This article was first published in the March 2008 issue of BBC History Magazine
Within just a few short weeks, the Ripper slashed and mutilated five prostitutes in London’s East End
Shortly before 4am on 31 August 1888, a cart driver found the body of Mary Ann ‘Polly’ Nichols in Buck’s Row, close to Bethnal Green. She was on her back. Her skirt had been pulled up round her waist. Her throat had been slashed so deeply that she had nearly been decapitated, and there were deep cuts to her abdomen. This was the first of the Whitechapel Murders that are commonly attributed to Jack the Ripper.
Just over a week later, at about 6am on 8 September, the body of Annie Chapman was discovered in a yard in Hanbury Street. Her injuries were similar to those of Polly Nichols, but some of her internal organs had also been cut away and removed; her small intestines lay by her right shoulder.
On 30 September came ‘the double event’. Elizabeth ‘Long Liz’ Stride was found first, but her injuries were not as severe as those of the earlier victims; the assumption was that the killer had been disturbed during his butchery. And if that was the case he had quickly found a second victim. Catherine Eddowes was killed soon after, and not far from Stride. Her intestines had been ripped out and the killer had taken away her left kidney and uterus.
Saturday 10 November was the day of the Lord Mayor’s Show in London. What should have been one of the highlights of the capital’s social calendar was marred by the revelations of a fifth, even more horrendous murder. Whereas the previous victims had been killed in the street, Mary Kelly’s body was found on a bed in a shabby lodging house in Miller’s Court. Indoors, the killer had been able to take his time. Kelly was savagely mutilated and body parts and internal organs were left on a table beside the bed.
Other killings were linked with Jack the Ripper – both at the time and in later years – but these five murders are now generally acknowledged as the sum total of his grisly work. All of them took place in a confined area of London’s East End – much less than a square mile. All of the victims were poor women, and each one of them had worked, or was still working, as a prostitute.
Jack the Ripper was not the first serial killer. He was not the first notorious sexual predator, nor was he the first killer or sexual assailant to cause a panic far beyond his area of activity. But Jack was never caught. And it is this that has probably been central to the fascination that continues to surround him.
Contemporaries of the murders, and people ever since, have filled in the blanks to suit themselves. They’ve used the killings to develop theories about the state of society and the potential for male violence, and even to live out their own personal fantasies of Jack.
The big question: who was Jack?
The finger has been pointed at a succession of possible Jacks, including Joseph Barnett, a Billingsgate porter and former lover of Mary Kelly, and HRH the Duke of Clarence, Queen Victoria’s eldest grandson, who died young in 1892 following a life of sexual excess.
The novelist Patricia Cornwell spent considerable sums trying to prove her theory that Jack was the artist Walter Sickert, basing her claims on his paintings of a nude woman and a man in a house in Camden.
Other suspects have included school teacher Montague Druitt, whose body was fished from the Thames shortly after the last murder; Aaron Kosminski, a Polish hairdresser; and Michael Ostrog, a mad Russian doctor. Another doctor, Thomas Neill Cream, has also been accused. Cream committed seven murders on both sides of the Atlantic between 1877 and 1892 and his victims were often seeking abortions or were prostitutes. Cream was executed for murder in England but his instrument of choice was strychnine, not a knife.
Could Jack have been Jill?
Some contemporaries even suggested that the killer was a woman. Jill the Ripper seems unlikely given that such extreme violence has almost always been perpetrated by men. But only 15 years before the Whitechapel Murders, Mary Ann Cotton had been executed in Durham Gaol. She was convicted of poisoning her seven-year-old stepson, though another 20 family members, including her mother and three husbands, also appear to have been her victims.
The Revd Lord Sidney Godolphin Osborne, an earnest, evangelical paternalist, wrote a series of letters to The Times during the period of the murders. He lamented the gulf between rich and poor, and equated Whitechapel with a huge cesspit. He also suggested that “female hands” might be behind the murders, since the unfortunates of the district were well known for their jealousy, their violence, and for possessing the strength necessary for such action.
Was Jack a foreigner?
Others suggested that Jack was a foreigner. They were convinced that no Englishman would do such things. The press conjured with images of Indian thugs (bandit worshippers of the goddess Kali, crushed by the British in the 1830s), of Malays running amok, of North American Pawnees “drunk with blood” and of atrocities from “the wilds of Hungary”. The recent influx of Jews to Britain, fleeing oppression in Eastern Europe, combined with the undercurrent of anti-Semitism in Britain to foster the belief among many that a Jew was the killer. The Star newspaper almost found itself defending a libel suit when it named John ‘leather apron’ Pizer, a Jewish boot maker, as the killer.
The idea that Jack was Jewish received some support from a chalk inscription found on a wall close to part of Catherine Eddowes’s bloodstained apron. There were several versions of what the inscription said, the most syntactically correct being: “The Jews shall not be blamed for nothing”. Sir Charles Warren, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, ordered that it be washed off for fear that it might provoke anti-Semitic disorder.
The murders echoed the false, but popular medieval fears that Jews ritually killed Gentile children. There were also wild stories of Jews who, after sex with Gentile women, needed to purge themselves with the blood of those women.
Such stories sparked panics in other parts of Europe during the 19th century, many in the 1890s. The Berlin-based Association against anti-Semitism counted 79 between 1891 and 1900; about half were in the Austro-Hungarian empire and another fifth in imperial Germany.
Among the best-known is the accusation of the murder of a five-year-old boy levelled at a Jewish butcher, Adolf Buschoff, in the Rhenish town of Xanten. There was little evidence, but the authorities found themselves forced to try him. Buschoff was acquitted but he, and most of the Jews in Xanten, thought it best to quit the town for good.
Did life imitate art?
The Whitechapel Murders came just two years after Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. A stage version, with Richard Mansfield in the roles of the physician and his monstrous alter ego, opened to packed audiences just a few weeks before the murders.
To many, the killings suggested that fiction had become reality and this led to the play being taken off in October – and Mansfield himself has been identified as a possible Jack. Moreover, Stevenson’s book contributed to the idea that Jack was a toff in top hat and silk cape. Perhaps he too was a doctor – for some, the manner in which organs were removed from the victims suggested a knowledge of anatomy. The way in which he, or someone else, played with the police, sending them letters ‘From Hell’, also pointed to a man of ability.
Did Jack write the letters ‘from Hell’?
Hundreds of letters were sent to police and the press purporting to be written by the murderer. The two letters signed by Jack the Ripper are, like almost everything about the killer, shrouded in controversy.
There is evidence to suggest that they were indeed written by Jack – one of them mentioned slicing off part of a future victim’s ear, something that was done to Catherine Eddowes after the letter was sent.
Newspapers printed the letters and the police took them sufficiently seriously to post facsimiles of them in the metropolis. But some senior police officials later suggested that the letters were the work of a journalist keen to add yet more sensation to the story. After all, the killer may have cut off Eddowes’s ear after reading the facsimile letters.
Was Jack an original?
Jack the Ripper is among the most infamous murderers in criminal history. Yet he is far from unique, both as a savage attacker of women and a serial killer – as the following cases prove:
The London monster
“The wound that he made in this young lady’s hip,
Was nine inches long, and near four inches deep;
But before that this monster had made use of force,
He insulted their ears with obscene discourse.”
From March 1788 to June 1790 a ‘Monster’ terrorised London. Some 50 women were abused, cut and stabbed in the street and young Welshman, Rhynwick Williams, an artificial flower maker, was eventually arrested and tried at the Old Bailey for the crimes.
Following a legal dispute about what the offence actually entailed Williams was found guilty and sentenced to six years’ imprisonment – an exceptionally long sentence by the standards of the late 18th century.
The Ratcliffe Highway murders
On the night of 7 December 1811, Timothy Marr, a linen draper, was found battered to death in his shop on the Ratcliffe Highway in East London. Battered and stabbed close by were his wife, their four-month-old baby and the shop-boy. Two weeks later John Williamson, publican of the Kings Arms in New Gravel Lane just off the Ratcliffe Highway, was also murdered with his wife and maidservant.
John Williams, a young seaman, was arrested on suspicion of the murders and allegedly committed suicide in Coldbath Fields Prison. Doubts about his guilt remain, but he was buried at a crossroads with a stake through his heart.
In the 120 years since the Whitechapel Murders, the spectre of Jack the Ripper has returned to haunt the public’s imagination on numerous occasions. No more so than when a hoaxer sent police letters claiming to be the Yorkshire Ripper and calling himself ‘Jack.’ Two other cases from the 20th century are worth noting for their contrasts to the Jack the Ripper murders and for showing how quickly they can be forgotten:
The Halifax slasher
During the early part of the 20th century there were several instances of men creeping up behind girls and cutting off the long plaits that were the fashion of the day. Once or twice there were also much more serious slashings. The best known occurred in Halifax in 1926 and 1927, and again in 1938.
On the latter occasion the local newspaper, the Courier, offered a £25 reward for the arrest of “The Halifax Slasher”. The community mobilised behind the police: women armed themselves with hat-pins and men with a variety of weapons. The panic was over in a matter of days, however, when several of the victims confessed to self-inflicted wounds.
The blackout ripper
In the second week of February 1942, four women were found strangled and savagely mutilated in their Soho flats. Later that week there were attacks on two other women, but the attacker ran off on the first occasion when he was disturbed and on the second because his victim fought back successfully.
The attacker, Gordon Frederick Cummings, a cadet officer in the RAF, was easily and quickly identified. He was tried for murder at the Old Bailey the following April, found guilty and executed in June.
Did the press sensationalise the murders?
Lurid violence had long been popular with the media. Papers made much of ‘last dying speeches’ at public executions, which invariably came headed with a bloodthirsty image of the felon’s crime.
When newspapers first became popular in England during the 18th century, editors quickly recognised the value of crime and violence to maintain or boost sales. Victorian papers had a range of titles devoted to sensational stories and ’orrible murders and, from the 1860s, increasingly used bold and eye-catching headlines.
One of the leading practitioners of sensationalist journalism at the time of the murders was WT Stead, editor of the Pall Mall Gazette. In 1885 Stead’s reforming zeal, and desire to sell papers, led him to launch a campaign to combat child prostitution. It was a success, but it landed Stead in gaol.
Interestingly, Stead refused to print all the gory details of the mutilations inflicted on the Ripper’s victims; instead he used the case to call for a ‘Court of Conscience’ among the media. But other journalists and newspaper editors took full advantage of the murders to shock and thrill their readers. While Stead urged restraint, they used the coroner’s inquests to push at the boundaries of what was considered decent in the descriptions of both the injuries and the women’s bodies.
At the same time, the press speculated extensively on the identity of the killer and the nature of the city in which he operated. London was the centre of an empire; it was the capital of what the British still liked to think of as the workshop of the world, and of a nation with a legal and constitutional system that was a model for the world. The Whitechapel Murders encouraged Liberal elements in the press to probe the darker corners of this dazzling metropolis and to urge social reform. As explained above, it also encouraged nationalist elements to conclude that only a foreigner could commit such heinous crimes.
It is worth emphasising here that the 19th‑century British press was not unique in the way that it revelled in violent crime. In 1894 a Madrid-based socialist newspaper protested at the way in which the press was less interested in education than in satisfying “gross appetites by providing… spiced up fare”. In France, popular papers such as Le Petit Parisien and Le Petit Journal filled their pages with grisly accounts of offenders like Jean-Baptiste Troppmann, who slaughtered the entire Kinck family of husband, pregnant wife and six children, and Albert Soleilland, who raped and murdered an 11-year old girl.
Papers everywhere were illustrated with drawings of knives flashing, guns blazing and blood splashing. In fact, it wasn’t until the early 20th century that such graphic accounts began to disappear from European newspapers – either as a result of the carnage of the First World War, or the increasing use of photography.
What was the East End like at the time of the Ripper?
Drunkenness and prostitution were rife in an area characterised by abject poverty, says Alex Werner
The East End was a vast, densely inhabited working-class district. At Aldgate, the eastern extremity of the City of London, the road forked into two highways: Whitechapel Road, dating to Roman times, linked London to Colchester; and the Commercial Road, built in the early 19th century, connected the docks at Blackwall and Poplar with the City.
Off these two major London thoroughfares, in Whitechapel and Spitalfields, there existed a labyrinth of narrow courts and alleyways with many lodging houses and small workshops. Immigrants had settled here for centuries; in the 17th and 18th century, Huguenots, the Irish, Jews and Germans had all made the East End their home. During the late 1880s they were joined by thousands of Jews escaping oppression in Central and Eastern Europe, many of whom settled in the vicinity of Middlesex Street (Petticoat Lane) and Wentworth Street.
Even before the brutal murders of 1888, a spotlight had been thrown on the abject poverty of east London. Journalists painted a lurid picture of the area, stressing its criminality and moral degradation. In such a world, drunkenness was common, offering some form of escape and, on the streets and behind doors, it often led to violence. Prostitution was also widespread, as poor women sold their bodies to pay for alcohol, tobacco or a bed for the night.
Charities descended on the area and tried to help those most in need. Slums were cleared and artisans’ dwellings erected. As well as bringing ‘the word of God’, religious organisations like the Salvation Army took ‘practical Christianity’ to the East End. They built night shelters, ran dispensaries and soup kitchens, and visited slum-dwellers in their homes.
Employment in the nearby docks and markets was often casual or seasonal in nature. Thousands of men, women and children toiled away for long hours and for little pay in the sweated trades, ruthlessly exploited by sub-contractors. In fact, the low pay and appalling conditions at Bryant & May’s match factory drove its matchgirls to strike in the summer of 1888. Meanwhile, periods of economic depression, such as in 1886 and 1887, resulted in mass unemployment and the threat of starvation.
Some improvements to Whitechapel and Spitalfields followed Jack the Ripper’s crimes. Slums like Flower and Dean Street were cleared and replaced by model dwellings; common lodging houses declined and with them, prostitution and crime. In the 1890s London County Council began to replace slums with purpose-built council housing. However, poverty and overcrowding persisted, and in 1901 Dorset Street was still widely being described as “The Worst Street in London”, much to the fury of local inhabitants.
Alex Werner is co-curator of the Museum in Docklands exhibition, Jack the Ripper and the East End
Did the police investigate thoroughly?
Sections of the press, particularly the papers linked to Liberal and Radical politics, were highly critical of the police and the “defective detectives” for failing to find Jack. Yet the police probably did all that was possible. Forensic science was still in its infancy, and it was to be over 10 years before fingerprints were used as evidence in court – always assuming that any fingerprints could have been found and identified at any of the murder scenes.
The police presence was increased in the district where the murders occurred, and men in plain clothes circulated both in the hope of collecting information and preventing further attacks.
The police were urged to use bloodhounds to track the killer, yet such experiments were not particularly successful. The advocates of the bloodhounds insisted that they were still the answer, and sections of the press found yet another stick with which to beat the police.
Part of the problem was the reluctance of the police to give information to the media; it was to be another 40 years before a press bureau was established at Scotland Yard. And with no official intelligence to feed on, the press were drawn to the wilder and more sensational theories which, of course, helped to sell newspapers.
General Sir Charles Warren, the relatively new commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, did not help matters. Much of the press condemned his decision to remove the graffiti from the wall near the site of Eddowes’s murder on the grounds that he had denied the investigation the only genuine clue left by the killer. Whether this was true, of course, remains an open question.
Warren had a distinguished military career both before and after his time as commissioner. He was also an archaeologist of some significance and, in his final years, he was an eager supporter of Baden Powell’s Boy Scout Movement.
He had been appointed to the police in March 1887 to restore the force’s morale and public confidence in the aftermath of rioting in and around Trafalgar Square following a demonstration against unemployment. When trouble appeared likely again in Trafalgar Square in November 1887, Warren responded with ruthless efficiency deploying troops to back up his police in a violent confrontation that resulted in one fatality and many injured, and that became known as Bloody Sunday. Among Liberals and Radicals, his behaviour revived fears that the police were becoming militarised. He also clashed with the Home Office over the manner in which he should command his police.
The final straw came just after the last of the Whitechapel Murders when Warren published an article outlining his ideas, condemning the press and criticising government action. The permanent under secretary at the Home Office declared him to be “in a state of complete insubordination” and Warren’s resignation followed soon after.
Probably any commissioner would have had difficulty in dealing with the Ripper murders, but a tactless soldier like Warren was not the ideal man for the job.
The continuing fascination
The fascination with Jack and his killings spread far beyond Britain. The late 19th-century French press was obsessed with murders by human “monsters” and “ogres” and ‘Jack l’Eventreur’ remains a well-known figure in France.
Lulu, the femme fatale of the German playwright Frank Wedekind’s Earth Spirit (1895) and Pandora’s Box (1904) – as well as of GW Pabst’s film Pandora’s Box and Alban Berg’s opera Lulu – is killed by Jack. George Grosz, the celebrated artist of the seamy and violent side of Weimar Germany, had himself photographed as Jack. And the notion of a stealthy, unknown killer with a knife, preying on the weak and vulnerable – especially young women – has been meat and drink to the cinema ever since it began.
Jack the Ripper was the first celebrity serial killer who appeared to threaten people that were unknown to him. Had he been caught, his notoriety would probably never have been so great. It is the blank of who he really was that adds to the fascination and enables everyone, of every age, to remake him anew.