The murderer commonly known as Jack the Ripper killed several women in London during the autumn of the year 1888. How many? That is a matter of dispute. Five so-called "canonical" victims are recognized:
- Mary Anne Nicols (August 31, 1888)
- Anne Chapman (September 8, 1888)
- Elizabeth Stride (September 30, 1888)
- Catherine Eddowes (September 30, 1888)
- Mary Jane Kelly (November 9, 1888)
On the other hand, maybe Stride wasn't a Ripper victim but simply a random killing. Odds are we'll never know.
Unlike the others, Kelly was murdered indoors -- and the cuts to her throat were in the opposite direction. But given the layout of the room, this was absolutely necessary for the killer, whoever it might have been. She was the most horribly mutilated of the five. Much of her face had been peeled away. Her heart was missing. Veteran police officers reacted to the crime scene with shock. Mary Jane Kelly wasn't just killed and mutilated, but almost turned inside out like a stuffed doll.
Others are sometimes suggested as possible Ripper victims. In my opinion, a case can be made for those earlier than Nichols, even if they lack the details of his modus operandi or MO. Serial killers learn, like everyone else. But the Ripper murders show a specific ritual, something whoever-it-was had found something that worked.
After Kelly, the murders apparently stopped. Why is a matter of total speculation. Maybe the killer died, or was imprisoned for something else. Perhaps he was crippled. Or moved away from London.
We will probably never know.
Over one hundred letters were sent to the police or to various press agencies purporting to be from the murderer. The letter signed "Jack the Ripper" grabbed everyone's imagination. That one began with the salutation "Dear Boss." Another, generally known as the "From Hell" letter, included a piece of kidney that might have come from Eddowes.
Most scholars agree those two might have come from the killer. Emphasis on "might."
At the time fingerprints were not something any police department in the world dreamt of using, much less looking for. It would be seventy years before DNA was discovered, and another forty or fifty before such could be used in a court of law. Hand-writing or blood spatter analysis were unknown. The doctors who studied the victims' corpses (no one examined them all) were not trained forensic pathologists because at the time there weren't any such things. They gave slightly contradictory testimony at the inquests. One said the killer clearly had no real knowledge of how to cut into tissue. Another said the Ripper must have had an excellent knowledge of human anatomy (having easily found the ovaries, which are in fact not all easy to locate).
Not surprisingly, the public and police (then headed by a former Army officer with no law enforcement experience at all) immediately started looking for drooling madmen (having no hint of understanding as to what real serial killers are like), or foreigners. Rumors of Czarist agents, dissolute gentlemen (like the perennial favorite suspect Montague Druitt) or other exotic choices (usually artists or doctors) followed. Alan Moore, in his wonderful essay following the graphic novel From Hell pointed out that essential to all these theories was an interesting -- and telling -- assumption. The victims must have done something to attract the killer's attention. Tried to blackmail the royal family. Or given someone syphilis. Or made fun of a man's impotence. Or tempted him with their wanton ways. Or...something.
But of course what we know now -- after actually studying the likes of Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, etc. -- is serial killers don't think like that. They go after victims of opportunity, sometimes basing it on sexual attraction.
Nor, interestingly, is Jack the Ripper all that horrible as serial killers go. He killed most probably five. I myself hold that he strangled his victims, then started to rip. That would explain the total lack of arterial spurt in any crime scene. No evidence of sexual assault anywhere. How different from Peter Kurten the s-called Butcher of Dusseldorf! Or Andrey Chickatillo! Or Edmund Kemper. His number of victims is nowhere near that of Jeffrey Dahmer. He didn't kill children as did Albert Fish and the Moors Murderers did, nor did his cruelty approach that of Charles Ng. Nor were his mutilations to compare with those of the Black Dahlia Murderer nor the Cleveland Torso Killer.
So why was Jack so horrific? Why does he haunt our imaginations still, even after such huge bloodbaths as the Holocaust and the Khmer Rouge?
I suspect it has to do with the same reason we remember the Titanic even after so many other ships have gone down, taking ultimately far more lives. Because this event got our attention. It forced us to think of the world as a different place than we had at first supposed. The gleaming center of Victorian civilization turned out to be the home of a baffling murderer who seemed to slay at will, to desecrate the dead with abandon, to slaughter women who were supposed to be the most protected of society's members -- and he got away with it. The Empire's finest efforts failed to catch him. He was Chaos, thumbing his nose at the splendor of Christian Civilization. No matter he was probably some grubby nonentity driven to commit acts that gave fleeting release but no happiness. Precisely because we never found out who he was, never put a face to match the name, that was what gave him such power. Or that is why we saw him as powerful.
Why we still do.