Who was the serial killer active in the down-and-dirty Whitechapel district of London in the latter half of 1888?
He gruesomely murdered prostitutes – maybe five of them, maybe more – and thereby gained a lasting if anonymous fame usually reserved for conquerors or kings.
It would be impossible to estimate the number of trees that have been felled to supply paper for the treatises and tomes that have been written about Jack the Ripper in the past quarter century.
The writing began early, in London’s then blossoming and already florid tabloid industry, and established Jack’s eternal notoriety from the first. Reporters – and their rapt readers – were particularly interested in the savagery of the killings: Throats were being slit, bodies mutilated, organs removed. Responding to the public fascination and indeed furor, Scotland Yard was frantic in its pursuit of the perp. Frantic but unsuccessful.
In a precursor of the behavior that would be exhibited by 20th century American criminals like the Zodiac killer and the Son of Sam, the Ripper – or someone – began sending letters to the press and even the authorities concerning the crimes. One shipment, to George Lusk of the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee, included half of a human kidney, along with the claim that the sender had “fried and ate” the other half.
A post received on September 27, 1888, by the Central News Agency was the first that bore the name Jack the Ripper, and in it the correspondent said he would “clip the ladys [sic] ear off.”
Three days later, the body of Catherine Eddowes was found in Mitre Square in the City of London. The removal of a portion of one of her ears was the least of the mutilations visited upon her tragic corpse.
Jack was nothing if not theatrical, using blood-red ink in this missive to the press (right).
Since evisceration was a hallmark of the murders, the constabulatory wondered if the murderer was a medical man or someone else with sufficient sophistication to execute such surgery; a spicy aspect of the Ripper story has always been that many of the suspects in the case were of the upper rather than the lower crust. This was Victorian England, and the notion that an aristocrat was, in the darkest part of night and in the city’s darkest precinct, preying upon prostitutes… Well, that was an impossibly intoxicating narrative, better than the best of Dickens or Austen.
There were patterns to the killings – certain dates, certain days of the week – and this only made the puzzle more intriguing. Eventually, there were more than a hundred cited suspects. A Russian physician and convicted thief named Michael Ostrog… another doctor named Montague John Druitt… an unstable individual named Aaron Kosminski – they were only the first three mentioned in the initial report of police commissioner Sir Neville Macnaughten. Scores of candidates were put forth later, and their names are still mentioned today.
A recent book on Jack the Ripper, published in early 2010, Jack the Ripper’s Secret Confession, pins the killings on textile millionaire Henry Spencer Ashbee, who also allegedly penned, under the pseudonym Walter, the ferociously debauched My Secret Life – a stunningly vivid, even microscopic, sexual memoir of a Victorian (ahem) gentleman.
The Parade of names extends, and Jack lurks in the shadows.
Jack the Ripper really was?
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