Words: Nick van der Leek
There's a reason why Jack the Ripper is a name that is still used and remembered 119 years later. And if you're superstitious about numbers, here's a number for you: 1888. That's the year it all happened.
If you live in South Africa as I do, where violent crime is a staple in our local newspapers, then it's tempting to wonder how Jack the Ripper ever made a name for himself. Surely there have been criminals far more vile and depraved than he was? Once again, there's a good reason why the name Jack the Ripper is remembered more than a hundred years after his crimes, and despite the comings and goings of thousands of brutal murderers and their murderous deeds.
The reason I am writing this article about Jack the Ripper is because I recently visited my sister where she works in the mountains, and I spent some time idly browsing through her bookshelf. I found a book by Terry Pratchett, some other pulp fiction, and then I pulled out a slim novel. I quickly thumbed through the pages and soon I was captured by the dark spell of what happened in 1888. Let me warn you a final time: there is a very good reason why this criminal has the notoriety that he does.
During the time that a series of incredibly violent killings took place, the Central News Agency received a number of letters written by someone claiming to be the murderer. Although plenty of hoax letters were also received, three letters are commonly believed to be genuine. I will not reproduce them here, but I'd encourage readers to google the "Dear Boss" letter (dated Sept. 25, 1888), the "Saucy Jack" postcard (Oct. 1, 1888) and the letter "From Hell" (postmarked Oct. 15, 1888). All three are chilling, and the third is particularly hard to decipher. This being the case, as one studies the maniacal handwriting, the content in "From Hell" slowly begins to manifest: "fried and ate" refers to the other half of Catherine Eddowes' kidney (the 4th of the "canonical" five victims), half of which was provided with the letter in a small box.
What makes the Ripper story even more grotesque is the uncertainty surrounding the case. What I mean is that while five victims (all prostitutes, all murdered between August 1888 and November 1888) have been identified by authorities such as Sir Melville Macnaughten as "belonging" to one serial killer, there is a long list, with as many as thirteen, other possible victims. It soon becomes obvious that London was a cesspool of crime in those days, and these crimes were particularly heinous in that they were aimed at women, and the slaughter was almost without exception, violent and disturbing. For a murderer to gain fame, to stand out, under such circumstances is particularly horrible, and almost unimaginable. These then are the achievements of Jack the Ripper:
Mary Ann Nichols was the first victim, discovered in Buck's Row at 3:40 a.m. on Aug. 31, 1888. She was discovered, like the victims after her, with vicious slashes (perhaps just a single, or two slashes) to her throat. The Ripper quickly achieved a sickening and repulsive reputation, so much so that the street of this first murder was renamed Durward Street (in Whitechapel, close to the London Hospital).
Annie Chapman was around 4 years older than Mary Ann Nichols. She was discovered without her uterus, on Sept. 8, 1888. Elizabeth Stride was just two years younger than Chapman, and originally born in Sweden. She was killed on Sunday Sept. 30, 1888, and discovered at 1 a.m. off Berner Street (since renamed Henriques Street) in Whitechapel. Catherine Eddowes was just one year older than Stride, and killed on the same day as Stride. The "Saucy Jack" postcard made reference to a "double event this time," and the handwriting in all three pieces are similar.
What I noticed when looking at the handwriting was the savagery in the letter "t." The side of the brim (crossing the t) hooks downward in a manner that does indeed suggest malice.
Early in the morning of Sept. 30 (the day of the double murder), police fanned out, hoping to locate evidence or the suspect himself. At around 3 a.m. Constable Alfred Long came upon a scrap of cloth near an apartment building in Goulston Street. The cloth was later linked to Eddowes' apron, but more sinister was the writing, chalked on the wall behind it: "The Juwes are the men That Will not be Blamed for nothing." The Police Superintendent on the scene, fearing a worsening of the prevailing religious tension (and especially anti-Semitism), ordered the graffiti to be removed from the wall. This occurred, despite arguments between the officers on the scene, at 5:30 a.m., and without having the graffiti photographed first.
Some believed the Ripper murders were the work of a Jew some called the "Leather Apron." Some believe the Ripper tried to reinforce the link to "Leather Apron" by intentionally dropping the cloth where it was found. Personally I believe that the message was already there and the murderer dropped the scrap by mere coincidence. Be that as it may, the graffiti (with the double negative feature) appears to be written by a Cockney, and the standard translation would be: "The Jews are men who will not take the blame for anything." It was written by someone who must have felt wronged by someone Jewish, and there were many in the area at that time.
Jack the Ripper achieved unparalleled publicity. Because of reforms to the Stamp Act (in 1855), it was possible to publish and circulate newspapers at a scale hitherto unheard of. It was also the dawn of mass circulation of newspapers, and a time where plenty of local content newspapers and magazine came into existence (including the Illustrated Police News). It has also been suggested that the name "Jack the Ripper" was coined by newspapermen, in order to sell more newspapers. If this was the case, it provided the blueprint for the serializing of serial killers that came afterwards, including the "Boston Strangler" and in the 1960s, "Jack the Stripper."
While the conjecture is interesting, the haunting reality remains that we still do not know for sure who Jack the Ripper was. He was never caught, or convicted. His fifth murder was also the most troubling of them all. Mary Jane Kelly was Irish (born in Limerick) and was different from the other 4 in that she was born in 1863 (the others were all born in the 1840s). She was 25, 20 odd years younger than the other victims. And unlike the other victims, she was discovered much later, at 10:45 a.m., Nov. 9, 1888, in the room where she lived (13 Miller's Court, Dorset Street).
Kelly had invited the killer into her room (which suggests the killer must have appeared respectable and well mannered), and here he was able to perform his macabre activities for as long as he wished. In the book that I found on my sister's bookshelf, there was a grainy photograph of Kelly. It's difficult to describe just how gruesome her body had been mutilated. She had been disemboweled, the white bone of her femur was visible after chunks of her flesh had been removed (and skewered on picture hooks in the room). It is difficult to make out the face in the photograph, because with the neck having being severely cut, and along with lacerations to her face, the skin unfolded.
In the picture it's obvious that the body has been butchered almost entirely, for it was found with the heart missing, and many other internal organs scattered about the room. And as in the other murders, there were extensive lacerations to the genital area and the abdominal area. Suffice it to say the picture of Kelly provides an extremely disturbing portrait of Jack the Ripper.
So, who and what are we dealing with? The Ripper murders are characterized by progression. Each murder goes further than the last (in terms of brutality). Throat cuts and the removal of organs as well as progressive facial mutilations typify the canonical five. We can reasonably assume a frenzy of excitement taking hold of the murderer, one that is intensified with incisions, particularly to the lower abdominal area. All the murders occurred on or near weekends, they happened at night, often at the end of the month (or close to it), and in out-of-the-way quarters with public access. Each murder began with the slashing of the throat, and in the case of Stride, it has been argued that the murderer was interrupted (but another victim was taken later the same night).
The worldwide media frenzy that the Ripper unleashed did have a positive side-effect. It created awareness of the poverty and harsh conditions prevailing in parts of London at the time, and reformers were able to build on this awareness to change the conditions there.
While it's possible that Jack the Ripper had many more victims, or possibly that he committed some of the crimes mentioned above (but not all), someone perpetrated these crimes. In fact, there was at least one witness who provided a description of a man leaving with her friend. And it must be answered, how was this man able to walk in the early light of day, unseen, able to hide his bloodstained hands and clothes? Many believe the Ripper must have lived in close proximity to the murders, and indeed, all the murders mentioned above occurred in a specific part of London.
Today many believe that Montague John Druitt was Jack the Ripper, and I am one of them. Born in Dorset, he was the son of a well-known physician. He enjoyed cricket, and was good at sports (which would explain strong hands and arms, and being fleet of foot). Many experts have speculated that the Ripper ought to have some medical background to have performed his surgeries and extracted the organs (knowing where to find them) as quickly as he did. Having grown up in a family filled with physicians (his brother was also a doctor), not only would he have been exposed to the tools of the trade, but also books and materials detailing the internal human body. And Druitt quite possibly felt angry about his decision not to study to be a doctor (as so many Druitt men had). Instead he studied at Oxford, and practiced as a barrister.
Additionally he worked as a teacher in Blackheath from 1881. He was dismissed from that job (at George Valentine's boarding school) in 1888. At the same time his mother was suffering from depression and madness (she died two years later, in 1890, in an asylum). It's possible that Druiit broke down mentally after the Kelly murder. That he was both exhilarated and fully and finally appalled and ashamed of himself. If this is the case, recent evidence demonstrates that Druitt argued his final case effectively. Possibly Druitt remained intelligent, but not so emotionally. Macnaughten, upon whose report much of the suspicion is based, (that he is the Ripper) nevertheless makes some stupendous errors in his assessment: he describes Druitt as a doctor, and puts Druitt's age 10 years off the mark. This seems, in large part, to invalidate Macnaughten as a credible investigator, and Inspector Frederick Abberline has argued the same point, going so far as to doubt Druitt's connection to the Ripper.
I disagree with Abberline for a few fairly unscientific reasons. One, the handwriting in the three letters is similar to Druitt's. Secondly, given the circumstances of Druitt vis-a-vis his parents, Druitt can be reasonably assumed to have a motive (to get revenge against his mother for going mad, and allowing him to be born, and to subconsciously live out the fantasy of being like his father). Thirdly, Druitt did have the use of accommodation in close proximity to the murders. A picture of Druitt shows a man with darkness in his eyes, but an otherwise gentlemanly demeanor. There is the beginning of a moustache (the Ripper was said to have one).
It's my opinion that Druitt didn't commit suicide, but that his family suspected him all along, and had him murdered (his coat was filled with heavy stones, and his body was not discovered until weeks after he began his sleep on the bottom of the river). They were a well to do family, and given the Ripper's worldwide reknown, capture would mean the wiping out of the family reputation and possibly ruin their ability to practice (as physicians).
Montague Druitt died shortly after the last murder (committed on Nov. 9, 1888). It was at the end of that terrible year that his body was found floating in the River Thames at Chiswick; on the last day of 1888. He was 31 years old.