|A Ripper Notes Article
|This article originally appeared in Ripper Notes. Ripper Notes is the only American Ripper periodical available on the market, and has quickly grown into one of the more substantial offerings in the genre. For more information, view our Ripper Notes page. Our thanks to the editor of Ripper Notes for permission to reprint this article.
By Don Souden
Don Souden is a freelance journalist, author and occasional baseball player who lives in Connecticuts's panhandle socket. His latest mystery novel is The Same ... Only Different.
Thanks to the telegraph cables that spanned the globe, newspapers around the world were able to bring to their readers on November 10, 1888, the horrible details of a murder that occurred in London the day before. The badly mutilated body of Mary Jane Lawrence, her head severed from her body and placed between her legs, was discovered by friends in an outbuilding of a stable yard known as Cartin's Court. Three bloodhounds were reported to be in hot pursuit of the fiend responsible for the murder, and Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Charles Warren was himself on the scene directing operations.
If the previous paragraph seems to be describing a murder with which crime historians are quite unfamiliar there is a good reason for that because it never happened. Yet, that apocryphal story is only an amalgam of some of the many bits of misinformation disseminated by the press in the first few days after the death of Mary Jane Kelly in her room at 13 Miller's Court. Indeed, she was variously identified as Lizzie Fisher, Mary Jane Lawrence, Fair Emma, and "Ginger" as well as Mary Jane Kelly/Marie Jeannette Kelly, while the Bournemouth Visitors Directory managed three different forms of Mary Jane Kelly in one short article on November 14.
Similarly, the site of the murder was called Cartin's Court, Mellow Court, McCarthy's Court, Dorset Court and eventually Miller's Court. At least those variations are easily explained. The small court was known colloquially as "McCarthy's Court," and that name could have been slurred into something a reporter's ear rendered as "Cartin's." In the same way, Miller's Court may have sounded like "Mellow" to another reporter unfamiliar with the area. Many of the other mistakes in the initial reports, however, defy comprehension and can only suggest very sloppy work by the journalists involved.
The scene of the crime was sometimes described as being an outbuilding or shed and even many of those stories that correctly reported that the murder happened in a room said it was on the second floor. Then there were the stories that had the murder occurring in a building that was the equivalent of what would today be called a "hot-pillow motel," that is a house of assignation where rooms were rented for the night by amorous couples. That the Port Phillip (Australia) Herald would make such a suggestion, as far removed from the scene as it was, is possibly pardonable, but the East London Observer, on November 10, 1888, reported thusly:
To the Observer's credit, it did go on to state there were only two bloodhounds on the scent. True, they weren't employed at all, but at least the number was correct.
According to all accounts, the woman who was murdered was not a regular habitué of the place; on the contrary, she was rather well dressed, apparently about twenty-five years of age, and even good looking. As to what time she came to the house on Friday morning, and as to a description of the man who accompanied her, no definite information has been received at the time of writing, thanks to the reticence of the police. This much, however, has been found, that some payment was made by the man for the use of the room; that that payment was received by someone residing in the house; and that the murderer and his victim entered the place in the small hours of Friday morning ....
In the same way, most of the newspapers got some of the details correct, even in their earliest accounts, but overall the quality of the reporting was very bad. Not only were the names of people and places rendered inaccurately, but also all manner of rumors were retold as fact. As a result, stories that continue to frustrate Ripperologists to this day - like the tale that Mary Jane Kelly had a son (described as anywhere from seven- to 11-years-old) living with her - gained immediate currency, and the deeper we dig into newspaper reports the less reliable they become.
The reasons for this sad state of affairs were many, but one important one (already alluded to in the quotation from the Observer) was the refusal of the Metropolitan Police to practice anything like modern press relations. The press corps was excluded from crime scenes and given scant information, something that had caused the London Star to write after the murders of Stride and Eddowes:
In New York, where the escape of a murderer is as rare as it is common here, the reporters are far more active agents in ferreting out crime than the detectives. They are no more numerous or more intelligent than the reporters of London, but they are given every facility and opportunity to get all the facts and no part of any case is hidden from them unless the detectives' plan makes it necessary to keep it a secret. The consequence is that a large number of sharp and experienced eyes are focused upon every point of a case, a number of different theories develop which the reporters follow up, and instances in which the detection of a criminal is due to a newspaper reporter are simply too common to create any particular comment ... The sooner the police authorities appreciate and act on this the sooner the Whitechapel fiend will be captured and human life in London rendered a little more safe.
Of course, the Star was openly critical of the Metropolitan Police, from Warren down to the lowliest beat-walker, and its description of police-press relations (then or now) in the United States was overly generous. Moreover, its letters columns (and those of rival newspapers) were filled full with theories and suggestions about capturing the Ripper, so there was no dearth of input upon which reporters might act. Further, the way some newspapers would prominently mention detectives relatively low in the hierarchy suggests that they had developed news sources within the department. Finally, the November 10, 1888, New York Sun account of the murder, which seems to have been written by its own correspondent, observed archly, "The police do nothing but observe secrecy - a secrecy easily melted with a half crown, by the way."
Nonetheless, most reporters were forced to scramble for whatever information they could obtain from dubious sources and this was never more obvious than in the immediate aftermath of the Kelly murder. Unlike the other murders ascribed to the Ripper, this one was not discovered until nearly mid-day, and that meant the number of the curious drawn to Dorset Street, even with the competing Lord Mayor's Day festivities, was commensurately larger. With reporters specifically excluded from the scene, they had to seek information from anyone claiming knowledge of the deceased - and there seems to have been many in that category.
One of those sources of information was Dr. J. R. Gabe of Mecklenburgh Square, whose name appears in early stories about the murder as one of the physicians immediately called to Miller's Court. The November 10, 1888, Daily Telegraph account included: "Dr. J. R. Gabe, who viewed the body, said he had seen a great deal in dissecting rooms, but he had never witnessed such a horrible sight as the murdered woman presented." The first reports of the murder scene in other newspapers were also clearly provided by Gabe, and his comments colored press coverage globally. The details were often graphic. The New York Herald quoted him saying, in part: "Below the neck the trunk suggested a sheep's carcass in a slaughter house."
Thus, it is interesting that almost as quickly as Dr. Gabe's name appeared in print it disappeared. He is not even mentioned in the encyclopedic The Jack the Ripper A to Z. The possibility suggests itself that "Dr. Gabe" was, like "Lizzie Fisher," a figment of the imagination or the garbling of another physician's name. However, some recent (and rapid) research by Nina Thomas, Robert Charles Linford and Chris Scott established that John R. Gabe, originally from Wales, was a practicing doctor and "medical official" at 16 Mecklenburgh Square at the time and very likely had been one of the first medical men of the scene. Perhaps his speedy disassociation from the event was occasioned by his loose lips. The police strove to keep as much information as possible secret, and Gabe's willingness to speak with the press probably cast him into their immediate disfavor.
Gabe, however, was the exception for anyone officially connected to the investigation and reporters on the scene had to get information from among their fellow spectators. This was no doubt responsible for the different names initially given the deceased and descriptions that varied from "dark complexioned' to "fair as a lily" as well as the well-publicized story from an acquaintance of the murdered woman that her despair was so great the previous evening that she was contemplating suicide. Great sob-story stuff, but without any attribution and at odds with everything (albeit little) we have come to know about Kelly's character.
Another reason for the pervasiveness and persistence of so much press misinformation was technological advances. Today, with the Internet, cell-phones and real-time satellite television transmission, we daily marvel at how small the world has become. There is no denying that fact, but in our smugness we often forget how shrunken the globe had already become by 1888. The trans-oceanic cables and telegraph land lines meant that news of Mary Kelly's murder reached readers in Atchison, Kansas, or Bismarck, N.D., almost as quickly as it did those in London.
Unfortunately, there was a penalty to be paid for this speedy dissemination of the news. For one thing, the distance from the event meant that the earliest reports, with their initial misinformation, formed the basis for the main stories of an event in most overseas newspapers. And, except for a couple of big-city newspapers, all the reports throughout North America would be culled from the same few sources. Based on several key phrases repeated verbatim, it is probable that most of the newspapers - from the Atchison Daily Globe and the Bismarck Daily Tribune to the Winnipeg, Canada, Manitoba Daily Press - all got their stories from the New York Times. There were some exceptions. The Frederick (Maryland) News and Marion, Ohio, Daily Star, among others, appear to have had a different, though common, source, and a few newspapers did have reports filed by their own correspondents in London.
Nonetheless, this commonality of sources for many North American papers (and provincial British ones as well) meant that the same mistakes were broadcast far and wide and because of this gained an undeserved veracity. Moreover, once newspapers printed something about the Ripper murders they seemed to accept its truthfulness themselves and would continue to print those "facts" in subsequent stories.
This was especially so in North America, where most of the newspapers continued to allude to a message supposedly scrawled near Annie Chapman's body: "Five! Fifteen and I give myself up." That this story was totally discredited almost from the moment it was first reported did not deter many editors. Sometimes they also got their facts scrambled, as when the Frederick Herald mentioned in its first Kelly story that earlier Ripper victim Annie Chapman had been "stabbed 39 times," a fate that had actually befallen Martha Tabram. Even the London newspapers, however, were not immune to failing to keep up with the news and the Star of November 10, 1888, still identified Catherine Eddowes as "Kelly," the surname first attached to her.
Finally, some of the blame for the plethora of Ripper reporting errors must be laid at the feet of the newspapers themselves. There was certainly no lack of competition, with some 15 morning, nine evening and 35 weekly newspapers readily available in London. Nor did the newspapers lack incentive, for a Jack the Ripper murder was a story guaranteed to sell as many copies as could be printed. That said, however, a perusal of the press coverage of the Ripper's murder spree suggests a low tolerance for accuracy, a lack of initiative, a herd instinct (even a certain docility) and, worst of all, coverage in all too many instances that was driven by political considerations.
In regard to the first charge, inaccuracy, the Star was quite open about its approach when it wrote in its Nov. 10 issue: "The desire to be interesting has had its effect on the people who live in the Dorset-street-court and lodging-houses, and for whoever cares to listen there are A HUNDRED HIGHLY CIRCUMSTANTIAL STORIES, which, when carefully sifted, prove to be totally devoid of truth" [emphasis in original]. And, having said that, the Star then went on to recount all those false stories. Of possible interest to modern researchers, one of those stories said to be fallacious was Elizabeth Prater's account of hearing a cry of "murder" in the wee hours of the morning.
As for a general lack of initiative, there were some few enterprising journalists who managed to ferret out information on their own, but those leads seem never to have been followed up and developed. Or, if they were and proved to be dead ends, readers were never informed (thus providing endless fodder for future theorists). The Star staff was perhaps the most energetic in following up on stories, but then it was also among the more sensationalist. It was also the most critical of Sir Charles Warren and certainly had every hope of embarrassing the man and his department. The newspaper did seek out and interview both Israel Schwartz and George Hutchinson, but the resulting stories are so detailed in certain parts as to suggest the frequent use of leading questions to make a point. The inescapable conclusion is that the newspapers were simply reactive throughout the fall of 1888.
The herd instinct is often apparent by the similarity of story themes in the various newspapers, even those that had their own reporters on the ground. This was almost certainly the result of freely using Press Association boilerplate. An instance is that on November 10 the Daily Telegraph, Manchester Guardian, Star and St. James Gazette (and likely other newspapers as well) all had stories about a possible link between the dates of the murders and the regular arrival of cattle boats from the Continent. The stories were not identical and gave no attribution for the theory, but it clearly came from a single source that influenced all the newspapers. Perhaps Edward Knight Larkins, who several weeks later would begin bombarding the Home Office with letters and charts on the topic, provided the Press Association with an early draft of his theory.
As for my suggestion of docility on the part of the newspapers, the handling of the statement of self-proclaimed witness George Hutchinson is a case in point. In his statement to the police, Hutchinson specifically mentioned the man he saw had a "Jewish appearance." The local newspapers, however, changed "Jewish" to "foreign." Since several American newspapers that carried Hutchinson's statement used the word Jewish, the inference is that the change was not made by the police before release but by the newspapers. Perhaps it was an example of "journalistic ethics" (a phrase that would strike many as an oxymoron on a par with "military intelligence") and a bit of self-censorship in order to avoid inflaming anti-Semitic tensions, or it may have been mandated by the police. In either case it suggests a willingness to be cowed on the part of so many newspapers that otherwise protested a fierce independence.
That brings up the final aspect of my criticism of much of the coverage: reporting driven by a political agenda. The reasons for that agenda and the details of the political controversies at work are well beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say that many of the London newspapers at the time were quite openly aligned with one political party or another, and a series of political events in Britain at the time resulted in several different factions all wanting to bring disrepute upon Sir Charles Warren and the Metropolitan Police. This animosity colored some of the coverage - even to the extent that some may well have thought an unsolved series of horrific murders was politically advantageous - and that is never a good situation.
Nor should the American papers, especially those with their own correspondents on the scene, be exempted from this criticism. While not being particularly involved in the parochial political squabbles that animated their British brethren, American newspapers never passed up a chance to "twist the English lion's tail." Thus, the Boston Globe was eager to refer as the Lord Mayor's Day as an "annual nuisance," the Washington, D.C. Evening Star wrote that the London policemen were generally dull and stupid and the Brooklyn (New York) Daily Eagle went so far as to write: "Much more reasonable would it be to infer that the murderer is a member or ex-member of the London police force ..."
A more veiled criticism appeared the same day (November 10) in The New York Sun, which ran an interview with Superintendent William Murray of the New York City police, who said:
I presume that the London Police are doing the very best they can and will ultimately unravel the mystery ... I am confident, though, that no such crime could continue under the system of the New York police. The entire force would, if necessary, be sent out in citizen's dress to run down the assassin.
The New York Herald on November 10 interviewed Chief Inspector Thomas Byrnes of the New York City police, who uttered much the same sentiments:
All I will say ... is that such a continuous wholesale slaughter could never take place in this city without having the fiend delivered up to justice .... well, I'm glad the fellow is not in this city, but if he were I think I'd trace him to his lair if it kept me and my men without sleep for weeks.
The Herald also quoted an American tourist in London as saying, "After this, I shall never grumble at any error of our New York Police." This is rather ironic because the same issue also carried an item -quite laudatory in tone - about a particularly egregious bit of police brutality by a New York policeman that was directed toward a hapless burglar caught in the act.
Having gotten this far in a study of press coverage, there still remains the question of how useful the contemporary newspaper reports are. The simple answer, unfortunately, is not very useful. This study arose from a spirited discussion of the events after the arrival of the police at 13 Miller's Court on November 9, 1888. Some of the stories by newspapers like the Times, Daily Telegraph and Manchester Guardian, while not without some errors, are quite good and accord well with the facts as we know them. Yet they provide little additional information than what is available from the inquest testimony or (at least in the case of Kelly) the witnesses' statements to the police.
There is an old joke about a policeman coming upon a drunk crawling on his knees underneath a street lamp. The policeman asks the drunk what he's doing and the drunk tells him he's looking for his wallet. The policeman then asks if he remembers losing his wallet by the lamp and the drunk replies: "No shir, I dropped it down the shtreet, but (hic) the light is sho much brighter here." That is too often what we face with newspaper articles about Jack the Ripper: They aren't very helpful, but there's a lot of them out there, and they're pretty easy to get at as well.
Still, if the drunk wasn't very likely to find his wallet under the street lamp, he just might have found something else worthwhile, and so too might we find something interesting and instructive in the old newspapers even if hard facts are elusive. And that is exactly what happened while I was poring over news stories about the Mary Jane Kelly case. Nothing earth-shattering, to be sure, but there are a few items worth pondering in the future.
I'll begin with one that is somewhat humorous, but also makes an important point. In the same November 10 issue of the New York Herald that carried reports about the Kelly murder there was a story about Mrs. Flora Wright of 110 West 32nd Street in New York who actually found a man under her bed when preparing for sleep. She took one look and went racing into the street screaming, "Jack the Ripper! Jack the Ripper! The Ripper's under my bed!"
Whoever it was who first signed a letter Jack the Ripper was a marketing genius that modern companies with all their emphasis on "product branding" can only dream of equaling. The Ripper name's first appearance in a London newspaper was on October 1, and a little more than a month later it had crossed the Atlantic Ocean to become such a pervasive term that the first reaction of a woman who finds a man under her bed in Manhattan is to think that he's Jack the Ripper. And, as an example of how quickly the language of popular culture could cross "the Pond" back then, it might render meaningless the efforts of some to gain insights from any Americanisms in the Ripper letters.
Moving to the slightly more serious, what would a Ripper article be without at least some speculative theories? I make no guarantees about any of these and I only advance them as fuel for future thought on a cold winter's night. Still, a couple of ideas did arise from all the stories I read, such as the early emergence of "Lizzie Fisher" and, more particularly, "Mary Jane Lawrence."
Although there are some who still want to see the workings of a murky conspiracy in the initial misidentification of Kelly as "Lizzie Fisher," it seems established that Fisher was another woman altogether who was confused with Kelly by an early source used by both the Press Association and the New York Times (and through the latter repeated by many newspapers in North America). It seems likely that "Mary Jane Lawrence" was another early misidentification provided to a correspondent for some other American newspapers.
However, as long as we are having a little fun, let us take it a little further. The newspapers in America, even with the benefit of the time difference, had to go with the earliest reports in order to publish on November 10. That meant reporters had to file stories while much was still unknown, including the name of the victim. Imagine then a reporter as part of the crowd surrounding Miller's Court, everyone eager to find out who was murdered. Suddenly, someone hears, "it's Mary Jane," and someone else immediately tells a questioning reporter, "Oh, it must be Mary Jane Lawrence," and that name gets wired across the Atlantic.
There is nothing unusual or even startling about that surmise, and it fits well with what we think we know about the Lizzie Fisher identification. But just maybe there was a Mary Jane Lawrence (or someone who went by that name) dossing in the area. And what if it was this Mary Jane who Caroline Maxwell ran into the morning of November 9? After all, Mrs. Maxwell admitted she scarcely knew Kelly, but did address the woman she saw that morning as "Mary Jane" and that greeting was acknowledged. That she was actually addressing Mary Jane Lawrence could answer a few lingering questions.
Then there is the business of "Marie Jeanette Kelly." Barnett told everyone that Kelly preferred that name to plain Mary Jane, but that preference seems to have begun and ended with Joe. Read all the early interviews, even with her professed friends, and they all called her Mary Jane. It wasn't until Joe began to talk that Mary became Marie. She may have liked the sound of Marie, but it seems an affectation only Joe was willing to indulge.
For those who like their speculation really off-the-wall, there was an item that ran in the November 10 Boston Globe that told readers [emphasis in original]:
Profiting by former blunders, the police called a photographer to take a picture of the room before the body was removed from it. This gives rise to a report that bloody Handwriting Was on the Wall, though three or four people who were allowed to enter the room say they did not observe it, but possibly they were too excited to notice details.
However, before any "Maybrickites" go into ecstasies it should be mentioned that whatever its repute today, the Globe was a much different paper in 1888, one prone to questionable journalistic practices. Several years after printing the Ripper-writing rumor it would get into serious trouble for running a totally disreputable story that Lizzie Borden slew her parents because they had discovered she was pregnant.
Finally, one more little speculative nugget mined from the Kelly coverage. There were several interviews published with people who seemed to know her well enough that their facts jibe with what we know, except they all said that while Mary Jane looked to be 30 years old she was actually in her mid-20s. Well, her profession and propensity for alcohol could age one prematurely, but vanity can just as easily take the years off. With so little luck so far finding any birth records for a Mary Jane Kelly, it might just prove profitable to set back the birth date at least a few years.
For all the interesting little items found in my study, however, the overriding conclusion is that the contemporary newspaper articles must be treated with considerable skepticism, no matter how exciting some stories may seem. When a newspaper prints a dozen things as "fact" that we know are demonstrably wrong, to eagerly seize upon a 13th just because it says what we want to believe is, as Dr. Johnson once said about a second marriage, "the triumph of hope over experience."
It seems only fair, though, to let a newspaper have the last word. In its November 10 story about the Kelly murder The Eastern Post and City Chronicle concluded by saying, "First reports, however, are always more or less conflicting." Amen.