The Ripper Scare

Although there is a general consensus that, by October 1890, almost two years had passed since the final Jack the Ripper murder, that of Mary Kelly on the 9th November, 1888, that consensus is one that can only be arrived at with hindsight.

Indeed, the people of London were not certain that the murders had finished, and they lived in daily fear that they might, any day, wake up to the news that the Whitechapel murderer had struck again.

A selection of the newspaper headlines from the 1st September, 1888
Newspaper Headlines, 1st September, 1888. Copyright, The British Library Board.


Every so often, a new scare would erupt, many of them being caused by yet another letter that had supposedly been written by the perpetrator of the atrocities and threatening that he was about to strike again.

One such scare broke out in October 1890, and the newspapers were quick to report on what actions the police were taking to prevent a resumption of the crimes.


The Bradford Daily Telegraph, on Wednesday, 8th October, 1890, published an article that suggested that, in their determination to catch the killer, the police authorities had, unofficially, appointed as detectives women of the very class upon whom the Ripper had preyed during the autumn of 1888:-

“Writing with reference to the “Jack the Ripper” scare, a correspondent of the Daily Chronicle says:- Extraordinary indeed are the precautions being adopted by the authorities.

The beats in Whitechapel and Spitalfields have been completely reorganised. In every possible instance, the officers who were on duty on the “murder rounds” at the time that the crimes were committed have been recalled to their old beats.


Every individual whose appearance or movements cause the slightest suspicion is “shadowed” by plain clothes men, who are got up in every conceivable, and if the suspicion at first aroused is in anywhen strengthened, the party is politely, or rather is conducted, to the nearest police station, where he is called upon to give an account of himself.

Several arrests of this nature have been made over the last two or three nights, but in each case the “suspect” was set at liberty almost immediately, being able to advance satisfactory proof of his innocence.

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


But, by far the most important arrangement, in the opinion of the shrewdest detectives, yet made to entrap the assassinator, should he attempt to add another name to his already long list of horrors, is the employment of the class of women he has formerly chosen as his prey.

A number of these outcasts, about the same age and character as those who have died by the merciless hand of the mysterious fiend, though not, of course, officially appointed, have practically been engaged by the authorities to aid in the endeavours being put forth to capture him.

They have been converted for the time being into female detectives, for which, provided they can be kept sober, the police consider them well qualified.

The Women of Whitechapel Secretly Armed


They are instructed not to repulse any man who solicits them.

They are guaranteed that they will be followed and that there will be help near at hand should their companions attempt to harm them.

They have an unrestrained licence to go just where they please strangely – a privilege strangely contrasting with their treatment by the police at the periods the murders were done.”


However, in the same issue, the newspaper published a second article which suggested that the rumour that the East End prostitutes were being employed as unofficial detectives was, in fact, “bunkum.”


“The Ripper scare is deepening and extending to an alarming degree in the East End.

It is a dangerous thing for newspaper men to be about that quarter at night just now, though some sensational editors are having Whitechapel articles worked up for public consumption.

I went the round yesterday with a fellow-journalist of the scenes of the past atrocities, the result of the inspection being our mutual conviction that the same horrors might be re-enacted to-night on the same spots with little fear of detection, so ill-lit and deserted at midnight are the nooks and corners of this infamous quarter.

A view of the steeple of St Mary's Church.
St Mary’s Church Seen Through Green Dragon Yard, Old Montague Street.


The newspapers chronicling the precautionary measures of the police seem to have better information than the police themselves, and the talk of hiring women detectives is generally regarded as bunkum.

The worst of it is that this sensational gossip and reporting of letters received from the alleged murderer is doing much and unnecessary harm.


The latest rumour goes that the police have certain information that the “Ripper” will henceforth change his venue to a better-class quarter of the East End – probably South Hackney.

The result of this is that, in the district named, the quiet roads at night are rarely disturbed by a footfall, and when a woman goes abroad, even in the well-lit streets, she is not comfortable, except with one or more male companions.


The most wretched superstitions of the middle ages are being revived in the minds of the ignorant by fear of this monster in human shape, and he is credited with every fiendish power that old legend or story has preserved for posterity’s edification.

Still, it is a sad fact that, under existing conditions, another Whitechapel murder may thrill the world with horror before long.”