This is a question which has haunted historians and criminologists, not to mention writers, for more than a hundred years.
In 1888, in Victorian London, the idyll and respectability of bourgeoisie life camouflaged a reality of poverty and degradation. While the rich went to the opera and sipped refined port, the poor dwelt in the slums, a warren of hunger and disease. Many women had to sell their bodies to support their families or so as not to die of hunger. It was here, in an area known as the Whitechapel District, that the legend of the most notorious serial killer of all time was born.
Image: Whitechapel High Street
He targeted prostitutes. Women who combed the streets for clients in the cold darkness of the night. As such, it is not certain how many women the Ripper killed, since there were more than eleven separate cases of prostitutes murdered at the time. However, there are five victims who, due to the brutal and anatomical mutilations of their bodies, were attributed to having been killed by the same person with the same modus operandi.
The five victims – Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly – were all murdered between the 31st August and 9th November 1888, and are collectively known as the ‘canonical five.’ The murders were never solved and the legends surrounding them became a combination of genuine historical research, folklore and pseudo-history.
Image: From left, Mary Ann Nicholls, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catharine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly
Each of the victims was brutally mutilated after having her throat cut. Their abdomens were hacked at; organs were removed, in one case a kidney was removed as well, and in another, part of an ear. This horrendous violence, previously unseen in England, spurred a manhunt and served to terrorise the whole population.
Rumours that the murders were connected, stories concocted by the press, and the myriad of letters sent to the police by people pretending to be the murderer or claiming to have some knowledge about the whole gruesome affair, further instilled a sense of panic.
The name ‘Jack the Ripper’ originated in a hoax, when someone claiming to be the murderer sent a letter which was widely published by the media of the time. It is thought that the letter itself may well have been written by a journalist who wanted to heighten interest in the story. The murderer was also called the ‘Whitechapel Murderer,’ as well as ‘Leather Apron’ by the police.
The intense and specialised search and investigation which took place at the time, gives researchers and criminologists today an important insight into the way the forces of order were structured and worked during this period. Jack the Ripper, in fact, is known to have brought about the first documented case of ‘criminal profiling’ (which is a behavioural and psychological approach intended to predict and understand an offender’s characteristics).
Due to the almost surgical nature of the crimes, at the time it was believed that the murderer could be a butcher, a doctor or a surgeon. No-one in London could stomach the fact that an Englishman could be so perverse, so it was public belief that the culprit was surely either an immigrant, a Jew, or a foreigner. This is why, perhaps, many of the suspects, which strangely enough numbered in the hundreds, were not of British origin. Although the crime was never solved and the mystery of Jack the Ripper’s identity was never revealed, many are still trying to solve the case to this very day.
In 2011, a former detective maintained that he had discovered that the Ripper was, in reality, a German merchant seaman called Carl Feigenbaum. He had reached this conclusion, after having studied crew records and findings of the time with new, more modern techniques.
Image: Carl Feigenbaum
In 2014, a self-confessed ‘armchair-detective’ proclaimed he had bought a shawl which had belonged to one of the victims. The results of certain tests showed that the garment contained traces of DNA which belonged to Aaron Kosminski, a 23 year-old Polish immigrant who ended up dying in an asylum.
Image: Aaron Kosminski
Both these theories were later disproved, as were all the other attempts to find out who this iconic serial killer was. In fact, the story of Jack the Ripper, his victims, their horrifying mutilations, and who could have been behind them, has been told and re-told many times.
My personal favourite rendition is the movie From Hell (2001) as I feel it perfectly captures Victorian London, while creating a believable, even though far-fetched, story.
What do you think?