11 Mar

One of my favourite shows on TV at the moment is Whitechapel, which explores the many dark and disturbing urban legends of one of London’s famous suburbs. The first series of the show focused on a suspected copycat killer who copied the modus operandi of the most infamous and terrifying serial murderer ever to plague old London town – Jack the Ripper. In the words of Jack himself:

“Below the skin of history are London’s veins. These symbols, the mitre, the pentacle star, even the ignorant and degenerate can sense that they course with energy… and meaning. I am that meaning. I am that energy. One day, men will look back and say that I gave birth to the 20th Century.”

In one sense this is true yet, in spite of the epidemic of 2oth century serial killers with sobriquets like the Boston Strangler, the Buffalo Slasher, the Sunset Slayer and the Yorkshire Ripper, it is Jack who still remains by far and away the most infamous. This is not due simply to the grisly picturesqueness of the nickname but to the fact that the murders took place in the gaslit, fog-shrouded London of Sherlock Holmes and that – unlike the other criminals mentioned above – the identity of Jack the Ripper is still a total mystery.

There was something utterly calculated about the Ripper murders, which took place in the Whitechapel area of East London in the autumn of 1888, and which produced a morbid sense of shock and panic. Jack’s first victim was identified as Mary Ann Nicholls, a prostitute who had lived in one of the the worst slums in London. Her body was discovered by a cart driver one night down a narrow, cobbled street along Bucks Row. Although it was clear, even in the darkness, that she had been murdered, it was only when Mary’s body was taken to the local mortuary that a number of even more disturbing details were revealed to the police. The woman’s throat had been cut so deeply that her vertebrae were exposed and her abdomen had been slashed open with a jagged incision that ran from the bottom of the ribs to the pelvis. It was as if someone had hacked and slashed at her in some sort of frenzy.

Oddly enough, despite its horrific nature, the murder caused little sensation at the time. Prostitutes were often killed in the slums of London, often by gangs who demanded protection money. That attitude was to change dramatically 8 days after the murder of Mary Ann Nicholls, however, when another disembowelled body was found in the back yard of a barber’s shop in Hanbury Street, Whitechapel. A lodger from a nearby boarding house found the body of Annie Chapman, another prostitute, lying against the fence. The stomach had been cut open and some of the intestines pulled out. As in the case of Mary Ann Nicholls, the cause of the death was a deep gash in the throat. The murderer had placed the woman’s rings and some pennies at her feet and a torn envelope near her head. Medical examination later revealed other injuries which are far too grotesque to relate here – I try to keep this site PG-13 as far as I can!

Suddenly the press awoke to the fact that the unknown killer was a sadistic maniac. The Star that afternoon carried the headline: “Latest Horrible Murder in Whitechapel”. When Mrs Mary Burridge, of Blackfriars Road, South London, read the story, she collapsed and died of a fit. In our own age of mass violence we may find it impossible to imagine the shock created by the killings but, as the chief of police at the time would eventually write in his memoirs: “No one who was living in London that autumn will forget the terror created by these murders”. One journalist who reported the crimes memorably described them as “shadowing the vista of man’s better nature” and this is what so frightened Londoners. It was as if an inhuman monster, a kind of demon, had started to hunt the streets. Hysteria swept over the whole country, the like of which had not been seen since the Ratcliffe Highway Murders of 1811, when two families were slaughtered in East London, and householders all over England barricaded their doors at night.

The nickname ‘Jack the Ripper’ was first coined in one of what were to be many anonymous hoax letters received by the police during the course of their investigations. A few weeks later the killer struck again, this time taking the lives of not one but two prostitutes. Once more the murders were characterised by a kind of deranged ferocity more in keeping with a rabid beast than a human being – the bodies were hideously mutilated and organs had been removed. When this double murder took place the exasperation of the public at the continued non-discovery of the perpetrator knew no bounds. Inevitably, scapegoats were found and accused, including Jews, because of a reference to them in another letter that was allegedly from ‘Jack’; and medical men, due to the nature of the victims’ injuries, which seemed to require some basic knowledge of anatomy. Yet, as October passed with no further murders, the panic began to die down. That was, until 9 November, when the Ripper staged the most spectacular murder of all, that of the young Irish prostitute Mary Kelly. Even now, the details of this killing are truly shocking to read about – suffice it to say that Jack truly surpassed himself on this occasion. The public exploded in fury and the defeated police chief at last resigned. Even Queen Victoria made suggestions on how to catch the murderer. Yet the slaughter of Mary Kelly proved to be the last of the crimes of Jack the Ripper – weeks, months and finally years went by without further atrocities and the maniacal killer seemingly disappeared as strangely as he had first appeared.

There have been many fascinating theories about who Jack the Ripper actually was and what happened to him. Some said that he went insane and either committed suicide or got himself confined to a mental asylum. A surgeon in Buenos Aires related that he was called to the beside of a dying Englishman named Dr Stanley, who allegedly confessed that he was Jack the Ripper. This deathbed confession has been rubbished on the grounds that there is no proof that ‘Dr Stanley’ ever actually existed or lived in London at the time of the Whitechapel murders. An even more outlandish theory is that the Ripper was actually a woman – a deranged midwife who killed other women under the pretence of performing abortions. This ‘Jill the Ripper’ theory not only lacks a shred of evidence to support it but is also a psychological improbability. Other theories range from the mildly probable – that the murderer was in fact John Druitt, a barrister who mysteriously drowned himself in the Thames shortly after the last of the Ripper murders; to the more tenuous – that ‘Jack’ was in fact Queen Victoria’s grandson and heir to the throne, the Duke of Clarence; to the utterly zany – that the killer was in fact the ‘mad monk’ Rasputin, although what he was doing in London at the time is something of a mystery. Who knows who Jack the Ripper really was or if we will ever find out? The only fact of which we can be certain is that the Ripper continues to cast his ominous shadow over the long and lurid history of the East End.

See also: Spring-heeled Jack: The Other Ripper

7 Responses to “Whitechapel”

  1. xcalamityjenx March 15, 2012 at 2:31 pm #

    Thanks for sharing this! I will totally check it out.

  2. bookzilla March 16, 2012 at 1:15 am #

    I’ve always been fascinated by the Ripper crimes. Hard to say why, really — they’re so gruesome and awful. I suppose the main draw is the fact that they’ve never figured out Who Dunnit. Wouldn’t it be an adventure finding out? 🙂

  3. Sallyann March 16, 2012 at 10:12 pm #

    I’m better with pictures than words, but I’ve been watching Whitechapel too and you’ve kept me comming back until my mind was clear enough to read your post.
    I’m so glad I did, thanks for sharing it. 🙂

  4. Nicola Kirk March 17, 2012 at 7:24 pm #

    Jack the Ripper is such an intriguing part of history, there’s no doubt about it. I thought the suggestion that the Ripper could have been female very interesting. When you say it is a psychological improbability that the Ripper could have been female, what do you mean? There have been (and are) women out there crazy enough to commit murders – I wonder if you mean it is a physical improbability as many women may not have the strength to incapacitate another person and carry out such a horrific attack.

    A very interesting article.

    Best wishes,


    • anilbalan March 17, 2012 at 7:56 pm #

      Yes, you’re quite right, there have of course been many female serial killers but hardly any have ever fit the MO and brutal physicality of the Ripper murders.

      • Nicola Kirk March 17, 2012 at 8:15 pm #

        Ooh I dunno – I’m sure I have worked with a few women who would fit the bill :o)

  5. lakehouseeditor March 11, 2013 at 12:02 am #

    Interesting article, thanks. I was intrigued by the Whitechapel TV show so I went looking. It’s not available for streaming on Netflix, but it’s free on Amazon if you are a Prime member. I am, so I’m super excited. What is it about Jack the Ripper and Whitechapel? Gotta go see.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: