Anyone who knows me, knows that I am a BIG Matthew Macfadyen fan, and so I was very pleased with Season 3 of “Ripper Street” was picked up. The show is a gritty, in-your-face depiction of crime in the Victorian period. And yes, I do realize “‘Ripper Street’ is a BBC mini-series set in Whitechapel in London’s East End in 1889, six months after the infamous Jack the Ripper murders.
That being said, I thought we could take a look at the definitive serial killer, Jack the Ripper. Many consider “Jack” the most terrifying of killers. The pure ferocity of Jack’s crimes continue to fascinate us over a century later.
The killer we know as Jack the Ripper made his first appearance on 31 August 1888 with the murder of a prostitute named Mary ‘Polly’ Nichols. Mary’s was the third killing of a prostitute in London’s East End, and despite its brutality, it did not initially attract attention. However, a week later, another prostitute, Annie Chapman, known as ‘Dark Annie,’ met a similar death. Mary’s throat and torso had been slit open, and there were stab wounds to the genitals. Polly also sported a slit throat, but with Polly, the Ripper had disemboweled the woman, even going so far as to drape her entrails over Polly’s shoulder and to cut her vagina and ovaries. The precision of the cuts immediately led investigators to believe that the killer had medical training and was familiar with dissecting bodies in a post-mortem room.
On September 30, the killer upped the ante when he killed twice in one night. Elizabeth Stride, a seamstress and part-time prostitute, was the first victim. ‘Long Liz’ was done away with by a knife wound to the throat. Unlike Mary and Polly, though, Elizabeth displayed no other markings. Most experts believe the Ripper was interrupted in his mutilation of Elizabeth’s body. Dissatisfied, Jack the Ripper struck a second time in the same evening. He killed prostitute Catherine Eddowes with characteristic brutality. For example, the killer had removed Catherine’s kidney. In addition, someone had written on the wall of the building behind which Catherine was found this cryptic message: ‘The Juwes are not the men that will be blamed for nothing.’ Uncertain what the message meant, an investigating officer had the message removed, claiming he wished to avoid anti-Jewish hysteria.
Shortly before the double murder, the Central News Agency had received a letter reportedly from the killer. CNA ignored the first letter, but a second one arrived within hours of the first. In it, the note’s author signed the letter ‘Jack the Ripper.’ The moniker brought the expected sensationalism. Two weeks later, a third letter arrived. This one was directed to the attention of George Lusk, head of the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee. This third letter was, obviously, from a different author. The note showed the writer to be less literate than the first two and more disturbing. The return address simply said “From Hell,” and inside was a slice of human tissue, one the writer claimed to be part of Eddowes’ removed organ.
Another three weeks passed before the Ripper struck again. Mary Kelly, like the others, was a prostitute, but a different mode of operation occurred. Mary Kelly was killed indoors, in a room in Miller’s Court. Her body was the most brutalized. The killer had partially skinned Kelly, disemboweled her, and many of her organs, including her uterus and a fetus taken from it, were displayed like trophies about the room.
Victorian London held its breath and waited another murder, but none came. A knife murder of a prostitute occurred in 1890 and again in 1892, but neither displayed the characteristic savagery of the Ripper’s murders. As quickly as he appeared, Jack the Ripper was gone.
Many theories as to the Ripper’s identity have risen from time to time. Some of the suspects have included Queen Victoria’s grandson, Prince Eddy, who was thought to have taken his revenge on prostitutes because he had “earned” a case of syphilis from a prostitute. Then there is the idea that Sir William Gull, the Queen’s surgeon, had conspired to cover up an illegitimate child that Prince Eddy had conceived with a Whitechapel girl. Crime novelist Patricia Cornwell reportedly spent $8 million of her own money to prove the Victorian painter Walter Sickert was the murderer. We shall likely never know the true identity of the world’s most infamous murderer.