Today’s Events In Whitechapel – 1888

The major story that was being covered in the newspapers on Wednesday the 12th of September, 1888, was that John Piser, the man suspected of being the notorious local character. “Leather Apron”, had been released from police custody.

Sir Charles Warren, who, over the previous few days had been subjected to a barrage of press criticism, enjoyed a brief respite, as papers began turning their wrath on the seeming ineptitude of the Home Secretary, Henry Matthews.

Meanwhile, other newspapers were turning their attention on the social conditions in the area where the murders had occurred, and were beginning to wonder if the Whitechapel atrocities might not have been the result of the moral-laxity of the slum life that had been allowed to deteriorate virtually, unchecked in the area.

A selection of newspaper headlines that appeared on the 12th September, 1888.
Newspaper Headlines From 12th September, 1888. Copyright, The British Library Board.


Apparently, a witness – in whose testimony the police had evidently set great store with regards identifying Pizer as “Leather Apron” – had been so discredited, that the police had no option but to set John Pizer free without charge.

The Pall Mall Gazette explained what had happened in its edition of the 12th September, 1888:-

“The latest reports as to the search for the murderer are not of a hopeful character.

A half-Spaniard and half-Bulgarian, who gave the name of Emanuel Delbast Violenia, waited on the police yesterday.

He stated that he, his wife, and two children tramped from Manchester to London with the view of being able to emigrate to Australia, and took up their abode in one of the lodging-houses in Hanbury-street.

Early last Saturday morning, walking alone along Hanbury-street, he noticed a man and woman quarrelling in a very excited manner.

Violenia distinctly heard the man threaten to kill the woman by sticking a knife into her.

They passed on, and Violenia went to his lodging.

After the murder he communicated what he had seen to the police.

At one o’clock yesterday afternoon, Sergeant Thicke, assisted by Inspector Cansby, placed about a dozen men, the greater portion of whom were Jews, in the yard of the Leman-street police-station.

Pizer was then brought out and was allowed to place himself where he thought proper among the assembled men.

He is a man of short stature, with black whiskers and shaven chin.

Violenia was then brought into the yard.

Having keenly scrutinised all the faces before him, he went up to Pizer and identified him as the man whom he heard threaten a woman on the night of the murder.

Subsequently, cross-examination so discredited Violenia’s evidence that it was wholly distrusted by the police, and Pizer was set at liberty.


No sooner had Pizer been released from police custody than journalists were scrambling to interview the man whose name, over the last few days, had become so indelibly linked with the mysterious and sinister “Leather Apron.”

The Press Association managed to get an exclusive, and the subsequent interview was published in several newspapers nationwide on the 12th September, 1888.

The following version appeared in the Shields Daily Gazette:-

“A Press Association’s representative had an interview this morning with John Piser at 22 Mulberry Street, London.

He was released from Leman Street Police Station about 8.30 last night.

In reply to questions, the ex-prisoner said: Whatever particulars the world at large and the police authorities wish to know as to where I was staying when these atrocious and horrible crimes were committed I am quite willing to give.

I came into this house at a quarter to eleven on Thursday night. I knocked, and my sister opened the door. My sister’s young man was present, and we had some conversation about work.

My sister first went to bed and put the bolt in the latch so that anyone going out afterwards could not get in again.

Front Thursday, until I was arrested I never left the house, except to go into the yard. I was seen several times in the yard by a neighbour.

A sketch of John Pizer
John Pizer


On Monday morning Sergeant Thicke came.

I opened the door.

He said I was wanted, and I asked what for?

He replied, “You know what for. You will have to come with me.”

I said, “Very well; I will go with the greatest of pleasure.”

The officer said,  “You know you are Leather Apron,” or words to that effect.

Up to that moment I did not know I was called by that name. I have been in the habit of wearing an apron in coming from my employment, but not recently.

A portrait of Sergeant Thicke.
Detective Sergeant Thicke. From The Illustrated Police news, 22nd September, 1888.


When I arrived at the police station I was searched.

They took everything from me, according to custom as I suppose.

They found nothing that could incriminate me, thank God! or connect me with the crime that I have been, unfortunately, suspected of.

I know of no crime and my character will bear the strictest investigation.

I am generally here, but occasionally I stay at a lodging house, but not in Dorset Street.


Before coming here, on Thursday, I was at Holloway.

Last Sunday week I was accosted in Church Street by two females unknown to me.

One of them asked me if I was the man, referring presumably to the Buck’s Row murder.

I said “God forbid, my good woman.”

A man then asked me to treat him to beer.

I walked on.

I do not know Mrs. Fiddyman’s public-house, and I was ignorant of such a name as Mrs Siffy until it was published. I don’t know the woman.


Yesterday a man came to Leman Street Station, and, at the request of the police, I went out into the yard.

A stalwart man of negro caste, whom I knew to be a boot finisher, placed his hand upon my shoulder.

I said I don’t know you, you are mistaken.

His statement was that he saw me threaten a woman in Hanbury Street, and that is completely false.

I can give a full account of my whereabouts.

I shall see if I cannot legally proceed against those who have made the statements about me.


The charges against me have quite broken my spirits and I fear I shall have to place myself under medical treatment.

The Press Association’s representative adds:- Piser is a man of medium height, with a moustache and whiskers.

For a man of his class he displays more than the ordinary amount of intelligence.

He was perfectly at ease when making his statement and more than once appealed to his father for confirmation of his story.”


Several newspapers were turning their opprobrium away from the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Charles Warren, and were directing it, instead, at the Home Secretary, Henry Matthews.

Quoting the Daily Telegraph, the St James’s Gazette reported that:-

“The Daily Telegraph declares that it cannot shrink from the painful but imperatively necessary task of warning Lord Salisbury that the public are altogether discontented with, and will soon become uncontrollably impatient of, the presence at the Home Office of Mr. Matthews.

It must be explained that Sir Charles Warren is only Prefect of Police; the head police functionary of the kingdom, is Mr. Matthews.

The fact can be no longer disguised that the Home Secretary now in office is a source of miserable weakness and discredit to the present Administration.

In the House of Commons he has been nothing more nor less than a fantastic failure.

In the provinces he is scarcely known even by name; and when the provincials do become aware of him it is only to mistrust him and to express disrespectful and indignant astonishment that a Government, otherwise so capable and so popular, should drag with it a dead weight of so much vacillation, so much ineptitude, and so many frankly naive confessions of crass ignorance concerning things of which the most commonplace Home Secretary ought to be fully cognisant.

That Mr. Matthews does not know, that he is not aware, that he does not remember, or that he has not heard of things which to a ordinarily intelligent man should be as manifest as the sun at noonday, have been session after session stereotyped replies of the Home Secretary to the simplest questions.

Very likely Mr. Matthews is, in many respects, an excellent gentleman; but it is high time for him to go and excel somewhere else and in some other department than the Home Office.

The attributes of the Secretary of State do not, of course, warrant him in crippling the action, either administrative or executive, of the Chief Commissioner of Police; but he should undeniably be the ruling counsellor, the supreme arbiter, the Caesar to whom every department of the force should be able to appeal.”

A portrait of Henry Matthews.
The Home Secretary, Henry Matthews. From The Illustrated London News, 14th August, 1886. Copyright, The British Library Board.


Meanwhile, The Morning Post was focusing its attention on the conditions in the area where the Whitechapel murders had occurred

“The veil has been drawn aside that covered up the hideous condition in which thousands, tens of thousands, of our fellow-creatures live, in this boasted nineteenth century, and in the very heart of the wealthiest, the healthiest, the most civilised city in the world.

We have all known for many years that deplorable misery, gross crime, and unspeakable vice – mixed and matted together – lie just off the main roads that lead through the industrial quarters of the metropolis.

The daily sins, the nightly agonies, the hourly sorrows that haunt and poison and corrupt the ill-fated tenants and sojourners in these homes of degradation and disease have been again and again described with more or less truth and force by our popular writers; but it is when some crime or accident, more than usually horrible, has given vividness and reality to the previously unrealised picture, that we are brought to feel – what our keenest powers failed adequately to conceive before – how parts of our great capital are honeycombed with cells, hidden from the light of day, where men are brutalized, women are demonized, and children are brought into the world only to be inoculated with corruption, reared in terror, and trained in sin, till punishment and shame overtake them too, and thrust them down to the black depths where their parents lie already lost, or dead to every hope or chance of moral recovery and social rescue.

Then comes a terrible crime, bringing a revelation that fills every soul with horror, and makes us ask why sleeps the thunder, and how these things can be?


The answer is in the facts disclosed.

Take the latest as a sample of the rest. A wretched back street is crowded with houses of the most miserable class. Nearly all of them are let out in lodgings, of a single room, or part of a room.  The house where the murder was committed had no less than six families, all toilers for daily bread, some of questionable honesty or sobriety, and all, we may be sure, contaminated in greater or less degree by the vicious surroundings of their distressful home.

Loose women have as free run in these abodes as rabbits in a warren. There is a continual coming and going. Precepts of decency are not observed, the standard of propriety is low, the whole moral atmosphere is pestilential.

Poverty in its direst form haunts some dwellings, ghastly profligacy defiles others, and this in street after street, alley after alley, cul de sac after cul de sac, garret after garret, and cellar after cellar.

Amid such gross surroundings who can be good?

With this atrocious miasma continually brooding over them and settling clown among them, who can rise to anything better. Morally these people are not only lost – they are dead and buried.

A sketch showing the site of the murder of Annie Chapman.
The murder site


This is the part of the subject that clamours for immediate consideration, these are miseries that need immediate remedy, these are the lamentable conditions of human existence, which may well tax the wisest counsels and the most philanthropic consideration of the best men and women of the day.

Side by side with all the luxury, the case, the magnificence, and abounding plenty of our vast metropolis, are all these pitiable ground-down people bowed with misery, and steeped in crime.

Happily there are here and there, like far off stars in darkest nights, exceptional instances of honesty.

What can be done?

How shall the help, the sympathy, the succour of the better circumstanced, the wealthy, and the well-to-do, be brought to hear with sweet reclaiming power among these lost ones


It is not so much the truncheon of the policemen that is wanted as the wand, magical in its power and healing in its touch, of higher moral ministries – some centres at intervals in their very midst where the gentle ministrations of Christian love shall never be sought by the weary and heavy laden in vain, where the veriest outcast may knock and feel that there at least are pitying hearts and open hands, the instruments of God in the recovery of man.

We take into the reckoning all that is being nobly done for the wretched people, but what we want to urge is that it is not half enough.

The saddening sight of pent-up misery which the recent four murders disclose confirm our complaint, that the better off classes have not yet risen to the height of self-denial and charity which the hardness of the lot of these close-packed, hard-working, much-suffering poor require to enable them to break through the fetters that bind them down and gall their necks till they arc fain to let things drift, while they, like Lazarus in his grave, are without the wish or power to rise to anything better.”