BY MR WILLIAM WESTALL
OWING to its exceptional atrocity and seeming purposelessness, it has been suggested that the Whitechapel murder musts needs be the work of a maniac. The utter poverty of the woman is against the supposition that the murderer's motive could be greed; jealousy is equally out of the question; there is nothing to show that she had enemies; and, even assum9ing a motive, no sane malefactor, after cutting his victim's throat, would deliberately mutilate her out of pure fiendishness.
People who argue thus (though it is, of course, quite possible that a maniac may in this case be the criminal) forget, or do not know, that there are unfortunately many instances on record of murders equally purposeless and atrocious having been committed by persons whose sanity was beyond doubt - unless we are to believe that all who in times past have taken pleasure in human suffering were insane, and that cannibals and contemporary savages, who torture prisoners by way of pastime, are irresponsible and, therefore, guiltless lunatics. In every community, however highly civilised, are savages, and probably potential cannibals, who are restrained only by fear from gratifying their homicidal propensities, and who, occasion serving, and when that think they can reckon on impunity, do gratify them.
A striking case of this sort, resembling in several of its features the Whitechapel murder, occurred some fore score years ago in Bavaria. In 1806 there lived at the village of Regensdorf a day labourer of the name Andreas Bichel. Very little seems to have been known of his antecedents, but he was a quiet, industrious man, and in comparatively easy circumstances. He lived in a decent cottage with his wife, who had the reputation of being as quiet as himself, and to whom he appeared to be warmly attached. Nevertheless, the Bichels were not well regarded by their neighbours, partly because they kept themselves very much to themselves, Andreas seldom if ever appearing in the village alehouse, and being otherwise of a reserved, unsociable disposition. It was, moreover, said that his honesty was not above reproach, that he did not disdain on occasions to pick up any unconsidered trifle that came his way, but his peculations were so insignificant that they had never got him into trouble. He also earned a few coppers by telling fortunes, and one way and another the Bichels were supposed to be making a nice little thing of it, and even laying money by.
And so things went on until the early part of 1808, when a young woman of Regensdorf, named Katherina Leidel, mysteriously disappeared, and her friends sought for her in vain. Walburga, a younger sister, said in the previous month word had come from Bichel that he was quite alone, and if Katherina wanted to have her fortune told he was ready to see her. On this Katherina informed Walburga that Bichel had a wonderful glass, in which those who looked could see their fortune, and after putting on her best clothes went, as the other supposed, to his house. Bichel, on being questioned, said that Katherina had indeed paid him a visit, but after staying a short time in the house she went away with a man whom he did not know and could not describe. It was then remembered that two years previously another girl, of the name Barbara Reisinger, had disappeared under precisely similar circumstances. She went to Bichel's house to peep into the magical glass, and had not been seen since. Moreover, Bichel's wife had sold some clothing which Barbara's friends recognised as having belonged to the missing girl, the possession of which Frau Bichel accounted for by saying that Barbara, having married a rich man in another part of the country, had no longer need of her peasant costume. It further appeared that Bichel had obtained from Barbara's parents, who were densely ignorant and credulous, the rest of the girl's clothing, by saying that she got a good place in a distant town, and he would send it to her. When these things came to the knowledge of the authorities, Bichel's house was searched and himself and his wife were arrested. In the house were found several articles of clothing which belonged to Katherina Leidel. The Bichel averred that he had bought in the market at Regensdorf. And still held to it that he knew not what had become of the missing girls. His manner, however, was that of a guilty man; his answers were contradictory and for the most part palpably false. The suspicion that the girls had met with foul play grew stronger, yet though Bichel's house and premises had been thoroughly searched, no evidence of murder having been committed was for some time forthcoming. But one of the local constables noticed that whenever they went to the house his dog prowled, smelling and barking, about an outbuilding, used for storing firewood. This put him on the right track; he had the wood removed; and buried in the ground under the wood were found parts of a human body. Beneath a heap of rubbish were found other remains, and, finally, the bodies of both missing girls were disinterred, frightfully mutilated. It was evident that after killing them, the murderer had disembowelled them and torn out their hearts.
Nevertheless, Bichel still remained obdurate. He made an admission one day only to withdraw it the next, and confession being necessary for his conviction, the examining magistrate had recourse to an expedient which was hardly ever know to fail; it was believed to be more effective as a means of extorting admission of guilt that the question by torture, abolished in Bavaria only a short time previously. Bichel was taken to his own house, and, in the presence of the mutilated remains of his victims, solemnly extorted to tell the truth and save his soul. His guilt he could now no longer deny, and three days afterwards he made full confession. He had killed both girls in the same way. After enticing them into his house to have their fortunes told, he persuaded them - as an essential preliminary to the efficacy of his incantations - to let him tie their hands behind their backs and bandage their eyes. The rest was easy. Barbara Reisinger he killed by a stab in the neck with a knife, Katherina Leidel by a blow on the head with a hammer. He then cut open the body - as it might seem, out of pure devilishness - and bathed his hands and covered the house floor with her blood; thereby, of course, greatly increasing the chances of detection. His motive, as he alleged, was to appropriate the girls' clothing - of which, however, he admitted he had no need, and could only dispose of with great difficulty.
Feuerbach, the German criminalist, has written a remarkable study of this case in its psychological aspects. He characterizes Bichel as a man at one cunning and covetous, secretive and timid, quite capable of committing terrible crimes for small gains, and murdering for the mere pleasure of killing - always provided he could do so without immediate danger to himself; the ultimate risk, the chances of detection, he was too stupid either to estimate or understand. Of a crime that demanded for its execution courage, strength, and skill, he was altogether incapable. Before venturing to kill Katherina Leidel and Barbara Reisinger he had them safe in his own house, bound and blindfolded. If they had looked him in the face he could not have raised a hand against them. It was timidity, not sobriety, that kept him from the alehouse; he feared the jeers and dis-liked the jokes and rough ways of the village louts, because he had not the courage to resent them. The cruelty and pitilessness of his nature were aggravated by a consciousness of his own cowardice, and his greed was excited by the sight of any evidence of wealth. Whenever he saw a well dressed girl he wanted to rob her and take her clothes. He invited other girls besides Leidel and Reisinger to come in their best and have their fortunes told; but either because they went in company, or his courage, such as it was, failed him, they escaped. It is highly significant that it never seems to have occurred to him to inveigle into his house either a man or boy.
Bichel was sentenced to death and beheaded. There is, unfortunately, no reason to believe that the race of the Bichels is extinct. It is probable that the miscreant who committed the Whitechapel murder has much in common with him. None but a densely stupid man, devoured by greed, would risk his neck for such insignificant plunder as he could obtain from a street-walker; none but a stealthy coward would steal on a woman unawares and cut her throat; and, finally, none but a creature with a lust for blood and devoid of all sense of pity would, after killing his victim, mutilate her body. The Whitechapel murderer is as much a savage as an untamed Australian aborigine, yet utterly devoid of the courage which is often the savage's sole redeeming virtue.
|Press Reports: Pall Mall Gazette - 7 September 1888|