In the closing months of the year 1888, the Whitechapel district of London was gripped with terror as a serial killer known as Jack the Ripper stalked the streets killing women in an incredibly grisly manner. Not just strangled or stabbed, but eviscerated with their organs removed. This mass murderer was never caught. But there’s no shortage of theories about the likely suspects.
Whitechapel is in the heart of London’s east end. Back in 1888, it was dirt poor. London was the capital of the world’s largest and richest empire but it possessed pockets of the bleakest imaginable deprivation. Despite attempts to clear slums and improve public health, some parts of London defied attempts at amelioration. Whitechapel remained mired in poverty.
For women who lost the financial support of husband, things could be very tough indeed. Annie Chapman, the Ripper’s second victim, is a good example. At one moment living a fairly respectable lower-middle-class existence in the suburbs and then flung into destitution. Each day being a struggle to raise a little money for a bed in a shared dosshouse that night.
There’s a lot of understandable and fascinating discussion about whether Jack the Ripper’s victims engaged in sex work. To describe them as ‘prostitutes’, as if that’s what they did all day and night long, is not correct. But equally, to deny they didn’t engage in sex work is to airbrush out the degrading choices these women were forced to make.
Somebody in late 1888 was out to kill women during the night in Whitechapel. Who was this person? Note the use of the word ‘person’ as one theory has Jack the Ripper being a woman.
My preferred candidate is the Irish-American quack doctor Francis Tumblety who moved between the US and UK frequently conducting his dubious and unqualified medical business. He was in Whitechapel at the right time, which he freely admitted, and other factors point strongly to him.
Not least that he had been twice accused of manslaughter of patients; was known to police for his outspoken hatred of women and prostitutes in particular; owned a collection of uteruses in glass jars; and was arrested for gross indecency, which led to the Ripper related charge.
The main argument against Tumblety as the killer is that he was homosexual, attested by a long police record and court appearances. But modern understanding of serial killers evidences that sexuality isn’t a barrier to this kind of crime.
I’m putting Cutbush next as he was an early candidate for being Jack the Ripper. Cutbush came to prominence in 1891 after stabbing two women in the buttocks, in south London. The knife was purchased at a gunsmith’s shop in the Minories near the Tower of London.
His attacks revived memories of an 1830s assailant known as Spring-heeled Jack who allegedly wore a superhero-type costume; could jump great distances; wore metallic gloves with claws to rip and tear women’s clothing; and even breathed fire on occasions!
Cutbush was violently deranged and confined to a mental hospital in Lambeth from which he escaped to assault these women. Three years later, a London newspaper accused him of being the Ripper. One point raised was that Cutbush had contracted syphilis by 1888 hence his reported hatred of prostitutes. The disease was a life sentence in those days leading to dreadful physical degeneration and insanity.
However a police investigation found no solid evidence to back up the newspaper’s claims.
Sir Melville Leslie Macnaghten was a senior officer at Scotland Yard born in Woodford, a suburb of east London where I grew up. He issued a detailed memorandum trashing the Cutbush theory and pointed his finger instead at three other suspects.
Some view the memorandum as a diversionary tactic – a police cover up!
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One of the trio of suspects named by Macnaghten was Dorset-born Montague Druitt who hailed from a prosperous family; was educated at Winchester College and Oxford University; but then exited a teaching post at the Blackheath boys’ school in suspicious circumstances. Some have leaped to the conclusion that he must have been caught either molesting a pupil or in an adult same-sex scenario while others harrumph that sex had nothing to do with it.
Druitt is attractive as a suspect because his suicide in December 1888 gives us a neat explanation for why the Ripper killings suddenly stopped. As Macnaghten noted, the murders were becoming increasingly violent and frenzied. Why, the Scotland Yard detective rightly asked, would he suddenly stop in November that year never to strike again?
Unless he died of course.
The journalist Daniel Farson championed the Druitt theory and the Macnaughten memorandum until his death in 1997. But the timing of Druitt’s dismissal from the boys’ school suggests a more plausible explanation. That he was kicked out as a result of ‘serious trouble’ at the end of November 1888 and two or three days later, maybe facing police action or blackmail, put rocks in his pocket and waded into the Thames.
His body was found nearly a month later.
Mcnaughten makes a series of factual errors about Druitt getting the date of his suicide wrong and even erroneously claiming he was a doctor. His nudge-nudge-wink-wink style in the memorandum, claiming to have known people close to Druitt, even family members, who confirmed he was the Ripper, are somewhat undermined by howling mistakes about Druitt’s life and movements at the time.
More than likely, the murders in Whitechapel had nothing to do with Druitt.
The next suspect named by Mcnaughten was Aaron Kosminski.
Kosminski was a working-class Polish Jew who emigrated to London’s east end a few years before the killings. The Whitechapel area of London had a large Jewish community in the late 19th and early 20th century giving rise to a great deal of anti-semitism. In the literature of the time, there was the common racist trope of the unwashed, darker skinned, shifty-eyed, foreign type capable of any evil deed.
You might say times haven’t changed that much.
So, I’ve always been wary of allegations from the Victorian period linking Jewish individuals in Whitechapel to the Ripper killings. However in recent years, Kosminski has come to the fore as a suspect because of DNA analysis. It’s argued that a silk shawl found next to the Ripper’s fourth victim, Catherine Eddowes, which has survived to the present day, has traces of semen with traces of DNA that match descendants of Kosminski.
In 2019, this finding was published in a peer-reviewed publication, the Journal of Forensic Sciences. But critics have been unhappy that data about living relatives could not be scrutinised in more depth, and argue that it’s not 100% proven the silk shawl was at the scene of the crime. And what level of contamination has the shawl experienced since 1888?
The third suspect named by Mcnaughten was Michael Ostrog.
Reading the contemporary newspaper accounts of Ostrog’s crimes, it’s hard not to smile. He was an audacious if rather tragic and ridiculous fraudster. Ostrog led a purposeless life of constant scamming and lying.
On one occasion, pretending to be a tutor at Eton, gaining entrance to the college with an academic mortar board on his head, and stealing several gold watches and chains. In court, he tried to convince the magistrate his real name was Claud Clayton and not Michael Ostrog but to no avail.
He’s sometimes described as a “mad Russian doctor” but while the first two words may be correct, the third most definitely was not. Like Tumblety, he didn’t have a single medical qualification. And aside from occasional outbursts of temper, normally when in custody, Ostrog doesn’t fit Mcnaughten’s description of him as a “homicidal maniac”.
The only accusation that peaks my interest is that a man fitting his description tailed George Lusk, the chair of the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee, shortly before Lusk received the infamous “From Hell” letter that included a human kidney.
Could Ostrog have sent this to insert himself into the Ripper story?
In relation to the last of the five recognised killings by the Jack the Ripper – the “canonical” murders – Joseph Barnett is a fairly credible suspect. Mary Kelly was killed inside a locked room that she had shared with her boyfriend, Barnett. Days before, Mary had thrown him out and at the same time, lost her key. Did he let himself back in, kill her, and then lock the door on the way out?
There’s certainly evidence to suggest he was in the vicinity; was seen talking to Mary; his warm pipe was still on the fireplace when her body was discovered; and there’s also evidence that links him to the killing of Annie Chapman. Police did interview Barnett and decided it wasn’t him. But he undoubtedly makes for a compelling suspect.
So many suspects – so little evidence
The rumours and theories about the Ripper’s identity began in that fateful autumn of 1888 and have continued ever since. One early hunch was that he must have worked in a local slaughterhouse. Several men were reported to have quit their jobs in this sector of activity at the time of the murders. Two of them ended up in the United States where Pinkerton detectives interviewed but then let them off the hook – pardon the pun!