The Whitechapel killings awoke fears of the predatory immigrant
Between August and November 1888, five women were murdered and mutilated in the warren of streets that made up Whitechapel in London’s East End, some with their throats cut, faces slashed and organs removed.
Even from a distance of 130 years, the bare facts of the Jack the Ripper killings make for unsettling reading. But for the residents of the Victorian capital, the case was far more visceral. In their midst was a criminal, or group of criminals, capable of committing the most gruesome of crimes. The question at the front, centre and back of Londoners’ minds was: who was responsible? And the answers they came up with give us an insight into popular fears at the time and for subsequent generations.
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Given the sheer brutality of the crimes, it was perhaps inevitable that many Britons concluded that they must be the work of an evil that had entered Victorian society from the outside. This meant that a number of marginal figures from London’s ethnic minorities found themselves in the frame.
Both Michael Ostrog, a Russian, and Aaron Kosminski, a Polish Jew, were cited as suspects in a contemporary memorandum penned by the Metropolitan Police chief constable Melville Macnaghten. Ostrog had lived a precarious life as a thief and confidence trickster before winding up in the south of England in 1888, where his latest appearance in court was notable for him displaying signs of insanity.
Aaron Kosminski was also described as insane – and as a misogynist – and had been confined to an asylum. He strongly resembled a man seen near Mitre Square, the scene of one of the murders – that of Catherine Eddowes – on 30 September 1888.
Kosminski wasn’t the only Jew to arouse suspicions. Jacob Levy was also placed by witnesses at Mitre Square and was apparently seen with Eddowes on the night she died. When it was revealed that Levy was a Spitalfields butcher, skilled in the ritual slaughter of animals, his fate as a Ripper suspect was sealed.
Suspicions that one of Ostrog, Kosminski or Levy was the culprit may well have been justified. But there’s little doubt that the men were also victims of a wave of prejudice that had been precipitated by the influx of thousands of Eastern Europeans into London in the early 1880s, fleeing persecution in their native lands. Their arrival brought to the surface widespread fears of the predatory ‘outsider’, a stereotype that the police – and even government officials – found hard to resist.
The Ripper under your nose
It wasn’t long before suspicion for the killings fell on members of a ‘dangerous’ underclass
It’s impossible to separate the Jack the Ripper murders from the district in which they were committed. Whitechapel was remarkably small, densely populated, overcrowded and submerged in poverty. It was a magnet for prostitutes driven to their profession by destitution. And, in popular fears at least, it provided the perfect backdrop for diabolical crimes committed by the desperate and dangerous – an underclass who could strike anyone from frighteningly close proximity.
The theory that the killings were the work of a local man – a criminal with a good knowledge of the labyrinthine streets of Whitechapel – has long proved an attractive one. And modern crime mapping techniques suggest that the theory may have some merit.
Local men certainly feature prominently in the rollcall of suspects. One such was Joseph Barnett, born and raised in Whitechapel, and a Billingsgate fish porter. He was the erstwhile boyfriend of Ripper victim Mary-Jane Kelly (whose mutilated body was found in her bed on 9 November 1885) and was supposedly unhappy that Kelly was a prostitute. It’s been alleged that Barnett killed other prostitutes as a means of warning his girlfriend off that occupation and, when she failed to take the hint, murdered her too.
Police discover the body of one of Jack the Ripper’s victims, in an illustration from the French newspaper ‘Le Petit Parisien’, 1891. (Photo by Getty Images)
Charles Allen Lechmere was a local meat-cart driver who discovered the body of Polly Nichols in a street called Buck’s Row on 31 August. Recent research has shown that, in his statement to police, Lechmere gave a false name: Charles Cross. Lechmere’s working route passed several Ripper murder sites, and the other victims were killed near to where he or his mother lived. What’s more, Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes were both murdered on 30 September 1888 (in the so-called ‘double event’) – Lechmere’s first night off work for months.
Another Whitehall resident, David Cohen, has long aroused suspicion – not just for regular displays of violent tendencies towards women but also because his incarceration in Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum coincided with the cessation of the murders.
The royal Ripper
Why Queen Victoria’s grandson found himself in the frame
What if Jack the Ripper wasn’t a predatory and solitary killer? What if his crimes were the cold and calculated act of a collective conspiracy? Such fears often surface at times when the establishment’s reputation is being called into question. This is exactly what happened during the counter-cultural 1960s and 1970s, which saw government ministers being disgraced in the Profumo and Lord Lambton affairs, as well as a growing suspicion of the power of secretive organisations with links to local government and the police.
Given this climate of distrust, it’s hardly surprising that a number of theories emerged during this period linking the Jack the Ripper killings to some of the most powerful figures of the late Victorian era – among them members of the royal family.
Queen Victoria’s grandson, ‘Eddy’, the Duke of Clarence and Avondale, has long proved a fruitful suspect. One theory has it that in the second half of 1888, the famously dissolute prince was seized by a syphilis-induced psychosis that led him to murder the five Ripper victims.
A second theory – that Eddy’s crimes precipitated an elaborate cover-up – proved equally alluring. In this version of events, Eddy ran away to the East End, where he married a Catholic woman Annie Crook and fathered a child with her. Faced with a scandal that could potentially bring down the monarchy, shadowy establishment figures forcibly split up the couple and masterminded the elimination of the five female acquaintances who knew the truth.
As it would have required the involvement of stealthy agents of clandestine power, the theory that the establishment engineered a cover-up spoke to popular prejudices about secretive organisations such as the Freemasons. It also enabled macabre (and sensational) ritualised activities, performed in the act of murdering each of the five women, to be woven into the conspiracy.
The medical Ripper
Many Britons were all too willing to believe that a doctor had blood on his hands
They moved freely about the urban underworld. Their professional need for corpses stimulated a vibrant clandestine market in dead bodies for dissection. And their callous treatment of defenceless female patients – especially the forced examination of prostitutes – had made them popular folk devils. Doctors may enjoy a healthy reputation today, but in the 1880s, many Britons were all too receptive to accusations that the Ripper was drawn from their ranks.
One of the first medics to come under suspicion was Dr D’Onston Stephenson. He was believed to have contracted venereal disease from prostitutes and to be a Satanist – giving him the perfect motive for removing his victims’ internal organs. Stephenson was also a magician, which served to explain his regular escape from detection.
The American quack-doctor Francis Tumblety was named as a suspect by one senior Victorian policeman – and, given that Tumblety was a violent misogynist with a penchant for collecting body parts, that’s hardly a surprise.
He was a violent misogynist with an unstable personality and a penchant for collecting body parts
Queen Victoria’s surgeon Sir William Gull, who had been close to the monarchy since the early 1870s, has also been cited as a Ripper suspect, either as a lone assailant or as part of a wider conspiracy.
In the years since the Ripper case, the healer turned murderer narrative has been culturally reinforced in the popular mind by the cases of Dr Crippen and Dr Harold Shipman.
Why no theory is too eccentric in the hunt for the Whitechapel murderer
Perhaps nothing better reflects society’s evolving obsession with Jack the Ripper than the rise of the ‘Ripperologist’, the individual who has made it their mission to provide the ‘definitive solution’ to the murders.
Ripperologists often go to extraordinary lengths in search of originality in what is a crowded field. This has meant that practically anyone with a pulse and the merest hint of eccentricity, who lived in and around London in 1888, has come under suspicion for the crimes. However, some have been more ‘suspect’ than others.
Francis Thompson, a poet with radical religious views, has been posited as the killer because the crimes were all committed on Catholic saints’ days. This theory is hamstrung by the fact that, according to the religious calendar, most days celebrate the death of one particular Catholic martyr or another.
In 1939, the author William Stewart suggested that we should be looking for a ‘Jill the Ripper’, most likely a bloodthirsty, mad midwife. Stewart wasn’t the first person to posit this theory: Frederick Abberline, an inspector for the Met at the time of the killings, had suggested that the murderer could be a woman after a witness reported seeing a female figure leaving Mary-Jane Kelly’s residence. However, he concluded that it was more likely that the killer dressed in women’s clothes as a way of pacifying potential victims.
In 1996, the author Richard Wallace suggested that Jack the Ripper was none other than Lewis Carroll, on the basis that the world-famous novelist left anagrams in his novels confessing to the killing spree in 1888.
Of course, the poetic licence and exposure these more eccentric theories have enjoyed has only been possible because, in the case of the Jack the Ripper murders, so few hard facts exist.
Professor Anne-Marie Kilday and Professor David Nash both teach about Jack the Ripper and the Victorian Underworld at Oxford Brookes University
LISTEN AGAIN: To listen to a BBC World Service Omnibus documentary on Jack the Ripper, go to bbc.co.uk/programmes/p0376jk0
This article was first published in the September 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine