Why wasn't Jack the Ripper caught?

Jack the Ripper became London’s most notorious criminal in a matter of months towards the end of 1888 – and still nobody knew who he was! Why was Jack able to get away with his murders and avoid being brought to justice?

Before you begin, make sure you have the worksheet! You can download one below.
If you cannot access the worksheet, please complete the tasks as you go along on a piece of paper.

How might a criminal get away with a crime and avoid being brought to justice?

Think about the following:
What could the criminal do themselves to ensure they get away with their crime?
What other factors may stop them from being caught?

Create a spider diagram showing your ideas.

Look at the factors for why Jack the Ripper was able to escape from being brought to justice. For each factor, bullet point the details of each one and also explain why each one allowed Jack to escape from the law.

What factors stopped Jack from being brought to justice?

A number of things worked against the Police when attempting to catch Jack the Ripper. A catalogue of errors and problems allowed London’s most dangerous criminal to avoid prosecution.

The organisation of the Police

The Police were split into various different divisions across London. The division of police officers in charge of maintaining law and order in Whitechapel were known as H Division.

Despite Whitechapel being a densely populated area of East London with tens of thousands of inhabitants living there, there were only around 500 ordinary officers patrolling the streets. In addition to this, they were only supported by 27 inspectors (specialist police officers that would deal with investigating major crime incidents). Considering that Whitechapel was a place of frequent violence anyway, it would have been unlikely for specialist police officers to spend the required time on each important case to be effective.

A picture with members of H Division in the late nineteenth century.
The media and their unreliability

As schooling improved, England found itself in a position where more people could read than those who could not. Newspapers became a main source of information for people during the Victorian period. Many, however, sold stories that were deliberately misleading to shock the public and make them buy the paper.

These newspapers, known as ‘penny dreadfuls’, filled the public with incorrect information. They presented the crime as worse than what it was, meaning that people became terrified in Victorian London. The papers also had the habit of making the Police seem incapable of doing their jobs.

The misinformation in the papers led some citizens to try and catch Jack the Ripper themselves and not work with the Police. The Whitechapel Vigilence Committe, for example, brought a group of people together that tried to hunt for the Ripper.

An example of a typical story from a ‘penny dreadful’. Stories would typically be light of details and instead include gruesome images and details to shock the reader in the hope that they would keep buying the newspaper.
Letters sent to H Division

Jack the Ripper’s daily appearance in the newspapers propelled him to something of a national celebrity. Soon, H Division received around 300 letters from people claiming to be Jack the Ripper. Although these letters were most likely fake, the Police were required to go through every one and match up handwriting. This took up much Police time that could have been used doing something more important.

The streets of Whitechapel

The majority of housing in Whitechapel was made up of overcrowded slums. They squeezed the streets in to make winding, dark alleyways. It was often said that police officers from H Division knew better than to go down these alleyways – criminals knew those streets better than the police themselves.

Police officers regularly faced abuse from the public on the streets. Although the Police became a largely respected institution by the end of the 19th century, poorer areas resented the police officers seen on the streets: the Police were seen as men who were upholding unfair laws to punish the poor. Police therefore found themselves in difficulty when they needed help from the public – many would refuse to help them, and others would actively take the criminal’s side in helping them escape from various crimes.

A typical slum in the Whitechapel area, late nineteenth century.

In addition to the various fake letters H Division received, the misinformation delivered to people via the newspapers confused people. Some people believed they had seen the Ripper when in fact they had not, delivering yet more false information to the Police.

The Police did try to knock on doors in the areas where the murders took place. Instead of helpful information, the Police found themselves talking to people who could not speak English or did not want to help the Police investigation at all. Many of the people in the area were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. Most of this community could only speak Yiddish, meaning that any crucial evidence may have been lost in translation.

Police methods in the investigation

Unlike today, H Division had very limited techniques to catch criminals. Methods like DNA testing were not around until the 1990s, over 100 years after the Jack the Ripper case. Fingerprinting would not be invented for another 12 years also. H Division had to be creative with its evidence-gathering.

The Police took sketches of the crime scenes they found, but by the time investigators arrived they regularly found that the crime scene had been messed around with by other policemen or medics, stopping key evidence from being gained.

Some policemen tried to dress up in disguise to catch Jack in the act. Some even apparently dressed up as prostitutes to lure the Ripper in – although they had to shave off their mustaches first!

H Division did try to use sniffer-dogs to help with the case. Bloodhounds were brought in from the North of England to help track the scent of the Ripper. Yet H Division did not receive adequate training and they were confused at how the dogs could help. Work with sniffer-dogs was abandoned in just six weeks.

A sketch of H division training bloodhounds on the streets of Whitechapel.

Look at sources A and B below and answer the following question:
What do sources A and B tell us about the failure of catching Jack the Ripper?
To complete this successfully, first of all think about what you can see in each source, and then think about what that suggests about the search for Jack the Ripper.

You can use the following sentence structure to help you answer your question:

In source A I can see…
This suggests that a key reason for the failure to catch Jack the Ripper was…
I know this is true because…
[include your own knowledge here. You should include details about what you had learned in task 1].
Now look at who wrote the source – is it reliable?
I can/cannot trust the author because…

Now do the same for source B.

Finish off with a conclusion about what conclusions you can make from these two sources regarding the hunt for Jack the Ripper.

Source A: The front cover of the Illustrated Police News on 20th October 1888. Despite the newspaper’s name, the newspaper did not like the Police and instead ran stories that showed the failings of them.

Source B: A police notice written to occupiers of houses and lodging houses near the site of one of Jack the Ripper’s murders, 30th September 1888.

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