126 years of Jack the Ripper: Uncovering the Spectre
126 years ago, on October 23, 1888, London prostitute Elizabeth “Long Liz” Stride was declared the fourth victim of the specter we now call Jack the Ripper. She wouldn’t be the last, and before his bloody reign of terror ended less than a month later, the public would be exposed to even more unthinkable horror on a much grander scale.
Jack the Ripper. It’s a name nearly everyone has heard of, and yet no one can speak with any real authority as to his or her identity. He’s a Bogeyman whose moniker strikes terror into the hearts of children and adults alike, even now, a century and a quarter after his crimes. However, unlike the Bogeyman, we know that he or, at the very least, his handiwork, was real.
The year is 1888; the place, London, England. A nameless, faceless killer begins stalking the streets of the Whitechapel section of London, preying on the area’s most downtrodden residents: the poor, “Unfortunate” women who sell their sexual favors on the mean, cruel, unforgiving streets. From seemingly out of obscurity, he emerges and begins killing the prostitutes who ply their trade in the East End.
Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols is first to meet her end at the hands of the “Ripper”. On August 31, she is discovered in Buck’s Row with her throat severely cut and multiple stab wounds to her abdomen.
Eight days later, Annie Chapman becomes the Ripper’s second victim. She is found around 6 a.m. by John Davis with her throat viciously slashed open, her intestines resting on her shoulder and her uterus missing.
The Ripper’s next victim, Elizabeth “Long Liz” Stride, suffers only the indignity of having her throat cut but she is no less dead. It is thought Jack was interrupted.
This theory gains credibility when Catherine Eddowes is discovered roughly an hour later. She is the first victim with facial mutilations. Jack “cut off her nose to spite her face.”
Mary Kelly is murdered in her own bed on November 9, murdered most foul, virtually dissected in what should have been the safety of her own lodgings. It would take less time to mention what about her was left intact than what wasn’t. The Ripper took his time with her, took the time he wasn’t able to take with the others. The end result is the stuff of nightmares. Gruesome as it is, her death perhaps marks the end of the terror. Or does it?
Much like the number of days in October, there are no less than 31 different suspects, or groups of suspects, for the Jack the Ripper murders, and that number continues to climb as we discover new evidence and re-examine the old. That’s 31 people thought to have the motive, the means or both to brutally slaughter at least five women in the span of four months. That’s a number that hasn’t been replicated in the last 125 years. So, in addition to being the most elusive killer in history, Jack is also the one with the largest pool of suspects.
There are multiple theories as to why the crimes were committed, but despite the efforts of the police, the killer was never apprehended.
This begs the question of why.
Of the five canonical murders, four were committed outside of the “city” of London, in the area known as Whitechapel. At the time, this area was under the jurisdiction of the Metropolitan Police, headquartered at Scotland Yard. From 1886, Commissioner Charles Warren held command of the MP force, and was the chief investigating officer on the case. His leadership skills were highly questioned, and by the end of the terror, he resigned in disgrace, forced to admit he and his men were unable to find the killer we now call Jack the Ripper.
So, you’ve got a police force that is in many ways incompetent. Couple that with the lack of resources investigators had at their disposal in that day and age and you’ve got a quagmire of a whodunit on your hands.
Think of the methods we have now to collect and preserve evidence in murder cases and what springs to mind? Fingerprints? Lab work ups on blood and other bodily fluids? Hairs and fibers? Mitochondrial DNA? A society in which everyone is conditioned to carry photo identification at all times? In 1888, they had none of that CSI-esque science.
They also had a dearth of actual evidence to work with, and no real way of preserving it or even of properly collecting it in the first place. Even Sherlock Holmes would’ve had difficulty solving this mystery.
Commentary by Carla E. Anderton for Pennsylvania Bridges