‘Silently, swiftly, and remorselessly’: the mythologising of a serial killer in the London press

Unknown

On the evening of the 1 October 1888 the Standard newspaper carried this report on page four:

Ripper

This was the infamous ‘double event’ when the killer known only as ‘Jack the Ripper’ killed twice within a matter of hours. We might it strange that it wasn’t ‘front page news’ as such a crime would be today but then nineteenth-century newspapers tended to carry adverts on the cover page, not news.

The Whitechapel murders were the news story of the day, relegating almost all other stories to ‘second best’ and bringing hoards of journalists, ‘dark tourists’, and ‘slummers’ to the East End to see where it all happened and to talk to the nervous locals.

The Standard went on to discuss the murders in a longer article on the same page. It described the killer as having an ‘absolutely demonical thirst for blood’ and dubbed him ‘a human fiend’. It also credited the murderer with ‘a swiftness, a dexterity, a noiselessness, and, we might almost say, a scientific skill’ which it suggested was a ‘very rare accomplishment in the class from which murderers are commonly drawn’.

Given that most of the murderers convicted at the Old Bailey in the nineteenth century might reasonably be described as working class and given that the Victorians blamed most serious crime on the so-called ‘criminal class’ (a class existing below the ranks of the working class), it follows that this editorial’s writer held a fairly low opinion of the ordinary working class man in the street.

The Standard launched in 1827 as an evening paper, and later a morning edition as well. It briefly challenged The Times for daily circulation and we might see it as a serious conservative organ. It was hardly likely then to be widely read by the working man.

The report of Catherine Eddowes’ murder in Mitre Square is full of quiet admiration for the ‘skill’ of the murderer:

 ‘Silently, swiftly, and remorselessly , the murderer performed operations which a practiced surgeon, working with all his appliances about him, could hardly have effected in the time; and then, as usual, disappeared, leaving not a shred of evidence behind by which he could be traced’.

The Standard was, like many of the other papers of the day, helping (albeit indirectly) to create the myth of ‘Jack the Ripper’; he was (so this rhetoric suggested) a fantastical figure who roamed the streets and attacked women at will, right under the noses of the impotent police force. He possessed almost super human skills, had a bestial nature, and an intelligence or animal cunning that far exceeded any of the other denizens of the East End or the ‘plod’ that were searching for him.

The Standard did call for calm and dismissed ideas (circulating elsewhere) that the murders were a reflection of the state of Britain in the 1880s:

‘Terrible as they are’, it said, the murders ‘do not show either that society is rotten to the core, or that human life is less safe in the centre of London than it is in the wilds of Texas. We are not all liable to be hacked to pieces in the streets, or murdered in our beds, because some diabolical maniac can decoy the outcasts of the pavement into dark corners and kill them’.

Finally the paper wrote that the killer must be caught and it urged the police to concentrate their efforts on the area in which the murders took place. The killer must be local it stated:

He was either a ‘resident of in a particular quarter of the East End, or, at any rate, an habitué there. He must have a haunt near the western portion of the Whitechapel-road, from which he issues before the commission of one of his crimes, and to which he ventures swiftly after the deed is done’.

The paper was at pains to dismiss the idea that the killer was a doctor or surgeon but it believed that he must have a working knowledge of anatomy, or at least was familiar with the dissection of ‘of the human or animal body’. He could be caught however, by persistent and determined police work, a task the Standard declared, that it had confidence the police could and would fulfil.

So, in this brief editorial from the day after the ‘double event’ we get very many of the themes associated with the Ripper murders. There is the notion of the mythical killer, the press attention, the moral panic that consumed London, the impotence (or otherwise) of the Metropolitan Police, the nature of the victims, elite attitudes towards the lower class, and the idea that the East End of London and killings there reflected in some ways the cancer at the heart of the British Empire.

This is why I continue to research and teach about the Whitechapel murders, because it is a rich source of discussion and debate about so many things in late Victorian London, and this is why so many people remain fascinated by the topic.

[from The Standard, Monday, October 01, 1888]

Drew’s new book (co-authored by Andy Wise) is published by Amberley Books. It is a new study of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 which offers up a new suspect, links the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings to the unsolved ‘Thames Torso’ crimes, and provides the reader with important contextual history of Victorian London. The book is available on Amazon here

Jack and the Thames Torso Murders – a new Ripper?

Unknown

Today’s blog is something different. As I’m sure many regular readers will have noticed on Saturday my latest book is released by Amberley Books.  Instead of delving into the pages of the Victorian press I thought that today I would give you an overview of the book and some of my reasons for writing it.

Jack and the Thames Torso Murders: A New Ripper?, is, as it title suggests a study of two sets of murders that took place in London between 1887 and 1891. I’ve not written this alone; the idea for the book and much of the research to discover the identity of the killer, has been carried out by my co-author, friend and former student, Andrew Wise. Andy first brought the culprit to my attention and he worked very hard to persuade me to co-author this with him.

I was never keen to get involved in the unmasking of a long dead serial killer; I’ve studied the Whitechapel Murder case for over a decade, teaching it at Northampton University and giving talks on it to all manner of groups up and down the country. I’ve always thought there is much to learn from the dark history of ‘Jack the Ripper’ but, strangely, identifying ‘Jack’ wasn’t always at the top of my agenda.

I thought it impossible and somewhat beside the point but Andy persuaded me that if we applied solid historical research methods and rigor not only might we uncover the killer we might also be able to shed some light on his motives and the reason he was never captured. This would then provide some sort of closure for the victims and remind society that this was an extremely unpleasant and damaged individual and not some anti-hero who stepped – caped and top hatted – from the pages of some mythical Victoriana. Unmasking ‘Jack’ then had as much to do with dispelling some well-worn myths about the murders and the murderer as it did with bringing a serial killer to face some form of ‘justice’.

pinchinThe book links two sets of murders – the famous ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings of 1888 and the less well-known Thames Torso murders of 1887-89. While the unknown killer who has been given the sobriquet ‘Jack the Ripper’ is usually credited with killing five women between late August and early November 1888 we brought his tally to 13, with an additional three attempted murders.

So, alongside the well know ‘canonical five’ of: Mary Ann ‘Polly’ Nichols, ‘Dark’ Annie Chapman, Elizabeth ‘Long ‘Liz’ Stride, Catherine ‘Kate’ Eddowes, and Mary ‘Marie Jeanette’ Kelly we add the names of Rose Mylett, Alice McKenzie, Elizabeth Jackson, Frances Coles and three other unidentifiable torso victims. We believe he also tried to kill Annie Millwood, Ada Wilson and Anne Farmer, and possibly several others. This then was a ruthless serial killer whose impact on the area in which he lived and worked was much greater than history has previously recorded.

In researching this book we chose to look at the sort of man that might be capable of such a horrific series of killings and at his motivations. Means, motive and opportunity are at the heart of any murder investigation so we decided to place them front and centre of ours. Instead of relying on historical artifacts (like the blood stained shawl supposedly left on the body of Kate Eddowes, or the killer’s confessional diary) we looked at the nature of transport links, at the geography of London in relation to the murders, and at the kind of work that might allow someone the opportunity to kill and evade the law for several years.

We named our suspect as James Hardiman, a local man who lived in a variety of homes in the 1880s. He lived with his wife in Heneage Street at the centre of the Whitechapel ‘killing zone’ (see map below – just above the entry for Emma Smith) . He also had digs in Central London not far from the Thames and the site of more than one of the Torso discoveries.  Hardiman’s family even lived in Hanbury Street where Annie Chapman’s mutilated body was found in September 1888. They had also lodged in Dorset Street, where Mary Kelly was so fearfully murdered in November.

1888_whitechapel_london_murder_map

It was out belief that the killer had to be local and had to be able to blend into the background – to hide in plain sight – so the idea that he could have been an aristocrat of prince of the realm, or even a doctor with a  Gladstone bag made no sense to us. Instead Hardiman was a slaughterman working for the largest firm of horse slaughterers in London with access to all their many yards across the capital. He had total freedom of movement after his wife was taken ill and then died and he used the transport networks of the city extensively to travel all over and commit his crimes with virtual impunity.

His motivation was revenge, but revenge augmented by a deep-seated misogyny made worse by his deteriorating mental health. He had contracted syphilis for which he blamed local prostitutes. He passed the disease to his wife and thence to their unborn daughter who barely survived a year from her birth. Instead of looking at his own responsibility for this tragedy Hardiman struck out at that vulnerable class of women that society increasingly demonized in the late Victorian age.  Driven half mad by grief, anger and self medicating with mercury it is our contention that James Hardiman was the killer known to history as ‘Jack the Ripper’.

We don’t expect everyone to be convinced by our thesis but we think it bears scrutiny at least. I found  it fascinating to write and in a final chapter I have tried to make sense of our seemingly endless fascination with ‘Jack’. Have we solved the 130 year old mystery?  That’s for others to decide, I just hope Andy and I have produced a book that people will want to read and to discuss.

Drew Gray

Jack and the Thames Torso Murders: A New Ripper? is published by Amberley Books on June 15 2019 and is available to order here.