History’s most notorious serial killer is still a subject of fascination a century later

History’s most notorious serial killer is still a subject of fascination a century later

1888 newspaper illustration portraying Jack The Ripper as the personification of urban neglect
1888 newspaper illustration portraying Jack The Ripper as the personification of urban neglect

With more than 4.5 million articles, Wikipedia is an invaluable resource, whether you’re throwing a term paper together at the last minute or searching for the best way to dispose of a body. But follow enough links, and you get sucked into some seriously strange places. We explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 4,549,663-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

This week’s entry: Jack The Ripper

What it’s about: Britain had her share of serial killers in the 19th century, but none captured the imagination like Jack The Ripper. In 1888, five women, all prostitutes working the low-rent Whitechapel district of London, were found murdered, their throats slit by some unknown assailant. The bodies were mutilated, and some were missing internal organs. The brutality of the murders terrified and thrilled the public, and the police were inundated with letters (probably all hoaxes) from people claiming responsibility. The media assigned a name to the killer from one of those fake letters—Jack The Ripper—and in large part because he was never caught, he still lives on in the public imagination over a century later.

Strangest fact: While the Ripper is known as a mass murderer, he’s believed to have had only five or fewer victims. Although 11 murders between 1888-1891 were collected by the London police into one “Whitechapel murders” file, only a few (known as the “canonical five”) showed the same pattern of attack. The others are believed to be either copycats, or simply brutal murders committed by someone else. In the years before the murders, London’s population swelled with Irish immigrants and Russian Jews fleeing the czar. The city’s East End, and Whitechapel in particular, were overcrowded slums, full of poverty, violence, and ethnic tension. The neighborhood had more prostitutes than a season of Game Of Thrones (an estimated 1200) and almost as many murders. Sadly, Jack The Ripper was merely one killer among many.

Biggest controversy: Of the hundreds of letters police received from people claiming to be the killer, a few stand out. The “From Hell” letter came with half a human kidney (the most recent victim had been missing that organ, although it was unclear who the kidney came from), and some believe it to be the one genuine article (a premise used by Alan Moore’s graphic novel of the same name, and the Hughes Brothers’ subsequent film adaptation). But two more missives seemed to reveal details of the killings unknown to the public, and were written by the same hand—the “Dear Boss” letter and the “Saucy Jacky” postcard. Both were signed “Jack The Ripper,” the name that caught on with the public. The letters helped create a media frenzy around the killings, and it was suggested they may have been written by a journalist to sensationalize the story and drum up newspaper sales. The police even identified a writer named Tom Bullen as the culprit. They were close: In 1931, newspaperman Fred Best confessed that he had written the letters “to keep the business alive.”

Thing we were happiest to learn: The Whitechapel murders did at least push London to clean up its slums. The unprecedented media attention the murders brought to the neighborhood woke up Londoners to the problems of overcrowding, poverty, and crime, and serious efforts were made to clean up the area. Among other reformers, Call Of The Wild author Jack London lived in the slums for a time to document conditions there in his book The People Of The Abyss, concluding that Whitechapel poverty was worse than anything back in America. While the neighborhood never became an affluent one by any means, reform efforts were able to improve conditions markedly in the decades following the Ripper murders.

Thing we were unhappiest to learn: The conspiracy theory genre may have been jumpstarted by theories about Jack The Ripper’s identity. Debating the killer’s identity was a popular pastime when he was at large that’s hardly diminished with the passage of time. The most famous unsolved case in history has over one hundred notable suspects, ranging from plausible to absurd, and have been named by the police, the contemporary media, and generations of writers and historians after the fact. Many of the suspects have certain qualities in common—history of mental illness, violence against women, particularly murder of wives or lovers, and, of course, proximity to Whitechapel. But the vast number of theories include the unlikely, (royal physician Sir William Withey Gull, who From Hell fingers as the Ripper, was in his 70s at the time of the murders and recovering from a stroke), the silly (author Richard Wallace’s “evidence” pointed to Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland author Lewis Carroll, based on anagrams Wallace worked out. “Lewis Carroll” does rearrange to “Lower Ill Scar,” so what more proof do you need?), and the eerily plausible (a Discovery Channel special called Jack The Ripper In America posited James Kelly, who was committed to an insane asylum after stabbing his wife in the neck, but escaped in 1888—just in time for the Whitechapel murders. Kelly left London for New York around the time the murders stopped, and supposedly, prostitutes were brutally murdered in several American cities in the years after his emigration.)

Also noteworthy: Another modern-day phenomenon to originate with Jack The Ripper is the dubious science of criminal profiling. The distinctive pattern of mutilation of each victim led investigators to take the then-unprecedented step of considering what sort of person would be capable of such a thing. While many modern assessments of the murders assume the killer must have had some anatomical knowledge, as he removed specific organs from some of the victims, one of the original investigators, police surgeon Thomas Bond, insisted the killer lacked any medical expertise or even “the technical knowledge of a butcher or horse slaughterer.” He posited the Ripper would be a man of solitary habits, subject to “homicidal and erotic mania,” possibly motivated by revenge or religious mania. As the murders were never solved, we can’t know if Bond’s conclusions were correct, but we’ve been profiling criminals ever since.

Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: For what we hope is a small subset of readers, it will be Assault! Jack The Ripper, a “Japanese erotic horror” film inspired very loosely by Jack The Ripper. For everyone else, London Metropolitan Police Service’s legendary headquarters, Scotland Yard (so named for the street facing the original HQ’s rear entrance, the same way Wall Street has become synonymous with the New York Stock Exchange), is also a subject of fascination.

Further down the wormhole: Remember at the top of the article, when we linked to pre-1900 serial killers? That one’s too good to pass up. So next week, get ready for more murder. We promise we’ll follow that one with puppies, or cupcakes, or PaRappa The Rapper or something.

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