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On August 31, 1888, a constable walked along Buck’s Row, a narrow cobblestone street in the East End of London, which was located in Whitechapel. Originally passing through a half an hour earlier, he found the savagely murdered Mary Ann Nichols. She had been slashed nearly from ear to ear, as blood pooled beneath her body. The killer, on the other hand, had vanished without a trace, without a sound. As they readied her to undergo a postmortem examination, they were mortified to find there were multiple stab wounds, a deep and jagged cut from the rib cage to the pelvis, which left her abdomen wide open. It completely horrified the doctors while they were examining the body. This was considered the first in a string of murders committed by Jack the Ripper.
In 1888, police had very little tools for investigation. Fingerprinting would not be used to solve crimes until approximately fourteen years later. DNA analysis would not even be dreamed of at this time. This made police unable to use any physical evidence left by the killer, such as hair, skin, blood and any other bodily fluids they may have found, especially blood, being that they were unable to distinguish the difference between human and animal blood. Since there were many slaughterhouses in Whitechapel, it was highly possible for anyone to claim that it was animal blood instead of human blood, on their clothing.
One of the many aspects of the Ripper murders that had baffled police was the swiftness and the silence carried out by the Ripper. Through the postmortem examinations, they had concluded he had caught them off guard, and had most likely strangled them before cutting them. He would mutilate his victims in such a disturbing manner, that even the doctors and the attendants were horrified. According to Dr. Henry Llewellyn, who commented on the murder in the Daily News, “I have seen many horrible cases, but never such a brutal affair as this,” on September 1, 1888.
Horrible as it may have been, it was not the first murder to have occurred in the Whitechapel District. Less than a month earlier, on August 7, Martha Tabram had been found dead, with 39 stab wounds. Previously in April, Emma Smith had been violently attacked by three men and died in the hospital from her wounds. All three of these women were prostitutes, which was the only connection found between the victims. The only theory created from this information, was the so-called High Rip gang were working in the neighborhood, blackmailing prostitutes for money and murdering those who did not pay up. As the unknown killer continued his savage prowl of the East End, the fall of 1888 became known as the Autumn of Terror, leaving at least four more bodies in his wake.
As the public began to fear the idea of a maniac loose, on the streets of Whitechapel, people started to wonder when or where he might strike next. At first, he was called “The Whitechapel Murderer” or the “East-End Fiend” in the newspaper articles. Then,the Central News Agency of London received a letter on September 27, 1888 claiming to be from the killer himself. Giving himself the infamous nickname “Jack the Ripper,” the press quickly took to the name, making it stick to this day.
After the murder of Mary Ann Nichols, police quickly formed an investigation team. The case fell under the jurisdiction of Sir Charles Warren, commissioner of the Metropolitan Police at Scotland Yard. Warren, along with Assistant Commissioner for Crime Robert Anderson, assigned two top detectives to head up the investigation, Chief Inspector Donald Swanson and Detective Inspector Frederick Abberline. However, they had no suspects, no motive, and nothing to go on.
On Saturday, September 8, an elderly wagon driver named John Davis stepped out into his backyard, only 0.8 km away from where Nichols had been found, just before six o’clock, to find the body of Annie Chapman. Her throat had been cut to the point where it had almost severed her head from her body. Her abdomen was slashed open, as well, along with signs of strangulation. At her feet, the killer placed the contents of her pockets; a piece of coarse cloth, a small-tooth comb and a pocket comb in a paper case. Near her head, the killer had also placed a torn envelope containing two pills. Marks on her fingers showed where the brass rings she previously wore had been wrenched off. They had never been found.
While the police combed the yard for clues, they found a significance piece of evidence, a leather apron, an object worn by a butcher or by a tradesman. The leather apron had been recently washed and soaked with water, not far from where the body was found. This clue directed them to their first suspect, John “Jack” Pizer. John was a Jewish shoemaker, in his late thirties. His nickname happened to be “leather apron,” due to the fact he always wore a leather apron. After he was found, Pizer was released after he was able to supply a solid alibi.
During the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901), British society was very conservative. During this time period, it was considered improper for a lady to show even her ankles in public. People were not comfortable with the topic of prostitution, let alone bringing into conversation. Part of the reason the Ripper’s gruesome acts were so shocking were due to the fact that all his victims were prostitutes. His crimes forced people to acknowledge and talk about social problems that were not discussed so freely in “polite society.” Some even believed that the Ripper’s victims got what they deserved, due to the conservative attitudes of the day.
Few women willingly took to the life of prostitution, at the time. In fact, most were driven to prostitution by the harsh conditions of their lives, such as broken marriages and alcoholism. Some had little to no education and could not gain jobs, so they would turn to selling their bodies as a last resort. It was often the only way they could feed their children or find a place to sleep and eat. When the murders began, reformers took this as their chance to expose the squalor and degradation of the East End, in hopes of bringing about social change.
Newspaper articles included illustrations and vivid descriptions of the conditions of the poor. Some claimed the conditions were the cause and Jack the Ripper was the effect. Whomever he was, he sparked fear and anxiety in Victorian London, since he represented a threat to social order. He seemed to be the embodiment of the wrath of the lower-class against the system, which was a grim warning to high society that the problems of the poor could not be ignored forever.
Desperate to find the killer, police rounded up local men who were mentally ill or had committed violent crimes. Acting on the opinion of Dr. George Bagster Phillips that the killer had medical knowledge, Inspector Abberline begun questioning medical students. Particularly, those with histories of mental illness or erratic behavior. Weeks had passed and police had no sign of the killer. Hundreds of letters had been sent out, claiming to be from the killer, which had been proved to be hoaxes. Yet, one letter received on September 27, 1888, tauntingly written in red ink, had promised, “You will soon hear of me with my funny little games… My knife’s so nice and sharp, I want to get to work right away if I get the chance.”
As they scrambled for more clues, the police received another mocking note, written in the same handwriting received before. The killer wrote, “I was not coddling dear old Boss when I gave you the tip. You’ll hear about Saucy Jacky’s work tomorrow double event this time number one squealed a bit couldn’t finish straight off. Have not the time to get ears for police. Thanks for keeping last letter back 'til I got work again.” He then signed, “Jack the Ripper,” which was another hint as to the authenticity of the letter. His use of “double event” was also used, seeing as how the news had not even reached the papers. In hopes that someone may recognize the handwriting, police had posted copies of the letter and postcard at every police station.
After the “double event,” police had more pressure on them than ever before to find the killer. This was a case they had never seen before and the investigators were doing all they could, which was like grasping at straws. Scotland Yard had a surplus of knowledge and experience when it came down to solving murder cases, yet more often than not they were cases of gang violence, drunken brawls, robberies gone wrong, and domestic assault. This was something completely different. Something completely new. A serial killer who chose his victims randomly, with no motive as he killed, mutilated and caused widespread terror. With no other options, the police launched an all-out manhunt.There were door-to-door searches and police made inquiries to the locals. Detectives had gone undercover disguised as women and patrolled the streets in large numbers.
They even resorted to using bloodhounds in the hopes they could track down the killer’s scent. As the case progressed, the press and the public had labeled the police as hopelessly incompetent. Queen Victoria even started to ask questions. After a month went by, there were no signs of the killer and no crimes had been committed. The people of Whitechapel began wondering if he had moved on. Then, the Ripper committed what is to be believed as his final murder on Friday, November 9. His last victim was Mary Kelly, approximately age 24. She was younger than his other victims and had happened to be a prostitute.
She was found on her bed, as the police busted her door down with an axe. The killer had obviously taken time to mutilate her, seeing as how he had a private room where nobody could interrupt him. Except for her eyes and hair, she was completely unrecognizable. Stab wounds on her arms and legs had suggested she made an effort to defend herself. Now, having killed five victims, the police kept extra forces on the streets. Even though his killings had taken place within a 1.6 km of each other, fear cascaded down on the whole city, as well as the nation. Newspapers had contributed to this “Ripper Fever,” by printing stories about the murders, each one more gruesome than the last.
The story had spread internationally. Headlines splashed across articles, around the globe. Police were overwhelmed with letters, from the public, offering advice and about possible suspects, false leads, and possible letters from the killer himself. Police never heard of another killing or had found other clues, besides the “Letter From Hell” received on October 16, which left them wondering what had happened to the now infamous killer. Jack the Ripper certainly did leave behind a lot of unanswered questions, which is probably why there are so many theories out there to date.