Jack the Ripper: Political Unrest in the East End

DATED: 06.09.18

East London EnglandFollowing the murder of Annie Chapman, the streets of Whitechapel became a gathering place for curious and morbid onlookers. Thousands of people, many of them well-dressed inhabitants of the West End, came to view the murder scenes. So many people crammed into Hanbury Street that the police had to charge at them to clear a way through. Street-sellers set up stalls to sell refreshments to the crowds, and the neighbours of No 29, where Chapman's body was found, charged people to enter their rooms to view the yard where the murder took place.

In the days that followed, there was little abatement of the excitement in the streets, but the carnival atmosphere

diminished as the full horror of what had happened was realised. Public feeling became heated. Various arrests -none of which came to anything - led to huge crowds gathering outside the police stations where the suspect was rumoured to have been taken. The East London Observer reported that as darkness fell, the streets would empty and by midnight, only a few brave souls and the police remained on the streets. Truly, it was a reign of terror unprecedented in the history of East London, the newspaper concluded.

Taking Matters into their Own Hands

The streets of Spitalfields and Whitechapel were rarely quiet at night. Shops and public houses stayed open well past midnight and many opened again at dawn. Naturally, the murders and the mass panic hit local businessmen hard.

They responded by organising a Vigilance Committee. Members patrolled the streets, and a substantial reward was offered to anyone who provided information leading to the arrest and conviction of the murderer or murderers. The Vigilance Committee was highly critical of the police. It cited several recent street brawls in the area which had lasted for up to half an hour before a policeman arrived on the scene.

The police had, in fact, drafted extra men into the area, many in plain clothes and some in disguise. The police presence was particularly heavy at weekends, as it was noted that this was when the killer struck. Such efforts did little to quell public criticism.

“The Detective Department at Scotland Yard is in an utterly hopeless and worthless condition,” reported one East London newspaper. There were public meetings at which it was unanimously voted that the Home Secretary, Henry Matthews, and the Commissioner of Police, Sir Charles Warren, should resign.

Worsening Conditions

The atmosphere on the streets grew worse as the weeks passed by. People who aroused the suspicion of the populace for one reason or another were often surrounded by angry mobs. In some cases, only prompt police action prevented a lynching. A journalist attempted to attract the murderer by walking the streets dressed as a woman. This was not the best idea as the rumour going around was that the killer was wearing a similar disguise. His inept masquerade soon attracted attention and he had to be rescued from a highly threatening crowd.

The Jewish community suffered the most, and various unfounded rumours fuelled anti-Semitic feelings. Jews were assaulted in the streets. Women, especially prostitutes, were becoming very wary of strangers and newspapers reported that some women were arming themselves. One newspaper published an illustration of a group of women with a stout stick, knife and revolver.

The murders were also causing considerable concern in the corridors of power. Henry Matthews was regarded as a lynchpin of the government, but he did not take criticism well and had threatened to resign twice in 1887. Had he resigned as a result of the criticism levelled at him over the Ripper crimes, then it is possible that the government might well have fallen with him. The resulting political pressures on the police served only to increase their own desire to catch the murderer and to prove the value of the recently created CID (Criminal Investigation Department).


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The Jack the Ripper Casebook