Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

How Jack the Ripper Worked

Jack the Ripper Investigation, Hysteria and Press Coverage
This fanciful engraving captured the public desire to apprehend the Ripper themselves in the face of a failed police investigation.
This fanciful engraving captured the public desire to apprehend the Ripper themselves in the face of a failed police investigation.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

It would be an understatement to say that during the autumn of 1888, residents of London's East End were jumpy. Today we see grainy photos and drawings of dead women from a remote past; at the time, the murders of these very real people caused very real fear among the population. While we're fairly certain that Nov. 9, 1888, was the end of the killing spree, the people of Whitechapel at that time didn't have the luxury of hindsight. They knew only that they were in the midst of a series of brutal slayings -- the end of which was uncertain -- and that there was an inhuman butcher on the loose.

There was an underlying suspicion of anyone who could possibly fit the description of the Ripper. Strangers passing in the street wondered if the other was the murderer. Neighbors turned one another in for suspicious activity.

Mobs gathered easily and quickly that autumn in Whitechapel. In one instance, a man wanted by the police for an offense unrelated to the Ripper crimes was spotted by officers near the scene of Annie Chapman's murder. Seeing the police chase, hundreds of Whitechapel residents to join in. The throng, convinced that the man was the Ripper, called for his lynching. He and his police escort were mobbed en route to the station, which overflowed with angry residents for hours afterward [source: Sugden].

The fear aroused by Jack the Ripper revealed already extant, underlying paranoia in the city. Xenophobia and anti-Semitism (fear and suspicion of foreigners and Jews, respectively) found voice in some explanations for the killings -- both official and public, which placed blame on foreigners and Jews. The fear of an anti-Semitic riot was strong enough for police to keep quiet a message against the Jews found scrawled on a wall near one murder scene [source: Haggard].

Much of this hysteria was fueled by the press, with descriptions of the killer as "some monster or monsters in human form," and the murders a "frightful catena of slaughter" [source: Daily Telegraph]. Coverage like this extended to newspapers around the world. Letters supposedly written by Jack sent to newspapers, the police and private residents were published. One, the Dear Boss letter assigned the name Jack the Ripper to the killer. It contained a cryptic reference to the killer being a member of the police force. Another letter, the From Hell letter was sent with a piece of a human kidney, possibly Catherine Eddowes,' but never conclusively proven to be hers.

These letters' tones taunted police -- and not without cause. In some cases, the Metro Police and City Police engaged in territory disputes during the joint investigation, and high-ranking officials were criticized as incompetent [source: Barbee]. The police routinely descended on Whitechapel, canvassing the area, interviewing residents and arresting possible Rippers. But they lacked modern forensic and investigative techniques, and the London police never found the Ripper. Worse yet, modern investigators believe the Victorian era police may have interviewed him at one point and let him go [source: BBC]. The police's inability to apprehend Jack led to the formation of local vigilante committees. The investigation eventually reached such desperation that police began removing Whitechapel's mentally ill residents and committed them to asylums under the premise that the murderer must be mad [source: Haggard].

Although the police never produced anyone who could be convicted of the Ripper murders, some investigators had their favorites for the man responsible for the slayings. Find out about some of these suspects on the next page.


More to Explore