The first forms of the modern police force were invented in the nineteenth century. Indeed, London in the nineteenth century was rife with crime. The gap between the upper and lower classes was far wider than nowadays, and millions of London’s population were desperately poor, struggling and snatching to provide for themselves. Robberies and riots were common.
In 1780, law and order in London broke down completely during the Gordon Riots – even though these particular riots were not so much about poverty as about politics and religion: Lord Gordon was an extreme protestant who refused the ‘Catholic Relief Act’; he feared the return of Catholicism and absolutism in Britain. However, these riots brought a lot of unrest in London, as the rioters broke open the Newgate Jail and attacked the Bank of England. The bank was only saved by the Lord Mayor, who defended it with the Grenadier Guards.
Therefore, the Metropolitan police was created because there was a real fear that the working classes would revolt and cause a revolution on the French model. However, there still was no real London police force until 1829. In 1800, two Special Forces existed, the Bow Street Runners and the Thames River Police; but they were not very effective at stopping crime or keeping authority over the people. The Bow Street Runners had been set up in 1749, and the River Police in 1798. They held records of the most notorious criminals.
The Metropolitan Police was created out of these earlier two Forces. Changes in the police force were brought on as communication between different police stations was improved with the introduction of the telegraph. Also, the Metropolitan police force had new responsibilities in London: they lit London’s gas lamps and controlled civil disturbances and riots instead of the army; they fought fires and installed neighbourhood watches. Furthermore, the police was to develop a ‘new look’, because they wanted to differentiate themselves from the ‘Red Coats’, in other words the Army of the time.
Indeed, as I have mentioned before, the police was taking on what was previously the Army’s responsibility, for example to suppress public demonstrations. The Army was mistrusted and the police force wanted to distinguish themselves and remain popular. The colour blue was adopted because it was the colour of the Navy, viewed as the saviour of the nation and defenders of Britain. The Metropolitan Police, therefore, was given a blue uniform with a tail-coat, a top hat and as few badges and decorations as possible. These uniforms contributed to define the Police in the eyes of the population.
Despite these changes, the police force was still unreliable in those days, as many of the early recruits had to be dismissed, due mostly to drunkeness. The reputation of the early Met was poor. There was no popular acceptance of a uniformed force. Efforts had to be made to make the new Force acceptable to Londoners. In the past, as above mentioned, crowd control was performed by the Army, which usually ended in violence. The police improved their reputation by adopting a different appearance and behaviour to that of the military.
To conclude, I would say that the introduction of the Metropolitan helped to improve the level of general criminality in London. Why did the Whitechapel murders attract so much attention in 1888? There are a variety of reasons why the Jack the Ripper murders became so high profile in the Victorian society of 1888. First of all, the reputation of Whitechapel was already a subject of much scorn and conversation among upper class Victorian society in 1888. Whitechapel was an area in East End of London, between Algate and Spitafields.
It was a poor area, with a high concentration of foreigners and immigrants, such as Jews from Russia and Poles from Prussia. They had fled to London seeking a better life, but naturally they ended up in the slums. The East End of London was a cheap lace to live, and there was no shortage of workhouses or manual labour. By no means was Whitechapel a friendly place to live, however. Indeed, residents were suspicious of immigrants, especially Jews, and of each other. Crooks, criminals and intimidating figures stalked the streets, while drunkards and prostitutes lurched around the public houses.
The police estimated that there were 1,200 prostitutes in Whitechapel, not counting the many women who took clients from time to time to be able to afford luxuries. There were more than 200 lodging houses, which could sleep almost 9,000 people, as much as 20 in a room. Most were dirty, unhealthy environments. It was estimated that half of the children born in Whitechapel would die or become orphaned before the age of five. By the end of the 19th century, London could have been described as ‘two-faced’. Indeed, the class gap in 1888 was much wider and obvious than today. The rich were very rich, and the poor were extremely poor.
When the upper classes visited Whitechapel, they were horrified at the conditions people lived in. One person wrote: ‘The East End is a vast city, a shocking place, an evil collection of slums that hide human creeping things… ‘. There was also a report published by a rich businessman called Charles Booth in 1889, in which he described in details the appalling living conditions of the working class families in Shelton Street, near to the docks. Even though a rich man, Booth was a Liberal who was realistic about things and described what he saw: ‘In one of the parlours lived Burton and his wife. He was 60 years of age, and was a scavenger.
There had not a chair to sit on, and the room was swarming with vermin. [… ]’. However, although there are many eyewitness accounts of the East End, they were all written by rich people, who possibly might have exaggerated the living conditions of the poor, being used to higher standards of living. There is not much evidence left at the time from people who actually lived in Whitechapel. As a result what Whitechapel was really like remains shrouded in mystery, much like the murders, and it is difficult to find an unbiased view. But because Whitechapel was already notoriously rough, the murders only served to spread this reputation.
The upper classes became more and more afraid of Whitechapel, and relished the opportunity to feel superior over the working classes. Every time a new murder emerged, there would be a flood of complaints to Parliament. Another reason to the attention given to the Whitechapel murders was the development of the press of the time. The newspaper industry was fairly successful by that time, brought on by the development of transport network in Britain. A new press began to emerge, based on sensational news, which you could view as the ancestor of what we call the tabloid press nowadays.
This press gave very graphic descriptions of the Ripper murders: ‘ The stomach and abdomen had been ripped open, while the face was slashed about… ‘ (extract from the London Times, Nov 10, 1888). The Whitechapel murders were, arguably, the first high profile serial killer case in Britain. Never before had a murder been deemed important enough to be nationwide, or even worldwide, news. The murders were put to the forefront of Londoners’ minds by the press. The extreme violence of the attacks, and the fact that the Ripper never got caught for a long time, only fuelled more interest in the case.
Paradoxically, even though the interest for the murders was brought on by a salacious interest in Britain’s society, as the victims were prostitutes, there is also an element of religious superstition: for the rich Victorians of the time, Jack the Ripper represented the figure of ‘evil’, maybe sent by God to punish the working class society of Whitechapel, perceived as sinners, and poor by their own fault. Although the Victorians were known for being sexually repressed, the newspapers knew that people loved saucy, scandalous stories, the more explicit the better.
There was also a suggestion that a prominent individual, such as a member of the Royal Family, could be to blame for the murders. This gave people opportunities to speculate endlessly, making the stories roll on for months. Indeed, Prince Charles William Edward, who suffered from syphilis, was suspected to have had a relationship with one or more of the prostitutes. Hence, the Royal Family might have wanted to cover up the evidence. The mutilation of the bodies would have been done deliberately to cover any pregnancies, and to frighten witnesses into silence.
The fact that the Ripper was never caught added to the air of mystery and speculation around the case. The incompetence of the police made people want to take their own involvement in the case, possibly even thinking that they could do a better job solving it. I think that the main reason the Whitechapel murders attracted so much attention was a combination of all these reasons, making the murders a story that Britain would be unlikely to forget easily. The murders were horrific, prolific and bizarre – the mutilations seemed to be of a ritualistic nature.
Prostitutes might have been murdered before, but it was the unusual characteristics of the crimes which we remember even today. But above all, I think that the press played a major role in giving these murders a high profile and in pushing the authorities to solve the crimes. Why were the police unable to catch Jack The Ripper? The months of August to November 1888 became infamous due to the notorious Ripper murders. Certainly, one of the reasons they gained so much attention was due to the fact that the murderer was never caught – but why did the London police fail to do so?
At the time the murders happened, the Metropolitan Police Force was relatively new. The case was also new. From the first murder of Mary Nichols, the police were unaware and caught off guard in what they were dealing with. Perhaps they also did not realise how serious the situation was from the first murder. They might have taken some time to really get the investigation going, so they would always be a few steps behind the murderer. But the police’s failure to arrest and prosecute a suspect for the Whitechapel murders does not mean that they did not work hard to capture the killer.
Nearly all of the police force’s efforts were put solely on solving the case, and detectives spent many hours desperately trying to explore leads. The point is that the murders were destined to remain unsolved, because the police’s techniques were extremely limited due to the time period. At the time the only way to prove that someone had committed a murder was to catch them in the act, or to get the suspect to confess, although of course sometimes the suspect was innocent and would only confess to escape a heavier charge. The justice system was fundamentally flawed.
Police presence increased around Whitechapel at the height of the murders and police often stumbled across the victims whilst they were still warm, often minutes after the murder had happened. But the Ripper would always escape and managed not to be seen walking around the unlit streets and narrow alleyways. The Ripper knew his way around Whitechapel possibly even better than the police. Unless he was literally caught red handed, the police had little chance of actually proving anything. Investigation methods at the time were purely based on witnesses.
Police visited the common lodging houses, interviewing over 2,000 lodgers. 80,000 handbills were printed up and distributed in the neighbourhood to encourage witnesses to come forward. But the police could not even give a description of who they were looking for. Most of the local residents mistrusted the police anyway, and would refuse to tell them anything to cover up their own petty crimes. Sir Charles Warren, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, encouraged police constables to train a group of bloodhounds to ‘follow’ the scent of the killer.
But they did not have any samples of the Ripper’s clothing, and there were so many people living in Whitechapel, that it would have been impossible for a dog to find a single scent. At the height of the frantic police activity, an officer would dress up as a prostitute and act as a decoy, due to there being no women in the police force. As the unconvincing ‘prostitute’ went round the East End streets, nobody approached him and the plan failed, serving to bring ridicule on the police. So while the police were trying every possible method they were still criticized by the people and the press for being incompetent and not trying hard enough.
Queen Victoria showed her disappointment in the police by saying, “This new most ghastly murder shows the absolute necessity for some very decided action. All these courts must be lit, and our detectives improved. They are not what they should be. ” Another major limitation of the police was the lack of technology. There was no CCTV or any way of recording anything for later reference. It would have been easy for The Ripper to go unnoticed as there was nothing capturing his movements. Today, many crimes are solved because of CCTV, as the camera does not lie and the evidence is clearly there.
In Victorian times, only autopsies showed any physical information about the murderer. The doctors who did the autopsies of the bodies often disagreed about some things, such as if it was likely that the Ripper had any anatomical knowledge. The police did not understand the killer’s Modus Operandi. Forensic evidence was not yet in use. Today, police use DNA and fingerprints to catch a killer, but the Whitechapel murders occurred at a time when police still believed that taking a photograph of the victim’s eyes soon after the death would show them the image of the murderer imprinted upon them.
Any equipment that would have been useful was expensive, such as cameras or basic lights. The police failed to get a proper description of the Ripper. All of the statements taken from witnesses contradicted each other. Some witnesses could have even made it up to get attention, or would have been biased to try and get someone arrested. They could not even make up an artist’s impression of the Ripper. There was a lack of reward given to anyone who came forward with information. Henry Matthews, the Home Secretary, refused the sanction of a reward being given.
This made a lot of the residents angry and less likely to come up with evidence if there was nothing in it for them. There were two police forces carrying out the investigation of the murders. The Metropolitan Police, known as Scotland Yard, was responsible for crimes committed in all London boroughs, except in the City of London. The square mile of the city had their own police force. When Catherine Eddowes was killed, it was in their territory. Having two different forces on the same case could have caused confusion on some aspects.
It is believed that the senior officers did not work well together and failed to co-operate properly. A lack of communication could have been a vital reason why the killer was not caught. Some important things could have gone unnoticed. It was not even easy for the police to communicate with each other, due to there being no telephones, only telegrams in selected police stations that were slow to use. There was some abuse of evidence on the behalf of the police. One of the splits between the leadership of the two forces was over graffiti found in Gordon Street on the night of the ‘double event’.
There was a chalked message over the doorway near to where Eddowes was found, saying, “The Juwes are the men That Will not be Blamed for nothing. ” This may of course had been written by the Ripper and the City police officers wanted to photograph it. Chief constable of the Met police force Warren ordered it to be wiped off, in the fear that there would be an anti-Semitic onslaught upon the Jews of Whitechapel. There was already distrust in ethnic minorities from the residents, who believed the murderer was most likely a Jew.
But this evidence could have been really important to the case, as in identifying the Ripper’s handwriting. The case was made even more difficult for the police by the role of the press. Indeed, the press created several false starts or ‘red herrings’. It suggested that Jews or immigrants were responsible for the murders. Press interest drove the police to look for a quick arrest rather than looking for the real cause of the murders. The popular press sustained a national interest in the cases, which contributed to an air of hysteria.
The police arrested a number of suspects; all were subsequently released because of a lack of evidence or alibis. But in my opinion the main reason for the police incompetence to solve the murders, was a lack of scientific method and techniques in investigating the crimes. Modern police forces use a wide range of scientific techniques to collect evidence and evaluate its importance. However, I would like to point out that the problem of so-called ‘serial killers’ still exists today, despite the modern technology available.