Originally written for All About History Magazine
London, 1888: History’s most infamous serial killer stalks the streets and the police hunt for him grows more desperate with every gruesome murder
London was booming in 1888, swollen by the industrial revolution and Britain’s place as the heart of an empire on which the sun never set. The capital was a vast financial and mercantile centre – the promise of work attracting economic migrants from all over the world. Yet frequently those with few skills or prospects found only grinding poverty and the harsh reality of life in the slums of the East End.
These people were packed together in numbers and population density inconceivable today, particularly in the notorious Whitechapel, where 90,000 lived together in lodging houses filled with up to 80 people: Ashkenazi Jews fleeing persecution in Eastern Europe mixed with Irish escaping the potato famine. Some found employment in the slaughterhouses that peppered the area but for many women the only assets they had to sell were their own bodies – turning them to drink in the gin houses to forget the bleakness of their situation.
Doss houses were frequently the only lodgings many could find, with 20 packed into bare rooms that offered only benches to sit on and ropes for people to drape themselves over. Sanitation and conditions were appalling, particularly in hot summers. In colder months the smoke from London’s chimneys would combine with fog from the Thames to create notorious pea-soupers – thick, noxious smog that would mask the weak light of the cobbled streets’ gaslights. The East End of London became a breeding ground for squalor, racism, violence, alcoholism and prostitution – a heady mix that birthed history’s most notorious serial killer.
The First Canonical Murder
31 August 1888. The East End of London is not unused to violence, nor murders. But on Buck’s Row lies a body that has been mutilated beyond even Whitechapel’s reputation for depravity. Her throat cut and abdomen gashed Mary Ann Nichols, known to friends as Polly, has become the first unwitting victim of history’s first – and most infamous – serial killer.
Polly Nichols is considered the Ripper’s first victim by most experts and shares a similar profile to most of his victims. Estranged from her husband and children, Nichols has worked the dark and narrow streets of Whitechapel for most of the decade. Known for her love of drink and with a turbulent personal history behind her, Polly has been in and out of London’s workhouses, where the destitute are offered food and shelter in return for unskilled work, for over five years since her husband has ceased maintenance payments on the grounds that his wife has been working as a prostitute.
Despite finding a job working as a domestic servant during the Spring of 1888, Nichols resumes her itinerant lifestyle and lives in a series of workhouses and lodging houses over the Summer. On 31 August, 1888, Polly has made her daily lodgings money three times over but has drunk most of her profits; she must go out to work again if she is to have a roof over her head for the night. She is seen in The Frying Pan public house before heading out into the night – minutes later her body is discovered on Buck’s Row. Her throat has been cut and her body slashed down the abdomen. In the mortuary later it will be discovered that Polly Nichols’ body has been eviscerated too.
Even before the Ripper’s reign of terror, the East End was a hotbed of violence, particularly violence directed towards women. While the police will later exclude them from the so-called canonical murders – the five murders widely considered to be have been perpetrated by the Ripper – already there have been two women working as prostitutes killed in 1888. Emma Smith and Martha Tabram were both violently murdered and mutilated that year, but with such events relatively commonplace there is little concern among the capital’s police force. This will soon change.
A burly, moustachioed man, Fred Abberline knows the streets of Whitechapel well, having worked in the Metropolitan Police force’s H Division as a local Inspector for almost ten years before receiving a promotion to Inspector First-Class at Scotland Yard in February 1888. With the resources of H Division stretched and the seriousness of the Nichols murder recognised at the highest levels, Abberline is seconded back to Whitechapel to oversee the investigation into the murders due to this excellent knowledge of the area’s geography, criminals and way of life.
While he reminds one colleague of a bank manager or solicitor, no-one doubts Abberline’s suitability for the job – he is considered fair and meticulous. With increasing numbers of detectives and divisions involved in investigating the murders, Abberline becomes the most recognised policeman connected to the Ripper murders, conducting interviews, viewing identity parades and hearing testimonies first-hand, unlike many other high-ranking officials from Scotland Yard, who compile their own theories based on Abberline’s reports.
Amid an estimated 90,000 packed into little more than a square mile – and an estimated 1,200 women working as prostitutes at any one time – policing Whitechapel is an almost impossible task.
However, the police have a difficult task on their hands. His victims’ profession is an unwitting assistance to the Ripper. They lead him to the shadows, where they are unlikely to be disturbed: the perfect scene, in the crowded Whitechapel, in which to commit murder. With an estimated 90,000 people crammed into little more than a square mile – and an estimated 1,200 women working as prostitutes at any one time – policing Whitechapel is an almost impossible job. This is made even harder by Victorian methods of policing, which dictate that beat constables must check in on their rounds on time or have their pay docked: a quixotic rule that leads to some constables turning a blind eye to crime in order to punch in on time. By 19 September Abberline is forced to conclude that “not the slightest clue can at present be obtained” as to Nichols’ killer.
Just one week after the murder of Nichols the Ripper strikes again. On September 8 1888 the body of Annie Chapman is discovered in the yard of 29 Hanbury Street. While her throat has also been cut, the mutilations are even more horrific. Chapman’s body has been disembowelled and the intestines strung over her shoulder; part of Chapman’s womb has also been removed. Alongside her meagre possessions there is a leather apron found nearby.
Newspapers quickly latch onto the two murders – many of the so-called Penny Dreadfuls publish more than two editions a day, being distributed on the streets by young boys crying ‘ghastly murder!’ – and the leather apron is seized on as vital evidence by the press. A man colloquially known as Leather Apron, John Pizer, is reported to have been seen with Chapman shortly before her murder. Pizer has previously attacked a man with a knife and sexually attacked a prostitute the preceding Summer. Just as importantly – given the rampant suspicion of Jews in the East End – Pizer is Jewish, spurring on the press to hysterical anti-Semitism.
The East London Observer describes Pizer as having a face “not altogether pleasant to look upon, by reason of the grizzly black strips of hair” and possessing “thin lips” with “a cruel sardonic kind of look”. However he is quickly discounted as a suspect when it is discovered he has an alibi for both murders.
The Ripper murders converge with the development of printing presses that allowed for daily publication, allowing for the evolution of a story across days, weeks and months. A total of 22 daily newspaper were published in London at the time – hungrily digesting the grisly and open-ended narrative of the Whitechapel murders.
The Ripper murders at first appeared simply to be business as usual, however., against a backdrop of constant death and depravity. Polly Nichols’ death was greeted with this shoulder-shrug headline in The Times: Another Murder in Whitechapel.
Press coverage split along political lines: right-wing papers blamed the rise of the underclass and downplayed the murders – or pointed the finger at Jews and East Europeans – while the left-wing press laid into the police for their perceived ineptitude.
Alongside grisly images and descriptions of the murders was a curious coyness: prostitutes were referred to as ‘unfortunates’ or ‘fallen women’ – a curious double-standard for a media obsessed with sex and violent death to feed its voracious readers.
Over the course of the investigation more than 2,000 people are interviewed in connection to the murders, with a focus on slaughtermen, butchers and those in the medical profession, due to the initial belief that the murderer must have some anatomical knowledge. With thousands of accusations every week Abberline and H Division is stretched to breaking point. Public dissatisfaction with the investigation leads to the formation of a vigilante group, The Whitechapel Vigilance Committee. Frustrated with the police’s performance, the Committee commences its own patrols, paying unemployed men a small wage to patrol the streets from midnight to the early hours of the morning.
Without some of the most basic forensic science that crime-fighters take for granted in the Twentieth Century – fingerprinting is yet to be introduced and photography is limited by the cumbersome, expensive nature of the equipment – Abberline struggles to make any headway. The policeman walk the streets until the early hours searching for clues and often give unfortunates fourpence for a night’s doss to get them off the streets. At one point H Division has 1,600 reports to wade through – the strain on Abberline nearly breaks him.
The police are deluged with letters, which are overwhelmingly certain fakes, and information they do not trust. However, physical profiles built from claimed witness reports, in contradiction to the romanticised image of the Ripper, suggest a white man in his 20s or 30s with a moustache and dressed shabbily as a tradesman or sailor.
A criminal profile by police surgeon Doctor Thomas Bond suggests a quiet, eccentric man without anatomical knowledge and driven by sexual mania to kill: “The murderer must have been a man of physical strength and of great coolness and daring. There is no evidence that he had an accomplice. He must in my opinion be a man subject to periodical attacks of homicidal and erotic mania. The character of the mutilations indicate that the man may be in a condition sexually, that may be called satyriasis [hypersexuality].”
Frustrated by the lack of progress following the ‘double event’ murders of Liz Stride and Cathy Eddowes, the police turned to Thomas Bond, a surgeon to the Metropolitan Police, to shed some light on the forensics of the crime scenes and victims.
Bond used evidence from the crime scene, such as arterial bloody spray on walls, and post-mortem reports to conclude that the murderer likely wore a cape or other clothing to hide the fact that his hands and arms would be covered in blood, writing, “parts of his clothing must certainly have been smeared with blood.”
The surgeon also concluded that the killer had little or no anatomical knowledge, but that the object of the murders was the mutilation of the bodies. From this theory – and the physical evidence – he deduced that the perpetrator was the same man. Bond’s concluding notes form what is thought to be the first criminal profile – a physical and psychological portrait drawn from the perpetrator’s crimes. He believed that the Ripper was possessed of “physical strength and of great coolness and daring”, but prone to violent and sexual instincts.
Physically, Bond believed the Ripper to be a “quiet inoffensive looking man” in middle-age and neatly-dressed. The surgeon added that the murderer would also be solitary and eccentric with a small income. An FBI report, written in 1988, came to many of the same conclusions as Bond’s profile.
Victorians make much of sexual dysfunction and many who end up in lunatic asylums are committed there for activities that would not raise an eyebrow in the 21st Century. Nevertheless, while Ripper victims show no signs of sexual assault, most believe that there is a sexual element to the murders, given the way the corpses are posed and given the genital mutilations that most display. Abberline is suspicious of Jacob Isenschmid and at one point declares him to be the most likely candidate to have committed the crimes, not a great leap given that he is given to bouts of insanity and is known as the Mad Pork Butcher. Isenschmid also carries knives and has been heard telling women that he is the infamous Leather Apron. He is arrested on 12 September and subsequently committed to the Bow infirmary asylum. Several weeks pass following the death of Chapman and the hysteria following her death begins to die down. The East End allows itself to hope that the worst has passed before it is struck with a horrific double killing in the early hours of 30 September.
Like Nichols and Chapman, Liz Stride – known as Long Liz to friends – has worked as a prostitute but had previously run a coffee house with her husband, who had died in 1884. By the time of her murder Stride is working as a charlady and making some money sewing, while occasionally receiving money from her on-off partner, Michael Kidney. Days before her murder Doctor Thomas Barnardo, who had opened one of his first charity homes to care for vulnerable children in 1870, claims to have seen Stride in a lodging house in Whitechapel – among a group of women who opine that they might soon be murdered by the Ripper.
Stride is found with her throat cut in Whitechapel’s Berner Street on 30 September. Of the canonical five, Stride’s murder is considered the most dubious due to the lack of trademark mutilations, leading to speculation that the murderer is interrupted shortly after killing Stride, or even that her murder is committed by someone other than the Ripper, perhaps a would-be copycat. This theory is given further credence when the body of Cathy Eddowes is discovered in Mitre Square 45 minutes later.
The killing of Stride is significant in that it features one of the most convincing eye-witness description, given by a man named Israel Schwartz. His account suggests that he saw the Ripper attack Stride before becoming aware that he was observed, shouting “Lipski!” before Schwartz escapes. The police suggest the colloquial term, used to refer to Jews at this time, is essayed to an accomplice standing nearby, who makes towards Schwartz himself. This theory leads the police to initially conclude that their suspects are two Jewish men. However Abberline is of the opinion that the term is aimed in a derogatory manner at Schwartz himself, given his Yiddish features. Such is Abberline’s standing that this take on the account is adopted without question, discounting the popular theory that the Ripper was Jewish and working with Jewish accomplices.
Eddowes – often known as Kate – is not known to work routinely as a prostitute and is in a relationship at the time of her death. She is given to heavy drinking, however, and on the night of her death is taken to Bishopsgate Police Station and locked in a cell until sober. At around 1am she is released and is observed turning to walk in the opposite direction to her lodging house – in less than an hour she will be dead. Unlike Stride, Eddowes’ body has been horrifically mutilated. Having cut her throat, the killer also disembowels his unfortunate victim, removing part of her kidneys and uterus. The corpse’s eyes have also been removed, as well as the tip of her nose and an earlobe.
Separated from her husband and with a reputation for excessive drinking, Martha Tabram was destitute by August 1888 and making a living from prostitution. Her body was discovered with 39 stab wounds but she had not been further mutilated. Tabram is not generally considered an official ‘canonical’ victim of the Ripper.
Estranged from her husband and children, Polly Nichols had been in and out of workhouses for over five years by the time of her death. She had earned enough money for a bed on the night of her murder but spent the money on alcohol, forcing her back onto the streets.
Known as Dark Annie due to either her hair or black moods, 47-year-old Chapman had fallen on hard times following the death of her husband, birth of a handicapped child and death of another. Although she had previously sold flowers and relied upon an allowance from her husband, his death forced her into prostitution.
Known as Long Liz, possibly due to her surname or appearance, Stride was a Swedish immigrant who was given to flights of fancy and worked as a prostitute on the streets of Whitechapel. Some Ripperologists question whether Stride was a canonical victim as her body was not mutilated; others suggest that the killer was disturbed.
The second victim in the so-called ‘double event’ on 30 September, the 46-year-old Eddowes was known as an intelligent, striking and jolly woman who had moved to London from Wolverhampton. There’s some doubt as to whether Eddowes worked as a prostitute, though she seen talking to a stranger minutes before her death.
Mary Jane Kelly
The last of the canonical murders, Kelly did not quite fit the established profile. While working as a prostitute, Kelly had her own lodgings and, at 25, was much younger than the other victims. Her murder was by far the most brutal, resulting in her body being removed not by stretcher, but in eight buckets.
The removal of the kidney is potentially significant. Scotland Yard and H Division are deluged with thousands of letters a week from the public pointing the finger at hundreds of possible suspects. What’s more, the press claims that a number of letters purporting to be from the Ripper have been sent to their offices. Of these letters, only one is believed to be potentially genuine.
Sent to George Lusk, head of the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee, two weeks after the latest killing, it contains a piece of kidney that is purportedly from Eddowes’ body. The letter is thought to be significant as the kidney is reported to show signs of Bright’s Disease, which Eddowes is known to have suffered from. The writer of the letter – marked as being written ‘From Hell’ – claims to have eaten the missing kidney half and threatens to send Lusk the bloody knife used in the murder.
Of the many letters received by police only two others are given any credence. The first is sent to the Central News Agency on 25 September and begins with ‘Dear Boss’ and is signed ‘Jack The Ripper’, the first use of this moniker. It goes on to threaten to send the police the ears of the next victim, but while Eddowes’ ear has been cut, the pathologist suggests that this was coincidental to the Ripper slashing her throat.
The next, received on 1 October, is signed ‘Saucy Jacky’ and references the ‘double event’ of the murders of Stride and Eddowes. Although initially given credence due to the apparent foretelling of the murders, the postcard is actually postmarked after the event. Both are widely thought to be hoaxes written after the event, with police suspecting unscrupulous journalists keen to keep the story alive.
The day after the murders the Home Office begins to consider offering awards for the Ripper’s capture and arrest, prompted by ongoing pressure from the Vigilance Committee, supposedly Queen Victoria herself and a petition signed by over 40,000 Londoners. More police flood into the area and any constables are put into plain clothes to blend in with Whitechapel’s denizens. Meanwhile copies of the letters purporting to be from the Ripper are posted throughout the area in the vain hope that someone will recognise the handwriting.
However, Abberline has another problem – the climate of fear and hysteria in the East End breeds anger and xenophobia, which finds an outlet in persecution of the local Jewish population. Nearby to where Eddowes is found is a clumsy message scrawled on a wall, implying that Jews are responsible for the murders. Fearing an outbreak of mob violence, Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Charles Warren orders the graffito removed before it is seen by members of the public. Then everything goes quiet. Five weeks pass without another murder, with an increased police presence and public vigilance at a high on the streets of Whitechapel.
Suspected Ripper Murders in East-End London
The following map shows the locations of the attacks and / or where the bodies of the victims of the Whitechapel Murders took place. Emma Smith and Martha Tabram are not widely considered to be part of the ‘canonical five’ – the suspected victims of Jack The Ripper, although they are included in the sequence of unsolved Whitechapel Murders that took place between 1888-1891. The locations picked out on a map are often observed to resemble a cross or the points and centre of a pentagram.
1 – Osborne Street / Brick lane (centre right), Emma Smith was a prostitute and murder victim of mysterious origins in late-19th century London. Her killing was the first of the Whitechapel murders
2 – George Yard (centre left), Martha Tabram was killed on 7 August 1888; suffering 39 stab wounds. The savagery of the murder, location and date led police to link Tabram’s murder with the Ripper murders.
3 – Buck’s Row (far right), Polly Nichols is slashes across the throat and mutilated on 31 August. She is considered the first of the Ripper victims.
4 – Hanbury Street (top), Annie Chapman is discovered with her throat coat and internal organs partially removed on Saturday 8 September 1888. She too is widely considered an official Ripper victim.
5 – Berner Street (bottom right), Liz Stride is discovered with her throat slashed on Sunday 30 September. The lack of mutilation has led to doubts over whether Stride should be considered a canonical victim.
6 – Mitre Square (bottom left), Less than an hour after Stride’s body is discovered, Cathy Eddowes is found disembowelled and with her throat cut.
7 – Dorset Street (middle left) Mary Jane Kelly is found eviscerated and mutilated beyond recognition in the single room where she lives at 13 Miller’s Court off Dorset Street.
Mary Jane Kelly, unlike the other murder victims who were all in their 40s, is 25 years old and rents a private room in Whitechapel. Like the murder victims she works as a prostitute and has a fondness for drink, having ended up in London by way of Ireland and Wales according to various reports. On the morning of 9 November, Kelly’s landlord dispatches a lackey to collect the six weeks of rent she owes. He finds only Kelly’s body, horribly eviscerated beyond recognition in her flat.
The mutilation is so extensive that police surgeon Dr Thomas Bond believes the murderer would have been at work for at least two hours. Kelly’s organs have been removed from her chest and abdominal cavities, her face destroyed and heart missing. Over the fire is a kettle, the solder on which has melted. Abberline surmises that the killer burned Kelly’s clothes – which are missing – to provide light in which to carry out his macabre work.
Bond provides a criminal profile of the murderer that combines elements of forensic and medical science with psychology and inductive reasoning. He reasons that Nichols, Chapman, Stride, Eddowes and Kelly were all killed by the same man, pointing to the physical details of the killing blow, similarity of the weapon used and speed and nature of the attacks. Abberline appears to agree – he rules out Kelly’s boyfriend, who is the only genuine suspect in her murder, although later theories would suggest that the woman was actually killed by a female – Jill The Ripper – who had been employed to abort an unwanted child of Kelly’s. However a post-mortem finds no evidence of pregnancy.
The brutality of the killing reignites popular feeling across Whitechapel and Scotland Yard announces a pardon for anyone with information leading to the arrest of the Ripper. However, at the height of his notoriety, the Ripper disappears. Just as quickly as his reign of terror on the East End has begun, it has ended. Whilst there are superficially similar murders in 1889 and 1891, it is widely believed that the same man did not kill again after 1888.
The investigation slowly winds down but the Ripper lives on in the public’s consciousness. The Whitechapel murders also galvanised politicians into acting to improve the parlous state of the East End’s slums, many of which are cleared over the following decades. Abberline moves back to Scotland Yard, receives a promotion to the rank of Chief Inspector and retires in 1892.
While opinion of the identity of the Ripper may be divided, most experts believe that only incarceration, removal from Whitechapel or death would have prevented the Ripper from killing again, having been forced to kill from some sort of compulsion he would have been unable to resist, had he remained in the area and at liberty. Just as quickly as Jack The Ripper makes his bloody mark on history’s page, he disappears.
Who was Jack The Ripper?
In 1894 Metropolitan Police Chief Constable Melville Macnaghten publishes a report that names three men – John Druitt, Aaron Kosminski and Michael Ostrog – as likely candidates. However, factual inaccuracies blight the report. Just one example is Ostrog’s likely imprisonment in France at the time of the murders. Macnaghten’s report is indicative of the lack of sound factual bases behind many Ripper accusations.
Despite huge advances in forensic science and criminal profiling, the passage of time has made it all but impossible to form hard opinions as to the Ripper’s identity. While evidence relating to the case still exists, any forensic value it might hold has been contaminated by poor procedure and repeated handling over the years. Profiling and suspect DNA evidence has given rise to ever more incredible and lurid theories as to the Ripper’s identity, including painters, writers, royals, the Prime Minister, an unidentified female known as Jill The Ripper and John Merrick – the Elephant Man.
Jack The Ripper Suspects
Name: Francis Tumblety
Lived: 1833 – 28 May 1903
Profession: Herbalist, con-man
Why they are a suspect: A quack American Doctor, Tumblety supposedly owned sets of reproductive organs in jars and was thought to be flamboyant and effeminate – and thus homosexual – and wore a moustache. While such scant evidence was sufficient for Ripper accusations in the 19th Century, Tumblety’s extreme misogyny and criminal behaviour led to one investigating officer to name him as his favoured suspect, while Tumblety’s hand-writing was said by a forensic analyst to bear a similarity to the Ripper letters.
Name: Sir William Gull
Lived: 31 December 1816 – 29 January 1890
Profession: Doctor, Queen’s Physician
Why they are a suspect: Alan Moore’s seminal graphic novel From Hell suggests that Gull was the Ripper, wiping out a group of women who learned of an illegitimate Catholic heir to the throne fathered by Prince Albert Victor. The Queen’s surgeon, played by Ian Holm in a film adaptation that also starred Johnny Depp, is portrayed variously as diligently professional, thoroughly insane or acting as an agent of higher powers, both corporeal and divine. None are taken seriously.
Name: Walter Sickert
Lived: 31 May 1860 – 22 January 1942
Why they are a suspect: Famed for his avant-garde paintings, Sickert was open about his interest in Ripperology, having supposedly lodged in a room previously rented out to a man suspected of being the Ripper. After his death Sickert was accused of being an accomplice – or committing the murders himself – in various books, including one by crime novelist Patricia Cornwell who claims to have matched Sickert’s DNA to one of the Ripper letters. The theory is widely dismissed.
As for the man in charge of the investigation at the time, Abberline’s favoured candidate was Seweryn Antonowicz Kłosowski, alias George Chapman, a Polish immigrant who was hanged in 1903 for murdering three of his mistresses. Chapman worked as butcher, was known to be paranoid and to carry a knife, lived near the location of the first murder, fitted physical profiles from witness statements and hated women. “I cannot help feeling that this is the man we struggled so hard to capture fifteen years ago,” said Abberline in an interview conducted in 1903 with the Pall Mall Gazette.
The by-then retired detective pointed out that the the date of Chapman’s arrival in England coincided with the beginning of the series of murders in Whitechapel and that the Ripper murders ceased when he left for America, where Chapman was tried and hanged for the murder of his mistresses. Chapman had also studied medicine and surgery in Russia – leading Abberline believe some the Ripper murders constituted the work of an expert surgeon.
The Inspector also recalled a story in which a wealthy American gentleman had offered to pay a sub-curator at a pathology museum for organs – perhaps connecting this anecdote with evidence that the Ripper had removed several organs from his victims. “It seems beyond belief that such inhuman wickedness could enter into the mind of any man,” said Abberline of his theory.
Another interview, published in 1976 and received with scepticism, claims that Abberline suggested that the killer’s true identity was known to senior detectives and that those seeking the Ripper should look “not at the bottom of London society at the time but a long way up”. This supposed quote from Abberline seems to have laid the groundwork for a blurring of fact and fancy in recent Ripper research and fiction. Indeed Abberline appeared to quash more lurid theories in the earlier Pall Mall interview, stating: “You must understand that we have never believed all those stories about Jack the Ripper being dead, or that he was a lunatic, or anything of that kind.”
However, the retired policeman admitted that – 15 years after the grisly murders – Scotland Yard was none the wiser as to the Ripper’s identity. The same could be said over 125 year later; Jack the Ripper is an enduring mystery whose identity is destined never to be revealed.