|A Ripperologist Article
|This article originally appeared in Ripperologist No. 16, April 1998. Ripperologist is the most respected Ripper periodical on the market and has garnered our highest recommendation for serious students of the case. For more information, view our Ripperologist page. Our thanks to the editor of Ripperologist for permission to reprint this article.
by Stawell Heard
On the dull, drizzly day of 9th November 1888, officers from the Metropolitan Police waited for two and a half hours outside Room 13 Millers Court. Inside, in the small, sparsely furnished room, lay the mutilated remains of Mary Kelly. The officers sealed off the court and questioned witnesses, but otherwise clicked their heels and awaited the arrival of the two bloodhounds so favoured by their Commissioner, Sir Charles Warren. Eventually the information came that the bloodhounds were not available, Warren's orders were countermanded and the room broken into. But already, in these two and a half hours, there lies confusion regarding the most moving piece of evidence remaining from that dreadful autumn day. This confusion surrounds the taking of the full-length photographs of the butchered corpse of Mary Kelly.
There are two versions of events. In the first, the most often told, these photographs were taken through the window of 13 Millers Court before the room had been broken into. If this is true, 'the photographer did', as Paul Begg pointed out, 'a remarkable job', giving the primitive photographic equipment available at the time.
The second version, recounted by Donald Rumbelow in 1970, has the merit of explaining one of the enduring mysteries of the Kelly photographs: why they were taken by the City Police. In this version, told to him by City Police pensioners who had worked with officers who served on the Whitechapel case, Kelly's room had been entered by the time McCarthy broke in. the explanation was that certain officers of the Metropolitan Police faced a dilemma. Warren had ordered that nothing be disturbed until the bloodhounds had been fetched. Yet, in the process of waiting, more time was being lost. They resolved this by asking the City Police to break in for them. this the City Police did, and their photographer took some photographs to justify their action. If this is true, it blows skywards any allegations of rivalry or demarcation disputes between the two police forces of the Metropolis.
Once the photographer had entered the room other photographs were taken. These could only have been taken from inside. There was the second, rather surreal, picture taken from behind the bed, and there were rumours of further photographs. Walter Dew stated that 'Several photographs of the eyes were taken by expert photographers with the latest type cameras.' This was done in the 'forlorn hope' that the final image was retained on the retina. There were supposed to be specific lighting conditions under which such a photograph should be taken. Whether these were followed in the dim light of 13 Millers Court, it is now impossible to say. All we know is that, as Dew tells us, 'The result was negative'. There is no trace of these photographs anywhere in the files.
Police use of photography was common practice by 1888, but it had been slow to catch on. Rupert Christiansen has suggested that 'Like the microchip, the camera was an instrument so revolutionary to the way society communicates that its implications took a century to consolidate.' The use of photography to record police evidence had been suggested by the Illustrated Times as early as 1860. This had come in relation to another East End murder, that of Mrs Emsley in Bethnal Green.
But it was a multiple murder in France in 1869 which had first resulted in the use of photography to record evidence in a police investigation. The murder in question was the killing by Jean-Baptiste Troppmann and unknown accomplices of Jean and Hortense Kinck and their six children at Pantin Fields just outside Paris. Mortuary photographs of five of the bodies were taken a few hours after death. It is the earliest known official instance of the use of photography in criminal proceedings.
By the time of the Ripper killings, both London police forces were commonly employing local photographers to record the likenesses of the victims of 'sudden death'. The photographs of the Ripper victims are, then, neither unique nor groundbreaking, but they are remarkable. They show us the work not only of the early crime scene photographers, but of one of the first documented serial killers.
Although we now have access to the remaining police and Home Office files on the case and to the full postmortem reports, words can only partially convey the full horror of what the Ripper did. The failure of words was felt by contemporary witnesses unfortunate enough to view the scene at Millers Court, witnesses such as John McCarthy and Walter Dew. It was Macnaghten who first noted the importance of the main Kelly photograph for conveying the reality of Millers Court: "A photo was taken of the woman, as she was found lying on the bed, without seeing which it is impossible to imagine the awful mutilation.'
The photograph can also correct certain facts. Contrary to what was reported at the time, and even to what Dr Bond stated in his post-mortem report, Kelly was not naked. The photograph shows quite clearly that she was wearing an undergarment with puffed sleeves. Possibly Bond described her as naked because much of the lower part of the garment had been cut away or pushed up over her thighs; or possibly his assertion reveals the Victorian concept of nudity.
As well as affording us a momentary and moving glimpse into the past and telling a grizzly story, these photographs, kept, since they were taken, in several locations and belonging to two police forces, have, over the years, acquired a convoluted history of their own.
The full-length Kelly photograph probably remained in the possession of the City Police. There can be no absolute certainty because many of the City Police records were destroyed in the bombing during the war. The photographs clearly had been seen by Macnaghten, as he refers to it in his notes of 1894. Dan Farson claimed to be the first to publish it in his book Jack the Ripper in 1972. He reiterated this claim in a review of Philip Sugden's The Complete History of Jack the Ripper in the Evening Standard in 1994. Though Farson does have and important role to play in the publication of the Ripper photographs, his claim to be the first to publish the Kelly one is spurious, and he did not repeat it in his 1997 memoirs Never a Normal Man.
The first publication of the main Kelly photograph had in fact occurred some seventy-three years earlier in 1899 when it was included by Jean Alexandre Eugene Lacassagne in his book Vacher i'Eventreur et les Crimes Sadiques (Vacher the Ripper and Sadistic Crime).
At some point between this date and the 1960s, the photograph disappears from view. It was rediscovered by Donald Rumbelow amidst the remains of a previous City Police museum which was dismantled in the 1950s. At the same time he found the four photographs taken of Catharine Eddowes, one of which had also been published by Lacassagne. The Kelly photograph was in poor condition - it had been pinned up in a display cabinet and two holes, along with the overlapping outlines of two drawing pin heads, are still visible on the original. They can be seen on some of the copies reproduced in Ripper books.
There was one further photograph, of the exterior of Kelly's room. Rumbelow discovered it 'among some glass negatives which were being thrown out by the City of London Police Photographic Department'. (1) Whether it was taken at the same time as the other photographs it is now impossible to say, but the broken pane of glass is clearly visible so one presumes it dates from 1888. Tantalisingly, Rumbelow was told that there was also an album of photographs. This has never been found.
Rumbelow showed the photographs of the Kelly and Eddowes corpses to Professor Francis Camps at the London Hospital shortly after Camps' assistant, Sam Hardy, had discovered the Mitre Square drawings produced at the inquest on Eddowes. Rumbelow had a set of photographs made up for Camps' personal use. Contrary to this agreement, Camps had several further sets made and gave them away to various interested parties. One of these was Farson. Thus it was that Farson became the first person ever to publish three of the four Eddowes photographs. One in particular, a head and torso shot taken at an angle, has rarely been published since, and it is the only one to show clearly the neck wounds of a Ripper victim. Rumbelow later gave all these photographs to the Black Museum; and so, at last, any rivalries, real or imaginary, that had existed between the two police forces, were laid to rest.
For some years Scotland Yard displayed these prints in the Black Museum before they were subsequently deposited at the Public Record Office at Kew where they remain today. That might have been the end of the matter, but in 1988 there were further discoveries.
During the approach to the Ripper centenary, the then Curator of the Black Museum, Bill Waddell, received two brown envelopes sent anonymously from Croydon in South London. The first was received in November 1987 and contained certain documents, among them the famous 'Dear Boss' letter, which had been missing from the files for a number of years. The envelope was checked for fingerprints, and one set was isolated. It could not be traced to anyone known to have handled the letter.
The following year, the other brown envelope arrived containing a previously unknown photograph of Kelly in Room 13. This was the photograph taken from behind the bed showing blood-soaked linen, mangled flesh and internal organs. The only recognisably human feature is Kelly's unmutilated hand. Behind this is the bedside table with a heap of stomach flesh on it and, beyond that, a strip of sunlight shining through the crack in the door. The sender of these documents was never traced.
Though remarkable, their existence is not entirely surprising as much material from the files has, after all, gone missing. It has been filched over the years by trophy hunters, most of them, sorry to say, researchers. Also, attitudes to conserving files were more relaxed in former times, and certain documents found their way into the private collections of police officers. A previous filing system at Scotland Yard even allowed removal of old files to make room for new ones!
As if the contents of the brown envelopes were not sufficient finds for one year, more documents came to light. The family of a former police officer returned some photograph albums to Scotland Yard and looking through them Bill Waddell found photographs of all five canonical victims. How they got there and where the prints of Nichols, Chapman and Stride had spent the previous century is unknown.
As is to be expected, there is an alternative version of events. Melvyn Fairclough claims in his book The Ripper and the Royals that the photographs, as well as the written documents, were in the possession of Joseph Sickert. In 1988 Sickert handed them over in a raid on his home by Special Branch, or persons purporting to be Special Branch. He claims that the documents, together with the Abberline diaries, the second Kelly photograph and those of Nichols, Chapman and Stride had been given to Walter Sickert by Inspector Abberline. He believes whoever came to raid his home came looking for the Abberline diaries, which were kept elsewhere. He gave them the documents and photographs to prevent his home being ransacked, but managed to retain possession of the diaries. This is not the place to speculate on the likelihood or otherwise of Joseph Sickert's story for the matter of overwhelming importance is the fact that the photographs should have surfaced at all, and that they ought now to be safe and sound. After they were released to the press in August 1988 the photographs were transferred to the Public Record Office at Kew.
There is, however, a final twist. Towards the end of my research into the photographs I visited the PRO to consult the relevant Ripper files. Nowadays, researchers are ordinarily barred from consulting the original documents, but since they were microfilmed in 1988 this is usually unnecessary anyway. The quality of the photographs is extremely bad on microfilm, but there is sufficient detail to identify which photograph is which. I had pored over the content list of extant files and consulted all relevant reels without tracing the photograph of Stride. I enquired as to its whereabouts without success. In subsequent phone calls it emerged that this was not known. The PRO never received the photograph from Scotland Yard. Keith Skinner tells me it has been missing for some years.
The original mortuary photograph has long since vanished, but a replacement negative made from it had been used to generate new originals. Both the replacement negative and the new originals have now disappeared. Fortunately, further copies were made by Scotland Yard and these can be used to generate other negatives from which further copies can be made and a new original supplied to the PRO. Inevitably, there will be some loss of detail, but at least the photograph will again be available to researchers. Where the replacement original went, no one knows. A sad irony, perhaps, that after its time in private hands the photograph should have been lost again by public custodians.(1) Letter to the author from Donald Rumbelow 18 April 1997 (2)
Many thanks to Roger Appleby, John Ross, Donald Rumbelow, Keith Skinner and Nigel Taylor
Begg: Jack the Ripper: The Uncensored Facts - Robson, 1988
Begg, Fido, Skinner: The Jack the Ripper A-Z - (2nd revised edition) Headline, 1996
Christiansen: Paris Babylon: The Story of the Paris Commune - Viking, 1994
(pp38-57 relate the details of the Troppmann case. The mortuary photographs are reproduced between pp 116-117)
Dew: The Hunt for Jack the Ripper - Dave Froggatt, 1997
Fairclough: The Ripper and the Royals (2nd edition) Duckworth, 1992
Farson: Jack the Ripper - Michael Joseph, 1972
Kelly: Jack the Ripper: A Bibliography and Review of the Literature (new edition) AAL, 1984
Rumbelow: 'The City of London Police Museum and Exhibition'- Police Journal, July 1970
Sugden: The Complete History of Jack the Ripper (revised edition) Robinson, 1995
Waddell: The Black Museum - Warner, 1993