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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!

Doctor in the Nineties
D.G. Halsted, 1959

CHAPTER THREE

JACK THE RIPPER

IT WAS DURING my time at the London Hospital, just I before I went off to Durham, that the East End, and indeed the whole of the country, was shaken to its core by a series of the most foul, brutal and inhuman murders ever committed in the long annals of crime. The reader may already have guessed that I am referring to the multiple outrages attributed to the so-called `Jack the Ripper', who held Whitechapel in the grip of an unknown terror all through the later part of 1888. For all their frantic efforts, house-to-house searches and cross-questioning, of suspects in their hundreds, the Metropolitan Police were baffled then, and to this very day the mystery remains unsolved.

I must be one of the few surviving inhabitants of Whitechapel to remember those dark days of Jack the Ripper. With what seemed a depressing regularity, the mangled corpses of the Ripper's unfortunate victims were brought round to the London Hospital, to await the skilled examination of the best medical brains at the disposal of Scotland Yard. Owing the extraordinary knowledge of anatomy displayed by the murderer, no medical man, however high his character or reputation, could be entirely exempted from suspicion, and naturally those of us at the London Hospital, right in the heart of Whitechapel, were in the limelight. The East End was alive with plain-clothes men. They were lurking in every alleyway, ready to pounce at the slightest breath of suspicion, and this more than anything gave us a sinister feeling when walking through the streets of these tumbledown haunts of pilfering and pauperism where we lived and worked.

In spite of their plain clothes, the detectives were conspicuous enough, and it cannot have been very difficult for the murderer, whoever he was, to keep well clear of them. It was a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth. On more than one occasion I became aware that I was being shadowed by the plain-clothes men, and I became particularly aware of this when I went to join Grenfell in the North Sea late in 1889; a whole year after the murders, the search was being tenaciously kept up. I must be the only man living to have been suspected of being Jack the Ripper; more of this later, let me tell the gruesome story from the beginning.

Those addicted to exaggerating what is already a fantastic enough story tend to attribute to the Ripper other Whitechapel murders which happened just before or just after his orgy of slaughter was at its climax; but in the absence of the unmistakable signs of mutilation which were his unique trademark, it is safer not to assume too much. A murder every so often was common enough in Whitechapel, with its drunken brawls of unemployed labourers, and vendettas of carousing coloured seamen. It was the peculiarly horrible nature of the "Ripper" murders, and complete inability of the police to trace any sign of the murderer, which horrified us all so much.

The Ripper's first crime was the murder of Martha Turner in George's Yard Buildings, Spitalfields, on August 7th, 1888. Not much importance was attached to it at the time, since it was only one among many murders in Whitechapel.

It was the second of these crimes that really caused the hue and cry to be raised. This was the murder of Polly Nicholls in Buck's Row, Whitechapel, at 3.45 a.m. on the morning of August 31st. The victim was a slut of a woman who had been heard of in the Lambeth workhouse, and had stolen 3 from her employer when working as a servant. She had almost certainly been streetwalking when she met her destiny; it is hard to imagine any other reason for a young woman being out of doors at that hour of the morning.

Her body was found lying in the gutter, with the throat slit right across, and great gashes in the abdomen, which laid the body right open. Everybody who read the lurid accounts in the Press was thunderstruck by the unparalleled savagery of the murderer's method, which seemed to have some kind of ritual or sexual significance. The police, who were patrolling close to the scene of the crime when the murder was actually committed, heard no kind of cry, and came upon the body only a matter of minutes after the event, but there was not the slightest sign of the murderer.

At the inquest the police surgeon testified that the outrage had been committed most probably with a pointed weapon with a stout back, such as a cork-cutter's or shoemaker's knife, and so suspicion immediately fell on the luckless members of these two professions. But even the highest authorities in the land confessed themselves completely baffled. I would have liked to know what Wilf Grenfell thought about it all, but he was already working with the Mission to the Deep Sea Fishermen at that time, having qualified a year or two before me, and indeed I was about to join him in this work in the North Sea.

A mere eight days later, the Ripper struck again, very near the scene of his former crime. On September 8th, Annie Chapman was found in Hanbury Street, Spitalfields, most foully dismembered. So fiercely had her throat been cut, that her head was almost completely severed from her body and two of her front teeth were missing. The abdomen, once again, had been gashed open, and she had been completely disembowelled, with her intestines straggling out over the small back yard where the Ripper had got her cornered. There was no doubt this time that he had removed certain parts of the body not normally mentioned in polite society, and this perversion, almost more than the murder itself, excited the frenzy of a large crowd which gathered round the spot during the following day.

Various witness came forward at the inquest to testify to the pathetic circumstances of the victim. She was the widow of a pensioner, and they had one deformed boy in a cripples' home in London, and a girl in a workhouse over in France. She was known as `Dark Annie', and had been seen with a strange man in a public house a few days before. She was also known to have been wounded in a fight with another woman in the week before the murder. Her landlord gave evidence that she had been unable to pay the rent of her lodgings, and he had turned her out into the street, where she had evidently been plying the only profession left to her r in her extremity.

It was feared that if the murderer were not quickly caught, more outrages of the same kind would occur. This accounts for the state, bordering on panic, in which the inhabitants of the East End were thrown. So great was the morbid curiosity about the Chapman murder that anyone with a window over-looking the back yard where the murder took place was doing a roaring trade by charging the public a small fee for admission to their premises, for a grandstand view.

It was obviously not an ordinary member of the criminal classes who had committed the 'Whitechapel Murders' as they quickly came to be known, and spokesmen of the thriving underworld of the taverns and opium dens of Limehouse, where all these professional criminals congregated, came forward and made it clear to the police that they would hand over to them anyone suspected of the crimes. Even this policy of `set a thief to catch a thief', however, had no effect, although it is so often the most successful way of tracking down a malefactor in an area controlled by organized gangs of criminals.

The police arrested numerous suspects on the slenderest clues, more to placate the rising tide of public indignation and to show that they were not falling down in their duty than because they really imagined they had got the criminal in their grasp. They were all quickly released, however, as soon as it became obvious that there was nothing more than their disreputable appearance to be held against them. Every other inhabitant of Whitechapel in those days looked capable of some crime or other, but it was much bigger fry that the police were after. The only time they thought they were getting somewhere was when, on the basis of persistent rumours, they set un a search for a man known as `Leather Apron', who was believed to have something to do with Annie Chapman, and eventually they hauled in an unfortunate Polish Jew answering to that nickname. He turned out to be a boot-finisher by trade, and for a time the police surgeon's inference that a shoemaker's knife had been used caused him to come under grave suspicion. But it soon became obvious that he was not the man, and he was released like the others.

Speculation abounded as to the identity of the murderer. The obvious suggestion was made by many people that Jack the Ripper was a butcher by trade, and was simply applying his knowledge of the anatomy of cows, pigs and sheep to the human body. The proximity of the Aldgate shambles to the scene of the two murders lent some credence to this theory, and for a time the spotlight of police investigation was turned on to the professional slaughtermen, but once again it failed to illuminate anything whatsoever.

A cert section of medical opinion, on the other hand, dismissed the rather prosaic suggestion that the murderer belonged to one of these humble trades involving skill with the knife, and was inclined to believe, from the perverted cunning with which the killer had repeatedly evaded justice, that he was a member of the upper classes, which would certainly account for his being completely unknown among the habitually criminal section of society. Some doctors thought, furthermore, that they coupd clearly detect the work of a homicidal maniac, in spite of the fact that homicidal maniacs are not generally in a condition to take elaborate evasive measures against the police hue and cry. But, anyway, it was suggested that all supposedly `cured' homicidal maniacs who had at any time in the past been released from institutions should be rounded up once more and closely questioned. The suggestion was not acted upon, and l remember that The Lancet came out against the homicidal maniac theory.

A theory familiar to modern ears was put forward by Punch. Always ready with some bright idea, the irrepressible Mr. Punch maintained that the lurid posters which even in those days were put up to advertise murder mysteries on the stage, had an evil and corrupting influence on those who were daily confronted with them in the streets, and that the murderer might well have been tempted into excess by seeing these horrible crimes of the imagination so realistically displayed.

Meanwhile the East End was rife with agitation. A committee of local tradespeople, known as the Whitechapel Vigilance Association, was set up, and demanded that the authorities should offer a reward for the capture of the murderer. This was not done at first, on the grounds that too many people would come forward with false and misleading clues in an attempt to get the reward. Because of this, and the frustrating failure of the most thorough investigations to yield any result, popular agitation against the Metropolitan Police mounted, and social reformers began to agitate for the worst slums of Whitechapel to be cleared away and for the streets to be properly lit and more extensively patrolled at night.

Then a bombshell burst on us medical men at the London Hospital. The Coroner at the inquest on Annie Chapman gave it as his considered opinion, that while a slaughterman could have been responsible for the murder, it could equally well have been executed with an instrument such as medical men used for post-mortem purposes. Suspicion immediately turned upon my colleagues and myself, and l often had the feeling, especially when I was walking home late at night, that the inhabitants were shunning me and that the plain-clothes men were following my movements.

While the East End was in this state of ferment, the assassin struck again, this time convulsing everybody with a double murder on the night of September 9th, exactly a month after the first murder. The first victim was one Elizabeth Stride, a woman of low character who had often been up on charges of drunkenness, and had, once again, most probably been soliciting when she was murdered. She was found with her throat cut in Berner Street, Spitalfields, by a gateway leading to a factory. It seemed that the murderer had been interrupted before he was able to carry out the further incisions which he had by this time led his public to expect, as his personal signature.

The other murder happened in a fairly frequented part of the City, in Mitre Square, just off Leadenhall Street, which was patrolled by policemen every quarter of an hour or so. Another of these wretched prostitutes, Catherine Eddowes, was found with her throat cut, her face gashed right across, part of her right ear cut off, her intestines protruding, and the other `indescribable mutilations' which even the Press was too polite to mention in those times. There were signs that the Ripper had been more hurried on this occasion, but even so it was a considerable feat to have done what he did in such a comparatively busy place without leaving the slightest sign.

The frenzy of the Whitechapel population knew no bounds. The newly formed Vigilance Committee at once petitioned Queen Victoria to offer a reward, and over a thousand people met in Victoria Park and clamoured for the resignation of the Home Secretary, who of course was responsible for the Metropolitan Police, and got the brunt of the blame for not running the murderer to earth.

Speculation got off on a new tack when word got around, through Press reports, that a similar series of murders had been committed in Austria a few years before. A Galician Jew by the name of Ritter had been on three occasions sentenced to death for the crimes, which had involved the same horrible sexual mutilations. Each time the verdict was reversed by a higher court on the grounds that the evidence was not sufficient, and Ritter was finally let go; so whoever it was might have escaped to carry on his dreadful butchery in the East End.

The really interesting feature of the Ritter case was that witnesses had come forward at the various trials to testify that among fanatical believers in the Jewish religion it was held that, if ever a Jew succumbed to temptation and had illicit intercourse with a Christian woman, it was his duty to atone for the offence by killing her and carrying out these atrocious sexual mutilations. Thus it got around London that the murderer was a fanatical Jew, and the many innocent Jewish inhabitants of Whitechapel were victimized by the fanatical anti-Jewish element which is always so ready to assert itself at times of crisis. It later turned out that the Austrian witnesses had had no authority whatsoever for their statements, and many eminent Jews refuted them quite conclusively. But yet another red herring had been drawn across the path and the police were again off the scent.

Shortly after the double murder, the Central News Agency received two astounding letters. One, evidently written just before the event, was a confession of the previous murders, in which the murderer said that in the `next job' he would "clip the lady's ears off" and send them to the police. He signed himself `Jack the Ripper', and that is how this notorious appellation first came in.

The second letter, which had been sent just after the murders, was so extraordinary that I quote an excerpt:

"I was not codding, dear old Boss, when I gave you the tip. You'll hear about Saucy Jacky's work tomorrow. Double event this time. Number one squealed a bit; couldn't finish straight off. Had not time to get ears for police."

Once again the signature was simply `Jack the Ripper'. The name caught on like wildfire, as was to be expected. But the police were not much helped. For one thing, the letters could easily have been a hoax by some macabre practical joker. If they were not a hoax, it seemed at first, from their style, as though `Jack the Ripper' was a semi-literate member of the labouring classes. If, on the other hand, he was the diabolically ingenious upper-class doctor that some thought him, surely it would be just like him to affect the Cockney style in order to turn away suspicion and put the police firmly on the wrong track.

Now at last a reward of 500 was offered, and the police stepped up their patrolling activity in the East End still more, so that there were detectives on duty all night on every corner. A fortnight after the double murder, another of `Jack the Ripper's' letters, with a Kilburn postmark, reached the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee. It evidently purported to have been written before the murder, and read as follows:

"I write you a letter in black ink, as I have no more of the right stuff [blood]. I think you are all asleep in Scotland Yard with your bloodhounds [a great to-do was being made about the as yet untried use of these animals] as I will show you tomorrow night. I am going to do a double event, but not in Whitechapel. Got rather too warm there. Had to shift. No more till you hear me again."

This still gave no clue as to the identity of the murderer, but there was something breath-taking about the boastful effrontery of these letters, if indeed they were genuine. The only real clue afforded by the dates of the murders, which had all taken place either on the last day of the month, or at the end of the first week in the month; with an uncanny regularity, the dates went August 7th and 31st, September 8th and 3oth. The suggestion was that Jack the Ripper spent most of his time at sea on one of the many ships that called regularly at the Port of London, which enabled him to keep well out of the way of the police, and accounted for the regular dates of the murders. Of course there were so many ships that called at the docks that the police, in spite of the close watch they kept, did not get much further with this line of inquiry.

There was also the widespread view that the Ripper, if not a Jew, belonged to some Oriental nation, among whom these barbaric ritual murders were common practice; so suspicion turned on the Lascars and other coloured seamen from the docks, but once again all efforts were of no avail, even though the police, in desperation as the popular outcry grew more intense, began a house-to-house search of the whole East End.

Suspicion reverted towards the medical profession when the police arrested a homicidal maniac who claimed to have studied medicine and complained that he had lost a black bag, which he was most unwilling to allow the police to examine when it was found, although the contents turned out to be perfectly innocuous. But it was almost enough to be arrested if one was so much as seen in the street with a black bag for some time after this incident.

A new wave of horror swept the public when the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee received a parcel containing half a human kidney. It was at once recalled that Catherine Eddowes, the most recent victim, had had her left kidney excised with characteristical anatomical precision by Jack the Ripper. The police surgeon examined the kidney, and pro[no]unced it to be that of a heavy drinker, which again fitted in with the known facts. It may have been a hoax, like the letters, but it reduced Whitechapel to a state of the utmost panic.

The excitement had time to subside as the end of October came, and the usual end-of-the-month orgy of killing failed to repeat itself. But then, just as we all thought that Jack the Ripper had removed himself to another part of the world, on November 9th-the end of the first week of the month-occurred the most ghastly and sickening murder of the whole series. A known street-walker, Marie Jeannette Kelly, was found dead in a room in Miller's Court, in Dorset Street, off Spitalfields, lying on a bed.

A great crowd immediately gathered outside Miller's Court, and there was consternation as the gory details became fully known. Once again the cry went up that the police and their blessed bloodhounds were on the wrong scent, but this time those who knew the woman Kelly were sure that they had recently seen her in the company of a sinister and handsome looking stranger with a moustache, who carried a black bag around with him, and had been seen accosting four different women on the same evening on a previous occasion. But no one answering exactly to his description came to light, and it was assumed that, if indeed he was Jack the Ripper, he must have fled the country. A sense of hopelessness descended on the proceedings, and although the police were still thick on the ground, it came to be assumed that they would never catch Jack the Ripper.

Then, the following January, there was great excitement at a report from Paris that Jack the Ripper had been caught in a band of criminals arrested by the French authorities in Tunis. There was an Englishman named Gray, with a moustache, among them, and his arms were tattooed with the names of women and with representations of their naked bodies. But it soon became evident that this petty criminal was not the big fish. Nothing more was heard until the following month, when a series of atrocious murders was reported from Managua, the capital of Nicaragua% and as far as one could judge, the method of execution was identical to that of Jack the Ripper. Was it the same man, popping up again in Central America? We shall never know, for Jack the Ripper was never caught, and for all I know, if his health is as good as mine, he is still at large.

I formed my own theories about the murders, as we all did in the fevered discussions that took place in Whitechapel. I believe that Jack the Ripper was a victim of that dreaded disease, syphilis, for which a slow and not very effective course of mercury and iodine was then the only treatment we had. Before the days of penicillin, syphilis was often incurable. So I used to imagine the half-crazed sufferer, his bones being gnawed away by this terrible ailment, determining to revenge himself on the class of women from whom he had caught it. It must have been in an almost moral urge to purify the East End of these plague-bearing Harpies that he set himself his task, and the revolting sexual refinements must have been the culmination of his destructive orgy of collective vengeance.

The theory that Jack the Ripper spent a lot of his time at sea was one which I found highly plausible. He may have been on the cattle boats to the Continent, as has been suggested, but I believe that after the last murder in November he joined the North Sea fishing fleet, where he was well out of the reach of the Law, and his presence would pass almost unnoticed among the scum of humanity who were to be found on those ships. I came to this conclusion after spending a winter with Grenfell working with the mission ships to the North Sea fleets. It was towards the close of 1889 that I set out on this memorable expedition, which forms the subject of my next chapter.