24 September 1888
THE murder and mutilation of a woman near Gateshead yesterday morning will revive, in the provinces, the horror which was beginning to die out in London. The coroner in summing up the evidence in the case of the woman NICHOLLS went through once more the pints of suspicious similarity in the four Whitechapel murders. In some respects the Gateshead murder is said to closely resemble them; and already the people in the neighbourhood have begun, it seems, to be haunted with the idea that the murderous maniac of Whitechapel may have made his way to the North of England. The idea is natural, but improbable. What is far more likely that the Birtley murder is not a repetition, but a reflex, of the Whitechapel ones. It is one of the inevitable results of publicity to spread an epidemic. Just as the news of one suicide often leads to another, so the publication of the details of one murder often leads to their repetition in another murder. Reading of means to do ill deeds makes ill deeds done. This, we suppose, was one of the motives which led to the Whitechapel doctor to suppress so long as he could the results of his post-mortem. The coroner ultimately insisted on the full facts being stated, and, in view of the many countervailing advantages which result from publicity, it is impossible to blame either the coroner for eliciting or the press for printing the particulars of the Whitechapel horrors. But news is one thing; literature is another. And if there is going to be either an epidemic, or a panic, of murder in the North of England, it will be strange if some of the public indignation is not visited upon the newspapers which set their readers to sup upon "Newgate Calendars" and tales of crime.
Meanwhile, is there any reason to suppose that the lesson of the Whitechapel murders has been fully learned in London? Taking as the most faithful hypothesis that they were the work of a scientific and philanthropic sociologist, can we say that he has reason as yet to stay his hand? The police, we know from the proceedings at the inquest, are at their wits' end; do not expect fresh evidence; and are frankly waiting for a fifth murder to give them a clue to the preceding four. But is this attitude of grim expectancy to be adopted also by the social reformer? The answer depends on the degree in which the morals of the murder are taken to heart during the next few weeks or months. The philanthropic morals have been perhaps enough insisted upon already; and we need not do more to-day than point them by a story which is told this morning from China. "Every one in China," we are told, "who has accumulated a large quantity of benevolent impulses which have had no opportunity for their gratification is accustomed once a year, on the 8th day of the 12th month, to make the most liberal donations to all comers of the very cheapest and poorest quality of soup during about twelve hours. This is called 'practising virtue', and is considered a mode of laying up merit". Very often, it is added, no one applies for the soup; but "all the same the donors advertise their intentions to practise virtue; and when the day ends and no one has asked for a bowl of the soup it is put into the broken jars out of which the pigs are fed, and the benevolent man closes his door feeling that he has been virtuous for the year". Is this not a cruelly close analogue of benevolence elsewhere than in China? For instance, in the matter of improved dwellings, which has much been insisted on as a chief thing necessary for the plague spots of the slums. Model dwellings are put up; but too often none of the population of the slums come into them. Nevertheless, the well-meaning persons who have built them, having announced their intention of practising virtue, "shut up shop", as it were, with a profound conviction of their benevolence. That is "Chinese benevolence". Something of a much more aggressive and persistent kind is wanted before our murderous sociologist is likely, we fear, to stay his hand. And, besides the philanthropic moral, there is a political one to be drawn from these Whitechapel horrors. Mr BARNETT submitted the other day to the Times a list of "practical suggestions", and it is a very noteworthy thing that certainly three of them, and perhaps the fourth also, might all be included under the general head of better municipal government for London. We want, said Mr BARNETT, "efficient police supervision" in Whitechapel. But they will never get it until police duty is made once more a local matter, and the semi-military bureau at Scotland-yard is replaced by a civilian department under representative control. Secondly, Whitechapel wants "adequate lighting and cleaning". That is to say it wants a London Council sufficiently skilled to resolve the problem of bringing all the latest results of science to the streets of London, and sufficiently honest to justify the extension of common rates over the whole of the metropolis. The removal of slaughter-houses outside the urban boundaries which is Mr BARNETT'S third specific is altogether a municipal matter. And so to a large extent is "the control of tenement houses by responsible landlords". Perhaps the municipalization of land will ultimately be seen to be the only solution possible on a large scale of the problem of housing London decently. But with a view alike to future eventualities and to immediate necessities, the election of the best County Council available is the first thing needful.