Jack the Ripper – thoughts and theories 1

It is probably the most notorious unsolved case in the history of crime. Who was the serial killer who killed and mutilated prostitutes in the East End of London in the “Autumn of Terror” 1888?

There are many theories about, and basically, the only thing that is known for certain is that we know almost nothing. We can´t even be certain about the exact number of victims: although the most wide accepted consensus is that he killed five women, some count only four, others add other cases to a number of eight.

For information on this case, I am taking the easy way and just refer anyone interested to: http://www.casebook.org/intro.html.

So… trying to work out who the Ripper might have been… where to start?

Let´s take a look at the timeline and the overall attention that the case drew in its time.

The murders

http://www.casebook.org/timeline.html

The earliest murder ascribed to the Ripper occured in August 1888 (Martha Tabram). There were two murders in August, two in September, none in the five weeks after the “double event” on September 30, and one in early November. This, the murder of Mary Jane Kelly, is generally considered the final Ripper murder.

Further, there was one more murder in December 1888 (Rose Mylett), one in July 1889 (Alice McKenzie), one in 1891 (Frances Coles) that at some point have been considered possible Ripper murders.

The impact

The impact the Ripper case had on the public at the time sets the background against which the police investigation took place.

“Jack the Ripper … was not the first serial killer, but he was probably the first to appear in a large metropolis at a time when the general populace had become literate and the press was a force for social change. The Ripper also appeared when there were tremendous political turmoil and both the liberals and social reformers, as well as the Irish Home rule partisans tried to use the crimes for their own ends. Every day the activities of the Ripper were chronicled in the newspapers as were the results of the inquiries and the actions taken by the police. Even the feelings of the people living in the East End, and the editorials that attacked the various establishments of Society appeared each day for both the people of London and the whole world to read. It was the press coverage that made this series of murders a “new thing”, something that the world had never known before.” (quoted from above link, my bold). 

http://www.casebook.org/dissertations/dst-rippermania.html

LeannePerry describes in  

http://www.casebook.org/dissertations/ripperoo-terror.html

how these crimes held the East End in a grip of terror: “Over the weekend of Annie Chapman’s murder, anxious and agitated crowds, gathered outside the murder site, the mortuary, the local police station and at the ‘Ten Bells’ pub. Businesses were forced to close and thousands of people swarmed the streets. The crowds came from all over London. People were quick to capitalize on the situation and set up stalls, that did a thriving business. Residents even charged people to view the actual murder site, until they were stopped by police.

When ambulances rushed towards London Hospital, at anytime over the ‘Autumn of Terror‘, informed crowds pursued it, sensing another victim. Angry mobs called for a mans lynching, after he suddenly threw a woman to the ground and began kicking her and threatening her with a knife. The man turned out to be blind and the woman his regular escort. People “saw” the supposed killer everywherethousands of fake Jack the Ripper letters [showed up], wasting a great deal of police time… 

Police conducted house-to-house searches, ten thousand handbills were distributed and more police were drafted to the area, (including plain-clothed detectives).”

Lisa Johnstone concentrates on the treatment of the case in the press in

http://www.casebook.org/dissertations/rippercussions.html.

“The killer – nameless, faceless, seemingly motiveless – defied all attempts at being put into an understandable order, and this lack of a comprehensible and complete story (‘Something terrible’s happened! … Oh, but it’s over now.’) gave the public no way of thinking clearly about their fears; the Ripper became the boogeyman, so elusive, so mysterious, so alien that he could hardly be seen as human. …”

” The now infamous ‘Dear Boss’ letter was posted to the Central News Agency, and although it wasn’t the first Ripper letter – and certainly wouldn’t be the last – it and its ‘brother’, a postcard received on 1st October, are the most well known and are considered to possibly be from the actual killer. Whether they were or not was irrelevant to the press, who, under the pretence that publishing the letters would cause members of the public to recognise the handwriting, ran several stories on these letters. This was more than enough to spark widespread public reaction, although it wasn’t the reaction the police had hoped for…” (referring to the thousands of fake letters that followed).

“… the xenophobic feel that infused the entire case: the suspicion of Jews – the first major suspect being Jewish John Pizer, known as ‘Leather Apron’ – the supposed anti-Semitic Ripper graffiti ‘The Juwes are not the men who will not be blamed for nothing’, the fact that Mary Kelly, the last victim, was Irish, and so on. Victorian Londoners had become increasingly disturbed by the influx of foreign immigrants into the city, partly in light of recent ‘international terrorism’  and partly due to the inherent xenophobia that the English seem to possess. Londoners were desperate to believe that the killer was not English, as only a less-civilised foreigner could commit such awful acts… ”

“Meanwhile, the papers showed a rise in ‘suspicious incidents’ – possible Ripper-related attacks, since any man who now harassed a woman on the street could be Jack himself -… Yet reports of ‘economic’ related crimes – i.e. burglary, mugging, etc. – went up during the Ripper murders. The East End News reported that while the police had been occupied with the killing at Mitre Square, ‘the Aldgate post office was entered and ransacked […] under the very noses of the “guardians of peace and order.”‘ Much of the blame was thrown at the police, from members of the press and general public; on 10th November, the Star published an article citing Sir Charles Warren, police commissioner as ‘clumsy, wilful’ and ‘ignorant’, while many letters to editors suggested more effective methods of police organisation, such as a policeman dressing up as a female prostitute to lure the Ripper or, more sensibly, that a policeman remain on one beat, getting to know that area of the city well, as a ‘policeman who knows his beat […] is worth three who do not’.… The reaction of the general public was to either form voluntary groups who patrolled Whitechapel on the lookout for suspicious men, or to form lynch mobs who would pursue any male with the cry of ‘Jack the Ripper!’

During the “autumn of terror”, the East End was a dangerous powder keg. People were scared almost to a point of hysteria. A militia had formed. There was a considerable risk of lynchings and riots breaking out (which was one of the reasons why the Goulton Street graffiti blaming the “Jewes” was erased even before it could be photographed and established for certain whether it had anything to do with the Ripper).

 The police was under heavy scrutiny and criticism.

In this situation, it would have been in their own best interest to let the public know as soon as they could that a) the danger posed by the Ripper was no more and that b) the credit for this belonged to them, that they had done a good job in protecting the public. But did they? And if not, why?

After all, several members of the police force claimed, later on, that police had indeed known who the Ripper was and had been certain that after the last murder definitely ascribed to him (Kelly) he would not return and start another killing spree. Yet, if that is true, it seems they allowed the public to live with this fear.

Brian W. Schoeneman writes in:

http://www.casebook.org/dissertations/schoeneman-crisis.html

“After the death of Mary Jane Kelly, over the next two years there were at least three similar killings: Rose Mylett, Alice MacKenzie, and Frances Coles. While these killings were similar to the Ripper murders, they took place over a wider time period, did not display the same ferocity as the previous murders and the public did not receive them with the same fear and panic as they did the canonical killings.”

As Schoenemann lays out, there were two rival policing agencies involved in the Whitechapel murder investigations:  the Metropolitan Police and the City of London Police force. The latter was – and still is – responsible for the one square mile zone that made up London City proper, which was a separate political entity, with its own figurehead – the Lord Mayor – and city council. …  The bulk of the canonical murders took place within the jurisdiction of the Met – only Catharine Eddowes was killed inside the jurisidiction of the City. In the eyes of the public and the press, the Met alone was responsible for the Ripper’s successful apprehension.

The Metropolitan Police, at the time of the Ripper murders, consisted of 22 divisions. “A Superintendent led each division, who, in turn, supervised a number of inspectors and sergeants. The inspectors and sergeants were responsible for the individual Police Constables who walked the beat. By 1888, the Metropolitan Police numbered a total of 14,106 officers, not including the senior administrators.17 The two divisions that responded to the Whitechapel killings – Division H (Whitechapel) and Division J (Bethnal Green) – numbered 548 and 617 officers, respectively.”

The Criminal Investigations Department (CID) was made up of plainclothes detectives and inspectors, and had a troubled history. It was consistently undermanned – 15 men in a force of over 8000 in 1868 – and was constantly embroiled in controversy and, near its end, in allegations of misconduct. The CID played the lead role in the investigations of the Ripper murders. 

The highest-ranking officers of the Metropolitan Police were at odds with each other, and during the Whitechapel murders – when they should have been united in the resolve to catch the Ripper, and appear united to the press – they were engaged in near constant bickering. In the end, the two most important leadership positions within the Met – the Chief Commission, and the head of the CID – were vacated during the Ripper crisis. This was due in small part to the failure to catch the murderer, but primarily because of personality conflicts. …

Both the rivalry between City and Met Police and the top ranking officers would provide just the more reason to publically announce that the Ripper was gone as soon as that could be done and take the credit for it.

Yet the case was allowed to gradually fade from attention. There was no large-scale announcement that the Ripper was gone, people were safe now, police was not as goofy as they had been thought to be. The risk was taken that panic would break out anew in the East End, which could be caused by any murder similar enough to give the public the impression that the Ripper was back. Now, why would police let that happen? Perhaps simply because they did not have a clue who the Ripper was, and so could neither be certain that he wouldn´t return, nor would they want to draw attention to the fact.

“As suddenly as the killings had begun, they stopped. Though there were a number of similar murders over the next two years, none were conclusively linked to Ripper, and none were treated the same way by the press, police and public. London and the East End had adapted to the fear. There were no further Ripper style killings after 1891. The crisis had resolved itself – though not through the actions of the Metropolitan Police, the Home Office or the public. The Ripper resolved the crisis for them. He simply stopped killing.”

But on the other hand, we do have statements of several members of the police force that the police did indeed know who the Ripper was, giving different reasons just why there had not been an arrest and the killings had stopped.

Let´s take a look at them in the next post, and see how credible these theories are, considering that they must provide a plausible reason why the police did not make any public statement.

Kathy Reichs: Déjà Dead

Originally published 1997, German: Tote lügen nicht (2000)

Having occasionally caught, and enjoyed, episodes of “Bones” on TV, I was happy to come across “Déjà Dead”, the first novel of the Tempe Brennan seris, at a flea market the other day.

It was a brilliant read, and I´m definitely going to read more from this series.

The Tempe Brennan encountered in this book as the first person narrator is considerably different from the Tempe Brennan of “Bones” – according to Wikipedia, the TV version has more in common with the author, Kathy Reichs, than with her namesake. So this Tempe is a forensic anthropologist in her late 30s, living alone after a divorce some years ago, her daughter at college, far away. Tempe is also a former alcoholic.

Whereas in the TV series, Tempe is working in Washington, D.C., at least the first few novels in the series are set in Montreal, Quebec, Canada which does add a unique atmosphere to the setting. Tempe is set apart, and to some degree isolated, by her position as an American working in a foreign country, and while she is not the only woman at her institute, she is the only woman working with several male detectives in this particular case and has a hard time convincing them (especially one) to take her theory of a serial killer on the loose seriously.

When human remains are found on the grounds of an abandoned monastery, Tempe is called in to quickly confirm whether they are from an old grave, laid open by the elements, as everyone hopes, or a case for the police. All too quickly, it turns out they are indeed from a murder victim, brutally mutilated and dismembered.

Something about the find reminds Tempe of a former, unsolved case and she starts looking at that again. Soon after, more dead bodies turn up, all mutilated and dismembered, all of them female. Tempe is convinced that a serial killer is on the loose, but has a hard time convincing the policemen working on the case of her theory.

At the same time, her best friend, a fellow anthropologist who is doing a field study in the red light district about the subculture of prostitutes, is giving Tempe increasingly reason to worry – she acts strangely and unusually and at one point, confesses that in the course of her work, she has attracted the attention of a stalker.

Again and again, the notorious real life case of Jack the Ripper peeks out beneath the lines, starting with the combination of the motifs of a serial killer, mutilated victims, prostitution. The descriptions of the mutilations have some parallels to those committed on the real life victims of the Ripper, most obviously those of the woman murdered in her own home to those of Mary Jane Kelly – the Ripper victim murdered in her home. Did I mention that one of the suspects goes by the alias of “St Jacques”?

Talking about the suspects – there are many fictional treatments of the Ripper case; some are good reads, some are not. Each of them offers its own solution to the case, and sadly, so far I haven´t encountered one that might be even close to probability. Most of them either have the Ripper turn out to be a completely fictitious character, not based on anyone associated with the real life case (e.g. Michael Dibdin´s The Last Sherlock Holmes Story) or they pick a fictionalised version of the more sensationalist theories, having the Queen´s physician, a member of the Royal family, or a conspiracy of freemasons be behind the murders. Which is really only exciting the first time you read about it. By the n-th novelisation, graphic novel, movie, TV miniseries presenting this theory… yawn.

In a way, “Déjà Dead” can be considered another fictionalized treatment of the Ripper case, and while it is far removed from the real case in terms of temporal, geographical and thus cultural setting, in her line-up of suspects and characters Kathy Reichs does acknowledge some of the well-established Ripper theories that are generally considered more likely (…well, at least in comparison to the Royal Conspiracy) today. There is a teacher who behaves oddly – an obvious nod to Montague John Druitt – an even a madman who has exhibited violent behavior in the past and has at times been committed to an asylum, a wave at the David Cohen theory.

The David Cohen theory is, in my opinion, one of the more likely identifications of the Ripper, which makes it worthwhile elaborating on it. It originates from the 1894 Macnaghten memoranda,  which mention three major suspects, among them “a Polish Jew & resident in Whitechapel. This man became insane owing to many years indulgence in solitary vices. He had a great hatred of women, especially of the prostitute class, & had strong homicidal tendencies; he was removed to a lunatic asylum about March 1889. There were many circs connected with this man which made him a strong ‘suspect'”;  from information about the killer (and the police’s knowledge about his identity), revealed by Sir Robert Anderson (Assistant Commissioner CID at Scotland Yard) for the first time in an article in 1895, and later in his own book The Lighter Side of My Official Life (1910): “One did not need to be a Sherlock Holmes to discover that the criminal was a sexual maniac of a virulent type; that he was living in the immediate vicinity of the scenes of the murders; […] And the conclusion we came to was that he and his people were certain low-class Polish Jews […] I am almost tempted to disclose the identity of the murderer and of the pressman who wrote the letter above referred to. But no public benefit would result from such a course, and the traditions of my old department would suffer. I will merely add that the only person who had ever had a good view of the murderer unhesitatingly identified the suspect the instant he was confronted with him; but he refused to give evidence against him.” and, finally, from margin annotations in a copy of Anderson’s memoirs, mentioned above, beloning to the retired ex-Superintendent Donald S. Swanson. The annotations, in Swanson’s own hand-writing, are written at the bottom of the passage about the witness who refused to give evidence against the suspect: “because the suspect was also a Polish Jew and also because his evidence would convict the suspect, and witness would be the means of murderer being hanged which he did not wish to be left on his mind. […] And after this identification which suspect knew, no other murder of this kind took place in London. […] Continuing from page 138, after the suspect had been identified at the Seaside Home where he had been sent by us with difficulty in order to subject him to identification, and he knew he was identified. On suspect’s return to his brother’s house in Whitechapel he was watched by the police (City CID) by day & night. In a very short time the suspect with his hands tied behind his backs, he was sent to Stephney Workhouse and then to Colney Hatch and died shortly afterwards – Kosminski was the suspect – DSS

(Abdridged quotation from: http://www.casebook.org/suspects/davidcohen.html)

Unfortunately, there is still no “final evidence” that would solidify this theory as “the one” – there are good cases to be made for several other theories, which lack “final evidence” as well. So, after more than 110 years, we can still only be certain of one thing about the Ripper: We do not know who he was.

Returning to Kathy Reich´s novel: It would be going one step too far to assume that by identifying the killer in her novel, the author has also stated an opinion as to which suspect she considers the most likely to have been Jack the Ripper; but still, it is a relief not to see the usual conspiracy theories rehashed for the umpteenth time in this context.

Most importantly: The novel is not based on the Ripper case so strongly that you can´t enjoy it if you are not familiar with the historical case, or consider the work unimaginative if you are. All the parallels and nods mentioned are merely an added bonus for Ripperologists in a book that is a good crime novel in its own right.