Time for history by Janis Wilson
Victorian England is the setting of my novels. In Goulston Street, I wrote about the crimes and search for the world’s most famous killer, Jack the Ripper. Extensive research about the period in which the crimes occurred was time-consuming but essential.
The most compelling question about the story, of course, is the Ripper’s identity. The second most troubling question is why he wasn’t caught. In other words, were the cops inept or uninterested?
With other cases, all one would have to do was read the police file, However, the Ripper case has held such fascination for so many for more than a century, the files were examined repeatedly by the public. Scotland Yard took no precautions against the purloining of key documents. Ripperologists have been significantly hampered by Scotland Yard’s failure to protect its internal memoranda. Another drawback to studying the case was the lack of police training in the late 19th century. Scotland Yard led the way in creating a detecting protocol. Police didn’t start working in plain clothes until 1842. The Ripper murders took place in the Autumn of Terror, 1888. These police were far from welcomed by the community; they were feared. Londoners suspected they were spies.
There being a shortage of material about the Ripper case, I had to do my own detecting. I wondered to whom the police reported. In many cities, the Police Department comes under the mayor or city council. I asked myself who was the big cheese in London and the answer was easy. Queen Victoria. If provoked, she wasn’t shy about commanding her subjects to take action. Sure enough, I discovered she’d written a coded telegram to the Home Secretary (the equivalent of the American Secretary of State) expressing displeasure with the lack of progress in the investigation.
Armed with this information, I began a search of Home Office materials on the case, cross-referencing with key events in the case. The Police Commissioner made one particularly bone-headed move cost him the respect of the men he led. A message written in chalk on a wall off Goulston Street read, “The Juwes are not the men that will not be blamed for nothing,” or words to that effect.
Actions that quickly followed discovery of the message left the investigators uncertain precisely what it said but it was widely accepted that the message was an anti-Semitic statement in an area populated primarily by Jews. Officials feared people would take the words to link Jews with the Ripper crimes.
The confusion arose after the police commissioner ordered the words be washed from the wall. Police responsible for finding the killer took offense at this order, which was carried out before a photographer could memorialize the message. I realized the decision would have to have been explained so I sought out the written record. The commissioner had written a detailed memorandum to the Home Secretary explaining his reasoning, but to no avail. So shocking was this destruction of evidence that, in a day or so after explaining his reasoning, the commissioner bent to pressure and resigned.
As mentioned, there was no formal police training at this time, so there were no protocols for investigating crimes like serial killing. The crimes occurred in the East End, the most impoverished and densely populated area of London. Today, crime scenes were be roped off to preserve footprint and DNS evidence. In 1888, East End residents wandered through the crime scenes on their day to day errands. No one knew about preserving shoe prints. DNA had not been discovered at that point, so the cigarette butts on those streets were not collected.
Another useful tool to investigating police work was the newspaper. Cbeap newspapers, often called “penny dreadfuls” proliferated. I read them not only to discover how the investigation was conducted but also what police were not doing.
Police intensely distrusted these newspapers, seeing no benefit to sharing information with the press. But reporters are indefatigable and enterprising, so they followed the detectives around and interviewed witnesses as soon as detectives departed. When information was no forthcoming, reporters made it up. In fact, the name “Jack the Ripper” was created by a newsman who wrote a penned a purported confession to the crimes and signed it, “Yours truly, Jack the Ripper.” To this day, the title is shorthand for any serial killings, especially those committed with a knife.
In trying to identify those responsible for the investigation, I discovered a problem that plagued investigators after the 9/11 attacks. There was no coordination of investigative efforts. The “City of London” is not only the financials district of England, but a separate governmental entity with its own police force separate from Scotland Yard. One of the five murders was committed inside its borders, meaning the City police were solely responsible for solving that crime. Scotland Yard did not share information with City police and vice versa.
I have an entire bookcase devoted to the Ripper case and have studied many theories. As discussed in my novel, I landed on one theory advanced by a gifted historian that I found persuasive. I am still researching the Victorian era and am working on a book about a famous socialist and the harsh view of government opposition to the left wing that still rings true today.
Research is fun. I recommend it for everyone. It is a learning constellation that goes in multiple directions, all of them enriching.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Janis Wilson is a writer, trial lawyer, and lecturer. For the past several years, she has been a true crime commentator on the Investigation Discovery and Oxygen Channels. She has appeared on such programs as “Deadly Affairs,” Evil Stepmothers” and “Killer Couples.” She could be a called a Renaissance woman, but she swears she is not that old.
She attended the University of Memphis, graduating with a degree in journalism. She became a newspaper reporter, but later returned to the University of Memphis and obtained a Master of Arts in Political Science. Hoping to combine her love of journalism and politics, Janis moved to Pennsylvania’s capital, Harrisburg, and resumed her newspaper career. In Harrisburg, Janis spent countless hours in state and federal courts, covering investigations, grand jury proceedings and trials.
In court, Janis observed the best and worst trial lawyers. One was so bad she decided, “If he could get through from law school, so can I.” And she was right; she graduated from the Temple University School of Law.
Her novel, Goulston Street, purports to name the real Jack the Ripper. Janis is a renowned Ripperologist and has taught a course at Temple University on the famous Victorian era killer. She is a co-organizer of RipperCon, an international conference of persons who study the Ripper’s crimes and Victorian era police practices.
Janis is a chapter president of Maryland Writers Association and belongs to Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, Guppies, The Wodehouse Society, and Sherlockians of Baltimore.
She lives without incident in Baltimore with her husband and two rescued cats.