A Quick Guide to Jack the Ripper

JACK THE RIPPER 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.


Annie Chapman – The second of the ‘canonical five’ victims

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.

Punch cartoon by John Tenniel, 1888.

‘The Nemesis of Neglect’ – Punch cartoon by John Tenniel, 1888.

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. 640px-FromHellLetter

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.


Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence and Avondale

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.

jtr-truthA 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


Vintage Reads #15 – The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Jekyll_and_Hyde_TitleThis is one of those stories that really doesn’t need an introduction as so many are familiar with the basic premise of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic – so familiar in fact, that ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ has entered the popular lexicon for any person displaying mood swings or dramatic personality shifts.

Purportedly written in a matter of days while Stevenson was feverishly ill in Bournemouth, this slim 1886 novella has had a huge effect on the horror genre and gothic literature. It’s the tale of lawyer John Utterson and his increasing concern for the welfare of his friend Dr. Henry Jekyll who has let a dwarfish and hideously ugly little man called Hyde into his close confidence. Hyde appears to be living with Jekyll and has the use of his cheque book; an arrangement made even more alarming by Jekyll’s new will which makes Hyde the sole beneficiary should Jekyll vanish for a period of more than three months. Utterson is convinced that Hyde is blackmailing his friend over some youthful escapade which could prove scandalous but when Hyde is accused of murdering prominent MP Danvers Carew, the situation is revealed to be something much more sinister.

Jekyll and Hyde is a vastly important book of the Victorian era and much has been made of its allegorical content and social commentary. In the days before the psychoanalysis and personality structures of Sigmund Freud, it’s an interesting take on Dissociative Identity Disorder before such a disorder was identified and Hyde perfectly encapsulates Freud’s ‘id’; a selfish inner personality seeking instant gratification. The story is also seen as a critique on Victorian social standards and the repression of innate lusts by outward respectability. Also, Mr. Hyde seems to represent our less-civilised ancestors. He is described as ‘troglodytic’ and ‘ape-like’ suggesting that he is the Neanderthal still present in all of us no matter how civilised we pretend to be.


A double exposure of Richard Mansfield in both of his roles.

The novella was famously adapted for the stage in 1887 by Thomas Russell Sulivan and Richard Mansfield who played both Jekyll and Hyde. Mansfied was an English actor who worked extensively in America and it was in Boston that the play first opened, moving to London’s Lyceum Theater (managed by Bram Stoker) in August of 1888. Mansfield’s performance as Hyde was apparently so shocking that it had ladies fainting in the audience. His transformation was achieved without technical means and relied only on makeup, lighting and facial contortions. The play was so shocking that parallels began to be drawn between Mansfield’s Hyde and the homicidal maniac who was ripping open prostitutes in Whitechapel at the time.

The connection between R. L. Stevenson’s story and Jack the Ripper has been made again and again in popular culture and it’s not hard to see why. The general assumption made about the Whitechapel killer at the time was that he was a respected member of London’s upper class who allowed his evil alter ego to run riot at night. His knowledge of anatomy may very well have meant that he was a doctor with a sick perversion hidden deep down under a layer of respectability. Among accusations that the 1887 play was encouraging violence and corrupting the morals of its audience (the blaming of society’s problems on popular culture being nothing new) there was even an accusation leveled against Mansfield that he himself was the Ripper! This seems to have come from a single audience member who was convinced that nobody could give such a frightening performance and possibly be sane. There is no evidence to suggest that the police ever considered Mansfield a serious suspect but the idea has taken root along with some of the more outlandish Ripper theories.

The Hyde/Ripper connection has continued in popular culture with the Hammer Horror film Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971) and Richard Mansfield (played by Armand Assante) appearing the the BBC’s 1988 two-parter entitled Jack the Ripper. I made use of the connection in my own take on the Ripper case in the upcoming Onyx City, the third in the Lazarus Longman Chronicles in which Richard Mansfield plays a significant part.



Onyx City – Cover and Blurb

It seems like I barely have any time between the release of one novel before I start promoting the next one, but these three books were written in one go and I don’t see any point in hanging about. That said, this will be the last Lazarus Longman novel for a while. I have plans for a fourth and fifth in the series, but I will be focusing on some other projects for the rest of this year. Anyway, here it is; Onyx City, part detective novel, part political thriller set in the Big Smoke (London) itself. Number 3 Onyx City

In two months’ time, Otto Von Bismarck – the Prussian Prime Minister – will arrive in London on a diplomatic visit that could prevent all out war with the German Empire. The city is on tenterhooks. Absolutely nothing must go wrong. That’s why it may be risky to give disgraced agent Lazarus Longman the job of smoothing the way for the dignitary’s visit.

Given a second chance by his superiors, Lazarus reluctantly finds himself in the company of Mr. Clumps – a steam-powered bodyguard – with a mission that plunges him deep into the filthy bowels of the British capital, where danger lurks around every corner. But timing is rarely convenient. A figure from Lazarus’s past has reappeared and a chance to learn the truth about his biological parents is too hard for him to pass up.

And as if the political conspiracies, riots and revolutionist clubs of the Big Smoke weren’t distraction enough, a deranged killer is stalking the gin-soaked slums by night, killing prostitutes and mutilating their corpses. And Lazarus believes that the killings may be connected to his friend; a prominent actor whose erratic behavior and mysterious blackouts could mark him out as a suspect.