by John Holliday (reprinted with permission of the author)
From the errors of others a wise man corrects his own. - Publius Syrus.
The mutilation-murders of women in London during the autumn of 1888 were the outrages of an inhuman creature known as Jack the Ripper. Never caught, and the archetype of femicidal maniac, he remains an inexplicable mystery. Pathological and baffling also is the Green River Killer of the Northwest United States. Yet to be apprehended, he is believed to have slain 49 women during the 1980s - nearly ten times the number of Ripper victims. The tragic failures to stop these killings have generated controversies existing to this day: Why couldn't the bobbies hunt Jack the Ripper down? What allowed the Green River fiend to slay so many women, and then escape justice? In its search for answers, this article points to serious police errors and reveals the vital lessons they hold.
Between August 31 and November 9, 1888, a most horrifying criminal phenomenon plagued London's sordid East End. Today this phenomenon is known as serial murder. Many times the victims are women. Such killings can be extremely brutal, seemingly random and apparently without motive. When a serial killer strikes, the victimized community can experience feelings of great fear and vulnerability. The alarmed public demands the murderer's immediate identification and apprehension - demands that are the urgent objectives of the police. Trying to accomplish these objectives can prove frustrating and baffling, as London's police discovered when challenged by the most abhorrent murderer in the history of Victorian England.
Victorian Police Embitter Public
About two years before the Ripper's knife crimsoned the sooty cobblestones of London's East End, Sir Charles Warren was appointed commissioner of the London Metropolitan Police Force. Soon after taking office, Warren managed to incur the enduring rancour of London's poor. His heavy-handed use of a host of mounted men and constables to disperse a bad-tempered mob of the unemployed and hungry resulted in bitter hatred for him, and distrust and antagonism for his police. Enmity for Sir Charles and his men rankled and spread during the weeks the press lambasted both for the inability to ferret out the Ripper.
The Mystery Underestimated
At the time the Ripper was slitting the throat of his first victim, Commissioner Warren was vacationing in France. It was not until after the Ripper's second killing that Warren returned to London. Also, on the day the killer claimed his second victim, Warren's assistant commissioner, Robert Anderson, left to convalesce in Europe and did not return until after the Ripper had murdered and horribly mutilated his fourth of five female victims, all impoverished prostitutes. By being absent at such a crucial time, Warren and his assistant were both not undutiful. Apparently, both men simply failed to grasp the enormity and anticipate the consequences of these sadistic murders. An additional adverse factor in the investigation, one that was a lamentable impediment to co-ordinating efforts to net the Ripper, was the long-standing, unco-operative relationship between the police forces involved - the City of London Police and the London Metropolitan Police Force. Undoubtedly, these deplorable conditions at the administrative level - Warren's inauspicious debut, critical absences, inability to accurately assess the situation, and poor co-operation between the police agencies involved - all served to hobble the manhunt for the Ripper from its start.
Perhaps of greatest consequence to the Ripper inquiry was the police administration's lack of understanding regarding the grave criminal event in progress. As the absences of Warren and Anderson indicated, the police were blind to the ghastly import and intractable nature of this violent phenomenon. Illustrative of their ignorance were Anderson's boastful words written shortly before embarking upon his health-restoring holiday on the continent: "I am convinced that the [Ripper] murder case is one which can be successfully grappled with if it is systematically taken in hand. I go so far as to say that I could myself in a few days unravel the mystery provided I could spare the time and give undivided attention to it."1 Anderson's belief that the case was so readily solvable that he could "in a few days unravel the mystery" is typical of the police's naïve estimation of the incident, one that engendered a largely conventional and unimaginative police response to an enormously demanding, criminal event.
Mired in Routine, Bobbies Failed to Foil Ripper
That Anderson, however, might have sensed a little of the crime's extraordinary nature is inferred from his terming it "the mystery". Nonetheless, the initial strategy for undoing the Ripper was quite ordinary - increase the number of bobbies in London's squalid East End. While there, police constables, who throughout the investigation had no reliable description of the killer, spent considerable time in cheap public lodging houses seeking any "suspicious" wretch. At the beginning of their manhunt, the constabulary injudiciously detained and questioned countless men. Later, jaded by this rash and vain measure, the police became reluctant to detain and check even truly suspicious persons. While the police foundered, the Ripper went on killing.
The Ripper Ruled the Night
Jack the Ripper was a night-stalking slasher of destitute women who, for a few pence, compromised their safety in the murk and muffle of East London's alleys and back yards. In some ways he was the precursor of present-day serial murders who unbridled cruelties can display several characteristics. A mark of some serial killers - one that the Ripper evinced to all London's horrified astonishment - is the escalating savagery of their deeds. It was this grisly trait that impelled a sick-minded and stealthy Jack the Ripper to ever more daring atrocities committed almost under the bobbies' buttons. London reeled from the shock of their graphic reports in the press. Insolently audacious, "Saucy Jack", maddeningly elusive, the Ripper made the police appear impotent.
The night belonged to Jack the Ripper. His terror chilled the dank autumnal fog. Women, while walking the shadowy sidewalks, shuddered and clutched their shawls tighter. Although obviously dangerous, enlisting plain clothes policewomen to pace the mean streets from midnight to dawn - hours when the killings occurred - may have snared the nocturnal street-slayer; but no women were on the force2. It is chronicled that at least one lawman, Detective Sergeant Robinson, tried to bait the Ripper by bolding sauntering the East End in womanly garb3.
An Innocent Man, and Evidence Destroyed
Early in the inquiry, the cloak of suspicion fell unjustly upon a local boot-finisher, John "Jack" Pizer. The much-publicized arrest of this unfortunate man was done less from reasonable cause than to soothe and placate the fearful and clamorous public. For a while this device succeeded, but it cost precious time, diverted the investigation, wounded the reputation of an innocent man, and no doubt delighted Jack the Riper. Eventually, Pizer sued for libel. One of the greatest blunders of the case was Commissioner Warren's erasure of what was probably the Ripper's handwriting on a passage wall. Thus went unphotographed the sole handwriting example that might have determined the genuineness of letters in police possession purporting to be from the killer.
A Promising Method Abandoned
It was clear that the investigation was failing. The people grew more alarmed and frustrated; the press, more critical. Both were profuse in their advice on how to catch the cunning killer. Innovative at the time, but to some ridiculous, was the suggestion in a newspaper editorial to use tracking dogs in London. Commissioner Warren, on the recommendation of the Home Secretary, explored the idea4. Borrowing two champion bloodhounds, he personally tested their trailing instincts. Weeks later, the matchless opportunity arose to start the dogs at the fresh scene of probably the final, and certainly the most hideously rampant, of all the Ripper's butcheries - the virtual dissection of a youthful and spirited Mary Kelly in her little ground-floor room. Outside Kelly's room, exasperated Metropolitan police waited hours for the bloodhounds to arrive. Warren, however, failed to notify his men that he had had the canines returned to their owner, Edwin Brough of Scarborough5. Hence, the keen-scented dogs were denied a try at tracking the Ripper to his lair.
A Wooden Inquiry
In comparison with today's standard procedure, few police reports were written relevant to the case. Much of the information about the East End horrors was recorded by enterprising Victorian journalists. Of what can be learned from newspapers, scant police records, autopsy reports, and various memoirs, insufficient police attention was paid to forensic details, interviewing, and information management/co-ordination. Overall, the Ripper investigation was badly managed and woodenly carried out, factors which inadvertently helped the misogynous monster to run amuck. To this day, known only by the nickname6 "Jack the Ripper", the killer abides in vilest infamy.
Serial Murder - Rare but Overwhelming
It must be remembered, however, that the Jack the Ripper killings took place in 1888 when modern policing was evolving; the use of bloodhounds for urban-trailing was derided, and other important police and forensic methods were just developing. For example, not until 1892 was a crime solved chiefly through fingerprinting evidence7. Of course, Jack the Ripper was not the first of the deadly sort, but at the turn of the 19th century little was known about serial killers, or their traumatic effects on society. Even today, in part because of limited data, experts are still uncertain about the nature and nurture of these callous killers. What is certain is that even in the most violent, developed country in the world - the United States - serial murder remains a rare crime, but one that can paralyze a community and overburden the material and human resources of the finest police departments. Unless aided by competent outside experts and bolstered by additional law enforcement agencies, many present-day police departments cannot be expected to adequately investigate and resolve such murderous incidents should they occur in their jurisdiction.
The Green River Killer and the Seattle Times Report
Police, as it is often said, are the thin blue line preserving society from chaos. That line, and the public's confidence in it, are strengthened when police competently respond to the extreme episodic violence of serial murder. Unfortunately, some police departments as well as some outside experts who assist them, have committed grievous mistakes similar to those of the London Metropolitan Police Force in its hunt for Jack the Ripper. To see such law enforcement errors and tragic shortcomings reminiscent of the bobbies' botchers of yore, which in our time have inadvertently frustrated efforts to catch such killers, one need only review certain well known serial murder investigations.
An instructive example is the Green River Killer case in the Northwest United States, so named because the first victims attributed to the killer were discovered in and about the Green River. The Green River Killer episode is the most sinister and challenging serial femicide case of this century. In The Seattle Times special report by Carlton Smith and Thomas Guillen8, "Green River, What Went Wrong?" one learns that between 1982 and 1984 a cleverly elusive and unidentified serial murderer slew literally scores of women, primarily veteran streetwalkers. According to this chilling report, vice officers - rarely on duty at weekends, " ... even though each of the first six of the first eight known victims was last seen on a Saturday or Sunday," wasted critical time and resources in rousting prostitutes instead of covertly scrutinizing the women's customers. Obviously, arresting the prostitutes most likely discouraged their coming forward with any information or readily approaching police about suspicious persons. The Seattle Times report also disclosed the police, early in the investigation, usually neglected to note the type of license plate numbers of vehicles driven by the prostitutes' customers. Of course, one of these customers may have been the insatiable killer.
In the report, one sees events parallel with those of the Ripper inquiry. Initially, the police underestimated the extent and enormity of the femicidal phenomenon, in this case by not reckoning women recently missing as possibly murdered by the Seattle area slayer. Also, while police patrolled close by, the killer preyed on strolling prostitutes. And, early in the search for the prowling predator, the police expended too much precious time and resources focusing their investigation on the wrong man - a hapless taxicab driver who happened to fit the FBI's profile. "Meanwhile, the real killer continued to pick up women on the streets of South King county and murder them undetected," recounts The Seattle Times report.
Unlike the Ripper hunt, women police officers were enlisted to decoy "customers". Nonetheless, it was thought too dangerous for these game women officers to enter a customer's vehicle in the hope of snaring the killer. In the Ripper inquiry, adequate record keeping, and information management/co-ordination was practically nonexistent; in the Green River Killer case, it was too late in coming. In both investigations, the working relationship between the involved local law enforcement agencies and their rapport with the most relevant group of society was not ideal. And in both investigations, police did not have the in-house expertise and resources to accurately gauge the situation, grasp its significant factors, and immediately muster an appropriate and able response. Even if the Jack the Ripper, and Green River Killer investigations had initially possessed the necessary capabilities, their investigations could not have endured the absence of key people, poor public relations, interagency disharmony, bad judgments at any level, missed opportunities, or the exclusion of women from highly dangerous police work.
Little Room for Error
Could the likes of Jack the Ripper and the Green River Killer elude today's police, at least long enough to reap a number of victims? Unfortunately, they probably could. Killers of that ilk are not prone to making their identification and capture easy. Just to quickly foil, let alone apprehend, those morally mad but wary murderers often hinges on police promptly discerning the nature and extent of the killings, quickly detecting and unerringly comprehending their significant factors, and effecting an immediate, commensurate and unrelenting response. The recent history of serial murder investigations in Britain9 and the United States shows that such high levels of proficiency and capability are sometimes lacking even in the finest police departments and inconsistently available from outside agencies.
No single mistake decisively determined the fate of either Jack the Ripper or the Green River Killer investigations. An accumulation of judgmental and procedural police miscues eventually rendered almost impossible these difficult, but achievable, investigative endeavours.
These tragic cases hold vital and urgent lessons for police everywhere. Murders of women would probably have been prevented if the law enforcement agencies involved had not made several serious errors; and, to ignore this unsettling fact is to risk repeating similar fatal mistakes. Such are the painful and compelling lessons these cases hold. If heeded, these lessons can help save others from the likes of Jack the Ripper and the Green River Killer.
NOTES AND REFERECES
1. Begg, Paul, Jack the Ripper, the Uncensored Facts, Robson Books, Bolsover House, 5-6 Clipstonen Street, London W1P 7EB, 1988, page 51. Italics mine.
2. According to a footnote in Tom A. Cullen's When London Walked in Terror, Houghton Mifflin, 1965, page 138, The Sunday Chronicle in 1949 disclosed that 82-year-old Amelia Brown of Peckham, England, claimed that the police used her as a decoy during the Jack the Ripper hunt.
3. Ibid, page 139.
4. Begg, page 242, #57 of Notes and References for Chapter 10.
5. Cullen, page 194.
6. What was Jack the Ripper's true name? Of the various attempts to answer this question, mostly clearly preposterous, a few scarcely plausible, none has yet succeeded. Not to be disheartened, however, Ripperologists are relentlessly scrutinizing their favourite suspects to determine if any one of them warrants the loathsome title. Of those being examined, the most suspicious and least conjectural is - some students of the murders believe - John McCarthy, Mary Kelly's landlord. The killer's actual name, however, shall remain anyone's guess until the unlikely discovery of new evidence that conclusively establishes his true identity.
7. The first instance of a crime being solved mainly through fingerprint evidence took place in Argentina in 1892. See Encyclopedia of World Crime, Vol IV, Identification Systems, Jay Robert Nash, Crime Books Inc, Wilmette, ILL 1990.
8. In an important book, The Search for the Green River Killer, (Onyx Books, 375 Hudson St., New York, NY 10014) authors Carlton Smith and Thomas Guillen give a comprehensive account of the Green River Killer investigation.
9. Britain's extensive Yorkshire Ripper investigation was seriously flawed. Besides disastrously diverting their search police missed evidence incriminating 35-year-old Peter William Sutcliffe, whom they interviewed numerous times. The exhausting and expensive manhunt for a latter-day Jack the Ripper ended with Sutcliffe's arrest, but not until he brutally murdered over a dozen women from 1975 through 1980.
The author thanks The Seattle Times for written permission to quote from, "Green River, What Went Wrong?"