The digitization of newspapers makes this project possible, and the excellent work of my webmaster and geography student translated the data onto a map. But the coding and data mining are not the full story here. This is a digital humanities project, but there is still a fair amount of traditional historical research at play.
The most challenging part for the research team was determining how a neighborhood was represented in various articles. The first conversations I had early on in the project with Darren Leung and Ryan Orr were about how to characterize various articles. The first idea of the project only imagined positive and negative representations. It soon became clear there was a need for a neutral category as well; to truly understand what people associated with Whitechapel meant capturing the full range of possibilities. Some articles detailed tragic and negative events—however, the neighborhood itself was not represented in a negative light. For example:
The fire was a tragic event, but it was presented as in no way a reflection of the neighborhood, or faulty building codes, or disreputable landlords or lazy tenants. Such stories were neutral.
In other cases, a more complex reading was necessary. Many longer pieces that paint a descriptive picture of Whitechapel included both positive and negative attributes. For example, in “The Whitechapel Mystery.”
The article begins quite positively. A quick glace of the introduction points out the “healthy spot” and highlights a specific “hopeful institution” with its offerings of “pleasant recreation.” However, the article soon takes a turn. In spite of such things, the author is compelled to relate that Whitechapel is also the refuge of “degraded humanity,” “vice,” and “drunkenness.” The refuse of the Continent inhabits the dark corners of London’s metropolis. In its most poetic, if somewhat abstract metaphor, the author believes that in Whitechapel “Men and women both assume the habits of panthers.”
This is clearly a negative portrayal of the neighborhood and the positive framing only reinforces the negative details to come; there is no balance here.
There may come a day when OCR recognition can be paired with analytic reading programmes to analyze the nuance of text. For now, it still takes a fair amount of labour to sift through these articles. However, the time saved in being able to quickly find such a large collection of press clippings is still invaluable.
No matter how many years went by since Jack the Ripper disappeared without a trace, there seemed to be a constant and widespread belief that “[he] did not bind himself to any locality in continuing his ‘work.’”1 When it looked like the murders of two women in Essex during the spring of 1893 would go unsolved, the press began perpetuating paranoid perceptions out of fear that the Ripper’s brutality had reared its ugly head and struck again.
On May 20th, Alfred Hazell was walking along the path near the parish church of Rochford and came across Mrs. Emma Hunt lying in the mud at the edge of the brook. Still alive and breathing, the 40-year-old widow had “a fearful gash in her throat” and belongings strewn about her, but she had already drawn her last breath by the time the young man returned with help.2
With no other viable suspects, the local community was quick to assume Hazell himself was the murderer and officials committed him for trial. However, he was eventually released due to insufficient evidence without anyone to take his place – the mysterious murder was left unsolved.3
“The Southend Mystery,” Illustrated Police News (3 June 1893) p. 1
It was not long after that on June 1st when three young boys stumbled upon the dead body of a woman with a mangled face and a slit throat in a ditch on the side of the road into Grays. Just like Emma Hunt, Joanna Driscoll was a middle-aged widow of reputable standing and had visited Essex with her daughter to go pea picking.
Witnesses say they saw her alone at night with a man in dark army clothing, but, despite making three arrests in the weeks following her murder, the police never found her killer.4
“Another Essex Murder,” Illustrated Police News (10 June 1893) p. 1
Was Jack Back?
The public became unsettled after months went by without any answers to the respective mysteries at Rochford and Grays. One writer for The Daily Chronicle asked a question in August of that year which spread mass panic among the press of the United Kingdom: “Is ‘Jack the Ripper’ About Again?”5
The Essex murders “for which there [seemed] no likelihood that anybody will be brought to justice”6 were similar enough to the infamous Whitechapel murders that, for a time, made them obsessed with uncovering the answer. Underscoring that it was in the realm of possibility, the recurring article compares the silent five-minute murder of Mrs. Hunt and the ease of escape by Mrs. Driscoll’s killer to the Ripper’s impossible speed and silence in his Mitre Square murder five years prior. Contradictory evidence, such as the victims’ social status and lack of extreme mutilation, was conveniently set aside to solidify their claims.7
In fact, the events surrounding the murder of Jenny Hinks a couple of months later in Rotherhithe make it seem as though this scapegoat was avoided entirely if they apprehended the one who was responsible. The state of her body resembled the “fiendish crimes that have made Whitechapel a byeword,”8 but the culprit was soon found and convicted. The Italian sailor couldn’t have possibly committed the Essex murders, let alone be Jack the Ripper himself9 – all comparisons between this case and the infamous murderer ceased and desisted.
“The Rotherhithe Murder,” Illustrated Police News (8 July 1893), p. 1.
A Never-Ending Story
Unlike the mysteries of fictional monsters that terrified readers from a safe distance as inked words on a page, Victorians never could have escaped the threat of Jack the Ripper by simply closing the hard covers of a heavy leather-bound book. Instead, the mangled bodies of women in the streets across the country and the evasive murderers who killed them served as reminders that this monster was, in fact, very real.
When I began working on the Whitechapel project, my first area step towards familiarizing myself with the late 19th century district face was through maps. By the end of the project, I had seen professional illustrations, messy sketches, hand-drawn alleyways, dramatized accounts of a labyrinthine carnival of terrors, and police reviews. All of these ingredients of Whitechapel’s imagery carried with me as I grew to grasp both the realities and fantasies of the East End, and their place within historic reconstruction. My earliest (and fondest) encounter with Whitechapel’s popular imagery was in its liminality, frequently expressed through characters from serial novels that smoothly walked off the pages of fiction into opinionated accounts on the recent public house fracas. I grew to become almost desensitized to the vocabulary of Victorian press qualifiers, each attempting to compete in terms of how boldly they could characterize Whitechapel’s residents and architecture. In theatrical departures, Whitechapel took on an entirely alien shape in the contemporary optic, which was both invasive and visibly different. The audiences these portrayals were meant for were constantly fluctuating, and it was not uncommon that Whitechapel’s physical face was moderated for the function and occasion. During murder inquests the Working Lads’ Institute was hectic and reprehensibly filthy, while during the visits of nobility it became the perennial spot of civility in the district. As I continued my own personal research alongside this project, I was drawn to the economy of urban and social visualizations that riddled Whitechapel’s topography.
As a researcher, one of the unique challenges was learning to parse these images into content. One of the most fascinating public discussions in the onset of the Ripper murders was on the subject of pictorals and posters, which were decried as eroding morality and creating a sensational society where dramatic images produced violence. In the Booth notebooks, a series of handwritten documentations of Whitechapel’s streets in the company of a police officer, the authors rely frequently on the condition of windows and the appearance of children to determine the quality of the neighborhood. Likewise, when Salvation Army schemes and religious settlements quarreled over the quality of care they could provide to the wretchedly poor, the metric of public alcoholism often surfaced. I found these methods for gauging the district’s image were constantly at odds to determine what produced the overwhelming negativity that overcame the district in its worst episodes. Any argument over which organization deserved to rescue Whitechapel from its ‘self-inflicted’ disaster usually boiled down to attacks on mandate, and not the condition of the actual inhabitants. For me, the substance of Whitechapel’s images were often best observed between the lines of these disputes: in the cultural engagements and internal events constantly circulating the district. Even in the worst of its apparent pandaemonium, Whitechapel’s agency was expressed through debates, union meetings, the often over-enthusiastic Vigilance Committee, and other organs of the district. When any danger or social unrest struck, Whitechapel’s livelihood was scarcely disrupted for more than a few days. As a researcher completing my segment of the project, my takeaway is that in the deluge of pessimistic accounts, it is equally crucial to remember the district’s resilience.
Although I had used many primary sources before in my undergraduate work they were mostly sources in translation or transcription and thus this project was the first time I got to work (almost) directly with the sources, which were mainly Victorian newspapers. I would have to say that being able to see the originals (even in scanned form) brought a sense of immediacy and immersion, which is one of most exciting aspects of being a historian. It is quite exciting to know that so many historical documents can be viewed in its original form now online, which opens up many new avenues for inquiry. However, I do believe that with digitized collections, new issues and problems will need to be addressed. A significant issue in this new digital age that should be considered is the use of keyword searches, which is a large component of this project. For this project, I simply put in the term “Whitechapel” into the search engine and processed the results. For the British Newspaper Archives (BNA), this method brought well over 2000 pages of results. This may seem like a large number of articles focused on Whitechapel, but I discovered a large number of these articles were actually advertisements for whitechapel carts, which did not relate to the neighbourhood of Whitechapel itself. Furthermore, there appears to have been a Whitechapel in Liverpool, which further augmented the search numbers. These examples demonstrated for me some of the problems that using a search engine could have on research results. Although the Whitechapel in Liverpool was quite easy to identify and exclude, a more careless or less observant researcher could have easily mistaken it for Whitechapel, London. I only caught on to this fact because articles mentioning Whitechapel, Liverpool were discussing streets I was unfamiliar with (having worked on the London Times first I had fairly good knowledge about the major streets) and further digging revealed that there was a Whitechapel in Liverpool. Thus, as historians we have to recognize that technology is a great tool, but our own intuition and observation skills are equally important in picking up what machines cannot do. In the future, with the possibility that programs can be designed to count frequencies of words in a collection (I wouldn’t be surprised if something of the sort is already being designed and tested), I wonder how this problem of relevance can be overcome? The problem with the Whitechapel carts and Whitechapel, Liverpool clearly demonstrates that keyword searches can be problematic.
Another reservation I have with keyword searching are the blinders that it could place on our understanding of the period. A vivid example I remember was an article from 1885 on the Tower Bombing Case. Interested in the surrounding articles, I decided to peruse some surrounding articles before moving on. It seemed that the most important news item was not the Tower Bombing investigation (which had been reported on for several days already), but that of the death of General Gordon at Khartom. Had I not looked around, I would not have known of the other issues the Victorians faced on that particular day. True, the large quantity of articles surrounding the Tower Bombing in January to February of 1885 demonstrates the significance and interest the Victorians had, but I still have the feeling that I am missing something. A keyword search affects the flow of research and is very different from going to the physical archives and combing through the stacks and stacks of papers. But how can we know for sure that quantity represents significance? Victorian papers add a further wrinkle by not always putting the most important articles near the front (e.g. the Times, who’s first page consists solely of advertisements). In the end, history itself is an attempt to complete a puzzle with missing pieces, and thus digital history finds the same epistemological issues that has pestered other fields of history for a very long time. Yet, I am quite excited about the new possibilities and effects digital tools will have on the humanities as a whole.
Although I have outlined some reservations about digital history’s methods and practices, I still find that this is the most exciting and promising field as technology radically transforms our discipline. This project, for example, would have been impossible without keyword searches. The digitization of history is the biggest change to the dissemination of knowledge since the invention of the printing press. Digital tools allow for collaborative work which may change the relatively solitary workflow of the historian. OCR allows for rapid searching of archives and allows one scholar to do the work of many (imagine if we had to use a team of RAs combing though thousands of newspapers just to look for “Whitechapel”!) The use of digital tools (even something as simple as email) has already changed the way history is practiced, as knowledge can be transferred nearly instantaneously, and there will definitely be more changes in the future.
On specific aspects of the research I did, I found it very interesting to examine the development of a single neighbourhood in London at the end of the nineteenth century through newspapers alone. It very much gave a feel on how day to day life was for Londoners, what their concerns were, and how they perceived their fellow Londoners. My work on the BNA gave me quite a thorough knowledge of life in the neighbourhood from 1885 to July 1887. One of the more interesting trends were the philanthropic endeavors of the middle and upper classes of London for Whitechapel. These endeavors were embodied by several royal visits to key institutions such as the London Hospital and the Working Lads’ Institute. The most significant royal visitor was none other than Queen Victoria herself, who visited the neighbourhood and surrounding areas in the summer of 1887 to open the People’s Palace. The royal family did leave its mark on the neighbourhood (perhaps that is one of the reasons Prince Albert Victor had at one time been suspected to be the Ripper), and I think that these visits embodied the spirit of upper-middle class philanthropy. Smaller organizations, such as the Metropolitan Garden Association, strove to represent this as they attempted to provide for less fortunate Londoners. Yet this philanthropy did seem to be a hobby, or a way to be seen in high society. The aforementioned Garden Association wrote articles that made it seem that open spaces would revolutionize the health and wellbeing of Whitechapelers. However, from my research on the period after 1888 (after the Ripper murders) I cannot recall any more royal visits. Philanthropy seemed to lose its status as being an upper class hobby and was passed on to more radical institutions, most notably the Salvation Army. I am of course merely speculating from what I have read so far, but I think the issue of philanthropy and how it was administered seemed to change greatly after the Ripper murders, and this is definitely something that could be examined further.