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Invisibility of the Whitechapel Murderer

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  • Chris G.
    Thanks Nemo and Debs.

    The article from The Spectator is a very useful discussion of the problems of witness descriptions. I think the writer is exactly correct that the killer would not have been noticed if there was nothing exceptional about him. He would have just looked like everyone else. The crowd were always pointing out men that seemed to stand out, and yet time after time the actual killer got away with it. So there must have been something about him that made him non-suspicious, or else he just seemed to be part of the furniture of the East End, as it were.

    Best regards


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  • Paul Kearney A.K.A. NEMO
    The last line is in reference to the superstition that a fern seed confers invisibility on the possessor

    It was mentioned by Shakespeare

    The fern seed has to be gathered on Midsummer night and variously put in the pocket or spread over the person

    Being an obvious imbecile, or dressed as a policeman or woman are perhaps other means of being hidden in plain sight

    This aspect makes more sense than the Ripper being able to stay completely out of sight

    However, the timing and location may have been selected so that he could return to a nearby lair within minutes of the crime

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  • Debra Arif
    started a topic Invisibility of the Whitechapel Murderer

    Invisibility of the Whitechapel Murderer

    The Spectator: Volume 61 1888

    In an escape like that of the Whitechapel miscreant, even if he passed—as he may have done—straight through a considerable crowd, there is nothing extraordinary or in the least transcending the regular circumstances of every-day life. It seems to us remarkable because we know what he is; but no one in the crowd could know. No one in it probably even saw him. We do not really see one-tenth of the people we pass in the street even if we look at them, because the second operation necessary to true seeing is not performed. The intelligence is uninterested, and remains passive, and there is no sight. If nothing called attention to him, the Whitechapel murderer would in a crowd or a well-frequented street be as invisible as if he possessed the prerogative of which the storytellers have dreamed. Those who met him would see him as little as if they were sleep-walking. To secure that immunity from the operation of intelligence, however, the man must have given no provocation to the intelligence to wake up,—that is, he must either have presented no peculiarity distinguishing him from the crowd, or he must have presented some one peculiarity which prevented thought, when afterwards excited, from fixing upon him in connection with a crime. In other words, he cannot have seemed drunk, or have been excessively agitated, or have walked at an extraordinary pace, or have had blood visibly upon his person. (It is alleged that a butcher would not be noticed even if he had blood upon him; but that is not true, unless he was in butcher's costume, which there is a strong consensus of evidence, all given, however, by witnesses who speak of a time before the crime, that he was not.) He must, if this is the explanation, have looked exactly like anybody else, so like, that the eyes which saw, nevertheless did not see him. The police, on this hypothesis, are mistaken in expecting a clue from evidence visible on the murderer himself. We should, however, for ourselves, think the influencing cause of the murderer's "invisibility" was rather the second one,—that he was protected by some disguise which has ever since blinded the pedestrians' mental eyes. That is to say, something has dissociated him in their minds altogether, and as it were finally, from the idea of the crime. The something, it has been suggested, might be a policeman's uniform; but that could not be, for the uniform, though it would blind the crowd, would instantly wake every other policeman into fixed and curious attention. How came a policeman there at that moment, a stranger, and off his beat? It might be a woman's dress, always the most complete of disguises; and it is just possible that the murderer burnt his own dress, and wore that of his victim, and that the witnesses who say they saw her alive, saw only a kind of simulacrum of her. That, however, is most improbable, and there are only two other dissociating circumstances, of which we can think at least, that would blind an English crowd, and produce on the murderer's behalf the effect of invisibility. One is some expression of face entirely inconsistent with crime, such as has occasionally, though very rarely, belonged to the bloodthirsty—we take it Nero looked gentle, and St. Just certainly did—and the other is an appearance of solid respectability, such as sheltered for months that amazing criminal, Renwick, the "monster" of our grandfathers' days. That, and perhaps that only, would act in an English crowd like the possession of the fern-seed.