Catching Jack the Ripper
A look at what is and isn't known about history's most infamous serial killer.
by Brian Dunning
April 3, 2012
Today we're going to pay a visit to London, specifically the Whitechapel district, back in 1888. It was a crowded, filthy, uncomfortable place, still stinging from the deadly Bloody Sunday riots of 1887 when Irish protesters clashed with police. Political unrest, unemployment, crime, rampant disease, and hunger were compounded with racial tensions between the Irish working class and Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe. Amid all this squalor, it's hardly surprising that violence and murder were common. In fact, those days and that place produced history's single most infamous murderer: Jack the Ripper. We're going to take a look at the common knowledge about Jack, and see how it compares to what's actually known and what's popularly believed. Who was he, how many did he kill, and how did we learn what we know?
Poverty was so severe in Whitechapel — at the time, the acknowledged slum of London — that prostitution became one of the leading industries. It was a desperate move by a population, desperate from actual hunger and deprivation, to bring money into the community from London's wealthier West End. This workforce of an estimated 1200 women commuted every day and night on foot through unlit alleys filled with drunken factory workers and as many as 3000 homeless people in this neighborhood alone, and their victimization was all too commonplace. Police grouped eleven murders of prostitutes, committed between 1888 and 1891 and all apparently related in some way, and referred to them as the Whitechapel Murders. At the time, the presumed killer was known to the press as Leather Apron.
Later, investigators separated five of the Whitechapel Murders away from the rest, believing them to be the work of a single distinct individual. The modus operandi was the same: the victims were first silenced and killed by strangulation, their throats were cut, and their bodies mutilated in similar ways, to varying degrees depending on how private was the location and how much time the killer probably had.
Today, nearly a century and a half later, Jack the Ripper still grips the public's attention. Practically every year, a number of books and documentaries are produced naming some new suspect or claiming a fresh analysis on some piece of evidence. Please don't email me about this new book or that new book and its particular claims and its evident authority; the Library of Congress currently lists at least 181 different books with Jack the Ripper in the title; every one I've looked at introduces yet another suspect, and they can't all be right. Many believe he was an aristocrat or educated man from the West End, and some believe he was no more than a local thug. Today's enthusiasts and armchair investigators call themselves Ripperologists.
The Ripper was never seen or heard and left no evidence that survives today, with the possible exception of letters received by investigators and newspapers claiming to be from him, and it's the signature of one of these letters that is the first recorded appearance of the nickname Jack the Ripper. But at the time, eyewitness reports abounded. Nine days after the Ripper's victim Mary Ann Nicholl was killed, Lloyd's Weekly London Newspaper published a detailed account of the presumed murderer, a local creep who seemed to be quite well known:
When the tragedy was first discovered on Friday the hapless females who haunt the East-end freely denounced a particular individual whom they style "Leather Apron." "Leather Apron" by himself is, it appears, quite an unpleasant character. He has ranged Whitechapel for a long time. He exercises over the unfortunates who ply their trade after 12 o'clock at night a sway that is based on universal terror. He has kicked, injured, bruised, and terrified a hundred of them who are ready to testify to the outrages... He carries a razor-like knife, and two weeks ago drew it on a woman called "Widow Annie" as she was crossing the square near London hospital, threatening at the same time, with an ugly grin and his malignant eyes, to do her harm... From all accounts he is five feet four or five inches in height, and wears a dark, close-fitting cap. He is thickset, and has an unusually thick neck. His hair is black, and closely clipped, his age being about 38 or 40. He has a small, black moustache. The distinguishing feature of his costume is a leather apron, which he always wears, and from which he gets his nickname.
Whoever Leather Apron was, he may or may not have been Jack the Ripper and may or may not have been responsibile for some of the other six Whitechapel Murders. Today's criminologists and Ripperologists usually absolve Leather Apron of being the Ripper, due to the differences in style. Leather Apron swaggered around the streets making public threats, while the Ripper displayed a deep and very subtle pathology. It is the study of his evident psychosis that has driven Ripperology.
Part of this was a particular obsession with excising the kidneys and the uterus. It's often reported that Jack the Ripper must have been a doctor, due to the presumed need for medical knowledge in order to mutilate his victims. In fact this suggestion has very little support. Dr. Thomas Bond, one of several experts brought in by the police to examine the victims to gain insight into the killer, made the opposite suggestion, that the Ripper did not have medical knowledge:
... In each case the mutilation was was implicated by a person who had no scientific nor anatomical knowledge. In my opinion he does not even possess the technical knowledge of a butcher or horse slaughterer or any person accustomed to cutting up dead animals.
This was echoed by the murderer himself in one of his taunting letters mailed to investigators (September 25, 1888):
No luck yet, they say I am a Doctor now, ha ha.
Indeed his behavior was most un-doctorlike; as he also wrote in a letter the following month addressed "From hell" and accompanying a small parcel containing half of a human kidney preserved in a tiny bottle of spirits:
Mr Lusk. Sir I send you half the kidne I took from one woman prasarved it for you tother piece I fried and ate it was very nise I may send you the bloody knife that took it out if you only wate a whillonger. Signed Catch me when you can Mishter Lusk
Over the years, it's been suggested many times that a lot of Englishmen of the day had been involved in military campaigns in India and Africa. Various cultural traditions among certain Zulus and Indians would have become well known to British soldiers, including corpse mutilation. While this is intriguing, I found virtually no similarities between reported Zulu rituals and the things that the Ripper did. If the Ripper had been a soldier serving overseas at some point, I don't find that it had much to do with his murders.
In 1975, the International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine published an interesting article that suggested the Ripper may have been medically traumatized as a child. The author surveyed the literature and found:
Katan writes that a child who has been frightened by a doctor may... attempt to discharge the anxiety he had experienced as a patient into his friend. We learn from the work of Buxbaum that a twelve-year-old boy who had been surgically traumatized at age six can... revel in fantasies of using a knife on someone's genitals. As Miller has pointed out, doctor-identification borne of a traumatic childhood surgical experience can remain well into adulthood and manifest itself in frightening fantasies of wanting to use a knife on the members of one's own family. Rose... shows that the senseless murder of an inoffensive stranger can represent the reenactment of consciously remembered, severely traumatic events in the murderer's childhood.
It's perhaps not entirely coincidental that the London stage adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, presented by the American actor Richard Mansfield, opened at the Lyceum theater on August 6, 1888, just three and a half weeks before the first of the Ripper's five murders. As the Ripper killed, the violent play ran to increasing public protest, depicting a man who transformed into a bloody killer. The play closed in late September, ostensibly due to negative publicity surrounding the Ripper's murders, and the proceeds from the final performance were donated to Whitechapel charities.
Whether the stage play may have inspired or even triggered the murderer is a possibility that, unfortunately, leads us nowhere. Maybe it did, maybe it didn't; the Ripper left us no evidence with which we might bolster speculation.
Leaving us with even less good evidence is the fact that the authenticity of all the Ripper's letters has been questioned. Handwriting analysts disagree on whether or not they match. Only one of the letters contains any information that would have been known to just a few people besides the real killer, and that's a letter written and received the same day that two of the five murders committed on the same night were discovered, and it boasts of them. But, the letter contains nothing that helps us learn the Ripper's identity. Beyond the few popularly reprinted letters were a grand total of over six hundred letters from "Jack the Ripper" received by various police and press agencies, and a number of people were actually arrested for writing hoax letters. Even the box with the kidney is shrouded in too much doubt to be certifiably authentic. As pointed out in 2008 in the Nephrology Dialysis Transplantation journal:
It appears beyond a reasonable doubt that the renal segment sent to George Lusk was human and this could be easily determined by morphological criteria in 1888. However, every medical student or person involved in the postmortem examination and/or with access to a mortuary could have obtained a human kidney. The kidney was preserved by alcohol suggesting that it may have been obtained earlier and may have been even part of a collection of anatomical specimens and was subsequently sent to Lusk after the press coverage of Eddowes' killing. There is even some, albeit indirect, evidence that the letters were written by journalists to keep the story boiling and to increase the circulation of the newspapers.
The bottom line is that there is no widely accepted evidence suggesting an identity for Jack the Ripper. There are many hoaxed diaries, claims of royal conspiracies, Freemason plots, and all sorts of theories that are all either disproven or based on pure speculation. This lack of evidence is not surprising, for as the editors of the Casebook: Jack the Ripper website ably summarize:
Judging from modern cases, we now know that serial killers tend to be outwardly normal, even personable, and they attract very little attention to themselves. Jack the Ripper could very well have held regular employment, and even had a wife and children. In all likelihood the true murderer was never suspected by friends, family or coworkers, because he did not fit the profile of the Victorian raving lunatic.
When you hear anyone claim to have finally solved the case of Jack the Ripper, you have very good reason to be skeptical.
By Brian Dunning
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Catching Jack the Ripper." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
3 Apr 2012. Web.
13 Dec 2017. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4304>
References & Further Reading
Barbee, S. "Introduction to the Case." Casebook: Jack the Ripper. Stephen P. Ryder & Johnno, 7 Dec. 2000. Web. 29 Mar. 2012. <http://www.casebook.org/intro.html>
Eckert, W. "The Whitechapel Murders: The Case of Jack the Ripper." American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology. 1 Mar. 1981, Volume 2, Number 1: 53-60.
Editors. "Who Is Leather Apron?" Lloyd's Weekly London Newspaper. 9 Sep. 1888, Newspaper: 3.
Shuster, S. "Jack the Ripper and Doctor-Identification." International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine. 1 Jan. 1975, Volume 6, Number 3: 385-402.
Sudgen, P. The Complete History of Jack the Ripper. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1994.
Whittington-Egan, R. A Casebook on Jack the Ripper. London: Wiley, 1975. 115.
Wolf, G. "A Kidney from Hell? A Nephrological View of the Whitechapel Murders in 1888." Nephrology Dialysis Transplantation. 11 Apr. 2008, Volume 23: 3343-3349.
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