The Whitechapel Murders and Outcast London

‘Murder as an Advertisement’, Pall Mall Gazette, 18 September, 1888.

On the 18th September 1888, ten days after the brutal murder of Annie Chapman in a back court, campaigning newspaper editor W.T. Stead claimed that the Whitechapel murderer – later dubbed ‘Jack the Ripper’ as a result of press coverage of a series of murders between August and November 1888 – was a kind of social scientist:

There have been many theories started about the Whitechapel murders, but so far no one has propounded as the most probable hypothesis the theory that they are the work of a Scientific Humanitarian. We may be in the presence of a Sociologist PASTEUR, capable of taking a scientific survey of the condition of society, and absolutely indifferent to the sufferings of the individual so long as he benefited the community at large. [1]

Pall Mall Gazette, 8 September 1888

Stead was not seriously claiming that the Whitechapel murderer was actually a humanitarian but, in his typical sensational style, suggesting that these crimes highlighted the consequences of the ‘slum’ living conditions of the East End of London. From the mid-1880s, Stead’s newspaper, the Pall Mall Gazette, was involved in numerous campaigns to draw attention to what he considered the social and moral evils at the very heart of the imperial metropolis. Analysing Stead’s article allows us to answer Robert F. Haggard’s call to consider how these crimes reinforced ‘larger longstanding concerns and preconceived notions’ about class, sexuality, race and nation in the 1880s.[2]

By the time that Stead moved from his native North East to take up the editorship of the Pall Mall Gazette in 1883, the ‘East End’ had already become the focus of numerous sensational articles and pamphlets that stressed the extreme poverty that lay only steps away from the extreme wealth of the foremost city of the British Empire, and yet remained completely unknown to most of their readers. For instance, journalist George R. Sims, in How the Poor Live (1883) sought to expose ‘a dark continent that is within easy walking distance of the General Post Office … as interesting as any of those newly-explored lands which engage the attention of the Royal Geographical Society’. [3] Stead promoted The Bitter Cry of Outcast London (1883), a sensationalist pamphlet written by Congregationalist clergyman Andrew Mearns, which claimed that the ‘low parts of London are the sink into which the filthy and abominable from all parts of the country seem to flow’.[4]

In response to Mearns, Stead argued that:

The mass of well-meaning indolent people should be made continually to see – not merely to realize in the abstract, but to have before them as a vivid haunting picture – the misery which goes on disregarded by them at their own back doors.[5]

Stead went on to turn his liberal ‘gentlemen’s newspaper’ into an organ of social reform and, using a variety of new journalistic techniques such as interviews, sensational headlines and sub-headings, became embroiled in several controversial campaigns in the mid-1880s relating to both imperial politics (for example, campaigning to send General Gordon to defend the Sudan in 1884) and domestic social issues, the two being constantly juxtaposed on the newspaper page. As Judith Walkowitz has argued, Stead’s 1885 series of articles on child prostitution in London, ‘The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon‘, saw him meld traditional melodrama with elements of Victorian pornography to create a narrative of sexual danger which connected the slum children of the East End with the decadent gentlemen of the West. [6] This vice, immorality and decadence was seen as a danger to the moral health of the nation and, indeed, the Empire.

PMG Sept 12
Pall Mall Gazette, 12 September 1888

The Pall Mall Gazette‘s coverage of the ‘Whitechapel Murders’ in September and October 1888 constantly referenced these earlier campaigns and connected the crimes to the ‘condition of the poor in Whitechapel’.[7] On September 12, the PMG reprinted the Conservative Morning Post’s claim that the murders highlighted the ’hideous condition in which thousands, tens of thousands, of our fellow-creatures live, in this boasted nineteenth century, and in the very heart of the wealthiest, the healthiest, the most civilised city in the world’. [8]

This focus on living conditions was reinforced by illustrations of the lodging house in which Annie Chapman had been staying and the court in which the murder had taken place (see picture above). This was a part of the East End that had particularly exercised missionaries and reformers in the 1880s. Hanbury Street, in which Chapman was murdered, was the location of a Salvation Army shelter, while the Reverend Samuel Barnett’s Toynbee Hall settlement was nearby. [9] The map of the area (see below) published on 2 October strikingly highlighted the proximity of the murder sites to the police station, church and hospital. Stead’s mention of Barnett in ‘Murder as an Advertisement’ and his insistence that violence had publicised the problem of the slum more than anything else, may suggest that he thought that more than philanthropy was needed. However, Stead appears sceptical of social science – the ‘sociologist’ and his ‘scientific survey’ – and a more objective approach to the problems that he had been highlighting with melodramatic stories focusing ‘on the sufferings of the individual’.

PMG scene
Pall Mall Gazette, 2 October 1888

Stead’s characterisation of the Whitechapel murderer as a social scientist seems unusual when compared with the more lurid and sensational details of the murders found in much of the press. The Pall Mall Gazette, like the others, certainly stoked popular fears about sex and race (the murderer was, at various times, revealed to be Jewish, Malay and French). But we can also see Stead’s mention of sociology, surveys and science in this article as as an illustration of how sensational and melodramatic exposes of poverty were beginning to be supplemented and challenged by social theorists also increasingly concerned with the impact of poverty on ‘society, nation, Empire and race’. [10]

References

  1. ‘Murder as an Advertisement’. Pall Mall Gazette, 18 September 1888. [All references to the Pall-Mall Gazette accessed through Nineteenth Century British Library Newspapers.] Available online in plain text at the W.T. Stead Resource Site.
  2. Haggard, Robert F. ‘Jack the Ripper as the Threat of Outcast London’, in Warwick, Alexandra and Willis, Martin (eds). Jack the Ripper: Media, Culture, History (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007), p. 197.
  3. Sims, George R. How the Poor Live and Horrible London. (London: Chatto and Windus, 1889), p. 1.
  4. Mearns, Andrew. The Bitter Cry of Outcast London. (London: James Clark & Co., 1883), p. 13.
  5. ‘”Outcast London” – Where to Begin?’. Pall Mall Gazette, 23 October 1883.
  6. Walkowitz, Judith. City of Dreadful Delight. (London: Virago, 1993), pp. 81-120.
  7. ‘The Moral of the Whitechapel Murders’. Pall Mall Gazette, 12 September 1888.
  8. ‘The Moral of the Whitechapel Murders’.
  9. Walkowitz. City of Dreadful Delight, p. 111.
  10. Harris, Jose. Private Lives and Public Spirit: A Social History of Britain 1870-1914 (Oxford:Clarendon Press, 1993), p. 231.
Advertisements