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1888: London Murders in the Year of the Ripper
on 30 September 2012
This book gives a fascinating account of London in 1888: a time of depression, strikes and protests and panic over a series of murders by Jack the Ripper. The author looks at a number of other murders, and cases of manslaughter, that happened during that year; revealing a portrait of London that is very different, and yet very similar, to our own time. We too have a time of economic depression, a Queen who has just celebrated a Jubilee, a government led by an Old Etonian Conservative, gangs and knife crime. In many ways, 1888 mirrors our present age in a distorted image, although there are also interesting, and important, differences. In London today, you are more likely to be a victim of murder if you are male. In 1888, women made up a greater percentage of victims, and children were also, tragically, often killed - especially as babies.
The author gives a wonderfully vivid account of those times, presenting cases of murder which range from those which caused media outrage, to those which aroused little interest at the time. He recounts the stories of drunken brawls which led to murder, omnibus accidents which resulted in charges of manslaughter, domestic violence, the murders of prostitutes (including those attributed to the Ripper) and many other cases. There is also a lot of detailed information about how the city was policed (including the discovery of the torso of a woman hidden in the foundations of the building which was to become New Scotland Yard). Links between then and today are always with us. Whitechapel, still a cosmopolitan area, was under attack from complaints of immigrants driving down wages and taking jobs, with intolerance and racism rearing its ugly head. Sadly, knife crime and gangs are not a new problem either and in 1888 the Gazette proclaimed, "a generation is growing up around us which has never been disciplined, either at home or at school." Not much new from the newspapers either then, with the media still attempting to rouse moral frenzy and panic around news stories. It is also shocking to read how many deaths were caused by firearms before proper restrictions were placed on them in 1920.
Overall, this is a really exciting and evocative read. It follows crimes to their conclusion, discussing court cases and how many murders remained unsolved. Poverty and drink, plus the fear of ruin, lay at the core of many of the most tragic murders and often the courts took a more lenient and compassionate view of crimes which were caused by total despair. If you are interested in historical true crime, or Victorian London, I am sure you will find this book an excellent read. The Appendix has many statistics about murder and manslaughter cases in London in the 1880's and, lastly, I read the kindle version of this book and the illustrations were included at the end.