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Unmasking Jack the Ripper
"Perhaps the best Jack the Ripper documentary produced in recent years." North American and European DVD formats both available.
Buy now!

Larry S. Barbee

This is a brief review of the Jack the Ripper murders that occurred in London more than a hundred years ago. Much of the original evidence gathered at the time has been lost, and many "facts" are actually opinions by the various writers who have written about the case during the past century. Many aspects of the case are therefore contested, and so what follows is a summation of the case in general. There are many books available to the student of crime who wishes to grapple with the many mysteries associated with the case.

"Jack the Ripper" is the popular name given to a serial killer who killed a number of prostitutes in the East End of London in 1888. The name originates from a letter written by someone who claimed to be the killer published at the time of the murders. The killings took place within a mile area and involved the districts of Whitechapel, Spitalfields, Aldgate, and the City of London proper. He was also called the Whitechapel Murderer and "Leather Apron."


Significance and Importance

Jack the Ripper has remained popular for a lot of reasons. He was not the first serial killer, but he was probably the first to appear in a large metropolis at a time when the general populace had become literate and the press was a force for social change. The Ripper also appeared when there were tremendous political turmoil and both the liberals and social reformers, as well as the Irish Home rule partisans tried to use the crimes for their own ends. Every day the activities of the Ripper were chronicled in the newspapers as were the results of the inquiries and the actions taken by the police. Even the feelings of the people living in the East End, and the editorials that attacked the various establishments of Society appeared each day for both the people of London and the whole world to read. It was the press coverage that made this series of murders a "new thing", something that the world had never known before. The press was also partly responsible for creating many myths surrounding the Ripper and ended up turning a sad killer of women into a "bogey man", who has now become one of the most romantic figures in history. The rest of the responsibility lies with the Ripper. He may have been a sexual serial killer of a type all too common in the 1990s, but he was also bent on terrifying a city and making the whole world take notice of him by leaving his horribly mutilated victims in plain sight. Lastly, the Ripper was never caught and it is the mysteries surrounding this killer that both add to the romance of the story and creating an intellectual puzzle that people still want to solve.


The Victims

It is unclear just how many women the Ripper killed. It is generally accepted that he killed five, though some have written that he murdered only four while others say seven or more. The public, press, and even many junior police officers believed that the Ripper was responsible for nine slayings. The five that are generally accepted as the work of the Ripper are:

  1. Mary Ann (Polly) Nichols, murdered Friday, August 31, 1888.
  2. Annie Chapman, murdered Saturday, September 8, 1888.
  3. Elizabeth Stride, murdered Sunday, September 30, 1888.
  4. Catharine Eddowes, also murdered that same date.
  5. Mary Jane (Marie Jeanette) Kelly, murdered Friday, November 9, 1888.

Besides these five there are good reasons to believe that the first victim was really Martha Tabram who was murdered Tuesday, August 7, 1888, and there are important considerations for questioning whether Stride was a Ripper victim. As to the actual number of women that the Ripper killed, Philip Sugden wrote in his excellent book, The Complete History of Jack the Ripper, "There is no simple answer. In a sentence: at least four, probably six, just possibly eight."

All five of these listed plus Tabram were prostitutes and were killed between early August and early November 1888. All but Tabram and Kelly were killed outdoors and there is no evidence to suggest that any of them knew each other. They varied in both age and appearance. Most were drunk or thought to be drunk at the time they were killed.

Method of Operation

Surprisingly, a full understanding of the Ripper's modus operandi was not established until several years ago. The Whitechapel murderer and his victim stood facing each other. When she lifted her skirts, the victim's hands were occupied and was then defenseless. The Ripper seized the women by their throats and strangled them until they were unconscious if not dead. The autopsies constantly revealed clear indications that the victims had been strangled. In the past some writers believed that the Ripper struck from behind when the victims were bent forward, their skirts hiked up their backsides while waiting to engage in anal sex. This is a very awkward arrangement and the risk that they may scream or elude his clutch's make this unacceptable. The Ripper then lowered his victims to the ground, their heads to his left. This has been proven by the position of the bodies in relation to walls and fences that show that there was virtually no room for the murderer to attack the body from the left side. No bruising on the back of the heads shows that he lowered the bodies to the ground rather than throwing or letting them fall. Given the inclement weather and filth in the streets it is unacceptable that the prostitutes or their client would have attempted intercourse on the ground. He cut the throats when the women were on the ground. Splatter stains show that the blood pooled beside or under the neck and head of the victim rather than the front which is where the blood would flow if they had been standing up. In one case blood was found on the fence some 14 inches or so from the ground and opposite the neck wound and this shows that the blood spurted from the body while in the prone position on the ground. This method also prevented the killer from being unduly blood stained. By reaching over from the victim's right side to cut the left side of her throat, the blood flow would have been directed away from him, which would have reduced the amount of blood in which he would have been exposed. If the victim was already dead before their throats were cut, then the blood spilt would have not been very much. With the heart no longer beating the blood would not have been "pressurized," so only the blood in the immediate area of the wound would have evacuated gently from the cuts. The Ripper then made his other mutilations, still from the victim's right side, or possibly while straddling over the body at or near the feet. In several cases the legs had been pushed up which would have shortened the distance between the abdomen and the feet. No sign of intercourse was ever detected nor did the Ripper masturbate over the bodies. Usually he took a piece of the victim's viscera. The taking of a "trophy" is a common practice by modern sexual serial killers. In the opinion of most of the surgeons who examined the bodies, most believed that the killer had to have some degree of anatomical knowledge to do what he did. In one case he removed a kidney from the front rather than from the side, and did not damage any of the surrounding organs while doing so. In another case he removed the sexual organs with one clean stroke of the knife. Given the time circumstances of the crimes (outside, often in near total darkness, keeping one eye out for the approach of others, and under extremely tight time constraints), the Ripper almost certainly would have had some experience in using his knife.


The Ripper Letters

It is commonly accepted by the experts on the case that none of the letters purported to have been written by the Ripper were in fact written by him. A letter dated September 25 and received on the twenty-seventh by the Central News agency was the first to be signed "Jack the Ripper". A postcard post marked October 1 followed. Because it referred to a "double event" the police thought it might be from the killer since it was posted the day after the Ripper killed two women. The post card also referred to the letter and must have come from the same source as the letter had not been released to the public yet. If the post card had been sent on September 30, the day of the "double event", instead of October 1, the likelihood that it was really written by the murderer would be significantly greater. The Whitechapel Murderer may have written the letter/post card but there is no evidence to suppose that he did and the police seem convinced that they were the work of a journalist. A recently discovered document states that a journalist from the Central News agency, Tom Bulling, was the writer.

One other letter may have been written by the killer. In mid-October a small parcel was sent to George Lusk, who was head of a vigilance committee in Whitechapel. Inside was half a human kidney and a letter from someone claiming to be the killer, and that it was part of the kidney he removed from the victim Eddowes. It is impossible to know for sure if the Ripper really did send it. Most of the arguments in favor of it being from Jack have been based on inaccurate information and the myths rather than the facts surrounding the case. However, Eddowes did suffer from Bright's disease and the description of the kidney does match what a Bright's disease kidney would look like.

Evidence

In a time before forensic science and even finger printing, the only way to prove someone committed a murder was to catch either him or her in the act, or get the suspect to confess. The Whitechapel Murders unhappily fall into this period of time. One interesting feature of this case is that not one, but two police forces carried out investigations. The Metropolitan Police, known as Scotland Yard, was responsible for crimes committed in all the boroughs of London except the City of London proper. The single square mile in the heart of London known as the City of London had their own police force. When Eddowes was killed, it was in their territory and this brought them into the Ripper case. It is believed that the rank and file of the two forces got along and worked well together, but there is evidence that the seniors in each force did not. To what degree, if any, their failure to cooperate fully had on solving the case is not known. Most sources do not fault either police force for failing to solve the Jack the Ripper mystery, rightly pointing out that catching serial killers is still a hard task even by today's science and technology. Other than autopsies and taking statements from everybody who might know something there was little else that the Metropolitan police force did. The attitude of the people at the time was that the police were incompetent and that the Commissioner, Sir Charles Warren, was only good for policing crowds and keeping order rather than detective work. He was especially criticized for not offering a reward in the hope that a confederate or accomplice would come forth and inform against the Ripper. In fact, Warren had no objections for a reward being offered and it was his superior, Henry Matthews, the Home Secretary who refused the sanction of a reward. The City of London Police seems to have done a better job although they did not apprehend the killer either. City police officers made crime scene drawings, took many photographs of the victim Eddowes, and even though she was not in their jurisdiction, they took photographs of the Kelly victim. She is the only victim who was photographed at the crime scene. One of the splits between the leadership of the two forces was over graffito found in Goulston Street on the night of the "double event". A piece of Eddowes' apron, which the Ripper used to wipe off his knife, was found by a constable near a doorway that had a chalked message over the door. This message, "The Juwes are the men That Will not be blamed for nothing", may have been written by the Ripper and the City police officers wanted to photograph it. Warren felt that leaving it until it was light enough to be photographed might cause riots against the Jews living in Whitechapel whom the bigoted English residents already believed were responsible for the murders. Warren did not even compromise by willing to erase or cover up the word "Juwes" only. In the end the police never charged any suspect with the murders committed by the Ripper which shows they did not have a sufficient amount of evidence that would gain a verdict of guilty in criminal court.


Suspects

In 1894, Sir Melville Macnaghten, then Chief Constable, wrote a confidential report in which he names the three top suspects. Although some information concerning the suspect he believed most likely to have been the murderer had been available before the turn of the century, the name of that suspect was not made public until 1959. Macnaghten's suspect was M.J. Druitt, a barrister turned teacher who committed suicide in December 1888. Unfortunately for Macnaghten who wrote his memoranda from memory, the details he ascribes to Druitt are wrong. According to the Chief Constable, Druitt was a doctor, 41 years of age, and committed suicide immediately after the Kelly murder. In actuality Druitt was 31, not a doctor, and killed himself nearly a month after the last official murder. No other police officer supported Macnaghten's allegations, and one in fact, stated that the theory was inadequate and that the suicide was circumstantial evidence at best that the drowned doctor was the Ripper. While it is still possible that he was the Ripper, correct information gathered about Druitt so far makes him seem an unlikely candidate.

In 1903, Frederick Abberline, a retired crack detective who had been in charge of the Ripper investigation at the ground level stated that he thought that multiple wife poisoner Severin Klosowski, alias George Chapman, might be Jack the Ripper. As with Macnaghten, no other officer has concurred with his opinion and modern criminal profiling science tends to reject Klosowski as a serious candidate.

The name of Macnaghten's second suspect was confirmed as Aaron Kosminiski in the early 1980s when a researcher came upon Donald Swanson's personal copy of Robert Anderson's book of memoirs. Both Swanson and Anderson were officers who participated in the Ripper investigation; indeed, they were the ones given the responsibility of being in charge of the case. Anderson had written in his memoirs that appeared for the first time in 1910 that the police knew who the Ripper was. According to Anderson the Ripper was a Polish Jew who was put away in an insane asylum after the crimes, and then died soon after. Swanson had made some notes in his copy of the book concerning Anderson's suspect, and wrote that the suspect's name was Kosminski. At first it seemed that the case had been solved, but research has found a number of problems with the theory. No other officer supports' Anderson's allegation, and Swanson's notes seem to question his superior's claims rather than support them. Aaron Kosminski was a real person and was placed in an insane asylum. His records show him to be a docile and harmless lunatic that heard voices in his head and would only eat food from the gutter. The dates of his incarceration are wrong, and he did not die soon after his committal but lived on until 1919. Some researchers have tried to explain the problems by saying that the name Kosminski' was confused with another insane Polish Jew, who really was dangerous.

The search continues. The third Macnaghten suspect, Michael Ostrog, has been investigated and there is nothing to indicate that he was nothing more than a demented con man.

Dr. Francis Tumblety, the latest serious suspect, only became known to students of the Jack the Ripper murders in 1993. A collector of crime memorabilia obtained a cache of letters belonging to a crime journalist named G.R. Sims. Among the letters was one from John Littlechild, who had been in charge of the Secret Department in Scotland Yard at the time of the murders. Dated 1913, Littlechild writes to Sims: "I never heard of a Dr. D. (which many assume is a reference to Druitt as Macnaghten thought Druitt was a doctor and Sims was a confident of the Chief Constable), in connection with the Whitechapel Murders but amongst the suspects, and to my mind a very likely one, was a Dr. T . . . He was an American quack named Tumblety . . . " A book by the collector who found the letter goes to great lengths in trying to prove that Tumblety is the final solution for the mystery. Unfortunately, he fails to do so. There is no doubt that Tumblety was a legitimate suspect and that when he fled to America, Scotland Yard detectives came over to investigate him further. It is unlikely that Scotland Yard continued to view him as a serious suspect. James Monro, who succeeded Warren and was in overall command of the Secret department before becoming Commissioner, thought that the Alice McKenzie murder of July 1889 was the work of the Ripper. He stated in 1890 that he did not know who the Whitechapel murderer was but that he was working on his own theory.

Ripper Research

At the time of the murders and for the next few years, a lot was written about the murders including some tabloid type books. Most of it is worthless and only helped to set up many myths that have clouded serious attempts to figure out what really happened that autumn in London. Other than memoirs of officers who worked on the case, which is valuable, little else was written until after the first world war. In 1929 the first full length book in English about the Ripper, The Mystery of Jack the Ripper by Leonard Matters, was published. Once more there was growing interest in the murders again in that the Ripper was appearing in both nonfiction works and fictional formats such as Alfred Hitchcock's The Lodger. Cult-like interest, the interest that has really never left, began in the 1950s. Dan Farson did a television show about the Ripper and uncovered a version of the McNaghten memoranda. The first really good books began to be published in the 1960s, such as Tom Cullen's Autumn of Terror and Robin Odell's Jack the Ripper in Fact and Fiction. Interest in Jack the Ripper exploded in 1970 when a new theory was published in which the grandson of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence and Avondale, was accused of being the Ripper. Just like his nemesis in fiction, Sherlock Holmes, the 1970s saw Jack being either paired with someone famous or identified as being someone famous. It was a decade that also featured some entertaining but patently absurd conspiracy theories explaining who the Ripper really was. Plots involving Freemasons, court physicians, and sinister figures from occult organizations, have been paraded before the public as the final solution. In the midst of the madness some good came out. Donald Rumbelow's The Complete Jack the Ripper was published, and police files still existing from the investigations were made available to all and sundry. The 1980s saw a tide of books published to cash in on the centennial of the Murders in Whitechapel, and lost evidence was returned anonymously to the police and Swanson's notes on Anderson's suspect were found. The FBI's Behavioral Science Unit did a criminal profile of the Ripper and aspects of the murders were discussed in various professional journals. During the 1990s, two new books have appeared that are musts for people who are interested in the Ripper murders. The Jack the Ripper A to Z by Paul Begg, Martin Fido, and Keith Skinner is indispensable for doing research and Sugden's The Complete History of Jack the Ripper has replaced Rumbelow's worthy tome as the authoritative source for information. An interesting phony diary supposedly written by the Ripper was published and the authentic letter revealing the suspect Dr. Francis Tumblety has also been released to the public.


The Future

In the past ten years more evidence has been recovered, new information garnered through the young criminal sciences, and serious research conducted on the mystery of Jack the Ripper than at any other time since the case was officially closed in 1892. After more than a hundred years the case is still fascinating, and results are still being gotten through research. Nick Warren, a student of the crimes and a practicing surgeon, studied the second Kelly crime scene photograph that was recently recovered, and was able to establish that a hatchet was used by the Ripper to split one of his victim's legs! The likelihood of the case ever being solved is open to debate. If the police solved it but for some reason kept the Ripper's identity a secret, then I think that the odds are good that the answer will be rediscovered. Unfortunately, I and I think most serious students on the subject, do not think that the police did solve the case. Individual officers had strong opinions on who Jack the Ripper was, but not the Forces as a whole. This makes the challenge much more difficult as today's researchers must find new evidence rather than unearth that which has been lost. The evidence lost is considerable. Virtually all of the City of London Police files were lost in the Blitz during the last world war. What remains of the Metropolitan Police files are available to the public but the files are sparse. Some have claimed that the files were purposefully destroyed to keep the Murderer's identity a secret. The truth is more pedestrian and unromantic. Almost from the beginning items were removed for souvenirs. Often in those olden days when they ran out of room, the clerks would go to the end of the shelve and simply dump out the old files by the armful. When Abberline was interviewed in 1903, the journalist noted that the retired Scotland yard Inspector was surrounded by official files. Once, upon the death of a retired officer, a trunk full of files concerning his old cases was found in his possession. Modern day "Ripperologists" were not above souvenir hunting themselves. A number of documents were taken in the late 1970s/early 1980s and as a result the remaining material was put on microfilm. It seems perfectly possible that Jack the Ripper's identity may one day be discovered; it may be one of the serious suspects mentioned in this report, or one that the police dismissed too cavalierly all those years ago, or it may be someone completely unknown at this time. The future may or may not reveal the Ripper's name.


Related pages:
  Introduction
       Home: Introduction to the Case 
       Dissertations: So You Want to be a Ripperologist? 
       Dissertations: Whodunit? : Choosing a Ripper Suspect