22 January 2019

Who was the real Jack the Ripper: 1888?

I will reprint three theories from The Ripper of our night mares: theories about Jack the Ripper’s identity, by Professors Anne-Marie Kilday and David Nash. Then I will add a fourth theory that appealed to me.

1. Outcast/foreign rippers Between Aug-Nov 1888, five women were murdered and mutilated in the Whitechapel streets in London’s East End, some with their throats cut, faces slashed and organs removed.  Even today, the bare facts of the Jack the Ripper killings are unsettling. But for Victorian Londoners, the case was far more visceral. In their midst was a criminal cap­able of committing these most gruesome crimes. Who was responsible?

Given the Ripper’s sheer brutality, it was perhaps inevitable that many Britons concluded that they must be the work of an evil that had entered Victorian society from the outside. This meant that marginal figures from London’s ethnic minorities could find themselves in the frame.

The police keep finding women who had been killed 
in the streets of Whitechapel, 1888

Daily newspaper front pages, 1888, Yale Centre for British Art
Newspapers played a vital role in creating the Jack the Ripper horror.  In the papers, Whitechapel came to symbolise London's criminal underworld.

Russian Jew Michael Ostrog and Polish Jew Aaron Kosminski were cited as suspects in a contemporary memorandum penned by the Metropolitan Police chief constable. Ostrog had lived as a thief and confidence trickster before winding up in the south of England in 1888, where his latest app­earance in court was notable for him displaying signs of insanity. Aaron Kosminski was also seen as insane and as a misogynist, and had been confined to an asylum. He strongly resembled a man seen near Mitre Square, the scene of one of the murders in Sept 1888.

Jacob Levy was another foreigner placed by witnesses at Mitre Square and was apparently seen with Catherine Eddowes on the night she died. When it was revealed that Levy was a Spital­fields but­ch­er, skilled in the ritual slaughter of animals, he was marked! And David Cohen long aroused suspicion, for regular displays of violent tendencies towards women and because his incarceration in Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum coincided with the cessation of the murders.

There’s little doubt that Ostrog, Kosminski, Levy and Cohen were victims of a wave of prejudice that had been precipitated by the influx of thousands of Eastern Europeans into London in the early 1880s, fleeing persecution at home. Their arrival brought to the surface widespread fears of the predatory outsider, a stereo­type that the police and government officials found hard to resist.

2. The royal Ripper What if Jack the Ripper wasn’t a predatory and solitary killer, but that he was part of a collective conspiracy? Such fears often surface at times when the Estab­lish­ment’s reput­at­ion is being called into question. So of course a number of theor­ies emerged during this period, linking Jack the Ripper’s kill­ings to some of the most powerful figures of the late Victorian era.

Queen Victoria’s grandson, Eddy Duke of Clarence and Avondale, had long been a suspect. One theory has it that in the later 1888, the famously dissolute prince was seized by a syphilis-induced psychosis that led him to murder the five Ripper victims. Or that Eddy’s crimes precipitated an elaborate cover-up. The Duke ran away to the East End, he married a Catholic woman Annie Crook and fathered a child with her. Faced with a scandal that could potentially bring down the monarchy, shadowy establishment figures split up the couple and masterminded the elimination of the five female acquaintances who “knew the truth”.

Queen Victoria’s grandson, Eddy Duke of Clarence and Avondale

As it would have required the involvement of stealthy agents of clandestine power, the theory that the establishment engineered a cover-up revived popular prejudices about secretive organisations eg the Freemasons. The theory would also have required macabre ritualised activities!

3. The medical Ripper. Doctors moved freely about the urban underworld. Their need for corpses for dissection stimulated a vibrant clandestine market in corpses. And their callous treatment of defenceless female patients – especially the forced examination of prostitutes – had made them popular folk devils. In the 1880s, many Britons believed accusations that the Ripper was drawn from their ranks.

One of the first medics to come under suspicion was Dr Robert Donston Stephenson. He was believed to have contracted venereal disease from prostitutes and to be a Satanist – giving him the perfect motive for removing his victims’ internal organs. Stephenson was also a magician, which explained his regular escape from detection.

The American quack-doctor Francis Tumblety was a suspect because he was a violent misogynist with an unstable personality and a penchant for collecting body parts.

Queen Victoria’s surgeon Sir William Gull, who had been close to the monarchy for a decade, has also been cited as a Ripper suspect, either as a lone assailant or as part of a wider conspiracy. In the years since the Ripper case, the healer-turned-murderer narrative has been culturally reinforced in the popular mind by eg Dr Harold Shipman.

4. My favourite theory concerns an artist. Walter Sickert created Jack the Ripper’s Bedroom in 1907, a painting that now hangs in the Manchester Art Gallery. Sickert was an eccentric man and his work was often difficult to understand and macabre; he often focused on painting shadowy interiors and lower class and suburban Victorian scenes. But it was the scenes that suggested violence against women that were most alarming.

Of course Sickert said he was only creating works that portrayed the unglamorous nature of everyday life in seedy, London’s working class East London. At the time, his personality and eerie paintings simply defined the cutting-edge modernist artist he was.

Sickert, Camden Town Murder, 1908

But what if Sickert was Jack the Ripper? According to American novelist Patricia Cornwell's theory, Walter Sickert had been made impotent by a series of painful childhood operations for a penile fistula. Or anal fistulas that caused pain in adulthood. In either case, impotency/pain had scarred him emotionally and had left him with a pathological hatred of women. This led him to carry out a series of murders, especially of prostitutes.

Walter Sickert was indeed born in Germany and I wonder if his "foreignness" made contemporaries somewhat suspicious. In any case Sickert certainly knew about their suspicions – he referred to the crimes frequently in his work.

Before and after Jack the Ripper, crime in general was rampant in Whitechapel, carried out by street gangs or in the form of domestic violence. Crimes referred to as “ripping”, back then, consisted of robberies and random violence to keep the public in fear.


Joseph said...

Prince Albert Victor/Eddy was too tall, too handsome, too gay, too involved in hunting to harm street women.

Andrew said...

Many suspects and none ring true to me. There must have been many murders in England at the time. It is odd that The Ripper came to become a focus. I am now thinking, what happened about the gay establishment pedophile ring and tales of Edward Heath?

Hels said...


I also believe there is no chance that Queen Victoria's beloved grandson harmed any street women... ever! So why is Eddy's name often mentioned? Largely because of the Cleveland St Scandal of 1889, in which all the newspapers were talking about a brothel for gay men in London that was very popular with the aristocracy. Even if the Prince really did frequent that brothel, that had zero connection with the Whitechapel murders.

What a shame he died in his 20s, before he could show what a great king he might have been.

Hels said...


many murders, yes, so what was so fascinating about this particular cluster? They were all women, all out on the streets, all in the same area of Whitechapel, all within a very short time (Aug-Nov 1888) and all were slashed and mutilated in the same way.

Police normally caught murderers because there was very often a connection between the murder and his victim. But in these cases, there was just one assassin, who didn't know any of the women he killed and who wasn't leaving the police any clues to assess. Finger printing and DNA testing were, alas, decades into the future. And in any case the Metropolitan Police’s Criminal Investigation Department which had only been started in 1878.

Time to call in the Cold Case Squad, I think. 130 years is long enough to wait.

Hels said...


I had never heard of the paedophile ring you mentioned and I lived in the UK in the early-middle 1970s!! The police chief investigating claims about Sir Edward Heath had his report published as recently as 2017.

I feel a blog post coming on.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, Another coincidence! I recently purchased some Victorian photos of a Salem, Massachusetts interior of the Mary Nichols house. Hoping to find out more about the house or its owner, I did an internet search, but mostly turned up Mary Ann Nichols, one of Jack the Ripper's victims. It was certainly not the same person, although if Mary Nichols were a leftover Salem witch, that would have added to the occult element of the story. I checked Google Maps, and if the street numbering system hasn't changed, the historic Nichols house has given way to an ugly, modern building, a clear case of architectural murder!

bazza said...

It's interesting how this case still holds a powerful fascination for us today. When I led my Sunday morning walking group on a 'Jack the Ripper' tour of the East End we had a record turnout (44) in the pouring rain. This raised a lot of money for Camp Simcha.
A friend is a serious amateur historian and did all the research for me! He was highly critical of the 'misinformation' that most commercial tours use. Ripperism is a thriving industry for writers!
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s foolishly fastidious
Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

CherryPie said...

There is a museum in London that explores the history. I have only recently found out about it so I haven't been yet.


Hels said...


your unexpected purchase raises two important issues for this post. Firstly why would people overseas be fascinated in what happened in London? I am assuming it was because the British newspapers were highly censored back then and so most of the published blame would have been directed at foreign, working class criminals. American newspapers could have published whatever they wanted, the more sensational the better.

Secondly was there any occult involvement in Jack the Ripper's murders? One candidate stood out - Dr Robert Donston Stephenson was a surgeon, occultist and magician. His motive, according to this theory, was to kill prostitutes as the occult decreed and thus profane the Christian cross.

Hels said...


Ripperism is indeed a thriving industry for book writers, tv programmes and films, apparently the more horrifying the better. But the brutal murders really did happen and the police really did fail in solving even one of the cases.

I too spent quite a lot of time in Whitechapel, but largely because of the Cable Street Battle. It was an area steeped in history, both deeply satisfying (my grandmother lived there) and very frightening.

Hels said...


I love blogging so I can profitably re-use all my old lecture notes, and not let them moulder away in filing cabinets. But even more importantly, I love what I can learn from other bloggers. Thank you for the heads up!

The Jack the Ripper Museum is a historical collection that opened in 2015 in Cable Street in Whitechapel. On each floor of the old building, a different element of the murders is told, particularly including the perspectives of six of Jack the Ripper's women victims. And the policemen who were closely involved.

Fun60 said...

Recent theories point to Aaron Kosminski as his DNA has been found on the shawl belonging to one of the victims. The only problem with this theory is that he probably used the services of the prostitute and his DNA would have been on her clothing but you never know, maybe he is Jack the Ripper.

Fun60 said...

Meant to say there is information in the City of Police Museum which is not so sensationalised as the Jack the Ripper museum.

mem said...

I was under the impression that over the last few years an entirely new suspect was names . Charles Cross oe Lechmere . He was a delivery driver who came across Mary Nicholls body and was the steson of a police Constable. I remember reading the article about hism and thinking that the arguments where rather convincing . He knew the area very well and was certainly in the area at the time and I think he delivered meat for an abattoir so had all the right tools.
He lived into old age and had children and his Great granddaughter acknowledges that he may well have been the ripper

Hels said...


even if the DNA was left on the dead prostitute through services rendered and not via murder, I would be much happier with that sort of evidence than I would be by royal gossip and medical innuendo. DNA will last for ages, as long as it isn't exposed to the weather etc, so there may be some proper evidence finally. After 130 years!!

Many thanks for the information of the "City of London Police Museum". I imagine that it has less material dedicated to the Ripper than did the specialist "Jack The Ripper Museum" because the police had been responsible for ALL violence, fraud, counter terrorism and economic crime etc etc.

Hels said...


Thank you. What a complex story this is.

I had not heard of Lechmere (1849–1920) until your note, so I looked up a documentary called Jack the Ripper: The New Evidence. By the time a policeman found Nichol's body, her throat was very freshly mutilated and Lechmere was still standing there, giving the policeman a fake name (Cross). Lechmere's home address, visits to family and route to work linked him to the times and places of murders. And his occupation as a meat cart driver allowed his blood-splattered appearance to escape suspicion, from these murders and from others.