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 A Ripperologist Article 
This article originally appeared in Ripperologist No. 51, January 2004. Ripperologist is the most respected Ripper periodical on the market and has garnered our highest recommendation for serious students of the case. For more information, view our Ripperologist page. Our thanks to the editor of Ripperologist for permission to reprint this article.
London Correspondence: Tales from the Streets of Whitechapel
Alan Sharp

Alan Sharp is a theatre director and freelance writer and researcher from Dublin, Ireland. He is aiming to publish a book on the Ripper in the next year.

In 1888, the political situation in Dublin was a mess. Two years earlier the Republican politician Charles Stewart Parnell had attempted to take the first steps towards independence from the United Kingdom by introducing a Home Rule Bill to parliament, with support from the Prime Minister, Mr. Gladstone. The bill was defeated, and subsequently Gladstone lost the General Election of the same year fought almost solely on the Home Rule issue. In 1887, The Times of London published a series of articles accusing Parnell and his supporters of the most heinous crimes and of supporting the assassination in Phoenix Park of the Irish Secretary Lord Cavendish and his assistant. The result of these articles was the Parnell Commission, set up by the government to investigate the allegations, which opened in mid-October 1888 at the height of the Ripper scare. Meanwhile the Irish Republican or Fenian Brotherhood, forerunner to the IRA, continued to be a thorn in the side of the British government. Founded in 1858 by James Stephens, the movement published it's own newspaper, The Irish People, to get the Republican mess-age across to the masses.

The newspaper of choice for the British bureaucrats who con-trolled the country from Dublin Castle and the landowning classes who still pledged their allegiance to queen and parliament, was The Irish Times. It was a newspaper which had to walk a fine tightrope, presenting a pro-Irish stance that the general populace would find palatable, while not offending the colonial ex-pat ruling classes who made up a large proportion of it's readership. For those to whom London still represented the centre of the universe, a daily column by the name of 'London Correspondence' kept them in touch with the happenings of the capital city. A mixture of political and social gossip, it attempted to give a fair representation of the mood of the city.

The Ripper has often been in-correctly described as the first Serial Killer. He was not, but he was the first to become a global phenomenon. The first TransAtlantic telegraph message, a 94 word message of congratulations from Queen Victoria to the new US President James Buchanan in 1858, had taken sixteen hours to transmit. But by the time of the Ripper murders the technology had been perfected and details of the crimes and the victims were appearing in newspapers around the world within hours of their first appearance in their British counterparts. The Irish Times covered the case extensively, possibly using the story to deflect attention from problems at home as a kind of 'worse things happen at sea' scenario. When I recently began studying these reports and transcribing them for the Casebook website, I began to realise that in 'London Correspondence' there was a wealth of information about the mood on the streets of Whitechapel, together with a number of amusing anecdotes connected to the case, many of which I had not come across before.

It all begins quite calmly. The first mention of the Ripper murders appears in the column on 1 September:

You will have from other sources an account of the horrible murder committed last night in Whitechapel, where a woman of 40 was found with her throat cut and the lower part of her body almost hacked to pieces. The aspect of this tragedy noted here is its suggestive resemblance to the atrocity reported about three weeks ago where a woman of like age was found in the open hall of a common lodging house, also with her throat cut and thirty nine slashes and stabs in different parts of her person. The similarity in many points of these two crimes has stirred again suspicion that both poor women were victims of the same miscreant. We hark back to the time a century ago when 'the monster' prowled about London attacking women with a knife, and the theory is that some still more sanguinary scoundrel may now be gratifying a like mania. If so, it can only be hoped that he will speedily experience the punishment of his predecessor.

The monster referred to was most likely Renwick Williams, convicted of malicious assault against one Miss Ann Porter in 1790. Williams was believed to have attacked several young ladies, cutting their clothes and wounding them in various parts of their bodies, although he is not known to have killed.

For the next week, although the newspaper printed a daily report, diminishing in size as each day passed, of the search for the killer, the London Correspondent had other things such as the social merry-go-round, the preparation for the Parnell Commission or the forthcoming opening of 'Yeoman of the Guard', the brand new Gilbert and Sullivan, on his mind. But on 10 September, on the day that the paper gave over almost an entire page of it's 8 broadsheet pages (4 of them taken up with advertising) to the Annie Chapman murder, a report appeared which transported me back in time and made me understand what it must have been like to stand outside No. 29 Hanbury Street that day.

The scene yesterday afternoon at the East End gave an instructive insight into what we might expect in periods of public panic when the crowd loses its head under the pressure of mixed anger and fear, and the popular temper heats to the danger point. The locality in which the butchery of Friday night was committed is also the theatre of the previous three murders charged with good reason to the same hand. It lies off the Whitechapel road, part of the main artery through the vast region lying east of Aldgate pump. There are many dangerous slums in this poorer London, with its million and a half of population - it does not include the entire east - and the district which has been the theatre of such horrible tragedies has always borne a bad name. Anybody who walked in the Whitechapel and its continuation, the Mile End road on a Saturday afternoon when the cosmopolitan multitude, representing twenty nations, are abroad, will see for himself the elements which have brought upon certain districts the character of places to be shunned even in the daytime.

Yesterday at 4 o'clock, the throng in the neighbourhood of the murder numbered thousands. Every one of the heavy forbidding by-streets leading to the spot was packed with the curious and idle - a repulsive gathering it must be owned, for the vast majority represented the human types whose ways and works have earned for this part of the great Babylon its evil fame. These natural denizens were mingled with a better class - working men evidently wasting their Saturday half-holiday in the gratification of a morbid curiosity, with not a few horror hunters who might be carriage folk. Everybody was talking of one thing, and it was interesting to note how excited all seemed to be.

Even the Cockney, callous through familiarity with daily tragedies of one kind or another, are fairly shocked and scared by deeds more monstrous and terrible than this generation has known. The East Ender is more apt to be staid than respectful over even such subjects as the loss of life by murder, but there was none of this yesterday. The hard and villainous faces which were numerous enough showed something like pity and indignation, and while the assassin, if he was among us, would not have looked peculiar in such a gathering it is certain that if the worst of us - burglar, bully, wife beater, pickpocket, highwayman or worse still though we might be - had our hands upon him we would have lynched him there and then in an honest impulse of avenging justice.

The air was filled with murder. It was the talk, there was nothing else to hear. Men, women and children all chattering at once with deep oaths, and shrill feminine denunciations. The crowd had its nerves strong and its blood up. It was evidently raging in a blind way to go for somebody or something. It did partly indulge this mood, for the evening papers printed an interview with an inmate of the dingy lane called Hanbury Street, who had described a male acquaintance of the murdered woman as of Jewish appearance. The tribe have been in very bad odour here, especially since the revelations of the sweating system. In fact there is a sort of 'Judenhetze' afoot, and the natives, swift to condemn the Israelite on the ground that if he did not murder the woman he is taking the bread of Christian mouths, soon began to exclaim against the chosen people, and to threaten those present. Those were a very considerable fraction of the throng, and being a congruous and choleric race, the whole evening onwards was enlivened with a series of free fights and single combats between Jew and Gentile.

All the time there was a steady movement from every approach upon the scene of the tragedy. This was a very small and grimy yard, occupied by half a dozen stalwart constables who prevented the mob from swamping the place. The sergeant in charge could do nothing to hinder the inmates of the house from turning an honest penny out of the murder. This they did by charging that sum for a peep at the corner where the deed was done and the body lay. The pennies were paid as fast as they could be taken. The entry purchased you fell into single file with the procession of sightseers before and behind, passed two or three feet into the yard, saw some broken cases, a pair of steps and other things, and then in a corner a large irregular dark stain on the ground. Before you had well set eyes on it you found yourself quickly elbowed outside, for the coppers were moving too fast and time was too short to allow you more than a glance for your copper.

A week later on Monday 17th, another wonderful discovery awaited me. This time it was a lengthy diatribe from a local constable on the newly formed Whitechapel Vigilance Committee. The policeman is not named, but his remarks are highly revealing about the atmosphere which must have existed on the streets between the professional and the amateur law-enforcer. It won't last a month. They'll get little help - at least no more than anyone else - from our chaps; and if they get interfering with respectable people our men will 'run them in' as a caution for future behaviour. With regard to the roughs, well all I can say is 'they will have a high old time of it' and to the benefit of our men. They can, to use their own words, 'smell a fly copper' - ie plain clothes man; and when they get hold of an 'amateur' or two of them, God help the amateurs! Kicking a regular policeman is a pleasure at any time not lightly to be spoken of, but the chances of 'booting' the head or ribs of an amateur 'slop' will afford a new and in-describable pleasure, and one to be indulged in on every possible occasion. These 'vigilants' will be looked upon as 'copper's noses' or 'copper's narks' - ie police informers - and to use the rough's own words, 'a copper is bad enough, but his nark!' - well, kill him, and that's about what he will get, or something very near it. They have forgotten one thing in their outfit, and that is an 'ambulance' - that will be wanted oftener than truncheons. At least I think so.

Between the Annie Chapman murder and the double event, the mood of the columns remains relatively light-hearted, presented in the tone of the subject Irishman amused at the consternation of his English cousins. The blundering antics of the police are a particular target of his mirth. An instance of over-zeal on the part of a detective officer formed a topic of gossip in the vicinity of Whitechapel today. Some few of the men at first engaged in the case are now on holiday leave. Their places have been filled by comparative strangers from Scotland Yard, who merely report themselves to the local inspectors and proceed upon their duty at the positions allotted them. At two o'clock this morning a man was seen talking to a woman near Great Pearl street. A detective on the look-out considered that he was at last within measurable distance of the real 'criminal.' Approaching the stranger cautiously he questioned him as to what his business was at this hour. His answers were not considered satisfactory, and certain recriminations led to such unpleasantness that the woman's companion was told he must go to the station. The detective was then somewhat surprised to find that he had arrested a brother officer, who was forthwith liberated upon the production of his warrant card.

On 1 October, as could be expected, the mood of the column was sombre. Unfortunately the author obtained no such coup as in the case of the Annie Chapman murder, and the reports are similar in tone to many published elsewhere. A few snatches and phrases catch the attention. The opening paragraph provides a neat Irish slant on the mood of the Capital. Fresh horrors were in store for us this morning and ere the church bells had commenced to ring the sensational news of two fresh murders in the East End had travelled into the far distant suburbs of the metropolis. The panic produced by the dreadful news was widespread and general, and later on when the ghastly details became known the effect on the Londoner can only be likened to the sensation which prevailed in Dublin on the Sunday following the murders of Lord Frederick Cavendish and Mr Burke.

An interesting comment included later:

The neighbourhood of Aldgate and Commercial road is an exceptionally busy one on a Saturday night, and, as a rule, it is some three hours after midnight before the streets are actually quiet.

There is much description of thronging crowds and idle gossip, and the report concludes with an astute and telling observation. The feeling among the inhabitants is one of intense excitement and it would be extremely difficult for the police should they make an arrest to get their prisoner safely to the station, owing to the present excited condition of the labouring classes, who form a large proportion of the residents in the locality. Great caution is therefore being taken by the authorities not to state any suspicion of a clue.

By the following day however the former conversational and whimsical tone of the reports had returned and the correspondent was once again regaling the Irish populace with an amusing anecdote from the mean streets of the metropolis. The police were once again the butt of the joke, and on this occasion a fellow journalist was the central character. The tale was intended to highlight the difference in attitude between the City and Metropolitan police forces.

One unfortunate scribe who has been on the look out for the murderer for several nights past, yesterday, with enterprise hardly to be commended, shaved off his whiskers and, attired in female garb, perambulated the streets frequented by the assassin in the hope that he might come across him. He passed several detectives and was unmolested until getting into Whitechapel road, when he was pounced on by a quick-sighted constable who charged him with being a man. Seeing that it was useless to deny it, the reporter admitted the fact, upon which he was asked, 'Are you one of us?' and was answered in the negative, and it was explained why the disguise had been adopted. The constable, however, took him to the station where the Inspector on duty, after several questions, detained him while inquiries were set on foot, and after a delay of an hour and a half, the officer being satisfied of the reporter's bona fides, liberated him.

On 8 October, in a thoughtful column, the correspondent mused at length on the effect that the murders where having on the police and the local community.

Outsiders have no idea of the manner in which the huge community is affected by this veritable pestilence which walketh in darkness. Servants refuse to venture abroad after dark; their mistresses share the same distrust. Judge of the sheer inconvenience and domestic discomfort resulting in one way or the other. Authority still gropes after the assassin, while we continue to devise more or less idle theories in explanation of the atrocities. It must not be supposed that the terror, real as it is, manifests itself very decidedly to anybody in search of it. The two millions of people living in East London enjoy at least the sense of security which belongs to multitude, and the streets and slums are as crowded by night as well as by day. It seems, however, that the particular theatres of the dozen streets and lanes associated with the recent crimes are wholly deserted by females once night falls.

Nothing is more remarkable in connection with these murders than the sense of impotence there is no better term for it which they have spread among the police. Whatever may be the feeling at headquarters or among the officers of the force, the rank and file appear to be in a manner demoralised by the utter impunity with which the crimes have been committed. Talking with some of them last night, they expressed in each case a fear that some fresh atrocity would be committed in their midst before the morning. The men seem disheartened by what is certainly an excusable conciousness of the difficulties which handicap them in dealing with an alert, cool, and crafty miscreant such as the assassin has shown himself to be.

Two days later and the mood has changed utterly again. Now our correspondent seems almost disappointed to have had no new and more terrible atrocity to report in this sexiest of all murder stories for over a week.

The newsometer again points to 'dull' and we are anxiously awaiting a change in affairs. The public has of late been so fed upon sensation that the fare of commonplace cannot content its appetite, accustomed to the daily spice of mystery and murder.

As if to highlight this point, the rest of the day's column deals with the retirement of a Scottish judge, the menu for a Shakespeare themed dinner and the unveiling of a monument in Stratford, the arrangements of an annual dairy show, and a report that Sir William Harcourt, having sworn off drink, was now taking a little wine for his stomach!

A timely warning to feminists. It might be wise to look away now to prevent the blood from boiling during any reading of the 12 October column. The very latest addition to the maze of recommendations is Miss Power Cobbe's idea of a female detective. This proposal is variously, but, upon the whole, not favourably regarded. We are aware that in other countries women have successfully reversed the hint to 'chercher la feminine,' and have shown the keenness of the sleuthhound in running their man to death. The Rus Jerusalem employ female detectives, and so does the director of the 'Third Section' in St. Petersburg, the function of the petticoated police being in each case the detection of crime. Up to the present Nemesis in her true sex has not been enlisted in this country in the service of justice save, perhaps, in such base uses as the conviction of publicans violating the licensing laws or decoys for the adulterators of butter and milk. It is hardly likely that the Home Office or Scotland Yard will entertain the notion.

Amazingly, this is the last item of any note to appear in the column. As has been seen from the English press, the public seem to have lost interest in the case as October wore on and no further salacious developments occurred to provide the gossip-mongers with their juicy tid-bits. Meanwhile the opening of the Parnell Commission was the main subject of discussion for the Irish, and on many days the column failed to appear at all, giving over its space to the extensive coverage of those proceedings which often filled two whole pages of the eight available. On 8 November, the day before Mary Kelly met her untimely end, the Irish Times published a special 12 page issue, but with not only the Commission proceedings to report, but also the Landowner's Convention, the US Presidential elections and a Press Conference on the Irish question given by Mr Gladstone in Birmingham to cover, not one word on the Whitechapel murders appeared in the whole 12 pages.

In fact it was not until the Monday morning, 12 November, that London Correspondence saw fit to comment on the case once more, with a passage which seems highly appropriate with which to finish this article.

It is amazing how comparatively slight the effect on the public the latest Whitechapel murder has been. People have supped so full with this class of horror that it has palled upon their faculty for sensation, and no more interest is now shown in these familiar butcheries than in ordinary crime. It is an instructive fact that so far as the large force of police on detective and usual duty in the East End have observed the class to which the latest victim, like her six unfortunate sisters, belonged appear to have grown callous to peril, and are not terrified by the latest warning of their possible fate.


The Irish Times issues of 01/09/1888, 10/09/1888, 17/09/1888, 21/09/1888, 01/10/1888, 02/10/1888, 08/10/1888, 10/10/1888, 12/10/1888, 08/11/1888, 12/11/1888.

Renwick Williams: Newgate Calendar, George Theodore Wilkinson (editor),
London: Cardinal, 1991

Irish Nationalist History and the Parnell Commission:
Charles Stewart Parnell, Sean McMahon, Dublin: Mercier Press, 2000

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