The Political Moral of the Murders

On Monday the 24th of September 1888, with the Whitechapel murders causing widespread panic in the East End of London; and the general press coverage on the murder of Annie Chapman – which had taken place on the 8th of September 1888 – urging readers to look on the victims with a more sympathetic eye; The Pall Mall Gazette published an article about, what it termed, “The Political Moral” that could be taken from the murders.


The previous day news had broken that the body of a murder victim, Jane Beadmore, had been found in Birtley – a small mining village in County Durham, in the north of England – and this had led to press speculation that the Whitechapel murderer had transferred his field of operation out of London.

The article began:-

“The murder and mutilation of a woman near Gateshead yesterday morning will revive, in the provinces, the horror which was beginning to die out in London.

The coroner in summing up the evidence in the case of the woman NICHOLLS [sic] went through once more the points of suspicious similarity in the four Whitechapel murders.

Discovering teh body of Jane Beadmore.
The Murder of Jane Beadmore At Birtley.


In some respects the Gateshead murder is said to closely resemble them; and already the people in the neighbourhood have begun, it seems, to be haunted with the idea that the murderous maniac of Whitechapel may have made his way to the North of England.

The idea is natural, but improbable.”


The Pall Mall Gazette was emphatic that the Birtley murder was not related to the recent series of East End murder but was, instead, a “reflex” to the murders of Emma Smith, Martha Tabram, Mary Nichols and Annie Chapman.

Indeed, the article continued:-

“What is far more likely is that the Birtley murder is not a repetition, but a reflex, of the Whitechapel ones.

It is one of the inevitable results of publicity to spread an epidemic.

Just as the news of one suicide often leads to another, so the publication of the details of one murder often leads to their repetition in another murder.

Reading of means to do ill deeds makes ill deeds done.

This, we suppose, was one of the motives which led the Whitechapel doctor to suppress, so long as he could, the results of his post-mortem.


The coroner ultimately insisted on the full facts being stated, and, in view of the many countervailing advantages which result from publicity, it is impossible to blame either the coroner for eliciting or the press for printing the particulars of the Whitechapel horrors.

But news is one thing; literature is another.

And if there is going to be either an epidemic, or a panic, of murder in the North of England, it will be strange if some of the public indignation is not visited upon the newspapers which set their readers to sup upon “Newgate Calendars” and tales of crime.”


Having pondered the panic that might, at any moment, sweep across the north of England; the article went on to wonder if anything had actually been learned from the murders in Whitechapel and Spitalfields:-

“Meanwhile, is there any reason to suppose that the lesson of the Whitechapel murders has been fully learned in London?

Taking as the most fruitful hypothesis that they were the work of a scientific and philanthropic sociologist, can we say that he has reason as yet to stay his hand?

The police, we know from the proceedings at the inquest, are at their wits’ end; do not expect fresh evidence; and are frankly waiting for a fifth murder to give them a clue to the preceding four.

But is this attitude of grim expectancy to be adopted also by the social reformer?

The answer depends on the degree in which the morals of the murder are taken to heart during the next few weeks or months.”


When it came to heading of in weird and wonderful tangents, The Pall Mall Gazette, was ever willing to make any twist it saw necessary and so, the article’s author decided to introduce a little Eastern mysticism into his narrative:-

“The philanthropic morals have been perhaps enough insisted upon already; and we need not do more to-day than point them by a story which is told this morning from China.

“Every one in China,” we are told, “who has accumulated a large quantity of benevolent impulses which have had no opportunity for their gratification is accustomed once a year, on the 8th day of the 12th month, to make the most liberal donations to all corners of the very cheapest and poorest quality of soup during about twelve hours. This is called “practising virtue,” and is considered a mode of laying up merit.”

Very often, it is added, no one applies for the soup; but “all the same the donors advertise their intentions to practise virtue; and when the day ends and no one has asked for a bowl of the soup it is put into the broken jars out of which the pigs are fed, and the benevolent man closes his door feeling that he has been virtuous for the year,”

Is not this a cruelly close analogue of benevolence elsewhere than in China?”


Returning to London, the author went on to compare the aforementioned “Chinese benevolence” with the efforts being made in the East End of London with the new model housing experiments, such as the Peabody Estate on Commercial Street.

The article also reflected a – it must be said tongue-in-cheek – press theory that the murderer was a social reformer who was carrying out the crimes in order to draw attention to the horrific conditions in the area:-

“For instance, in the matter of improved dwellings, which has been much insisted on as the chief thing necessary for the plague-spots of the slums.

Model dwellings are put up; but too often none of the population of the slums come into them.

Nevertheless, the well-meaning persons who have built them, having announced their intention of practising virtue, “shut up shop,” as it were, with a profound conviction of their benevolence.

That is “Chinese benevolence.”

Something of a much more aggressive and persistent kind is wanted before our murderous sociologist is likely, we fear, to stay his hand.

A view of the Peabody Building.
The Peabody Building, Commercial Street, Spitalfields.


And, besides the philanthropic moral, there is a political one to be drawn from these Whitechapel horrors.

Mr. BARNETT submitted the other day to the Times a list of “practical suggestions,” and it is a very noteworthy thing that certainly three of them, and perhaps the fourth also, might all be included under the general head of better municipal government for London.

We want, said Mr. BARNETT, “efficient police supervision” in Whitechapel.

But they will never get it until police duty is made once more a local matter, and the semi-military bureau at Scotland-yard is replaced by a civilian department under representative control.”


One aspect of the murders that had been much reported on was the lack of adequate lighting in the district by night; and the article raised this very point:-

“Secondly, Whitechapel wants “adequate lighting and cleaning.”

That is to say it wants a London Council sufficiently skilled to solve the problem of bringing all the latest results of science to the streets of London, and sufficiently honest to justify the extension of common rates over the whole of the metropolis.”


Barnett had been pointing out in letters to various newspapers that the street scenes in Whitechapel, were of such a gruesome nature that it was of little wonder that a degree of savagery had been instilled in the populace from a very early age, as the article then observed:-

“The removal of slaughterhouses outside the urban boundaries, which is Mr. BARNETT’S third specific, is altogether a municipal matter.

And so, to a large extent is “the control of tenement houses by responsible landlords.””


Its points made, the article ended by stating:-

“Perhaps the municipalization of land will ultimately be seen to be the only solution possible on a large scale of the problem of housing London decently.

But, with a view alike to future eventualities and to immediate necessities, the election of the best County Council available is the first thing needful.”