Why Detectives Don’t Detect

On Monday 8th October 1888, with the Jack the Ripper murders generating huge amounts of newspaper coverage the World over, and people of the East End of London despairing that the police had any hope of catching the perpetrator of the Whitechapel Murders,  The Pall Mall Gazette published an article that carried the headline:- “THE HEADLESS C.I.D.”


The subsequent article went on to explain how:-

“The eyes of the world are upon London. There is not a capital in the civilized world where men do not read every morning in the papers about “the London murders.”

Opining that, “they do not understand Whitechapel abroad,” the article went on to report that :-

“Every day, all around this planet, when the sun wakes up people in the morning, one of the first things they ask is whether or not the police have caught the London murderer.

All kinds of explanations, excuses, apologies, are made for the failure – a failure which seems to some extent to reflect upon civilization itself, of the London police to discover the mysterious murderer, who seems to come and go and murder as he passes, with an impunity only less marvellous than the uninterrupted leisure he possesses for the mutilation of his victims.”


London, so the article continued, might be the greatest city in the world:-

“Yet her detectives are at fault, utterly and apparently, hopelessly, at fault, because of this, because of that, because of the other, for there are as many explanations as there are explainers.

It does not seem to have occurred to any one to suggest the very obvious and simple explanation, that the detectives may have failed because the Criminal Investigation Department to which they belong has no longer a head.”


The article then went on to give the background to how the detective department had found itself in the situation of being effectively leaderless, commenting that internal disputes had for some time past paralyzed the efficiency of the Metropolitan police and had come to a head just as the Whitehcapel Murders had got underway, and had, effectively, “decapitated the Criminal Investigation Department.”

A Photograph of james Monro
James Monro

James Monro, who had been the head of the Detective department for the previous four years, had found his position untenable and had resigned his position, his resignation becoming effective on August 31st 1888, the same day on which Mary Nichols, the first victim of Jack the Ripper, had been murdered.


He had been succeeded by Dr. Robert Anderson but, as the article pointed out:- “although Dr. Anderson is nominally at the head of the C.I.D. he is only there in spirit.”

In fact Anderson had come to is post suffering from exhaustion, and his doctor had insisted that he take a recuperative break. So, no sooner had he taken up office, than he packed his bags and headed for Switzerland.


The Pall Mall Gazette could barely contain its indignation at this turn of events, and commented contemptuously on the elusive head  of the Metropolitan Police’s Detective Department:-

“At a time when all the world is ringing with outcries against the officials who allow murder to stalk unchecked through the most densely crowded quarter of the metropolis, the chief official who is responsible for the detection of the murderer is as invisible to Londoners as the murderer himself.

You may seek for Dr. Anderson in Scotland-yard, you may look for him in Whitehall-place, but you will not find him, for he is not there.

Dr. Anderson, with all the arduous duties of his office still to learn, is preparing himself for his apprenticeship by taking a pleasant holiday in Switzerland! No one grudges him this holiday. But just at present it does strike the uninstructed observer as a trifle off that the chief of London’s intelligence department in the battle, the losing battle which the police are waging against crime, should find it possible to be idling in the Alps.”

Although Chief Superintendent Adolphus “Dolly” Williamson was, in theory at least, in charge, the Gazette was wary that his advanced years made him up to the task of adequately commanding the detectives as they hunted for Jack the Ripper, and duly commented that:-

“There seems to be a strange fatuity about Scotland-yard, by which its veterans are always thrust to the front in great emergencies which call for the energies of youth…Two years ago Mr. Williamson was described in these columns as “one of the veterans of the service, under whose grey hairs are stowed the fruits of nearly half a century of experience. Faithful, diligent, and unsparing, Mr. Williamson was on the track of crime before the majority of Londoners of the present generation were born.” Mr. Williamson has not grown younger since these lines were written.

The exact date when he joined the force is lost in the mists of antiquity. He is a kind of Melchizedec of Scotland-yard, and may probably claim with justice to be the grandfather of the force. His second in command, Mr. Shore, a rough diamond from Gloucestershire, would have been a useful inspector where rough work is required to be done by a vigorous instrument; but even Mr. Williamson himself, amiable and generous though he is, must often marvel at the irony of circumstances which give him so strange an assistant.”


The article then went on to mention how a comment, made by a Whitechapel costermonger, that, “The police can’t find nothink,” was “unduly severe,” observing that “Even a bloodhound must have a trail, and the detective cannot be blamed for failure when he has no clue.”

However, the detective service was, so the article continued, hampered by rules and regulations that, whilst being intended to increase the efficiency of the detectives, were, in fact, having the opposite effect.


One problem, so the article assured it readers was that only men could join the department, “No woman is tolerated at the Criminal Investigation Department. It is exclusively male, except in the Convict Supervision Branch. Only men are supposed to be able to detect crime.”

There was also the fact that their was a minimum height requirement of 5 foot nine inches with the result that:- “There is no room for clever little ferrets of men among the London detectives.


A further problem, as far as the article was concerned, was that:-

“in a service, the efficiency of which depends upon its secrecy and the ability of its members to move unknown among the criminal classes, is that which forbids any one to be a detective who has not been on show, as it were, in a policeman’s uniform, moving up and down eight hours a day, thirteen days every fortnight for three long years in the presence of the criminal classes.

By the end of that time, when it may be supposed every habitual thief and receiver of stolen goods in London knows his face and voice, he is allowed to become a detective. These three years also, it is reckoned, stamp upon him ineffaceably the image and superscription of Scotland-yard.

He acquires the gait, the manners, and the little character-betraying habits of the constable; so that he can be identified at a glance by any experienced cracksman.

In Paris there exists a school for the training of detectives. This is unnecessary in London. Three years in regulating traffic, in patrolling duty, and in crying “Pass along gentlemen; pass along,” amply furnishes forth the average countryman who enters the force with the shrewdness and capacity necessary for hunting down the vermin of society who possess the cunning of the fox and the nimbleness of the rat.”


The article then pointed out that, once an officer had joined the Criminal Investigation Department, his had to battle not just the criminal but he also had to face a far more annoying daily struggle against the red-tape regulations foisted on him by the Chief Commissioner and the Receiver who, between them, “do their best to reduce him to a condition of motionless paralysis.”


The aforementioned Chief Commissioner was, of course, Sir Charles Warren, and The Pall Mall Gazette’s editor, W. T Stead, had never been a fan of a man whom he perceived as an autocratic authoritarian, who had “centralized all power in his own person,” making it all but impossible for the detectives under him to show an individual initiative.

“Before a detective can be sent…into the country”, so the article assured its readers, “the Chief Commissioner must be satisfied that it is necessary, and that the expenditure is justifiable.”

But even managing to make the request in the first place was a herculean task since, as the article explained:-

“The Chief Commissioner is usually busy, and often preoccupied, [so] the detective will often be unable to get permission until after the train has started. If this leads to the escape of a criminal, it has compensation in preventing the diminution of the detective force in London; and of course it keeps down expenses.

Then, again, the detective must be of a frugal mind. If he sees that a timely gift of a sovereign would enable him to land a murderer, he must not spend it unless the sanction of the Home Office has been first previously obtained. It is true that days may pass before the sanction is obtained, and that in the meantime the chance of capture may disappear.

These are but small things. The chief end of a detective is not to detect criminals, but to abide by the regulations. If he spends a sixpence in excess of his allowance, he is worried, surcharged, and in every way taught the lesson that he had better let any chance slip rather than get out of the official groove.”


“Under these circumstances”, so the article concluded, “it is not very surprising that our detectives do not detect. Detection of crime under these conditions resembles a game of blind man’s buff, in which the detective, with his hands tied and his eyes bandaged with red tape, is turned loose to hunt a murderer through the slums of this great city.”