A Ripper Notes Article
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Another Look at the Lusk Kidney
by Christopher-Michael DiGrazia
PERHAPS NO object associated with the
Whitechapel Murders has been a catalyst for more myth-making than
the gruesome piece of extracted viscera known to posterity as the
Lusk Kidney. Whether considered for the ghastliness of its
presumed origin or for the questions inherent in its authenticity
or falsity, few other artefacts connected with Jack the Ripper
incite more dispute; and few provide such an arena for opposing
points of view, each armed with seemingly incontrovertible
The basic facts surrounding the kidney
are well known, but in light of the following discussion, they
bear a brief recapitulation. At about 5.00 pm on Tuesday, 16
October 1888, a small package was delivered to the home of George
Akin Lusk, a builder who resided at 1 Alderney Road, Mile End.
Since his appointment as head of the Whitechapel (or Mile End)
Vigilance Committee, Lusk had been the target for suspicious
visitors and crank letters, and at first sight the small,
paper-wrapped cardboard box with a London postmark ( the
incomplete cancellation read "OND" --an obvious remnant
of "LONDON") appeared to be one more. However, after
opening the box, Lusk was shocked to discover a small piece of
rancid flesh enclosed with the following note:
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
Signed Catch me
Mishter Lusk 1
Lusk's immediate reaction was that this
was another in the series of crank communications, and he was
prepared to dismiss it as an animal's kidney. Reflecting further,
however - and in light of the somewhat sinister tone of an
earlier postcard he had received noting "you seem rare
frightened" - he decided to mention the package at the next
Vigilance Committee meeting. On Thursday morning, Committee
treasurer Aarons, secretary Harris, and members Reeves and Lawton
arrived at Lusk's home to see the curious postal delivery for
themselves. What happened next can best be told by an excerpt
from the Star of 19 October:
As no definite conclusion could be
arrived at, it was decided to call upon Dr Wiles, of 56,
Mile-end-road. In his absence, Mr F. S. Reed, his assistant,
examined the contents of the box, and at once expressed the
opinion that the article formed half of a human kidney, which
had been divided longitudinally. He thought it best, however,
to submit the kidney to Dr Openshaw, the pathological curator
of the London Hospital, and this was at once done. By the use
of the microscope, Dr Openshaw was able to determine that the
kidney had been taken from a full-grown human being, and that
the portion before him was PART OF THE LEFT KIDNEY. It at
once occurred to the Vigilance Committee that at the inquest
on the body of the woman Eddowes who was murdered at
Mitre-square, Aldgate, it was stated that the left kidney was
missing, and in view of this circumstance, it was deemed
advisable to at once communicate with the police.
Accordingly, the parcel and the accompanying letter and
postcard were at once taken to Leman-street Police-station
and the matter placed in the hands of Inspector Abberline.
Subsequently the City police were communicated with, as the
discovery relates to a crime occurring within their
The news report went on to make a
circumstantial case for the Lusk Kidney having been torn from the
body of the fourth canonical Ripper victim, Catherine Eddowes,
who was murdered on 30 September, but this was rather jumping the
gun. All that had been determined up to this point was that Mr
Lusk had received a possible portion of a left human kidney. It
was now up to the Metropolitan and City police forces to carry
out a further investigation.
Inspector James McWilliam of the City Police was
the first to submit a report, on 27 October. In a brief paragraph
at the end of a discussion focusing primarily on the graffito
found in Goulston Street, Eddowes' inquest, and the final
sighting of her before she was killed, he noted:
The kidney has been examined
by Dr Gordon Brown who is of the opinion that it is human.
Every effort is being made to trace the sender, but it is not
desirable that publicity should be given to the doctor's
opinion, or the steps that are being taken inconsequence. It
might turn out after all to be the act of a Medical Student
who would have no difficulty in obtaining the organ in
McWilliam reported that he "[met]
daily" with Chief Inspector Donald Swanson of the Met, and
Swanson's 6 November report to the Home Office added little to
what had already been said:
Mr Lusk brought a parcel
which had been addressed to him to Leman Street. He received
it on 15th Oct [sic] and submitted it for examination
eventually to Dr Openshaw curator of London Hospital Museum
who pronounced it to be a human kidney. The kidney was at
once handed over to the City Police, and the combined medical
opinion they have taken upon it, is, that it is the kidney of
a human adult; not charged with fluid, as would have been the
case in a body handed over for purposes of dissection to an
hospital, but rather as it would be in a case where it was
taken from the body not so destined. In other words, similar
kidneys might + could be obtained from any dead person upon
whom a post mortem had been made from any cause by students
or dissecting room porter. [emphasis in
All of this would seem to be the conclusion that
the Lusk Kidney was a nasty joke, and indeed this appeared to be
the police view by early November. However, as in so much else
respecting Jack the Ripper, the newspapers defied such a simple
answer and in the process raised questions that bedevil to the
. . . .
We need not quote from every press
mention of the Lusk Kidney; only those that are most often
referenced in modern books and have led to confusion over its
authenticity. The Star, as we have seen, reported Mr Reed and Dr
Thomas Openshaw as opining the kidney to be half of a left human
kidney. The Press Association, however - a news-gathering and
disseminating organization similar to the infamous Central News
Agency - supplied the Eastern Post and City Chronicle of 20
October with a much more lavish account. There, Dr Openshaw was
reported to have pronounced the kidney a "ginny kidney"
- that is, one coming from someone who was a heavy drinker - as
well as being from a woman approximately 45 years old.
Furthermore, it was said, the kidney had been extracted within
the past three weeks, which, it was inferred, placed its removal
within the timeframe of Eddowes' murder. 5
So far as we can determine, however, Dr
Openshaw never expressed himself so freely on the subject of the
Lusk Kidney. In the Star and the Daily Telegraph of 20 October,
he merely held to the opinion that the kidney was human and that
it may have been a left kidney, which was the opinion assigned to
him as well by Inspector Swanson. Certainly he was never again
quoted so elaborately as in the Press Association report. 6
he solution to this quandary may lie in
the Daily Telegraph of 19 October. Within a story headlined "MITRE-SQUARE MURDER. AN EXTRAORDINARY PARCEL," Vigilance Committee member Joseph Aarons was quoted relating his
version of the events surrounding the kidney's identification.
Whereas the Star implied that the entire party went to see Dr
Openshaw, Aaron's Daily Telegraph interview is revealing:
Mr Reed. . .gave an opinion
that it was a portion of a human kidney, which had been
preserved in spirits of wine; but to make sure, he would go
over to the London Hospital. . .[o]n his return, Mr
Reed said that Dr Openshaw said that
the kidney belonged to a female, that it was part of the left
kidney, and that the woman had been in the habit of drinking.
He should think that the person had died about the same time
that the Mitre-square murder was committed. [italics added] 7
An extraordinary identification, to be
sure; but is there any truth in it? Unfortunately, the answer
must be "No." N. P. Warren, editor of the magazine
Ripperana and himself a practising surgeon, has pointed out the
inherent absurdities of the above report. Even were Dr Openshaw's
supposed comments actually uttered by him (which they almost
certainly were not), he could not have been absolutely sure of
the sex of the Lusk Kidney, nor when its owner had died. He
definitely could not have determined Eddowes' drinking habits
from the flesh presented to him, as alcohol does not damage the
human kidney. 8
So who is responsible for this
imaginative set of findings, which have influenced almost all
later writers? If not Openshaw, then we are left with Reed,
Aarons, or the Press Association. From the wording of the
Telegraph article, the finger of guilt appears to point to Mr
Reed, but at this remove it is impossible to tell. All we can do
is put the 19 October story aside, since it contains nothing to
prove the Lusk Kidney's authenticity.
The same may be said of yet another
series of comments on the kidney, these found in the 1910 memoirs
of former City Police Commissioner Major Sir Henry Smith. Within
the pages of his From Constable to Commissioner, he
purports to settle the matter of the Lusk Kidney once and for
I made over the kidney to
the police surgeon, instructing him to consult with the most
eminent men in the Profession, and to send me a report
without delay. I give the substance of it. The renal artery
is about three inches long. Two inches remained in the
corpse, one inch was attached to the kidney. The kidney left
in the corpse was in an advanced state of Bright's Disease;
the kidney sent me was in an exactly similar state. But what
was of far more importance, Mr Sutton, one of the senior
surgeons at the London Hospital, whom Gordon Brown asked to
meet him and another surgeon in consultation, and who was one
of the greatest authorities living on the kidney and its
diseases, said he would pledge his reputation that the kidney
submitted to them had been put in spirits within a few hours
of its removal from the body thus effec-ually disposing of
all hoaxes in connection with it. 9
As with Dr Openshaw's supposed findings,
this is a stunning paragraph which would seem to put the
provenance of the Lusk Kidney beyond question.
Sadly, the Major does not enjoy an
unblemished reputation for veracity. He was known to his
contemporaries as a charming raconteur and entertaining fellow,
but one who tended to play somewhat fast and loose with the
truth. Several stories in his memoirs are palpably untrue. One
story in which he said he chased after the Ripper - and was
supposedly "five minutes" behind the killer - is
complete eyewash. While his reputation for veracity should not
immediately prejudice us against Smith's account of the kidney,
we should bear it in mind.
Let us begin, therefore, with the matter
of the renal artery. The left renal artery is, indeed, generally
2-3 inches long, save in cases of gross abnormality. Beyond this,
however, we cannot go. Smith is our only source for the
comparative lengths of renal artery in the Lusk Kidney and
Eddowes' body. Dr Frederick Gordon Brown, who conducted Eddowes'
post-mortem and testified at her inquest, contented himself with
remarking only that "the left renal artery was cut
through." 10 It is true, of course, that the Telegraph of 20
October stated: ". . .it is asserted that only a small
portion of renal artery adheres to the kidney, while in the case
of the Mitre-square victim, a large portion of this artery
adhered to the body [,]" 11 but Dr Brown himself,
interviewed by the Star of the East on 22 October, noted:
"As has been stated, there is no portion of renal artery
adhering to [the kidney], it having been trimmed up,so
consequently, there could be no correspondence established
between the portion of the body from which it was cut." 12
Taking into consideration Dr Brown's
familiarity with Eddowes' body and his denial of any renal artery
remaining with the Lusk Kidney, in contrast to an anonymous
assertion from the press and the anecdotal statement by Major
Smith, the weight of evidence would appear to be against the
famous "one inch" of renal artery.
What, then, of the Bright's disease,
which we are told infected both the Lusk Kidney and Eddowes=
remaining right kidney? The condition of "Bright's
disease" received its name from Richard Bright, an English
internist and pathologist who first described the symptoms of
this ailment in 1827. Today, it is more commonly and specifically
called "chronic glomerulonephritis;" in 1888, however,
the term was a catchall applied to a collection of various signs
and symptoms of kidney disease emanating from a variety of
different causes, one of which was thought to be the excessive
intake of alcohol. It should be noted for the purposes of our
discussion here that in 1888 "Bright's disease" was
also used as a synonym for "nephritis," which is a
nonsuppurative inflammation of the kidneys. This was not uncommon
among the poor and destitute of the East End, and it would not be
at all surprising were Catherine Eddowes to have suffered from
this condition. 13
Dr Brown's post-mortem states that he
found Eddowes' "right kidney pale, bloodless with slight
congestion of the base of the pyramids." N. P. Warren notes
that such a description clearly indicates Bright's disease;
unfortunately, not all medical opinion is in agreement on this
point, and we cannot yet take it as given that Eddowes suffered
from this condition. Of course, even were it proven beyond doubt
that she did, it does not allow us to infer the existence of such
disease in the Lusk Kidney. 14
We are once again confronted with a
statement made only by Major Smith. He does not tell us who
prepared the report presented to him which indicated bilateral
Bright's disease (although the term Athe police surgeon@ may be
an oblique reference to Dr Brown), and the surviving descriptions
of the Lusk Kidney provide us only with the frustratingly vague
nomenclature of "distinct marks of disease" and
"ginny kidney." Dr Brown's previously quoted 22 October
interview is of no help here; he only notes in passing that the
kidney showed "no trace of decomposition." The most
likely version of Dr Openshaw's comments also make no mention of
disease; in fact, the only known references to disease in the
Lusk Kidney are in the 19 October Daily Telegraph and in Major
Smith's memoirs, neither of which can be regarded as entirely
The Lusk Kidney may have shown signs of disease.
If it came from a recent Whitechapel decedent, it is entirely
probable. However, based on the sketchy surviving evidence, we
cannot say what that disease may have been and are not justified
in assuming it to have been Brigh's disease beyond a factor of
And what of the statement that Mr
Sutton, the senior surgeon, pledged his reputation that the
kidney had been placed in spirits within hours of its removal
from Eddowes' tortured remains? Henry Sutton was a senior surgeon
at the London Hospital in 1888. He is not, however, mentioned in
any of the surviving contemporary accounts of the investigation
of the Lusk Kidney. Neither in any writings or remarks of Dr
Brown B who supposedly asked to meet him in consultation B not by
Swanson or McWilliams, nor even by the Gentlemen of the Press. We
find Dr Sutton and his confident opinion only in the pages of
Major Smith's memoirs. If he made any report on the kidney, it
has not been found. Perhaps there was such a report; perhaps,
too, his participation was a bit of dramatic license on the part
of Smith. We do not know. We will not know unless independent
proof of Sutton's pronouncements turns up, and until then he and
Major Smith must be set aside.
. . .
We have examined contemporary and
near-contemporary sources concerning the Lusk Kidney. At this
point, what can we say about its origin? We must consider both
the descriptive and medical evidence, and can do no better in
mapping our course than by revisiting the seven points of
identification listed by N. P. Warren in his 1989 Criminologist
article, "A Postal Kidney":
1. The Lusk Kidney was human.
2. It came from a woman.
3. It came from a person approximately 45 years old.
4. It had been extracted from the body within three weeks of its
5. It came from an alcoholic.
6. It was severely affected by Bright's disease.
7. It had approximately 1 inch of renal artery adhering to it.
The Lusk Kidney was human.
This would appear to be beyond reasonable doubt. Were the Lusk
Kidney to be presented to a modern pathologist, he would
determine its origin either through karyotyping (by looking at
the chromosomes) or genotyping (looking at the genes within the
chromosomes). However, in 1888 neither type of analysis was
known, and examination of the kidney's to determine its human
origins was by visual and morphological means, i.e., through the
form and structure of the organ.
No medical man who examined the kidney
considered it to be anything but human. The only dissenting
opinion came from Dr William Sedgwick Saunders, the Medical
Officer and Public Analyst for the City of London. In the
Liverpool Daily Post of 20 October, he was quoted as saying:
It is a pity some people
have not got the courage to say they don't know. You may take
it that there is no difference whatever between the male and
female kidney. As for those in animals, they are similar, the
cortical substance is the same, and the structure only
differs in shape. I think it would be quite possible to
mistake it for a pig's. 16
Bear in mind, however, that Dr Saunders
himself had not seen the kidney. He was responding to a reporter
who had asked him to comment on a "medical man's"
report that the Lusk Kidney was that of a woman. Saunders'
off-the-cuff response - one can almost hear him snorting with
impatience - was in regard to the supposed declaration of the sex
of the kidney, and his "pig" remark appears to have
been an added filip. Saunders did make the legitimate point that
a human and animal kidney might well have been confused, and this
should be kept in mind. We do know that both Openshaw and Brown
were reported as coming to their determination that the Lusk
Kidney was human after microscopic examination; we do not know
what other evidence assisted their conclusions. We must, in this
case, trust to their competence, assume Mr Lusk was sent half of
a human kidney, and let this point stand.
It came from a woman.
As with point 1, this would be impossible to tell in 1888 other
than through gross morphology. In general, the female kidney is
smaller and lighter than the male, but in the case of the Lusk
Kidney, we must take into consideration that it was not a whole
kidney and that it may have been constricted as a result of
Bright's Disease. These two factors make identification of sex
extremely difficult. As we have seen, once the kidney was
determined to be human, thought immediately turned to Catherine
Eddowes' murder. We must consider the possibility that her death
and the "From hell" letter influenced many of those who
wrote about the kidney, presuming it to be female because the
letter said that it was. The verdict on this point should be
It came from a person
approximately 45 years old Even despite the great
medical strides made in the 20th century, a modern doctor would
no more be able to answer this question than could his Victorian
colleague. N. P. Warren points out that a rough guess as to age
might be possible based on the condition of arteries remaining in
the kidney, but such an absolute determination of age "is
altogether too precise." He also notes that "a kidney
may shrink by up to 1cm in length between the ages of 30 and 70,
[but] a Bright's kidney is pathologically constricted
anyway." We must remember the popular tendency to
immediately identify the Lusk Kidney with Eddowes' murder;
combining such with the medical evidence, we can discard this
point of identification. 17
It had been extracted from the
body within three weeks of its examination. The Lusk
Kidney was noted to have been "preserved" in spirits of
wine. Leaving aside the question of whether such an agent pointed
to a freshly slaughtered body or one from a dissection room, the
fact of preservation speaks against such a precise determination
of time; we should also note that the initial mention of
"preservation" comes from the already-suspect Aarons
interview. Further to this point, we may look at Dr Brown's
previously quoted Star of the East interview, during which he
informed the reporter that:
As it exhibits no trace of
decomposition, when we consider the length of time that has
elapsed since the commission of the murder, we come to the
conclusion that the possibility is slight of its being a
portion of the murdered woman of Mitre Square. 18
This point of identification may also be discarded.
It came from an alcoholic.
This point may be discarded as well. It is now known that alcohol
does not damage the kidney, and even the preservation of half a
kidney in spirits of wine would not contribute to a diagnosis of
alcoholism. In 1888, medical opinion held that one cause of
Bright's disease (which Eddowes may have had) was excessive
alcohol intake - hence the lay term "ginny kidney."
Thus, whatever medical condition was evidenced by the Lusk Kidney
was taken as evidence of Bright's disease. It is worthwhile,
however, to remember that no comprehensive medical description of
the Lusk Kidney now exists. Dr Brown's report on it has been
lost, as has any report that may have been prepared by Dr Sutton.
We know only that it was a human kidney possibly preserved in
spirits of wine; other reports of its pathological condition, as
we have seen, come from unreliable sources.
It was severely affected by
Bright's disease. As has been noted, the reported
condition of Eddowes' right kidney has led to the conclusion that
she may have suffered from Bright's disease. But, in lieu of a
comprehensive, contemporary medical description of the Lusk
Kidney, we cannot presume that it, too, manifested signs of such
disease. Our only source for the diagnosis is Major Smith. This
point is not proven, but is possible.
It had approximately 1 inch of
renal artery adhering to it. Our sources for this point
of identification are Major Smith and the Daily Telegraph of 20
October. Both appear to be trumped by Dr Brown's statement that
the Lusk Kidney had been "trimmed up," and as he was in
the midst of examining the organ when he said this, we might take
this as definitive. Yet perhaps the verdict on this point should
be a very guarded "possible," bearing in mind that the
kidney had passed at the least from Lusk to Reed to Openshaw to
Abberline before being examined by Brown. It must remain a
possibility (though no more than a remote one) that the renal
artery was "trimmed up" before Brown saw it
. . . .
A totalling of the
seven points of identification leaves us with one positive, three
negatives, and three uncertains. Of the latter, two are no more
than cautious probables, and one most likely improbable. What,
then, is the Ripper student or researcher to believe the best -
if not final - verdict? After Consideration of the medical and
descriptive statements - bearing in mind that the current absence
of physical matter will always compromise any dispassionate
analysis of the case - it would seem to this author that the lack
of evidence regarding sex, Bright's disease, or the length of
renal artery in the Lusk Kidney consign it to being what the much
put-upon George Lusk first thought it to be when it arrived at
his door the late afternoon of 16 October 1888 - a macabre
practical joke, and no more.
1. Collection of Stewart P. Evans.
2. Star, October 19, 1888.
3. HO 144/221/A49301C, folios 169-170. 4
4. HO 144/221/A49301C, folio 192.
5. Star, 19 October 1888; Eastern Post and City
Chronicle, 20 October 1888.
6. Star, 20 October, 1888; Daily Telegraph, 20
7. Daily Telegraph, 19 October 1888.
8. N. P. Warren, "A Postal Kidney," The Criminologist
13(1), Spring 1989:12-15.
9. Smith, From Constable to Commissione: The Story of Sixty
Years, Most of Them Misspent, Chatto & Windass, London,
1910, pp. 154-55.
10. Inquest deposition of Dr Brown, 4 October 1888, Corporation
of London Public Records Office, ff. 14-21.
11. Daily Telegraph, 20 October 1888.
12. Star of the East, 22 October 1888.
13. Warren, ibid.; Richard Whittington-Egan, A Casebook on
Jack the Ripper, Wildy and Sons, London, 1975, pp. 59-60.
14. Warren, ibid.
15. Warren, ibid.
16. Liverpool Daily Post, 20 October 1888.
17. Warren, ibid.
18. Star of the East, 22 October 1888.
The author wishes thanks
Stewart P. Evans, Thomas Ind, MD, and Wayne Wivell, MD,
for their generous contributions and advice during the writing of