Jack the Ripper

Jack the Ripper strikes again in this contemporary illustration. Was he the royal physician, or even royal himself?

IN 1888, THE WORLD’S most famous serial killer stalked the dark, grimy streets of London’s East End. ‘Jack the Ripper’ was the original celebrity mass-murderer, and set a trend for homicidal maniacs which seems to grow with each year. The fear surrounding the recent Washington sniper incidents, for example, has many similarities with the terror created by this forefather of deathdealing criminals. In these types of cases, the impact of the crime is heightened by the mystery surrounding the actual killer’s identity. Unlike many of his modern age copyists, Jack the Ripper was not caught or even named, and to this day it has never been conclusively proven who he really was. London’s Whitechapel district was known as one of the poorest areas of the city, and at the time, was home to over a thousand prostitutes. It was also the area which would become the focus of the Ripper’s attacks. His reign of terror officially began in the opening hours of 31st August 1888, when a market porter spotted a woman lying in a doorway on Buck’s Row in Whitechapel. Rather than approach the woman, the porter went to find the beat policeman. When he arrived, he found the woman’s throat had been deeply cut and a medical examination later revealed her body had been mutilated. Her identity was also discovered: she was Mary Ann Nichols, known as Polly, a 42-year-old prostitute. Barely a week later, at 6am on 8th September, the body of another woman was found in Hanbury Street, near Buck’s Row. She was Annie Chapman, a 45-year-old prostitute whose head had been almost entirely severed from her neck; she had also been disembowelled.

Fear was beginning to spread throughout the community. For the first time in history, the people had a literate public and a scrutinising press, who were putting the police under a new sort of pressure. Not only were the police there to protect the people of London, they also had to cope with the novel stress of proving their own competence. Just as in modern mass murder cases, the effect of supposition, myths and rumours in newspaper coverage led to a great deal of anxiety. By the time the Ripper struck again, the Whitechapel area was interested in only one thing. The Ripper did not disappoint. In the dark early hours of 30th September a costume jewellery salesman arrived home in Berners Street, where he discovered the body of Elizabeth Stride, a prostitute who had had her throat slit. As police rushed to the scene and searched the nearby streets, the Ripper made off to Mitre Square, in the City of London, and killed Catharine Eddowes. Although the earlier victim had not been mutilated, many believe the Ripper had been interrupted during this procedure. Eddowes’ remains were not so well preserved and she was found disembowelled. This night become known as the ‘double event’, and was the focus of many letters sent into the police. Although most came from members of the public offering advice, some purported to come from the Ripper himself and were given more credence than others. One dated 28th September goaded and teased the police, and was the origin of the name Jack the Ripper, which was how the sender signed off. The second was a postcard dated 1st October and referred to the ‘double event’ of the night before. The third letter was posted a fortnight later and even included a section of a kidney allegedly removed from Catharine Eddowes. Although the police, as in modern times, had to suspect that these correspondences came from a crank or a hoaxer, the kidney included in the third letter was shrivelled and diseased. An interesting fact is that not only was Eddowes an alcoholic, she also suffered from Bright’s disease, and this organ displayed all the signs of being from such an afflicted body. The police believed they had discovered a pattern to the killings the first occurred on 31st August, the second on 8th September, the third and fourth on 30th September. They believed the next would happen on the 8th of October, but in fact the Ripper did not strike for the whole of that month. His final official murder actually occurred on 9th November in Miller’s Court, a building close to where the other killings had taken place. Another prostitute, 24-year-old Mary Jane Kelly was found by her landlord with her body utterly mutilated. This time, the murder had taken place inside, and the killer had had all night to dissect the corpse.

Although these five murders are all assigned to the Ripper, there is the possibility he may have killed two or three more woman in London around that time. However, the police were at a loss to find the real name of the man behind the crimes and employed a policy of information suppression to try to reassure the public. Despite this, Londoners were fully aware that police work was proving fruitless at obtaining a clear picture of the Ripper’s identity. But some of those in the force did have their own theories, and many police doctors who examined the victims’ bodies suggested the Ripper was likely to be someone with medical training. In 1894 the Chief Constable of the Metropolitan Police Force, Sir Melville Macnaghten, wrote a report which named Montague John Druitt, a barrister who committed suicide shortly after the Kelly murder, as the most likely suspect. However, at the time Macnaghten believed Druitt to be a trained doctor, which subsequent research proved to be false. Macnaghten also named two more possible Rippers. One was Aaron Kosminski, a Polish Jew who lived in the Whitechapel area and was placed in an insane asylum in March 1889. Although one of the chief investigating officers, Robert Anderson, had a great belief in Kosminski’s guilt, the Pole’s behavioural records from his time in the asylum contain nothing to suggest he was homicidal. Macnaghten’s final suspect, Michael Ostrog, was a Russian lunatic. Despite being a convicted criminal and possibly having some medical training, his behaviour under studied conditions also did not point to an ability for multiple murders. In recent years, Ripper investigators have considered Dr Francis Tumblety, an American doctor who fled London shortly after the murders. Despite thinking him a possible suspect, the Metropolitan Police at the time decided to rule him out of its enquires.

As with many mysteries, the identity of the Ripper has become the domain of conspiracy theorists. This has led to people from all walks of life – members of the monarchy, royal servants, high-ranking police officers, Russian spies and even crazed evangelists – being accused of holding the Ripper’s identity. However, in the last few of years a study has been conducted by the crime writer Patricia Cornwell. She used $4million of her own money to investigate if there is a link between the Ripper and Walter Sickert, an impressionist painter who may have had connections with Whitechapel around the dates of the murders. Twenty years after the killings, he created a series of paintings that depicted dead and gruesomely mauled prostitutes. Cornwell has used modern technologies and intense examinations of his work, and is so convinced of Sickert’s guilt that she is staking her reputation on him being the Ripper. Modern Ripper investigators, just like the Victorian London police forces, fail to agree with each other. There were so many unsavoury characters roaming London at the time that almost any suspect could have been linked to the murders in some way. As the years blur the truth, so the plausibility of many different suspects increases, whilst the definitive proof needed to decide on one disappears in the fog of time.

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