surveillance, and from time to time these were visited by the inspectors on duty with a view of ascertaining whether any suspicious character had been observed.

From ten o’clock at night until two in the morning a large crowd occupied Hanbury-street, in the vicinity of the notorious house, and caused a good deal of trouble to the police by their behaviour.

The people living in the adjoining houses obtained no rest until between four or five o’clock, when the crowd gradually melted away, only, however, to reassemble again in greater force as soon as daylight appeared.”

An illustration showing crowds in the street outside the front of 29 Hanbury Street.
People Outside 29 Hanbury Street. From The Pall Mall Gazette, Monday 10th September, 1888. Copyright, The British Library Board.


The Morning Post article, was, however critical of the police for not being willing to share information with journalists, and not interested in suggestions from outside the force. The article also mentioned the mood in Hanbury Street, where it seems that a carnival-like atmosphere was holding sway:-

“They [the police] are unwilling, indeed, to accept assistance or suggestion from any private source. and work upon a plan of their own, which consists of frequent visits to the common lodging-houses of the neighbourhood, and a strict watch at night in all the streets in the vicinity.

All day yesterday five policemen guarded the scene of the crime in Hanbury-street. No one was admitted unless he resided in the house.

In the street half a dozen costermongers took up their stand and did a brisk business in fruit and refreshments.

Thousands of respectably dressed persons visited the scene, and occasionally the road became so crowded that the constables had to clear it by making a series of raids upon the spectators.

The windows a the adjoining houses were full of persons watching the crowd below.

A number of people also visited the house in Dorset-street where the murdered woman had lodged.”


The Pall Mall Gazette, meanwhile, was also particularly scathing of the suggestions that had been made over the weekend that the local people should form themselves into vigilance patrols, with a view to succeeding where the police were, so evidently, failing :-

“The Whitechapel murderer is no doubt very foul, loathsome, and horrible.

But when all is said and done, that is no reason why people should go stark staring mad over it.

It is difficult to regard one suggestion made on Saturday as the product of anything but sheer lunacy. The people of East London, we are told, “must form themselves at once into vigilance committees, with sub-committees, which should at once devote themselves to volunteer patrol work at night. The unfortunates who are the objects of the man-monster’s malignity should be shadowed by one or two of the amateur patrols. They should be cautioned to walk in couples. Whistles and a signalling system should be provided, and means of summoning a rescue force should be at hand. We are not sure that every London district should not make some effort of the kind.”

The suggestion that every “unfortunate” in London should be shadowed by a couple of respectable householders, with reserves in the rear ready to rush up on hearing a whistle, is the one gleam of the irresistibly comic in the whole of this gruesome tragedy.”

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


The Gazette also counselled its readers, and the police, not to be misled into believing that the man responsible for the recent atrocities resembled the monster he was being portrayed as in the popular press.

Indeed, as the article was at pains to point out, the killer most probably resembled the ordinary people who were, at that moment, converging in droves onto the streets of Spitalfields to view the crime scene and its surroundings.

“It is to be hoped that the police and their amateur assistants are not confining their attention to those who look like “horrid ruffians.”

Many of the occupants of the Chamber of Horrors look like local preachers, Members of Parliament, or monthly nurses.

We incline on the whole to the belief which we expressed on Saturday that the murderer is a victim of erotic mania which often takes the awful shape of an uncontrollable taste for blood. Sadism, as it is termed from the maniac marquis whose books sound the lowest depth obscenity has ever touched, is happily so strange to the majority of our people that they find it difficult to credit the possibility of mere debauchery bearing such awful fruitage.

The Marquis de Sade, who died in a lunatic asylum at the age of seventy-four, after a life spent in qualifying for admission to gaol and escaping from prison, was an amiable-looking gentleman, and so, possibly enough, may be the Whitechapel murderer.”


The Sheffield Daily Telegraph, reported on the public reaction to a number of arrests that the police had made over the course of the previous day:-

“The usual lively condition of Whitechapel and Spitalfields on a Sunday was considerably augmented yesterday by reason of the excitement aroused by the murder.

In the course of the day nearly a dozen persons were arrested and conveyed to Commercial Street Police Station.

In the afternoon a vast crowd had collected about the streets, and as each apprehension was made they rushed pell-mell towards the station, obviously under the idea that the murderer of the woman, Chapman, had been caught.

Shortly before five o’clock a man was arrested in Dale Street, after a long chase, on a charge of assault. The officer who took him proceeded with his prisoner by way of Hanbury Street to the police station, and so was obliged to make his way through the crowd outside the house. His prisoner stood in grave danger of being mobbed, but the crowd eventually gave way, and the prisoner was safely lodged at the station.

A view of Hanbury Street as it was at the time of the murder.
Hanbury Street (1918)


The Gloucestershire Echo, in its issue of 10th September, 1888, contained a similar report:-

“A few minutes after eleven o’clock, a man was seen running breathless down Whitechapel, followed by eight or nine police men.

He was gaining on his pursuers, but a line of excited people stretched across the street to capture him.

The man, yellow with excitement and fright, turned down a side street, but was quickly caught.

He was surrounded by police, and if he had not been he would probably have suffered very severely, so indignant were the people.

The man, however, turned out to have been arrested on another charge, not related to the Hanbury Street murder.


A few minutes later two men were arrested in Wentworth Street.

As soon as the crowd saw them in the hands of the police there were loud cries of “Leather Apron,” and thereupon hundreds of persons turned out from the side streets and followed the officers in a tumultuous throng to the station.

Not five minutes afterwards, a woman was apprehended on some small charge, and the excitement became so intense that a posse of police officers was sent out from the building to preserve order.

These marched three and four abreast up and down the pavement and, while they were so engaged, yet another prisoner was brought in.


There was a good deal of shouting in the mob, which surged about in a dangerous fashion; but, by and by, a diversion was caused by the rapid passage along Hanbury Street of three men, who were supposed to be detectives and their prisoner.

The centre man bore a striking resemblance to “Leather Apron”, and, the cry of “That’s him” having been raised, a rush was made at him, but the little party immediately turned down a side street, and the police prevented the crowd from proceeding further.”


As the evening newspapers began appearing across the country, many of them were reporting on what, potentially, seemed like a major breakthrough in the case. The mysterious “Leather Apron” had been arrested earlier that day.

The following report about the apprehension of this major suspect appeared in The Greenock Telegraph:

“The Press Association telegraphs at 10.30:- “Leather Apron” was arrested at nine o’clock this morning at 22 Mulberry Street, Commercial Street.

His name is John Piser.

Piser’s friends deny that he has ever been known under the nickname of “Leather Apron.”

When a detective called at the house Piser opened the door and the detective remarking, “Just the man I want,” charged him on suspicion of being connected with the murder of the woman Siffey.

By trade the prisoner is a boot finisher, and has been living at Mulberry Street with his step-mother, Mrs Piser, and a married brother, a cabinetmaker.

Piser’s relatives say that he came home at half-past ten on Thursday night, and had not left the house since. They also say that he is in delicate health, and that he left a convalescent home six weeks ago. He is thirty-five years of age, and has been brought up from infancy by Mrs Piser.

At the Leman Street Police Station, where Piser was taken, a large force of police were kept in readiness with drawn staves.

The arrest was effected so quietly that the fact was not generally known. The authorities refuse to give any information, and say no such arrest has taken place. This is untrue, as the relatives admit it.”


There can be no doubt that the mood in the streets of the districts of Whitechapel and Spitalfields was turning decidedly ugly, and that the mob were on the look out, ever willing to mete out summary justice against anyone whom they might consider to be the murderer.

As one newspaper put it, “a touch would fire the whole district in the mood in which it is now.””