The East End of London in the late 19th century was often portrayed in the media as being overrun with poverty and slums. This was not something exclusive to this particular area of London, as there were other sections for the less fortunate. It became synonymous with poverty and wretched conditions largely because it was home to the rough, crime-filled Whitechapel district. It was here that one of the most well-known serial killers of all time had his short-lived reign of terror.
He doesn’t have the body count that many serial killers after him accumulated, but few can claim the notoriety–even more than 120 years after the last unfortunate girl was murdered. This is in part due to the gruesome nature of the crimes as well as the extensive coverage by the local papers when it was all going on. What truly gave him infamy was the fact that to this day, his identity is unknown.
The Whitechapel District in 1888 was home to many an unfortunate soul that was down on their luck. The economics of the times and the overcrowded conditions led to less than honest ways of making enough money to get by. Many young women resorted to prostitution, and between 31 August and 9 November of 1888, five would be savagely murdered, with their killer seemingly taunting the investigators all the while.
The killings would be labeled under the investigation of the Whitechapel Murders, These began in April of 1888, although the first three are popularly thought to be random killings stemming from the violence that existed in the district every day. During these investigations, eleven women were murdered. However, only five would be credited to a particularly horrendous killer that brutally ripped apart these women. The first murder attributed to him was that of Mary Ann Nichols, a 43 year old prostitute who was found by a man named Charles Cross on 31 August 1888 around 3:40 A.M. as he walked along Buck’s Row in Whitechapel on his way to work. When the police arrived, they saw her throat was slashed so severely it had nearly decapitated her. Parts of her body were still warm, which indicated her murder had been within the hour.
Another victim, Annie Chapman was found on 8 September at No. 29 Hanbury Street. She was also a prostitute, and this murder was even more horrific than Mary Nichols. Annie’s body was mutilated with a knife and the killer had removed her womb. The first three murders were unsettling. A fourth, especially in the manner it was done, was terrifying. A fifth that had been sliced from top to bottom caused an outright panic. The police of the time were doing their best to investigate in an area where few of the citizens cooperated with them. Forensics was in it’s barest infancy and many of the things that are known today about contamination of crime scenes was simply not known back then. They began interviewing the local prostitutes who told them about a man who was taking their money forcibly who they only referred to as Leather Apron. This “mystery man” became the focus of the investigation.
And then…a letter came. Not to the police but to the Central News Agency on 27 September. Addressed to no one in particular, it simply started with the heading “Dear Boss”. It claimed to be the Whitechapel Murderer and laughed at the incompetence of the investigators.
“I keep on hearing the police have caught me but they wont 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 shant 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” (link to full text below).
It was written in red ink, which according to the claimed murderer was only because the blood he had saved from his last victim was too thick to use for writing. He signed it with a name that would be forever etched in the history of crime–“Yours truly, Jack The Ripper”
The letter was said to have not been taken seriously at first and it would be two days before it was even given to the police. On 30 September, two more prostitutes, Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes were found within an hour of each other. Both women were murdered in the same brutal fashion of the two earlier victims. The police now decided to make the letter public, and soon all of the East End was fervently keeping up with the news on “Jack the Ripper”. Another letter came to the news agency on 6 October, and this time the police chose to keep the letter private. The third and last letter was sent to a Mr. George Lusk and was titled “From Hell”. Along with this letter was a gruesome enclosure–a piece of a human kidney. Later speculation was that it was a sick joke by a medical student who had access to human organs and tissue, however there is no way to be certain it was a hoax.
The last murder that was thought to have been done by Jack the Ripper was quite possibly the worst of all. Mary Kelly, a resident of Miller Court in Spitafields, was also a prostitute, and one that tried in vain to cry for help. Unfortunately, many in these flats were used to hearing sounds of domestic violence and when poor Mary cried out “Murder!”, no one took it as anything but a couple fighting and they would have no part of it. The next morning, the landlord sent his representative to pick up the rent, which was late. There was no answer to the knocks, so the agent pulled the curtain over the broken windowpane. He was able to see that blood was spattered all over the room, so he immediately went to fetch his employer. When the landlord opened the door, he was horrified by what he saw. Mary Kelly, once a beautiful, fun loving woman, had been reduced to little more than a pile of flesh and tissue. She was barely recognizable as human.
This was the last murder thought to have been committed by Jack the Ripper. Although three more murders afterward were investigated, those five were the only ones who shared all of the same elements. There have been compelling arguments about other victims, but as so much time has passed, it is highly unlikely that will ever be determined.. Never could they get any charge to stick on anyone, and the mystery of who “Jack the Ripper” was remains to this day. There were many suspects, and time has only served to create even more theories of who the culprit was. Some of the ones still researched to this day are a barrister who committed suicide shortly after the death of Mary Kelly, a Russian doctor, a Polish immigrant who was thought to be insane with a strong hatred of women, a barber who was said to have surgical training who was eventually discovered to have poisoned his wives, and a man who was said to have been driven insane by syphilis he caught from a prostitute, enraging him to kill. So many theories about these suspects had absolutely no proof to back them up. Thomas Cutbush, the man who was said to have caught a venereal disease, was admitted into an insane asylum, but no records ever suggested he was afflicted with syphilis. The mental disorder he had was hereditary and while it did lead to violent outbursts, it was never proven he did the crimes.
After all of these years it seems that we will never know who the culprit was, although the theories continue. The most identifiable thing about the killer is his name–and it is most likely even that was not something he originated. It was later thought that the letters signed “Jack the Ripper” were actually written by a journalist to get the story going.
Whoever the Whitechapel Murderer was, he left behind at least five bodies in his wake. If his murderous path continued elsewhere, it was not known and he most likely died without ever serving a day in jail for his crimes. The police did what they could, but so little was known and DNA was many years from being discovered, let alone used in routine investigation. The women who died never received justice for their crimes and the mystery of Jack The Ripper will likely not be solved.
In memory of Mary Nicols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, Mary Kelly, and all of the women of Whitechapel–indeed, everywhere–who have been senselessly killed and tossed like rubbish for no other reason than their station in life. No one deserves what happened to these women and it is their names who should be remembered rather than a fictional name of a brutal monster.
History and timeline: http://www.jack-the-ripper.org/timeline.htm
Text of the first “Dear Boss” letter: http://www.jack-the-ripper.org/dear-boss.htm