'Dear Boss' the letter that penned the gave the Whitechapel murderer the nom-de-guerre by which he would be known to eternity. Thought by many both at the time and since to be the work of "an enterprising journalist", the letter proved to be both influential on the case and problematical for the police as it inspired a torrent of similar communications alleging to have been written by the killer.
Few historical characters are as evocative as 'Jack the Ripper'. His motives and identity remain as much a mystery to us today as they were to the outmatched detectives who tracked him through the London slums during that long ago Autumn of 1888.
But thanks to the efforts of modern 'Ripperologists' as modern students of the case have become known, we perhaps know more about many of the suspects identified by the original investigators than they themselves did. While time and circumstance have destroyed many records and files associated with the case, modern forensics and diligent research by dedicated amateur sleuths have cast fascinating light on this most notorious of killers.
All that aside, his identity will now probably never be known.
While there is some dispute around exactly how many people Jack murdered, most expert opinion agrees on 5 'canonical' victims, plus one other highly likely victim. The five canonical victims are:
- Mary Ann Nichols
- Elizabeth Stride
- Mary Kelly
- Annie Chapman
- Catherine Eddowes
And to that list, the name of Martha Tabram is likely to be worthy of inclusion. All were prostitutes to varying degrees: some driven to it in extremis of poverty or want, others through habit and choice. All of them would lead the killer to the perfect location for his real needs.
Furthermore, there were slayings of others around this time which were recorded them as part of the same series as the Ripper killings under the blanket name "The Whitechapel Murders". Not all of them are held to have been by the same hand (indeed, Emma Smith was almost certainly killed by a gang).
- Emma Smith
- Rose Mylett
- Alice McKenzie
- Frances Coles
- "The Pinchin Street Torso"
The Ripper had a fairly well established modus operandi for his killing. He chose prostitutes - a class of women who would be accustomed to taking men away from prying eyes and who would be in vulnerable position. Very possibly the victims' occupation was a psychological factor too.
Most likely as they raised their skirts to facilitate sex, he would choke them to death or insensibility. The suddenness and strength of his attack is indicated in some of the autopsy notes, which reveal tell-tale features such as protruding tongues and bruising to the neck - which suggests that the Ripper was possessed of some physical strength. That no-one apparently heard any of the attacks taking place suggests that he acted swiftly and decisively to incapacitate his victims
Then, with a relatively short sharp blade - perhaps no more than 6 inches in length - he would draw a deep incision around his victim's neck, severing the carotid artery. It seems likely that he angled the head away from him as he knelt by the body while creating this cut, which also served to lesson the chances of him becoming overly bloodsoaked.
All of his victims save one (where it is commonly held he was interrupted) were subject to mutilations of the face and/or abdomen. Even today, amongst the litany of serial killers we now know of, the extent of these mutilations remains shocking in their ferocity.
Given time to indulge himself in his grotesque fancies, The Ripper defiled his victims' corpses with a peculiar mix of care and savagery: in some cases both making delicate nicks in their eyelids and eviscerating them. Clearly, these few minutes alone with the body were the moments when the The Ripper was most alive.
The Ripper Letters
During the autumn of 1888, many letters were written to the press, police and members of the public by people claiming to be the Ripper. Indeed, the very name 'Jack the Ripper' was coined in one such letter. Prior to this, he had been known to the public as 'Leather Apron' on account of the suspicions levelled against a Jewish cobbler who lived in the area and was suspected of being the murderer. Eventually, "Leather Apron" was identified as the nom-de-guerre of one John Pizer, who may or may not have been guilty of bullying and threatening prostitutes, but whose character was so traduced by the press that he was given the chance to be exonerated publicly at the inquest into one of the victim's murder.
Today, most of the letters are held to be fakes - the work of pranksters, fantasists or people hoping to garner attention for their own sick reasons. Certainly not all of the letters could have emanated from the Ripper, given the diversity in tone, handwriting and content. The police at the time did their best to discount as many of the letters as possible, and most modern students of the case will allow the possibility that one letter (the famous 'from hell' letter) may be genuine.
Nonetheless, the taunting letters are inextricably bound up with the myth of the Ripper - lending him a rogueish air that in truth he does not deserve.
As no-one was ever charged with the Whitechapel Murders at the time, and given the fame of the case, it is little wonder that a rogue's gallery of suspects
has been suggested by amateur sleuths ever since. The list includes all strata of society - from destitute immigrants to an heir to the throne
In fact, there is almost no chance that we will know the killer's identity. Of the tens of thousands of souls that jostled in that hateful slum, we know the names and backgrounds of a tiny fraction. We also know that, as in the case of Peter Sutcliffe
, serial killers can lead apparently normal lives in parallel to their slaughter. The police of the day were heavily drawn to mental outcasts, believing that the Ripper could only be a slavering lunatic and so the official suspects included many human wrecks in the asylums.
Today, given the proximity of most of the murders to public holidays or weekends, theorists postulate that the killer was likely to have been in regular work. Whilst this does remain entirely theoretical, the theory does perhaps hold more water than the notion that the murder must necessarily have been visibly 'mad' as many investigators at the time seemed to believe.
The modern fetish for conspiracy theories has seen a rise in the popularity of the 'celebrity Ripper' - most notably, Edward Duke of Clarence, son of Queen Victoria. Other celebrity names proffered to the prurient masses include the painter Walter Sickert and James Maybrick - the victim in another famous murder case.
There is no serious evidence against any of these candidates - and none were advanced at the actual time of the murders. Despite advances in forensic science and our understanding of the psychology of serial killers, most are still caught by chance and time has destroyed most if not all physical evidence of the Ripper's atrocities.
Today, the East End is still awash with immigrant communities who are treated with suspicion by more longstanding residents, but the mean streets of the Ripper's dismal heyday are mostly now gone - some lost forever to history, the others now in the shadow of modern office blocks where once stood warehouses and brothels. Nonetheless, the spectre of the Ripper looms large in any tale of the East End.