What Are The Police Doing

In the immediate aftermath of the murders of Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes, the police – or, to be specific, the Metropolitan Police – came in for an awful lot of criticism owing to their seeming inability to bring the perpetrator of the Whitechapel murders to justice.

However, in view of the nature of the hunt they were conducting, much of that criticism was undeserved.

They were, after all, hunting a killer who was, probably, unknown to his victims before they met him in the moments leading up to their murders. They were trying to track him through one of Victorian London’s most densely populated districts, in which many of the backstreets were unlit at night. And, crucially, the murderer had left them no clues at the scenes of his crimes that they could follow up.

In short, the police were attempting to hunt their quarry, quite literally, in the dark.

But they were, in fact, going to extraordinary lengths to catch him – a fact that, sadly, didn’t – and doesn’t – get mentioned that often by commentators on the case.


In early October 1888, several newspapers published an article that put the police endeavours to catch the murderer under the spotlight.

Evidently, the story originated with The Star newspaper; but it was syndicated and, therefore, it appeared in newspapers the length and the breadth of the country almost simultaneously.

But is interesting in that it gives us an insight into exactly what methods of investigation and lines of enquiry the Victorian police were employing in the weeks that followed the 30th September 1888 murders of Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes.

It also lays to rest a few common myths and inaccuracies about the police activity; and dispels once and for all the, oft quoted misconception that the police were, effectively, going around blindfolded as they looked for the killer.

The Punch Cartoon Blind Mans Buff showing a blind-folded police officer being taunted by criminals.
Blind Man’s Buff


This version of the story appeared in The Cornish Telegraph on Thursday 11th October 1888.

The article, which began with the above headline, went on to report that:-

“The failure of the police to discover the Whitechapel murderer is certainly not due to inactivity.

No one who has had occasion to visit the police offices whence the investigations are being conducted can escape the impression that everybody is on the move, and it is probably a fact that very few of the chief officials and detectives have had their regular rest since Sunday morning.

One hears no complaint against the demand for extra duty, except in places where the pressure is unevenly applied, for the police are individually more interested in the capture of the murderer than anyone else.”


The murder of Catherine Eddowes, which had taken place in Mitre Square, which was – and is – in the City of London, meant that a second police force had now become actively involved in the hunt for the murderer.

The article dispels one of the most commonly propagated and inaccurate myths about the hunt for Jack the Ripper; that one of the reasons he was able to evade capture was because there was friction between the two forces and they were unwilling to pool their resources in order to bring him to justice.

Regarding the involvement of the City of London Police, and the relationship between the two forces, the article had this to say:-

“The City police, though there has been but one of the series of murders committed within their bailiwick, are no less active in their exertions than the metropolitan, and it is a mistake to suppose that there in too much friction between the two organisations for them to pool issues in this matter.

Each office pursues its work after its own methods, but there is a constant interchange of information, and constant comparison of views on points affecting more than one case.”


The article then gave details of the direction that the police investigation was taking around this time; and, on reading what they were doing, you begin to get an impression of the herculean task they had been forced to undertake in their endeavours to bring the perpetrator of the crimes to justice.

Firstly, so the article informed its readers, they had undertaken a thorough – and no doubt unenviable – search of the Whitechapel slaughterhouses:-

“In conversation with different officials a Star reporter has gathered some interesting facts as to the amount of work the police are doing.

One prominent feature is in connection with the slaughterhouses.

It appears that the investigation of these establishments has been most thorough.

Every one in the whole East-end district, and some others, have practically been turned inside out.

The proprietors and managers have, in most cases, heartily co-operated with the police, and every employee has been personally “pumped.”

Each man has been called upon to give an account of himself and his whereabouts, not only on Saturday night, but during the entire period over which the series of crimes extends.

Every peculiar circumstance is made note of, and no one to whom the slightest suspicion attaches is lost sight of until the suspicion is completely allayed.

Nor has the man’s own word been accepted as conclusive.

Each man has been asked if he knows of any one who has not been regular at his work or has played tricks on the timekeeper, for the time-book in each establishment plays an important part in the investigation.”


Interestingly, the article also mentioned that the police were making handwriting comparisons. This suggests that, as this particular search was being conducted, they still suspected that the Whitechapel murderer and the author of the Dear Boss letter might be one and the same person.

As the article put it:-

“More than all this, in some cases, all men who can write have been called upon to make a statement in writing and sign their names, so that any possible question of handwriting may be more easily compared.”


There were still strong suspicions that the perpetrator of the crimes might well be going to ground in one of the common lodging houses, and so these establishments were the next locations to feel the full force of the police search.

In addition, the article also mentioned the fact that undercover detectives were mingling with the tenants of the lodging houses in the hope they might pick up some information on the perpetrator of the crimes.

As the article went on to say:-

“The same thoroughness has characterised what has been done in the lodging houses.

Deputies were required to make a showing of all their regular lodgers, point out their habits, their peculiarities, and their associates, and to furnish descriptions of all casual visitors who had attracted special attention.

Frequenters of lodging-houses have been interviewed by hundreds, and detectives have been scattered all over the district disguised as men down on their luck in the hope of their picking up some information.”

A group of men standing in front of a Common Lodging House.
A Group of Men Outside A Common Lodging House.


However, despite the fact that the police were looking into the lodging houses, it also seems that they didn’t hold a great deal of hope that this line of enquiry would yield the identity of the Whitechapel murderer.

Indeed, the article suggested that, were he to be a frequenter of such a place, the residents themselves would give him up to the police, as the victims themselves were being seen as members of their community:-

“But the police have pretty well made up their minds that the man they want is not to be found through the lodging house channel.

The fact that so many victims were themselves frequenters of these caravanseries has quickened the instinct, and aroused the spirit of the class, and it would be almost impossible for a murderer to be in their midst without someone giving him away.”


The police, so the article then went on to inform its readers, were also conducting enquiries at the East End Hospitals, albeit patient confidentiality and professional courtesy appeared to be hindering this line of enquiry:-

“…The police have not always found the hospital authorities too eager to assist them.

The ethics of medical etiquette appear to stand in the way of full and free investigation, among medical students at least, for they are slow to tell what they know or suspect when it may affect one of their number.”


Next, the article gave details of the sheer amount of manpower that was being devoted to the case:-

“One police inspector told the Star man that he supposed there were over a hundred men who were being individually shadowed in his district alone, and if the same system is in vogue all over the East-end the number of detectives on the job must be something enormous.

There is not a vacant building in the East that has not been thoroughly searched lest it might afford a hiding-place for the murderer; and in at least two instances the drain-pipes have been taken up for a long distance where suspicious matter was thought to have been deposited.”


At this time, there was a growing groundswell of opinion in the district that the murderer might have been one of the sailors from one of the numerous ships that sailed in to and out of the London Docks.

Investigations were also being carried out at the workhouses, and the prison authorities had, apparently, been put on alert.

To that end, the article reported, the police had also focused attention on these locations:-

“Every vessel that has left the harbour since the hour of the commission of the last crime has been thoroughly overhauled, the workhouses have been visited for the examination of all new inmates, and even the prison authorities have been enlisted in the cause for the sake of keeping a close eye on prisoners who may have been glad to get put away for a time for trivial offences.”


Apparently, the police were also drafting in ordinary citizens to swell their ranks and these “amateur policemen” were, so the article reported, being attired in such a way as to make it impossible for the perpetrator to hear their approach should he endeavour to strike again:-

“It is estimated, roughly speaking, that there are at least 500 men engaged in these investigations who are not police officers, but who are directly instructed by the police officials.

Under the supervision of the local vigilance committee, upwards of a score of citizen detectives went out on duty at twelve o’clock on Thursday night.

The locality is divided into “beats,” and by prearrangement those who have undertaken the assistance of the regular police meet periodically at central points during the night to report themselves.

Noiseless boots, as from time to time suggested for the force, have been provided for the amateur policemen.”


It is easy to believe from some of the newspaper reports of the time, that the police were thrashing about in the dark in the aftermath of the murders of Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes, and that their efforts to catch Jack the Ripper bordered on the farcical.

Yet, as this article demonstrates, not only were the police doing a great deal, they were also drafting in local residents to ensure that the streets were adequately patrolled by night.

They might not have caught the murderer, but they may well have discouraged him as, it is worth noting, that not one murder took place in the district during October 1888.