What could possibly have induced somebody to carry out a series of such gruesomely brutal and apparently motiveless murders as the Whitechapel atrocities?
This was the question that was being posed in the newspapers in mid-September 1888.
By this time, the killer – who would, within a month, become known as “Jack the Ripper” – had, so the general consensus at the time was – claimed the lives of four women, the most recent being that of Annie Chapman whose horribly mutilated body had been discovered in the backyard of number 29 Hanbury Street, Spitalfields, on the 8th of September, 1888.
In the case of Annie Chapman, it was common knowledge that the miscreant had actually taken away a part of her body – we know today that this was the womb, albeit many newspapers at the time withheld this information for fear of offending the sensibilities of their already shocked readers.
THE TWISTED MIND OF THE MURDERER
Newspaper journalists struggled to understand the motives that could have inspired such a gross act, and many of them decided that even the fiction of the master of the macabre, Edgar Allan Poe could not come close to matching the sick and twisted mind of the Whitechapel murderer.
Many journalists were also questioning whether the press may have played a part in inspiring the perpetrator by publishing vivid and graphic descriptions of the injuries suffered by the victims in the East End of London, and of other crimes that they were publishing details of in order to try and find a precedent in barbarity that might equal the mindless savagery that was being demonstrated in the Whitechapel murders.
One newspaper that had enjoyed a great deal of success from publishing graphic images of the victims thus far was The Illustrated Police News, which had treated its readers to ever more morbid depictions of miscreants handiwork, and which had benefited from increased sales as a result.
THE PANDEMONIUM OF POSTERS
Questions were also being asked as to whether the violence that was being depicted on the stages of London’s theatres and the graphic posters that were being used to advertise these plays, might also have played a part in influencing the unknown miscreant who was terrorising the streets of East London.
One famous image that made this point was the cartoon that appeared in Punch magazine on October the 13th, 1888.
Under the headline “Horrible London; Or, The Pandemonium of Posters” the cartoonist depicted a leering and furtive devil sticking a poster onto a wall on which other graphic depictions of murder and violence had also been stuck.
DOES VIOLENCE BEGET VIOLENCE?
On Monday September 10th, 1888, The Shields Daily Gazette And Shipping Telegraph published the following article, which compared the murders to the works of Poe, and which then went on to pose the question, was the murderer reading what was being said about him in the London papers, and was this then inspiring him to increase the ferocity of the mutilations he was inflicting on the bodies of his victims?
The article ended by wondering something that is still being wondered about today – does violence in the media (in this case on the London stage) lead to violence in real life?
THE WEIRDNESS OF THE MURDERS
The article read:-
“It would have seemed hitherto as if no possible murder could be accompanied by such circumstances of mystery and horror as those by which the genius of Edgar Allan Poe surrounded the murders in the Rue Morgue.
So far as concerns what is usually spoken of as “weirdness,” that is to say, that mixture of the horrible and mysterious which “makes the flesh creep,” Poe appeared to leave nothing further either to be discovered or imagined.
Yet, in the Whitechapel murders, there is something which transcends the dark imagination of even this great master of the weird and the appalling.
THE MOST FRIGHTFUL OF ALL PASSIONS
In the most densely populated district in the world, in the most restless portion of a city which can scarcely be said to go to sleep, in streets where at no hour out of the twenty-four can there be perfect loneliness, or silence unbroken by some human tread, some fiend, with, apparently, no motive but the thirst for blood and an inhuman delight in the horrible, is glutting the most frightful of all passions by repeated murders of miserable women, and is surrounding each new crime by worse brutalities than accompanied the last.
Yet amid all this vast agglomeration of humanity, in spite of a police and detective system which has its equal only in one other country of Europe, the murderer not only contrives to keep himself concealed, but, apparently, unsuspected, disappearing like some bodiless creature, leaving his victims to strike horror through a population no member of which can feel safe from the assassin’s knife.
We have spoken as if only one murderer is concerned. This seems evident on the face of things. In murders which are jointly committed there must always be a different motive to that which has evidently inspired these atrocities in Whitechapel.
ONE MAN RESPONSIBLE
Indeed, if an inscription written in chalk on a wall in the neighbourhood of the tragedies is to be trusted, the fact that the murders have been committed by one hand is placed beyond doubt. “Five,” says this inscription; “fifteen more, and I shall give myself up.”
This may be no more than a trick played by some one who has had no part in these horrible events, for it is unfortunately the case that the baser elements of human nature are capable of practical jokes even under circumstances like these.
The police are almost certainly right, however, in considering that they have only one criminal to discover.
MAYBE NOT A MADMAN
They go upon less safe ground when they consider this criminal to be a madman.
It will in no degree be a surprise to us should he eventually prove to be a person of quick intelligence, of at least moderate cultivation, and of mind quite sound in all other respects than as to his vanity and an excess of that wild beast instinct which, as some speculators on human nature assure us, resides in us all.
DOES HE READ THE PAPERS?
There is in the last of this horrible series of murders some decided indication that the murderer reads all that is said concerning him in the London newspapers.
What seems to be a striking proof of this was given in these columns on Saturday last.
In Friday’s Pall Mall Gazette Mr. William Westall described some murders which took place four years ago in Bavaria. The murderer, he said, had disembowelled his victims and taken out their hearts.
Now, in the last of the Whitechapel murders, committed within some few hours after the article in the Pall Mall Gazette appeared, the murderer seems to have acted upon the hint so conveyed. His mutilation of his victim is really too horrible to describe, but in its incidents it is singularly like the mutilations perpetrated by the Bavarian murderer.
A DEHUMANISED CREATURE
It is impossible to conceal from ourselves the fact that the influences which are at present predominant in literature and on the stage are just such influences as might be expected to produce such a dehumanised creature as the author of the murders in Whitechapel. The authors of novels and the writers of plays are competing with each other in a contest of horror.
Mere “sensationalism” used to be left to the lower practitioners of the novelist’s art.
Miss Braddon was for many years ranked as an inferior writer of fiction because murder was usually the central motive of her stories.
We have lived into the day when Miss Braddon’s fiction seems to be of a very mild and inoffensive type, and when the pages of the most acceptable novelists positively reek with gore.
THE LONDON POSTERS
Even those who read little, but keep their eyes open to what surrounds them, may perceive from the picture bills upon the hoardings what it is that is sought after by the public, and is provided in immeasurable quantities by dramatists and the writers of fiction, in these days in which we live.
In one huge coloured poster a criminal is murdering his gaoler with the butt end of his gun; in another, a well-dressed man with a smoking pistol in his hand is standing over another man whom he has shot.
The same horrible theme is infinitely repeated, with variations.
What stares everyone in the face is the evident conviction on the part of dramatists and the producers of plays that what is attractive to the public is some scene of frightful violence, and that they will fill their theatres if they can only produce a poster more horrible than the last.
All this must, of course, have its evil influences.
It is possible to imagine a man striving to outdo even the worst of the coloured posters; and it will not be at all surprising if it should prove that the Whitechapel murderer has been inspired somehow after this fashion.”