Murder as an Advertisement
W. T. Stead (The Pall Mall Gazette, September 19, 1888)
There have been many theories about the Whitechapel murders, but so far no one has propounded as the most probable hypothesis the theory that they are the work of a Scientific Humanitarian. We may be in the presence of a Sociologist Pasteur, capable of taking a scientific survey of the condition of society, and absolutely indifferent to the sufferings of the individual so long as he benefited the community at large.
We have yet to witness the evolution of the scientific Sociological Jesuit. His advent, however, cannot be long delayed. We have been expecting him for some time. Who knows but he is already in our midst in Whitechapel?
Extravagant as this thesis may seem at first sight, let us consider for a moment the immensely strong case which such a Sociologist could make out for himself if once you can overcome the prejudice which men not quite emancipated from the theological stage have against taking life.
Here in London lie certain foul slums, which The Times describes as “the kitchen middens of humanity,” in which the human being putrefies, and where, as “S.G.O.” tells us, “tens of thousands of our fellow creatures are begotten and reared in an atmosphere of godless brutality, a species of human sewage, the very drainage of the vilest productions of ordinary vice.” Philanthropists have repeatedly, and in vain, called attention to their existence. “The Bitter Cry of Outcast London” has fallen upon heedless ears. Prayer, entreaty, and warning all were in vain. The condition of these horrible death traps, into which hordes of our fellow creatures are driven to be trampled out of all semblance of human existence, excited no interest. Day followed day, week passed after week, month after month, year after year, and still nothing was done. Last year those nearest to the grim Malebogic pool of the Metropolitan Inferno raised their voices in Trafalgar square and elsewhere, pleading plaintively for help. Sir Charles Warren amid the enthusiastic applause of the well to do, rode them down with his cavalry, smashed their heads with his bludgeons, and restored “order” in the Square. Parliament was deaf; the Press, with but few exception, was callous; the public conscience seemed hardened as a nether millstone. If these cesspools of brutalized humanity were not to become a permanent source of poisoned miasma, it was necessary something should be done that would at once rouse public attention, create universal sensation, and compel even the most apathetic and self indulgent to admit the first postulate of the Socialist’s faith, that the luxury and the wealth of the West must be employed to mitigate the squalor and crime of the East. The only question was what this means should be.
The scientific Sociologist in answering this question would ask himself by what means a maximum effect could be produced with a minimum of expenditure in money and in life. If he were familiar with Bismarck’s great art of creating the “psychological moment,” in which alone the decisive stroke can be delivered, he would not hesitate. There must be blood. That was indispensable. The warning must be printed in letters of gore. But mere bloodshed would not suffice. There must be more than murder. The public cannot be impressed by a mere commonplace killing. There must be mutilation. That is where the sensation comes in. We presuppose in our scientific Sociologist such a supreme devotion to the welfare of the community, that he cannot for a moment hesitate in sacrificing a few worthless lives in order to attain his end. Now, as in old time, he would argue, it is sometimes expedient that one should die for the sake of the multitude. Having arrived at this decision, he would naturally select as victims those whose lives were most worthless both to themselves and to the State, and whose habits in life afforded the most ghastly illustration of the vicious horrors of the criminals’ lairs. This is exactly what he seems to have done. The victims belong to the class which of all others suffers the most hideous and tragic fate in the human lot. None of them found life worth living. All were drunken, vicious, miserable wretches, whom it was almost a charity to relieve of the penalty of existence. He took them to the very centre of the plague spots to the existence of which he was desirous of turning the public attention. There he seems to have killed them with the merciful painlessness of science, so that suffering was reduced to a minimum, and death came as a welcome release from the insupportable miseries of existence. After killing his victim he mutilated her, well knowing that a knife’s slit in a corpse makes more impression on the vulgar mind than the greatest cruelties, moral or even physical, on the living. Then he seems to have waited to see if his action would have the desired effect. Finding his first essay unsuccessful in achieving his object, he repeated it, and again repeated it. Not, however, until his fourth experiment did he succeed. The sluggish public is roused at last and The Times and The Morning Post vie with each other in writing articles of almost unmitigated socialism. “We cannot contemplate the life,” says The Times, “which these unexampled horrors reveal without feeling a quickened sense of responsibility for such features of it as human effort rightly applied can either abate or remove. We have to consider how far our social organization is responsible for the preparation of the soil and atmosphere in which such crimes are produced.” “S.G.O.” cries “At last!” and the Rev. S.A. Barnett exclaims with a sigh “Whitechapel horrors will not be in vain if at last the public conscience awakes to consider the life which these horrors reveal.” What then is more reasonable than to suppose that these horrors may have been produced in this scientific sensational way to awake the public conscience? If this should after all turn out to be the case, the defence of the scientific Sociologist at the Old Bailey will be a curiosity in the history of criminal trials and may mark the beginning if the scientific era in social development.