Jack the Ripper – the personification of shadowy evil in Victorian London and gruesome murder done in gloomy, gaslit streets – has become so ingrained in popular culture, appearing in movies, graphic novels and video games, that there are many today who are unaware that he was in fact a real serial killer and not a fictional product of writers. But real he was and perhaps his morbid appeal over a hundred years since his killings has something to do with the fact that he was never caught and never unmasked to spill his secrets. He remains so mysterious and chilling because we have absolutely no idea who he was or why he killed.
The Whitechapel district of Victorian London was one of the worst slums in Europe. Murder was nothing uncommon in those dim alleys but in the late summer of 1888 a series of killings connected by a modus operandi drew the attention of the police and the press. On 31st of August the body of prostitute Mary Ann Nichols was found in Buck’s Row, a backstreet in Whitechapel. Her throat had been slit twice and her abdomen cut deeply. Some newspapers concluded that a brutal gang was terrorising the working girls of Whitechapel as the body of another prostitute named Martha Tabram had been found stabbed thirty-nine times that same month and yet another prostitute died after being assaulted and robbed by a gang back in April. But on 8th of September another murder took place that suggested that something much more sinister was going on in Whitechapel.
The body of Annie Chapman was found in the back yard of 29 Hanbury Street, her throat slit and her intestines pulled out. Part of her uterus was also missing. The nation sat up and took note. It appeared that a single man was committing the most gruesome crimes with no motive but to sate his own blood lust. Theories ran wild. Perhaps he was a deranged doctor as the removal of organs hinted at surgical knowledge. Perhaps a butcher or a tanner? Suspects were arrested andreleased without sufficient evidence. An angry mob attacked the Commercial Road police station. A Whitechapel ‘vigilance committee’ was set up which offered a reward for the apprehension of the killer. There were attacks on Jewish businesses as the killer was rumored to be a Jew fulfilling some arcane ritual. In short, fear led to madness.
A further layer of mystery was added to the case by the receival of a letter by the Central News Agency allegedly penned by the killer. Written in red ink and addressed ‘Dear Boss’, the letter boasts of the killings, taunts the police and claims that “The next job I do I shall clip the ladys ears off and send to the police officers just for jolly wouldn’t you.” It was signed ‘Jack the Ripper’. On 30th of September two more prostitutes were slain. Elizabeth Stride was found in Dutfield’s Yard with her throat slashed but was otherwise unmutilated. Later, that same night, the body of Catherine Eddowes was found in Mitre Square, throat slashed, face mutilated, intestines pulled out and kidney and uterus missing. Had the killer been interrupted during his murder of Stride and, thus unsatisfied, gone in search of another victim? An exciting clue was found several streets away in the form of a bloodstained piece of Eddowes’s apron discarded beneath a chalk graffito at the entrance to the Wentworth building (a predominantly Jewish tenement) that read; “The Juwes are the men that will not be blamed for nothing.” Coincidence, or a message from the killer? This mis-spelt scrawling with its double-negative has been a source of much debate and it’s very meaning is hard to discern. It’s generally seen as a proclamation that the Jewish population of Whitechapel refuse to take any responsibility. The work of an anti-Semite with an axe to grind? Or done by the hand of a Jew who grows tired of blame being laid at his door? If so, then why the bloody rag? The decision of Police Superintendent Thomas Arnold and Commissioner Warren to wash the graffito off before it could be photographed for fear that it may spark yet more anti-semitic feelings and the poor transcribing of the words (resulting in differing versions) mean that this particular mystery is unlikely to ever be solved.
Alarmingly within 24 hours of the killings (before the papers revealed them to the public) another letter from ‘Jack the Ripper’ was received by Scotland Yard. A postcard this time, the double-event is referred to and that there had not been time for him to get the ears as she ‘screamed a bit’ (although part of Eddowes’s ear had been detached by the killer’s facial mutilations). The writer also refers to himself as ‘Saucy Jacky’. The knowledge of the murder details before they were made public may make the letters appear genuine but journalists and locals knew these details more or less immediately and the letters are generally dismissed as a hoax or a publicity stunt by the press. One further letter however, was much more macabre as it enclosed a box containing part of a human kidney preserved in ethanol. Addressed ‘From hell’ the letter was clearly done by a different hand than the previous correspondence and was sent to George Lusk, head of the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee. It read; “Mr Lusk Sor I send you half the Kidne I took from one women prasarved it for you tother piece I fried and ate it was very nise. I may send you the bloody knif that took it out if you only wate a whil longer. signed Catch me when you Can Mishter Lusk“. There is still debate over whether this or any of the letters are genuine.
The killer’s most gruesome act was yet to come. On 9th of November the hideously mutilated body of prostitute Mary Jane Kelly was found in her single room at Miller’s Court. Within the privacy of a house it seems, the killer had ample time to go to work. Kelly had been killed by a slash to the throat. Her face was mutilated beyond recognition. Her breasts had been cut off. Her abdomen cut open and her organs scattered around the room and her thighs cut down to the bone. And then, the killings appear to have stopped. There was a murder of a Whitechapel prostitute in July 1889 but that is generally regarded as a copycat killing due to a different implement and less ferocity used in the attack. As for the real ‘Jack the Ripper’, he seems to have vanished without a trace. So what happened? He may have died or been incarcerated for some other offence. The increasing brutality of his crimes point to a mind that was becoming more and more demented so perhaps he was placed in a mental asylum by concerned family members or he may have been one of many mentally ill drifters and vagrants the police had incarcerated in places like Colney Hatch Mental Asylum, forgotten while his crimes went on to spark theories and debate for the next hundred years.
One of the more outlandish theories was outlined in Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution by Stephen Knight and published in 1976. The basic idea is that Queen Victoria’s grandson – Prince Albert Victor – had an affair with a lower class Catholic girl called Annie Elizabeth Crook whom he secretly married. The witness at the wedding was Crook’s friend Mary Jane Kelly. When the Queen and Prime Minister found out about the secret marriage (and resulting child) they ordered Annie placed under the care of Sir William Gull (the Queen’s physician) who certified her insane. The child remained in the care of Mary Jane Kelly whose friends – Mary Ann Nichols, Elizabeth Stride and Annie Chapman – got the idea to blackmail the Royal Family. William Gull and his coachman John Netley thus butchered the girls according to Masonic rituals as part of a coverup by the Freemasons. Catherine Eddowes’s killing was a case of mistaken identity. Despite being largely discredited due to inaccuracies, hoaxes and downright wrong information, variations on the Royal Family/Freemasons/William Gull theory have remained a fascinating idea ever since and form the basis for several fictional accounts such as the BBC’s Jack the Ripper (1988) and the From Hell graphic novel and 2001 film adaptation.
A more compelling theory is presented by true crime writer Martin Fido in his book The Crimes, Detection and Death of Jack the Ripper (1987). In it he claims that the killer was in fact known to the police and was even in their custody at one time! Memoirs and notes of high-ranking police officers at the time including ex-Superintendent Donald S. Swanson reveal the suspect to be a Polish Jew called Kosminski who was brought to a seaside home to be identified by a witness. Although identifying Kosminsky, the witness refused to give evidence as he was a fellow Jew and the police were forced to let Kosminski go, although they kept a close eye on him. Kosminski, a violent woman-hater, was soon sent to Colney Hatch Mental Asylum where he died “a short time after”. For a long time the mysterious Kosminski was generally thought to be Aaron Kosminski, a simple-minded but docile Whitechapel hairdresser who was admitted to Colney Hatch in 1891, over a year after the Ripper killings stopped, but didn’t die until 1919. Fido didn’t believe that this was the same Kosminski mentioned by the police and suggests that Kosminski was mistakenly named in Swanson’s notes instead of a Nathan Kaminsky, a Polish bootmaker in Whitechapel who had been treated for syphilis and vanished after 1888. There is no Kaminsky in the Colney Hatch records, but there is a David Cohen who, Fido argues, may have been a ‘John Doe’ type of label for any Jewish man who couldn’t be identified. Cohen was a violent inmate and died in 1889 and is altogether a better fit for the elusive ‘Kosminski’ mentioned by Swanson. Fido’s theory is that the killer was Nathan Kaminsky who was captured, identified and then released only to wind up in Colney Hatch under the placeholder name of David Cohen. Years later, the retired superintendent Donald S. Swanson, mistakenly recalled the killer’s name as ‘Kosminski’ which coincidentally was the surname of a harmless simpleton who also lived in Whitechapel.
Theories and speculation ramble on. Due to the length of time since the events and the poor records we have of all that occurred, it is unlikely that the truth behind the Whitechapel murders will ever be known. Jack the Ripper, whoever he was, is dead and his secrets died with him leaving us with nothing but our imaginations to fill in the gaps. My own novel Onyx City, while far from presenting a serious theory on the killer’s identity, uses the Whitechapel Murders as a backdrop for a Steampunk detective story. It is influenced by the notion that the production of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (which was on at the Lyceum Theatre at the time of the killings) was somehow connected to the strange case of Jack the Ripper.
For an excellent resource for all things Ripper visit Casebook: Jack the Ripper