Not another Ripper blog

‘They never caught Jack the Ripper, and now time and history have spirited his identity away.’ So says Ed Buchan, the Ripperologist from Whitechapel, ITV’s somewhat hit and miss gothic detective drama from a few years back (although when it hit, as it did in seasons 1 and 3, it was well worth a watch).

Go into the true crime section of a book shop, and you’ll see serried ranks of hardbacks and paperbacks promising to reveal the identity of the Ripper, once and for all and for all! Just about anyone who ever set foot in the Whitechapel area of London in the 1880s has been touted as a suspect, and the theories can get very outlandish. The Ripper has even featured in several sci-fi TV shows (Star Trek and Babylon 5 to name two). As a crime blogger, it’s practically the law that I have to do post about him, and it was almost certainly a him.

So, how to make my thoughts stand out from the crowd? Easy.

I don’t know who Jack the Ripper was, and I don’t think anyone will ever know for sure.

Some background

My interest in Jack the Ripper was first piqued in the spring of 2006, around March time, when, as part of a crime and punishment GCSE History module, my teacher assigned us to do a project on the case. He meant it as something a bit more interesting in what was a rather dull module at times, but, me being me, I really ran with it, determined that, at 15, I would finally expose the fiend, and lay bare the Ripper’s identity for all time!

I’ve touched on how well that went in a previous blog post, but put it this way: if I’d succeeded, I wouldn’t be writing this now…

Later that year, my developing interest in both serial killers and police investigations led to the first draft of what is now In Murder’s Shadow, my work-in-progress novel, the most immediate and still most tangible result of Mr Lott’s Year 10 project. And from the small acorn of in Murder’s Shadow has grown many mighty oaks, many of which I did not expect when I began the rewriting process two years ago. I read more widely around the subject, and my interests actually began to broaden to include organised crime, police corruption, and violence against women. I’ve written stories about all of them, done a dissertation on police corruption, and the ways in which society normalises and excuses violence against women is the main backdrop to In Murder’s Shadow… and yet I’ve never really lost my interest in the Whitechapel murders.

Let’s be honest, there’s no one who hasn’t heard of Jack the Ripper, even if many people couldn’t say too much about him. With his identity lost to the mists of time, he’s been made into the original criminal mastermind, the diabolical genius who cruelly commits his brilliant crimes and escapes into the night. There’s a good chance that, as you read this, you’re picturing a man in a top hat storming through smog with his cloak billowing behind him, his knives carried in a leather case under his arm. Most Ripper fiction chooses to depict him this way, including the last big film on the subject, From Hell (which I actually, bearing in mind my usual hatred of lazy errors in historical films, don’t think is too bad. For a bonus blog post on why, you’ll need to visit my Patreon page using the link at the bottom and subscribe…).

This is how he’s been presented.

I don’t think it’s very likely to have been who he actually was.

But hang on, didn’t they find the Ripper’s DNA a few years ago?

Er, well. Maybe.

In 2014 a story broke that a shawl thought to have belonged to the Ripper’s fourth victim, Catherine Eddowes, had been examined, and that DNA from it had been found to be a mitochondrial DNA match to female relatives of Aaron Kosminski, who has long been seen by Ripperologists as a major suspect in the crimes. Kosminski was a Polish Jew who had been committed to an asylum in 1891, and was named as a suspect in a memorandum written by Assistant Commissioner Melville McNaghten in 1894. The officer in charge of the Ripper investigation, Chief Inspector Donald Swanson, also considered ‘Kosminski,’ to be a strong suspect, although his first name wasn’t revealed to the public until 1987. Police opinions differed on Kosminski – Swanson and Assistant Commissioner Robert Anderson were sure of his guilt, Anderson even claiming that Kosminski had been identified as the Ripper by a witness who would not testify against a fellow Jew. However, McNaghten stated that no one had ever had a good view of the Ripper, and the officer in charge of the early stages of the inquiry, Detective Inspector Edmund Reid, also disagreed with him. By 2014 modern mental health experts had largely concluded that Kosminski was probably a harmless schizophrenic, and he had been eclipsed by newer suspects like Francis Tumblety.

And then came the DNA.

As initially compelling as it seems, there are reasons for caution. First of all, there is no proof that the shawl was actually Eddowes’. It wasn’t listed among her effects by investigators in 1888 (19th century police procedure was far more lax than today’s so this isn’t conclusive). DNA testing in 2014 found mitochondrial DNA from Eddowes’ descendants, but the shawl had been the same room as two of her descendants in 2007 for three days… shortly after a BBC documentary show had examined the shawl for genetic material and failed to find any (I cannot for the life of me remember the name of this documentary but I believe it was on TV in late 2006).

The shawl’s provenance is dubious, but what is known is that there is no chain of custody on it and it hasn’t been stored in forensically ideal conditions, meaning that any DNA on it has had every chance to become corrupted. There have been plenty of opportunities for descendants of both Eddowes and Kosminski to come into contact with it over the years. And I should note that although the DNA examination was carried out by a well-known historical DNA expert, his findings haven’t been peer-reviewed (at least not according to Wikipedia) and so there’s no verification of them.

I think that the findings have raised Aaron Kosminki’s profile among Ripperologists from where it was ten years ago, but they aren’t as conclusive as they first appear, or are made out to be by the team behind them. There are also many good reasons for discounting Kosminki as a suspect – but then, the same can be said for all Ripper suspects.

Get on with it then…

Whitechapel in 1888 was a notorious rookery – a place where every other person was a criminal. Its residents lived in desperate poverty, and often lived rather itinerant existences, moving from doss house to boarding house. For fourpence, you could sleep in a bed that was, quite literally, a coffin. For a penny, you could be roped together with several others against a pole and sleep standing up, only to be cut down in the morning – from where we get the phrase ‘hungover.’ Flower and Dean Street was known as the worst street in London and was considered a no-go area by the Metropolitan Police.

When discussing Jack the Ripper, it’s important to remember that the context in which he was active in 1888 is quite different from today’s. For instance, all of the murders occurred on weekend nights, which to modern eyes might suggest that the Ripper held a steady job with consistent hours. However, there was no five-day working week in 1888. The weekend as we know it wouldn’t even start to exist until the 1930s, so Friday and Saturday nights would have been fairly meaningless to Whitechapel residents. Similarly, it’s been suggested (by the FBI, among others), that the Ripper was probably an older man, because his victims were mostly in their 40s. However, this means less when you consider that most Whitechapel sex workers were women in their 40s, often with a history of alcoholism and either widowhood or abusive relationships behind them. Even Mary Kelly, the Ripper’s probable fifth victim, was likely a widow by 20. Most of the local sex workers were casually employed and used sex work to supplement their other earnings. All five of the canonical victims appear to have been alcoholics, living depressing, desperate lives.

The murders – the ‘Canonical Five.’

I’m really not sure how much detail to give here. Although this is a crime blog, and although I’m opposed to diluting the effects of crime and the consequences and impacts of violence, I don’t want to turn this into murder porn. The approach I’m going to aim for is to describe what happened, from the coroner’s reports, without any attempts at embellishment or glamorisation.

These women were real. They lived horrible lives and died terrible, violent deaths. For all that the mystery of the crimes is fascinating, we shouldn’t lose sight of that.

And to be clear, no I’m not using the murder photos. Call that virtue signaling it you want, but I’m using photos from when they were still alive. Clockwise from top left, Mary Ann ‘Poll’ Nichols, Annie Chapman, Liz Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and a sketch of Mary Kelly (who had no known photos).

Mary-Ann Nichols

Nichols, known as Polly, was born in 1845, and had five children by her estranged husband, printer’s machinist Williams Nichols. Their marriage broke up in 1880 or 1881, with Polly claiming that William had had an affair with her last midwife, and William claiming that Polly was a prostitute. She drifted between several workhouses and boarding houses, fell out with her father after living with him for a year, and by August 1888 was living in a boarding house in Thrawl Street, sleeping in what was essentially a coffin and anaesthetising herself with cheap gin.

Nichols was turfed out of her boarding house in the early hours of 31st August, having failed to find money for her lodging. She felt that she would soon earn the required fourpence through sex work, having recently purchased a new bonnet. The last known sighting of Nichols alive was at about 2.30 a.m., by her roommate Emily ‘Nellie,’ Holland. Nichols claimed that she’d earnt her doss money three times over, but had drunk it away each time.

At 3.40 a.m. her body was found on what was then Buck’s Row (now Durward Street) by a meat cart driver, Charles Lechmere, who went in search of a police officer to secure the scene. He and another meat cart driver later stated that Nichols’ skirt had been raised, so they’d pulled it down. They were initially unsure whether or not she was dead or just drunk. Dr Henry Llewellyn was summoned, arrived at the scene at 4.00 a.m., and determined that Nichols had been dead approximately half an hour. Lechmere had missed the Ripper by minutes.

Llewellyn noticed two deep slashes across Nichols’ throat, but his initial examination of her was quite cursory, and it wasn’t until she was transferred to the morgue that police Inspector John Spratling noticed that she had severe abdominal injuries. She had one deep, jagged wound, several smaller cuts across her abdomen, and three or four more on her right side. Spratling was deeply shaken by what he’d seen.

And now, for the first misconception about the Whitechapel murders – they didn’t all occur in Whitechapel! Nichols’ body was found just across the Metropolitan Police divisional boundary, in Bethnal Green, and was investigated by J Division (H Division was responsible for Whitechapel. The later murder of Catherine Eddowes would take place in the City of London). There had already been two extremely violent murders of sex workers in the local area that year, however, and the press were speculating that all three deaths were linked. There were several ructions at the top of the Criminal Investigation Department at this time. Assistant Commissioner James Munro, the head of CID, had resigned on 30th August, unable to work with Commissioner Warren. He was replaced on 1st September by Dr Robert Anderson – but Anderson went on leave that same day! He did assign his deputy, Chief Inspector Donald Swanson, to lead the investigation. Detective Inspector First Class Frederick Abberline was also assigned (his previous assignment had been head of Whitechapel CID), but wasn’t put in charge of the investigation.

Police enquiries into Nichols’ death produced very little. The attack hadn’t woken up anyone on Buck’s Row, nor had three horse slaughterers working nearby heard anything, nor had PC John Neale, patrolling the nearby streets. It’s now believed that the entire attack probably took only five minutes. Dr Llewellyn believed that the killer had some anatomical knowledge, and was left-handed.

An illustration of police discovering Nichols’ body

Annie Chapman

Annie Chapman was born in 1842, the daughter of a soldier. Her early life is a relative unknown – she married her mother’s relative John Chapman in 1869, and the couple had three children. John had steady work as a coachman, but their home life was troubled – their son, also John, was born disabled, and soon after this their eldest daughter died of meningitis. Both began drinking heavily, and they separated in 1884. Her husband died of his alcoholism in 1886, and Chapman then seemed to give up on life. She earnt a living through crotcheting, selling flowers, and casual sex work, and lived at a lodging house in Spitalfields.

On the night of 8th September 1888, Chapman, like Nichols a week earlier, was turfed out of her lodging house due to lack of money, and decided to earn her money through sex work. The last possible sighting of her occurred at 5.30 a.m., when Mrs Elizabeth Long saw her with a man just beyond the back yard of 29 Hanbury Street. Long described the man as a little taller than Chapman (who was five foot), of foreign, ‘shabby-genteel,’ appearance. Also at 5.30, a carpenter named Albert Cadosch had entered the yard at 27 Hanbury Street, and heard voices, followed by the sound of something falling against the fence. He later said that he thought he had heard a woman’s voice saying ‘No.’

Chapman’s body was found at 6.00 a.m. by a resident of Number 29, John Davis. The police were summoned, and her body was examined by Dr George Bagster Phillips. He observed that her throat had been slashed, and that efforts had been made to separate the vertebrae – to cut her head off, basically. She had been disembowelled, and her intestines thrown over her left shoulder. Part of her uterus and bladder were missing. Her meagre possessions had been placed in four separate piles at her feet. Phillips was the first examining surgeon to state that the Ripper must have medical skill to have carried out his crimes – something which has stuck, even though most doctors even at the time completely disagreed with him.

This was the first of the canonical five Whitechapel murders to actually take place in Whitechapel, and was investigated by Detective Inspector Edmund Reid, who had succeeded Abberline as head of Whitechapel CID. It wasn’t until 15th September that Chapman’s murder was brought into the investigation being led by Chief Inspector Swanson. By this time Reid had already arrested a local Jewish man, John Pizer, because his nickname in the area was ‘Leather Apron.’ The putative Whitechapel murderer was also known as ‘Leather Apron,’ at this time, although as Reid admitted, there no evidence against Pizer besides that, and he was swiftly released when his alibis were confirmed.

The police actually arrested two different men following Chapman’s death, and held them in custody until October, when two further murders showed that they were innocent.

Liz Stride

Elizabeth Stride was born in rural Sweden in 1843. Most of the Ripper’s other victims became sex workers late in life after a failed marriage, but Stride seems to have taken it up early – the Swedish police first recorded her as a sex worker in 1865. She seems to have used it to supplement her income as a domestic servant. She moved to London in 1866 and married John Thomas Stride in 1869, but the couple seem to have separated by 1877. They were briefly reconciled but separated permanently in 1881. Stride died of Tuberculosis in 1884, and they had no children.

By 1885 she was living in desperate poverty in Whitechapel doss houses, occasionally supported by the Church of Sweden, and again supplementing her income from sewing and house-cleaning work with casual sex work. She had an on-again, off-again relationship with a local dock labourer, Michael Kidney.

Stride was last seen alive by Whitechapel PC William Smith at 12.35 a.m. on September 30th, with a man wearing a hard felt hat and carrying a package about a foot and a half long. They were opposite the International Working Men’s Educational Club in Berner Street (now Henriques Street), a Jewish socialist club, which was just emptying after a talk and community worship. The leavers were progressing through Dutfield’s Yard next to the club, and by 12.50 no one had seen anything amiss. But, at 1 a.m., club steward Louis Diemschutz drove a pony into the yard, and discovered Stride’s body. Blood was still flowing from her neck, indicating that she hadn’t been dead for very long. Later, Diemschutz recalled his pony’s reaction, and believed that the killer had been in the yard with him at the time.

The minutes leading up to Stride’s death are quite confusing. A Hungarian Jew called Israel Schwartz told police he thought he’d seen her being thrown to the ground outside Dutfield’s yard at 12.45, but another man called James Brown thought he’d seen her rejecting the advances of a man in the next street at the same time. Schwartz’ sighting is interesting because he recalled Stride’s attacker shouting ‘Lipski!’ at another onlooker, which was an anti-Semitic taunt at the time – there’s good reason to believe that the Ripper was anti-Semitic.

One thing that should be getting clearer with each attack, though – these were high-risk crimes. Even after dark Whitechapel was a busy area, with many people around.

Catherine Eddowes

Eddowes’ body was found forty five minutes after Stride’s.

She was born in 1842, one of eleven children of George and Catherine Eddowes. The family moved to London a year after her birth, but she returned to their original home of Birmingham to work as a tinplate stamper, where she met ex-soldier Thomas Conway. She returned to London with him – the pair never officially married (they’re described as common-law husband and wife in some records) and had two sons and a daughter. She left her family in 1880 after turning to drink, and began living in a lodging house in Flower and Dean Street, in Whitechapel, with John Kelly. She turned to sex work to pay the rent.

Her friends described her as ‘intelligent and scholarly, but possessed of a fierce temper,’ and as a ‘very jolly woman, always singing.’

In the evening of 29th September, the police found Eddowes lying drunk in the street, and she was taken to Bishopsgate Police Station, where she was held until 1 a.m., when she was judged sober enough to leave. Instead of heading home, however, she walked towards Aldgate. The last possible sighting of her alive occurred at 1.35 a.m., when a woman matching her description was seen talking to a man outside a passage leading to Mitre Square in the City of London by three men leaving a local club. Chief Inspector Donald Swanson was doubtful of this identification, however.

What we know for sure is that PC Edward Watkin patrolled through the Square at 1.30 a.m., but found nothing. At 1.35 a.m. PC James Harvey walked down a narrow passage leading to the Square, but didn’t enter it. This means that Eddowes was probably killed shortly thereafter, and may even have been in the square with her attacker. The Nichols and Chapman murders do seem to indicate that the Ripper was capable of killing very quietly. An ex-police officer was working as a nightwatchman at a tea warehouse in the Square and hadn’t heard anything – neither had another nightwatchman at 5 Mitre Square, and an off-duty police officer at 3 Mitre Square slept through the entire incident.

It was 1.45 a.m. before PC Watkin returned, and found Eddowes’ body. She was examined by Dr Frederick Brown, who catalogued the horrific mutilations done to her body. Her throat had been cut, again an attempt had been made at outright decapitation, her intestines drawn out and thrown over her shoulder, and her uterus and left kidney had been cut out and removed. Her nose and the tip of her left ear were cut off, and there were various other cuts to her face. Some modern experts have suggested that the Ripper was trying to cut her face off. Dr Brown estimated that the attacker had probably needed about five minutes. He thought that the attacker had had some anatomical knowledge and skill, although another police surgeon, Dr Thomas Bond, completely disagreed – he believed that the killer had no anatomical knowledge at all.

Again, PC Watkin must have missed the Ripper by minutes. Given the tight time frame, it’s hard to believe that neither he nor PC Harvey saw the Ripper that night (and that’s something I’m going to come back to). Possibly the Ripper might even have been disturbed by PC Watkin’s return (there was more one than one way into or out of Mitre Square).

About an hour later, Metropolitan Police officers scouring Whitechapel for the killer came across a fragment of Eddowes’ apron on Goulston Street. It was covered in blood, beneath some graffiti which, according to most accounts, read ‘The Juwes are the men that will not be blamed for nothing.’ Eddowes’ murder had occurred within the City of London, about two hundred metres from the boundary with Whitechapel, and this meant that the City of London Police now joined the investigation. Their officers were present when Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Charles Warren appeared, and ordered the graffiti to be destroyed, fearing an outbreak of anti-Semitic rioting. This led to a blazing and very public row between the two police forces – the graffiti was evidence in a City of London murder case, and their officers didn’t want it destroyed. But the crime scene was on Metropolitan Police territory, and their officers won out.

Goulston Street was the route that the killer would have taken towards Flower and Dean Street, suggesting that he lived very close to his victims.

On 3rd October, a letter containing half a human kidney and claiming to be from the killer arrived at the home of George Lusk. There were other Ripper letters but this is the one most likely to have actually been from the killer. It raises quite a few questions. Most of the Ripper letters went to major newspapers, but this letter, sent ‘From Hell,’ was sent to a local worthy who had recently formed the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee.

Mary Kelly

Probably no Ripper victim has aroused as much public fascination as Mary Jane Kelly. I’d like to say that’s because she’s the one we know least about, or because there are good reasons to suppose she knew the Ripper reasonably well, but let’s be honest: it’s because she was, according to most accounts, an attractive redhead in her mid-twenties. She makes for a far more appealing and sympathetic victim than Nichols, Chapman, Stride, or Eddowes.

From what we know of her life, it was just as desperate and miserable as any of theirs.

Kelly was probably born in Limerick, Ireland, in 1863 (most of what we know of her early life comes from what she told her partner Joseph Barnett). Her family had moved to Wales when she was young so that her father, whom she said was called John Kelly, could work in an iron works in either Carmarthenshire or Caernarfonshire. Although they sound similar, they’re actually at opposite ends of the country, but since Kelly ended up in Cardiff by 1879 Carmarthenshire seems most likely. She was married to a mine worker called Davies in 1879, but he was killed in a mine explosion by 1882. She probably began sex work soon after.

She moved to London in 1884, initially working in a brothel in the West End. A wealthy client took her to France as a kept woman, but she left after two weeks, disliking her life there. She seems to have gravitated to the East End after this, although she started referring to herself as ‘Marie Jeanette’ Kelly, and this is actually how she’s known on her grave. Most accounts agree that she was very pretty, most describing her as being either blonde or red-haired, including DC Walter Dew who knew her by sight (although one of her nicknames, Black Mary, indicates a dark brunette). By 1888 she was living with local man Joseph Barnett at 13 Miller’s Court, a furnished room which backed onto the house where Annie Chapman had dossed.

She was described as quiet when sober, but quarrelsome and even abusive when drunk. She would often sing Irish songs, and on the night of her murder, was heard singing ‘A Violet I Plucked From Mother’s Grave When A Boy,’ until 1.00 a.m. By 1.30 a.m. the singing had stopped, according to another witness, but Kelly was still alive at this point – it appears that the singing had stopped because she left home. The last confirmed sighting of her was at 2.00 a.m. that morning, when she was seen with local labourer George Hutchinson. Hutchinson, however, gave a second statement, describing seeing Kelly walk off with another man. He later gave an extremely detailed description of this man, down to his horseshoe shaped tie pin and the Astrakhan fur on his coat. Hutchinson stated that, suspicious of the man’s opulent appearance, he followed them back to Kelly’s lodgings, remaining there until 2.45 a.m. This is partially confirmed by a laundress called Sarah Lewis, who saw a man watching Miller’s Court at 2.30 a.m. as she passed it to spend the night with some friends.

Two of Kelly’s neighbours reported hearing a cry of ‘Murder!’ at 4.00 a.m., but neither reacted, as it was common to hear such cries in the East End. One thought she heard someone leaving Kelly’s rooms at 5.45.

At 10.45 a.m., Kelly’s landlord’s assistant went to collect rent from her. After getting no response, he peered through a broken window and discovered her body.

If you want to see something truly haunting, search for the crime scene photo that was taken. In modern police parlance Kelly’s injuries would be described as not compatible with life. That means someone so badly injured it’s hard to recognise them as having been human to begin with.

It’s very hard to describe exactly what the Ripper did to Kelly after he cut her throat. He’d removed her face, hacked off her breasts, cut out her heart, disembowelled her, and skinned her thighs. Her uterus, kidneys, breasts, liver and spleen had been placed around and under her body. Flaps of skin were found on a nearby table. Her heart was never found.

No family could be found to attend her funeral.

Another illustration produced at the time, showing a rather inaccurate Ripper murder

The investigation

The murder of Mary-Ann Nichols occurred soon after the violent murders of sex workers Martha Tabram and Emma Smith. Smith is generally discounted as a Ripper victim, as she was killed by a gang, but the jury is out on Tabram. She was stabbed, not slashed, but with an excessive amount of overkill, although the murder occurred indoors.

Some Ripper theorists speculate that Tabram was the Ripper’s trial run, and he switched from stabbing to slashing to better get the kind of injuries he wanted, which is possible, although I’m not sure why he switched from indoors to outdoors and then back again. Either way, the Nichols murder was the third extremely violent killing of a sex worker, and a major police operation was underway within days. Modern police forces could hardly have mobilised faster – and are often far slower to recognise a series of murders.

The police never caught Jack the Ripper, but it wasn’t for want of trying.

The detective most associated with the Ripper murders is Frederick Abberline, who has appeared many times in fiction, being variously portrayed as a clairvoyant (no), in love with Mary Kelly (nope), and a werewolf (I give up). Although he’s often described as being in charge of the case, he actually wasn’t – between 1st September and 6th October the Senior Investigating Officer was Detective Chief Inspector Donald Swanson, and after 6th October the head of CID, Assistant Commissioner Anderson, returning from leave, took charge himself. Abberline was a Detective Inspector First Class, and seems to have been in charge of the investigation on a day-to-day basis. There are no known photos of him (although a sketch of him does look rather like Hugo Weaving did when he played Abberline in The Wolfman). DC Walter Dew described him as looking and sounding like a bank manager.

Some Ripper authors, examining a photo of officers stationed at H Division in 1886 (when Abberline was there), speculate that this is him. Others have suggested that it’s the man to his left, annoyingly cropped out of this picture.

Over 2,000 people were questioned, 300 were interviewed and 80 were detained. But police practice of the time depended heavily on eye witnesses, confessions, and obvious physical evidence. Forensics was in its infancy. Fingerprint identification was still years away, and crime scene photography had only just begun to be used that year. There was no investigative psychology. Although the police were able to recognise that there was a sexual element to the crimes, offender profiling didn’t exist. And the limitations to eyewitness evidence that modern police are familiar with wouldn’t begin to be explored until the 1900s. They experimented with bloodhounds (but the ones they had were poorly trained and clumsily deployed), and even with photographing the victim’s eyes to see if an image of the killer was held on the victims’ retinas. A serial killer is a major challenge for a modern, well-resourced police force. The Metropolitan Police of 1888 did their best with what they had.

Actually, I’d be very surprised if they hadn’t spoken to the Ripper at some point. And, although no one will ever know who he was, I think they had a very good suspect but just didn’t recognise what was suspicious about hm.

So who were the suspects?

The main suspect today is probably Aaron Kosminski, the Polish Jew whose DNA may have been found on a shawl that may have belonged to Catherines Eddowes. But this identification is very tenuous, and gets even more so when you consider that Aaron Kosminski may not have been the man the police suspected at all. Some modern theorists believe that the police confused him with another asylum inmate called Nathan Kaminsky.

This illustration took Kosminski as the basis for its Ripper, but with its uncertain histpry and poor chain of custody, the DNA evidence linking him to the crime remains highly contentious.

There are now over 100 hypotheses about the Ripper’s identity. The major ones over the years have been:

Montague John Druitt: Assistant Commissioner McNaghten considered him a prime suspect in his 1894 memo, although this seems to be largely based on the fact that he committed suicide in December 1888. Mental illness ran in his family, but he was a barrister living in Kent, who was probably in Dorset when Annie Chapman was murdered.

Severin Klosowski: Abberline’s favourite suspect was a serial killer that the police did catch. He was hanged for poisoning three of his mistresses in the 1890s and 1900s. But there is very little evidence to connect him to the Whitechapel murders. He arrived in Whitechapel just before the Nichols murder and left just after Kelly’s death, but the Ripper probably knew the area very well. As with so many Ripper suspects, there’s nothing to prove or disprove his guilt either way.

Alexander Pedachenko: Right, this guy might never have even existed, but the story goes that he was a Tsarist agent sent to stir up trouble in London. It began with, erm, someone saying that Rasputin (better known as Rah-Rah-Rasputin, Lover of the Russian Queen thanks to Boney M) had shown him a document, written in French, naming Pedachenko, and quite honestly this is a pretty ridiculous theory. Although not the worst.

Sir William Gull: The royal conspiracy (also starring the Freemasons). Gull was Queen Victoria’s surgeon, and the theory is that, when the heir to the throne the Duke of Clarence married and had a son by a Catholic sex worker, the Queen entrusted Gull with cleaning up his mess, which he did by killing five other sex workers with knowledge of the child in bizarre Masonic rituals. Um, as opposed to paying everyone involved enormous sums of money to move to New Zealand and shut up about the whole thing? The Duke’s marriage to a Catholic sex worker would have been invalid anyway – the 1707 Act of Settlement basically meant that he’d have had to renounce his claim to the throne to marry her. He wouldn’t have been the first royal to father illegitimate children, and the monarchy had always survived in the past without murdering anyone. Gull himself was in his 70s, had recently had a stroke, and, er, wasn’t a Freemason. He was also a great supporter of women in medicine and was probably the closest thing to a feminist that existed in the 1880s. The Ripper would have been a raging misogynist even by the standards of the time. And anyway, if Queen Victoria wanted the sex workers dead, why ask an elderly surgeon to do it and not Special Branch I’ve nitpicked this enough…

The Duke of Clarence himself: The theory goes that he suffered from syphilis which had driven him mad, and he killed the women during bouts of syphilitic insanity. Except… he probably didn’t have syphilis, he had strong alibis for all the murders, there’s no proof he ever married a Catholic sex worker, he was never committed to an asylum, I could go on…

Walter Sickert: A creepy artist who was certainly fascinated by the Ripper murders. The Ripper museum in Whitechapel has a few of his paintings on display and, well, he was certainly very interested in depicting horribly mutilated women. But he was in France during the murders, so…

Francis Tumblety: Until 2014 he was the main suspect in the murders, and he was my history teacher’s favourite suspect for sure (I took great pleasure in deconstructing him as the killer way back when, I don’t mind saying). Tumblety was an American quack doctor, who was certainly a raging misogynist with a hatred for sex workers, and had a collection of uteri which he boasted came from ‘Every class of woman.’ He was known to be in London in November 1888 because he was arrested for gross indecency (probably homosexuality), and may have been there for longer. He seems to have fled London later that November because Scotland Yard were viewing him as a Ripper. But… (there are always buts) as well as being new to the area, Tumblety was rather old (55). Most serial killers that I’m aware of started killing before they turned 30. And homosexuality strongly militates against him being the killer. There are gay serial killers… but they tend to kill men. The suggestion is that Tumblety was killing Whitechapel sex workers to add to his uterus collection. But there were any number of ways for Tumblety to do this without killing anyone in 1888 – and he would have succeeded in his objective with Catherine Eddowes. Mary Kelly’s uterus was removed, but left by her body.

Go on then, what do you think?

Put it this way, I don’t think I’ve mentioned the Ripper amongst the motley crew I just listed.

Two disclaimers before I go on:

  • I am, emphatically, not an investigative psychologist. I’m a bloke who’s read two, rather outdated, books.
  • Even if I were, you have to be very careful when making profiles of offenders who lived so long ago. Social mores and structures then were different.

That said…

One thing that sticks out to me about the Ripper crimes is that they were high-risk. He was missed by minutes at the Nichols and Eddowes murder scenes, and killed Annie Chapman feet away from a man in the next back yard. If you accept Liz Stride as a Ripper victim (there are doubts, and I tend to lean away from including her myself) then he may well have been present as Louis Diemschutz entered Dutfield’s Yard.

They weren’t thought-through.

They weren’t planned, or there isn’t evidence of much planning.

What they were is quick and quiet.

The Ripper didn’t kill his victims by, well, ripping. He killed them by cutting their throats, after strangling them to render them unconscious. It takes two or three minutes to strangle someone to death, but unconsciousness usually occurs after less than twenty seconds. Having knocked his victims out, he cut their throats and carried out his mutilations in a great rush, at least until Mary Kelly’s death. There’s evidence of the Ripper learning – Nichols was killed in a street, but Chapman, Stride and Eddowes were all killed in small, secluded yards, and Kelly in her own lodgings. He tried to behead Chapman and Eddowes, but not Kelly – probably realising that it wasn’t possible with the knife he had. He killed her indoors, presumably to avoid being disturbed. There’s a good chance he fled the Nichols, Stride, and Eddowes crime scenes in an enormous rush as bystanders and police officers approached.

The Ripper sites. Around the outside, clockwise from bottom left, Mitre Square (Catherine Eddowes), Miller’s Court (Mary Kelly), Hanbury Street (Annie Chapman), Buck’s Row (Mary Ann Nichols), and Dutfield Yard (Liz Stride). In the centre, left to right, Goulston Street (site of the graffiti) and George Yard (where Martha Tabram was found)

So, why wasn’t he caught?

Picture the scene – 4 a.m. on 30th September 1888. The Ripper has struck twice. Inspector Abberline rallies his men to hunt the killer.

‘Right, lads, this is it! He’s out there, right now. Remember, we’re looking for a bloodsoaked maniac in a top hat and smog… oh, hello there Bob! Mind how you go – the Ripper’s out tonight!’

‘Gor blimey! Well thank goodness there’s fine men such as yourself on the case, Mr Abberline,’ says Bob with as much confidence as he can, wondering how on earth he’s supposed to explain why Catherine Eddowes’ kidney is in his pocket.

I think that the Ripper had to have been local. He knew Whitechapel and the nearby streets well, he probably grew up there. In fact, I think he’d probably have considered Bethnal Green to be a foreign country. The police were on the scene of Nichols’ and Eddowes’ deaths within minutes, and officers conducted extensive searches of the area, but no one reported seeing anything suspicious. That’s because the Ripper wasn’t suspicious. He was someone that they expected to see out late at night. He wasn’t an upper-class twit clattering around in a cloak, top hat and carriage. He was Bob from the next street over, a bit odd, never gone steady with anyone, everyone feels a bit sorry for him because his mum drank herself to death and his pa was quick to take his belt off. Can’t really hold down a job but people keep giving him chances because, well, they all feel a bit sorry for him. Keeps out of trouble, keeps his nose clean, generally a nice man. Sad about that Mary Kelly, he was kind of sweet on her.

No one ever thought it was Bob.

Ok, so Bob is obviously an archetype, but you get the picture. The Ripper didn’t stand out roaming the streets late at night. He was where everyone expected him to be. The officers combing Whitechapel, Bethnal Green, and Spitalfields immediately after the murders almost certainly saw him, may even have talked to him, but they didn’t find any reason to be suspicious of him. He was just Bob, doing what Bob did, where Bob was supposed to be.

In Whitechapel, DI Chandler gives a profile of the Ripper about midway through the third episode. He thinks Jack was probably in his thirties, probably a labourer, probably someone who knew the area well, and he probably knew both Catherine Eddowes and Mary Kelly fairly well because he mutilated their faces. And I don’t think that’s a bad starting point. Personally, I’d put the Ripper in his twenties, not his thirties, but age is a difficult thing to profile. I think that the level of risk indicates a younger man, not really thinking anything through, but that’s by no means certain. Facial mutilations don’t always indicate that the victim and killer knew each other, but again it’s a decent bet, especially if the Ripper was local.

We can infer that the Ripper was semi-literate and anti-Semitic. The letter that is most likely to have been genuinely from him is the From Hell letter, the one addressed to George Lusk. 1880s medical science couldn’t determine either way if the half a kidney sent to Lusk came from Catherine Eddowes, but the choice of Lusk is interesting. The other Ripper letters all went to major newspapers. George Lusk was a local worthy who ran what was basically the Neighbourhood Watch Alliance. You’d have to know who he was to bother sending him a letter. The Ripper probably did know him – in fact, if Lusk was the most important person he could think of to send the kidney to, then he really was quite ignorant of the world outside Whitechapel. Whether or not the Ripper wrote ‘The Juwes are the men that will not be blamed for nothing,’ or just left Eddowes’ apron by it, he seems to have appreciated its significance (another reason to be doubtful of Kosminski’s guilt – he probably wouldn’t have thought to scrawl anti-Semitic graffiti as an investigative countermeasure).

One thing about the Ripper that does stand out from other serial killers is his cool-off period. Most literature that I’m aware of (and Criminal Minds, repeatedly and often) talks about serial killers’ cool-off periods, the time between murders, decreasing between kills, as they try and fail to recapture their initial high. The Ripper’s completely flies in the face of this, to the point where I’m surprised more people don’t talk about it. It was roughly one week between the Nichols and Chapman murders, roughly three between the Chapman murder and the double event, and almost six between the double event and the Kelly murder. I don’t have the investigative psychology expertise to explain why, although I’ve heard two theories from an actual psychologist – that the Ripper was deterred by the heavy police presence, or that he felt very guilty about his crimes, to the point of committing suicide shortly after murdering Kelly.

The violence of the crimes seems to contradict that idea to me. But then, most human beings are a mass of contradictions and Jack the Ripper probably was too. A man with ultra-violent sexual fantasies and enough psychopathic tendencies to act on them, but enough of a conscience to try and stop himself? Stranger things have happened. It’s also possible that he never felt the need to carry out a murder as violent as Kelly’s again, and his crimes stopped being recognised because his modus operandi changed (it’s recently been recognised that serial killers actually can and do change their MOs over the course of their careers). It may even be that Kelly’s murder represented his completed fantasy and he didn’t need to kill again to act it out. No known serial killer has ever stopped because they’d completed their fantasy and didn’t need to kill again, but then all we know about them comes from the ones who’ve been caught.

Whether or not the Ripper knew Eddowes is a moot point – facial mutilations are suggestive but far from conclusive. I do, however, think there is a good deal of evidence that he knew Mary Kelly. Kelly was killed in her own bed after undressing and leaving her clothes folded neatly on a chair (all the other victims were fully clothed but Kelly was wearing only a chemise). That suggests that, at the height of the murders, she felt comfortable and safe enough around the Ripper to invite him back to her lodgings, and to undress in front of him. I can’t believe that an experienced sex worker would have invited someone she only knew as a client back to her lodgings, so although the undressing suggests that she thought he was paying her for sex, she may have thought of him as a friend as well as a client. Kelly’s lodgings were far from secure – she’d lost her key and used to unlock them by reaching in through a broken window. The Ripper could have gained access that way, but to know that he could, he’d have to have visited her lodgings before. So again, whichever way you look at it, the behavioural evidence suggests that Kelly knew her killer, and didn’t feel threatened by him. The timeline suggests that they may have spent over two hours together before the attack. If Kelly ever realised anything was amiss it was far too late.

Why should she think anything was amiss? After all, Bob from two streets over had always been kind of sweet on her.

Also, to be clear, there is no evidence that the Ripper had a thing for Kelly, just a certain interpretation of their behaviours on the night. Subscribe to my Patreon account, and you can watch a whole video in which I explain why all the theories that they knew each other are in fact stupid and wrong. As an added bonus, I even explain why I’m wrong about Liz Stride not being a Ripper victim. The link’s at the bottom.

I don’t know who Jack the Ripper was, neither do you, no one ever will. But I think that there are two men whose actions would today raise some red flags with detectives: Charles Lechmere, who found Mary-Ann Nichols’ body, and George Hutchinson, the last man to see Mary Kelly alive.

Lechmere comes under suspicion because the timeline of his discovery of Mary-Ann Nichols’ body doesn’t quite add up, and also because he was slow to come forward to her inquest and gave evidence under a false name (he said his name was Charles Cross, a name he’d taken from a stepfather). Analysis of his route indicates that he should have arrived in Buck’s Row several minutes before he claimed that he had, and would have been with Nichols for about nine minutes when the second cart driver, Robert Paul appeared. The theory is that he himself was the Ripper, and had just killed Nichols and begun to mutilate her when Paul approached. He therefore pretended to have just discovered her himself. Paul didn’t notice any blood from Nichols’ neck wound at first, suggesting that it was very recent when he arrived. Lechmere’s known cart routes took him past all five murder sites, and he would have actually been in the vicinity of Hanbury Street when Chapman was killed.

It’s an interesting theory. Modern detectives would have treated Lechmere as suspicious as a matter of course (the finder of the body is always treated as a potential suspect in a murder case) and investigated his route. However, the time discrepancy isn’t that great. It’s more than enough time for Lechmere to have carried out the Nichols murder, but he could have been late arriving in Buck’s Row for any number of reasons. Buck’s Row had no side exits, so if the Ripper had still been present when Lechmere and Paul approached, he must have been seen, but wasn’t. The theory goes that he hid in plain sight; pretending to have discovered the body that he’d just killed. Nichols’ time of death is sufficiently uncertain that Lechmere could be the killer, and she died closer to 3.40 than 3.30, as the police surgeon supposed. But the speed of the attack was such that, if it had happened at 3.30 the Ripper would have left Buck’s Row five minutes before Lechmere appeared.

Paul saw no one; Lechmere also reported seeing nobody, which would make little sense if he was in fact the Ripper. Paul believed that Nichols was simply drunk, it was Lechmere who insisted to the police that she was dead. To a theorist 130 years later this might make sense as an attempt at a double-bluff, but I’m not sure a desperate man thinking on his feet would have been able to think clearly enough to decide that. It would surely have made more sense to go along with Paul and say that Nichols was drunk.

The attack on Nichols took less than five minutes, which is quick but not that quick. If Paul arrived just as Lechmere was finishing the mutilations, the neck wound would have been at least two or three minutes old already and Nichols’ heart would have long since stopped beating. We know he missed the neck wound, because he believed Nichols was drunk, so he could have certainly missed the blood pool on first glance. Paul’s failure to notice it immediately doesn’t mean it wasn’t there, especially in a dark street at night. Although he was probably close to the Chapman murder site, he was working that night – in fact, the claim against him rather relies on the fact that his work took him close to the first two sites, but that he wasn’t working on either 30th September or 9th November and so had no alibi for either night. Perfectly circular logic – he could have killed them when he was working, and when he wasn’t working.

And here’s the problem with any Ripper suspect. For every piece of inculpatory circumstantial evidence is a piece of exculpatory circumstantial evidence. Or an explanation of it. Modern detectives would have certainly treated Lechmere as a suspect. That’s all anyone can say for certain today.

Hutchinson was the preferred suspect of Whitechapel’s DI Chandler, and was also the man the show’s copycat modelled himself on (Whitechapel’s first season is much cleverer than is generally appreciated. The show’s Mary Kelly appears in the background of every scene featuring the Ripper, and much like the real Kelly knew him, considered him a friend, and invited him into her boyfriend’s flat on 9th November). Personally, I think Hutchinson is my top pick as well. The statement he gave the police about his activities on 9th November is just so suspicious.

Hutchinson was the man seen with Kelly at 2 a.m. that morning. He then came forward to claim that he’d seen her leave with an opulently dressed man, whom he could describe down to the shape of his tiepin and the type of cloth covering a package he was carrying. Most witnesses can’t remember anything like that much detail (consider how vague the descriptions of the men seen with Chapman and Eddowes moments before their deaths were), but plausible enough if Hutchinson was Eidetic, or had a certain kind of Autistic Spectrum Condition. Except… it was 2 a.m. on a dark autumn night in an unlit passageway. Hutchinson simply couldn’t have seen all that.

So far, so inconclusive. He clearly made up that description, but could have done so for attention (as many have suggested). But, study the rest of his statement – that this man so unnerved him that he followed the pair to Kelly’s lodgings and watched for forty five minutes, as independently corroborated by the witness who saw someone watching Miller’s Court at 2.30 a.m.

‘Oh no, Mr Abberline, Mary Kelly left with a man who looked absolutely nothing like me. And if anyone says they saw me outside her lodgings looking extremely Ripper-like at suspicious o’clock in the morning, here’s why…’

Hutchinson knew he’d been seen and knew he needed to account for why in his statement.

Ok, none of this is conclusive, of course. Hutchinson could well have seen Kelly leave with another man who freaked him out enough that he followed them, and just embellished the description either for attention or because he thought he was being helpful. Stranger things have happened. Although I can’t help but feel that any man who unnerved Hutchinson would have set off Kelly’s alarm bells too, and she would never have taken him to her home, if she agreed to go with him at all. Joseph Barnett recounted that Kelly was interested in the Ripper murders and often asked him to read newspaper articles about them to her. She knew she had to be careful, but took the Ripper home anyway. I just don’t see him being anyone she didn’t know and feel fairly comfortable around.

The alternative is that Hutchinson made the other man up, in which case the fact that he volunteered to the police that he’d watched Kelly’s flat for forty five minutes becomes incredibly suspicious. He knew that he’d been seen, but not that he couldn’t be identified, so he created the story to explain his presence. He didn’t want to be the last man seen alive with Kelly and needed a reason to be loitering outside her flat, so he created a man who was his complete opposite in every way for the police to chase (which they did, Abberline sent detectives out with Hutchinson to see if they could see this man again).

The best lies are mostly true. Hutchinson could have watched Kelly’s flat for forty five minutes before making the decision to knock on her door. The shout of ‘Murder!’ at 4.00 a.m. suggests it was at least an hour before he then finally decided to kill her. That tends towards the idea of a Ripper wracked by guilt and uncertainty… but it’s only a certain interpretation of what is known, and what is suspected, about Mary Kelly’s death.

Hutchinson certainly made up the description of the man Kelly left with, and his decision to follow her is very suspicious, but it could exactly as he said, and he invented the description to be helpful. But, I think that’s less likely than him just making the man up altogether, in which case there is no good explanation for his being outside Kelly’s flat that I can see. Certainly, his statement would raise all kinds of red flags with detectives today, but that is all anyone can say with any certainty.

A Punch cartoon mocks the police’s inability to catch the killer from amongst a bunch of very obvious killers.

Final thoughts

We’ll never who Jack the Ripper was, why he killed, or why he stopped. The mystery and myth will go on and on, usually casting the Ripper as the criminal mastermind in the top hat and cloak, making fools of the plodding, bumbling police.

I think that’s very wrong. I think the Ripper was local, in his twenties to maybe mid-thirties, I think he knew Mary Kelly fairly well, I think he’d probably never left Whitechapel. He probably came from a broken home and lived a life of miserable poverty, similar to his victims. He was somewhat literate and very anti-Semitic, and was someone that Whitechapel residents expected to see out and about in the early hours of the morning.

I think the police were looking for the wrong kind of man. I think that there’s a very good chance that they let the real Ripper slip through their fingers by simply not recognising his failure to plausibly account for his activities on the night of Mary Kelly’s murder.

But we’ll never know for sure.

Now come the shameless plugs…

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