6. The Whitechapel Vigilance Committee both helped and hampered the police
On September 10, 1888, a group of tradesmen and shopkeepers in Whitechapel and Spitalfields met to form the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee. They announced their existence to the press and their leader, George Lusk, a builder, hired unemployed workers to conduct nightly patrols of the area. The committee paid the patrols, armed them with a police whistle and a cudgel, and met with them each night at a pub named The Crown. Patrols began when the pub closed shortly after midnight. Thus, Whitechapel found itself patrolled by the police as well as the vigilantes, many of the latter being in various states of intoxication. As committee chairman, Lusk communicated with the press via the Central News Agency, which in turn publicized the vigilantes and Lusk’s role in their operation.
Lusk received scores of letters, many of them claiming to be from Jack the Ripper, and many threatening his life. Among them appeared the famous From Hell letter, probably the most famous of all of the Ripper correspondence. Its handwriting did not match the Dear Boss and Saucy Jacky missives, and the portion of a kidney which accompanied it may or may not have come from one of the victims. Investigators were initially dubious regarding the letter’s authenticity, and many Ripperologists agree with them. Others claim the From Hell letter to be genuine, which if correct, would render the Dear Boss and Saucy Jacky letters hoaxes. The handwriting of the latter two match. The handwriting of the From Hell letter does not match either, or any other of the correspondence alleged to have been written by Jack the Ripper.
7. Several Ripper letters considered genuine later were revealed as hoaxes
On October 3, 1888, Scotland Yard distributed handbills containing a reproduction of the Dear Boss letter. Officially the reason for the distribution was a hope that someone would recognize the handwriting, helping to identify a suspect. Several senior police officials continued to doubt the letter being genuine, but by that point, they were committed to following every potentiality. Less sensationalist newspapers also condemned the letter as a hoax, generated by a journalist at a less than ethical newspaper to boost circulation. Long after the Ripper investigation closed, Chief Inspector John Littlefield identified Tom Bullen, a journalist, as the author of the Dear Boss letter, and a contributor to the Saucy Jack postcard. If true, Bullen coined the name Jack the Ripper, possibly inspired by a legendary British character known as Spring-heeled Jack.
Shortly after the investigation into the Ripper murders closed, the Dear Boss letter vanished from the files of Scotland Yard. It remained missing for nearly a century. In 1931 a retired journalist, Fred Best, admitted the letter had been written by Tom Bullen, assisted by himself, while both were employed by The Star, a London newspaper. He also announced the pair had written numerous hoax letters, including the Saucy Jacky postcard. He did not include the From Hell letter in his list of hoaxes. Finally, in 1987, the Dear Boss letter returned to Scotland Yard, in an unmarked package as an anonymous message. Numerous Ripperologists and conspiracy theorists continued to regard the Dear Boss and Saucy Jacky documents as genuine letters from the Whitechapel Murderer, using them to support various theories as to his true identity.
8. The Ripper investigation became part of a larger investigation headed by Scotland Yard
The Metropolitan Police (Scotland Yard) conducted an investigation into several murders in Whitechapel and Spitalfields from 1888 to 1891. Eleven separate murders were part of the overall investigation. The five canonical murders were assessed as the work of a single individual, identified in the press as Jack the Ripper, while the other six were believed to have been the work of others. One reason the investigation identified the five as the victims of Jack the Ripper was their proximity to each other. Another was that all took place during or near a weekend or holiday. That led police to believe the murderer was employed in and resided in or near the Whitechapel area. Expertise and knowledge of Whitechapel, including its streets and denizens, became essential to the investigation.
Inspector First Class Frederick Abberline possessed both those qualities, having served in Whitechapel before promotion and transfer to Scotland Yard’s Central Office. Following the murder of Mary Ann Nichols, Abberline transferred back to Whitechapel temporarily to aid in the investigation. He became the de facto officer in charge at the ground level. Abberline coordinated the information obtained by the investigators and helped facilitate communications between the two police forces involved. While the street-level policemen of each force usually cooperated freely with each other, their more politically oriented supervisors did not. The five murders took place in a span of a few weeks, each more grisly than its predecessor. Abberline resisted the pressure to make an arrest, concerned with the evidence, rather than public opinion. Today, some Ripperologists believe Abberline made no arrests because he was in fact Jack the Ripper.
Beginning during the Ripper investigations in the Autumn of 1888, amateurs and members of the press openly speculated over the identity of Jack the Ripper. Even Her Majesty Queen Victoria expressed an opinion on the matter, believing the killer to be a worker on the cattle boats which regularly traded with France. While Abberline and the police officials working with him attempted to keep their suspects to themselves, leaks led to their being identified and convicted in the press and the court of public opinion. A cryptic sign referring to “Juwes”, found near the scene of one of the murders, led to widespread antisemitic activity in the warrens of Whitechapel. Several of the suspects were also of Eastern European ancestry, and assumed to be Jews in press reports. Although the Ripper murders ceased in November, fear and panic continued to fester in the slums.
The press presented suspects to the public with varying degrees of sensationalism, urging the police to take action even after the latter had dismissed the person involved as the murderer. Hundreds of letters sent to the press, and forwarded to the police, were claims of the writer being Jack the Ripper. While many claimed it via the mail, none came forward to either reporters or police officers. The press repeatedly claimed to have identified the true killer and continued to do so for many years since the killings. Such claims continue in the 21st century, in newspapers, magazines, and books. Some are outlandish, some ignore facts which are at odds with the writer’s hypothesis. Others simply created new “facts” which support their position. The mystery remains unsolved, each new resolution disputed by others. No consensus over the identity of the Ripper has ever been reached.
10. Some believe the killer was identified and covered up by the government
Over the more than one hundred years which passed since the Whitechapel Murders, the theory emerged the police knew the identity of Jack the Ripper. Higher-ups in the government quashed the revelation of the killer to the public. The reasons for the alleged cover-up vary widely, depending on the theorist’s determination of the killer’s identity. Favored by conspiracy theorists, evidence of a police cover-up is scant. Yet it allows the Jack the Ripper mystery to enter into the realm of political and sexual scandal among the powerful, at the expense of the poor. Not until the 1960s did the theory emerge that one of Queen Victoria’s nephews, Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence and Avondale, committed the crimes. The theory alleges he obtained the aid of his coachman in both killing his victims and disposing of their bodies. It became one of the favorite Ripper theories.
Another theory contends the five so-called canonical victims were engaged in blackmailing the Royal Family over the illegitimate birth of a prostitute’s child. The theory contends the Royal Family sent a surgeon, Dr. William Gull, to dispose of the five, with the eviscerations and mutilations serving to distract the police. Some supporters of the theory link the plot directly to the Queen, though most limit its reach to lesser members of the Royal Family. Though Scotland Yard discovered the killer’s identity, Cabinet ministers directed the information remain secret. There are those who contend the cover-up is still practiced today. They cite missing evidence from police files, and files which remain secret, to support their contention. Though intriguing, the deliberate suppression of the killer’s identity by the police and government remains doubtful. So does a link between the murders in Whitechapel and the Royal Family.
11. The theory Prince Albert was Jack the Ripper emerged in 1962
Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence and Avondale, endured several scandals during his lifetime. He remains the subject of much speculation among historians and biographers today. He may have suffered from a venereal disease, though likely not syphilis as alleged by Ripperologists who claim he was Jack the Ripper. Their claims usually include the belief the Prince acquired syphilis from a female prostitute, and committed the murders after being driven mad by the disease. Another version states the Prince fathered a child with a prostitute in Whitechapel, a fact known by at least three of the five canonical victims. Albert, according to the theory, committed the murders to prevent his indiscretion from becoming known. The theory remains a popular one among Ripperologists and in Hollywood. But it is almost certainly not true.
Catherine Eddowes and Elizabeth Stride were murdered on September 30, 1888, in Whitechapel. On that date, Prince Albert was in residence at Balmoral, Scotland, more than 500 miles from London. Despite this presentation of fact, which is included in court documentation contemporaneous to the time, Albert as Jack the Ripper is a popular theory. Several films present the theory as factual, as do others which feature fictional characters, including Sherlock Holmes. Rumors and scandals followed Prince Albert after his death at Sandringham, from pneumonia, at the age of 28. Some propose he was murdered by agents of the Royal Family, in order to hide further scandals and to remove him from the line of succession. Whatever his other foibles and indiscretions, he was most certainly not the Whitechapel murderer known as Jack the Ripper.
12. Doctor Sir William Gull deserves a better reputation than being Jack the Ripper
Dr. Sir William Gull was a distinguished physician and scientist, who over his career developed several insights into diseases and treatments. It was he who coined the term “anorexia nervosa” for the syndrome of that name. He also developed new means of diagnosis for several disorders, including Bright’s Disease. In 1871 Dr. Gull treated the Prince of Wales during a bout with typhoid fever. The Prince recovered. Made a Baronet by a grateful Queen Victoria, Gull became a Physician in Ordinary to the Queen and Royal Family. As such he was a frequent guest in the royal palaces and homes, and well-known to all of the extended family. He was also an early and ardent supporter of women’s careers in medicine, which some regarded at the time as radical in the extreme.
As early as 1895, reports in some US newspapers speculated that Dr. Gull knew the identity of Jack the Ripper. The speculation included the theory the killer was one of the doctor’s patients. By 1970 the theory had evolved to identify Dr. Gull as the killer, hired by highly placed socialites to assassinate blackmailers. Variations of the theory place Gull in the service of the Royal Family in this quest. Another variation includes Freemasons, police officials, and highly ranked politicians, as all part of the plot. Though a popular theory, there is little hard evidence to support Dr. Gull as Jack the Ripper, and much which exonerates him. Nonetheless, the theory smacks of conspiracy and scandal, which ensures it will remain a popular one among those who enjoy a salacious tale.
13. There are other unproven links to the Royal Family among the suspects
Willy Clarkson inherited his father’s costuming and wigmaker’s business in 1878. The Royal Family at the time enjoyed presenting amateur productions of popular plays, and Clarkson provided costumes and wigs to the palace. This has led some to describe him as Her Majesty’s Royal Wigmaker, a title which he did not hold. He later claimed to have produced costumes for the Whitechapel Murderer, as well as for the police searching for him. Speculation the wigmaker was Jack the Ripper is relatively recent, and there exists no evidence he produced costumes for either murderer or police. He spent most of his later career in the theater and participating in elaborate hoaxes perpetrated for entertainment. Still, he provides a link to the Royal Family, though a tenuous one, and is thus too good a suspect for some to pass up.
Princess Beatrice’s (Victoria’s daughter) personal obstetrician, has also been identified as Jack the Ripper. Supporters of the theory Dr. Sir John Williams, First Baronet of London, was the Whitechapel Murderer posit the murders were committed as part of scientific research into the causes of infertility in women. The claim originated in the 21st century, no contemporaneous evidence the police considered him a suspect has been found. Seven years after Sir John was named the murderer, a modification of the theory, by another writer, appeared. This version claimed it was Sir John’s wife who committed the murders, driven mad by her own infertility. Though most Ripperologists agree the murderer was likely a man, it is interesting to note Inspector Frederick Abberline, in his notes of the case, speculated the killer could be a woman.
Walter Sickert was a prolific painter and printmaker in the late 19th through the mid-20th century. He is considered a leader in the transition from the Impressionist style to that of Modernism. At one time he resided in London lodgings he claimed had been occupied by Jack the Ripper. In the late 20th century, speculation arose indicating the serious and influential artist had been Jack the Ripper. However, Sickert resided in France at the time of the killings and did not acquire his first London studio until 1890, after the Ripper killings had allegedly ceased. Though it is possible he traveled back and forth between France and Britain to commit the murders, no evidence establishes that he did. And since Jack the Ripper has never been positively identified, how could the painter live in rooms formerly occupied by the killer? He couldn’t unless, of course, he was the killer himself.
By the late 20th century several writers produced books claiming to have positively identified Walter Sickert as Jack the Ripper. Among the evidence cited is mitochondrial DNA obtained from Ripper’s letters to the police and press at the time of the killings. Comparing the DNA to letters known to have been written by Sickert established an irrefutable link between the murderer and the painter. However, the Ripper letters were handled by hundreds of investigators and researchers over the decades. In addition, most of the letters allegedly written by Jack the Ripper were dismissed as hoaxes by investigators of the day and in the years that followed. Most were linked with authors not involved in the case, other than in reporting it to the public. And another Ripper suspect was later linked, using DNA, with the murder of Catherine Eddowes, although those findings are disputed as well.
15. Sir Melville Macnaghten contributed much to Ripper lore
Sir Melville Macnaghten was not in London at the time of the five so-called canonical murders attributed to Jack the Ripper. He did participate in the investigation of those murders, as well as subsequent killings in Whitechapel and other nearby locales beginning in 1889. It was he, in a report written in 1894 while he served as Chief Constable and Head of Scotland Yard’s Criminal Investigation Division, who created the canonical five. In his report, he opined, “…the Whitechapel murderer had 5 victims – & 5 victims only”. The report, which remained confidential for decades, named three suspects. Another version of the report Macnaghten sent to his daughter who copied it with evidently some modifications. Why he sent his daughter a copy of the classified report has never been fully explained.
Sir Melville’s three suspects were Michael Ostrog, another man he identified only as Kosminski, and Montague John Druitt, a barrister and assistant schoolmaster. Macnaghten named Druitt as the prime suspect and claimed the murders stopped when Druitt committed suicide in 1888. Interestingly, Frederick Abberline, the lead investigator on the ground, dismissed Druitt as a suspect. Ostrog was in a French prison cell at the time of the murders, and had not been in Britain since when the report was written. Macnaghten evidently wrote the report from memory, without referring to the extensive files built by investigators. Several factual errors appeared in the report. But the reference to Kosminski has remained intriguing ever since. Though Macnaghten believed Druitt to have been Jack the Ripper, Frederick Abberline’s prime suspect was a Polish Jew named Severin Klosowski, also known as George Chapman.
16. Several investigators believed Kosminski was Jack the Ripper
For nearly 100 years, a suspect listed in the police files concerning the Whitechapel murders was known only as Kosminski. Born in Poland, Kosminski moved to London where he worked – when he worked – as a barber in Whitechapel. In Macnaghten’s 1894 report he referred to the suspect as Kosminski, and noted he was incarcerated in an insane asylum, after having threatened a woman with a knife. Macnaghten wrote Kosminski “had a strong hatred for women”, though he stressed his belief that Druitt was the murderer known as Jack the Ripper. Macnaghten also wrote that “no-one ever saw the Whitechapel murderer”. Then Assistant Commissioner Sir Robert Anderson disputed that assertion, claiming an eyewitness identified Kosminski. However, both the eyewitness and the suspect were Polish Jews. The eyewitness refused to testify against a fellow Jew, according to Anderson.
Sir Henry Smith, Acting Commissioner of the City of London Police when the murders took place, contradicted Anderson. He referred to the anti-Semitic nature of Anderson’s remarks, calling it a “reckless accusation”. In 2014, a shawl found at the scene of Catherine Eddowes’ murder was examined for mitochondrial DNA. The examiners claimed to have found DNA evidence linked to the families of Eddowes and Kosminski, and named the latter as the murderer, and hence, Jack the Ripper. Almost immediately the claim was disputed, both over the nature of the testing and the fact that contemporary documents did not describe a shawl recovered from the scene of the murder. So, whether or not Kosminski killed Catherine Eddowes, or any of the other victims, remains a point of dispute.
17. Another Pole was suspected of the murders by the police
Severin Klosowski, who lived in Whitechapel at the time of the murders, lived with several prostitutes over time, including one named Annie Chapman. She had no known relationship with the Ripper victim of the same name. Klosowski later took her surname as part of one of several aliases he used in London, George Chapman. He was known for his violence against women, beating several of his “wives” and threatening worse. Klosowski arrived in Whitechapel just before the first of the canonical murders and left shortly after the last. He went to the United States for a time before returning to Britain. Some Ripperologists attribute a murder in New York City, that of Carrie Brown in 1891, to Klosowski. Sensationalist newspapers there reported the arrival of London’s Jack the Ripper, though Klosowski didn’t arrive in the USA until after the murder.
Although physical evidence linking Klosowski to the Whitechapel murders remains scarce, including interviews with investigators, one factor hangs in favor of his being Jack the Ripper. He did commit at least three known murders, with all victims being women. All were mistresses posing as his wife. His method of killing them involved poisoning with tartar-emetic. The murders of his “wives”, who were also business partners, took place in Britain in 1897, 1901, and 1902. The third murder and reports by neighbors of Klosowski’s violent tendencies led to a police investigation. When the evidence of poisoning emerged, the bodies of the first two victims were exhumed and found to contain toxic levels of the same poison. British law allowed him to be charged for only one of the three murders in a single indictment. He was tried, convicted, and hanged in 1903.
18. Some claimed – falsely – to have been Jack the Ripper
Frederick Deeming ran away from a troubled home at the age of 16, going to sea before settling for a time in Sydney, Australia. There he developed the habit of stealing from his employers, for which he served six weeks in jail. In 1887 he was charged with fraud. Released on bail, he disappeared for a time. Subsequent investigations into his crimes revealed he had been active in various scams in South Africa before returning to Britain in 1889. While there he murdered his wife, along with their four children, burying them under the floors of their house in Rainhall, near Liverpool. Having only recently arrived, he told anyone questioning the whereabouts of the four victims they were his sister and her children, and had only been there to help him settle in to his new home. Shortly after, he remarried under an assumed name.
In 1891 Deeming and his new wife relocated to Melbourne, with Deeming still using an assumed name. On Christmas Eve, 1891, Deeming murdered his wife, burying her body under a hearth in their home. After he was caught by Australian authorities, police in Liverpool investigated the missing woman and four children there. Deeming was tried, convicted, and hanged in Melbourne. Before he died, he wrote an autobiography while in jail. In the autobiography, which authorities burned, he allegedly claimed he was Jack the Ripper. He repeated the claim to fellow inmates and guards. However, the extensive investigation by Australian authorities revealed he was not in London during the time of the Whitechapel Murders. Nonetheless, Ripperologists continue to present Deeming as Jack the Ripper today. Some contend the evidence supports no other suspect as well as the wife murderer and scam artist.
Over 132 years after the terrorizing of Whitechapel in 1888, the range of the murders attributed to Jack the Ripper remains in dispute. Did the Ripper murder just five, as Macnaghten postulated in 1894, or only three, as others contend? Were the murders preceding the canonical five, of Nichols, Chapman, Stride, Eddowes and Kelly also perpetrated by Jack the Ripper? How about the several murders which occurred in and around Whitechapel following those five? Did the killer flee to America, or Canada, or Australia, or to parts unknown to continue his gruesome spree? When did Jack the Ripper stop killing and why? For over a century these and other questions have continued to remain unanswered, though some claim to have definitively answered them, contrary to the known facts. Jack the Ripper not only can’t be caught, he also continues to defy definition.
The motives for the killings remain equally elusive. The original investigators dismissed the killings of being sexually motivated, though some later disputed them. Modern criminal profiling points to several of the contemporaneous suspects as likely the killer, indicating there was at least more than one Ripper. DNA evidence points “conclusively” to two suspects, leading to the same conclusion. They too, are disputed by DNA scientists and forensic experts. Disputes over the number of victims, locations of killings, police mishandling of evidence, missing evidence, and other discrepancies continue to feed speculation. It does not provide the knowledge of who Jack the Ripper really was. It’s unlikely it ever will.
Jack the Ripper as he is known today is the creation of a sensationalist press in London, and later around the world, in the late 19th century. Since the murders of 1888, the case has grown ever more sensationalized with each retelling. There is no doubt a serial killer, or killers prowled the dark streets of Whitechapel during those frightening weeks that fall. The police sought the killer to the best of their ability, asking the public for help. The press served the same public a steadily increasing diet of speculation, fear-mongering, and gruesome details. They spiced it with anti-Semitic innuendo and attacks on the immigrant population of Whitechapel and its environs. They did so to the extent the police were forced to keep much of what they knew at the time quiet, to avoid rioting in the streets and recriminations against some members of the community.
The failure to officially arrest and convict the killer known as Jack the Ripper created a cottage industry which has grown ever since, and continues to grow with each new revelation in the case. It was the press who gave him his name. Reporters and journalists wrote the majority of the letters attributed to him, hoaxers the rest. Yet the authenticity of nearly all the letters remains subject to challenges by those supporting or rejecting each new hypothesis. The truth is, some people don’t want Jack the Ripper to be conclusively identified; it’s simply too much fun looking for him. It’s profitable too, thousands of books have been published on the subject of the Ripper and the many suspects in his case. Some are based on factual scholarship, some are complete fiction, and some straddle the gap in between. But to date, none have proved beyond dispute the identity of Jack the Ripper.