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

Who was Jack the Ripper? It’s been over a century since he mysteriously disappeared after the spate of deaths typically assigned to him—and I phrase it rather clumsily there because we still can’t be sure that these murders absolutely were all done by the same person.

He is an enduring mystery, with people still trying to resolve pretty much everything about him. Who was he? How old? What race, nationality, class? Was he even really a he? Why those women in particular? How many people did he really kill? Was it just—or even—the women who are named as his victims? And if it was indeed him committing the murders, how on earth did he get away with it?

Even the most cursory Amazon search will bring up hundreds of titles, both fiction and non-fiction, with authors giving us their own spin on the evidence they’ve uncovered, or creating their own narratives around the legend. For example, From Hell by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell speculates that the murders were part of a conspiracy implemented by royals at the time, whereas an episode of the sci-fi series Babylon Five suggests that he was a religious fundamentalist rooting out the bad in the world, but abruptly stopped when he was taken away by an alien species called the Vorlons. There are a vast number of titles speculating about him; it’s fascinating that a murderer has captured our collective consciousness so much.

What we do actually know about the person called Jack the Ripper is very little. He acted in and around the Whitechapel area of London—one of the poorest areas—in 1888. His title—Ripper—comes from a letter that was reported to be from him and sent to the press by George Lusk of the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee (who said that he had been sent it, and was just the messenger). A lot of studies now believe that the letter was a hoax, written to keep interest in the story going; but no-one knows for sure who did write the letter if it wasn’t Jack, or whatever his name actually was.

The women he is believed to have killed were all female prostitutes. They each had their throats cut and their abdomens mutilated; I apologise for my bluntness there, but I would rather be direct. Three of the victims also had some internal organs removed, which made some people speculate that Jack had to have had some kind of medical expertise.

None of the five deaths typically attached to Jack the Ripper—nor the others in the years leading up to 1891, but not linked to him with the same degree of certainty—have ever been solved with certainty.

Mary Anne Nicols

Discovered at 3.40am in the middle of Whitechapel on Friday 31st August. Her throat was cut twice and the lower part of her abdomen was partly opened by what was described as a “deep, jagged wound.” There were several other incisions on the abdomen, reportedly caused by the same knife.

Annie Chapman

Discovered at 6am in Spitalfields on Saturday 8th September. Her throat was also severed by two cuts, and she had further injuries as well; her abdomen was “slashed open” and her uterus was removed.

Elizabeth Stride

Discovered at 1am in Dutfield’s Yard on Sunday 30th September. There was just a single incision in her neck, which severed one of her main arteries. However, she wasn’t further mutilated, which led some of the investigators to wonder if Jack had been interrupted whilst attacking her.

Catherine Eddowes

Discovered at 1.45am in the City of London on Sunday 30th September. She was the second body discovered on the same night, and fit the more predictable modus operandi of Jack; her throat, again, was severed, and her abdomen had been “ripped open.” She had also had a kidney removed, as well as most of the uterus.

Mary Jane Kelly

Discovered at 10.45pm in Spitalfields on Friday 9th November. This was one of the most savage; her throat had not just been severed, but the knife had cut all the way down to her spine. Jack—if it was him—had removed almost every organ from her abdomen as well as her heart.


Gruesome, no? If you look at the times of death, you’ll see certain similarities between them; they all happened at a weekend—or very close to it—and all happened in the dead of night; to be more precise, their bodies were all found at night, and it would seem they hadn’t died too long before. You’ll notice that the murders became ever-more savage with each progressive body; was this the sign of a slowly-unravelling mind, perhaps, or the sign of a different murderer? That depends on who you ask.

A number of people were convinced that it was, including Assistant Chief Constable Sir Melville Macnaghten, who headed up the CID at the Met, as was a police surgeon called Thomas Bond.

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.

Another six murders have been long debated as to whether or not they belong to the Ripper myth, over and above the canonical five. These six women—Emma Smith, Martha Tabram, Rose Mylett, Alice McKenzie, Frances Coles, and an unidentified female—are considered potential victims by some, but the evidence is sketchier and certainly can’t be verified.

There isn’t a lot of information we can examine now, but what there is tells us that the police questioned everyone who lived in the neighbourhood and gathered as much forensic evidence as they could. In total, there were more than 2,000 interviews, 300 people investigated, and 80 people detained for questioning.

All that work for not much return. Of all the suspects, no-one could be accused categorically. In terms of professions, anyone with a working knowledge of anatomy were visited due to how the bodies were discovered; surgeons and butchers, for example. I’ve found some research to suggest that a number of people, including the then-Monarch Queen Victoria herself, had a working theory that Jack was either a butcher or a cattle drover on one of the boats that traversed the seas between London and Europe. Again, nothing was ever proved, despite a lot of investigation. However, others felt that the wounds were amateurish and savage, meaning that a professional surgeon or butcher was well out of the picture.

The suspects who were named were innumerable. Everyone from the “sexually insane” Montague John Druitt, via James Maybrick, who might have confessed to the crimes in a diary, through to a grandson of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, who had syphilis which led him to live out his later years in an asylum after becoming mad.

Montague Druitt was a barrister and teacher who committed suicide in late 1888—some believe because he was a secret homosexual, or because he had inherited mental health illnesses from his mother. The fact that he died so soon after the last canonical murder made Macnaughten place him on the list of suspects. Others in the Force believe the timing of his death was purely coincidental.

James Maybrick’s diary wasn’t produced as evidence until 1992; although the diary itself doesn’t name him, he offers enough references to lead researchers to believe that Maybrick was the author. In the diary, he describes a number of crimes he committed over a period of months, all of which correlate to the five canonical deaths. The diary was owned by a former scrap metal dealer called Michael Barrett, whose story about how it came into his ownership changed at least once. Barrett later stated that he was the author of the diary, although his solicitor later repudiated the affidavit, and then Barrett later still withdrew the repudiation.

Prince Albert was accused of the crimes by Tomas Stowell in The Criminologist, and it was repeated (albeit vaguely) in a biography of the prince’s father.

There was a number of other potential suspects, and many more have since been added to the list, but the chance of most being the real Jack is questionable and evidence is sparse. Given the length of time since the murders, it’s unlikely we’ll ever get to the truth now. However, as writers, we can interpret the information and present it in so many years; 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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