- Shaw, Murder, and the Modern Metropolis
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, Britain was confronted by a shocking series of heinous events that not only exposed how the poorest of the urban poor lived—and died—but also how the wealthy classes, in response to the horror unfolding before their eyes, endeavored to conceal their collective guilt. The setting was, perhaps appropriately, the first city of the British Empire during the late summer and fall of 1888. It was a vibrant modern city that was enjoying the fruits of capitalized industrialization and imperial expansion, but amid growing working-class dissension and increasing immigration from impoverished Eastern Europe and Ireland. London during the 1880s boasted a lively political climate in the Parliaments led by William Gladstone (1880-85, 1886) and the Marquis of Salisbury (Robert Cecil) (1886-92), and was further marked by the dramatic backdrops of the 1884 Reform Act (which increased enfranchisement for many working-class males) and the defeat of the 1886 Home Rule Bill for Ireland, which was championed by the charismatic leader of the Irish Party, Charles Stewart Parnell. It was also a time when socialist agitators were increasingly at work, with soon-to-be important voices lecturing and writing for a more just social system in the face of government-sanctioned coercive measures. One of the most important of such agitators was Bernard Shaw.
Into this arena appeared an altogether more menacing harbinger of social awareness—a murderer—who, over the course of ten weeks, horribly mutilated and killed at least five women within the Whitechapel district of East London, one of the poorest and most densely packed parts of the city. The London press coverage, after the second murder on 8 September, exploded.1 Newspapers that devoted numerous columns to the gruesome details enjoyed phenomenal popularity as each paper pursued its own agenda. Since Scotland Yard detectives and the London Metropolitan Police [End Page 102] had few developments, and essentially had invoked a gag order, the various London papers, three-penny, penny, and halfpenny alike, were desperate to generate more sensational copy for their fascinated and frightened readers.2 The result was press coverage that bled into reporting on the appalling living conditions of Whitechapel itself, which were widely read and digested. Hence, the murderer, known as Jack the Ripper after a letter and postcard with that signature arrived at the Central News Agency in late September, became the bizarre catalyst for a period of unprecedented social awareness.3 As witness to this process, Shaw provokingly offered commentary to the London press, and later used these 1888 social developments to flavor plays such as Major Barbara and Mrs Warren's Profession, while significantly informing his first play, Widowers' Houses.
Given the extraordinary insight into the living conditions of London's poor that the Whitechapel murders and subsequent press coverage provided, as well as Shaw's presence and public response to unfolding events at the time, it is prudent, in an effort better to understand the young Irishman's emerging social consciousness, to republish Shaw's letter in a study of Shaw and the city that appeared in The Star newspaper on 24 September 1888 under the title "Blood Money to Whitechapel." The letter has been frequently quoted in part in Ripper studies, is currently posted on a well-known Ripper website (www.casebook.org), and was published in 1985 in Bernard Shaw, Agitations: Letters to the Press 1875-1950, edited by Dan H. Laurence and James Rambeau. However, this marks the first time since the murders that "Blood Money to Whitechapel" is published with The Star's introduction to Shaw's letter, along with a reader's response to Shaw from the following week—and also the first time they are published together within the pages of SHAW: The Annual of Bernard Shaw Studies. The Star's introduction, authored by the paper's editor T. P. O'Connor, offers a most intriguing portrait of Shaw as he was publicly emerging in his adopted metropolis, along with providing testimony to the contentious sphere in which Shaw had, as Michael Holroyd observed, "laboriously perfected his technique."4 These three quoted...