In the early hours of Friday, 31st August 1888, a carter coming to work found the body of a woman lying by a stable door in Whitechapel. Her throat had been cut and her body mutilated with a knife. Her name was Mary Ann Nichols, and she was only the first victim of the murderer who would come to be known as Jack the Ripper, London -- and the world's -- most famous serial killer.
In actual fact, much of what we think we know about the Ripper killings is the result of historical speculation, biased media coverage, or simple folklore. Even the name “Jack the Ripper” originates from a letter sent to a London newspaper — a letter now widely believed to be a hoax. We can't even be completely sure that all five Ripper murders were the work of the same individual, or that other murders were not committed by the Ripper. Although modern scholars put the number of Ripper victims at five, contemporary newspaper accounts identified at least six and sometimes more, attributing other murders to the same culprit.
Despite a huge police investigation, in which more than 300 people were investigated, the killer was never discovered. The mystery of the Ripper's identity, combined with the savagery of the murders and the media frenzy that surrounded them, has spawned the vast field of "Ripperology" -- modern works that seek to uncover the identity of Jack the Ripper.
Proposed Ripper candidates are usually more exciting than they are plausible. A number of theories were suggested both by the press and by the police at the time of the killings. The suicide of barrister Montague John Druitt following the last murder in December 1888 seems suggestive, but Druitt lived nowhere near the area and had a strong alibi for the Nichols killing. His death seems to have been a coincidence. John Pizer, a local with a known history of violence against prostitutes, was arrested early in the case, but there was no evidence to link him to the killings. Reports that an American con artist, Francis Tumblety, was a suspect, seem to be based on the fact that he was arrested for an unrelated crime at around the same time. American poisoner Thomas Cream is said to have confessed to the crime on the scaffold, despite having been in prison in Illinois at the time of the murders. Other suspects seem to have the same story: either they were the victims of prejudice (the belief that the Ripper was Jewish was very common) or had their names associated with the crime by faulty memories or bad reporting.
Modern authors have suggested an even more outlandish set of suspects for these gruesome crimes. Suspects have included Sir William Withey Gull, Queen Victoria's physician-in-ordinary, usually with the implication that Gull was involved in some kind of elaborate conspiracy. Other unlikely culprits include a Russian secret agent named Alexander Pedachenko (who probably never existed at all), the Duke of Clarence, painter Walter Sickert and even Lewis Carroll.
The Ripper's identity will probably always remain unknown, the reason for his crimes, which ended as abruptly as they began, as inscrutable as any other random atrocity. Perhaps the murders' most significant impact is the effect they had on press coverage of crime. Murders and lesser misdeeds had always been part of the Victorian newspapers, but the Ripper killings transformed London's newspapers. Constant updates on the progress of the case, wild speculation about the culprit and angry denunciations of the living conditions of Whitechapel residents were common. The Ripper may not have been the world's first serial killer, but he sparked the first modern media frenzy.
Looking at the newspapers of the era, available here, gives a first-hand insight not only into this horrific killings and the ensuing panic, but into the birth of trends in modern journalism that can still be seen today.
Click the image below to see the full range of original Jack The Ripper Newspapers available for purchase.