Other articles by John C. Sherwood


Arcanum | Auctions | Bookstore
Index | Mysterium | Overview | Portal
Programs | Sanctum | Writings

MysteryVisits presents:
The Police, the Poor, the Press and the Ripper

Or, Jack the Ripper Considered as a Media Event
By John C. Sherwood

Text copyright 1992-2009 by MysteryVisits.com, West Grove, PA

[Instructions for access to the complete text of this article appear below.]

Jack the Ripper must be put in his proper place.

Europe has known many brutal mass-murderers outside of war. The slayings by the family of Scotland's Sawney Bean in the 15th century and the murders by Elizabeth Bathory in the 17th century; mass killings such as those by Marie de Brinvilliers, Andreas Bichel and others; and the activities of various cults, including the Thuggee, are well known to students of crime.

However, Jack the Ripper was the first memorable killer of modern urban British history and now is part of Western folklore. That is largely because his/her/their identity continues to be enigmatic, despite the various claims made here and there that the mystery of the Ripper's identity has, once and for all, been "solve." That argument we will leave to others.

Here, we will explore another aspect of the vicious Whitechapel prostitute slayings of 1888, because those events bear a second historical distinction.

As far as the evidence indicates, the Ripper was the first "serial killer" to help the press advertise his episodic exploits, even as the press assisted him in his efforts to taunt the police via the continual reminder of their failures.

We're using the term "Ripper" to represent the unknown individual or individuals who, for reasons unknown, killed and mutilated at least five -- and possibly as many as eight or even more -- poor women chiefly in London's East End. We don't intend to focus on the crimes but on the response by the police and the press, dealing primarily with the five officially recognized Ripper murders.

These crimes were covered extensively in many publications. However, the Times exemplified the middle-class viewpoint. Its treatment of the news reflected the views and conditions of affected groups and institutions, as well as the structures pervasive in Victorian England.

The reporting of those crimes served as an agent of changing attitudes toward the police and the poor -- changes that reflected the societal fairness of the middle class, as well as its deeply rooted fears.

Crime transformed into theater
Horrific multiple murders had occurred in the East End in 1811 and 1828 (Rumbelow, 14), but the Ripper case was different because of its continuing episodic nature and its consequent press treatment.

Because of what McLuhan calls "the inveterate concern of the press with cleansing by publicity" (193), the coverage demanded general concern. It was an inherently sensational event providing all the suspense of a novel, with each new slaying comprising a chapter.

This was crime transformed into theater, with the reading public acting as audience. Because "the press is inseparable from the democratic process" (McLuhan, 188), the immediacy of the news not only aroused local concern but a general cry for action that sprang from all strata of society.

The Times held first rights to the readership of the city's middle class, and that class demanded accountability. It was a reaction that had become almost traditional. London had seen years of press vilification of the Metropolitan Police, largely over claims of incompetence, inefficiency and insolence, but by the mid-1870s a new respect had emerged (Browne, 175-177).

This notable critical silence coincided with the recognition of an overwhelming potential threat in the East End -- that is, the untamed and crime-ridden lower classes. This threat might prove more powerful if those constituting it believed truly that the police had no power over it. By tempering criticism, the threat of the teeming poor possibly could be reduced; it appears that the middle-class press assisted in that effort.

The East End and its rampant crime presented the police with disheartening odds. Whitechapel had 80,000 residents, and the entire East End harbored some 900,000 people. About 8 percent of that figure -- 75,000 persons -- were classified as "poor" (Rumbelow, 34).

"Discussions of the condition of the London poor which in the 1870s had been confined to experts within the pages of specialized journals, now became the subject of urgent general debate. From 1883 onwards the quarterly journals and the press were full of warnings of the necessity of immediate reform to ward off the impending revolutionary threat." (Jones, 290-291)

A melting-pot environment existed in Whitechapel, a district which, despite the presence of four police stations and continual patrols -- "on account of the character of many of its inhabitants" (Times, 9/11/88, p.6, c.5) -- carried the stigma of being home to "the very scum of Europe. ... Murder was probably more common than the official statistic shows" (Wensley, 7-8, 13-14).

In fact, murder was a matter of such routine in Whitechapel that it was only the relative novelty of the Ripper's sadistic method that initially brought it to the attention of newspaper readers.

Even so, something else seems to have kept that attention riveted, because the sensation the murders caused bordered on mass panic and cannot be minimized (Browne, 206). Why would London's middle class have deigned to take interest in the unhappy deaths of a few East End whores? Are not such deaths fitting, even to be expected? And if the problem were so obviously confined to the East End, why should West End nobs give a farthing?

The answer -- as we already have anticipated -- lies in middle-class fears of popular revolt and social disorder.

An atmosphere of anger and fear
Bad times were within recent memory. The agitation of the Irish Fenians had reached a fever pitch only a generation before, and the Metropolitan Police had been largely unsuccessful in ferreting them out (Smith, 195, 203).

During riots in February 1886, dock laborers and others from the East End had attacked West End property, producing what the Times had called "Such a state of excitement and alarm [that] has rarely been experienced in the Metropolis" (Jones, 292). For William Morris, this had been "the first skirmish of the Revolution" (Jones, 294).

Further anger against perceived governmental subjugation had resulted in late 1887 in the infamous "Bloody Sunday" riot at Trafalgar Square. Sir Charles Warren, commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, had been held personally responsible by the mob, and had received death threats (Rumbelow, 50).

"For weeks afterwards, the West End remained in a state of crisis. Mounted police patrolled the Square, the military was kept in a state of readiness and special constables were enrolled." (Jones, 296)

The people had stirred up -- and been stirred by -- a panic that stemmed from social and class friction. Agitated as they already were, the lower classes were primed for madness to strike.

'No ground for blaming the officers'
The first "official" Ripper victim, Mary Ann Nicholls, was slain on Friday, Aug. 31, 1888, but it must be remembered that, at the time, the police and public considered it to have been the third in a series of prostitute killings because of the similar means used in dispatching the victims. The others -- which since then have been declared the work of another hand or hands -- had occurred within the prior year, the second of them having occurred Aug. 7.

A little more than a week after the Nicholls slaying, Annie Chapman was found murdered on Saturday, Sept. 8. The Times was calm and pro-police in its coverage of these killings:

"There is, it must be acknowledged, after their exhaustive investigation of the facts, no ground for blaming the officers in charge should they fail in unravelling the mystery surrounding the crime." (9/3/88, p.12, c.2)

"[Chapman's] throat was severed in a terrible manner, and she had other wounds of a nature too shocking to be described." (9/10/88, p.6, c.5)

Thus the Times was supporting and circumspect in its coverage of the crimes. As far as withholding the details of the attack, it was a traditional act of self-censorship that was to continue until the even more shocking murder of Mary Kelley. No full descriptions would be given, and the full report of an examining physician could be published only in The Lancet (Rumbelow, 65).

An illustration for the Illustrated Police News of Nov. 17 bowdlerized the mutilations, indicating that the artist perhaps never had seen the corpse at all (Rumbelow, 110).

But the implications of these events were not lost on some people, despite the lack of full disclosure.

'More murders ... will be committed'
"An unknown moralist in a letter to The Times laid the blame for the killings squarely on society and not on the half-crazed monsters. ... They had sown the seed and must reap the harvest. The Rev Samuel Barnett, Vicar of St Jude's, Whitechapel, more pragmatically thought that the Whitechapel horrors would not have been in vain if 'at last' the public conscience was awakened to the life that these horrors revealed." (Rumbelow, 66)

As disturbing as the social implications may have been, the more pressing public concern was with the capture of the killer. Limited by a lack of informers and the inability to move freely through the dense urban area, the police, however, were tormented by "a feeling almost of despair" (Rumbelow, 68):

"The police express a strong opinion that more murders of the kind will be committed before the miscreant is apprehended." (Times 9/10, p. 6, c.6)

This attitude -- and the reporting of that attitude -- led to public claims that the police were treating the matter too casually, and thus the long period of satisfaction ended. Still, the Times remained true to its habit, and came to the defense of the police:

"Great complaints are made concerning the inadequate police protection at the East-end, and this want is even admitted by the local police authorities themselves, but they are unable to alter the existing state of affairs.

"Outrages and acts of lawlessness daily occur in broad daylight in the principal thoroughfares of the East-end, and the offenders are seldom brought to justice, owing to the inability of the police to properly cover the whole of the ground within their jurisdiction."
(9/10, p.6, c.5)

This public debate continued up to the night of the third and fourth officially recognized Ripper murders; on Sunday, Sept. 30, the body of Elizabeth Stride was found, followed almost immediately by the discovery of the corpse of Catherine Eddowes.

This so-called "double event" fueled the growing sense that crime prevention in the region was fruitless. This time, the Times wrote of the case in a manner that only thinly disguised a mild criticism of the police:

" ... the assassin, if not suffering from insanity, appears to be free from any fear of interruption while at his dreadful work." (10/1, p.6, c.3)

The murders, after all, had all been committed in the open streets. Civilized Londoners were accustomed to a constable at virtually every street corner. Where were the police patrols?

Another aspect of the force of publicity now reared its head. Near the site of the Eddowes murder, a policeman spotted a three-line chalked message on a wall. The message, which seemed to implicate Jews in the murders, was ordered by Warren to be rubbed off, with the purpose of quieting any risk of anti-Semitic riots (Rumbelow, 80-81). This fact, of course, did not reach the newspapers, and the expression of middle-class fear toward the East End's potential violence never was more acutely demonstrated

Warren soon was rebuked as having destroyed potential evidence, an action that exacerbated another friction-point within the police ranks themselves -- a point that was to grow so hot that Warren ultimately would resign from his position.

"Instead of getting the newspapers to help them, Scotland Yard's policy was to keep the newsmen at arm's length. Inevitably, the press, with so few facts to work on, turned their attention to the police and individuals such as the Commissioner [Warren]. ... As one policeman later wrote: 'I have always thought that the higher police authorities in ignoring the power of the Press deliberately flouted a great potential ally, and indeed might have turned that ally into an enemy.' " (Rumbelow, 84-85)

The press, therefore, which until now had been content to report the news and on rare occasions to suggest methods of police operation (Times, 9/11, p.6,c.4), now began to get involved in new and different ways. Initially, by publishing letters on the subject, the press alerted the public to the British government's policy of refusing to subsidize a reward for information on the murders.

The result was that many letter-writers offered suggestions as to police procedure, and themselves offered rewards either on their own behalf or on behalf of various interested groups. Still others used the subject as an excuse to comment on the social "problem of clearing the East-end of its vicious inhabitants" (Times, 10/1, p.6, c.6, and 10/2, p.6,c.4).

The press finally joins the fray
Newspapers got in on the reward-offering act, perhaps motivated by public concern as well as the positive publicity such offers might generate. The Illustrated Police News offered 100 pounds for the capture of the killer (Rumbelow, 110, 118).

Then the Central News Agency received a letter signed "Jack the Ripper" -- the letter that provided a nickname for the perpetrator that ultimately would stick. The letter is regarded as authentic because it revealed details of the "double event" that had not been published at the time it was received (Times, 10/2, p.6, c.3; Rumbelow, 129). However, two of the three alleged Ripper letters that eventually were received ...

You've read about half of this article.
Read the complete article and references by clicking in the box below.

Amazon Honor SystemClick Here to PayLearn More

Contact JOHN C. SHERWOOD by e-mail.
Bring SHERLOCK HOLMES to your own event!

The true story of Holmes at the Villa - A secret hidden for a dozen years is revealed!
What happened at The Victorian Villa? - The world of Holmes and Watson came to life!
An amazing story - By Ronald J. Gibson, owner of the Villa
"Adventures and Lessons" - Mr Sherlock Holmes addresses the Criterion Bar Association
Sherlock's Seven Lessons -- The Whole Art of Detection in a Nutshell
"Sherlockian Pastiches: The Dilemma" - A defense of new tales of The Master by John Sherwood
Quotes from Sherlock - Sage advice on observation, deduction and more.
Our Online Store! MysteryVisits.com loves these books and products!
Go to John Sherwood's performance credits.

Go to MysteryVisits.com

Hosting by WebRing.