130 Years of Jack the Ripper

The anniversary of the first official Whitechapel murder launches events.

Posted Aug 31, 2018

K. Ramsland
Source: K. Ramsland

I review books about Jack the Ripper, usually one or two annually as they're published. Over the past three years, and especially this year, I’ve seen a flood of new theories. One book, in fact, covered over 300 suspects (but didn’t get them all). As the 130th anniversary of this still-unsolved series of murders gets underway, we see renewed fascination with books, T-shirts, blogs, games and conferences devoted to Ripperology and Ripperature.

This mystery still intrigues. In fact, it provides so much connection among passionate crime fans that many might not even want it to be solved.

Thanks to investigative holes back in 1888, the case of the unidentified Ripper is sufficiently elastic to accommodate a lot of theories. The killer of between four and nine women from 1887-1890ish (depending on whom you read) has been tagged variously as a lunatic, physician, magician, pornographer, prince, minister, cook, sailor, writer, artist, butcher and med student, to name a few. Some researchers even propose that there is no Ripper; it was all a media-driven hoax. Advocates strenuously promote their favorite candidate(s) and some have spent millions to make their point. There’s even been DNA analysis, but the solution remains tantalizingly elusive. Those who do offer what they believe to be the best explanation (and suspect) quickly learn why they haven't hit the mark.

The mystery continues.

Red Jack’s official story focuses on the murders of five prostitutes in London’s East End slums in the fall of 1888. Some Ripperologists believe there were more victims, some say there were less. There’s no particular reason to think that investigators in 1888 got it right. Even today, linkage analysis has not been scientifically verified. It's an art, based in experience, with a margin or error.

Of the canonical five victims, the first was 45-year-old Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols. One hundred thirty years ago today, on the night of August 31, she was killed and left on the street. Her skirt was pulled up to her waist and there were severe cuts across her abdomen and throat. About a week later, Annie Chapman ended up on the wrong side of a similar knife. Her throat was cut, her stomach ripped open, and her intestines pulled out. Her bladder and uterus were missing.

A note signed, "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper" arrived to a news agency near the end of September. Its author claimed to be "down on whores" and he intended to keep killing. September 30 saw the “double event” – the murders of Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes. Stride’s throat was cut, but Eddowes’s intestines were removed and placed over her shoulder, similar to Chapman. In addition, her face was oddly mutilated and her uterus and kidney were missing. A piece of her apron was found near a message scrawled on a wall.

Then came a letter "from Hell" to the head of the Whitechapel vigilante organization, enclosed with half of a pickled kidney. The note's author indicated that he'd fried and eaten the other half. He offered to send "the bloody knife" in due time, and taunted, "Catch me when you can.” The police failed to find the sender, but the handwriting was different from the Ripper letter.

It was the last victim, Mary Kelly, 24, who supposedly took the brunt of the offender's frenzy. On November 8, she invited a man into a rented room and after he killed her, he spent an estimated two hours skinning and disemboweling her.

Then the murders stopped. Maybe. No one really knows. “Jack” (or “Jill” or a pack of "Jacks") was never identified, but plenty of people have been accused. The authorities knew of some, but researchers have added more. It's become quite the game to figure it out. For those who want to work on it with like-minded others, there are Ripper clubs and conferences.

This year, London will host a Ripper conference over the two days of the “double event,” September 29 and 30, in the Arbor City Hotel in the East End. Speakers will present their theories, and among the prominent speakers are noted crime scholars Martin Fido and David Wilson. “These conferences help scrape away the myth and present the grassroots reality of the Whitechapel murders,” says organizer Ricky Cobb. Since the gathering of Ripper fans is in the heart of Whitechapel, participants can take a tour. Gone is the atmosphere from 1888, along with most of the sites, but a few local pubs strike the right tone.

Few crimes have sparked so much attention or passion among scholars and amateur puzzle-solvers as those attributed to Jack the Ripper. Some devote a considerable amount of their intellect and social lives to this challenge. For them, this anniversary marks a big year.

You can find more information at www.crimeconference.com

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