In 1888, a serial killer plagued the impoverished cities surrounding the Whitechapel district of London. Deemed "Jack the Ripper", he killed an unknown amount of female prostitutes by cutting their throat and mutilating their abdomens to remove their internal organs.
Numerous letters were received by the media, claiming to be the murderer. Originally, the killer was called the Whitechapel Murderer, but ended up with the name "Jack the Ripper" after a letter was written by someone purporting to be the murderer, though it was believed to be a hoax.
The series of slayings received extensive coverage, and Jack the Ripper lives on in true crime legend and lore to this day. Because the murders were never solved, only some of the information today comes from historical history... much of the rest of it comes from folklore and pseudo-history.
19TH CENTURY WHITECHAPEL
In the mid-19th century, a surge of Irish immigrants swelled into Britain's major cities. Then, in 1882, Jewish refugees fleeing Tsarist Russia also conglomerated into the same area, and quickly, Whitechapel became overcrowded, hitting 80,000 inhabitants by 1888. The working and housing conditions became worse and worse as more people entered the already overcrowded city, and a very poor lower class developed.
Now, this was 1888 so people died basically constantly anyway, but at the time, 55% of children in the area were dying before they even hit 5 years old, which speaks volumes to the violence and poverty of the area. Robbery, crime, and alcohol dependency drove many women to prostitution to survive and provide for their families.
In October of 1888, it was estimated that there were 62 brothels with 1,200 women working as sex workers in the Whitechapel area alone, and an additional 8,500 people residing in 233 common-lodging houses every single night.
And on top of the economic problems and heavy crime, social tensions were rising as well. Between the years of 1886 and 1889, frequent demonstrations required police intervention. Bloody Sunday occurred in 1887, and an overload of anti-semitism, crime, nativism, racism, social disturbance, and reparative influenced a harmful perception that Whitechapel was nothing but a "den of immortality".
And when an unknown man started going through the area, slashing throats and removing organs from their bodies, the perception only intensified.
So, here's the thing. A lot of women were attacked and murdered during the time frame when Jack the Ripper was active, making it nearly impossible to tell how many of them were killed by the same person. 11 murders, from April 3 1888 to February 13 1891, were deemed the "Whitechapel murders", though opinions vary as to how many of these were the work of the notorious serial killer.
However, 5 of those 11 murders have been deemed the "canonical 5", which are most widely agreed upon to be the work of Jack the Ripper. The slash wounds to the throat, the similar mutilation, and the removal of organs aligned to the Ripper's MO, leading historians to believe those deaths could all be attributed to one man.
The first 2 of the 11 murders were not a part of the canonical 5, but still possibly attributable to the Ripper. On April 3, 1888, Emma Elizabeth Smith was bludgeoned in the face. A blunt object was inserted into her vagina, and she died the following day at the hospital. While there, she stated that 2-3 men had attacked her. Though the brutality led some to believe the Ripper was responsible, the amount of killers lead most to believe that East End gang violence was the real culprit.
The second woman killed, Martha Tabram, was murdered on a staircase on August 7, 1888. She was stabbed 39 times in her throat, lungs, heart, liver, spleen, stomach, abdomen, breasts, and vagina. The extreme brutality and lack of motive, and the close proximity to the deaths that would eventually be deemed the "canonical 5" lead many to believe that she was a victim of Jack the Ripper. However, the lack of throat slash doesn't align with the MO of his later murders.
The first of the murders that were almost positively committed by the same person was committed on August 31, 1888. Mary Ann Nichols was found dead on the street. Her throat was severed by 2 deep cuts, her vagina had been staged, and her abdomen was ripped open, causing her bowels to protrude. The following week on September 8, the body of Annie Chapman was discovered near the steps of her back yard. Her throat, again, was severed by 2 deep cuts and her abdomen was cut entirely open. Her small intestines had been removed and placed over her shoulder. Parts of her uterus and bladder had been removed.
The next 3 victims were both killed on September 30, 1888. Elizabeth Stride was found on the street, her neck slashed with a single cut. However, there was no further mutilation to her body, leading some to believe that the Ripper was interrupted during his attack. Witnesses claim they had seen Elizabeth with a man earlier that day, though no one agreed on what the man looked like.
Catherine Eddowes body was found the same day, less than an hour after Elizabeth's body was found. Her throat was severed, but unlike Elizabeth's, her abdomen was ripped open, her intestines slung over her right shoulder. Her left kidney and uterus had been removed and her face had been disfigured by a severed nose, a cheek slash, and cuts through her eyelids. A witness informed police that he had seen a fair-haired, shabby looking man with someone who looked like Catherine before she was killed.
The next body was found on November 9, 1888. Mary Jane Kelly was extensively mutilated and disembowelled, lying in bed in her room. Her face was unrecognizable from all of the mutilation, her throat was severed down to the spine, and her abdomen was completely emptied of its organs. Her uterus, kidneys, and one breast were placed beneath her head. Sections of her abdomen and thighs were left on a bedside table. Her heart was never found.
Each of those 5 murders happened at night, and on or close to a weekend. The mutilations got worse and worse with each murder (barring Elizabeth's). In the first murder, no organs were taken. In the second, sections of a uterus and bladder were taken. Catherine had her entire uterus and kidney removed, and Kelly's was entirely eviscerated, her heart taken from the crime scene. All of this led investigators then, and historians now, to believe that these women were all killed by the same man.
It is believed that Mary Jane Kelly was Jack the Ripper's final victim. The thought is that he died, was imprisoned, institutionalized, or emigrated from the area. However, 5 additional murders that were still categorized within the "Whitechapel murders" happened after Mary was killed.
On December 20, Rose Mylett was found strangled to death. It is widely believed that she was strangled, but since there was no sign of a struggle, police believed she may have committed suicide. During an inquest, the jury returned a verdict of homicide.
On July 17, 1889, Alice McKenzie was stabbed in the neck twice, and had a long wound between her breast and belly button. Given the similarity, some believed her death was the work of the Ripper, though a man who had examined the bodies of the previous victims disagreed. Of the 6 other non-Ripper Whitechapel murders, this is the one that is most likely to be the Ripper.
On September 10, 1889, a headless and legless torso of an unidentified woman was found beneath a railway arch in the city. She had been extensively beaten before her death. However, the Ripper did not dismember his victims, and without anyone to identify the torso, it was never attributed officially to Jack the Ripper.
And lastly, on February 13, 1891, over a year and a half after the torso was found, Frances Coles was found with a deeply cut throat, but her body was not mutilated. She was not dead, but she did pass before medical experts could arrive. A man whom she had argued with hours before her death was questioned, but was discharged on lack of evidence.
There are many other people who died in the area surrounding Whitechapel during that time, though many of the other alleged victims were definitely discounted as being the work of the Ripper, ended up being suicide, or ended up being entirely untrue.
INVESTIGATION AND SUSPECTS
Because it was 1888, the best the detectives could do was go home-to-home and inquire if anyone had seen anything suspicious. Any forensic material was collected and examined, though obviously, no DNA evidence existed at the time. More than 2,000 people were interviewed, and more than 300 people were investigated, including 80 who were detained.
Because of the manner of the mutilations, butchers, slaughterers, surgeons, and doctors were suspected. The police followed up on these leads, but they did not lead to an arrest.
A group of volunteer citizens formed the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee in September of 1888, partially because their long-standing belief that the police were inept, and partially because the murders were affecting business.
At the end of October 1888, the police surgeon, Thomas Bond, was asked to put together a criminal profile. This opinion is one of the oldest surviving offender profiles in history. He did not believe that the murderer had any scientific or anatomical knowledge. He likely kept to himself and was subject to erotic mania. He believed that his homicidal impulses may have developed from some sort of revenge fantasy. There was no evidence to suggest that the killer had engaged raped the women or their bodies, but stabbing them in the vaginas indicated that he may have derived some sort of sexual pleasure from the murders.
The killers taking place around weekends led police to believe that he was a regular employee who lived locally. Some believed he was an educated, upper-class man who would venture into the city from a more well-to-do area. The number of potential suspects reaches over 100, and his identity still does, and probably will always, remain unknown.
THE LEGACY LIVES ON
Though there is so much more to cover on Jack the Ripper, including the letters sent and extensive media coverage, I am much more interested in the aftermath and the legacy of the Ripper that lives on.
In the aftermath of the murders, attention was drawn to the horrifically impoverished living conditions in the East End, and the string of brutal murders led to the public opinion of overcrowded, dirty slums changing. In the 20 years after the murders, the worst of the slums were cleared and demolished. However, the legend of Jack the Ripper lives on even when the streets he used to prowl changed. Various guided tours of the area are still offered so those fascinated with the case can see where the crimes took place.
Immediately after the deaths occurred, "Jack the Ripper became the children's boogey man". Depictions in media were monstrous. But then, in the 20s and 30s, he was depicted as an every day man, preying on unsuspecting victim in plain clothes. Then, in the 1960s, he was portrayed as "the symbol of predatory aristocracy", a well-dressed gentleman in a top hat representing upper-class exploitation.
Today, hundreds of works of fiction, that delicately (and often, not so delicately) straddle the boundaries between fact and fiction. Books, short stories, poems, comic books, games, songs, plays, operas, TV programs and movies have been created about Jack the Ripper, making the case one of the most well-known true crime subjects of all time.
Even though 132 years have passed since Jack the Ripper first, and last struck, his name is still one that most people know. True crime obsessed or terrified, a Londoner or someone from a different country, old or young, Jack the Ripper is a name that most of us know, and an identity that none of us know, or likely will ever know.