The Terror In The East End

In early September, 1888, the unease in Whitechapel that had come about as a result of the murder of Martha Tabram – which took place on 7th August, 1888 – suddenly gave way to outright terror and panic when the news broke that another woman, Mary Nichols, had been murdered in Buck’s Row, Whitechapel, on the last day of August, 1888.

Newspaper speculation was rife as to who the murderer, or murderers, could be.

Spme of the newspaper headlines that appeared on Monday 3rd September 1888.
Newspaper Headlines From Monday 3rd September, 1888. Copyright, The British Library Board.


Many people were convinced that the murders were the work of a local “High-Rip” gang, and that the victims had been murdered either because they had refused to hand over money to the gang, or that they might be on the verge of informing on the members of the gang and had, therefore, had to be silenced.


Others weren’t so sure that a gang could actually have carried out the atrocities without one of their number turning informer on his fellow gang members.

The belief, therefore, amongst those who doubted the gang theory, was that the crimes were the work of a lone individual, possibly a homicidal maniac, whose motive was nothing more than the pleasure of mutilating the bodies of his victims.


One thing that was becoming more than apparent to the journalists, as they began to devote more and more column space to the Whitechapel murders, was that the police didn’t have a clue as to who the murderer was and how he might be brought to justice.

Criticism of the police, and in particular of the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Charles Warren, was beginning to increase throughout the first week in September.

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.


During that first week in September, The Referee began work on an article which was to be published in its issue of Sunday, 9th September, 1888.

The article was intended to weigh up the pros and cons of the “gang theory” over the “lone assassin” theory, before taking the police to task for their inability to catch the perpetrator of the murders of Martha Tabram and Mary Nichols.

However, as the article was being written, the murder of Annie Chapman took place in Hanbary Street, Spitalfields, and the terror and panic increased dramatically, as was reflected in the article when it appeared, the day after the brutal slaying of Annie Chapman:-


“A panic has spread over the East-end, and we do not wonder at it.

The hideous murder of the woman Nicholls in Whitechapel is surrounded by every circumstance of horror and mystery that strikes terror to the heart of a community.

The inquest revealed the brutal and revolting savagery of the crime.

The failure of the detective police to obtain a promising clue to the murderer has intensified the mystery of the victim’s death.

Never since the achievements of De Quincey’s crazy hero, Williams, in the East-end, or the feats of Messrs. Burke and Hare in Edinburgh, has a populous place suffered from such a paralysis of fear as that which has smitten Whitechapel.


The murder of Nicholls is similar in conception, design, and execution to two others that have happened in the same district within the year.

That there is a slaughtering fiend, or a band of fiends, abroad in Whitechapel, with whom the police cannot cope, is thus the rooted conviction of its inhabitants.

The Whitechapeller never goes out now after dark without feeling that at any moment, suddenly, at one terrible bound, a horrible unseen demon may leap on his shoulders, fixing his iron talons in his throat till his victim is comatose, and hacking and slashing his body till stupor is followed by disembowelment and death.

The mendacious Mandeville, in his curious “Fable of the Bees,” says that a community cannot be raised to prosperity without cultivating savage vices.

Illustrated Police News articles shoing the murder of Mary Nichols.
The Report on the Murder of Mary Nichols


And now, while the ink of this last sentence is still wet, there comes news of still another brutal murder in Whitechapel, the victim being again a woman and the circumstances much the same and at least as horrible as those connected with the murder of Nicholls and the women who were murdered before her.

Whitechapel evidently breeds in its reeking purlieus, not merely the vices of the savage, but of the Foul Fiend himself.

Unhappily, it does not enjoy the compensation of exceptional prosperity.

Indeed, it is just to say that, but for its poverty and the debasing and brutalising conditions of life in its slum, Whitechapel would have the prosperity without the vice from which, according to Mandeville, that prosperity springs.


Having failed to discover clues, the police and the Press are amusing themselves and us by inventing theories.

Scotland Yard is already divided into two camps.

One party holds that the Whitechapel murders were committed by a single individual – another that they are the work a blackmailing gang.

The one-man theory has developed into all kinds of curious forms.

Some will have it that a homicidal lunatic, escaped from a private asylum, is plying his instruments of slaughter in East London.

Others that the murderer is merely a lurking brute, with a morbid lust for blood, which he slakes whenever he gets a chance.


The upholders of the one-man or Foul Fiend theory, in reality, believe that Edward Hyde, or his “doobel-ganger,” as they would say in Scotland, is at work in the East-end of London.

We are, accordingly, amazed that, among their other luminous suggestions, they do not insist on having a close watch put on the ingenious Mr. Mansfield when he leaves the Lyceum on darksome nights.

There are only two facts in favour of the one-man theory.

First, the four murders are of the same order of atrocity; they are committed in the same locality, in accordance with the same original design.

Secondly, the secret of the murderer has been so closely kept that it is difficult to suppose that it could be held by more than one individual.

Richard Mansfield is shown in the dual role of Jekyll and Hyde.
Richard Mansfield As Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. From The illustrated Sporting And Dramatic news, Saturday, 20th October, 1888. Copyright, The British Library Board.


That the murders are alike is not incompatible, however, with the theory that the head of a gang was the planner – nay, perhaps even the perpetrator of them.

Moreover, so long as a common interest binds criminals together for the avoidance of a common danger, they will be true to each other to the death.

It is not till some inducement – either a desire for vengeance or the hope of heavy blood money – strong enough to break this bond – is set before them that each struggles to be the first to sink his fangs in his comrade’s throat.

Here indeed lies the importance of the gang theory.

If that be tenable, we may cherish the hope that the secret will sooner or later be revealed.

Of all the people in the world, co-partners in brutal crimes are the most callous as to each other’s fate.

If it was a gang of assassins who disembowelled the murdered women in Whitechapel, after cutting their throats, we may be sure that they are of that callous brood who have no hesitation about selling each other when they can do so with safety and at a profit.


Very many people at present seem to lean to the gang theory of the Whitechapel murders, and there is one strong argument for and one against it.

The swiftness with which the murder is done, almost under the very noses of the police, the success with which the assassin disappears leaving no trace behind him, indicates a skilful prearrangement and organised vigilance, which could only be the result of combined effort.

The circumstances, too, under which the body of the woman Siffey [at the time Annie Chapman was being referred to in the newspapers as Annie Siffey] was found to indicate that the criminal must have had help in carrying it to the place where it lay.

A portrait of Annie Chapman.
The Hanbury Street Victim, Annie Chapman. From The Illustrated Police News.


On the other hand, the motive for killing poor starving prostitutes seems to be too feeble, if we assume it to be merely blackmailing.

In this world, however, people are not always murdered for money. They may at an unfortunate moment stand in the way of somebody who is on the eve of executing a great crime. They may have come to possess knowledge which makes them dangerous to a criminal gang, or they may have aroused their fury by hinting at betrayal.

Mr. Justice Stephen is reported to have said that it is idle to seek for a murderer’s motives when his victim is a woman.

The fact that she is a woman is enough, for it conjures up an infinite vista of motives.


That poor Nicholls is said by some who knew her to have been an exceptionally good woman of her wretched class, and, therefore, not at all likely to hold fateful secrets or to be mixed up with a “High Rip” gang, does not go for much.

There are strange gaps in her career which nobody who knew her can fill up.

Poverty and vice bring people in contact with very queer characters, and it is just a woman of Nicholls’s type, in whom conscience is not wholly dead, who is too weak to be consistently vicious or virtuous, that is most likely to get entangled in crime, and whose life is not worth an hour’s purchase if she once gets to know secrets that in a moment of remorse she may have hinted at revealing.

However, it would be as idle to speculate on the murderer’s motives as on the chances of his capture. We may tomorrow hear that the latest victim was either like Nicholls or was exactly her opposite.


The detective department of Scotland-yard is just now disorganised by veiled mutiny against the arrogant meddlesomeness of Sir Charles Warren, who has worried its experienced chief into resignation.

We need not, therefore, expect it to grapple very strongly with such a mystery at a time when it is suffering from Sir Charles Warren’s persistent efforts to cripple its efficiency in order to discredit its late chief.


Machiavelli said that he who sets up a tyranny and does not slay Brutus will soon see his despotic system wrecked.

That is the principle which has dominated Sir Charles Warren’s relations to the best and most independent officials of the detective staff at a moment when events have put it on its trial.


But the discovery of crime is not the only function of the police. Its prevention is also part of their duty.

Now the principle on which Sir Charles Warren works in this direction is to concentrate his force in the heart of Westminster, withdrawing them from dangerous quarters like Whitechapel and Marylebone, which he accordingly abandons to the assassin and the rowdy.


Still, we must not grumble.

Sir Charles Warren, if he takes away our police, gives us in exchange for them his patent “alarm posts.”

By means of their telephonic apparatus he hopes that, at all events, the dying groans of the murderer’s victim will be transmitted from Whitechapel to Scotland-yard in time for him to send a police litter to remove the body rapidly to the local dead-house.

It is an achievement of economic genius, this substitution of the post for the policeman – the post that costs us nothing for food, wage, or uniform – at least, no more for uniform than the price of a coat of paint.”