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The East End of London was 'outcast London,' a place as strange to the average Londoner of Queen Victoria's time as 'darkest Africa' to which it was often compared. It was the ghetto quarter of London, a haven for the many refugees fleeing the pograms of Tzarist Russia as well as an abyss for the very poor who could sink no further. Gross overcrowding was common and more than half the children born there were dead before the age of five. One tenth of the remainder were mentally defective. Sleeping seven to a room was common while windows were often broken or stuffed with sacking and beds might be straw palliasses or a blanket stretched on bare boards, Stair banisters would have long since disappeared for firewood and vermin of all kinds infested the rooms.
Work was hard to find. Women could box matches, stitch dresses and work 24-hour days for slave wages. Inevitably many of them took to the street for their living. These were not the satin and champagne figure of popular fiction. Most were women in their 40s: grey-haired alcoholics with sagging breasts and stomachs, front teeth missing from street brawls or wife-beating husbands, with steel-tipped men's boots on their feet and wearing the rest of their worldly goods on their backs. One Ripper victim was wearing under her dress of Michaelmas daisies and golden lilies a drab linsey skirt, pettitcoat and chemise; in her pockets she was carrying matches, table knife, cotton, two clay pipes, five pieces of soap, and a small box containing tea and sugar.
It has been estimated that in the autumn of 1888 the particular area of the East End known as Whitechapel had about 1,200 prostitutes and 60 brothels that the police knew of. In fact there were many more prostitutes: women who would sell themselves for 3d, 2d, or a loaf of stale bread.
Fourpence would buy them a single bed for one night in one of the common lodging houses of which Whitechapel had over 200 sleeping nearly 9,000 'casuals' each night. If these casuals hadn't got 4d they could sleep–standing up–for 2d by leaning on a rope ladder stretched across the dormitory! The alternative was a bed in some dark alley, and empty doorway, or deserted staircase.
In the early hours of Friday, 31st August, 1888, a market porter walking through Buck's Row, a street with terrace houses on one side and a warehouse wall on the other, saw a woman lying in a gateway. There was only a gas lamp at the far end of the street to see by. Her skirts were pushed up about her waist. His first thought was that she had been raped and his next was that it was more likely that she was drunk. He was joined by a second market porter who was of much the same opinion. Leaving the woman there they went off to find the beat policeman, but before they found him he had already discovered the body for himself. Shining his torch into the gateway he could see what the porters hadn't been able to; that the woman's throat had been cut almost from ear to ear and nearly back to the spinal cord. A doctor made a cursory inspection on the spot before the body was taken away to the local workhouse where there was a mortuary and a bucket of water was thrown over the bloodstains on the pavement.
It was only when the body was being stripped by two of the workhouse inmates that it was discovered that the body had been 'ripped.' There was a deep jagged incision in the lower abdomen as well as many other mutilations.
The only identifying marks on the woman were some stencillings on her clothes which showed that she had been a workhouse inmate. It was soon discovered that a woman answering her description was missing from one of the local common lodging houses who was soon identified as Polly Nichols. She was 42 years old with five front teeth missing and had been separated from her husband, because of her drinking, for three years. He had custody of their five children. She had last been seen alive about an hour before her body was found when she had been turned away from a lodging house because she did not have 4d for a bed. Yet she was wearing a new hat and was obviously drunk.
'I'll soon get my doss money,' she laughed. 'See what a jolly bonnet I've got now,' she cried as she disappeared into the night, weaving her way down the street.
Sometime in the next 60 minutes she met her killer.
There was no obvious motive for the murder. One theory was that she had been killed by a local gang working a protection racket. Two prostitutes had already been murdered within about 300 yards of where her body was found. The first, at the beginning of April, had been Emma Smith, who had survived her attack for a few hours before dying of peritonitis from her internal injuries. She claimed she had been attacked by four men.
The other victim was Martha Tabram, whose body was found on a first floor landing of George Yard buildings on 7th August. She had been stabbed 39 times.
In neither case had the killers been caught. The police were as baffled by these two cases as they were by the apparent ease with which Polly Nichols' killer had escaped. No cries or shouts for help had been heard. The fact that his clothes would have been heavily blood-stained would not have aroused comment, as with so many slaughter houses in the area he would have gone unnoticed.
Just over a week later he struck again.
The body was found shortly before 6 a.m. at the back of a lodging house at 29 Hanbury Street about a half a mile away from Buck's Row. Close by was Spitalfields fruit and vegetable market which was bustling with activity. A woman on her way to the market had seen this second victim apparently haggling with a man. She described the man as being dark, apparently a foreigner, age about 40, of a shabby genteel appearance wearing a brown deerstalker hat. She heard him ask 'Will you?' and the woman answer 'Yes.'
The witness didn't look back and in the street's bustle nobody saw the couple enter the covered side passage of 29 Hanbury Street closing the street door behind them. One of the 17 people who lodged in the house found the body about half an hour later in the yard at the back. No attempt had been made at concealment, the body lying at the bottom of some steps parallel to the garden fence. Her hands and face were smeared with blood. A handkerchief of some kind had been tied around her throat, which had been cut so savagely that she had almost been decapitated. Her legs were drawn up and she had been disembowelled.
Within a few minutes the first policemen were on the scene. The divisional surgeon examined the body watched by hundreds of curious eyes. Such was the sensation that for several days afterwards, lodgers, whose rooms overlooked the scene, did a brisk trade in letting their windows to curious sightseers. A search of the ground yielded few clues. As if taking part in some ritual the killer had laid some pennies and two new farthings at the woman's feet. Nearby was part of an envelop with an army crest, a piece of paper containing two pills, and a piece of a leather apron. At first it was thought that this might belong to a local character called 'Lether Apron' who was already under suspicion for the Nichols' murder. He was quickly arrested but released when his evidence was corroborated, proving that he couldn't have committed either murder.
The body was identified as that of Annie Chapman or 'Siffey.' Four years earlier she had separated from her husband, a coachman at Windsor, and recently lived with a man who made iron sieves, which was why she was called Siffey. One of her children was in a cripple's home and the other in an unknown home in France. A stout 45-year-old with a large thick nose and two front teeth missing, she earned a living by flower selling and prostitution.
The week she died she had got into a drunken brawl over a piece of soap when she had been badly mauled by her opponent, kicked, given a black eye and a badly bruised chest. Some days later she was still unwell She told a friend: 'It's no use my giving away. I must pull myself together and go out and get some money, or I shall have no lodgings.'
A few hours before she was murdered she had been turned out of the lodging house as it was obvious she hadn't got the money for a bed. Her last words to the lodging house keeper were not to let her bed as she would soon be back, but within four hours she was dead.
Criticism of the police mounted as they failed to find the killer, the press being particularly scathing. Local tradesmen had so little confidence in the police investigation that they formed their own Vigilance Committee and a Member of Parliament offered £500 reward for the capture of the murderer. Hundreds of letters offering advice flooded into Scotland Yard, which was heading the investigation.
One of the more macabre suggestions, passed on by the Coroner, was that the killer was a modern-day Burke and Hare. Evidence had been sent him that some time before an American had been offering £20 for pathological specimens of the uterus. This particular organ was missing from the victim's body. The American had wanted to issue one with each copy of a book he was working on! The Coroner suggested that somebody might have heard of the offer and been incited to commit this murder. This led to the first suggestion that the murderer was a medical man or at least had medical knowledge.
More police were drafted into the area. Interest increased to fever-pitch because nobody could be sure when the killer would strike again.
When he did strike it was not once, but twice, in the same night, which became known as the night of the 'double event.' The bodies were found within fifteen minute's walk of each other.
The first body was found in the early hours of Sunday, 30th September in a gateway in Berners Street. A costum jewellery salesman arriving home late turned his pony and trap in through the darkened gateway where the pony shied away from a dark bundle. Only then did he realized that it was a woman and dismounting he went into the courtyard to fetch a light. Unknown to him, the killer had only partly completed his work and was still lurking behind the open gate. When the salesman returned with a lantern he saw that the woman's throat had been cut, but she hadn't been mutilated: the murderer had not had time.
So swiftly had the murder been done that the victim's hands still gripped a bag of cachous.
Whistle blasts hurriedly brought the police to the scene. Soon the whole neighbourhood was in a turmoil as the police searched the streets and nearby houses for clues. Not until four hours later did they begin to relax their search and by then they knew of the second murder.
This time the murderer had taken incredible risks. He had chosen Mitre Square in the one square mile in the City of London which then had, and still has, its own police force. On two sides were warehouses with a night watchman on duty. A policeman lived in one of the houses opposite and the Square was patrolled every 15 minutes by the night duty constable who was only out of hearing of the Square for seven of the 15 minutes.
At 1.30 a.m. the policeman had walked through the Square sweeping it with his bulls-eye lantern. At 1.45 a.m., when he returned, he found the mutilated body of the fourth victim spread-eagled on the pavement with her throat cut, and disembowelled.
Yet this was the murder that should not have occurred. Only an hour before, this latest victim, quickly identified as Kate Kelly or Catherine Eddowes, had been safely locked up in Bishopsgate Police Station, having been arrested for being 'drunk and incapable' earlier that evening and put in the cells to sleep off the effects, but by midnight was sufficiently sober to be released. Her last words to the gaoler were "Night, old cock' and humming a tune, she staggered out into the street to make her way back toward her lodgings.
Since the murder occurred in the City of London, the investigation immediately came under the control Lieutenant Sir Henry Smith, the Assisstant Commissioner, who was desperately keen to lay hands on the killer. There was intense rivalry between him and the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Charles Warren. Warren had the overall responsibility for the investigation of the other murders but in this instance the City boundary ran bewteen the locations of the third and fourth murders. So anxious was Smith to capture his man that he put at least a third of his force in plain clothes with instructions that at night they were to allow no woman to go unescorted through the City no matter how embarrassing this might prove to her or to anyone she might have picked up along the way.
Somehow Eddowes had slipped through the net. In retrospect, nobody could say why she wasn't followed, but not many minutes after her release she met the killer fresh and unsatiated from the Berners Street murder. While the saleman had gone to fetch a light the Ripper slipped out from behind the gate and made his escape.
At the mortuary it was noticed that part of Eddowes' apron was missing. The missing piece, which was blood-stained and looked as if a knife had been wiped on it, was picked up in Goulston Street, a patrolling policeman finding it in the entrance to a block of flats. Scrawled above it on the wall was a message from the unknown killer.
'The Juwes are the men that will not be blamed for nothing.'
A policeman was stationed by the graffiti to protect it until it was light enough for a photograph to be taken.
At this point the rivalry between Smith and Warren burst out into open hostility. Warren ordered that the offending message should be rubbed from the wall, his lame excuse being that the sight of it might provoke riots particularly against the Jews. When the investigating policemen protested and asked that at least the message should be covered up until photographs had been taken and then rubbed off, Warren ignored them and, hurrying to the scene, with his own hands personally rubbed out the words. One of the detectives told him bitterly that he had made a great mistake.
This was but the latest of Warren's blunders. His biggest mistake had been to keep the press at arm's length. Instead of making them allies he had turned them into enemies. None of the police officers involved were allowed to give interviews. Worse, he had let himself in for ridicule when two blood-hounds were hired as trackers. When they were tried out in Hyde Park Warren himself had acted as 'hare.' In practice they weren't very successful. One particular story, which persists to this day, is thay when they were used for the first time they got lost in a fog!
By now it was clear the the unknown and so far unnamed killer was working to a time pattern of his own. Nichols had been murdered on 31st August, Chapman on 8th September, Stride and Eddowes on 30th September; logically the next murders should have occurred on 8th and 31st October and 8th and 30th November. But nothing happened.
October was missed altogether. Whether the killer broke the pattern because he was under some form of restraint or observation we don't know. A more likely explanation is that, having created a wave of terror, heightened by the blood-red skies that appeared every evening at sunset, he knew that his sudden abstinance would only increase the tension in which the East end was gripped. Certainly he knew he would strike again. The date, in a certain sense, had been chosen for him.
In the meantime, the hard-pressed police were abused and bombarded with letters advised them how they should bring the killer to book. Suggestions as to his identity ranged from orangutans, policemen, murderers wearing the skins of previous victims, men with broken noses and ginger whiskers, actors (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was a current stage hit to hill tribesmen from India or medical assisstants. By far and away the most popular suggestion was that he could be caught by dressing up policemen as prostitutes. All the writers made the same point that the policemen should be clean shaven! They were to be careful of being chloroformed, wear steel corsets and metal collars, one refinement of the latter being to have the collar fitted with electrodes which would paralyze the murderer when he gripped the policeman's throat.
Not surprisingly, many of the surviving letters have scrawled across them in the Commissioner's handwriting: 'This man must be a lunatic.'
Among the many letters that flooded in were three that caused particular concern. The first two were sent to the Central News Agency. They are important because whether genuine or not (opinion is still sharply divided over them) they gave the press and the public for the first time the now-familiar name by which the killer is known. The first letter was posted on 28th September.
Dear Boss, I keep on hearing the police have caught me but they won't fix me just yet. I have laughed when they look so clever and talk about being on the right track. That joke about Leather Apron gave me real fits. I am down on whores and I shan't quit ripping them till I do get buckled. Grand work the last job was. I gave the lady no time to squeal. How can they catch me now. I love my work and want to start again. You will soon hear of me with my funny little games. I saved some of the proper red stuff in a ginger beer bottle over the last job to write with but it went thick like glue and I can't use it. Red ink is fit enough I hope ha ha. The next job I do I shall clip the lady's ears off and send them to the police officers just for jolly wouldn't you. Keep this letter back till I do a bit more work, then give it out straight.
Don't mind me giving the trade name wasn't good enough to post this before I got all the red ink off my hands curse it.
No luck yet they say I am a doctor now ha ha.
The next was a postcard dated 1st October referring to the 'double event' of the night before.
I was not codding dear old Boss when I gave you the tip. You'll hear about Saucy Jack'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. Thanks for keeping last letter back till I got to work again. JACK THE RIPPER
The third and most horrendous letter of all was posted two weeks later to Mr. Lusk, head of the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee. With it came a small bow containing part of Catherine Eddowes' kidney. The letter was appropriately addressed 'From Hell.' It read:
Sir I send you half the Kidney I took from one woman prasarved it for you tother piece I fried and ate it was very nise I may send you the bloody knif that took it out if you only wate a while longer Signed Catch me when you can Mishter Lusk.
At first there were doubts as to whether the kidney had come from Eddowes' mutilated body. Many people thought it was a hoax. The kidney was examined by Dr. Openshaw, the Pathological Curator of the London Hospital museum. He pronounced it to be a 'ginny' kidney of the sort normally found in an alcoholic; it belonged to a woman of about 45 suffering from Bright's disease and had been removed within the previous three weeks. What put the matter beyond dispute was the fact that of the renal artery (about three inches long) two inches remained within the body and one inch was still attached to the kidney. A last jeering letter, again difficult to know whether it came from the killer, was sent to the pathologist.
Old boss you was rite it was the left kidny I was going to operate agin close to you ospitle just as I was goin to dror mi nife along of er bloomin throte them cusses of coppers spoilt the game but I guess I will be on the job soon and will send you another bit of innerds
O have you seen the devle with his mikerscope and scalpul a-lookin at a kidney with a slide cocked up.
Less than a quarter of a mile away from Hanbury Street was another common lodging house opposite Miller's Court. The entrance to the Court was through a narrow arch and the houses, three on each side, were occupied by prostitutes. Number 13, only a partitioned off room, was let to 24-year-old Mary Jane Kelly.
She had shared the room with her common law husband until 30th October when they had parted company, terminating their relationship with a violent quarrel which had ended with them smashing the window. Kelly owed more than three months' rent and was heavily in debt. She spent her last evening alive by getting drunk and soliciting for customers. Another prostitute followed her into Miller's Court just before midnight observing that Kelly was with a man. Later she decribed him as short, stout with a blotchy face and heavy carrotty moustache; he was carrying a can of beer in one hand.
As the door closed behind them Kelly began to sing a popular music hall song: 'Only a violet I plucked from my mother's grave when a boy…' She was still singing about an hour later. Soon after that the light went out. About 3.30 a.m. someone heard a woman call out 'Oh! Murder!' Such cries were a common occurrence and it was ignored. Nothing more was heard but the sound of the rain.
At 10.45 a.m. the landlord sent his shop assistant to the house to see if Kelly could pay her rent arrears. When nobody answered the door he pushed out the rags that were blocking the broken pane of window glass and pulled back the curtain inside. He reeled back at what he saw. On the bedside table were parts of Kelly's body; on the bed were her mutilated remains. The throat had been cut and she had been savagely ripped. The Ripper had, in fact, all night in which to work on her. In the fireplace was a grate full of ashes, among them parts of a woman's skirt and hat. The heat had been so intense that it had melted the spout of a kettle.
The Ripper had kept to his timetable. Not only was it 9th November but it was also Lord Mayor's Show Day when the Lord Mayor rides through the streets in a golden coach to the cheers of the Londoners. As the procession wound its way past St. Paul's the newsboys burst into the crowds with shouts of 'Murder. Another 'orrible murder.' The day was totally ruined. In the words of one contemporary, 'The Ripper had stolen the show,'
One minor sensation was that the Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Charles Warren had resigned just a few hours before. Warren's internal disagreements with his subordinates and the Home Secretary, as well as the hostile press made his downfall inevitable. He went back to the army where he presided over the slaughter of British soldiers at Spion Kop.
Before doing so he issued a pardon which was little more than a public admission of failure.
Whereas, on November 8 or 9 in Miller's Court, Dorset Street, Spitalfields. Mary Jane Kelly was murdered by some person or persons unknown, the Secretary of State will advise the grant of Her Majesty's pardon to any accomplice not being a person who contrived or actually committed the murder who shall give such information and evidence as shall lead to the discovery and conviction of the person or persons who committed the murders.
Within a few months it was clear that the murders had stopped for good and it was widely assumed that Jack the Ripper was dead. Kelly's murder was the fifth and final one.
Ever since then the international guessing game of 'Hunt the Ripper' has grown and has continued to grow with unabated enthusiasm. The theories grow wilder year by year urged on by the entertainment industry which has portrayed him as everything from an Indian killer in Cimarron City to an evil spirit murdering his way through the galaxy in Star Trek, even pitting him in his own time against Sherlock Holmes or against H.G. Wells in The Time Machine. Ironically this success is despite the handicaps put in the industry's way. Until 1959 the three names that the British film industry was not permitted to use in film titles were God, the Devil, and Jack the Ripper!
Much of the reason for the wild speculation is that there is so little to build on. The key documents are kept in the Metropolitan Police file (three in all) deposited in London's Public Records Office. The very paucity of documents these contain has led in turn to allegations that Scotland Yard itself connived at a cover-up involving 'the highest in the land' which these days is generally thought to refer to Queen Victoria's grandson the Duke of Clarence. Perversely only a few years ago these same documents were being urged as proof that a failed lawyer who committed suicide soon after the Mary Kelly murder was the real Jack the Ripper.
The key document is a set of notes compiled by Sir Melville Macnaghten who joined the Yard in 1889 as an assistant chief constable. It is generally assumed that he must have consulted with the police officers who actually investigated the murders, in particular Inspector Abberline who was the front man.
Macnaghten lists three suspects:
(1) A Mr. M. J. Druitt, said to be a doctor & of good family–who disappeared at the time of the Miller's Court murder, & whose body (which was said to be upwards of a month in the water) was found in the Thames on 31st December–or about 7 weeks after that murder. He was sexually insane and from private information I have little doubt but that his own family believed him to have been the murderer.
(2) Kosminski–a Polish Jew–& resident of Whitechapel. This man became insane owing to many years of indulgence in solitary vices. He had a great hatred of women, specially of the prostitute class, & had strong homicidal tendencies: he was removed to a lunatic asylum about March 1889. There were many circumstances connected with this man which made him a strong'suspect.'
(3) Michael Ostro, a Russian doctor, and a convict, who was subsequently detained in a lunatic asylum as a homocidal maniac. This man's antecedents were of the worst possible type, and his whereabouts at the time of the murders could never be ascertained.
Those were the Scotland Yard suspects. A more important name was added in 1970 when Dr. Thomas Stowell claimed that he had identified the murderer from the private papers of Sir William Gull who had been the Physician Extraordinary to Queen Victoria. Throughout the article Stowell referred to his suspect only as 'S.' He dropped enough clues to show that he was accusing the Duke of Clarence of being the murderer. He would not admit this as he said he did not want to embarrass the royal family. He died within a few days of making his theory public and his notes were burned by his family.
These then are the key documents and on them the theories continue to be built. The range of suspects is breathtaking. Jack the Ripper has been identified as being a Bible-thumping lodger, failed barrister, a doctor avenging his son killed by a syphilitic prostitute, the poisoners George Chapman and Neill Cream (despite the fact that the latter was in prison until 1891), a mad Russian sent by the Tsarist Secret Police to discredit English police methods, a Jewish shochet or slaughterman, a future King of England, Queen Victoria's doctor, a Royal tutor, back-street abortionist, sailor, policeman, midwife, Australian wife murderer, and Jill the Ripper!
The permutations seem endless. Until more hard evidence is found the speculations are bound to get even wilder. Perhaps the last word should be left with an anonymous rhymster:
I'm not a butcher,
This article was written by Donald Rumbelow and originally appeared in the June/July 2001 issue of British Heritage magazine.
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