It may seem a little morbid, but I have an interest in mysteries, particularly unsolved historical mysteries, and the Jack the Ripper case is one of them. While not the first modern serial killer, Jack the Ripper was surely the first widely recognised example.
Jack the Ripper was named by the press, nobody knows who he was. He killed at least five women in 1888, all prostitutes in Whitechapel, a poverty stricken part of London. This was really an appallingly poor area at the time, it is near impossible for us to imagine how bad life there was.
He intended to mutilate and publicly display these victims in a vile fashion, and managed to do so with most of them. He did so right under the noses of the police and public, in one case within the patrol area of several police in a time window of under 15 minutes. This killer has never been identified, despite many implausible theories being put forward over the years. He was most likely a nobody, as most killers of this type are mundane little men who do not appear remarkable and rarely display any particular outward signs of derangement.
Site One: Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols
Nichols, 43, was a destitute street walker and alcoholic. On the night of 30th August 1888 she spent the money needed for her doss house on drink, and continued to walk the streets in order to get money enough for lodging. She was last seen alive at 2:30am on the morning of the 31st. An hour later, her body was found lying in front of a stable entrance on Buck’s Row, now Durward Street.
Nichols had had her throat cut so deeply it nearly exposed the neck vertebrae. This would have killed her nearly instantly. Then the killer “ripped” open her abdomen and stabbed her torso. He was unseen, despite the fact that even at that time, many people were active in the area.
The actual site of the body is currently (2017) inaccessible due to building work to expand the Whitechapel Tube station. However, the site itself was right next to Trinity Hall, a large Victorian building that now houses flats and a media business. This is what it looks like today:
The site is within view of the (Royal) London Hospital. This is where, later, human organ parts of one of the victims – or someone else – that had been sent to a civilian vigilance committee member with a taunting letter would be brought for examination. It is also where Joseph Merrick, the “Elephant Man”, lived at the time.
(The shop where Merrick was displayed like a freak is still extant just across the main road opposite the hospital. Today it sells Indian clothes.)
Google Satellite image of the area, quite accurate. The grey pin is where Nichols’ body was found
Site Two: Annie Chapman
Annie Chapman, 47, was a part time minor textile worker. She was also a “casual prostitute”. Alcoholism was rampant, particularly among the poor, and Chapman was also beset by this. She added to her meagre income with street work. Evidence suggests she suffered from depression, which is not surprising given the grinding poverty and hopelessness in which she lived.
In the wee hours of the 8th of September 1888, Chapman found herself without lodging money, and set out to make enough by streetwalking. She was allegedly last seen at 5:30am talking to a man at 29 Hanbury Street, Spitalfields. If this report was accurate, this was likely her murderer. She was found dead just before 6:00am by the resident of that address.
Her throat had been cut from ear to ear as deeply as Nichols’ had been, but she also had been disembowelled; her intestines had been pulled out of her body over each shoulder. Like Nichols, her dress had been thrown up to cruelly display her to witnesses. Part of her uterus had been removed. The killer had taken it, presumably as a gory trophy. The Ripper had taken a further step from his previous killing, amplifying the act beyond just mutilation.
It is these details which led Chapman’s medical examiner to suggest that the murderer had anatomical knowledge. From this idea came the long standing lore that the Ripper was a doctor or a medical student. This is by no means certain, and is one of the more persistent details connected with the case that might not even be true. The knife used for both of these murders was long and thin, and was conjectured to be similar to a blade used in autopsies, at least 6 to 8 inches in length, however this, again, is not certain. A blade used in butchery, for instance, ground down, would also fit the criteria.
Today, the old buildings on that side of the street have long been demolished. A large corporate building now exists encompassing 29 Hanbury Street, and from the ground level you can see parking for the apartments and businesses that lease the interior. I found no memorial to Annie Chapman at any point around the block, although there is so much street art, perhaps I simply didn’t see it.
In the ’80s when I was last here, this was a particularly sleazy part of London, and the markets here were absolutely examples of old flea markets. Today it is much more classy, but the character and heartbeat of London community continues. Everyone here knows about the Ripper but it does not seem a matter of interest.
Site Three: Elizabeth Stride – First of the “Double Event”
Elizabeth “Long Liz” Stride, 44, was another poor alcoholic woman. She had had as rocky a personal life as the previous victims, and income from cleaning and sewing was helped by street walking. She was fantasy prone, having invented fictive details to her life to possibly gain sympathy.
Stride was found dead at 40 Berner Street, now Henriques Street, just before 1:00am on the 30th of September 1888. She lay just inside the entrance of Dutfield’s Yard, a narrow space for an unused stable occupied by a cart builder and sack merchant. There were gates of a large wooden sort which had been left open, two paces beyond them on the right of the yard lay Stride, her throat cut.
The yard was unlit and extremely dark, and there was a working man’s club next door which was noisy, all this provided the Ripper with the opportunity he needed.
Stride was found by the working man’s club steward, Louis Diemschutz, as he led his horse and cart into the yard through which entry to the club was available. It is highly likely that the steward interrupted the murderer, as Stride was still bleeding, and mere minutes before, other members of the club had been leaving and seen nothing amiss.
It is even possible that the murderer was still in the yard. The yard was so dark that Diemschutz couldn’t see anything without lighting a match. If the killer had been disturbed by Diemschutz, he could have crouched or hidden against the walls, or in the stable, then slipped by as the steward investigated what he first thought was a pile of rags.
Stride’s throat had been cut cleanly and deeply just like the previous victims. She had not, however, been further mutilated. It is this which leads one to suspect that Diemschutz did indeed disturb the Ripper in the act, and didn’t even know it.
But the killer was not sated; he was to go on to finish his work later that morning, which is why this night is called The Double Event.
Site Four: Catherine “Kate” Eddowes, Second of the “Double Event”
Catherine Eddowes, 46, was another poor woman ground down by poverty and tragedy in alcoholism and casual prostitution. There was no other way to survive, although in the summer of 1888 she had gone hop picking in Kent. It wasn’t enough to keep her away from the life in Whitechapel which led to her murder.
Eddowes had been taken into custody at Bishopsgate police station the night of the 29th of September due to being drunk. She had sobered up enough by 1:00am on the 30th to be released. This was mere minutes after Liz Stride had been killed just under a kilometre away.
Eddowes was found dead in Mitre Square at 1:45am. She could not have been killed more than 15 minutes earlier, as that was the time of the previous police patrol through the area.
Of course in 2017, Mitre Square has undergone a transformation similar to Durward Street. Once upon a time it used to still have recognisable elements that linked it to 1888, cobblestones, the basic configuration of the site, and a marker for Eddowes. Currently it is being repaved and reshaped. The main part of it is covered (at least it was in late August) by bollards and heavy machinery. St James’ Passage and Mitre Passage still exist, but transformed by glass and steel into 21st Century versions of themselves. Perhaps it is for the best.
Eddowes had had her throat cut in the same manner as the others. The killer had gone even further this time, he mutilated her face to disfigure her, cutting her ear and nose, her cheeks and eyes. He opened her abdomen and pulled out her intestines, some of which had been sliced and spilled their contents. He placed a section of guts next to her body between her left arm and her torso. He pulled out more of her intestines and placed them over her right shoulder. He went into the abdomen and removed one of her kidneys and part of her uterus.
Once again, he displayed her cruelly by lifting up her skirts and spreading her legs. He wanted to debase. He wanted to expose.
And once he had done so, he left. Nobody apparently saw him.
The medical examiners, Police surgeon Dr. Frederick Gordon Brown and physician Thomas Bond, disagreed with one another as to whether the killer had “surgical knowledge”. Bond opined that he need only have basic knowledge of anatomy.
In my opinion, he got that from his previous murders. And Mary Ann Nichols was not the first. We’ll come back to that once I conclude this post.
Later that morning in 1888 a piece of cloth from Eddowes’ apron was found in Goulston Street, Whitechapel. It was stained with blood and shit. The killer had wiped his hands on it and discarded it. Above the fragment of material was a graffito in chalk. It said “The Juwes are the men that Will not be Blamed for nothing”. Nobody really knows if this is connected to the murders. The writing was washed off on the orders of Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Charles Warren himself because he feared anti-Jewish riots.
The Final Atrocity. Site Five: Mary Jane Kelly
Mary Jane Kelly, 25, was a young and attractive woman, not yet derelict like the other victims but probably an alcoholic, and certainly a part time prostitute. She had had an on and off relationship with a man named Joseph Barnett, but they had split by the time of her murder.
In 1888 she lived in Miller’s Court, a small alley leading from Dorset Street, a well known rookery and hive of prostitution and criminal activity.
Kelly had entertained at least one man on the night of the 8th of November. She had been drinking, and singing loudly, something she was reported to regularly do when drunk. After sleeping it off in the early hours of the 9th of November 1888, she met her final client.
Kelly was discovered at 10:45am inside her lodging at 13 Miller’s Court by her Landlord’s assistant who had been sent to collect owed rent. The Ripper had had all the time he needed to take the obsession to the fullest.
There is no easy way to describe Mary Jane Kelly’s mutilations. It is not necessary to go into detail here on a blog that nobody is going to read (!) but suffice it to say that the killer disassembled her. The crime scene photographs still exist, and although in low resolution and unclear, they demonstrate quite how vile this murder was. She was taken apart.
After this murder, the killings stopped, at least in Whitechapel. No one knows what happened to the murderer, or why they ceased their activity. There has been much speculation as to why the murders ended and where the killer ended up, but nobody knows the truth. Therein lies the mystery. This series of killings, as vulgar and cruel as they were, became the pre-eminent precursor to all “modern” serial killings, particularly of women.
Today, there is no Miller’s Court (the buildings there were gone by the 1920s) and Dorset Street is obliterated beneath serial building constructions started in the 1990s. The street White’s Row is closest to the old site, and adjacent to it, a long running construction project covers the entire area where Dorset Street and Miller’s Court once stood. It was not possible for me to gain access to the site or approach the location of Kelly’s room.
So what is there left to say? Jack the Ripper disappeared into history like he disappeared into the night after his atrocities. He left only the obsession of the press and the fear of the poor women of Whitechapel. As the 20th Century wore on, popular attention on him and his crimes led to hundreds of books and television shows, and many claims of “mystery solved!” That was never true.
What to learn from looking at these sites in 2017? That London continues to change rapidly while retaining vestiges of its former self. That no historic site can remain unchanged unless it is associated with august history or acts deemed positive. That the grotesque ugliness of Whitechapel of the Victorian era is being replaced with the gentrified, upmarket version of London’s heartbeat.
Who was the Ripper? He wasn’t a prince, or a painter. He wasn’t a mad doctor, a magickian or a Jewish man driven mad by “solitary vices”. He was likely a nobody. He possibly lived near Flower and Dean Street, according to modern serial killer movement pattern algorithms, and something stopped him from continuing his obsession, presumably incarceration, illness or death. It is possible he moved to another location, but if he did, there’s no evidence of similar crimes being committed elsewhere.
Except for one possibility.
William Henry Bury was a killer of women who lived near Whitechapel at the time of the murders and left for Dundee, Scotland, not long after they ceased. He killed his wife, a former prostitute, and the method of murder was similar to the Ripper’s piquerist abdominal obsessions.
However, he didn’t cut her throat, and there are other dissimilarities.
The fact is, we’ll never know who Jack the Ripper really was.
Martha Tabram – an early Ripper Victim?
Many claim the Ripper was a “disorganised killer” and that he had a “ritual” or strict pattern of behaviour that he adhered to with each murder. Neither of these claims are true. The Ripper showed distinct organisation in that he could avoid being caught and somehow plot out his possible areas of attack carefully enough to get away with extremely daring killings right under the noses of witnesses and indeed police. He deliberately arranged his victims in a sick tableau which was important to him, and he was intent on completing this task. He also showed an amplification in his atrocities, from rudimentary mutilations to the nightmarish disassembly of Kelly.
Where did Jack the Ripper get his knowledge of anatomy allowing him to find organs to take from the human abdomen and chest? Probably from the experience of the murders themselves, but it is certain that this man experienced a decreased sensitivity to violence over his entire life which lead to violence against women and eventually the murders.
The Ripper built up to his appalling crescendo at Miller’s Court, but was Mary Ann Nichols the beginning? Unlikely. I believe Martha Tabram, another Whitechapel prostitute killed in August 1888 marks the first probable Ripper victim, at least at this period – and I say this because I think this man probably killed women before, but not with such extreme violence.
Tabram was found at 3:30am at George Yard buildings on the 7th of August 1888 in George Yard, an alley today called Gunthorpe Street.
Tabram was stabbed no less than 39 times, mostly with what seemed to be a short bladed knife, and she had been exposed with her skirts up in a similar way to the later victims. Her throat had not been cut, but the killer’s obvious obsession with penetrative stabbing, which is seen in every one of the murders, is quite clear here, and he focuses on her abdomen and genital zone in his frenzy of piquerism. Like all of the other “canonical” victims, there was no evidence of intercourse.
Was she the first in the 1888 Ripper series? I think so. I think the murderer had not yet gotten his weapon, the long bladed knife, and his fantasy mutilations had not yet emerged as enacted actions, but he was moving clearly toward them. He displayed Tabram with skirts up to degrade her just like the later victims, and penetrated her body in perhaps the only way he physically could, with a knife. The later victims also had these peculiar penetrative stabs in their groins and internal organs. I think Martha Tabram was Jack the Ripper’s first (1888) victim.
But, again, we’ll never truly know.
George Yard is today called Gunthorpe Street, and it is as filthy and disgusting a place as you might imagine a Ripper murder site to be. Ironically out of all the sites I visited in 2017, this is the one that seems to be changed the least from Victorian times, and neighbouring businesses trade upon that. It is still frequented by drunks and crazies, although prostitutes in London these days usually work via the internet or “massage parlours”.
The alley is still cobbled, and retains the entrance arch extant in 1888. Next to the entrance is the White Hart Pub, under which an erstwhile Ripper suspect, Severin Klosowski (aka George Chapman) had lodgings. Klosowski/Chapman was a poisoner, however, not a mutilator, and it seems sure he was not the Ripper.
All in all, Gunthorpe Street is an absolute shit hole that literally reeks of piss, and I hope never to have the displeasure of going there ever again.
And that is all I have to say about visiting Jack the Ripper’s murder sites in late 2017.