Will-Of-The-Wisp Theories

In the wake of the Jack the Ripper atrocities in Berner Street and Mitre Square – the murders of Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes – The Illustrated London News, on October 13th 1888published an article which began with a brief mention of J.E.P Muddock’s The Man -Hunter, a story about the fictional detective Dick Donovan.

The article then went on to make the point that fictional detectives might, eventually, solve the crime they are investigating, but real detectives – with regard to the Whitechapel murders – had a much harder nut to crack.

The article, on the whole, is less critical of the Metropolitan Police than articles that were, at the time, appearing in the likes of The Pall Mall Gazette and The Star.

It also highlights the fact that the latest murders, which had taken place in the early hours of the 30th of September 1888, had led many well-heeled Victorians to head for the East End of London to visit the murder sites, so much so that the police at Aldgate were, apparently, acting as tour guides, and were directing visitors to the sites!

There was also a mention of the suggestions that bloodhounds might be deployed onto the streets of Whitechapel and Spitalfields, with a view to tracing the scent of the perpetrator.

Finally, the article features some of the theories that were being bandied about as to the identity and the motive of the murderer. The majority of those theories, so the article claimed, were little more than “Will-of-the-wisp” theories” – a delightful term that could be applied to so many of the theories regarding suspects that have come out in the 129 years since the murders occurred.

Here is the article in full:-


“The “Man Hunter” is a story-book which should in these days, when we are all man (or monster) hunting, have a phenomenal circulation.

It purports to narrate the actual experience of a police detective, and is rather a good book of its kind; but as one reads about the hard nuts he had to crack, it cannot but strike one how very much harder is this terrible nut in Whitechapel.

I am not one of those who cry shame upon the police because they have failed to discover what half the intelligence (and all the folly) of London has failed to disclose.

By the time these words are read it is possible that the mystery may be solved, and at least one-tenth of one’s acquaintance will he telling us how they had predicted and even written (private) letters to the Home Office about it, from the very first; but, at present, even the most keen-sighted of us are all in the dark, and yet we expect that our policemen should know all about it as though the darkness were physical, and they must needs throw light upon it because they carry a lantern.

For my part, I have reason to be impressed with the sagacity of the force with respect to this very matter.


On the day after the last massacre, a friend and myself agreed to visit its scenes; such expeditions arc not at all in our line, and I may say without vanity that though one individual may perhaps be discovered (in episcopal costume) as respectable-looking as either of us, there are not two persons in the world who, together, could be pronounced more respectable, or less likely to be found on any such errand.

Yet this is what happened.

Having taken a ticket by the Underground to Aldgate, we inquired of a police inspector on the platform whether the next train went thither – that and nothing more; and this is what he replied:- “Yes, gentlemen; and when you get there you will turn to the right for Mitre-square, and to the left along the Commercial-road for Berner-street.”

Mr. Herbert Spencer himself could not have exhibited a greater talent for mental analysis; it would have been unnecessary (in the ridiculous supposition of either of us having been “disorderly”) for that Inspector to have drawn his truncheon; he might have knocked both of us down with a feather.

What adds a grain of disgust to the mountain of horror excited by these crimes, is that, even if the wretch be caught, he will be probably found to be mad, and therefore will cheat the gallows. (If not mad, by-the-by, I wonder what the anti-punishment-of-death gentlemen will say to him? It will be rather a crucial test of “abolitionist” opinion.)

A view of the corner of Mitre Square where Catherine Eddowes body was found.
Murder Corner, The Scene of Catherine Eddowes Murder.


Curiously enough, in the only case that can be said to be any sort of parallel to it, that of Renwick Williams (nicknamed “The Monster” [this is a reference to a case that had caused much alarm in London in the 1790’s when a large man was reportedly following women in the streets and then stabbing them. In 1790 23-year-old Rhynwick Williams was arrested for the crimes and, after a retrial, owing to the unreliability of several witnesses, he was eventually sentenced to six years in prison]), the criminal also escaped justice. He went about with a large knife slashing women – not only, however, in poor neighbourhoods like Whitechapel – and produced a panic in the whole sex.

Being at last caught in the very act, in St. James’s-street, he was tried on a number of charges; but, though capitally convicted, only suffered, for reasons best known to Father Antic the Law, two years’ imprisonment for three of them.


It is said that when the need for leadership, whether intellectual or otherwise, arises, the leader appears with it – that when the hour comes we always find the man; but in this case we have certainly not found the man.

It must also be admitted that no one has, as yet, shown himself “keen to track Suggestion to her inmost cell” in the attempt to find him.

On the other hand, what is wanting in quality has been amply made up in quantity; never were there so many suggestions to “the proper quarter,” nor such wild ones.

Occurrences which seize the public imagination, as was seen in the Tichborne trial, prove, perhaps more than anything else, Carlyle’s famous dictum as to what our population is “mostly” composed of [This is a reference to an essay by Thomas Carlyle (1795 – 1881) which had appeared in The Edinburgh Review in December 1831. You can read the full article here.]


In a single day’s voluntary contributions towards the solution of this mystery I notice no less than twenty theories, all of which might have emanated from Colney Hatch.

The general impression seems to be that the murderer is a high-class religious enthusiast – of course it may be so; but I hope he will not, as usual, found a sect – and the most popular remedy is the employment of bloodhounds.

Imagine a bloodhound, starting on this inquiry a week after the event, restrained with difficulty by two policemen, and followed and surrounded by certainly not less than twenty thousand persons attracted by that gratuitous spectacle!

We must go to poetry – “The Questing Beast” – for a parallel to that sanguine and persevering animal.

One gentleman writes:-

“I have seen bloodhounds, not remarkable for hunting powers, carry scent up Regent-street and Portland-place, in the early morning, in either ’81 or ’82.”

This is, to me, as great a mystery as the murders.

What does it mean?

How did they “carry scent”?

In scent-bottles, perhaps, round their necks, as the St. Bernard dogs carry brandy.


Another writes that bloodhounds are not necessary; “bassets and dachshunds, from Germany, would be equally efficacious.”

This I quite believe, even though I have been hitherto under the impression that a basset was a fish.

If it be so, they might hunt in couples – the dachshund on the pavement and the basset in the gutter.


“The error is,” observes this correspondent, “that scent is necessarily a foot scent. . . . It depends more on the will-of-the-wisp scent than the hounds.”

This, again, is entirely beyond my limited intelligence; but the writer has hit upon a good name for his own as well as the other theories.

They are all will-of-the-wisps, leading us, if they emit light at all, upon a fruitless errand.”