In the early hours of 31 August 1888, a killer came out of the shadows in the narrow streets of Whitechapel, London, and claimed the first of his five victims. On the 9 November 1888, after slaughtering his final victim he evaporated seemingly into thin air. Who was the notorious Jack the Ripper? With a list of suspects that seems to grow at least one per decade, it is likely there will never be a definitive answer to that question.
Having decided to tackle this colossal subject, I’ve immersed myself in all things Ripperish over the past week. I’ve read, watched and listened to the horrors that were the Whitechapel Murders. I’ve looked at the autopsy photos that are readily available in books, online and on television and read descriptions of every despicable act of violence committed against his victims. I have also watched several dreadful documentaries [Vic Reeves, what were you thinking?] and many more peddling outlandish theories of who the Ripper actually was.
I don’t think he is the Australian suspect, Frederick Deeming. Nor do I think he is the German suspect, convicted murderer Carl Freigenbaum, who went to the electric chair in Sing Sing prison in 1894. But what do I know? I’ve not accessed original material, my judgement is wholly based on watching seasoned investigators trying to find evidence to fit their theories rather than the evidence leading to a suspect. They just don’t seem plausible candidates. The Ripper acted out his gory fantasies in an age where forensic science was in its infancy and the police were limited in their options. He left the barest minimum of clues and armchair detectives have been trying and failing, to solve his crimes ever since.
The story of Jack the Ripper is synonymous with the area of Whitechapel, however, the passage of 130 years has almost sent history into folklore. One person I spoke to this week, commented ‘but I thought he wasn’t real, you know, like Spring-heeled Jack?’ And therein lies a problem, the man has morphed into a monster and has been mythologised and has become a caricature of the vicious murdering brute that he was.
There is now a highly contentious Jack the Ripper museum in London, complete with sound-effect screams to give you the real experience. Let’s bear in mind that all the recognised five victims had their throats swiftly cut and could not scream for help. This institution purports to represent the women of the East End of London.
The Jack the Ripper section has long been an attraction at the London Dungeon. To quote their website: ‘keep your throats covered’. ‘Gallows humour’ said one review. Murder isn’t funny.
He is not a cartoon villain and in creating Jack the cartoon character we have forgotten that his victims were real women, with lives, miserable as they were, who did not deserve their desperately sad end.
In my admittedly limited study of the Ripper crimes, because, let’s face it, I have a day job and a family and sitting in an archive reviewing all the evidence, however satisfying, will never pay my bills, I refuse to glamorise the crimes or their perpetrator and will attempt to write the events succinctly and afford the victims a dignity that often disappears when trying to make a quick buck.
I remember back in late 2006 when the Suffolk Strangler had news crews scrambling to get to Ipswich as the bodies of five missing prostitutes were found in quick succession, the country was in shock. The victims were treated with compassion and an understanding of their circumstances. This has parallels with the events of 1888 when women were turfed out of cheap and nasty lodging houses for the want of fourpence for their beds. In 2006, drug addiction drew the women into prostitution, in 1888 it was alcoholism and slum living where circumstances gave single women very few options to support themselves.
In the early hours of 31 August 1888 forty-two-year-old Mary Ann Nichols, also known as Polly, met her end. She had been thrown out of her doss-house for not having the required 4d. to pay for her lodging. She had married and had five children. She had separated from her husband in her late twenties and had lived a hand-to-mouth existence for much of the time since. After leaving the doss-house around 2.30 a.m. she bumped into her friend, Emily Holland, and told her that she’d had the doss money several times that day, but each time had spent it. Mary was an alcoholic and gin was cheaper than a bed. Her hair was greying and she had lost five teeth, yet she had been successful with the punters that day and believed that she could still earn the price of a bed, ‘See what a jolly bonnet I have?’, she preened to Emily.
Mary was found in Buck’s Row by two passers-by shortly before 4 o’clock, their story has since highlighted another suspect to the ever-growing pool. They set off together to seek the assistance of a police constable, while still continuing on their way to work. P.C. John Neil entered Buck’s Row from a different direction and found Mary alone on the cobbles. A local doctor, Dr Ralph Llewellyn, was summoned to determine death. His cursory examination estimated her time of death to be 3.30 a.m.. She was placed on a cart and taken to the workhouse mortuary, only when there were her abdominal injuries discovered. The street had already been washed of her blood.
At 6.00 a.m. on 8 September 1888, Annie Chapman, a forty-eight-year-old ‘well-nourished’ woman was found in the backyard of 29 Hanbury Street. An elderly resident of number 29, John Davis, found her body slumped against the fence separating the next-door property. Sadly a neighbour, in the yard to use the privy, heard the muttered word ‘No’ and a thump on the fence. He ignored the noise, only later learning its significance.
Like Mary Ann Nichols, her throat had been cut and she suffered horrific abdominal injuries. Her uterus was missing. Also like Mary, she had been ordered from her doss-house for not having the fee for a bed. Annie Chapman’s murder incited racial hatred as it was presumed a local Jewish man, nicknamed Leather-apron, was the murderer. His cause was not helped with the discovery of a leather apron that had been washed in the yard belonging to another resident of 29 Hanbury Street. Leather-apron’s, aka John Pizer’s, alibi for both murders was solid, but a Jewish perpetrator of the outrages was maintained by many after the influx of immigrants into the area.
On 30 September 1888, Elizabeth Stride, ‘Long Liz’, became the third accepted victim. Born in Sweden, she had moved to the UK in the mid-1860s after having a stillborn child. She married John Stride and they ran a coffee house together, but the marriage and the business failed. Liz regularly earned a small amount of money cleaning rooms in her lodging house.
Liz was attacked in Dutfield’s Yard, off Berner Street. Her throat had also been cut, but unlike the previous victims, only once, the first two victims had two distinct cuts. Louis Diemshutz entered Dutfield’s Yard with his horse and cart around 1 a.m. and found Liz prostrate on the ground. Bizarrely, he initially thought that it was his wife collapsed drunk and entered the International Working Men’s Educational Club that bordered the yard, once realising his wife was safe inside he went back out to further inspect the female, having told revellers that there was a woman on the floor ‘dead or dead drunk’.
It appears with this murder that Diemshutz had interrupted the killer.
Catherine Eddowes, like the other victims so far, also in her forties, was arrested for being drunk and disorderly on the evening of the 29 September 1888. About the same time as Elizabeth Stride was found, Catherine was released from the cell from which she’d been held. Even so, several hours’ sleep had not achieved full sobriety; prior to release, she was heard singing in her police cell. ‘Goodnight old cock’, she said to P.C. George Hutt as she left Bishopsgate Police Station.
Somewhere near Mitre Square, in the jurisdiction of the City of London, Whitechapel is situated in the Metropolitan police district, Catherine’s slightly unsteady path merged with Jack the Ripper’s. Thwarted in his earlier attack on Elizabeth Stride, Catherine bore the full brunt of his rage. Her throat was cut, she was mutilated, bodily and facially and left with her clothes raised up above her waist. Eviscerated, there was no dignity in death.
On 9 November 1888 Mary Jane Kelly, or Marie Jeanette Kelly, brought the killer back to her lodgings. The only victim with a private room, she offered the Ripper the privacy and the time to vent his murderous fury. And this he did. Mary Kelly was eviscerated, but more than that – butchered. The Ripper had reached his apogee with Mary, her body and its parts left on display around the room for the unfortunate person or persons who would find her. Hours after her death, her landlord sent his assistant to collect her rent, of which she was six weeks in arrears. Unable to rouse her knocking at the door, he removed the rag that was blocking a broken window pane and reached into the room to pull aside a curtain. What he saw had him running for help.
Mary Kelly was the youngest of the Ripper’s victims. Aged twenty-four, she was said to be attractive and not known to be an alcoholic like the other victims. She is the only one of the victims to be photographed in situ, the others were all photographed during autopsies. There are two grainy black and white prints in existence and the lack of colour and age, thankfully mask what was a nightmare come to life.
Jack the Ripper murdered at least five women in 1888, those named above are generally accepted victims and are known as the ‘canonical five’. There were other killings in the vicinity before and after these women’s deaths and therefore the conjecture continues with the number of women killed, as well as who the perpetrator was.
This year marks 130 years since terror arrived in Whitechapel’s overcrowded and grime filled streets. Still the speculation refuses to abate over who the man with the terrifying sobriquet was, a name now assumed to be from the pen of a hoaxer journalist. But that is just another Ripper theory and another will surely be along shortly.
For a few brief weeks in 1888, five women were brutally murdered but the name of the murderer remains large in people’s consciousnesses, rather than the victims of his crimes. When all the major players are long dead we are left with conjecture and supposition when the evidence fails to illuminate. The victims, some with living descendants, deserve our respect and compassion, not treated as a skit to make people laugh in a poor documentary, or used to glamorise murder in a dodgy museum and certainly not as a tourist attraction that offers its visitors a ‘scary score’ of its depictions of the events and the murders of five women.
Listening to an audiobook, They All Love Jack by Bruce Robinson, for a planned second ‘Recommended History Audiobooks’ post, an idea emerged that I would write about Jack the Ripper and focus on the many suspects that have emerged over the last 130 years.
Once home, I decided to begin my research, not with the several books from my collection dedicated to the Victorian serial murders, but on YouTube. Search for ‘Jack the Ripper documentary’ and plenty of options appear. I clicked the first option and planned to watch in sequential order. My job would be to sort through the documentaries and judge a serious well-researched analysis of the crimes, as opposed to the many theories, which are often hogwash, that you find when reading about this particular subject.
My thoughts changed again. It would be a straight re-telling of the murders with no angle, however, in respect of the victims (who sometimes get forgotten in the push to tell the macabre story of Jack), I would not glamorise their deaths. The narrative that I tell would be devoid of many of the intimate details of the injuries the victims suffered, suffice to say we know they were brutalised.
One of my modules at university was with respected journalism professor and ‘Hacked Off’ founder Brian Cathcart. I was chosen to be the first student to give the class a presentation that would form part of our final marks. Terrified at the thought of standing up and talking to a room full of people, I was instantly excited to be given the subject ‘The Reporting of the Jack the Ripper Crimes’. I asked for advice and was told to ‘roll with the subject’. On reflection, I went totally off-piste and probably rolled too much.
In my attempt to thoroughly research my subject I participated in a Jack the Ripper walk around Whitechapel. I don’t regret doing this, as a researcher, it is vital to see for yourself aspects of topic however unpalatable. However, it wasn’t sensationalised and it was beneficial to understand the locality of the crimes, albeit from the distance of 125 years and when local geography had changed somewhat.
I’ve always been a true crime aficionado and did look into doing a criminology degree instead of history. Each year studying at university I took at least one class with a criminology theme and both my BA and MA dissertations focussed on historic crime. I feel that I am suitably qualified in tackling the events of autumn 1888. However, rather than a straight narrative, should I focus on the reporting of the Ripper crimes? I could finally answer the question that was asked of me in the autumn of 2011.
And then to YouTube and the problem of studying Jack the Ripper without looking at the original documents. Do I dare visit the National Archives and request to view the originals? I much prefer the originals rather than listening to the sometimes dubious ‘experts’ of the field and the pseudo-science of ripperology and ripperologists. But all the sources are important, even the rubbish ones, as they will inform my arguments and help with the analysis of the subject matter.
And so three documentaries into my research I hit the problem that all those researching the subject face – the multitude of suspects and cogently argued cases. Three documentaries, three separate suspects. One expert insisting that his Kosminski suspect came from two impeccable police sources who were investigating the Whitechapel murders at the time and thus, he must be the killer. And yet the third suspect comes from a modern-day police theorist and Ripper ephemera collector. His suspect comes from a police source, again someone from Scotland Yard, who probably didn’t investigate the crimes, he was involved in the investigation of Irish terrorism. Yet sufficiently well up the chain of command that it is plausible that he would know something.
I will continue with my research and see where it takes me. If I don’t manage to restrain myself it may well result in many thousands of words.