How Jack the Ripper Worked


Jack the Ripper
Jack the Ripper stalked the West End of London in 1888. He was never captured. Wikimedia Commons/©HowStuffWorks

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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 diseases 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 [source: Peyro].

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 was 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 [source: Peyro].

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. A vigilance committee of local business owners hired unemployed men to roam the streets at night, armed with sticks and whistles, in hopes of catching the killer [source: British Library]. 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 [source: Barbee]. A thriving subculture of amateur criminologists — Ripperologists — has been cultivated by the enduring mystery of Jack the Ripper.

The further one delves into the study of the Ripper murders, the easier it becomes to imagine them through Jack's eyes. What did he feel in the hours before he murdered, while he hunted for victims? Perhaps he toyed with the women, buying them drinks in pubs like the Brittania and then leaving their company, only to meet up again one last time later that evening. He must have been giddy with power, believing that he held in his hands the fate of each woman he passed.

We will never know the veracity of these ideas. But there are some safe assumptions about the Ripper and his personality that criminology — both contemporary and modern — has provided.

As the slayings continued, Jack the Ripper's modus operandi (M.O.) — the methods he used in each murder — became clear. He struck only in the early hours of morning and only on weekends. These facts are revealing. For one, they suggest the Ripper was single, since he was able to keep late hours without arousing suspicion. Secondly, they point to the idea that he was likely regularly employed during the week, which would explain his inactivity Monday through Thursday [sources: Casebook, Slifer].

The Jack the Ripper case gave the modern world its first exposure to the harrowing concept of the serial killer. But the details of the case are so far-flung, incomplete and exaggerated in some instances that for many years, it seemed that the identity of the murderer would never be uncovered. Recently, however, DNA analysis has pointed toward a suspect. But before we get into that, here are the facts about the women whom Jack the Ripper killed in such horrifying fashion.

Warning: This article contains graphic descriptions of historically documented murders.

Jack the Ripper's Victims

Jack the Ripper
Most people familiar with the case believe that Jack the Ripper murdered five women from Aug. 31 to Nov. 9, 1888. Wikimedia Commons/©HowStuffWorks

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One of the reasons that the Jack the Ripper mystery endures is the uncertainty that surrounds his crimes. The most commonly held belief is that he murdered five women from Aug. 31 to Nov. 9, 1888. These are referred to as the Ripper murders (also called the canonical murders) and are counted within 11 murders that took place around the same time, called the Whitechapel murders. Including the method of murder and post-mortem disfigurement, the canonical victims had a few things in common. All were prostitutes (or were known to accept propositions on occasion), most were middle-aged and all were either drunk or known alcoholics.

The reports of their murders read like chapters in a disturbing novel.

The manner with which he dispatched his victims contained clues. All but one woman was killed by strangulation. Once laid carefully on the ground, the Ripper cut the victims' throats, beginning with the side facing away from him. This effectively drained the blood from his victims before he began a ritual evisceration. Much of the organ removal was done cleanly. Altogether, the eviscerations and organ removals suggest the Ripper was a person with some form of anatomical or surgical training. The knife wounds inflicted also indicate that he was right-handed [source: Rumbelow].

Mary Ann "Polly" Nichols: Polly Nichols, the first Ripper victim, was approximately 44 years old at the time of her demise. She was extremely poor (even by Whitechapel standards) and known to be fond of liquor. She was last seen alive around 2:38 a.m. on Aug. 31, 1888, and was found at about 3:45 a.m., lying in the narrow, poorly lit side street of Buck's Row in Whitechapel. She may have still been alive when first found, but died minutes later. She suffered an 8-inch (20-centimeter) laceration to her throat, which severed both major arteries on both sides of her neck. Nichols also incurred further incisions to her neck, as well as violent lacerations to her abdomen [source: Casebook].

Annie Chapman: The second victim was an alcoholic 47-year-old widow who supported herself in part through prostitution after her husband's death. She was last seen alive at 5:30 a.m. outside an apartment at 29 Hanbury St. with a man described as "shabby genteel" on Saturday, Sept. 8, 1888 [source: Casebook]. Within five minutes, another witness heard a woman's muffled cry of "No!" from the fence between his yard and 29 Hanbury St., followed by a thump against the fence [source: Casebook]. Less than a half-hour later, a resident of 29 Hanbury found Chapman's body in the backyard of the apartment block [source: Casebook]. Chapman was found with her feet pushed up toward her body, knees in the air and spread apart. Her throat was cut deeply from left to right, and her swollen tongue suggested that strangulation as the cause of death. Chapman's abdomen was incised and laid open; her intestines were removed and placed on her shoulder. A portion of her genitalia, as well as her uterus and bladder, were missing. The cleanliness of the incisions suggests the killer had some knowledge of anatomy [source: Casebook].

Elizabeth Stride: The night she met Jack the Ripper, Stride was 45 and had been drinking earlier. Stride occasionally engaged in prostitution, but just before she died was witnessed refusing a proposition. She was last definitively seen on Sunday, Sept. 30, 1888, by a police officer walking his beat along Berner Street in Whitechapel at 12:35 a.m., talking to a man with a parcel wrapped in newspaper. About 25 minutes later, she was found in Dutfield's Yard, a dark alley off Berner Street. Her legs were pulled up toward her body — knees in the air — with a kerchief tied around her neck. Stride's throat was deeply cut on the left side, with a lesser incision on the right. The warmth of her body and lack of any mutilation suggested the Ripper may have been interrupted by the man who discovered the body [source: Casebook].

Catherine Eddowes: A 46-year-old with kidney disease, Eddowes had been a heavy drinker for much of her life and was known as an intelligent, educated person. On the night of her murder, she was taken into police custody for public drunkenness and released just before 1:00 a.m. Eddowes was last seen alive at 1:35 a.m. by three men leaving a pub. She was speaking with a mustached man near Mitre Square, a small, enclosed area in Whitechapel. Ten minutes later, a constable found Eddowes' body in the square.

Like the Ripper's other victims, her throat was slit and her legs spread with her bent knees lifted off the ground. Eddowes was splayed open from her rectum up to her sternum. Her entrails were spread about her — intestines laid over her shoulder and under her arm. Eddowes' nose was cut off, and deep, violent incisions marked her eyelids and cheeks. The incision to her throat was determined as the cause of death. Most of her womb and her kidney had been removed and were missing. Altogether, the incisions and organ removal suggested to the coroner that the killer had human anatomical experience [source: Casebook].

Mary Jane Kelly: Unlike the victims that preceded her, 25-year-old Kelly was young and considered attractive. Like the others, though, she was a prostitute and known to drink. She was the only canonical victim to be murdered indoors. With this privacy, the Ripper created his most gruesome work.

The police discounted two later alleged sightings and concluded that Kelly was last seen alive on Friday, Nov. 9 after 2:00 a.m., entering her apartment house, Miller Court, accompanied by a mustached man carrying a parcel. At 10:45 a.m., a rent collector entered Kelly's apartment and found her body. She was lying partially clothed in a nightgown, her feet pulled up toward her body, knees bent to either side with her legs spread in the now-familiar Ripper fashion. Kelly was arguably the most mutilated of all the Ripper victims; her face was virtually gone, having been slashed and stabbed repeatedly and some features entirely removed. Her throat was slashed so deeply and violently that even her vertebrae showed knife marks. Both of her breasts, as well as her organs and entrails, were placed in piles beneath her head and alongside her body. Slabs of flesh taken from her stomach and thighs were placed on the nightstand beside her bed. Part of her heart was missing, and there was evidence that an axe was used in the crime, along with the long, sharp knife the Ripper was known to use [source: Casebook].

Some people believe the Ripper murdered more than just the canonical victims from August to November 1888. Female torsos were discovered in months and years following the Ripper murders, and one possible victim was murdered in New York City. There are several other victims whose injuries fit the Ripper's technique in some ways but aren't included in the canonical murders. The case of one butchered prostitute, Martha Tabram, has gained some acceptance as a possible sixth canonical murder. Tabram was also an alcoholic prostitute and was murdered on Aug. 7, 1888 — she would've been the Ripper's first victim. Tabram was found with her legs spread and 39 stab wounds concentrated heavily on her abdomen and groin [source: Casebook].

Jack the Ripper Investigation, Hysteria and Press Coverage

Jack the Ripper letters
Several letters supposedly written by Jack the Ripper sent to newspapers, the police and private residents were published by the media. Wikimedia Commons/©HowStuffWorks

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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 produced by Jack the Ripper revealed already extant, underlying paranoia in the city. Xenophobia and anti-Semitism 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 it never was 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: Casebook]. 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 Jack the Ripper. Worse yet, modern investigators believe the Victorian era police may have interviewed him at one point and let him go [source: BBC News]. 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.

Jack the Ripper Suspects

Jack the Ripper suspects
Several men were named suspects in the Jack the Ripper murders, including (l-r) Michael Ostrog, Montague John Druitt and George Chapman (aka Severin Klosowski). Wikimedia Commons/©HowStuffWorks

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As many as 170 people have been named over the years as suspects in the Jack the Ripper case [source: Smith]. Some have proven controversial, such as the "Jill the Ripper" scenario of Jack as a woman, painter Walter Sickert, author Lewis Carroll or heir to the throne Prince Albert Victor. Some conspiracy theories suggest that the entire royal family or the Freemasons were behind the killings.

Over the years, suspects have been painstakingly vetted by Ripperologists, and in some cases they've been exonerated. Take Michael Ostrog, for example. This Russian physician and convicted thief was a suspect since he was named (along with two other men) in the final report on the unsolved case, written by police commissioner Sir Melville Macnaghten in 1889 [source: Casebook]. But Ostrog didn't fit the bill, being a petty criminal and never suspected of any other murders, although he was committed several times to asylums. His unknown whereabouts during the murders kept him a viable candidate until author Phillip Sugden wrote in his 2002 book that Paris police documents show Ostrog was in their custody in France during the Ripper murders [source: Sugden].

Macnaghten also named another physician — Montague John Druitt — who vanished after Kelly's murder at Miller Court. Druitt was found drowned in the Thames the following December [source: Spallek]. This fit Macnaghten's view that the killings ended due to the death or the incarceration of the murderer [source: Casebook].

Another suspect, George Chapman (aka Severin Klosowski ), was named in a 1903 press interview by a lead inspector on the case, Frederick George Abberline [source: Casebook]. He was the only named suspect who was a known serial murderer, having poisoned three of his wives. He kept late hours at night, had a regular job and was trained as a physician. He also moved to the United States and lived in New Jersey when the lone possible American Ripper victim was killed. But Chapman used poison to kill, a vastly different M.O. from Jack the Ripper's. Chapman did, however, attack his first wife with a knife but was interrupted before he could harm her [source: Casebook].

Another investigator involved in the original case favored Dr. Francis J. Tumblety as a suspect. He was an American doctor who'd been arrested in November 1888 for indecency, posted bail and fled back to the U.S. [source: London Metropolitan Police]. Scotland Yard detectives traveled to America to investigate Tumblety but made no arrest.

An additional suspect was Joseph Barnett. He was a fishmonger and would've known his way around a knife. And Barnett almost completely fits both the physical and psychological profiles of the killer. What's more, Barnett lived with the final canonical victim, Mary Jane Kelly, just before her murder and was in love with her. It's possible that her death was the culmination of his murderous rampages, which would explain why the murders ceased [source: Casebook].

In recent years, attention has focused on yet another suspect identified by police commissioner Macnaughten in his 1889 report. Aaron Kosminski, a Polish immigrant who lived in Whitechapel, was mentally ill and "had a great hatred of women, specially of the prostitute class, and had strong homicidal tendencies," Macnaughten wrote [source: Casebook]. Kosminski, who spent much of his life as a mental patient, died in asylum from gangrene in 1919 at the age of 53 [source: Edwards].

In 1988, the FBI created a psychological profile of Jack the Ripper. Special Agent John Douglas concluded that the Ripper was an opportunistic killer: He preyed on alcoholic prostitutes because they were easy targets. Douglas also believed that the Ripper committed other crimes that were never definitively attributed to him. Jack was a lust killer, meaning that the focus of his ritual mutilations was the female genitalia. This doesn't mean the murders were sexual; there's no evidence the Ripper engaged in sex with his victims before or after their murders (although the agent believes Jack frequented prostitutes). Rather, the mutilations suggest that he was acting out violent fantasies aimed toward his mother. His mother likely provided the image Jack had of women, one which he came to despise. She may have been an alcoholic — and possibly a prostitute herself [source: Douglas]. Modern investigation has given us a clearer picture of Jack the Ripper. But this wasn't the case in 1888.

Based on historic witness accounts, modern investigators at Scotland Yard compiled a physical description of the killer in 2006. He was a man between 25 and 35 years of age, of medium height and stocky build. Investigators also concluded that Jack was a resident of Whitechapel and, more chillingly, that he was "frighteningly normal," as opposed to the raving, drooling fiend it may be more comforting to imagine [source: BBC News].

In 2007, Ripper researcher Russell Edwards purchased a stained silk shawl that was advertised by an auction house as possibly belonging to Ripper victim Catherine Eddowes, and was found with her body by a police sergeant [source: Edwards]. Edwards subsequently gave it to Jari Louhelainen, a biochemist at Liverpool John Moores University in the U.K., who tested it for DNA. On the basis of the results, Edwards identified Kosminski as the killer in his 2014 book, "Naming Jack the Ripper" [source: Adam].

That conclusion gained further credibility in March 2019, when the Journal of the Forensic Sciences, a peer-reviewed publication, publish an article by Louhelainen and colleague David Miller from the University of Leeds, which detailed their findings. Their tests compared fragments of mitochondrial DNA — genetic material inherited from a person's mother — and compared it with samples from living descendants of Eddowes and Kosminski. Additionally, the genetic testing also indicated that the killer had brown hair and brown eyes, which fits the description from an eyewitness who caught a fleeting glimpse of the killer. That provided more basis for the assumption that the shawl was an authentic piece of evidence from the crime scene [sources: Adam, Louhelainen and Miller].

But not everyone is ready yet to say that the case is finally closed. As Science magazine reported in an article on the findings, other scientists have questioned whether mitochondrial DNA is sufficient to conclusively identify the murderer. Other skeptics say there still isn't proof that the scarf actually was at the scene, and that it could have become contaminated over the years [source: Adam].

But regardless, the Jack the Ripper case has had a profound effect on the modern world in numerous ways. We'll discuss that legacy next.

The Legacy of Jack the Ripper

Legacy of Jack the Ripper
The legacy of Jack the Ripper has endured for more than a decade, perhaps because the case has yet to be solved, or perhaps because he marked the appearance of a new kind of killer. Wikimedia Commons/©HowStuffWorks

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When the ghastly handiwork of Jack the Ripper began turning up around Whitechapel, it marked the appearance of a new brand of killer. Jack wasn't the world's first serial killer, but he was undoubtedly the product of an increasingly industrialized Western society and the anonymity and isolation it produced. He didn't kill for money, to eliminate an enemy or punish a spouse . The killings seemed random, and he caught the London police forces completely off guard [source: Sugden].

To catch this new breed of killer, criminology had to evolve. What is arguably the first crime scene photo was taken at Miller Court of Mary Jane Kelly, now standard procedure in police investigations. The technique of comparing the bodies of victims to establish M.O. was also borne out of the Ripper investigation. One can argue that all modern forensic investigation techniques find their cradle in the Ripper murders.

The Ripper murders are also characterized by the media coverage they received. This was the first time a serial killer was given international coverage. The exposure spurred a rash of hundreds of letters. Although there's no proof that any of the Ripper letters were written by the actual murderer, they would prove to be a lasting legacy. Later serial murderers like the Zodiac Killer of the 1960s corresponded with the very media outlets that presented his crimes to the public. The press and serial murderers came to form a symbiotic relationship. The media provide the renown many serial killers crave, and the killers provide fodder for reporters.

Jack the Ripper also had an immediate effect on London by exposing the existence of the poverty stricken lower classes. Prior to the murders, the wealthier classes were aware of social unrest stirring in the East End. A riot and a widespread demonstration by the poorer classes had spilled outside of East End two years before. But the slayings focused an international lens on this district and the quality of life of the people who lived in the developed world's slums. The playwright George Bernard Shaw pointed out that the gruesome murders succeeded where social reformers failed by managing to attract widespread attention to the area's conditions [source: Grose].

Perhaps the most obvious legacy of Jack the Ripper is the lasting interest in the case, which has never really waned. The Ripper has remained a consistent draw in movies, at newsstands, on television, in tours and exhibits. The field of Ripperology is taken very seriously by those who do more than dabble in it. Many Ripperologists have written successful books, some of which have proven definitive sources on the subject of the murders.

This still doesn't fully explain why the Ripper's legacy endures. Certainly, the fact that a century later his identity has yet to be verified points to the continued interest. But a darker perspective was suggested by Alex Murray in his 2004 essay in the journal Critical Survey titled "Jack the Ripper, the Dialectic of Enlightenment and the Search for Spiritual Deliverance in 'White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings'". We assume that the more civilization has developed, the more we've left behind our nightmarish capability of exercising brutality. Having emerged from the slums of developed society, Jack the Ripper stands as our best reminder of the potential violence latent in each one of us, no matter how civilized we become. As Murray writes, "The only thing to be revealed in the investigation of Jack the Ripper is ourselves" [source: Critical Survey].

For more information on serial killers and other related topics, see the links below.

Last editorial update on Oct 17, 2019 05:28:02 pm.

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