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Murders and Murder Trials 1812-1912
H.M. Walbrook, 1932


IN the latter part of the year 1888 took place the series of crimes in the East End of London known to history as the deeds of " Jack the Ripper." The criminal's identity has never been established, and the various theories advanced on the subject have all proved fond and vain. All that seems certain is that he was a lunatic. There is no accounting for his acts on any other hypothesis. His victims were women far too poor to tempt his cupidity, and the mutilations he inflicted on their bodies were obviously the work of a man with a mind diseased. He seems to have revelled in his work with a ghoulish glee, and during the months in which he was engaged on his mission be struck a panic through the East End to which there have been few parallels in the annals of crime.

Of the excitement which prevailed during the period of his activities I have one unforgettable memory. The series of murders commenced in August. In that month Henry Irving and his company were on one of their provincial tours, and the Lyceum Theatre had been let to the American actor, Richard Mansfield, who had opened his season there with a play called Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, based of course on Robert Louis Stevenson's famous story. The acting of Mr. Mansfield in this production had been highly praised by the critics, and on a fine Saturday afternoon I went to see it, and was, as they say, thrilled to the marrow by the player's power in the part of the monster, Hyde. Emerging from the theatre when the curtain had fallen into the brilliant sunshine of the Strand, I found newspaper boys selling the Globe in great numbers, and crying at the tops of their voices: "Another murder in Whitechapel! 'Orrible discovery !" Instead of returning home, I decided to take tea in town. Afterwards I climbed an omnibus and travelled to Whitechapel. Having been so shaken by a picture of crime on the stage, I thought it might be interesting to view the actual scene and surroundings of a cluster of genuine horrors.

As it happened, my first impression of Whitechapel that day was that I had arrived not in the East of London but in Baghdad or jodhpur on a feast-day! Apart from the architecture, I seemed in Asia rather than in England. The whole population appeared to be in the streets, everyone was wearing his or her best, and the young girls and women fairly blazed in reds, greens, and yellows. After the sober raiment of the crowd in the Strand, life had suddenly become a glory of colour, and the sunshine gave it the crowning touch. I looked around with amazement. Everywhere white skins gleamed and dark eyes flashed amid a riot of cheap jewellery and many-coloured feathers. The black hair of the young men, brushed to the last perfection of smoothness, shone with oil, and every foot seemed well shod. Where was the panic? Where even was the poverty? I turned presently to a policeman who was on point-duty near St. Jude's church and asked him, in my innocence, what it all meant. He replied with a smile, " It's the Jews' Sabbath, sir, and they have all got their best things on; but make no mistake, the rags and the rest of it are here right enough I You'll find plenty hiding away in the courts and alleys. But on Saturdays they don't come out till it's dark; and just now they're shy of appearing even then, except when three or four of 'em can huddle together for safety."

As the constable's voice died away a tremendous commotion arose. A youth selling the latest edition of the halfpenny evening paper, the Echo, came tearing along the broad pavement yelling at the top of his voice, " Arrest of the Whitechapel murderer ! Public hindignation! The murderer tore up! " He sold his papers rapidly as he ran, not stopping even to give change for the numerous pennies dropped into his hand; and, when he had passed, his track was marked by groups of readers turning the journal frantically over, page by page, looking for the news. Needless to say, they looked in vain. The murderer had neither been arrested nor torn up. Needless also to say, the young fellow was well out of sight before his fraud was discovered. After that I made my way to the quarter in which the atrocity of that morning had been discovered, only to find that there was no getting near the actual scene. The police were keeping the crowd back. For a while I stood looking at the dreary alley, and listening to the whisperings in many languages of the onlookers; but it all seemed rather an anti-climax after the figure on the Lyceum stage of Hyde coming in through the moonlit window, with his hideous face, distorted shape, and hissing intake of the breath.

The first of this dreadful series of outrages was committed in the early hours of August 7. At five o'clock that morning the dead body of a single woman named Martha Turner was found lying on a stone staircase in George Yard Buildings. There were thirty-nine wounds on the body and legs, and the majority of them had evidently been caused by savage stabbing with a long knife. A hue-and-cry was immediately raised for the murderer's arrest, but nothing happened. The tragedy remained a complete mystery and was presently forgotten. Some three weeks later, at a quarter to four in the morning, a police constable found the corpse of a woman named Mary Ann Nichols lying on the pavement in Buck's Row, with the throat cut from ear to ear - apparently by a blade held in the murderer's left hand - and dreadful wounds in the abdomen. . Here again history repeated itself. The inquest elicited no clue, the police remained baffled, and the tragedy took its place among life's insolubilities. On September 8 came the third crime, one so awful in its elaboration that it sent a shiver not only through the whole of London but also through the length and breadth of the country. At a quarter to five on that morning a carman stumbled against the dead body of a woman named Annie Chapman, lying on a flight of steps in the back-yard of a house in Hanbury Street, with the throat so cut as nearly to sever the head from the body, the abdomen ripped open, the heart and viscera extracted and placed on the step by the dead woman's side, and part of the entrails twined in a festoon around her neck.

By this time it was clear that a kind of demon was at work, and public horror became intense. And through it all the crimes went on. On the morning of September 30, between one and two o'clock, the corpse of a woman named Elizabeth Stride was discovered in a court in Berners Street. Here only the throat had been cut. The assailant had apparently been disturbed before attempting his usual mutilations. An hour or two later, however, on the same morning, in a dark corner of Mitre Square, another corpse was found, that of one Catherine Eddowes, with the throat cut, the abdomen revoltingly mutilated, and a certain organ removed and taken away. The sixth-and, as it happened, the last known-of the series was committed on November g, in a room on the ground-floor of a house in Miller's Court. In its repulsive details it transcended all that had gone before. On the morning of that day the corpse of Marie Jeannette Kelly was discovered, appallingly mutilated and disembowelled. Various organs had been distributed about the room, and parts of the body were found hanging from picture-nails on the wall.

Obviously the joy in mutilation revealed in such a chronicle could only have belonged to a sexual degenerate possessing the cruelty of a madman and also his cunning. How the creature escaped has ever since been a subject of wonder, for after the second crime the whole police intelligence of the metropolis was concentrated on his capture. The treatment of the corpse of the Hanbury Street victim must have occupied a considerable time. The mutilation and distribution of Marie Jeannette Kelly's body in a windowed room must have required a light. At any moment a constable might have passed, for at that time the streets of Whitechapel were swarming with them from dusk till dawn, and an arrest would have led to fortune. Obviously, too, the criminal was a person of plausible address. Otherwise, in those nights of fear, how could he have persuaded even the most desperately poor woman to enter into conversation with him, much less to submit to his embraces? In the pocket of one of the victims were found two bright farthings. They were all the money she possessed, and one of the police theories was that the criminal had offered them to her in the dark as a couple of half-sovereigns in payment for the favours she was about to confer on him.

In each case an inquest was held and a verdict returned of " wilful murder by some person or persons unknown." That was all that the forces of law and order could achieve. It has been said that if a single individual stationed in each street and-alley, with a police-whistle in his hand, had kept an open eye at a window overlooking the pavements during those nights of terror the criminal must have been detected. Such a look-out, however, would have been difficult to organise, and probably still more difficult to conceal from such an eye and ear as those of the criminal. The creature's chief allies were (i) the poverty of his victims-unafraid even when the spirit of murder in its most awful form was stalking the-streets to go wandering about in the hope of earning a sixpence, and (ii) the nocturnal darkness of the by-ways and slums of the East End in those years. The midnight and early morning darkness of Whitechapel at that period was sin's best friend. Black archways, unlighted staircases, alleys void of a lamp, squares lit only by the moon or stars-such were the scenes of this unknown wretch's awful proceedings.

Now and then an arrest was made, but the proof of the suspected person's innocence was always easy, and the only result was a further demonstration of the bewilderment of the authorities. Large rewards were offered by public bodies for a clue that would lead to recognition and arrest, but nobody was able to claim them. A numerous section of the House of Commons was convulsed with indignation against the Home Secretary of the day, Mr. Henry Matthews, and the Chief of Police, Sir Charles Warren; but those gentlemen could only protest that all that was possible was being done. After the discovery of the murder in Mitre Square some person wrote with chalk in bold letters on a staircase wall in Gouldstone Street, " The Jews are men that will not be blamed for nothing" - a writing which, according to a local historian, created almost as great a sensation as that which appeared at Belshazzar's feast. It led to the arrest of one or two Jews, but they were easily proved to be quite harmless. A powerful Vigilance Committee was formed in the neighbourhood, which held many meetings, interviewed a great many people, and issued a vast array of instructions. The only result was the receipt by the Chairman of a number of anonymous letters, some of them purporting to have been written by the perpetrator of the crimes. One of these communications was folded in a cardboard box in which was also wrapped what was described by the writer as half of a kidney which had been removed from the body of one of the murdered women. " I have cooked and eaten the other half," wrote the correspondent. This disgusting incident is only mentioned as revealing the effect which the orgie of wickedness was having on some of the imaginations of Whitechapel in those haunted months.

It was afterwards stated that the Lambeth murderer, Neill Cream, whose malefactions are the subject of a later chapter, was in the act of confessing to the Whitechapel crimes in the very moment of the drawing of the bolt on the scaffold. The authority given for this was the executioner, Billington, who is said to have declared that immediately before falling to his fate, Cream spoke the words " I am Jack-" leaving the rest of the sentence unuttered. The story lacks confirmation. Billington may have misheard him. No other person on the scaffold heard the words. The story also lacks probability. Neill Cream was a poisoner, not a stabber. He committed his crimes with an idea of blackmailing in the background; and the scene of his operations was chiefly the other side of the river.

Another theory advanced by one of the criminological experts of the day was that " Jack the Ripper " was an insane physician living in the East End who shortly after the concluding murder of the series committed suicide by drowning. A later writer not only endorsed this theory, but also mentioned the name. No confirmatory evidence, however, has been forthcoming, and the end of it all is that we really to-day know no more about the crimes than was known forty years ago. Whoever the criminal was, he kept his secret as cleverly as he had shrouded his ghastly self-indulgences.

The one consoling thought in reviving the matter is that the repetition of such a series of barefaced atrocities would be an impossibility to-day. Even in the days of economic stress in which I am writing- - the January of 1932 - there is infinitely less poverty in the East End than was the case in the eighteen-eighties, and the ill-fated " daughters of joy," nearing middle age, who formerly crept along the streets of Whitechapel from dim lamp to dim lamp in the hope of somehow or other earning a few coppers are visions of the past. Also, in common with the rest of London, the streets of the East End are now infinitely better lit than was formerly the case. Many a dark and filthy alley has been pulled down and decent habitations set in its place. Provision has been made by the State for the relief of those who are unemployed; and the whole tone of life in that and other parts of London has been elevated, not only by such men as Arnold Toynbee, Canon Barnett, and Thomas Okey, but also by the broadened and deepened humanity and more sensitive conscience of the nation at large. The type of landlord who enjoys a handsome income by letting apartments in six-roomed houses to a dozen families is nearing a merciful but firm extinction. Loc d by-laws also are incomparably more civilised than they were. Such things as the open slaughterhouse, and such once familiar spectacles in poor districts as the killing of a pig in a back garden-horrors which had so evil a fascination for degraded spectators, and particularly for children-are, at any rate in London, things of the past. The " far-off divine event " to which the Victorian poet once described the whole creation as moving may seem as distant as ever, but the world's good men and women can still look forward to the better day and see it drawing slowly and steadily nearer.