It was the fall of 1888, and the inhabitants of London were frozen with fear. “The air of Whitechapel is thick with murders and rumors of murder,” an article in The Star announced in September. “Whitechapel is panic-stricken,” with its inhabitants too terrified to travel the twisting, smoggy streets alone.
The widespread terror in Whitechapel was all thanks to the work of a “murderous maniac,” according to the article, “who stalks through the streets,” targeting “the most miserable and defenceless classes of the community.” This maniac had already murdered four and was set to murder more.
Today, the shadows that surround these crimes are still as thick as they were in the 1800s. While we know the pseudonymous name of the murderer, Jack the Ripper, the murderer’s identity and motivations remain mysterious. So, what are our chances of knowing more?
The Identity of Jack the Ripper
To the initial investigators, the two most suspicious suspects for the five canonical crimes were Montague Druitt, a Dorset-born barrister, and Aaron Kosminski, a Polish barber. Both were believed to be “insane,” according to an account from 1894, and aggressive towards women, while Druitt — the son of a surgeon — was thought to possess some semblance of surgical skill.
Yet in the years since the conclusion of the investigation, countless new suspects have been proposed by “Ripperologists” still interested in the case. Among these new suspects are Hyam Hyams and H. H. Holmes, both of whom had a history of violence.
Was Hyam Hyams Jack the Ripper?
Hyams, a cigar-maker in Whitechapel, was first institutionalized in 1889 — some seven weeks following the fifth and final murder — for assaulting his wife and his mother with a knife. Medical records reveal he had a stiff arm, an asymmetric stride, and suffered from frequent, severe seizures, which worsened his violent tendencies over time.
His physical condition was consistent with the accounts of several witnesses, who claimed that the culprit walked with a shuffle, and his mental condition crumbled in time with the Ripper’s crimes. Though the arguments against Hyams are all circumstantial, some Ripperologists are convinced of his culpability, including author Sarah Bax Horton, who compiled a case against him in her 2023 book One-Armed Jack: Uncovering the Real Jack the Ripper.
Was H. H. Holmes Jack the Ripper?
Another theory accuses the American serial killer H. H. Holmes of the Ripper’s crimes. In 1886, Holmes started to target individuals in Chicago, slaughtering them — according to some sources — to steal their wealth. Though some say that Holmes murdered as many as 200 people over the next 10 years, trapping, torturing, and dissecting their bodies, others suspect that the true number is nearer to nine.
In 2011, author Jeff Mudgett set out to prove that Holmes was also the Ripper. His argument, presented in part in his book Bloodstains, has been criticized by biographer Adam Selzer and others. Among Mudgett’s pieces of circumstantial evidence, most crucial are his assertions that Holmes’ appearance and handwriting were consistent with those of the Ripper, which he supports with witness accounts and handwriting analyses from one of the Ripper’s messages to the press, supposedly sent in September 1888.
Who Was Jack the Ripper?
Also known as the Whitechapel Murderer, Jack the Ripper was an active serial killer in the streets of London in the late 1800s. One of the most mysterious and terrifying criminals of all time, the Ripper has attracted the attention (and the speculation) of countless crime aficionados since the time of the offenses, over a century ago.
What Did Jack the Ripper Do?
According to the police inspectors who initially investigated the case, the Ripper targeted the marginalized, murdering and mutilating impoverished women in the streets of the neglected Whitechapel district. At the time, Whitechapel was poverty-stricken and overcrowded, with over 76,000 people populating its dilapidated avenues and dwellings. Crime was common, as was homelessness, and violence against women — who, in some instances, turned to sex work to support themselves — was widespread.
When Did Jack the Ripper Kill?
The pervasive aggression against women in Whitechapel made it difficult for investigators to determine when Jack the Ripper’s attacks started and stopped. That being said, almost a dozen murders and mutilations from 1888 to 1891 were included in initial investigations and speculatively attributed to the Ripper, of which five were connected — in the course of those investigations — to a single culprit. These five “canonical” crimes occurred from August to November in 1888 and are the murders most commonly attributed to the Ripper.
Who Did Jack the Ripper Kill?
Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly comprise the victims of the five canonical crimes. Nichols was found in August; Chapman, Stride, and Eddowes were found in September; and Kelly was murdered more than a month afterwards, in November. Assuming that the victims were sex workers, the initial investigators also assumed that they were murdered while working in the streets — all save for the final victim, Kelly, who was killed in bed, in a small, single apartment.
Those theories remained unchallenged until relatively recently, when British historian Hallie Rubenhold controversially argued in The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper that Nichols, Chapman, and Eddowes were not sex workers at all. “The Ripper killed prostitutes, or so it has always been believed, but there is no hard evidence to suggest that three of his five victims were prostitutes,” Rubenhold writes in the text.
To Rubenhold, the idea that the Ripper targeted sex workers was a product of the prejudices of the initial investigators — one that modern considerations of the crimes should set aside. Because they were women in Whitechapel, the victims were seen as sex workers, and because they were seen as sex workers, they were also deemed disposable, in some ways deserving of the crimes committed against them. “As soon as each body was discovered, in a dark yard or street, the police assumed that the woman was a prostitute killed by a maniac who had lured her to the location for sex,” she adds in the 2019 book.
The Murders of Jack the Ripper
Of course, the setting and the nature of the crimes caused the initial investigators to make many assumptions about the Ripper, as well as those about the Ripper’s victims.
In the five canonical crimes, for instance, the victims were all murdered and mutilated at night, in a manner that suggested the culprit was well-acquainted with anatomy. To the investigators, the slashes to the victims’ throats and the severed tissues throughout the victims’ facial, abdominal, and genital areas suggested a modicum of surgical skill. Clinching the criminal’s supposed skill, the Ripper also removed organs from four of five canonical corpses, causing one coroner to characterize the murders as “most atrocious.”
Not all initial investigators agreed about the Ripper’s abilities. Assessing the fifth canonical corpse and consulting the postmortem notes on the four previous corpses in November 1888, one surgeon offered another opinion on the murderer’s skills and mental state, composing one of the oldest criminal profiles. According to the surgeon, the murderer was a solitary man, without surgical skill, prone to “periodical attacks” of “mania” and “satyriasis,” an obsession with sex so intense it brought on bursts of brutal violence.
Whether there was a sexual motivation to the murders or not, coroners’ reports revealed that the corpses carried no signs of sexual activity from the moments preceding the murders. Instead, the reports revealed that the women were all killed in reclining positions, without any signs of struggle. “The attacks were probably so sudden and made in such a position that the women could neither resist nor cry out,” the surgeon stated in the profile. “There is no evidence that he had an accomplice.”
The Investigation of Jack the Ripper
Without much more than the condition of the corpses and their tentative profile to target their search, a massive team of investigators swept through Whitechapel. Throughout the course of their investigations, over 80,000 pamphlets were issued in pursuit of information and over 2,000 people were interviewed as possible witnesses and suspects, with “butchers and slaughterers” being subject to additional scrutiny.
Several witnesses said they saw a mysterious man with the murder victims around the time of the murders, though their muddled accounts fell short of actually assisting the investigation. “There are hundreds of men about the streets answering the vague description of the man who is ‘wanted,’” one police officer complained in October 1888, “and we cannot arrest everybody.”
For all their lack of leads — and with no murder weapon found — the investigators were tireless in their attempts to identify the killer. Yet Rubenhold argues that they failed to arrive at one crucial conclusion. “The police were so committed to their theories about the killer’s choice of victims that they failed to conclude the obvious,” she states in The Five. “The Ripper targeted women while they slept.” Supporting this theory is the fact that one of the women was murdered in bed, while several were known for sleeping in the street.
Press Coverage and Correspondence
Further troubling the investigation were the sensationalized stories that flooded the front pages of the papers. Suspecting that the constant, speculative coverage could impede their investigation, coloring the claims of the witnesses or influencing the actions of the culprit, the police attempted to investigate in secret. Yet the press clambered to publish anything they could about the crimes. Taking advantage of the shocking story, they presented their own theories publicly and pursued their own witnesses and suspects.
Interestingly, many of these witnesses and suspects were identified in the torrent of messages mailed to the police and the press throughout the course of the case. While some of this correspondence included serious insights about the murders, it is thought that most was written by insincere individuals who wrongly identified themselves as the murderer. As such, these letters did little to advance the investigation, though they did much in arousing public attention and anxiety.
Was Jack the Ripper Caught?
Despite their dogged attempts, the police failed to find the killer. The Ripper was never identified, never charged, never incarcerated — though not for a lack of trying, nor a lack of suspects.
Why Did Jack the Ripper Stop?
Whether the Ripper was one of the original suspects, one of the new suspects, or neither, there are a number of theories as to why the murders stopped. Some Ripperologists suspect that the crimes ceased because the culprit was imprisoned or institutionalized. Others suppose that the culprit moved to another area or died.
It is also possible that the intensity of the investigations could’ve cut the slaughter short. In October 1888, an article in The Star stated that the police exercised “extreme vigilance” in Whitechapel, which “swarms with detectives and men in uniform.” With so many authorities around, the Ripper could’ve curtailed the crime spree, simply out of fear of being caught.
How Did Jack the Ripper Die?
Now, over 130 years after the crimes were committed, the Ripper is dead, though the specific cause of death depends on the specific suspect. Montague Druitt committed suicide following the final murder in December 1888, while Aaron Kosminski and Hyam Hyams died in mental institutions in 1919 and 1913, respectively. Tried for murder in 1896, H. H. Holmes was sentenced to death by hanging.
Was Jack the Ripper Real?
From all of this, it’s safe to say that the Ripper was an actual person, who committed actual atrocities against the women of Whitechapel. But while the murderer and the murders were real, the fact remains that much of our inherited knowledge about the Ripper is murky or invented — an artifact of old prejudices, a product of sensationalized press, and an amalgam of speculations, past and present.
Who the murderer was, who the victims were, and the motivations behind their actions are seen today, not through a neutral perspective, but through the perspective of those that recorded and reported the crimes well over a century ago — perspectives that were perhaps more invested in policing the poor inhabitants of Whitechapel or selling papers than identifying the truth.
Even today, our most trusted techniques fail to find answers: In 2019, the forensic analysis of a DNA-stained shawl from one of the crime scenes seemed to point a finger at Aaron Kosminski, suggesting that the DNA corresponded to that of one of Kosminki’s living relatives. But even this evidence could not confirm a culprit. Not only is the extent of the correspondence uncertain; critics of the analysis claim that it isn’t even certain the shawl was ever at the crime scene.
In light of this analysis — and with Ripperologists no closer to agreeing on the one true culprit — it’s only fair to contemplate the future of the Jack the Ripper case. Will the mystery ever come to a close, or will it remain unsolved for centuries and centuries to come?
Read More: Why We Are Fascinated With Serial Killers