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By (December 1, 2007) 2 Comments

Jack the Ripper and the Whitechapel Murders

Introduction by Stewart P. Evans and Keith Skinner
Public Records Office, 2007

There’s curious shortcoming in the human imagination: storytellers cannot bravely simulate evil. Heroism can be managed – Hector, Beowulf, Robin Hood, Superman, all are heroic ideals writ satisfyingly large. But when it comes to the fictional representation of human evil, humans are curiously soft-footed. The most horrific creations are the least believable, the most egregiously flawed. Who can help but pity poor mommie-dominated Grendel? Milton’s pride-wounded Lucifer? Goethe’s Faust, the ultimate collaborator? Even Shakespeare, perhaps the single greatest depicter of humanity in history, ultimately fails at the task: King Claudius prays for forgiveness, Regan and Goneril are first and foremost wounded, Malvolio is besotted of the glittery classes (and pays dearly for it), Brutus and Cassius are honorable men, and, most crucially, both Iago and Lady Macbeth fall to pieces before the eyes of the audience – in very obvious consequence of their having tried to be evil in the first place.  

Mr. Hyde is a caricature; Frankenstein’s monster is just that; and the nine-days-wonder of our present age, Hannibal Lecter, ends up being a fairly comical figure, mincing about perfume and foie gras.

It’s almost as if humans don’t want to face the worst of what they can be; their fictive efforts always fall short of what they themselves routinely do on dark nights and in dark alleys. Invented serial killers, for instance, always seem effete and silly compared to the real thing, perhaps because the very idea that the real thing could happen at all is technically beyond the conception of polite society. Because unlike the extent of heroism, the depth of depravity to which humanity might descend is apparently limitless.

After all, what fictional dictator, even imbued with supernatural powers, comes close to the evil of Adolf Hitler? What fictional politician ever betrayed the public trust in as venal and tawdry a fashion as President Nixon? And what fictional serial killer, wanly brandishing some silly set of theatrical signatures, could possibly horrify like the original of the breed, the one and only Jack the Ripper.

The mere reality outstrips all the derivatives and always has. There are no other mass-murder fact sheets that read so gruesome without also reading less conclusive. Our serial murderers are by and large caught; they’re expertly profiled in their cells by academics carrying clipboards. Even the ones who were never caught at least weren’t disturbingly unclassifiable anomalies while they were preying on their victims. Not that what they were doing wasn’t depraved, but the acts at least took place in a society that had already made grudging room for their very possibility, The Victorians of 1888 had no such room in their mental subset – they went through the singularly unpleasant experience of having that space forcibly opened in their minds. Jack the Ripper did that.

The first of the five ‘canonical’ Ripper murders took place on August 31, 1888. At 3:40 that morning, the mutilated body of prostitute Mary Ann Nichols was discovered in Buck’s Row, Whitechapel; her throat had been slit, and she’d been disemboweled. A week later, at 6 a.m. on September 8, carman John Davis found the body of the second ‘canonical’ victim, prostitute Annie Chapman. She too had been disemboweled, and her killer had removed her uterus from the scene of the crime. Chapman had been seen alive and well only 30 minutes before the discovery of her body – this is the first murder to show not only the savagery but the speed which would quickly become hallmarks of this particular killer.

That term ‘canonical’ hints at another hallmark of these crimes: not only is it uncertain how many women died at the hands of Jack the Ripper, but over the years so-called ‘Ripperologists’ have managed to call into question virtually every fact and assertion ever made about the case. The designation of ‘canonical’ – bestowed on some murders but not on others (excluded, for instance, is Martha Tabram who on August 7 was found murdered off Whitechapel High Street, stabbed 39 times) – is about as close to a consensus as ‘Ripperologists’ have ever come, and it’s far from universal. Dotted all over the spectrum of ‘Ripperology’ are students of the crimes who discount one or all of the women as being true Jack the Ripper victims. It’s virtually certain that in some little-visited corner of that spectrum, some poor soul is asserting that all of these women were suicides. Sometimes it’s better not to ask.

The contentions only multiply as the case grows more complex, and after the Chapman murder, it explodes in complexity – mainly because at that point it became news.

Dozens of potential suspects were brought in for questioning. George Lusk formed the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee. Rewards were offered. The suggestion was made that Annie Chapman’s eyes be photographed, in the hope they might retain the image of her killer. For three weeks, hysteria and speculation grew in tandem, but there were no fresh outrages.

Then on September 27 a letter arrived at the Central News Agency addressed ‘Dear Boss.’ In that letter, all the homicidal depravity of the 20th century found its first voice. Even read in comfort today, it still retains the power to freeze the blood. “I am down on whores,” the author writes,

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. 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 ladys ears off and send 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. My knife’s so nice and sharp I want to get to work right away if I get a chance.
Good luck.
Yours truly
Jack the Ripper

The clarity of hindsight only serves to amplify the horror of the letter – not only that the author would so consistently refer to the atrocities he was committing as work, but that anyone suggesting that the letter be ‘held back’ from the public must be planning worse to come.

On the night of September 29, worse happened. At 12:45 a.m. the prostitute Elizabeth Stride was seen arguing with a man in Berner Street. At 1 a.m. her body was discovered. Her throat had been slit, and early witnesses at the scene attested that not only was her body still warm but that blood was still trickling from her throat. The immediate surmise was that the killer had been interrupted in his work, probably by hearing the approach of the first person to find the body.

Half an hour later, prostitute Catharine Eddowes was seen talking with a man at the corner of Church St. At 1:45 a.m. her mutilated body was discovered by a policeman in Mitre Square. Again, hindsight hints that Catharine Eddowes paid a terrible price for the frustration the killer felt at being interrupted with Elizabeth Stride: Eddowes’ throat had been slit, her eyes, nose, and lips had been savagely sliced up, her clothes had been hiked up above her waist, and she had been disemboweled, her intestines pulled out and draped over her right shoulder. Two feet of intestine had been cut off and laid next to the body. And a large chunk of her right ear had been severed (it was found in the folds of her clothes).

An hour later a policeman discovered an apron wet with blood and feces in the entry way to a staircase on Goulston St. On the doorway was written in chalk “The Juwes are not the men That will not be Blamed for nothing.” Chief police commissioner Sir Charles Warren, arriving at the scene and worried about a riot starting among (or against) Whitechapel’s large Jewish population, ordered the graffiti washed away before it could be photographed.

The sense of dread the police must have felt after the details of these murders – and especially of the Eddowes murder – demonstrated that the ‘Dear Boss’ letter had indeed come from the killer was given an intense twist on October 1st, when a postcard arrived at the Central News Agency. It, too, could only have come from the killer:

I wasn’t codding dear old Boss when I gave you the tip. Youll hear about saucy Jackys 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.

When the contents of the letter and the postcard were made public, the Central News Agency and metropolitan police were deluged with letters from people claiming to be Jack the Ripper. News of the sensational killings was telegraphed all over the world. But again the killings themselves ceased for a time.

Then on the morning of November 9, Thomas Bowyer was sent by prostitute Mary Kelly’s landlord to her room on Dorset Street to collect overdue rent. Bowyer knocked but got no answer, tried the door but found it locked, and finally reached through a broken window to pull back to the room’s curtain and look inside. What he saw only barely looked human anymore.

  Onlookers gathered, the police were summoned, and the door was broken in. On the bed in the center of the room was mutilated body of Mary Kelly. Her throat had been slit so powerfully that the stroke splashed the wall with arterial spray and all but decapitated her. Her face had been carved beyond recognition. Her breasts had been cut off. Her thigh muscles had been severed, pulled off her leg bones, and placed on a table by the bed. Her abdomen had been slit open and emptied of its contents. Her uterus and kidneys, along with one of her breasts, had been placed on the pillows. The other breast had been placed by her right foot. Her liver, intestines, and spleen had been placed in various positions on the bed. The bedclothes were soaked with blood. Mary Kelly’s body was found in a locked room; her fate was a gruesome illustration of what Jack the Ripper would do to his victims if he had all the time in the world to work uninterrupted.

Except there were no more victims. After the murder of Mary Kelly, Jack the Ripper disappeared and was never heard from again. No more taunting letters. No more gloating postcards. No more macabre early-morning discoveries. Gradually, life returned to normal in Whitechapel. Hysteria abated, and frenzied guessing games cropped up to fill the void.

Reading the huge crop of ‘Ripperology’ literature that has sprung up since the murders stopped, one would think that every single person who was alive in 1888 is at least someone’s prime candidate for being the Ripper. Poles, midwives, lunatics, Royals and their doctors, government officials, rogue Americans, painters, suffragettes, and of course the world’s oldest usual suspects, the Jews – all have been trotted out as the killer in books and monographs bearing some variation on the title ‘Jack the Ripper – the Definitive Solution!’ Reputable, otherwise intelligent adults have famous personages committing the crimes when their presence dozens and sometimes hundreds of miles away had been witnessed by rooms full of impartial people. It’s the sustaining, immortal irony of Jack the Ripper that he continues even now to elude his pursuers, and the irrational hysteria he engendered one autumn in Whitechapel has migrated to the community of ‘Ripperologists’ who are forever assuring each other – and the rest of us – that they’ve finally got their man (or woman)(or, inevitably, a couple of different extraterrestrials).

Even the more grounded theories tend to fall apart under cursory examination. Take for instance the case against Mary Kelly’s boyfriend Joseph Barnett. In 1888 he was working as a fish porter – hence, handy with knives. He desperately wanted Kelly to quit the life of prostitution – hence, the targeting of prostitutes. And then there’s the fact that the killer who left behind him the ruins of Mary Kelly’s body locked the door behind himself and so had a key to the room – hence, Joseph Barnett. Case closed, his proponents have said. But plenty of people in Whitechapel knew their way around knives, and plenty of them hated prostitutes, and where there is one key to a room there may be two, or ten (and locks can be picked). And in the meantime, the Barnett theory must swallow whole the contention that a mild-mannered young man with no history of violence would commit some of the most heinous mutilations in history in order to provide a cautionary tale to scare his girlfriend straight – and then not only kill but utterly destroy her when she failed to take the hints. All ‘Ripperology’ theories are like this; the ones that don’t fail on factual grounds fail just as badly on grounds of human nature.

The year 2007 is about to close. Victorian actuarial tables being what they are, Jack the Ripper is certainly dead. He went to his grave uncaught, and no one who actually could have been the killer ever confessed. If there’s a surer route to immortality, it has yet to be found. Almost from the first, novelists, dramatists, stage managers, comic book writers, and even librettists have had a field day with the Ripper. He has been ‘revealed’ to have been Sherlock Holmes in at least three novels; he has been the subject of a Johnny Depp movie; he’s even managed to menace Captain Kirk on Star Trek. An endless flow of books and articles are published every year (the poor reading public of 2088 is to be intensely pitied for what they will undergo in this regard). Some of these works (most notably those of Donald Rumbelow and Philip Sugden) have genuine scholarly merit, but they all partake of the same bitter fruit of frustration, because the simple truth is, we know not one bit more about the identity of Jack the Ripper today than the London police did in 1888, and we almost certainly never will.

In response to this depressing state of affairs, England’s Public Record Office has produced a unique and fascinating item that deserves special notice here as we conclude: in a beautifully designed packet, they have gathered full-size facsimiles of contemporary Ripper documents from the archives of the Home Office and the Metropolitan Police. Here we have the report of Scotland Yard on the Chapman and Nichols murders; here’s the infamous ‘Dear Boss’ letter; here are police suspect reports; here is the front page of the Illustrated Police News covering the Kelly murder. Meticulous Victorian copperplate marches neatly across the open spaces of official forms, charting the course the police took as they groped to understand this horrible new thing in their midst. The reader can feel the weight of these documents, shuffle them around, spread them out on the desktop; it’s an altogether beguiling experience, and Stewart P. Evans and Keith Skinner, the editors of the collection, are to be commended for managing to cut through the theorizing and fantasizing and give us something truly new in Jack the Ripper studies. No student of the event should be without a copy of Jack the Ripper and the Whitechapel Murders.

Although it can be wondered if they haven’t inadvertently done something a little cruel. These documents are so stiff and formal, so heartbreakingly provincial when seen in light of a world filled with email and instant messages and cell phone cameras – and yet they represent the state of the art, the most we will ever know about the signature serial killer of this or any other age. It’s little comfort to tell ourselves that we might perhaps be grateful not to know more, but that’s the only comfort Jack the Ripper gives his researchers. As a complete mystery, he’s quite bad enough; as an identified and fully detailed one of us, he might well be unendurable.

Works consulted:

Jack the Ripper
By Donald Rumbelow.
Penguin, 1992.

The Complete History of Jack the Ripper
By Philip Sugden.
Avalon Publishing Group, 1994.

The Ripper & The Royals
By Melvyn Fairclough.
Duckbacks, 2002.

Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper – Case Closed
By Patricia Cornwell.
Penguin, 2002.

Jack the Ripper: the Definitive History
By Paul Begg.
Longman, 2005.

Steve Donoghue served as an Assistant Government General in Mandalay following the Third Anglo-Burmese War, and though he never shot an elephant, he did spend many hours conversing with them. He retired when the Empire fell and he now hosts the literary blog Stevereads.


  • DanaeChantel says:

    Good reading, yes JTR was a brutal killer although many in today’s world have turned him into some sort of Glorified Legend. He was who he was, a brutal and sadistic killer. The thing that puzzles me is the locked door to MJK’s room. I doubt that there were many keys back in those days. MJK had a key, which she supposedly lost, AND her landlord had a key. Something to think about. I doubt her landlord murdered her, BUT the door WAS locked after the murder and who would have had a key? Someone that MJK knew had the key to her place, and with all the people she had coming in and out of her room, someone could have stolen it and passed it off to someone else. They key was never found and neither was JTR. Jack somehow got ahold of the key from someone. MJK was an alcoholic. She probably got drunk and gave the key to someone to come to her room for sex, and instead ended up being brutally murdered. Who knows, the list of possibilities could go on forever.

  • paul says:

    Very good but for the fact that the ‘Dear Boss’ is almost certainly a hoax. There’s is nothing in it, or in it’s follow up, that makes them definitely from the real Jack the Ripper. Anything within them could have been gleaned from the newspapers of the time, some of which published several editions a day. And as the postal service back then was much more efficient than today, often delivering an item the same day as it was posted, there are no problems there either. Catherine Eddowes’ ears were not cut off (look at her post-mortem photos), one of them was sliced through however – possibly inadvertently as her throat was being cut. It was thought at the time that the letter was penned by a journalist, and that seems to be backed up with modern research.

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