Thanet Writers Research Jack the Ripper

Writer and author Matthew Munson researches the victims and suspects of Jack the Ripper on behalf of Thanet Writers.

Image Credit: 
Walter Sickert / Public Domain

Jack the Ripper is an intriguing mystery, even after more than a century since the murders he was believed to have committed ended. But who was Jack? How old was he? Why did he kill those woman? Why did he stop so abruptly? Or did he? Was he able to get away with more murders without anyone finding out?

Many people have tried to discover the truth behind the speculation, and a quick search on Amazon brings up hundreds upon hundreds of non-fiction and fiction titles, with writers speculating on the evidence they’ve had the opportunity to examine (and outline what they feel has been kept back), or even just offering fictionalised suggestions. For example, in Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s From Hell, the murders were part of a Royal conspiracy, whereas the sci-fi series Babylon 5 suggested that he was a religious fundamentalist rescued by the alien race known as the Vorlons. Pages of speculation—Jack really has captured our collective consciousness.

The information we do have about Jack is very limited: he was believed to be a serial killer in Whitechapel, London (in the poorer areas of an already poor area), in and around 1888. The reason he was known as Jack the Ripper was as the result of a letter, meant to be from him, sent to the press. After a lot of study, it’s believed that the letter was actually a hoax, believed to have been written by someone (identity unknown) to try and sustain interest in the story, as well as increase circulation of the popular newspapers. It was sent to George Lusk, a member of the intriguingly-named Whitechapel Vigilance Committee, and he passed it on; did George write it, or are we grossly mis-representing him?

The attacks most commonly attributed to this mystery person (we can’t even be completely certain that the killer was indeed a he, but we’ll use that gender for ease) were all against female prostitutes. They all lived and worked in slums of London’s East End, and were found with the same basic wounds: their throats were cut and their abdomens had been mutilated—apologies, there’s no other way to describe it.

I say that the basic wounds were all the same because three of the victims also had internal organs removed. This made many people start to think that the killer had at least some anatomical/surgical/medical knowledge. The letter mentioned in the previous-but-one paragraph reached George Lusk with half a human kidney (carefully preserved), allegedly taken from one of the victims.

The general feeling at the time—and most of the time in the intervening century plus—was that a solitary individual was responsible for the string of five murders, as they were all so similar in how the victims were savaged and left. They also all happened in such a small window of time, between 31st August and 9th November 1888.

Murders in Whitechapel weren’t uncommon, sadly, and there was a brutal series of eleven up to 1891. The investigation led by the police failed to connect these killings to the group of five women killed in 1888; these victims—Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly—are known rather crudely as the “canonical five.”

Despite the intense fascination in them at the time and since, none of these murders—nor the later ones—have ever categorically been solved. The “canonical five” have passed into legend, and it’s difficult now to differentiate between fact, fiction, and pseudo-fact. All this is collectively known as “ripperology,” and there in excess of one hundred theories about who Jack really was.

Let’s take a look at the “canonical five” deaths. They really were brutal murders, so if you don’t have a strong stomach, then it might be worth skipping ahead.

Mary Anne Nichols

The first victim was discovered at 3:40am in the morning on Friday 31 August in Buck’s Row (now Durward Street), Whitechapel. Her throat had been severed by two cuts, and the lower part of her abdomen had partly ripped open by a deep, jagged wound. Several other incisions on the abdomen were caused by the same knife.

Annie Chapman

Annie Chapman’s body was discovered at 6am on Saturday 8 September near a doorway in the back yard of 29 Hanbury Street, Spitalfields. Her throat was also severed by two cuts. Her abdomen had been slashed entirely open and her uterus removed. At the inquest, one witness described seeing Chapman at about 5:30am with a dark-haired man of “shabby-genteel” appearance.

Elizabeth Stride

The next two victims, whose deaths became known as the “double event,” were killed in the early morning of Sunday 30th September. Stride’s body was discovered at about 1am in Dutfield’s Yard, off Berner Street (now Henriques Street) in Whitechapel. A single incision in her neck had severed the left main artery, and there weren’t any mutilations to her abdomen. As a result, there’s been a lot of debate as to whether Stride’s murder was actually done by the Ripper or whether he was interrupted during his attack. Witnesses state that they saw Stride with a man earlier that night, but—confusingly—gave differing descriptions: some said that the man was fair, others said he was dark. He was variously described as shabbily- or well-dressed.

Catherine Eddowes

The second body discovered that night, that of Eddowes, was found in Mitre Square in the City of London at 1.45am. Her throat was severed, her abdomen was ripped open by a long, deep, jagged wound, and her left kidney and the majority of her uterus had been removed. A local man called Joseph Lawende had passed through the square with two friends shortly before the murder, and he described seeing a fair-haired man of shabby appearance with a woman who may have been Eddowes. His companions, however, weren’t able to confirm the description.

Part of Eddowes’ bloodied apron was found at the entrance to a tenement in Goulston Street, Whitechapel. Writing on the wall above it became known as the Goulston Street graffiti and seemed to implicate a Jew or Jews. That said, it’s still unclear as to whether the graffiti was written by the murderer as he dropped the apron piece, or was merely coincidental; graffiti was fairly normal in Whitechapel. Police Commissioner Charles Warren feared that the graffiti might spark anti-semitic riots and ordered it washed away before the sun came up.

Mary Jane Kelly

Finally, Mary Jane Kelly’s mutilated and disemboweled body was discovered at 10.45pm on Friday 9th November, lying on the bed in the single room where she lived at Miller’s Court, off Dorset street, Spitalfields. Her throat had been severed down to the spine, her abdomen almost emptied of its organs, and her heart missing.

 

What patterns are there? Well, they all happened at night, either on or close to a weekend, either at the end of a month or a week (ish) afterwards. The mutilations became increasingly severe as the murders proceeded, except for that of Stride, where the attack might have been interrupted. Nichols was not missing any organs; Chapman’s uterus was taken; Eddowes had her uterus and a kidney removed and her face mutilated; and Kelly’s body was eviscerated and her face hacked away, though only her heart was missing from the crime scene.

Sir Melville Macnaghten, Assistant Chief Constable of the Metropolitan Police Service and Head of the CID, wrote a report in 1894 stating: ‘the Whitechapel murderer had 5 victims, and 5 victims only.’ Police surgeon Thomas Bond also linked them together shortly after the fifth murder.

Not everyone is convinced, however. Some ripperologists believe that Jack was responsible for some of the murders, but that a range of killers all acting independently were responsible for the others—and more beyond. Stewart P. Evans and Donald Rumbelow, writers who have studied this, argue that the canonical five is a “Ripper myth;” they believe that Nichols, Chapman, and Eddowes can be definitely linked, but there is less certainty over Stride and Kelly.

What police files are still available on the murders gives us a detailed view of the investigation. A large team of policemen conducted house-to-house inquiries; forensic material was collected and examined; suspects were identified, traced, and either examined more closely or eliminated from the inquiry. More than 2,000 people were interviewed, upwards of 300 people were investigated, and 80 people were detained.

The Whitechapel Vigilance Committee, who I mentioned earlier, patrolled the streets looking for suspicious characters, at least partly because of a lot of unhappiness with the police effort. They demanded that the government should raise a reward for information about the killer, and hired private detectives to question witnesses independently.

Butchers, slaughterers, surgeons, and physicians were suspected, naturally because of how the bodies were mutilated. Seventy-six butchers and slaughterers were visited, and all were acquitted. Some figures at the time, including Queen Victoria, thought the pattern of the murders indicated that the culprit was a butcher or cattle drover on one of the cattle boats that sailed between London and mainland Europe. The cattle boats were examined but the dates of the murders did not coincide with a single boat’s movements, and the transfer of a crewman between boats was also ruled out.

People are always convinced they know the answer to the conspiracy, but there has never been cast-iron proof to back up any claims. There are a lot of potential suspects, and here are the main ones who have been discussed.

Montague John Druitt

A doctor who disappeared around the time of the final Ripper murder; his body was discovered floating in the River Thames. There were allegations that Druitt was “sexually insane.” Inspector Macnaghten of Scotland Yard believed Druitt was the Ripper.

Seweryn Klosowski

Seweryn Klosowski lived in London under the name George Chapman. Polish-born, he arrived in London in 1887 or 1888 and worked as a barber in Whitechapel at the time of the murders. In 1903 he was hanged for poisoning three of his wives. Inspector George Abberline of Scotland Yard thought Klosowski was the most likely suspect, despite being a poisoner rather than a knife-murderer.

James Maybrick

A cotton trader of some wealth. In 1992 Michael Barrett, a scrap metal dealer from Liverpool, claimed to have discovered a diary by Maybrick in which he confessed to the Ripper murders. It described how Maybrick went on a murderous rampage after discovering his wife had been unfaithful. It adds: ‘I give my name that all know of me, so history do tell, what love can do to a gentle man born. Yours truly, Jack the Ripper.’ In 1995 Barrett confessed to forging the diary, but in a further twist later retracted his confession. Maybrick died in 1889 and his wife, Florence, was convicted of his poisoning.

Prince Albert Victor Christian Edward, Duke of Clarence

One of Queen Victoria’s grandchildren, he reputedly suffered from syphilis which drove him to insane murders…allegedly. He was subsequently imprisoned with the knowledge of the Royal Family and died in an asylum in 1892.

Francis Tumblety

A “quack” doctor whose misogyny and “sexual deviancy”—he had illegal homosexual leanings—led to him being considered a suspect.

Walter Sickert

The famous painter is widely regarded as a key influence on early 20th century art and was fascinated with the case. He even titled one of his canvases Jack the Ripper’s Bedroom. A theory in 1976 claimed he was an accomplice in the murders committed by a Masonic conspiracy.

Aaron Kosminsky

He was named as a suspect by several detectives who were hunting the Ripper. However, there seems to be little evidence to link him with the crimes, and it’s believed that he was named because he was Jewish. In 1891, he was admitted to Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum, north London, where he died. In 2014, the author Russell Edwards claimed to have proved Kosminski’s guilt through DNA analysis of a shawl belonging to Catherine Eddowes, but the forensic techniques were later undermined.

Joseph Barnett

A fish porter at Billingsgate Market, Joseph Barnett knew Mary Jane Kelly. It was suggested that Barnett was madly in love with her, but furious that she was working as a prostitute. The initial murders were carried out by him in an attempt to frighten Mary Jane off the streets. When that tactic failed, they argued, and Barnett later murdered her. His physical appearance closely matches the description given by witnesses, as well as a psychological profile completed by the FBI.

Lord Randolph Churchill

Winston Churchill’s father has been suggested as a suspect, as part of a Royal Masonic conspiracy to murder prostitutes. Churchill appears to have closely resembled the best description thought to exist of the Ripper, given by witness George Hutchinson of a man seen with Mary Kelly shortly before she was murdered.

Dr Neill Cream

A Scottish doctor and abortionist found guilty of the murder of four prostitutes in 1892. As he was hanged, he is alleged to have said three words: ‘I am Jack.’ However, his preferred method of killing people—as a poisoner—and the rather fact that he was most likely in prison in the USA when the Ripper murders were committed could well put pay to that idea.

Frederick Deeming

A sailor, he murdered his two wives and children in a similar style to the Ripper. Jailed in Perth in 1892, he told other inmates that he was Jack the Ripper. However, he was in South Africa at the time of the canonical five, categorically ruling him out.

Lewis Carroll

The author of Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll was a prominent writer who had links to Thanet, along with several of his contemporaries. He was also believed (by some) of having deviant sexual interests, because of his close relationships with several young girls and his interest in photographing children in nude or semi-nude poses.

William Henry Bury

William Bury was hanged in April 1889 for the murder of his wife, Ellen; she was strangled to death and then stabbed—deeply—in her abdomen.

Charles Cross

He was actually a key witness in the murders; a cartman, he claimed to have found the first victim, Polly Nichols. But was he the killer? Was he disturbed as he was mutilating the victim’s body? All the later murders took place between Cross’ home and his yard, at times when he would have been walking to work.

 

There are so many interpretations of this case that it’s unlikely we’ll ever get to the truth now. Interpreting Jack’s character and personality will inevitable vary but we must always make sure that the facts, such as they are, prevail. Having said that, of course, artistic licence in fiction is entirely normal; imagine the options open to you—time travel, a period drama, a psychological thriller about a copycat murder—the possibilities are endless!

Thanet-based author Matthew has three novels published by Inspired Quill, is an inveterate blogger, and writing is his passion.

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