A contemporary photo of Buck's Row in Whitechapel. The street would be the scene of death for one Ripper victim.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The East End of London was a dire place in 1888. Opium dens and brothels shared cramped quarters alongside family housing. Drunken residents spilled from the pubs into streets where children played. Violence was commonplace; cries for help of "Murder!" generally went unanswered [source: Haggard]. The living conditions in the East End reflected the poverty of its residents. There was precious little access to clean water, and disease like tuberculosis and diphtheria spread easily. Some women engaged in casual prostitution to supplement their families' incomes. It was a bleak, depressing and often menacing place to live.

Which makes it all the more significant that in the fall of that year, a series of murders were committed that were so brutal -- so contrary to any degree of humanity -- that they stood out starkly against this grim backdrop and captured the attention of the entire world.

In the East End's Whitechapel district, a string of prostitutes were butchered. The crime scenes were a gory tableau; the brutalized bodies were perversions of the human form. The killer was a collector who took organs as trophies. The signature of a letter that arrived during the murders gave this monster a name: Jack the Ripper.

The city was whipped into a froth of suspicion and fear. Wide dragnets snagged scores of suspects, but the police were unable to catch the killer. Vigilante committees formed, and mobs routinely chased people through the streets. And then, suddenly, the murders stopped. Despite three more years of investigation, the police never uncovered the true identity of Jack the Ripper. The unsolved case was officially closed in 1892, though interest in the killings has never dwindled. A thriving subculture of amateur criminologists -- Ripperologists -- has been cultivated by the enduring mystery of Jack the Ripper.

The details of the case ­are so far-flung, incomplete and exaggerated in some instances that his identity may never be uncovered. But there are some gruesome facts about the killings that -- a full century later -- give us some insight into behavior that we now define as the work of a serial killer. Read about the women Jack the Ripper murdered on the next page.