En Femme: A Copper’s Tail (Part One)

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The following are extracts from the soon-to-be-published memoirs of Donald Hicks a young detective with the Metropolitan police’s H Division who worked alongside others to investigate the Whitechapel murders of 1888; those carried out, it was believed, by the infamous Jack the Ripper.

In November of the same year Thomas Blair — a member of the public — wrote to Scotland Yard with his suggestion that in order to ensnare the Ripper, policemen patrolling the area should dress like East End prostitutes. Whether Mr. Blair’s proposal was logic-based or the clue to a hidden fetish is unclear and somewhat irrelevant because the Met for a period of time at least ran with it. What is more, since Det Hicks and five other policemen in H Division were considered appropriate in height and appearance they were chosen to be the dollymops.

Hicks in his memoirs And I Caught Syphilis recalls sanguinely the next few weeks of his undercover exploits on which this article now draws. What emerges in these few tantalizing pages is nothing less than a fascinating insight into Victorian policing particularly amid the dizzy panic of the serial killings. We also read with admiration about the lengths brave and conscientious policemen such as Hicks would go to maintain their cover and nail their men.

 

12th November 1888. Whitechapel, London.

With thanks to the good Mr. Blair’s suggestion to entrap the Whitechapel murderer that policemen should dress up as women of the night, I arrived henceforth at the station with some apprehension. Myself and five other men was promptly dressed in the natural attire of women of that class and as we was shorter in stature than most, the clothes we did wear – a tight-laced bodice shaped over the hips and with high neckline – molded and fitted quite well to the figure. As I was applying a clear pomade to bring my lips a shine, Inspector Abberline approached me from behind and did comment in quiet tone that he considered my effeminate appearance rather enticing, quickly balancing this with additional praise for my attributes of courage and nerve. It cannot be said enough times that such words of encouragement are much welcomed on occasion.

The six of us gentlemen was then instructed to get into character and act natural to the women we now impersonated. This was vital to the overall success of the operation since, if our cover was compromised, we might very well lose any chance of apprehending the dreadful Ripper. Thus we tried standing in such a way with hands on hips and with our very best falsetto voices heckle each other with the type of language used by such women of the night. Sgt Joseph Harkness was the best at the voice and I wasn’t far off. Det Stevens wasn’t able to affect a high voice but had perfected the art of the beckoning finger so was bade by the Chief Inspector keep his mouth shut while out on the streets, at least for as long as his other talents would allow.

Later this day we six was brought in front of the uniformed officers of H Division that they might be accustomed to our appearance and not accost us by mistake.  Of course, the men whooped and cheered as well as they might on any bawdy Friday night at The Clarence and they was quite demeaning of my own virtue. However, morale up until now had been noticeably lacking and it seemed a pity not to allow them their fun. Then Insp Abberline talked at length on the subject of sexual intercourse which he said this depraved fellow would solicit. The Inspector made it clear that in order to “keep up the ruse” it may be necessary for us to take one for the team, at which I noticed him wink to the uniformed coppers. This again roused them to great jollity until it was remarked that performing such an act might leave one vulnerable to mortal injury. It was thus agreed that a simple “No” might avoid any unwanted attention and would not constitute a dereliction of duty.

TO BE CONTINUED...

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