Sunday 6 February 2011

"You are Jack the Ripper"

The widespread excitement caused by the Jack the Ripper murders of 1888 led to a rash of accusations by the general public against 'suspicious' individuals. Some were understandable:
STRANGE SCENE IN WHITECHAPEL. AN INNOCENT SUSPECT MOBBED. LONDON, Wednesday Night.   About six o'clock this evening, a man, whose name was subsequently ascertained to be John Lock, a seaman, was rescued by police from an excited crowd in the neighbourhood of Ratcliffe Highway, who were following him and shouting "Leather Apron" and "Jack the Ripper." The cause was not readily explained. When, hwoever, he was examined at Police Station his light tweed suit was found to bear stains, which was found to be paint, but which the crowd had mistaken for blood. His explanation was perfectly satisfactory; but it was some considerable time before the crowd dispersed, and the man was able to depart.
The above, at least, was a genuine suspicion, whereas the following case sounds like mischief-making:
MISTAKEN FOR "JACK THE RIPPER". - A working man asked Mr. Lushington's advice under the following circumstances. - A few days ago he had occasion to go to the Regent's Canal Docks, when he was followed by a crowd, who charged him with being "Jack the Ripper" and gave him into custody. In answer to Mr. Lushington, the applicant said that he was taken to the police-station and detained there two or three hours. By that detention great injury was done him, and in consequence he lost a job. He believed the men who gave him into custody did it simply out of malice. Mr. Lushington said if that was the case he could bring an action against the persons.
The  murders had, of course, permeated the national consciousness in a unique way. Men used the Ripper as a bogeyman, when threatening women:
SELF-STYLED "JACK THE RIPPER" IN MANCHESTER. On Wednesday morning, at the Manchester City Police Court, a respectably-dressed young man named Stephen Rourke, described as a warehouseman, living in Foster-street, Ardwick, was charged with annoying and using threatening language towards Sarah Burgess, wife of a cab-driver, living in Argyll-street, Hulme. On Wednesday morning, about 20 minutes past 12, as Mrs Burgess was returning home along Lower Moss-lane, the prisoner, she stated, accosted her. She refused to have anything to do with him, but he continued to annoy her, and followed her, as far as Clopton-street. There he asked her it she knew who he was. She replied that she did not, and be said he was "Jack the Ripper," and threatened her with violence unless she complied with his wishes. She avoided him as far as she could, and a young man coming to her assistance the prisoner was given into the custody of Police-constable John Moore. The magistrates remanded the prisoner in order that further enquiries might be made into the case. 
Some women, in turn, were happy to adopt the same language - here, a case in Birmingham:
"She threatened to 'Whitechapel' him. The prosecutrix interefered, whereupon prisoner threatened to 'Jack the Ripper' her, and struck her on the hand with a knife."
The number of drunks who claimed to be 'that Whitechapel bloke' were innumerable; and you have to wonder if the real culprit was lost amidst a sea of false confessions and bogus letter-writing.
   The best account of this behavior is probably from the eccentric diarist Arthur Munby, admittedly a solitary individual, given to questioning young women about their lives and working habits. He had a narrow escape in Shropshire ... a draft of this anonymous letter, published in the Times of 15 October, 1888, was found in his papers:
Sir,—I have been a good deal about England of late, and have been witness of the strong interest and widespread excitement which the Whitechapel murders have caused and are causing. Everywhere I have been asked about them; especially by working folk, and most especially by working women. Last week, for instance, in an .agricultural county I shared my umbrella during heavy rain with a maid servant, who was going home. "Is it true, Sir," said she, "that they're a-cutting down the feminine seck in London?" And she explained herself to mean that "they was a'murdering of 'em by ones and twos." This is but one of many examples, and my own main interest in the matter is, that I myself have been taken for the mdrderer. And if I; why not any other elderly gentleman of quiet habits? It may therefore be well to record the fact by way of warning.
    Two days ago I was in one of the mining districts, I had just called on my friend the parson of the parish, and. was walking back in the twilight, alone, across certain lonely, grimy fields among the pits and forges. Suddenly I was approached from behind by a party of seven stout colliers lads, each of them about 18 years old, except their leader, who was a stalwart young fellow of 28 or so, more than 6ft. high. He rudely demanded my name, which, of course, I refused to give. "Then;" said he, "You are Jack the Ripper, and you'll come along wi' us to the police at— naming the nearest town, two miles off. I inquired what authority he had for proposing this arrangement. He hesitated a moment, and then replied that he was himself a constable, and had a warrant (against me, I suppose), but had left it at home. " And," he added fiercely, " if you don't come quietly at once, I'll draw my revolver and blow your brains out." "Draw it, then," said I, feeling pretty sure that he had no revolver. He did not draw it; and I told him that I should certainly not go with him. All this time I noticed that, though the whole seven stood around me, gesticulating and threatening, not one of them attempted to touch me. And, while I was considering how to accomplish my negative purpose, I saw a forge-man coming acioss the field from his work. Him I hailed; and, when he came.up, I explained that these fellows were insulting me, and that, as the odds were seven to one, he ought to stand by me. He was a dull, quiet man, elderly like myself, and (as he justly remarked) quite ready for his tea. But, being an honest workman, he agreed to stand by me; and he and I moved away in spite of the leader of the gang, who vowed that he would take my ally in charge as well as me. The enemy, however, were not yet routed. They consulted toether, and very soon pursued and overtook us; for we took care not to seem as fugitives. But, meanwhile, I had decided what to do, and had told my friend that I would walk with him as far as our ways lay together, and then I would trouble him to turn aside with me, up to the cottage of a certain stout and worthy pitman whom I knew. Thus, then, we walked on over barren fields and slag-heaps for half a mile, surrounded by the seven colliers, who pressed in upon me, but still never touched me, though their leader continued his threats, freely observed that, whatever I might do, I should certainly go with him to the town.  At last we came into the road at a lonesome and murderous-looking spot, commanded on all sides by the mountainous shale-hills of disused pits. Up among these ran the path that led to the pit- men's dwellings which I was making for. When we reached it, I said to my friend the forgeman, "This is our waym" and turned towards the path. "That's not your way," shouted the tall man, "you'll come along the road with us," and he laid his hand on my collar. I shook him off, and informed him that he had now committed an assault, for which I could myself give him in charge. Perhaps it was only post hoc ergo propter hoc, but, at any rate, he made no further attempt to prevent me and my friend from ascending the by-way. He stuck to us, however, he and his mates; swearing that he would follow me all the night, if need were. We were soon on the top of the col, if I may so call it, from, which the pitmen's cottages, lighted within, were visible in the darkness against a starry sky. "That is where I am going," I said aloud. To my surprise, the tall man answered in a somewhat altered tone', " How long shall you be?" "That depends," I replied; "you had better come to the house with me." "No," said he, "I shall wait for you here;" and the forgeman and I walked up to the cottage together. At its door I dismissed my ally with thanks and a grateful coin; and, entering in, I told my tale to my friend the stout pitman and his hearty wife, who heard it with indignation. In less than a minute, he and I sallied from his dwelling in search of the fellows who had dogged me. But they had vanished. Seeing me received and welcomed by people whom they knew, they doubtless felt that pursnit was futile and suspicion vain.
     Now, I do not object. to adventures, even in the decline of—life;. nor do I much blame my antagonists, whether their motive were righteous indignation, or, as is more likely, the hope of reward. But I think them guilty of.a serious and even dangerous error of judgment in not distinguishing between the appearance of Jack the Ripper and that of your obedient servant,


  1. Munby was a great writer. I heartily commend his edited secret diary "Munby : A Man of Two Worlds" which was published in the 1970s and probably can be had cheap on