Image of Jack the Ripper taken from American Ripper in London
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Jack the Ripper: The Facts

Jack the Ripper terrorised London in the late 1880s

American Ripper in London presents a bold new theory on the possible identity of the figure who stalked Whitechapel in 1888. But, before exploring this new possibility, it’s important to understand the facts about the case. Here’s what we know about history’s most notorious and mysterious serial killer.

The Whitechapel Murders

The killings we attribute to “Jack the Ripper” were actually part of a larger context of casual slaughter within London’s East End in 1888. Together, these crimes are known as the Whitechapel Murders, and they horrified a public who already regarded this part of the city as a hellish cesspool of violence and vice.

These cramped streets were filled with decrepit doss houses and murky alleyways where desperate women, thieves and thugs lurked in bleak squalor. One street, where two of the Ripper’s victims lived, was known as the “foulest and most dangerous street in the whole metropolis”.

The first Whitechapel Murder was a gang assault on a prostitute called Emma Smith.

Some months later, a sex worker called Martha Tabram was found dead from multiple stab wounds, but was she the first victim of Jack the Ripper?

Those in the “No” camp point out that she was stabbed rather than slashed – an important difference in MO, implying a frenzied crime of fury, and a far cry from Jack’s more methodical approach. However, serial killers have been known to change their method of execution, and it’s possible Martha was an early “experiment” for Jack, before he honed his style for the “Canonical Five” – the women most people agree were victims of the same figure.

Victim 1: Mary Ann Nichols

The first of the Canonical Five was Mary Ann Nichols, who led a typically bleak existence in the communal lodging houses of the East End. In the early hours of 31 August 1888, she was kicked out of one of those houses because she couldn’t afford a bed. “Never mind,” she said as she left. “I’ll soon get my doss money. See what a jolly bonnet I’ve got now!”

A little while later, a friend bumped into Nichols on the street. Nichols was apparently tipsy and walking with difficulty, and it was the last time anyone except her murderer would see her alive. She was later found by a cart driver, her throat slashed so deeply that she’d almost been decapitated. Her abdomen had also been slashed open.

“I have seen many terrible cases,” said the doctor who examined her corpse, “but never such a brutal affair as this.”

“I have seen many terrible cases,” said the doctor who examined her corpse, “but never such a brutal affair as this.”

Victim 2: Annie Chapman

Just over a week after the Nichols killing, another down-at-heel Whitechapel woman named Annie Chapman was also forced to hit the night streets to earn money for her lodgings.

Just before dawn, mere moments before Chapman was murdered, a woman named Elizabeth Long saw her talking to a man by the back yard of a house in Spitalfields. Long described the man as looking swarthy, wearing a Sherlock Holmes-style deerstalker hat, and having a “shabby genteel” appearance. Long overheard the man say “Will you?” and Annie answer “Yes”.

This man was almost certainly Jack the Ripper. A little while later, a local resident found Chapman’s eviscerated body in that same yard. As with Nichols, her throat had been deeply cut. But the violence to her abdomen was even more extreme, with Chapman’s innards cut out and thrown over her shoulders. Examinations later revealed part of her uterus had also been taken.

Taking place in the dawn twilight, in full view of the houses that surrounded the yard, this was a shockingly bold and brazen killing. As with all the Ripper murders, there was a mysterious lack of commotion – he struck like a phantom and melted into thin air. Chapman’s evisceration, and the stealing of her uterus, also inspired the still-popular notion that Jack may have been a lunatic doctor, or butcher, though experts still disagree on whether he displayed any real skill in dissection.

Victim 3: Elizabeth Stride

Elizabeth Stride is the most controversial of the Canonical Five, with many believing she wasn’t a Ripper victim at all. Her body was discovered in a dark yard on 30 September by a man named Louis Diemschutz, who could barely make her out in the gloom. On examination, it was discovered that her throat had been cut – a hallmark of the Ripper. And yet, she lacked injuries to the rest of her body. There was no slashing, no gruesome evisceration.

For this reason, and because a witness claimed to have seen Stride being violently manhandled on a street shortly before her death, some believe she was killed by an angry lover, or a common street hoodlum, rather than the Ripper.

Yet, it’s perhaps more likely that it WAS Jack, and he was interrupted before he was able to commence his customary evisceration. Indeed, Jack may well have been lurking in the shadows, just metres away from Diemshutz when he first discovered Stride’s body. Had he been able to see more clearly in the darkness, the Ripper might have been apprehended there and then.

Victim 4: Catherine Eddowes

On the very same night Stride was killed, a woman named Catherine Eddowes was also set upon by the Ripper. This is known as the “double event”, though the murders themselves were very different. As if making up for the conspicuous lack of desecration with Stride, Jack truly indulged himself with Eddowes, leaving behind a ghoulish, quintessentially Ripper-ish crime scene.

Just hours before, Eddowes had been in police custody, having been found drunk on the street. After sobering up in a cell, she was let out in the early hours – only to be later found with her throat cut, her face mutilated, her internal organs splayed out and her kidney and part of her uterus removed.

Later that night, police discovered a piece of Eddowes’ apron in a doorway on Goulston Street, Whitechapel. Above it, scrawled in chalk, was a mysterious message: “The Juwes are the men that will not be blamed for nothing”. Different variations of the message were recorded, and we can’t be certain of the exact wording because the message was swiftly washed away before it could be photographed, apparently to avoid any anti-Semitic backlash from an already terrified public.

The question is, was the so-called “Goulston Street Graffito” actually written by the Ripper, or was it just a random scrawl that was already there when Jack left the apron close by? And why the strange spelling, “Juwes”? The debates rage on.

"It was several hours later that Kelly was discovered utterly torn apart: a mangled, flayed and barely recognisable mess."

Victim 5: Mary Jane Kelly

And so we come to the last of the Canonical Five. Thanks to countless books and dramatisations, Mary Jane Kelly has come to be seen as the “star” Ripper victim. That’s partly because of her youthful good looks, and partly because of the way in which she died – in her own home rather than on a dark street corner, and in the most flamboyantly grotesque way imaginable.

A number of witnesses gave accounts of Mary Kelly’s final movements in Miller’s Court, where she lived. Over the course of the night she was seen in the company of men, and – in the early hours of 9 November – she was heard singing. Some hours later, before daybreak, a neighbour was awoken and apparently heard the exclamation “Murder!” It wasn’t an uncommon cry in the East End, so she thought nothing of it.

It was several hours later that Kelly was discovered utterly torn apart: a mangled, flayed and barely recognisable mess. This was an immense escalation in MO, probably because the Ripper enjoyed a degree of unprecedented privacy, and was free to satisfy his bloodlust without fear of being interrupted.  

While there were to be more Whitechapel Murders, the general consensus is that Mary Kelly was the final victim of the man we call Jack the Ripper. Whether it was because he was imprisoned for other crimes, died, or left the country, the Ripper was never to strike again in London. 

“His expression is sinister… his eyes are small and glittering… his lips are usually parted in a grin which is not only not reassuring, but excessively repellent.”

The Leather Apron Scare

Before the name “Jack the Ripper” was forever attached to the shadowy phantom of Whitechapel, another ominous nickname was thrown around by the media: Leather Apron.

In the wake of the Nichols murder, East End prostitutes told detectives of a thuggish figure who terrorised working girls, extorting money and assaulting anyone who refused him. This person was apparently known only as “Leather Apron”, and when the press got wind of these stories, they wasted no time in turning him into a demonic figure, silently stalking the streets at night.

“He carries a razor-like knife,” according to one breathless report. “His expression is sinister… his eyes are small and glittering… his lips are usually parted in a grin which is not only not reassuring, but excessively repellent.”

In fact, Leather Apron turned out to be pretty much an urban myth, albeit inspired by a real East End local called John Pizer. A blameless bootmaker, Pizer was forced by all the media attention to go into hiding. He was eventually exonerated thanks to his alibis for the Nichols and Chapman murders, but that eerie name “Leather Apron” continues to be a mainstay of Ripper lore.

“You will soon hear of me with my funny little games,” the writer vowed, before signing off with the name that would grant him eternal notoriety: Jack the Ripper.

The Ripper letters

So where did the name “Jack the Ripper” come from? A single communication, apparently from the murderer himself, which was received by the Central News Agency on 27 September, after the first two deaths. Written in blood-red ink, and beginning with the words “Dear Boss”, the taunting letter made light of “that joke about Leather Apron”, and promised more killings to come. “You will soon hear of me with my funny little games,” the writer vowed, before signing off with the name that would grant him eternal notoriety: Jack the Ripper.

The authenticity of the “Dear Boss” letter has been hotly debated by generations of experts. Some dismiss it as a prank, or an attempt by a journalist to drum up a media frenzy.  The publication of the letter inspired a flood of malicious copycat communications, and only two others have been taken seriously. One was the so-called “Saucy Jacky” postcard, which seemed to be written by the same person behind “Dear Boss”, and significantly mentioned the “double event”, perhaps before the news of the two same-night killings was widespread knowledge.

And finally, there was the infamous letter marked “From Hell”, sent in a package together with part of a preserved kidney. It’s unclear whether this genuinely was Catherine Eddowes’ missing kidney, or simply an organ salvaged by a sick medical student, or even a pig’s kidney. The letter itself was much less literate and eloquent than “Dear Boss” and “Saucy Jacky”, and for that reason seems more raw, passionate and authentic. It was also NOT signed Jack the Ripper, which some see as a good sign it was written by the real killer, who wanted to distance himself from the media-made moniker.

As with everything else about the Whitechapel killer, the controversy continues.