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The Whitechapel Murders

and Jack the Ripper

Contemporary illustration of discovery of a body


A series of murders in 1888 - 1891 in London's East End were investigated with increasing urgency by Scotland Yard.   The murder victims were all women, and were linked by gruesome disfigurement by the perpetrator, who was never identified.   The murderer became known as Jack the Ripper because of a letter sent to Scotland Yard, apparently by the murderer.   The identity of Jack the Ripper has been a mystery ever since.  

It is worth reflecting how much modern investigation techniques and forensic science have advanced since those days, but   murders by a stranger committed in public places out of the sight of witnesses are still difficult to solve today.   

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Because of the ways in which the victims were mutilated with a sharp knife or scalpel, medical knowledge or skill at wielding a knife has become one of the criteria for suspicion.   The four main suspects can be listed as:

  1. Kosminski, a poor Polish Jew resident in Whitechapel;
  2. Montague John Druitt, a 31 year old barrister and school teacher who committed suicide in December 1888;
  3. Michael Ostrog, a Russian-born multi-pseudonymous thief and confidence trickster, believed to be 55 years old in 1888, and detained in asylums on several occasions;
  4. Dr Francis J. Tumblety, 56 years old, an American 'quack' doctor, who was arrested in November 1888 for offences of gross indecency, and fled the country later the same month, having obtained bail at a very high price.
Sir Neville MacnaghtenThe first three of these suspects were nominated by Sir Melville Macnaghten,  second in command of the Criminal Investigation Department (C.I.D.) at Scotland Yard in June 1889. They were named in a report dated 23 February 1894, although there is no evidence of contemporary police suspicion against the three at the time of the murders. Indeed, Macnaghten's report contains several odd factual errors.

Kosminski was certainly suspected by the head of the C.I.D. Dr. Robert Anderson, and the officer in charge of the case, Chief Inspector Donald Swanson.   Druitt appears to have been Macnaghten's preferred candidate, whilst the fact that Ostrog was arrested and imprisoned before the report was compiled leaves the historian puzzling why he was included as a viable suspect.

The fourth suspect, Tumblety, was stated to have been "amongst the suspects" at the time of the murders and "to my mind a very likely one," by the ex-head of the Special Branch at Scotland Yard in 1888, ex-Detective Chief Inspector John George Littlechild.   He confided his thoughts in a letter dated 23 September, 1913, to the criminological journalist and author George R Sims.

The list is contentious for those who have studied the case.   Arguments can be made against all of them being the culprit, and no hard evidence exists against any of them.   The police were at no stage in a position to prove a case against anyone, and it is highly unlikely a positive case will ever be proved.

For the benefit of those seeking to learn more about the murders, the factual basis of the events are set out below:

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The crimes

Date Victim Circumstances
Tuesday 3 April 1888 Emma Elizabeth Smith Assaulted and robbed in Osborn Street, Whitechapel.
Tuesday 7 August 1888 Martha Tabram George Yard Buildings,
George Yard, Whitechapel.
Friday 31 August 1888 Mary Ann Nichols Buck's Row, Whitechapel,
Saturday 8 September 1888 Annie Chapman Rear Yard at 29 Hanbury Street, Spitalfields.
Sunday 30 September 1888 Elizabeth Stride Yard at side of 40 Berner Street,
St Georges-in-the- East.
Sunday 30 September 1888 Catherine Eddowes Mitre Square, Aldgate, City of London.
Friday 9 November 1888 Mary Jane Kelly 13 Miller's Court,
26 Dorset Street Spitalfields.
Thursday 20 December 1888 Rose Mylett Clarke's Yard,
High Street. Poplar.
Wednesday 17 July 1889 Alice McKenzie Castle Alley,
Tuesday 10 September 1889 Unknown female torso Found under railway arch in Pinchin Street, Whitechapel,
Friday 13 February 1891 Frances Coles Under railway arch, Swallow Gardens, Whitechapel.


Over the years, mainly as a result of Macnaghten's beliefs, the 'Ripper'-victims have been listed as

  1. Nichols
  2. Chapman
  3. Stride
  4. Eddowes
  5. Kelly, with
  6. Tabram having gained favour more recently as a possible sixth in the opinion of some historians.

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Throat cutting attended the murders of Nichols, Chapman, Stride, Eddowes, Kelly, McKenzie and Coles. In all except the cases of Stride and Mylett there was abdominal mutilation. In the case of Chapman the uterus was taken away by the killer;   Eddowes' uterus and left kidney were taken; and in Kelly's case, evidence suggests, the heart.

The murder of Mary Kelly, in November 1888, was accompanied by mutilation of such ferocity that it beggared description, and, for once, left the press short of superlatives. The murder had been committed on the day of the investiture of the new Mayor of London and the celebrations were soon overshadowed by the news of the Ripper's latest atrocity.

The murders were considered too complex for the local Whitechapel (H) Division C.I.D, headed by Detective Inspector Edmund Reid, to handle alone.    Assistance was sent from the Central Office at Scotland Yard, after the Nichols murder, in the persons of Detective Inspectors, Frederick George Abberline, Henry Moore, and Walter Andrews, together with a team of subordinate officers.   Reinforcements were drafted into the area to supplement the local men. After the Eddowes murder the City Police, under Detective Inspector James McWilliam, were also engaged on the hunt for the killer. Detective Inspector Aberline


Every one of these murders remained unsolved.   No person was ever convicted of any of them.



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Non-Ripper murders

Certainly the evidence indicates that Smith was murdered by a group of three young hoodlums. The police investigated a suspicion that Tabram was murdered by a soldier. Mylett, who was not even murdered according to Assistant Commissioner Robert Anderson, was probably strangled by a client.

McKenzie's wounds indicated yet a different killer.  The 'Pinchin Street torso' was undoubtedly an exercise in the disposal of a body, and Coles was possibly murdered by a male companion, James Thomas Sadler, who was arrested and, certainly for a while, suspected of being the Ripper.

The "Dear Boss" letter

The name Jack the Ripper is easy to explain.   It was written at the end of a letter, dated 25 September, 1888, and received by the Central News Agency on 27 September, 1888. They, in turn, forwarded it to the Metropolitan Police on 29 September.

The letter was couched in lurid prose and began "Dear Boss......" It went on to speak of "That joke about Leather Apron gave me real fits......'' ('Leather Apron' was a John Pizer, briefly suspected at the time of the Chapman murder).   "I am down on whores and I shan't quit ripping them till I do get buckled..."; and so on in a similar vein.   The appended "trade name" of Jack the Ripper was then made public and further excited the imagination of the populace.

the letter sent to the Central News Agency

The two murders of 30 September 1888 gave the letter greater importance and to underline it the unknown correspondent again committed red ink to postcard and posted it on 1 October. In this communication he referred to himself as 'saucy Jacky...' and spoke of the "double event......." He again signed off as Jack the Ripper. The status of this correspondence is still being discussed by modern historians.

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The message on the wall

Immediately after the Eddowes murder a piece of her bloodstained apron was found in a doorway in Goulston Street, Whitechapel. Above the piece of apron, on the brick fascia in the doorway, was the legend, in chalk, "The Juwes are The men that Will not be Blamed for nothing."  A message from the murderer, or simply anti-Semitic graffiti?   Expert opinion is divided.

Press Coverage

It was at this time that the panic was at its height and the notoriety of the murders was becoming truly international, appearing in newspapers from Europe to the Americas. Even at this early stage the newspapers were carrying theories as to the identity of the killer, including doctors, slaughterers, sailors, and lunatics of every description.

A popular image of the killer as a 'shabby genteel' man in dark clothing, slouch hat and carrying a shiny black bag was also beginning to gain currency. The press, especially the nascent tabloid papers, were having a field day. With no Whitechapel murders in October there was still plenty to write about. There were dozens of arrests of suspects "on suspicion" (usually followed by quick release); there was a police house-to-house search, handbills were circulated, and Vigilance Committee members and private detectives flooded the streets.

The discovery of a female torso in the cellars of the new police headquarters under construction at Whitehall (the Norman Shaw building) added to the air of horror on 2 October, 1888. The floodgates to a deluge of copy cat 'Jack the Ripper' letters were opened, and added to the problems of the police.

An unpleasant experience befell the Chairman of the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee, builder George Lusk, on 16 October, 1888, when he received half a human kidney in a cardboard box through the post.   With this gruesome object was a letter scrawled in a spidery band and addressed "from Hell ....." It finished. "signed Catch me when you can Mishter Lusk."  The writer claimed to have fried and ate the other half of the "kidne," which was "very nise."  The shaken Lusk took both kidney and letter to the police. The police, and police surgeon felt it was probably a hoax by a medical student, although others believed it was part of Eddowes' missing organ.

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Well-attended and lengthy inquests were held by Coroner Wynne Baxter on the majority of the victims.   By the time the murders came to an end in 1891, the proprietors of the Working Lads' Institute had had enough of the noisy, unruly, proceedings and informed Baxter that he should find a different venue for his next inquest.

The Metropolitan Commissioner of Police, Sir Charles Warren, resigned at the time of the Kelly murder, after a long history of dispute with the Home Office, and was replaced by James Monro.

The panic subsides

After the Kelly murder, and many more abortive arrests, the panic began to die down a little and a more quiescent atmosphere began to reign.   In early 1889 lnspector Abberline left, to take on other cases, and the inquiry was handed over to Inspector Henry Moore.   His last extant report on the murders is dated 1896, when another 'Jack the Ripper' letter was received.   There were brief flurries of press activity and wild suggestions that the 'Ripper' had returned on the occasions of the subsequent murders. However, Sadler was the last serious suspect arrested, and his seafaring activities obviated him from blame for the 1888 murders.

The files and other source material

A number of relevant files and documents are available in the National Archives at Ruskin Avenue, Kew.

Look out for a summary of the Whitechapel Murders in our own book, published by the National Archives in August 2006, The Scotland Yard Files .  

Also Jack the Ripper - Scotland Yard Investigates by Stewart P Evans and Donald Rumbelow.


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