Even from a distance of 130 years, the nightmarish facts of the Jack the Ripper killings make for unsettling reading. But for the residents of the Victorian capital, the case was far more visceral.
The name ‘Jack the Ripper’ first originated in a letter sent to a London newspaper, signed by someone claiming to be the murderer of female prostitutes working in the impoverished district of Whitechapel, strangling his victims, cutting their throats, slashing their stomachs and finally eviscerating them. Although the threat affected only a very small section of the community, the murders had a huge impact on London society as a whole. Jack the Ripper was not the first serial killer in history but his notoriety is well remembered because he was never caught.
There were eleven separate murders, starting from 25th February 1888, but only five murders, known as the ‘canonical five’ are widely believed to be his work. Of the other six, Annie Millwood may well have been the first - but I’ll let you make your own assumptions.
Annie was a 38-year-old widow who was admitted to the Whitechapel Workhouse Infirmary suffering from stab wounds to her legs and lower abdomen. She stated a man with a clasp knife had attacked her but other than that, nothing else was noted, despite the savagery of the attack. She was sent home but died the next day.
On 3rd April, Emma Smith was sexually assaulted with a blunt object brutally inserted into her vagina, rupturing her peritoneum. She developed peritonitis and also died the next day but before she did, she stated two men attacked her. At the time, it was attributed to gang violence and her file was placed alongside other unsolved murders.
Martha Tabram was not so lucky. She died on 7th August after suffering 39 stab wounds in Whitechapel and once again, her file was placed with other unsolved murders. If it was the same man (or men) committing the murders, he (they) had apparently grown more violent and confident.
Anyone who has ever watched reruns of CSI will know that it is rare for a serial killer to just emerge suddenly out of the blue and embark upon a killing spree. There is often a pattern whereby the killer graduates from attacks and assaults to full-blown murder and this is when his distinctive modus operandi is established as the work of a particular murderer. There is a high probability that he would have committed earlier crimes such as assaults on women or even murder.
But having said that, one of the first things to become apparent from trawling through the vast amount of information dedicated to crime in this era is that violent assaults on women were disturbingly commonplace. As such, it’s difficult to point the finger of blame at Jack the Ripper for the handful of cases in those past few months, despite bearing similarities.
Then shortly before 4am on 31st August everything changed when a cart driver found the body of a woman in Buck’s Row close to Bethnal Green. She was on her back with her skirt pulled up around her waist and her throat had been slashed so deeply she had nearly been decapitated. Her name was Mary Ann Nichols and she was the first official victim of the Whitechapel murders attributed to Jack the Ripper.
Just over a week later on 8th September, the body of Annie Chapman was found with similar injuries to those of Mary Nichols. This time however the find was grizzly. Some of her internal organs had been removed and her small intestine lay by her right shoulder.
On 30th September a double event occurred. Elizabeth Stride was found with injuries not as severe as the previous two victims and the general consensus was that the Ripper had been disturbed but had quickly found another victim, Catherine Eddowes, killed not too far from Elizabeth Stride. Catherine was not as lucky as Elizabeth. Her intestines had been savagely ripped out and the killer had taken her left kidney and uterus.
Barely two weeks later, the body of Mary Kelly was found on a bed in a shabby lodging house and this time, the killer took his time. Mary’s body was brutally mutilated. Her breasts were cut off, one left under her head like a pillow and the other by her right foot, her face was hacked beyond recognition while the whole surface of the abdomen and thighs were removed and the abdominal cavity emptied of its viscera and left on a table beside the bed. Her liver rested between her feet and her heart had been removed and taken.
Although Whitechapel was an impoverished area and violence was common, these murders were linked together through a distinguishing modus operandi. All the murders took place within the distance of a few streets, late at night or in the early hours of the morning, and all the victims were women whose throats were cut and bodies mutilated. The removal of internal organs from three of the victims led to contemporary proposals that ‘considerable anatomical knowledge was displayed by the murderer indicating his occupation was that of a butcher or a surgeon’. Who could do such a horrendous thing?
Given the sheer brutality of the crimes, it was perhaps inevitable that many Britons concluded that they must be the work of an evil person that had entered Victorian society from the outside. From 1882, Britain had been experiencing an influx of Irish immigrants who swelled the population in the East End of London, as well as Jewish refugees from Russia who had survived horrific massacres. As a consequence, Whitechapel was severely overcrowded and submerged in poverty. Work and housing conditions worsened with the influx and a significant economic underclass had developed. Robbery, violence and alcohol dependency were common in the area and the widespread poverty eventually drove many women like a magnet to the only occupation they knew: prostitution. When Jack the Ripper started his short killing spree, it was estimated that there were 62 brothels and 1,200 women working as prostitutes in Whitechapel alone.
The East End has become a mythic realm: a vast, densely inhabited working-class district full of dark, narrow courts and alleyways with many lodging houses, small workshops and moist, foggy wharfs. It was packed with street urchins and prostitues living in reeking, damp dwellings while men in top hats and cloaks miandered the gas-lit alleyways. Even before the brutal murders, a spotlight had been thrown on the abject poverty of east London. Employment in the nearby docks and markets were often casual and seasonal where thousands of men, women and children were ruthlessly exploited, toiling away for long hours for little pay.
The police and newspapers received anonymous letters, supposedly sent by the killer dubbed ‘Jack the Ripper’, but most were dismissed. However the letter signed “From Hell” was treated more seriously because with it was a small box containing half of a preserved human kidney.
There is little doubt that his reign of terror struck fear into the hearts of all Londoners. There was someone out there wandering silently amongst them in search of prostitutes to butcher and the thought horrified them all. Despite having had only five certain victims, and a further six suspected victims over a period of time that lasted for a mere twelve or so weeks, it was undoubtedly a period of time when society was already fighting a daily battle against poverty and starvation. This added horror was something they could definitely live without.
In the labyrinth-like area of Whitechapel, the police used every method they could to try and track down the killer before he could kill again. Their main problem was that in the tiny passageways and alleyways, few of them were lit at night and of course, the detectives hunting down the killer were hampered by the fact that the art of forensics was very much in its infancy.
Extensive newspaper coverage only increased the notoriety of the Ripper but still no one was charged, and there was a cast of thousands including butchers, immigrants, physicians and surgeons being investigated. And then, to Queen Victoria’s anxiety, the name of her 24-year-old grandson, Eddy, appeared on the list.
By most reports, Eddy was a ‘slow’ child who grew up to be a rather backward self-indulgent adult who had a reputation for being a ‘ladies man’ (rumours had made their way around the Palace that he had been involved in many a scandal that had been immediately hushed up). Despite the secrecy, the newspapers had picked up on the gossip at the Palace.
Source: Evening Post, Volume XXXII, Issue 136, 23 October 1886, Page 1
“The growing unpopularity of Prince Albert Victor is giving both the Queen and the Prince of Wales serious anxiety. The young man will take no pains to propitiate people. He is dense, apathetic, short-tempered, and sulky. The Marlborough House set made him their butt. His father alternately scolds or exhorts, whilst his mother pets and protects him. The young Princesses of Wales openly deride Victor’s "stolidity," and even "Brother George" must feel a certain amount of contempt for his elder’s lack of savoir faire. The Queen alone treats the heir-presumptive with consideration. At Windsor or Balmoral the young Prince is always sure of a cordial welcome, though her Majesty makes no secret of her disappointment at his repeated failures in public. Considering how well most of the Royal Family deliver common-place speeches, Albert Victor’s utter inability to string together half-a-dozen sentences coherently seems inexplicable. For years past the chief work of his life with Canon Dalton has been studying this very art, yet he has not even mastered the ABC of public speaking. Even if it is merely a case of returning thanks after dinner, the speech has to be written out for him. When he repeats it he does so like a parrot, without feeling or expression, and then, plumping down in his chair, takes no further interest in the proceedings whatever they may be.”
As with all unsolved horrific crimes, theories pop up, and the Ripper crimes had more melodrama to offer than most. This is where the theory commonly dubbed the ‘royal conspiracy’ came to light in 1962 and as far as theories go, it had, and still has, all the main ingredients to be totally believable and juicy. The Annie Crook theory is an incredible one (although to be truthful, it has little corroborative documentary evidence to support it, hence the word ‘theory’) but it has become accepted among certain historians as the explanation.
Annie Crook was a rather plain Catholic girl, working in a ‘shop’ on Cleveland Street notorious for its brothels. As a quick aside, Charles Dickens is known to have lived nearby as a child at what is now 22 Cleveland Street and then again as a teenager ten years later. His residence in the street has led to the suggestion that a nearby workhouse was probably the inspiration for Oliver Twist. Anyway, Annie stated that she had made a clandestine marriage to 23-year-old Eddy and together they produced a daughter. When Queen Victoria heard the story she was horrified at the possibility of yet another scandal involving Eddy and blackmail was always uppermost in her mind. She appealed to her Prime Minister Lord Salisbury to put an end to the liaison and Salisbury ordered a raid on Cleveland Street to apprehend Annie and silence the whole affair.
However, they were just a tad too late. It seems embarrassing matters hadn’t been hidden at all. Annie’s friend, Mary Kelly, was spreading the story far and wide, telling the romantic tale of her friend Annie and the Prince and how Annie had been dragged away to hush up the marriage and the birth of little Alice.
With gossip spreading like wildfire, Salisbury had panicked and enlisted the help of the royal physician, Sir William Gull, to ‘eliminate’ all Mary’s friends who may have listened to the story. Those friends were Mary Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride - all Ripper victims. It’s believed that Catherine Eddowes was just at the wrong place at the wrong time when the Ripper had been disturbed in the process of killing Elizabeth Stride. Finally, Mary Kelly herself had to be eliminated. And rather damningly, once Dr Gull had successfully completed his assignment, the killings miraculously ceased. It does explain one of the puzzles of why the Ripper stopped but where is the evidence to prove it?
Very little is known about Annie Crook. There was an Annie Crook who worked in Cleveland Street and she did give birth to a daughter Alice Margaret Crook. The child’s father was not named at the time and whether that father was Eddy is not substantiated, despite the fact that he was known to frequent those very same brothels in that very same street and recognised by those very same Ripper victims. The theory falls apart, despite all the necessary ingredients of madness, sex and prostitutes, because rather fortuitously (perhaps too fortuitously?) Eddy was reported to have been in Balmoral in Scotland on the day after the murders.
But while some are pointing their fingers at Victoria’s physician, other Ripperologists have a different idea. The name that keeps popping up is James K. Stephen; Eddy’s tutor at Cambridge, a first cousin of Virginia Woolf and the son of a prominent lawyer, judge and writer, Sir James Fitzjames Stephen, 1st Baronet. The two young men remained in touch through correspondence and through their mutual acquaintances long after their … um … ‘close’ association at Cambridge when Stephen’s mission was to try and bring Eddy’s intelligence up to acceptable levels since according to one former tutor, Eddy’s mind was “abnormally dormant”.
The relationship with Stephen supposedly ended in May 1885, although the pair stayed closely in touch, but two years later, Eddy was once again in the limelight over his preference for the “gaieties of London society” and an obsession with a young lady by the name of Lady Churchill. The girl was given an interview with Queen Victoria and the next thing we hear is Eddy was awarded an honorary degree by the university and detached from the ‘Prince of Wales’ Own’ (10th Hussars) and ordered to the 16th Rifles in Malta under the guardianship of Colonel Greville, after being lectured severely by his grandmother, his father and his mother. This is probably the time to add that letters dated 1885 and 1886 had surfaced, written from Eddy to his doctor, with details of medicine he was taking for gonorrhoea.
It was the first time Eddy had been sent off on a foreign duty, evidently as a severe course of discipline, but strangely enough, at the exact same time that Eddy was cooling his heels in Malta after the Lady Churchill affair, Stephen reportedly had a rather bizarre accident where the horse he was riding shied and backed him into a moving vane of a windmill.
In a book written by Peter Harrison on the life of The Duke of Clarence, (Eddy) the suggestion is that Stephen and Eddy had indeed been lovers at Cambridge but when the affair ended, Stephen became morose and depressed. Then when Eddy appeared to have moved on with Lady Churchill, Stephen became unhinged and distraught.
Although he appeared to have made a complete recovery after his ‘accident’, it was later discovered that he became a patient of Victoria’s physician, Sir William Gull, in 1888, who declared Stephen’s brain had been permanently damaged in the accident and he was slowly going mad.
Now researching this story, and joining all the dots together, bells are clanging madly in my head along with loads of questions. Is there a veiled hint of a cover up here? Why would the royal physician, Sir William Gull, have anything to do with Stephen and his rather odd accident? Had there even been an accident with the windmill vane or had Stephen simply had a meltdown when he heard of his friend’s association with Lady Churchill and begun…let’s say…killing prostitutes? And knowing that both Stephen and Eddy were ‘close’ for years at Cambridge, is it possible that both men could have contracted gonorrhoea, perhaps even syphilis? Is it possible that Eddy was also slowly going mad? As well as Stephen? And if so, was Stephen ‘mad’, perhaps ‘deranged’ enough, to commit the Ripper murders? Remember, one of the first victims, Emma Smith, stated that two men had attacked her. Is it too impossible to imagine a cover up and fabricated reports that Eddy was in Balmoral at the time of the murders? Or was it actually Stephen who had been the Ripper, killing women in areas he knew Eddy was known to frequent?
So was it Eddy, or Stephen or Sir William Gill acting on Queen Victoria’s behalf? Or was it someone entirely different?
Nothing will ever been proven and as we know, Jack the Ripper suddenly disappeared without a trace and was never found or heard of again. But for many months afterwards, Eddy was secreted away from the public eye and somewhat miraculously - and suspiciously - the killings ceased.
Another suspicious fact to add to the bubbling cauldron is that one year later, a notice stating the engagement between Eddy and Princess Mary of Teck was published in the newspapers. At the same time that May and Eddy were getting to know one another, the newspapers came alive again with another Ripper murder in Whitechapel. At 2.15am on Friday 13th November 1891, the body of Frances Coles was discovered, with her throat slashed from ear to ear. A policeman had passed the spot 15 minutes before and was adamant that the body hadn’t been there then. Returning at 2.15am, he heard a man’s urgent footsteps running away and shining his torch into the dim archway, he noticed a figure lying on the ground in a pool of blood. The consensus was that once again the Ripper had been disturbed before he could complete the grizzly crime.
Suspiciously, Stephen was committed to a mental hospital only weeks after the Whitechapel murder and as the terrible news of Eddy’s death appeared in the newspapers on 14th January the next year, Stephen had begun to starve himself to death in the asylum. By 3rd February, he was dead. And Jack the Ripper disappeared forever.