Radio Freethinker

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Who Was Jack the Ripper?

Posted by Ethan Clow on June 27, 2012

Most of you are probably aware of story of Jack the Ripper – but for those of you who are not aware… allow me to fill you in on the details.

(Just before I do that, if there are any listeners who are easily squeamish or don’t like hearing about serial killers…feel free to fast forward)

Jack the Ripper was the meme-name for the killer who committed the Whitechapel murders starting in 1888. Whitechapel is, of course, a district in London, and it still exists today.  However back in 1888 it was the notorious slum area that was frequented by prostitutes and sex workers. London’s Metropolitan Police Service estimated that there were 1200 prostitutes and about 62 brothels in Whitechapel. In addition, Whitechapel was also sort of a poor immigrant slum and because it was an economically depressed area, and this was 1888, crime was common and often unsolved.

So Whitechapel was already a bad place to be on a good day, but it got a whole lot worse once a series of grisly murders happened.

There were eleven separate murders, stretching from April 3, 1888 to February 13, 1891, and were all included in a London Metropolitan Police Service investigation, and were known collectively in the police docket as the “Whitechapel murders” However because of the frequency of violence that prostitutes faced in the Whitechapel area, it is unclear how many murders can be attributed to Jack the Ripper.

But five of the eleven Whitechapel murders, known as the “canonical five” are widely believed to be the work of the Ripper. This is because of the particular way in which these murders took place, the level of violence, which was consistent, as were the treatment of the victims after they were killed.

Deep throat slashes, abdominal and genital-area mutilation, removal of internal organs, and progressive facial mutilations are considered the distinctive features of Jack the Ripper’s modus operandi.

The Canonical five include: The canonical five Ripper victims are Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly.

Nichols’ body was discovered at about 3:40 a.m. on Friday the 31st, August 1888 in Buck’s Row (now Durward Street), Whitechapel. The throat was severed deeply by two cuts, and the lower part of the abdomen was partly ripped open by a deep, jagged wound. Several other incisions on the abdomen were caused by the same knife.

Chapman’s body was discovered at about 6 a.m. on Saturday the 8th of September in 1888 near a doorway of a back yard. Her throat was severed by two cuts. The abdomen was slashed entirely open, and it was later discovered that the uterus had been removed. At the inquest, one witness described seeing Chapman at about 5:30 a.m. with a dark-haired man of “shabby-genteel” appearance.

Stride and Eddowes were killed in the early morning of Sunday the 30th, September 1888. Stride’s body was discovered at about 1 am. The cause of death was one clear-cut incision which severed the main artery on the left side of the neck. There is uncertainty about whether Stride’s murder should be attributed to the Ripper, mainly because the attack and body mutilations seemed out of character for the Ripper. That being said, the prevailing idea is that he was interrupted during the attack, perhaps someone spotted him or something happened which prevented him from completing mutilations to the abdomen. Witnesses who thought they saw Stride with a man earlier that night gave differing descriptions: some said her companion was fair, others dark; some said he was shabbily dressed, others well-dressed. Eddowes’ body was found three-quarters of an hour after Stride’s. The throat was severed, and the abdomen was ripped open by a long, deep, jagged wound. The left kidney and the major part of the uterus had been removed.

Kelly’s gruesomely mutilated body was discovered lying on the bed in the single room where she lived at 13 Miller’s Court, at 10:45 a.m. on Friday the 9th, November 1888. The throat had been severed down to the spine, and the abdomen virtually emptied of its organs. The heart was also missing.

Alltogether the canonical five murders share the following facts: they were perpetrated at night, on or close to a weekend, and either at the end of a month or a week or so after. The mutilations became increasingly severe as the series of murders proceeded, except for that of Stride, whose attacker may have been interrupted. Nichols was not missing any organs; Chapman’s uterus was taken; Eddowes had her uterus and a kidney removed and her face mutilated; Kelly’s body was eviscerated and her face hacked away, though only her heart was missing from the crime scene.

So, the question remains, who was Jack the Ripper?

This brings us to the point of the topic, I recently saw an article about a new book with a dramatic conclusion about the Whitechapel murders, the perpetrator was  in fact a woman, none other than Lizzie Williams, wife of royal physician Sir John Williams (also a suspect)

This new theory is quite sensational, but could it be true? The book “Jack The Ripper: The Hand Of A Woman” by retired lawyer John Morris, who claims the evidence is overwhelming suggests the murderer is Lizzie Williams because:

None of the women was sexually assaulted.

Personal items were laid out at the feet of Chapman in, according to newspaper reports, ‘a typically feminine manner’

Three small buttons from a woman’s boot were found in blood near Catherine Eddowes.

Remnants of women’s clothing – a cape, skirt and hat – were found in the ashes of Mary Kelly’s fireplace. Mary had never been seen wearing them.

John Morris also claims that Lizzie was infertile – she couldn’t have children and since all the victims were prostitutes and three had their wombs removed is an indication that Lizzie had gone insane over her infertility.

Additionally, Morris claims that Kelly was having an affair with Lizzie’s husband, Sir John, who ran abortion clinics in Whitechapel. This might also explain why the murders stopped after Kelly was killed.

What about other suspects?

Virtually everyone who was alive during the times of the murders has been accused by some researcher today, however if we ignore the more wild speculation and focus on the suspects that the London’s Metropolitan Police Service had:

  • Kosminski, a poor Polish Jewish resident in Whitechapel;
  • Montague John Druitt, a 31 year old barrister and school teacher who committed suicide in December 1888;
  • Michael Ostrog, a Russian-born multi-pseudonymous thief and confidence trickster, believed to be 55 years old in 1888, and detained in asylums on several occasions;
  • Dr Francis J. Tumblety, 56 Years old, an American ‘quack’ doctor, who was arrested in November 1888 for offences of gross indecency, and fled the country later the same month, having obtained bail at a very high price.

The first three of these suspects were nominated by Sir Melville Macnaghten, who joined the Metropolitan Police as Assistant Chief Constable, second in command of the Criminal Investigation Deptment (C.I.D.) at Scotland Yard in June 1889.

Kosminski was certainly favoured by the head of the C.I.D. Dr. Robert Anderson, and the officer in charge of the case, Chief Inspector Donald Swanson, Druitt appears to have been Macnaghten’s preferred candidate, whilst the fact that Ostrog was arrested and incarcerated before the report was compiled leaves us skeptical why he was considered a viable suspect in the first place.

The fourth suspect, Tumblety, was stated to have been “amongst the suspects” at the time of the murders and “to my mind a very likely one,” by the ex-head of the Special Branch at Scotland Yard in 1888, ex-Detective Chief lspector John George Littlechild.

Also notice that Sir John Williams, husband of Lizzie Williams, was not considered a suspect by the investigators at the time.

Arguments can be made against all of them being the culprit, and no hard evidence exists against any of them. What is obvious is that the police were, at no stage in the investigation, able to put together enough evidence to prove a case against anyone, and it is highly unlikely a positive case will ever be proved. If the police were in this position in 1888-1891, then what hope for the enthusiastic modern investigator?
So what does the evidence tell us? Unfortunately not much. Given the facts we have about the murders, the suspects that the investigators had at the time, and the links those suspects had to the murders (which were mostly circumstantial and weak) It’s unlikely we will ever know who the killer was.

Additionally, suspects who are accused years after the murders include virtually anyone remotely connected to the case by contemporary documents, as well as many famous names, who were never considered in the police investigation. As everyone alive at the time is now dead, modern authors are free to accuse anyone, without any need for any supporting historical evidence (no matter how sensational the accusation.)

We must also consider several important points in considering who the killer might be.

  1. This was a very publicized case. During the time of the murders, newspapers, tabloids, gossip, and books were published and circulated, all trying to cash in on the murders and public interest. There are numerous fake letters and hoaxes that were probably invented by newspaper reporters tying to find a scoop. Given all this, it is extremely difficult to nail down what is solid evidence and what is myth.
  2. Contrary to opinion, the detectives working this case actually did a decent job investigating. It was such a well known crime that there was a lot of pressure to find the murderer. Many new techniques were first used during the investigation, including the first time crime photos were taken at the crime scene.
  3. This case suffers from a lack of concrete evidence beyond the basic – clearly there was a murderer, clearly this murderer committed more than one murder – and then you have the victims and the dates and times of when they were murdered. The reality is that there is not enough evidence to make solid accusations for anyone. It’s not like the Zodiac murders where you have suspect who was never convicted but who enough evidence seems to point at.

So about Lizzie Williams? The primary connection is that of her husband – however the original documents that linked John Williams to the crime were investigated and demonstrated to be false. Given that, it’s also unlikely that Lizzie Williams was connected to the murders.

What would it take to prove someone was the killer? This is a difficult question for all the reasons I’ve already mentioned. A smoking gun like a confession or document by the killer would be ideal, however there is already one “ripper diary” however it’s authenticity is deeply controversial.

If a document was found that was tested to be the right age for the era, written in period ink and using the right cultural context and potentially linking the killer with more evidence i.e weapons, clothing, relations to the victims, that might be enough to finally close this case. Until then, it’s unlikely we will ever know the true identity of Jack the Ripper.


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