Just in case you’ve been living under a rock for the past century and a half, you’ve probably heard about the most infamous and elusive serial killer in history. By the way, this is not to celebrate or glorify the actions of a murderer – it’s simply an acknowledgement of the fact that in 2018, one hundred and thirty years after the fact, we still don’t know who he was or why he did what he did. This fact alone has kept Ripperologists such as Martin Fido, Stuart Evans, Paul Begg and Colin Wilson et al champing at the bit for “new” clues to the identity of the person who simultaneously horrifies and fascinates true crime aficionados in equal measure, and has done for, well, over a century, now!
For those of you who are only familiar with the case insofar as you’ve heard the name Jack the Ripper and perhaps even know the year he stalked the gas-lit streets of the East End of London – 1888 – let’s recap.
Jack’s London, principally Whitechapel and its surrounds, was a place of abject poverty and misery in the late nineteenth century. Prostitutes openly walked its cobblestone streets, plying their trade wherever they could find a dark corner. Filth was regularly thrown from windows out into the alleyways and unemployment and homelessness were rife. People would scrounge together the few dollars they could to get a ‘doss’ – a room for the night – to avoid the danger of sleeping in a doorway, as crimes such as muggings and rape were commonplace. Some churches would offer a pew to the desperate, and then literally rope them in to keep them from falling to the floor as they slept. This was a tactic of some of the lodging houses as well, as there were just too many homeless to give a bed to. It was into this sad scene that an opportunistic and savage fiend slithered, killing and mutilating five “unfortunate” women in a way that was unheard of back then, only to disappear into the shadows afterward – and the pages of history.
Yes, he only killed five women. Or rather, he was only officially connected with five murders – those of Mary Anne “Polly” Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Kelly. Other homicides in and around the autumn of 1888 have since been attributed to him by various authors, but the deaths of the aforementioned have been listed as the official “canonical five” in Ripper lore. The first murder occurred on the night of the 31st August, and the last, and worst in terms of its sheer brutality, was committed on November 9th. It was also the only Ripper murder known to be have taken place indoors. The rest were committed on the very streets Jack walked, in the late (or early) hours, and it continues to amaze Ripper enthusiasts a hundred years later just how he was never caught, considering everything we know about the nightlife in the East End from newspaper archives and history books. Murder, assault, rape and other crimes were fairly common in Whitechapel, but these murders were something East Enders had never seen before, and quite rightly, never wanted to see again. Jack not only slashed and stabbed these women, on all but one occasion he mutilated and disemboweled them, treating them like nothing more than animals in a slaughterhouse. This is what set him apart from other killers of the day, and what has kept him in the history books ever since – that and the fact that his identity remains, despite the best efforts of criminologists and true crime writers worldwide, a mystery.
The name “Jack the Ripper” came from a letter sent to the Metropolitan Police, taunting them about their efforts to catch him, written, in part, as a limerick:
I’m not a butcher, I’m not a Yid, Nor yet a foreign skipper, But I’m your light-hearted friend, Yours Truly Jack the Ripper
The rest of the letter gave information that only the real killer would be privy to, which is how the constabulary at the time knew this particular missive was no hoax. Other serial killers have, of course, corresponded with the police and media, sending them letters filled with “clues” – the Zodiac Killer and Son of Sam (David Berkowitz) being cases in point, but Jack the Ripper was the first to play such risky games with his freedom. Serial killers have been modelling themselves after him ever since, for different reasons. Some of them clearly want to be caught; and some just want the notoriety and ego boost that comes with believing they’re “too smart” for the police.
There have been countless books written, proclaiming to have solved the mystery of who the Ripper was, but the reality is, no one really knows for certain and unless some pretty unshakable evidence in the form of DNA emerges, no one ever will. This is why the Ripper remains so entrenched in the minds of criminologists, forensic psychologists, law enforcers, authors of true crime novels and of course us armchair detectives, for 130 years since he stalked the streets of Whitechapel. Of course there are the usual suspects, made up of foreigners, madmen, butchers, bakers, candlestick-makers (kidding) – hell, even a member of the royal family (Prince Edward Albert Victor, son of Queen Victoria) was a suspect and the source of quite a few conspiracy theories, the most famous being the Royal Conspiracy, chronicled in the Allan Brothers’ film From Hell, starring Johnny Depp as Inspector Abberline, and Heather Graham as Mary Kelly (with the worst Irish accent I’ve ever heard, btw). Other theories point to suspects from all walks of life, including doctors (Dr Francis Tumblety), lawyers (Montague John Drewitt), artists (Walter Sickert), cotton-merchants (James Maybrick), Australian criminals (Frederick Deeming), hell, even Aleister Crowley’s name has been linked to the case, although usually via an acquaintance who was considered a suspect.
But what is the likelihood that someone well-dressed, wealthy or well-known could have done it? Who could get around the streets of Whitechapel in those times with impunity, without raising eyebrows, as would someone who was ‘slumming it’, such as Prince Albert was reported to have done? My personal guess is that it was probably a local, someone who lived and worked in the East End, someone who would have disappeared into the scenery. Someone like Charles Lechmere, an abattoir worker whom, according to police record, was among the first on the scene at the Polly Nichols murder. A recent documentary explains this particular theory in more detail, and leaves the viewer with some pretty intriguing things to consider.
In conclusion, I think this documentary is the closest thing I’ve seen to solving the age-old mystery: who was Jack the Ripper? It pretty much speaks for itself. But if you’re a bit squeamish, or easily offended, it’s probably not for you. There is a warning at the beginning, but there are some things, such as the morgue photo of Elizabeth Stride, that chill me to this day, and I’ve pretty hard to scare!
PS: And if the video happens to start from the start again, just click on a spot on the timeline down the bottom, just past where it ended and it will continue where it left off. Worked for me, anyway.