How Jack the Ripper Worked

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

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.