125 years ago, on October 23, 1888, the official inquest into the death of London prostitute Elizabeth “Long Liz” Stride was completed and she was declared the fourth victim of the specter we now call Jack the Ripper. She wouldn’t be the last, and before his bloody reign of terror allegedly ended less than a month later, the public would be exposed to even more unthinkable horror on a much grander scale.
Jack the Ripper. It’s a name nearly everyone has heard of, and yet no one can speak with any real authority as to his or her identity. He’s a Bogeyman whose moniker strikes terror into the hearts of children and adults alike, even now, a century and a quarter after his crimes. However, unlike the Bogeyman, we know that he or, at the very least, his handiwork, was real.
Before I get into a discussion as to who Jack the Ripper might have been and what might have motivated his murderous spree, allow me to first acquaint you with some basics about the case. Bear in mind that the Ripper victims met hideous ends, and it is near impossible to shy away from the gory details if the crimes are to be accurately described.
The year is 1888; the place London, England. The last halcyon days of summer draw to a close. Victoria is queen, with thirteen years left in her 63-year long reign, her consort Albert long dead. The gap between the haves and the have-nots, much like today, is expansive. It’s yet another example of the 99% versus the 1%, if you will. While there are those who exist in splendid luxury, there are even more living lives of quiet desperation, doing whatever it takes to secure their next meal and to ensure they’ve lodgings for the night.
Still, regardless of class, the people of London have no idea what awaits them in the Autumn of Fear, and of the terror that will unite them in spite of their vast differences.
A nameless, faceless killer begins stalking the streets of the Whitechapel section of London, preying on the area’s most downtrodden residents: the poor, “Unfortunate” women who sell their sexual favors on the mean, cruel, unforgiving streets. From seemingly out of obscurity, he emerges and begins killing the prostitutes who ply their trade in the East End.
Before his fiendish work is done, the murderer dubbed “Jack the Ripper” will claim the lives of at least five women, the generally accepted “canonical’ victims. Though it’s questionable just how many women Jack killed, tonight I’d like to focus on those five.
Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols is first to meet her end at the hands of the “Ripper”. On August 31, she is discovered with her throat severely cut and multiple stab wounds to her abdomen in Buck’s Row.
Eight days later, Annie Chapman becomes the Ripper’s second victim. She is found around 6 a.m. by John Davis with her throat viciously slashed open, her intestines resting on her shoulder and her uterus missing.
The Ripper’s next victim, Elizabeth “Long Liz” Stride, suffers only the indignity of having her throat cut but she is no less dead. It is thought Jack was interrupted before he had a chance to mutilate her body like her predecessor Annie Chapman.
This theory gains credibility when the body of Catherine Eddowes is discovered roughly an hour later. Eddowes is the first of the victims with extensive facial mutilations. In the words of an old English proverb, Jack “cut off her nose to spite her face.”
Mary Kelly is murdered in her own bed on November 9, murdered most foul, virtually dissected in what should have been the safety of her own lodgings. It would take less time to mention what about her was intact than what wasn’t. The Ripper took his time with her, took the time he wasn’t able to take with the others. The end result is the stuff of nightmares. Gruesome as it is, her death perhaps marks the end of the terror. Or does it?
There are many suspects, and multiple theories as to why the crimes were committed, but despite the efforts of the police, the killer is never apprehended.
This begs the question of why.
Of the five canonical murders, four were committed outside of the “city” of London, in the area known as Whitechapel. At the time, this area was under the jurisdiction of the Metropolitan Police, specifically the H Division, and the four aforementioned murders were investigated by detectives from that division. The Metropolitan Police were headquartered at Scotland Yard. From 1886, Commissioner Charles Warren held command of the MP force, and he was the chief investigating officer on the case. His leadership skills were highly questioned, and by the end of the terror, he resigned in disgrace, forced to admit he and his men were unable to find the killer we now call Jack the Ripper.
So, you’ve got a police force that is in many ways incompetent. Couple that with the lack of resources investigators had at their disposal in that day and age and you’ve got a quagmire of a whodunit on your hands.
Think of the methods we have now to collect and preserve evidence in murder cases and what springs to mind? Fingerprints? Lab work ups on blood and other bodily fluids? Hairs and fibers? Mitochondrial DNA? A society in which everyone is conditioned to carry photo identification at all times? In 1888, they had none of that CSI-esque science.
They also had a dearth of actual evidence to work with, and no real way of preserving it or even of properly collecting it in the first place. Even Sherlock Holmes would’ve had difficulty solving this mystery.
Also, harkening back to society, it’s relevant to mention again the great gulf that lies between the rich and the poor in Victorian era London. There is virtually no middle class. The Ripper victims didn’t turn to prostitution because they were amoral sluts, they resorted to selling themselves quite literally on the streets because they had no other options. Further, there’s no shortage of work.
It’s quite fashionable at this time for “polite society” – that is, the rich – to leave the relative safety and isolation of City proper and go slumming in destitute areas like Whitechapel. There are brothels and Turkish bathhouses and opium dens and even public lodging houses where all manner of sex – heterosexual and homosexual – is sold.
Then there are the women Jack murdered, often referred to as “Unfortunates,” who would engage in public sex acts in the alleys and dark corners of the street, often as many as 10, 12, 15 times a day, because they had no lodgings in which to entertain clients or even the time to do so.
And, yes, as you might guess, sexually transmitted diseases ran rampant in this kind of licentious environment. Some Ripperologists theorize that Jack was a Gentleman Slummer who contracted one such disease from a prostitute and set about the business of killing hookers as his revenge. Others believe Jack’s mother may have been a prostitute herself who may have passed on a disease to her offspring, who might or might not have borne some sort of generic deformity as a result.
Much like the number of days in October, there are no less than 31 different suspects, or groups of suspects, for the Jack the Ripper murders, and that number continues to climb as we discover new evidence and re-examine the old. That’s 31 people thought to have the motive, the means or both to brutally slaughter at least five women in the span of four months. That’s a number that to my knowledge hasn’t been replicated in the last 125 years. So, in addition to being the most elusive killer in history, Jack is also the one with the largest pool of suspects.
The legend of Jack the Ripper endures. Why, you might ask? Circumstances then and now contributed to the public fascination with the Ripper.
Many decades before Charles Manson, O.J. Simpson or Casey Anthony, Jack the Ripper quickly becomes a media sensation, a century before the advent of Court TV. This begs the question: What medium is responsible for spreading the word?
The answer can be found in the answer to a simple riddle: What’s black and white and read all over?
Newspapers. Newspapers, the medium that led to the coinage of the phrase “If it bleeds it leads.” And, in the case of Jack the Ripper, there was no shortage of blood. I’ll refrain from passing judgment on the ethics of the industry as a whole, but there’s no question the Jack the Ripper murders were a veritable goldmine for the press, particularly after they began publishing the letters allegedly written by the killer. Of course, they weren’t the only industry to profit from the crimes, nor would they be the last.
Thus, the legend is born. Further, an enduring record is left in the form of “letters” and newspaper articles, cementing the myth of Jack the Ripper.
Fast forward to the present day, when our continued fascination with the Ripper has become a science of sorts, Ripperology.
For the laymen among us, according to the Urban Dictionary, “Ripperology is defined as being the study of the infamous serial killer Jack the Ripper. Though the term has not made its way into the mainstream, those who study the case, or are simply enthusiasts are referred to as ‘Ripperologists’. This does not simply refer to finding out who the killer was, but who all of the victims were, along with various “evidence” such as the highly debated credibility of the Ripper letters.”
The popularity and even the existence of Ripperology can be explained by a host of factors.
There’s the obvious. We don’t know who Jack was and as much as we might not want to admit it, we likely never will.
That being said, why do we keep banging our heads against this impenetrable wall? Why keep puzzling over this elusive enigma?
There’s a simple answer. Speaking personally, as a writer and reader of fiction, it’s a good story, with compelling elements like graphic violence, sex and romance and celebrity.
Anyone who doubts we as a society glorify violence clearly has never borne witness to an execution or a dramatization of the same. Though in the present day it’s a mostly sanitary affair, executions in the past were gory spectacles that drew large audiences. Audiences that included men, women and children. The Ripper murders were no less a spectacle, and discounting the death of Liz Stride, the graphic violence he (or she) visited upon the victims escalated with each new murder.
Jack was the ultimate performance artist, always raising the bar and tragically enough, his work made people sit up and take notice. It made the general public take stock of their own mortality. It was common enough to die from disease or malnutrition or from overindulging in alcohol or drugs, and now people – particularly women and specifically women – had to contend with the notion that they could be the next to meet a violent, random, horrific end.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Ripper is an indisputably a romantic figure, whether it plagues our conscience to admit as much or not. He’s the ultimate tall, dark, possibly handsome stranger. And the crimes are often used as a backdrop for love stories. In recent history, for example, the 2001 film From Hell, starring the swoon worthy Johnny Depp and the drop dead gorgeous Heather Graham, suggests a romance existed between Inspector Frederick Abberline and Mary Jane Kelly. While that seems laughable in view of all the facts serious and even amateur Ripperologists know to be true, the storyline of From Hell resonated with audiences.
I have my own theory on why we romanticize the Ripper murders, particularly in regard to the violent death of Mary Kelly, and why stories like From Hell, where (spoiler alert) she actually escapes her terrible fate: the details are just too horrible for us to most of us to accept. It seems so random, and yet so very personal. Just as we’ll probably never know the identity of the Ripper, we’ll also never know whether there was a connection between killer and victim.
Romantic love aside, the very nature of the Ripper murders was highly sexual. Though it’s true nearly all reports reference “no evidence of connexion”, the Ripper still doubtless violated the “personal space” of all his victims. Among the accepted canonical victims, only Liz Stride was spared the indignity of the killer attempting to remove and/or removing sex organs.
Harkening back to Mary Kelly, not only were the aforementioned so-called organs of generation horribly mutilated, but the Ripper also took her heart as a souvenir. Dr. Bond’s postmortem report concludes with that chilling phrase “the heart absent.” Still, this phrase conjures up not only the image of the absence of Kelly’s heart but also the apparent lack of heart the killer possessed to commit such atrocities in seeming cold blood.
Jack the Ripper was a celebrity in his own right, but there are also many celebrities among the ever widening pool of suspects, including a royal prince, a famous artist and a beloved children’s artist.
The Royal Conspiracy. One only has to look back to the fairly recent birth of the Royal baby to know that the Royals – now as in then – are a hot topic in the press and in the public imagination. Take a dull witted prince looking for love in all the wrong places, add a dash of Masonic conspiracy and you’ve got a story that’s guaranteed to enthrall audiences.
Even Lewis Carroll, author of the children’s classic Alice in Wonderland and Alice’s Adventures Through the Looking Glass – has been suggested as a Ripper suspect, though there’s no real evidence of any kind to support this rather farcical theory.
Ripperology has spawned a cottage industry of sorts.
Outside of the realm of those who “study” the Ripper, there are also those who’ve built commercial enterprises on the back of this mysterious figure. I can’t speak to their motives, but their success is quite evident.
Even a cursory search of the Internet reveals dozens of tour companies offering “Jack the Ripper Walking Tours” including the one run by London Walks with often times guide and noted Ripperologist Donald Rumbelow.
There are books, movies, even video games about the Ripper crimes.
Finally, why do we study these hideous crimes? We do so to honor the memory of the women who perished at the hands of Jack the Ripper, if for no other reason than so that their lives were not given in vain. These “Unfortunate” women weren’t just Ripper victims; they were wives, girlfriends, mothers, sisters and friends. These women weren’t just Ripper victims, they were victims of their own respective circumstances and of the times they lived in. They deserve to be remembered in life as in death.
While justice may never be served and their murderer may never be taken to account for his horrible deeds, as long as we don’t give up the search for the Ripper, I think they’ll continue to rest easy in their graves, just as we continue to be fascinated with their killer 125 years after his deadly spree.